Recently there was a scene in the long running and highly successful television series, Supernatural, that contained the most direct and the most powerful guidance I have ever run into for dealing with Writer’s Block or just procrastination in general.
The scene doesn’t matter and I don’t want to spoil the identity of the two writers talking about the issue, but here is the, stand still and let me slap you in the face with a dead salmon bit of tough advice.
“You’re a writer. A writer who is not writing.
And when a writer is not writing they feel sad, and they feel lost.
And the writer asks themselves, “Why do I feel this way? Why am I so sad and lost?”
And what does all this navel gazing and hair pulling amount to in the end? Procrastination, distraction.
They’re among million things that a writer uses to avoid doing the one thing that is all but guaranteed to make the writer feel better.
This is easily the best and clearest analysis of what nonsense writers get up to with procrastination and writer’s block. Sure, it is a variation of the old “Just get off your ass and write!” advice.
But, once you think about it, the main character in the scene has it right. This is “all but guaranteed to work.”
It was a dry, dusty, sharply cold afternoon in Kabul.
The wind carried the faint reek of human excrement from the vegetable and melon fields a few kilometres away. Human waste is widely used in Afghanistan as fertilizer.
I was just about to give up on the rest of the day and call for my driver and head off to the closest foreigners’ market that sold scotch, when downstairs called and said I had two military officers who wanted a meeting.
Some activity that day was better than none so I told one of my people to go and get the officers.
As Communications Director for the United Nations Warlord Disarmament Programme, I was used to dealing with just about any requests from outsiders.
(The UN used a different name for the group and also my position but those communicated little to the outside world of what we and I did so I had arbitrarily renamed everything. It really irritated the bureaucrats when I did that.)
I met with most outsiders mainly because the true leaders of the place really had too high a view of their own importance, and quite frankly did not understand everything that they were supposed to.
Two officers walked in and unlike every other officer in Theatre (military speak terminology) at the time they were in full proper uniform. Working officers in the field, or in Theatre, all dressed in combat fatigues done up in a bewildering variety of camouflage styles according to what their home countries thought best.
Since at that time there were some 15 national armies in the Coalition trying to keep the country stable while a new and perhaps better government than the ousted Taliban flailed around trying to learn how to govern there were a lot of wild and varied camouflage uniforms around.
My deputy, who had gone to meet them at reception, introduced them as captains from the Army of South Korea.
At that I was a bit flummoxed. As far as I knew the South Koreans had shown no interest in being part of the international coalition holding the country together and they supplied none of the humanitarian aid that the country’s millions needed.
It didn’t take long to find out why they were in my office.
They wanted to buy my thousands of tanks, rockets, and other heavy weapons.
The Heavy Weapons Collection Programme was a country wide effort to collect the thousands of tanks, armed personnel carriers, rockets, anti-aircraft machine guns and other weaponry from the dozens of private armies and warlords throughout Afghanistan. Most were rusted junk but some of it could still level a city.
“But they are not mine.” I said. “They are part of the United Nations disarmament programme and technically they belong to the Government of Afghanistan.”
Broad smiles all around and knowing nods.
“Yes we know,” said one of the captains. “but we can help by getting them out of the country.”
“Why do you want to buy heavy weapons?” A question that I never got answered during the next half hour of increasingly opaque and twisted conversation.
My Afghan staff took it upon themselves to deliver coffee and tea along with trays of pistachios and Peek Frean cookies. I sighed when they started to bring that stuff in because it meant that I couldn’t just stand up and briskly wish them good luck and lead them out of the door. No, we had to sit there and talk.
Part of my problem with their visit was that I was not sure at all that these two were who they said they were. Kabul swarmed with intelligence people. Each nation in the coalition had their uniformed intelligence officers and an unknown number of civilian clothed operatives. The most obvious, in and out of uniform, were always the Americans. For some odd reason they all seemed to think that wearing a dark beard, elaborately pocketed vests, a pair of dark Ray-Bans or Oakleys, and an air of coiled violence made them invisible. True intelligence operatives, and I have known a lot, are as unnoticeable as true ghosts. American spies come across as the comic book Caspar, The Friendly Ghost.
The best invisible spooks were the British. They just seemed to drift aimlessly through the country without drawing attention to themselves. The funniest were the Bulgarian spooks. They all but walked around with a cloak covering their faces as they lurked around corners.
“If you don’t mind, Mr Rick,” said one of the officers. “How many tanks do you have.”
I repeated that they were not mine and I had no control over them but I didn’t press the point because they were unfailingly polite and smiling in their disbelief. “About ten thousand in compounds now and another few thousand on their way.”
“Any how many are operational?”
I could only repeat what my bosses had told me over and over but I had never believed what they said. “None. They have all been demobilized by removing their fuel pumps, coaxial machine guns, and making the breech blocks inoperable.”
“But they can be loaded on truck trailers, no?”
I guessed so. My ignorance of how heavy weapons were handled was vast.
“And the anti-aircraft weapons? The rockets? And so on?’
“Well, I’ve been told that they are also inoperable.” I had my doubts about that. And there was more than one story about how operable air to ground Stinger missles left over from the fight with the Soviets had quietly disappeared from the United Nations collection system and changed hands for huge amounts of money.
“We would very much like to buy as much of the material as we can. I imagine that there are various officials in the government and the United Nations that we would have to negotiate payment with. And of course, we would certainly compensate you well for your help.”
So there is was.
A bald bribe. I had no doubt whatsoever that they could easily cut a corrupt deal with whatever United Nations and Government of Afghanistan officials they had to, but I had seen the inside of the Pul-e-Charkhiprison not five kilometers away and I was far far too much of a coward to ever chance getting sent there.
I also knew the head of the Afghan Secret Police, a terrible alcoholic who I had drunk much scotch with and who had been more than a little too graphic in his description of how the Afghan methods of torture were so much more effective than what the effete Americans did with their silly water boarding and such.
It took some effort to get them out of my office gracefully but it had helped that I had been able to get them an interview with a cabinet minister in the government to discuss the matter.
I never heard any more about their weapons buying trip but I did hear an odd story about how some tanks and other heavy weapons had been pulled out of secure compounds at night and loaded on flat bed trucks for Pakistan, and presumably the ports.
Perhaps the value of scrap steel was that high, or perhaps the South Koreans, if they were even that and not, let’s say, North Koreans, had other plans.
I kept my speculations to myself and watched to see if any of the people I dealt with all of a sudden were able to afford six star hotels in Dubai and high end vacations.
I also didn’t mention my meeting with my bosses. When it comes to weapons and money it is best to keep one’s mouth shut.
Dateline:Kabul Afghanistan, during the early years of the occupation
This place has become as dull and boring a place as Wa’kaw Saskatchewan, or Ottawa, or any rainy Tuesday morning in Vancouver. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We still have the daily threats, the warnings, the alerts, and the roads are still full of menacing men whose beards are just a touch too long and too ragged for fashion’s taste and who drive Toyota Surf’s with every imaginable chrome gewgaw festooned front and back and of course, fully blacked-out windows.
There is the occasional explosion in the distance at night as some terrorist gets his red and white wires mixed up while working through the do-it-yourself bomb making kit, and most nights you can hear the high off scream of US Air Force jets plunging down on the mountains east of here as they continue the
bad guy hunt. So all of that is still here. But the trouble is, it has become normal, routine, unremarkable, and boring.
So, just as a story without a plot, or a sentence without a verb, is meaningless, so too has been any rationale I might have had for writing up a Boy’s Own Thrilling Tale of life in the Hindu Kush amid the Panshirs, surrounded by Pashtuns and Tajiks, menaced by Taliban, and bemused by a military bureaucracy which doesn’t seem to realize that there are real people with guns out there.
The other problem is that as this place becomes more psychologically routine, its reality appears increasingly normal to me. The whole lot of the rest of the world is becoming a rather insubstantial, drifting ghosts in another dimension who may or may not exist.
Metaphysics from Kabul, you say. Well, it goes with the territory. There is something about desert countries that triggers alternate views of reality, I cannot imagine the Quran, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, or any of Thesiger’s works ever being conceived of, let alone being written, under the rain showers of the British Columbia coast, surrounded by the flames of a Quebec autumn leaf explosion, or beside the shores of a mountain tarn in the Pallisers. I think deserts, whether here or in the High Arctic, or wherever they may be, are a form of physical meditation. The mind travels to strange realms when freed of visual stimuli and that is what happens in Afghanistan.
If the things that go boom in the night are no longer of interest then what is?
The oddest things I assure you. One day last week there was a change in the weekly menu at the Global Guesthouse. The Afghan chef introduced scalloped potatoes instead of roasted potatoes to go with the under cooked fatty-tailed sheep. This resulted in equal amounts of violated conservative values from the ex-pat Brits and exuberance from the liberated food adventurers sick to death of roasted potatoes. The discussion went on for two days and we still haven’t restored peace at the table.
Fatty-Tailed Sheep, imitation scotch made in Pakistan and sold in bottles with misspelled labels, jars of Canadian ketchup (fiery chilli sauce only we five Canadians will touch), and cans of Pringles crushed flat in shipping are the highlights of our diets.
I believe that if we did not have access to the Canadian mess hall at Camp Warehouse we would all have come down with those ugly diseases that only ever seem to exist in the pages of medical textbooks, the books that feature photographs of long annelid creatures deep in the body, ugly flaking skin rashes, weeping sores, and refer the reader to the exhibits in the London School of Tropical Diseases Museum, Restricted Section, Special Admission Required.
The only food I have found here to rival the Canadian food is at Camp Souter, the British Camp just down the road by the airport. Most of the troops are Gurkhass but the food is cosmic international fine cuisine.
I’ve been told that the British Army used to serve food worse than the Germans, (I shudder at the thought), but over the past few years there has been a deliberate effort to improve the food and morale along with it. I would have thought that when Caesar was a young centurion this would have been an aged adage even then but apparently not and quite a number of nations serve their disgruntled troops crappy food. And at the head of that list have to be the unfortunate Germans and the even more unfortunate Americans whose Meals Ready to Eat, known better by their designation MRE, are out and out dogfood.
At Camp Souter there are always three hot meal choices. Each is displayed behind a Red, Yellow, or Green card. If you want the greasy unhealthy vitamin-less but great tasting choice you take it from the Red. If you have a conscience but cannot quite enter into holy orders about your food you can take the Yellow. And of course for the Vegan, dainty eater, k. d. laing, crowd there is the genetically perfect Green choice. And so it goes through the desserts and other food groups. It is amazingly good food no matter what color group you take it from.
Earlier I talked about increasing security problems in the Kabul area. It is getting a little Wild Westish but nothing like most of the other places I have been. Still, I hate having to drive a vehicle around that has NATO ISAF plates and markings on it because of all the attention it draws. We live downtown and the key to a quiet life when there are guys around who don’t like to shave is to be as unobtrusive as possible. Until recently this was not a problem because we simply removed the plates and stickers and only displayed the plates when we entered a camp.
But a directive has come down from some minion or other of Mars and we are forbidden to drive without the markings.
The answer of course is to get civilian vehicles and that is what is going to happen but it has been a long struggle to get approval, in fact it went right up to the Chief of Staff for ISAF. The COS (that’s mil-talk for the likes of you) is a pretty busy guy who really shouldn’t have to bother himself with the doings of people like us.
Anyway, after much to’ing and fro’ing during which I established that precedents had been set by allowing the Spooks (Intel guys — more mil-talk) to drive civilian vehicles, and allowing the Canadian military to take the plates and markings off their white 4×4’s, he changed his policy.
There has been a delay in delivering the three new vehicles because the Transportation Section forgot to order them. How one could forget an approval that came down from the stratospheric heights of the Chief of Staff is beyond me but when a military bureaucracy decides to be inefficient the absurdities can take your breath away.
So you see? It is all rather mundane these days, one sunny Afghan day drifting into another, the afternoons passing with their parade of wind djinns, the evenings sinking into a sick yellow blaze of sunset through the billows of dust,
the dawns starting like jewels then tarnishing as the smoke from cooking fires rises, and the mornings brisk and breathless as the temperatures climb astonishingly from below 0 to above 20 or 25.
If I get around to it I’ll get someone to take my picture as I wear my Massoud Tajik hat and with my djellaba across my face. I look quite menacing if I say so myself. All I need is a midnight black Toyota Surf with four extra hi beam headlights, a truck horn, and an arrogant insistence on the right to pass every car on the road on the wrong side and I will fit right in, talk about being unobtrusive.