Death becomes us

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There’s nothing like a funeral to make you take a long hard look at your life. Even if you’ve live a long, well regarded life, it still doesn’t quite seem enough, given the loved ones who grieve your passing. Sadder still would be have no one who missed you, though in a way it would be easier knowing that your death would cause no pain. My great uncle was 95 and had accomplished some amazing things, but the thing that stood out most, which is unusual for a very accomplished man but fit well with my own memories of him, was how kind and caring he was, as a family man and as a doctor, and how he didn’t judge any of the people who came to him with their problems. Because it is incredibly hard not to judge and to care greatly for people outside our immediate circle. To be open and understanding leaves you vulnerable to being hurt yourself, which is why it is far easier to build a fortress and hand the key out to only a select few who you know can be trusted. The emotional resilience in people who can do this is remarkable.

The photographs shown to Moonlight Sonata flicked between a vital young man, a man in middle age then in increments inching towards the time of his passing. The beauty and tragedy of aging flowing in one inevitable direction. I have always known him as a grandfather, so for me he seemed to stay the same until near the end when he became much more fragile. Seeing the earlier photos on the big screens though, showed that for a lie. He was once the age I am now, younger and older. This too will one day be me, my life shown in a series of photos.

Sitting in the chapel, my thoughts inevitably turned to how my own funeral would go and if I were to die tomorrow, I’m not sure I’d be happy with what I’ve accomplished. I haven’t saved hundreds of lives, brought new lives into the world or helped countless people through difficult times. The things I’ve done have also been done by millions of others. I’ve yet to leave a smudge, let alone my mark on life.

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This, perhaps, is the tragedy of a shortened life. So much potential unrealised. What could they have done if given the chance? I have, regretfully, been to the funerals of two children close to me and they are almost indescribable. There are no words to convey the horrific sadness. How their parents kept moving shows a bravery and strength I don’t know if I possess. How can you find the joy to celebrate that they lived when it was not enough?

To believe that this life is not the end and that we will meet them again in some other time and place is comforting. I don’t think it matters where or in what form it comes. For myself, I’m happy to believe that death is the end, but for my loved ones? No. If they were to go on living in some form, I’d want to be there too.

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It ain’t easy being an atheist

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Being an atheist is not all fun and games. Sure, you get to sleep in on a Sunday with no guilt, eat whatever you want, whenever you want, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. For one, there’s no set holidays with treats and goodies. The upside of this is you can do the ones you want (who doesn’t love decorating a tree, baking jam doughnuts and lighting candles all in the one week). The downside is you feel a bit of a fraud while you do it and its hard to be convincing in front of increasingly sceptical kids. Particularly in regards to the Easter bunny – I still don’t understand how that one managed to get onto the roster.

I don’t think anyone starts out life wanting to believe in nothing. It just kind of creeps in there, even after eleven years of religious education. I’ve read the bible, cover to cover. I’ve studied and read about other religions and gave the matter a serious amount of thought. I’ve gone to ceremonies in all the major religions, usually at the best time which are weddings or around the birth of children. I’ve given religion quite a lot of opportunity to convert me.

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People who feel strongly about their religious views volunteer their time. I personally volunteer for Ethics, which fits in with my worldview. What is ironic is my littlest guy sneaking off to scripture instead of heading to ethics. I haven’t yet found exactly which religion he’s attending as the results are rather garbled. Allegedly Christmas is the birth of Santa and the death of God. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the person up front is saying, which makes me wonder why we’re making such of fuss about religion in schools. How many kids are actually getting what it is all about?

The reason I’m putting it out there, because generally I don’t think of my views are necessary to the existence of others, is because I got slammed this week. I was accused of being a bad parent for not giving my children the Christian upbringing that is vital to their wellbeing. I was told that children cannot decide for themselves what is right and wrong, they need religious instruction (presumably before they start roaming the streets and dealing crack to other primary school kids).

Despite knowing nothing about what is taught in Ethics, it was dismissed as sub-par. Now if this had been a stranger, I would have shaken it off, but it is someone who knows me well. Given that I lead a completely ordinary suburban life, largely indistinguishable from my neighbours and everything seems to be swimming along in a normal and reasonable manner, this criticism seemed overly harsh. If I had been Jewish or Muslim, I’m sure the way I bring up my kids wouldn’t have been scorned in the manner that it was.

Faith is the belief in something despite having no evidence. No one knows what happens after you die. Atheists are in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to that. But just because I don’t believe in a deity doesn’t mean that I’m out to destroy society because I don’t know right from wrong. My law degree might have helped, but I’m pretty sure I could figure most of it out myself, even without the somewhat opaque religious lessons of my childhood.

By far the worst thing about being an atheist  is being open to criticism because supposedly I have nothing to offend. Why is it okay for insults to be lobbed at me but then I don’t have the right to respond without being “intolerant” if I point out the limitations of their beliefs?

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Losing the plot

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When books are reduced to their most basic “A” leads to “B” leads to “C”, there are only a few unique plotlines. Buyers in the romance sector are mostly women in the first world, so there are even fewer applicable plotlines and you’re pitching to a relatively tolerant society. Now you can’t just have people meeting and getting on famously like they do in real life, because that’s a very short and boring book. Accordingly, you need to cause conflict. The question is, what? There needs to be an inherent or created incompatibility between the main characters to create tension. Their drives or desires need to be at odds, but at the same time surmountable, because there needs to be a happily ever after at the end.

So what could possibly hold two people apart in a reality based contemporary romance novel, without being too manufactured or done to death? No longer can you just use the Romeo & Juliet excuse of “the families don’t like each other” because that’s not how it works for most people in modern societies. Many people couldn’t pick their cousins out of a line up, let alone generate a deep enough family loyalty that goes beyond their immediate relatives to prevent them from doing anything. Certainly not enough to stop them getting their freak on at the club on a Saturday night.

I had a conversation about this with the always delightful Jennifer Lane, who has a book coming out where the protagonists are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Politics used to be one of those things that you could never talk about in polite company in case you started an argument, but that no longer seems to hold. Politicians don’t have the glamour that they used to have back in the 50’s and 60’s, when they seemed to have almost rock star status. The media’s attitude to them and intrusion into all facets of their lives has taken away any mystery. We know they are all just people with regular people problems and their job seems to have a whole lot of drudgery attached, which is all very unromantic. And maybe it’s just me not really caring too much about politics, but to be honest I don’t really mind what my partner’s political beliefs are as long as I never have to attend another political fundraiser (dear God, those things are as relentlessly boring as a primary school talent show and the wine is usually crap).

Religion? This one’s a tougher cookie and most romance writers won’t touch it with a hundred foot stylus. With this one there is too much conflict and the real potential to offend. When your main aim is entertainment, the last thing you want to deal with is death threats.

Race? Society is generally too tolerant for that to be a significant enough issue to keep people apart. What would once have been scandalous is now commonplace and not even remarked upon. Creating conflict around this would be hard without sounding like a bigot.

Status? Done to death. Cinderella and all those Billionaire books (seriously? Has anyone checked out the photos of actual billionaires before they write these? There are only 23 of them in the world under 30 and they look like Mark Zuckerberg not Robert Pattinson).

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So where am I going with this? Nowhere to be precise. I struggle to create realistic conflict without alienating readers (my second book about an unfaithful wife received very mixed reactions) so I have no answers. The market wants what it wants, which is good looking billionaire alpha males (who don’t seem to work much) seducing impoverished virgins. Given the restrictions on what you can write (check out the list of rules on a lot of the publishers’ websites if you don’t believe me) it’s no wonder many novels sound the same and the market is saturated. Novels like Fifty Shades are great because the conflict was new even though the characters themselves were clichéd. Although those novels were heavily criticised, the fact that they broke out of the Romance novel box should be acknowledged.

I’ve nearly finished my third book, which like my first is paranormal. I’m often asked why I write books with supernatural elements, and this is the reason. Aliens, vampires and dystopian stories appeal to a lot of writers as new conflicts can be created because the rules of reality don’t apply. When you spend around a year writing about something, you need to make it interesting and internally coherent for yourself or the delete button starts singing its seductive siren song.