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To my still-closed eyes the streetlights are a vague and hidden glory, the cool radience of distant suns.  I am adrift in the void of their autumn night, adrift in the midst of everything, in the coolness and emptiness of everything, so far adrift that those who pass me by do not know to envy me.  They are blinded by their open eyes.  They do not know that they too drift among the stars, that their passing too is from radience to radience, from glory to glory.

After a much longer wait than I expected, here is the sixth chapter of Lindy.   I have recently had some very extended conversations about how I might improve the earlier sections, and while I will not go back and substantially alter what has been posted, I do plan on making some larger revisions once the novel is complete in a first draft, so please do offer any suggestions or criticisms that you might have.  They can only improve the final product, and I am almost incapable of taking offense, so feel free to be candid.  Those who are new to the story may want to begin at Chapter One.

Also, this Chapter has been modified since it was first posted in order to make some names consistent with later Chapters.

Chapter Six:
In Which Some Mysteries Are Explained

As you might imagine, Lindy was more than a little embarrassed by her fall. She had wanted to meet Mister Hat for so long, and when she finally got the chance, she had tripped and made a fool of herself. She felt sure that Mister Hat would laugh at her or maybe even be angry, but when she was finally brave enough to look up, he still had the same kingly but gentle look on his face, and he helped her to her feet as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all.

“You probably need to have a seat,” he said, taking her hand and leading her to a chair near the head of the table. “I know how long those stairs are. I don’t walk them myself anymore, of course,” he added, bending a little and tapping his knee, “because my joints feel so much older than the rest of me, but I remember them all too well,” and he smiled a smile that made Lindy feel a little better.

The chair was large enough for Lindy to curl her legs up, and it was warm from the fire too, so it felt quite cozy, even in such a big room. “Thank you… um… Mister Owen,” she said, remembering just in time to call Mister Hat by his real name, but then she remembered too that he was actually Mister Bridgebane or something, and then she remembered that he was also some kind of king, so she said, “I mean, thank you, Mister Bridge… ah… your majesty,” and she began to feel embarrassed all over again.

“You’re very welcome,” said Mister Hat, “but only Clinton worries about the formalities around here, so no misters, and no sirs, and no your majestys. Besides, Mister Owen isn’t really my name any more than Mister Hat is, not here at The Crofts. Here my name is Alisdair Bridgebane, and everyone calls me Alisdair, so just plain Alisdair will do for you too.” He stopped and smiled at her again. “And certainly no bowing or kneeling.”  Lindy blushed, remembering her fall, but there was something about his smile and his voice that made his teasing gentle.

Mister Hat, or Alisdair, as she guessed she should call him now, sat next to Lindy in the big chair where she had first found him. He settled himself and crossed his legs at the knee. “Would you like some tea?” he asked. “You must be hungry by now.”

Lindy was not exactly sure when now was anymore, but she certainly was hungry, so she nodded, and Mister Hat rang a little golden bell. It made such a quiet chime that Lindy could not imagine how anyone else would hear it, but only a moment later it rang again all by itself, and Mister Hat said, “That’s Penates letting us know the food will be up in just a minute. He’s probably been waiting for us to ring for ages now.”

As he said this, Lindy remembered that her mother would probably also be waiting with dinner and would be very worried after all this time. “My Mom,” she started to say, then realized that Mister Hat was still saying something and remembered that it was rude to interrupt, so she stopped, and then thought that she should apologize, and then realized that she would be interrupting again, so she ended up saying only, “I’m… um…” and then trailing off into nothing.

“Oh, yes, your mother,” Alisdair said. “I’m very sorry. I should have told you right away that you don’t need to worry. Things are a little different here. I don’t know the why of it, but there’s no time in this place, not like you think of it. It’s not that time has stopped exactly, or even slowed down. It’s more like everything is between one time and another. You’re mother will never know you’re gone, no matter how long you stay here.”

This made Lindy feel a little better, but she was still not quite sure if she understood, and she was just about to ask Alisdair to explain exactly what he meant by being between times when Moe came lumbering up the stairs with a tray of food. He looked like Moe the man now rather than Moe the monster, and he smiled his gentle smile as he laid the tea on the table, complete with sourdough biscuits and butter and what looked like homemade currant jam. The food reminded Lindy of how hungry she really was, and she had to make herself wait politely for Alisdair to pour the tea before she buttered herself one of the still-warm biscuits.

“This house isn’t the same as the one next to yours,” Alisdair continued, passing his hand absently back and forth through the steam of his tea. “It’s in the same place, in a way, and it’s been there for a very long time, so parts of it have started to look the same, but it’s far different from any other house you’ll ever see.”

He took a sip from his mug. “The house next to yours is actually the house I grew up in. It’s called Owen House, because it was built by my family, and it was surrounded by forest then, but you’d have to be as old as I am to remember those days.” He looked away to his left, through the wall. “There was forest for miles in that direction,” he said. “I used to walk in it almost every day, sometimes right through the place where your yard is now, but that was before the loggers came and before all the houses were built.”

The walls of the room seemed to disappear as he talked, and Lindy found herself looking out across her own neighbourhood, with its houses and roads, and the park and the school, and the shops at the corner and the church with the steeple, but it was as if time was running backwards. First the newest houses down the street disappeared, then the streetlights, then the paved roads, and then the older houses, including Lindy’s. Where they had been, there were now only farm fields and the railroad track and a narrow dirt road, and then, all at once, even the fields were gone, and trees were growing thickly in every direction.

“This house, the one we’re sitting in now,” continued Alisdair, “lies in The Weald, which is a little world all to itself, and it has been here much longer than I or anyone else can remember.” The forest outside changed a little, became wilder and deeper, and a river appeared where the railroad track and the road had been a moment before. On one side there also appeared the little stone cottages that Lindy had seen when she first came through the arch.

“It was built when this world first came to be,” said Alisdair, “though some say that it just grew here, which may be true.  It’s called The Crofts, which means The Farms or The Cottages, and it was once the home of Khurshid, who was the caretaker of The Weald until he betrayed it.”

“Betrayed?” asked Lindy.

“The story is too long to tell properly right now,” said Alisdair, “but, yes, Khurshid betrayed The Weald. He began to use the arch for evil purposes, so the peoples of all the worlds imprisoned him behind The Weald’s great river, the Maeres-ea, and they set twenty-four caretakers to rule in his place.” The view through the wall began to widen as he spoke, so that Lindy could now see the whole of the house in the midst of a forest that stretched in every direction, with the river running through the trees from east to west. There was only a single bridge across the river, and Lindy thought that she could see on the far side of it a man who was shining from within, and it seemed to her that he was singing something beautiful and sad and terrible, though she could not hear anything of the song itself.

Alisdair spoke more slowly now, and Lindy heard in his voice the same sadness that she had felt when she was wandering through the empty stone cottages. “The twenty-four of us filled the chairs around this table once, and the house was full of our families and of the people who came to live and work here, but Khurshid has one by one destroyed us or lured us to join him, and I am now the last caretaker of The Crofts.”

He took the crown from his head and held it in his lap. “So long as one of us remains to wear a caretaker’s crown, Khurshid cannot cross the river, but all the other crowns are his now, and when I die, as everyone must eventually die, he and his traitor kings will be free again to claim The Crofts and the arch and to do evil in all the worlds where the arch leads.”

Alisdair paused, looking down at the crown in his lap. Lindy felt as though she should say something, but she was not sure that she knew what to say, and she did not want to embarrass herself again, so she just sipped her tea and waited. The view through the walls gradually began to fade, until all Lindy could see was the inside of the room and the last rays of the sun glancing off of the highest windows. The room seemed very quiet and very still, and she was afraid to disturb it, even to get another of the biscuits from the tray.

The light from the fire reflected on the gold and green of Alisdair’s face, and Lindy was suddenly a little afraid of him again. Though he had been so kind to her, she saw again how kingly and grave he was, and she saw also the sadness that was a part of him and part of the house as well. She was not afraid of Alisdair himself exactly, but she was afraid of his sadness.

“Couldn’t you give the crown to someone else before you die?” she heard herself ask, a little startled at her own voice.

Alisdair looked up suddenly, and his golden eyes met Lindy’s brown ones, and there was something like laughter them. “Yes,” he said, “I could. And I will if I can, though the choice is not mine to make.” He straightened in his chair and placed the crown back on his head, looking a little younger and a little stronger again. “You are right to remind me of hope,” he said. “Who knows? You might well be the one who takes my crown when I can’t wear it any longer.” He tilted his head to one side and chuckled. “I’ve seen much stranger things.”

Though Lindy was not really a prideful girl, she was flattered. She imagined herself wearing Alisdair’s crown and sitting at the head of the long table, and she wondered for a moment what being a queen would really be like, but Alisdair did not let her daydream for long.

“Come,” he said. “We’ve already taken too long with our tea, and I still haven’t told you what you need to know most, that you’ll need to stay with us here at The Crofts, at least for a little while longer.  It seems that Khurshid has found a way to tamper with the arch, though I still don’t know exactly how, and I can’t send you back home until I’m sure the arch is safe.”

“But I just came through it this afternoon,” said Lindy, “and I saw you go through before me.  Nothing happened to us then.”

“I know,” said Alisdair, “it was just then that I first felt something wrong with the arch, as if something was pulling at it, stretching it too thin.   It felt as though it might break apart at any moment. That’s why I couldn’t wait for you.  I had to go and speak with the seers and the scholars of the other worlds about what was happening.  So I left Clinton to meet you and went as quickly as I could.”

“Is that why the bird-lady said there was danger, because there was something wrong with the arch?”

Alisdair’s face became grave, and he seemed to look off beyond the walls of the house somewhere. “No, I sent Cleanna and the bird-folk to warn you because I felt some of Khurshid’s servants, the traitor kings, cross the Maeres-ea into The Crofts.  I felt it even across the worlds, but I hadn’t yet learned what I needed to learn about the arch, so I sent her to warn you all until I could come myself.”

Lindy sensed a sudden flash of anger from the house, and she seemed to see two figures appear in the room, tall and kingly like Alisdair, but dim and insubstantial and terrible.  She started back in her chair, and let out a little gasp, but the figures were already disappearing, and she realized that they must have been only another vision of the house.  “Are those traitors, or whatever, are they still here now?” she asked.

“No, no.”  Alisdair’s eyes returned to Lindy’s, and his voice was full of reassurance.  “They fled back across the river as soon I returned, but the problem is that they shouldn’t have been able to cross it in the first place. They were once caretakers of The Crofts like I am, but they were imprisoned with Khurshid when they swore to serve him.   If they have crossed the great river, perhaps Khurshid can now cross it also.   That’s what worries me most.”

“What will you do?”

Alisdair smiled one of my favourite smiles, the ones that begin very small and little sad but then slowly grow into something truly joyful.  “Well, first,” he said, his voice as full of joy as his smile, “first, we’ll do something beautiful. Tonight, the peoples of all the worlds will gather here, in this room, and it will be an evening like this house hasn’t seen in a hundred years, and the decision we make will perhaps be as important as any that has ever been made in The Weald.”

He stood and motioned for Lindy to follow him. “Come. We have much to do before our guests arrive, and Penates won’t be pleased if I’m lazing around when there’s work to be done, even if I am a king.”

Previous Chapter < > Next Chapter

Finding books that entertain both a four year old boy and his parents can sometimes be difficult, particularly when most of the books that are now being produced for this age group are based on super hero movies or television shows that are dumbed down to the lowest possible level.  These books are so focused on being educational that they have lost any sense of plot, characterization, or imagination.  They impress anxious parents because they are labeled with a reading level and because they use various techniques that claim to help children learn to read, but they certainly do not help children to move beyond reading as a technique toward reading as a passion.

This is why I was so pleased to find The Fog Mound series by Susan Schade and Jon Butler.  It is comprised of three books, Travels of Thelonious, Faradawn, and Simon’s Dream, its chapters alternating between graphic novel and illustrated narrative, and it was recommended to me by John Jantunen, whose four year old son it entertained before mine.  It is a post-apocalyptic narrative, set in a world where humans are extinct but where some of the animals have developed the ability to speak and to handle human tools.  It is vastly imaginative and vastly entertaining, with a decaying human city, and a secret animal community atop a fog shrouded plateau, and a mysterious island threatened by mutant crabs, and a tiny scientist who just may be the last surviving human being on earth.

This is the sort of imagination that captures the attention of a child, and of a parent also.  It is the sort of story that finds its purpose in being a story rather than in trying to be merely educational.  My oldest son, who generally prefers me to read him non-fiction books about space stations or knights or crocodiles, is entranced.  He would finish a book a night if his parents had the time and the stamina to read it to him.  He literally begs me to keep reading  at the end of each chapter.  He has even offered to trade snacks and television privileges in exchange for additional chapters.  He may not be learning to read any faster, but he is learning to love reading, and this brings his father much happiness.

Now, all that being said, I would not put The Fog Mound on the same level as some of my own childhood favourites.  Its story moves too quickly at times, and the plot is often unfocused, including too many tenuously related elements.  The art is good but not exceptional, at its best in the larger panels of strange new locations, and at its worst in the sections of dialogue where it becomes repetitive and visually redundant.  The characters are far fuller than most children’s fare, but they do not exactly attain to complex personalities either.  The writing style is generally strong, refusing to make its vocabulary or its sentence structure too simplistic, but it is dialogue heavy, so it often falls short of creating a real narrative atmosphere.

These criticisms, however, should not obscure what the series does very well: it revels in story and in imagination, and this is what a children’s book should do, before everything else, because the function of children’s literature is to inspire a love for reading not to facilitate a mere technical literacy.   The books that birthed this love in me were those that cast me into story and into imagination, even and especially when they were beyond my reading level.  I remember the Narnian books, and The Hobbit, and The Wind in the Willows, and the stories of the Green Forest, and many others.  These are not stories that aim to teach children to read.  They are stories that aim to tell children stories, and this is enough, more than enough, because children will learn to read if they have something worth reading, and they will also learn what it means to imagine and to tell stories themselves, and this is more important still.

The Guelph Festival of Moving Media is upcoming on the first weekend of November, from Thursday the 5th to Sunday the 8th.  The festival focuses on cinema and social justice and usually includes an eclectic mixture of documentaries, and this year’s program includes several that interest me very much.

Rip: A Remix Manifesto by Brett Gaylor, is a film that Dave Humphrey brought to my attention a while ago, but I have not yet had a chance to see it.  It focuses on the music of Girl Talk, which is created using samples and mash-ups, and which therefore raises some questions about copyright and free culture.  I will try to make this screening if at all possible.

I would also like to see Alanis Obomsawin’s Professor Norman Cornett, which explores the pedagogy of the former McGill University Professor.  Not only is his story an interesting one, but the issues that it raises about teaching and education are ones that concern me particularly.

I will also make a point of seeing Anders Ostergaard’s Burma VJ, because of how closely it relates to the themes of the documentary course that I will be teaching in January.  The film looks at high risk journalism, focusing on citizen journalists in Burma, and I am hopeful that it might be a film that I can use in my course in order to explore just this subject of journalism in areas of social upheaval.

Taking up a slightly lighter topic, Nollywood Babylon by Ben Addelman and Samir Malla also piques my curiosity.   It looks at the rapidly growing film industry in Nigeria, where the making of the films seems to be every bit as entertaining as the films themselves.  I have the premonition that I will like this one very much.

My biggest disappointment will be having to miss Murray Siple’s Carts of Darkness, which happens to be playing at the same time as Professor Norman Corbett.  It explores the lives of people who survive by collecting bottles in Vancouver, and is just the sort of quirky documentary that appeals to me.  If only it were playing at another time.

The whole of the lineup actually looks quite good, and the tickets are cheap, so do check the GFOMM website, and make some time in your calendar this first weekend in November.  Better yet, email me, and we can go see something together.

Tomatoes were not one of my garden’s successes this year, for the second year running.  I did manage to plant them away from the walnut trees this time around, and neither of my two remaining chimneys fell on them, which is a definite improvement over last year, but I started growing them from seed too late, and I had the seedlings in a place with too little light, so I had to plant them out before they were ready, and then everything was compounded by a summer of too little sun and and too little heat.  So, though I have a reasonable tomato harvest, almost a bushel, it is entirely green.

Now, I know that green tomatoes can be fried, and I have attempted this dish in the past, but it is only possible, for me at least, to eat so many fried green tomatoes.  I have also made green tomato chutney in past years, but not everyone seems to like this as much as I do.  So I have been doing some experimenting, and I thought I might share the results.

Green Tomato and Sour Cream Pasta Sauce
Slice a fair number of green tomatoes into slightly larger than bite sized chunks and dice two yellow onions.  Saute the tomatoes and the onions in olive oil.  Add a little sugar and keep cooking until the mixture begins to caramelize.  Add just enough white wine to deglaze the pan.  Add a handful of chopped fresh tarragon.  Add a healthy doze of freshly ground black pepper.

Reduce the pan to low and add enough sour cream to produce the consistency that you want.  I just used a tub of sour cream from the supermarket, but I would wager any money that homemade stuff would be far superior if you have the time to make it.  Add salt to taste.  Put over pasta.

The green tomatoes work really well in a recipe like this because they have the tomato flavour but do not melt like ripe tomatoes,  so they can be caramelized and still keep some structure to them.

Green Tomato Salsa
There are many recipes for green tomato salsa drifting about the internet, but none of them were what I wanted, so I combined and manipulated some of them to my own purposes.

Mince four cloves of garlic, two or three seeded jalapeno peppers, 2 yellow onions, six or eight green tomatoes, and a cup or so of fresh cilantro.  When I say mince, I mean mince.  It should not be chunky.  It should be just this side of puree.

Add a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a dash of sugar, a dash of salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Let it sit, at least for an hour or two, preferably overnight or even longer, so that the tomatoes can pickle.  If it seems a little dry as you are about to serve it, add a little more cider vinegar.

Between these two recipes I have used up a fair number of my green tomatoes, but if anyone wants to share a favourite recipe, I am sure that I will have the chance to try it eventually, if not this year, then the next time my garden cannot list tomatoes among its successes.

I do not very often remove subscriptions from my blog reader, even if they have gone silent for months at a time.  This is partly just laziness, but it also reflects a foolish hope that whoever had been writing in the first place will find the time and space to write again.  Of course, this hope remains unfulfilled in almost every case, so I was startled and pleased this morning to see two posts on Void Manufacturing, which has not posted anything since January.

Void Manufacturing posts mostly interviews and articles from major thinkers, usually contemporary and always from the political left.  What attracts me to this particular blog, however, is not so much its content, though this is often very interesting also, but the ways that it reimagines intellectual writing and publishing outside of traditional institutional and academic systems.  I have always been alarmed at how most thinkers, even those who are otherwise very radical, even those whose thought has a vested interest in engaging a broader public, have been content to think and to write and to publish so entirely through traditional academic channels like conferences and journals.  While these channels have their place, certainly, they remain exclusive and self-referential to a degree that inhibits or even prevents the ability of the broader public to engage with the thinking that is taking place through them.

Most online journals do very little to address this problem.  Many of them have fees for some or all of their content, and even those that do not are still clearly more concerned with speaking into the circularity of the ongoing academic conversation than they are with opening this conversation to the public.  They are on the internet, but not of it.  They are available through the internet, but they have refused to avail themselves of the opportunity that the internet offers, an openness to new and broader audiences.  Void Manufacturing, however, does go some way toward opening the conversation, in several ways:

First of all, the content is free, and this factor cannot be undervalued in an age where information and ideas are increasingly being shared without direct cost.  Any thinking that is serious about engaging the public must find a way to give itself to the public freely, not only with respect to its cost but with respect to restrictions on its republication and distribution.  Intellectual thought must give itself up to the public in order to engage with it effectively.

Second, the posts are open to comments and questions, even if they are not ones that will necessarily be seen or addressed by the author whose thinking has been posted.  Thinking that wants to engage the public must be open to having itself engaged in return, because this is how the public is encouraged to begin thinking itself.  People come to thinking by being able to question and to converse with those who are thinking already, and the ability to comment is a small gesture in that direction.

Third, the material is often topical.  It posts what the thinkers of our time have to say about the economic crisis or about the war in Iraq, which engages people on the questions that are significant to them but in ways that are more considered and more reflective and more critical than traditional media can allow.  In order to engage the public, intellectual thought must demonstrate that it provides a relevant and productive alternative perspective on the issues of our time, and this means speaking into those issues specifically.

Fourth, the posts are often interviews, so that the thinking is presented in the form of a dialogue.  It is my firm belief that a thoughtful conversation is the most effective way to understand ideas, and the strength of a well conducted interview is that it approaches this kind of conversation and engages the readers or listeners in it, even if they cannot participate directly.  This dialogue is open in a way that a lecture or an essay is not, and it is one of the most effective tools available to the kind of thinking that recognizes the importance of interacting with people beyond the confines of institutional academia.

Now, Void Manufacturing does not by any means accomplish all of these thing perfectly, especially not during a nine month hiatus, but it does represent an attempt to open a dialgue between intellectual thought and the broader public, so I am an advocate for what it is trying to accomplish, and I am glad to see that it has returned.

I wrote recently about how knowledge without friendship is deficient, and I was reflecting, in a conversation with just such a friend, that friendship makes knowledge sufficient, at least in part, by deflecting it from its course.

When I am thinking with a friend, when this thinking is taking place between us as an expression of our friendship, our conversation will always find itself drifting from whatever course that we had in mind.  Whatever purposes and aims that I might bring to the conversation, they always find themselves distracted by the response of the friend, perhaps only for a moment, perhaps for a longer time, perhaps for the rest of the night, and this distraction calls me to think differently, apart from the course that I had planned.

In other words, the thoughtful and considered response of the friend does not allow me to remain under the illusion that my thinking is sufficient, but opens me to the other courses that it might take.  This kind of conversation takes the closed and linear character of my all too monological thinking and opens it, diverts it, distracts it, merely by exposing it to the kind of dialogical thinking that is peculiar to a friendship.  It reveals that thinking is never finished, if it is ever truly begun, just as the conversation at the heart of a friendship is never finished.  It pushes thinking off course in order that it might really become thinking.

Not just any dialogue will suffice here, not just any conversation.  Most kinds of dialogue are capable only of agreeing or disagreeing with a thinking that remains stubbornly on course.  Thinking does not in fact take place here, because it has become external to the conversation.  It is the subject rather than the product of the dialogue.  This kind of dialogue does not know how to do anything but stay on course.

It is only the  conversation at the heart of a friendship that produces thinking capable of getting off course, of discovering what it might still become.  It is only this conversation that allows thinking to find its way on the way to thinking.  This is why it is necessary to cultivate meaningful friendships rather than being content merely to check a box on some social networking application, because the quality of our friendships will determine the quality of our thinking.