Making Moves: Migration in the 21st Century

We never have been as mobile as we have been today.

At any given time, there are between 13,000 and 16,000 flights in the sky.

Each year millions of people jet set around the world for various reasons. Global superstars like Beyonce and Elton John cover thousands of miles a month in the service of international music performances. Businessmen with meetings to attend, rack up miles for the sake of more zeroes and ones in bank accounts.

‘Normal people’, (if there is such a thing) are still the majority of flyers in the world. We fly for the most basic reasons. To see another part of the world for a holiday, to visit family or, perhaps most importantly, to emigrate.

I’ve spent my whole life here in the United States of America. My move from Silicon Valley, a near 2,000-mile journey can not be technically counted as emigrating – I stayed in the same country after all. However, the distance travelled is further than a move from England to Spain (around 1,200 miles) and the change in culture is more significant than you might first think it would be.

Working in the heart of Silicon Valley, a humming hub of graduates and high-tech startups,  could not be any different to my life here in Minnesota.

I used to live in a huge apartment complex, an air-conditioned tower packed to the brim with software developers and digital architects. I was one of them of course. The exorbitant rents rates made a small dent in our sizeable pay packets, but there was little intermixing regardless of the common ground that we shared.

Although we were surrounded on all sides by contemporaries, all of us bored souls who were in need of social stimulation, I’d never felt more lonely. The irony was not lost on my current ‘neighbour’ who laughed when I told him this, imagining dozens of middle-aged nerds like me simultaneously pining for human contact whilst consciously retreating from social situations.

My little lodge may well be in the middle of a rather desolate looking field, but that doesn’t mean I’ve continued to live the solitary life of a 21st Century hermit. Irony of ironies, now that I’m the only soul for miles around, I’ve found myself meeting more and more people. Whether it’s at the supermarket, chatting nonchalantly whilst picking out groceries, picking up a 6-pack from the local off-license or simply getting a haircut; I’ve found that now I’ve got more space to breathe in my day to day life, I’m so much more interested in meeting new people.

The good folks of Minnesota are more than willing to oblige as well.

There are two opposing stereotypes that relate to the nature of country folks. One of them is of the angry redneck, a farmer who is eager to exercise his right to bear arms and has a more than few hangups over the Civil War. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the overly friendly bumpkin, who brings over baked goods and imposes on their new neighbour.

Jacob, essentially my only neighbour for miles around, is neither of these. Like me, he’s a man who enjoys his own company, but knows that time spent alone is as much as an indulgence as it is a waste of one’s own existence. When I first arrived here, I thought I was the only persons for miles around, but within a couple of days time I found a wrapped bottle of whiskey on the porch and an invitation for dinner. Far from appearing sinister, I was pleased that I’d found another person who prefers to inch into a friendship, rather than diving head first in.

When I eventually took him up on his offer we ended up finishing the bottle between us and we’ve remained firm friends ever since.

A Return to Writing

Science Fiction is a strange genre to be writing in this day and age.

 

 

The year is 2017. It’s the 21st Century and the World is forever in motion.

Thousands of satellites whirr their way around the planet beaming news, videos and messages from millions of people at a time. A reality television star has the hot seat in the world’s most important job and a very short temper. Meanwhile, the human race sleep walks itself into redundancy as the automation of simple tasks puts thousands out of work forever.

It sounds like the sensational blurb for a sci-fi novel written two decades ago, but in fact it’s just a slightly dramatised version of what our world looks like today.

When you live in a world such as this, writing science-fiction can almost seem like a redundant task in and of itself. Every day there are hundreds of stories that work their way into the world media, growing more and more outlandish with each passing day. Why attempt competing with the ongoing Science-Fiction world that is constantly moving around us?

Of course, this is just pessimistic nonsense.

The role of Science-Fiction, when it is at it’s worst, is to provide a sense of escapism from the world that we live in today. At it’s best, Sci-Fi can posit a world that seems wholly alien from our own whilst informing (or even warning) us on the real world issues that effect us in our own lives.

So where does my role lie in all of this? How can I contribute to the world of Science Fiction whilst making sure that the work I create is both relevant and entertaining?

I’m not going to put any undue pressure on myself to write the next masterpiece or win the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Out here in the sticks of Minnesota, I’m more than comfortable in my cabin. It rains a lot in this time of year and the thunder storms are still interfering with the effectiveness of my satellite dish, but I’m more than protected from the worst that the weather can throw at me.

H. G. and Isaac have been begging to be taken outside more and more these days. It’s as if they know that Summer is on it’s way. Perhaps it’s the shift in pressure or an increase in humidity, but they seem to be waking up earlier and earlier.

Do dogs go through mid-life crises? They’re both reaching that age now, around 7 years old. Labs like them usually live to around 12, 14 at a stretch. Maybe they’re sensing that they’re now past the halfway point, that each Summer they experience will be one of the last few.

From the current state of our Science-Fiction existence to the ephemeral nature of my dogs’ lives, it seems that I can never stay on one singular topic.

Let’s hope that my writing doesn’t suffer from the same tangential habits!

Returning To Liverpool For My Grandfather’s Porsche

I’ve been forced to swap one cold winter for another.

My Grandfather, who had spent the majority of his life work with his hands in the North of England, passed away a week ago.

Ours is a big family, the De Boers are a Dutch family but not on my Mother’s side. She grew up in the UK, in the port city of Liverpool. My Grandfather, having spent the entirety of his life in his hometown, was a true ‘scouser’, a man that was incredibly proud of his work, family and community.

I’d visited England just once before. My Mom, during a period of acute homesickness, took me to Liverpool for 2 weeks in the Summer Vacation. I remember feeling incredulous that she had simply booked these flights and commandeered two whole weeks of my holiday without even asking me first. Although I’d felt like pushing my point on the ride to the airport, when I saw my Mother’s white knuckles gripping her bag, I decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle and resigned myself to a long flight spent consoling a woman whose only fear had kept her from returning home for over a decade.

I was only fifteen at the time, so my memories have no doubt become a little fogged and faded. There are a few moments that still stick out when I think back to the fortnight we spent staying at my Mother’s old home. The chief of these was my Grandfather’s Porsche. His pride and joy, this was the one and only luxury that the man allowed himself, besides 3 slowly sipped pints down his local every Friday.

Fulfilling a life-long dream, he had bought the car second-hand from Tech-9, a Porsche specialist based in the city.

When we visited, he was already getting on in years, but he was still spry enough to take me for a spin in his 1973 Porsche 911S. I remember seeing the sheer joy in his eyes as he opened up the throttle on the motorway. His happiness wasn’t derived from the speed with which we were hurtling down the M6, though. He was happy because he was driving his first Grandson, who he had never met before, in his dream car. He was happy because he had achieved more than he had ever hoped to and still had another 15 years of good living ahead of him.

That afternoon, back in 2002, was why I had to drop H.G. and Isaac off at a friend’s place and book a flight to Liverpool. The word of his passing had taken a while to get through to me. My satellite dish had been on the fritz for the last week, so I’d been unable to receive any messages; including a frantic voicemail from Mom telling me that she couldn’t bring herself to book the plane tickets back for the funeral. She made the journey by herself in the end without incident, other than nearly breaking a strapping young man’s arm as she clung to him for dear life.

My Grandfather clearly hadn’t forgotten that day driving on the motorway either. When I returned I was handed the keys for the Porsche. It was an odd feeling, returning to that car after so much time had passed. He’d looked after it so well, I was half attempted to keep it, but the logistics of getting it back to Minnesota, let alone the ridiculous notion of driving it, dissuaded me.

The car went back to Tech-9, where the mechanics gave their condolences and told me about the day that he had picked it out.

They were as impressed with its condition as I was  – I just hope that the next owner treats it as well.

Winter Chill In Minnesota

When I first arrived here in Minnesota – it was the middle of July.

The sun baked us on the drive across the country from Silicon Valley, forcing us to make multiple stops on the way to pour water into the van’s thirsty radiator (as well as our parched mouths).

Those early summer days were blistering but blissful. The thermometer, nailed to a post on the veranda, hit well over 100 degrees on a couple of occasions and I remember, at some points, actively wishing for Winter to come.

Well, surprise surprise, I’m now looking back on those days with a certain misty-eyed nostalgia. I didn’t bother installing any AC during those glorious, endless days of summer heat. Having been cooped up inside a sterile office for well over a decade, it was a relief to be outside – with the dirt, kicked up by the dogs, sticking to the perspiration on my forehead. That sticky grime, that you can only obtain from spending time working outside, is part of the reason why I came out here in the first place.

Now, however, trapped in this bleak Minnesotan winter, any sweat that forms on my brow is more likely to freeze to my head than attract a Steinbeckian film of orange dust. My days of pretending to be a long lost Joad are well and truly behind me.

Recently we’ve been averaging a bitterly cold 25 Fahrenheit and that’s just what the temperature is reading outside. When I’m out walking H.G. and Isaac, the wind can pick up and make the temperature feel another 5 or even 10 degrees colder – they’re lucky they still get two walks a day.

I may have stalled on purchasing an Air Conditioner but I wasn’t about do the same for the heating system. The shack we’re living in isn’t exactly the most insulated building around. The estate agent told me that it had been on the land, a half mile down from the main road, for well over 30 years – as long as her company had existed for. There are little clues hidden around the place, suggesting that it might have even been built by the original owners.

Odd little carvings in the wooden cladding suggest that a person was making a constant record of the progress made on the build. The marks have slowly been eroded away by the abrasive summer breeze and bitter winter deluges, but the remnants of what look like Roman Numerals still remain etched on to the odd plank.

When we return from our walks, I often wait on the veranda, attempting to catch my breath whilst the chilled wind tries its best to steal it from me. As I lean against the post, checking the thermometer, the dogs shake off the dirt and snow from their underbellies.

I often find my fingers straying to the smoothed grooves in the decades old wood – my mind drifting to strangers, knocking gnarled pieces of wood together in a much simpler time.

No Billboards, No Pop-Ups – Still Brainwashed

There’s not enough people up here for billboards.

I noticed that on the drive in.

Driving through Nevada, Idaho, North Dakota. The populations of the counties starts to dip, and with it goes the advertising. Its like that old saying about the tree falling: if a billboard is erected in the middle of a deserted road, will anyone see it? I guess that analogy’s filled with holes, but H.G. seemed to agree with me on the way up (Isaac was taking a nap at the time, he’s not much of a thinker anyway). Its kind of pleasant driving around this part of the States. When I trundle off to Thief River, the only distraction on the road is the huge expanse of wilderness all around me. No beaming toothpaste big grins or stern Hollywood grimaces.

virginIts probably for the best really, I’m very susceptible to advertising. My internet went live yesterday, the one modern commodity that I would die without (I have an outhouse about 50 yards from my back door, totally fine with it). A big old satellite dish stuck on top of my little shack in the middle of nowhere, makes me look like a crackpot UFO hunter—I just want the option to watch some Netflix from time to time. Still, getting back on the grid means the return of advertising. I’ve got AdBlockers set up (I lived and breathed Silicon Valley for years, remember?) but the internet’s essentially one big advertising newspaper.

isaacYou see when you launch a search in Google (like you use anything else, right?) little bots run off at the speed of light to diligently bring you back what they think is most relevant. Now they’re quick, but not so smart. A few clever clogs figured this out a few years ago, and found out a way of tricking the bots into thinking that their sites were more relevant to certain search terms than others. This gave them a foot up on the ladder above the other boys and girls who hadn’t been so smart—and so began SEO.

So regardless of the lack of billboards or pop-ads, I’m always being advertised to. Whenever I’m looking to buy a new hard drive or maybe a new toy for Isaac, the first fifteen or so results will have just been manoeuvred there by some SEO company in Liverpool. Patiently seeding the internet with little falsifications to satiate their clients.

I’m still going to buy the hard drive and Isaac, well, he always gets what he wants.

From Silicon Valley to Minnesota

Well I’m here now…’Hi Mom!’, or so the old adage goes.

The journey from Silicon Valley took three days. If I’d really pushed the rental van I could’ve probably made it in two, but what would be the point in rushing?

The look on my boss’ face was interesting when I handed my notice in. A mixture of disappointment and mild annoyance. The guy never liked me, but I could tell he liked me better than the prospect of having to fill my position. One of the big 3 software companies, there would be internal interviews and inter-departmental squabbling – far more effort than hiring a man to clean your pool, that’s for sure. He limply tried offering me a raise, but it was no use and I could tell that he recognised the look on my face. He could see the wasted look of exasperation in my eyes and it was one he was familiar with – he stared at similar grey holes in the mirror each morning.

server-rack1

I had been so long in the heat and the dust and the wind of the Valley, that I felt like one of our giant servers. Constantly sucking in air to keep my mind cool, but all the while particles of dust would be lodging themselves into one of the labyrinthine nooks and crannies of my circuits inevitably leading to this – a meltdown. I’m being over-dramatic, that’s what my Mom said: ‘You’ve got a wonderful job, more money than your Father and I ever had – stay there, live, find someone!’

Nope. Sorry Mom. I love computers but I don’t want to become one. (‘So overdramatic!’)

I filled a small cardboard box with a couple of novels, a bonzai tree (Secret Santa gift of ’12, never been trimmed) and a stapler (not mine – taking it anyway). There was cake, and balloons – Sandra on reception cried as she does at every leaving do. Then I was in the car, back at the flat, boxes packed and in the van on my way to Minnesota. Happy trails.

nevada-roadThree days of driving, no rush. Just me and the dogs in the front cab, my IKEA futon and wide screen rattling in the back of the truck with the computers and hard drives that comprise my film and music collection. Willie Nelson and James Taylor gave us the soundtrack to our journey, I tend to lean pretty hard on the road trippin’ cliches when I’m driving long distance, I don’t think H.G. or Isaac mind too much. And now we’re here. Home Sweet Home. A shack in the middle of nowhere, mild now but no doubt a frozen wasteland in just a couple of months. I’ll be here for the indefinite future, writing and living.

The door’s open now and I can tell H.G. wants a walk because he’s staring out at the wide expanse with a feverish longing in his eyes. The heat and the dust and the wind of the road has gotten him all hot and bothered.

I feel you boy, lets go for a walk.