Art Thief

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If I was only a little more dishonest I could be a millionaire. I’m not talking bank robber dishonest or even banker dishonest. And I have no taste for blackmail or kidnapping. But international art thief? Well maybe.

I’ve had my opportunity.

In 1986, Canada Post commissioned Jean-Paul Lemieux, a well-known Quebec artist to produce a limited edition (15 copies) set of prints representing his vision of Canada’s ten provinces and two territories (Nunavut didn’t come along until 1999). They were in celebration of the organization’s 100th anniversary). At that time, I was Executive Assistant to the Premier of the Northwest Territories. The presentations of the portfolio of prints was made during the annual Premiers conference which we were attending (as observers — the Premiers didn’t invite the full participation of the territories until 1992).

As the EA I was generally the custodian of all such presents and I dutifully lugged them back to Yellowknife. Once there I made some calls to see who would take them off my hands. We might have hung them on the wall — after all the Commissioner had a dozen A.Y. Jacksons in his office — but my boss only wanted art by northern artists. So I called the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. ‘We’re a museum not an art gallery’ was their response. The department of culture had no facility and the Archives were worried about the quality of care. So they sat in my office for a year. Every once ina while I took them out and looked at them. I quite liked them.

I felt pretty privileged to have these prints in my office though I had no idea as to their value. Other Canadians got to see them too- the Post Office issued all twelve as stamps — but I was one of the few people who got to see them full size. I have no idea what happened to the other sets but I don’t think they are on public display anywhere.

The year passed and I still had the prints. An election was coming and I was moving to another job in advance of the vote. What was I to do with the prints? For a day or two I contemplated taking them home. If nothing else they would look nice in my apartment. And maybe they would be worth some money in my retirement (though how I would sell such rare items I had no idea  — if only I knew about Craigslist or eBay, but that was long ago…)

I made a final round of calls and, finally, a day before I was to leave my office the Heritage Centre ‘took them off my hands.’ That was the last I saw of them until 15 years later I had lunch in the caucus lounge at the new Legislative Assembly. And there they were — nicely framed and on display. I enjoyed telling the assembled MLAs of their provenance.

By the way, a Lemieux painting recently sold at auction for $2 million. Yeah, I could have been rich.

And that’s ten minutes.

Party of One

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I sometimes think of myself as a party of one. Not in the restaurant sense but the political one. This is true, of course of most people. Where could you possibly find a political party — by definition a mass organization — that matches your views and values point by point? Yet partisans seem to do it without having to do mental back flips. Identification with party is a tremendously powerful lure for some people and they are willing to ignore — more likely not see — their party’s flaws. Just as they cannot see the value in any other party’s viewpoints. A recent study suggests that party identification is an even greater dividing line in the United States than race. Quite astounding when you come to think of it.

I understand the urge. The desire to be part of something bigger than self is more or less universal. Even libertarians feel the urge to form parties. I once saw an advertisement on a university campus for the Anarchist Club. Were they kidding? Were they even aware of the irony?

When I was younger, much younger, I felt the same way. At the time I was a New Democrat — and defined myself as a social democrat. I’ve moved to the left since then and what’s more moved towards the ultra liberal or even libertarian end of the spectrum. That’s right I’m a socialist anarchist. Or a libertarian socialist, whatever label turns your crank. Not many of us and certainly not organized into parties.

Well, what does that mean? Primarily I’m concerned about inequality in all its forms — not just economic but racial, gender, power and so on. At the same time I demand personal responsibility, a recognition that personal actions can make a difference and that choice, even when limited by all the constraints of inequality, is something we make as individuals. So freedom is major goal for me but not freedom from consequence.

I’ve take those tests that measure your political compass and I discover this strange isolation. Of major world figures, my values most seem to match the Dalai Lama (I like the laughing thing) and Ghandi (yippee, peaceful resistance) and I guess that’s not bad company.

But it does create a bit of a conundrum for me. I’m also a democrat and believe in our oh-so-flawed system of voting. It’s all we have sometimes (though that too is a choice). So who do I vote for? Over my life I’ve voted a lot of ways; now, I try to vote for the least worst. They all look bad from my political standpoint — but they are all capable of doing some good. It’s the least harm that matters these days. So I vote strategically and work for change in other venues.

But that’s ten minutes.

Ten Minutes

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I was asked the other day if I was having fun writing these ten minute bursts of words and my answer: yes, for the most part though sometimes they were hard work. But that’s a good thing too. I started these two months ago and have been able to write and post one everyday despite sometimes being far off the beaten path, on airplanes, even sick. It is a good exercise in discipline if nothing else.

I think some people find them amusing or interesting or thought provoking though it sometimes seems a bit futile when only ten or fifteen people bother to read them. But I think they are worth doing for their own sake.

Why do we ever write anyway?  There is no certainty of finding an audience and even if we do it will never be as great as we would like. Dan Brown sold 8 million copies of The Da Vinci Code but he was still beaten out by J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter (among others). If I sell 500 or 1000 copies of a book — I’m hardly in the same league.

So writing for a few people is okay since often I think I’m only writing for myself anyway.

Some topics, of course, lend themselves to more words than others — there are some I know have left people hanging and which I’ve flagged for longer treatment in other places such as my personal political blog over at Hayden’s Hubris. Other topics are too fraught to even attempt the ten minute treatment though, you never know, I may get up my courage to write some of them anyway. Since no one is reading it hardly matters if I write upsetting things, right? It’s not as if someone will come by and arrest me or shoot me or even call me bad names in the line at Starbucks.

Writing from where I sit is pretty much a privilege — like those bozos on Fox news who make pronouncements about war when you know not one of them has the guts to go anywhere near the front lines even in a non-combatant role.

Just rambling now so here are some statistics. I average about 425 words in these little ten minute bursts so I’ve now produced over 25000 since I began which, if it were fiction, would be 5 short stories or ¼ of a novel. Of course, writing fiction is a much more deliberate process. I can’t do 500 words of polished prose in 10 minutes though if I count the few minutes editing typos and the time it takes to post and insert the links I could get pretty close to first draft material. So, if I decide this is too much work or not enough fun I guess I could do that instead.

My friend, Joe Haldeman, writes 500 words a day every single day of the year except maybe his birthday and he produces a novel a year. Not a bad approach to things. 500 words and then a whole day to do other things. Hmmm.

But that’s ten minutes.

Spanish Lessons

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I speak a little Spanish — not as well as I once did but I can order food and ask for directions. The usual touristy stuff. But like anything that you do a little of — speaking a foreign language, mountain climbing, bungee jumping — trying to do more than you are capable of usually leads to trouble.

Years ago, I was in San Luis Potosi, a town north of Mexico City. It is an interesting place in and of itself — with old silver mines, archeological sites, museums and many fine artists. It is not a touristy place so it seemed the best place to have a real tourist experience. I was travelling on my own researching a book that got written though was never published. I decided I needed to find out what it was like to go to a traditional cantina.

The cantinas of Mexico (this was 20 years ago) are all-male establishments. I suppose women could go in them but they don’t. Men go there — mostly working men — to drink and get drunk. Usually you enter through swinging saloon doors. There are a few tables and then seats at a long bar. This one had a jukebox loaded mostly with mariachi and other Spanish music.

I sidled up to the bar and ordered a cerveza. I drank it slowly as I observed the scene. A man at a table by the door suddenly slumped in his seat and fell over. The bartender came around and dragged him outside to prop against the wall. His wife will fetch him, he said to no one in particular. It was that kind of place.

I was soon joined at the bar by a couple of men who were obviously friends, one dressed as an office worker ,the other in the traditional white garb of a campesino. They taught me the proper way to drink tequila which does not involve salt or lime. We chatted in my ever improving Spanish. At a certain point we gave the campesino money to go find a real mariachi band. He returned an hour later with no money, no band but with a bag of candy.

I cleverly said. Donde es la musica? Pagamos por le musica no por los dulces. Very funny stuff and he laughed but then his friend chimed in — saying the same thing: Where is the music we paid you for the music not candy. But with a snarky tone. Then without much more said they started to fight. I was between them as fists flew.

The bartender took a small wooden club from beneath the bar. As soon as furniture or bottles got involved, he would make his move. I got between the combatants, blurting out something — again in great Spanish — about us all being friends and that we shouldn’t fight. They stopped and the bartender served us another round. But the fun had gone out of it and one by one we slipped out into the night.

A vivid memory but not as vivid as the rare hangover I had the next day.

But that’s ten minutes.

Democracy

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Democracy is as fragile as a flower and as tenacious as a weed. It has appeared in the most barren of ground and been stamped out in its most fertile land. We need to guard it in every way we can.

But what is it? It is not confined to the legislatures or parliaments of the world; it is not the possession of politicians. It is certainly not the plaything of the rich.

As long as we think of democracy as voting, we are doomed to see it fail. Voting in a mass society is the pointy end of democracy but like icebergs, most of democracy is 90% submerged. If voting was all there was, it would be – to stretch a metaphor – a thin ice sheet ready to melt away in the slightest heat.

Democracy is a way of thinking, an approach to life. It should imbue all aspects of our life — our families neighbourhoods, work places. It should be based on mutual respect and the rule of law. It should, first and foremost, be based on the principle of equality. As soon as we lose that last one — as soon as we think that one person’s opinion is more valuable than another, the slide towards thinking those voices should be silenced or ignored becomes so very easy.

Make no mistake; democracy is hard — especially when the other side doesn’t play by the rules. When your opponents are disrespectful; when your opponents are willing to use every trick in the book to win their cause — or worse yet, win the cause they’ve been paid to win — it is hard to turn the other cheek.

Bought and paid for shills are the worst — both as people but also as threats to democratic society. They don’t even have anything invested in the arguments, just taking the 30 pieces and turning their aim on the enemy.

Some are so vile as to be ridiculous. Ezra Levant’s recent rant about the Trudeau family was repulsive. But it hardly does any damage either to Trudeau or to democracy because nobody but a brain dead Sun worshipper could take him seriously. The man’s greatest accomplishment was to publish someone else’s insult to Islam. Ezra has never had an idea that someone didn’t pay to put in his head. See — that’s how it’s done. An ad hominem argument that denigrates Mr. Levant without ever having to talk about what he said. Not that what he’s ever said is worth talking about (Whoops, did it again).

So be careful out there. The democracy you kill may be your own.

But that’s ten minutes.

Self Interest

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I am told all the time that the world operates on self-interest as if that were a statement of fact rather than a statement of faith. I’ve had people engage in long tautological arguments which start with an assumption of this presumed behavior and conclude with see: enlightened self-interest. But where is the proof? Certainly market studies show that people make constant choices and that is what drives the market. But is that in fact self-interest; is it in anyway enlightened?

Other studies show that the most (quite possibly, all) people are very poor at assessing risk in modern times — modern being anything after we stopped being hunter/gatherers. When given choices they frequently underestimate true risks and over estimate low risk activities. This is why people who are afraid of flying are quite happy to drive their car down a crowded interstate. The facts, that should lead them to make the opposite choice, have no bearing.

Self-interest itself is a watered down and washed-out version of the original economic idea proposed by Jeremy Bentham. Bentham talked about people seeking to maximize their utility but what he really meant was that they seek to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. Because economists are seldom philosophers, this got simplified into something that could be measured — that is economic reward. Bentham was probably a lot more accurate in his original formulation but, in any case, in modern times utility became money.

But, of course, the two are not the same. For example, some studies show that there is a point when money no longer drives choice. Individuals will reach a point in their income earning where other things — leisure, hobbies, family, drugs — have more weight than more money. They will actively choose to limit their economic activities in order to maximize these other things. And when it comes to some of them — self-interest is hardly the driving factor.

One could point at people who choose to use drugs or alcohol to increase their pleasure. These acts are so far removed from what most people consider self-interest (health impacts, social disruption, loss of family relationships) that we need to use a different paradigm — addiction — to even talk about it. But addition is a tricky beast too. There is real physical addiction where dopamine levels are affected. There is even permanent addiction where the brain mechanisms that produce these reward chemicals are completely rewired. But most addiction is actually psychological and so a matter of choice. A similar but simpler thing is at play with extreme sports.

So where does that leave us? A topic for another day because…

That’s ten minutes.

Sick

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Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night… Okay, in sickness or in health… Well, I’m here but I am unwell. That’s right. I’ve got a man-cold (whatever that means — viruses have no gender). In any case you are now going to be exposed to the ramblings of a sick man. Which, I guess, is better than being exposed to an actual sick man.

I’m not terribly sick — not yet anyway. A little headache, a queasy stomach, but it’s enough to make me stay home and take care it doesn’t get worse.

It’s certainly not like the time I almost died. Or, I should say, medicine almost killed me.

Years ago, I used to be plagued with ear infections. I’d get one a year, sometimes two. A course of antibiotics would clear them up but they were painful and annoying. Especially when I was flying. I had come down with one while I was in Winnipeg (I was still living in Yellowknife). I was given a short-course of pills (5-days) but they didn’t do the trick. The infection came back but it was even worse. Now back in YK, I was given another round of antibiotics. Again, no success.

Must be a resistant strain, said the doctor. Let’s go old-school. So he gave me sulfa drugs – big honking pills I could barely get down. Awful aftertaste, too. Ten days worth.

Well, they worked. In three days, the infection was completely gone. On day four, I had a little fever. By day five I was up to 40C. Not good. A call to emergency got the response: cold baths and aspirin.

On day six, my wife found me naked on the living room floor, hallucinating and burning up. She took me to emergency this time. They didn’t want to see me. She persisted, so they put me in a cold examining room and took a blood sample. An hour later, a doctor rushed in and decided I needed to be admitted. More tests ensued. I had an enlarged spleen. My immune system was suppressed. T-cell count down.

They took me off the sulfa and put me in bed. I had to pee in a giant bottle for several days (like the ones you make wine in). By the second day, my symptoms were gone. My spleen went back to its normal size and my immune system recovered its usual vigor. My fever was but a distant — and fuzzy — memory.

The doctor came by with the diagnosis. Probably, he said, you have an allergy to sulfa drugs. The only way to test that theory would be to give you more. But that might kill you. So let’s not do that.

So now I tell every new doctor of my allergies to sulfa drugs. Still, I’ve never had another ear infection.

And that’s ten minutes.