Pastoral

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Many people go on and on about the beauty of this particular landscape or the other. They tell me how much they miss the hills of home or how there is something about the light in the sky that always tells them where they are. Each outcropping or stand of trees represents a landmark in their journey from childhood to maturity. Blah, blah, blah.

Frankly all countryside looks pretty much the same to me. As The Arrogant Worms put it: it’s all rocks and trees, rocks and trees and water. Which pretty much sums it up.

I was recently in rural Alberta visiting my in-laws in the wake of my mother in law breaking her hip. It involved a lot of driving around. My wife was telling me how it was all so familiar, so Albertan. I responded that the only way I could tell I was in Alberta as opposed to rural anywhere else was by the large number of oil pumps extracting hydrocarbons from the ground. That’s right. For me the most distinctive feature of the landscape was a manmade device important for powering cities.

Really, when I look around – to the extent that I can see through allergy blinded eyes – it all looks like empty fields broken by clumps of bushes or trees of various heights. I’m sure there is some variation in types of trees but really, it’s all just wood, right? And one little valley shaped by a piddling ass stream is pretty much the same as another wherever you go.

Now I’m not oblivious to the spectacular. Mountains with snow on top have always impressed me as have really big waterfalls and the ocean. Though it has to be a real ocean like the Pacific and not some piddling little sea or lake. Yes, nature can be impressive but really, if you’ve seen one big gush of water going over a cliff, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

For the most part I view the country side as pollen filled wastelands one has to cross to get from one city to another. Not that every city is a wondrous place but in my experience they are all significantly different one from the other. No one is going to confuse Seattlwith Paris the way I confuse Saskatchewan and South Dakota or the wilds of New Brunswick with northern Ontario or Wisconsin. Contrary to what Karl Marx said, even an idiot must prefer cities to rural life.

Cities have character. They have interesting architecture. They have fine restaurants. And theatres. They have interesting people rather than coyotes and bears. They don’t generally have an excess of allergens.

And they have airports which – to me – is the next best thing to teleportation.

But that’s ten minutes. Inspired by Sheri Dibble Shvonski though probably not in the way she meant.

Privacy and Freedom

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The other day I was getting on an elevator in a hospital and saw a sign that said: Surveillance cameras authorized under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. To me it said a lot about how governments of Canada treat both information and privacy; they are less concerned about preserving your rights than they are on protecting their own.

Governments are by nature secretive organizations. Most bureaucrats’ stock in trade is information and they protect it like their first born child. It is not only spy agencies that operate on a ‘need to know’ basis – almost every department has their own little division which decides what can and cannot be revealed, not merely to the public but to their fellow bureaucrats.

When you look around the world there are certainly more secretive governments than Canada – though most of those aren’t democracies. It doesn’t have to be that way. The United States, for example – at least at the federal level – is much more open about decisions and the decision making process than we are here in Canada. Open government, in their view, is the hallmark of a democratic society. And I suspect they are right. Openness does promote a certain degree of accountability and caution. Mike Duffy, for example, might not be in such a pickle if his activities had been more open to view from the get go.

Of course, providing information is an onerous job, especially when you have to go through all sorts of hoops to gather it up and then censor it – making sure that only the absolute minimum required by law is released to the public. It is not uncommon for 90% of a released document under freedom of information to be redacted in black ink.

Which brings us to the issue of privacy. One of the reasons, I suspect, that governments link freedom of information to protection of privacy is to ensure they always have an excuse not to release too many details – we are protecting people’s personal information. It also justifies them collecting lots of information – we need it to provide services but you can be sure it will never be released.

Until of course it is. We’ve all heard of the horror stories of private health or tax information being revealed when it was mistakenly thrown in a dumpster or when a laptop is stolen that contained files that should never have left the office. Or, in certain strange cases, where the files of troublesome people are turned over to bureaucrats and politicians to be used as weapons against them.

With the advent of Bill C-51, things are only going to get worse. This legislation – crafted at reckless speed and in an atmosphere of raw hysteria in the wake of the Ottawa Parliament Hill attack will further erode individual privacy while strengthening the ability of government to keep secrets even from itself.

Perhaps we need to take a step back – determine how much information we really need to keep on our citizens  and start making decisions about how much really needs to hidden in what, after all, is supposed to be a public government.

But that’s ten minutes. Thanks to Louise Holland for suggesting the topic.

Critics

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Everybody’s a critic it seems these days. With opportunities to comment on Amazon or Goodreads, in newspapers on-line editions and a multitude of blogs big and small, it appears everyone has a strong opinion about creative efforts and are eager to express it loud and clear. The more critical one is, it seems, the more people pay attention to you.

Or do they?

People confuse what it means to be a critic. They assume it is the job of the critic to attack (or occasionally praise) a book or a movie or a video game. Not at all. A review – which does both those things – largely is an expression of an opinion, not much more sophisticated than I like that or I hate this. A review is not criticism. Often it is nothing more than a vendetta.

The role of a true critic (and yes, I understand I am about to be called an elitist in this oh so democratic world) is to place a creative work in the context of history and culture and to try to understand what an artist is trying to accomplish within that context and to, finally, judge whether they have succeeded and failed and why.

To be a reviewer, you just have to be there; to be a critic, you have to yourself be immersed in the creative activity if not as a practitioner then as a student of the field and the practice.

In other words, the role of a critic is not to snidely criticize (though many of them do this in a most delightful way) but rather to understand what is being done and, in an odd way, to support the artist in his or her efforts.

Do critics serve a real purpose in the work of the working artist? This is a harder question to answer. In many cases, the critic is examining the final product. The criticism will not unmake the movie or unwrite the book.

In the case of the novelist, the work was largely completed 12 or even 24 months ago (not so in self-publishing but that’s another story). The writer, in many cases has already moved on and unless they are writing a series of books (only common in fantasy or mystery for the most part) they are no longer engaged in the themes or stories of the old work. What then can they learn from a critic? It’s not like it never happens – after all writers do revisit themes on a regular basis – but only in a few cases does a real artistic dialogue exist between creator and critic (unless you consider editors the ultimate critic – which I suspect a lot of writers do).

The critic may play a larger role historically and academically in placing the artist in their proper place in the pantheon or they may – if they are particularly skilled at bringing their strength of criticism into popular reviews – be useful as a guide for readers and watchers as in: if you liked this, you might like that in the way Amazon algorithms never will.

But for the rest? When Hemingway was confronted by an erstwhile young critic and asked if the birds flying up from the gondola were a symbol of sexual consummation, Hemingway responded with: What? You think you can do better?

And that’s ten minutes. (With thanks to Stephanie Ann Johanson for the topic suggestion).

Debates

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There is a huge debate going on in Canada right now. A debate about debates. Political debates have long  been a staple of election campaigns. There have certainly been memorable ones. The Kennedy-Nixon debate was almost certainly a turning point in a close presidential campaign – though for the most part it was not what the debaters said as how they looked. Kennedy looked cool, presidential; Nixon with his perpetual five o’clock shadow and flop sweat looked like a used car salesman – or perhaps the crook he later turned out to be.

Perhaps people can discern deep meaning from trivial things or perhaps Kennedy simply understood the importance of image in an age when most people were barely figuring it out. Or maybe luck played a role.

Some debates do have significant rhetorical moments: In the 1984 election campaign. John Turner was asked to defend the series of patronage appointments the outgoing Prime minister had demanded he make. Turner’s lame response was that he had no option. Mulroney shot back: You had an option, Mr. Turner, you could have said no! It was a turning point. The already faltering but still competitive Liberal campaign collapsed and the Conservatives went on to one of the historic majorities – one of the few gained with an actual majority of votes in a multi-party race.

It’s ironic that Brian Mulroney raised patronage to an art form – appointing party hacks to positions that previous administrations considered part of the regular public service. Debates can have turning points without revealing much about character.

Then there was the famous Clinton move where the candidate essentially stepped out of the debate format – ignored his opponents to communicate directly with individuals in the audience. His “I feel your pain” dialogue cemented him not only as President but as one of the most enduringly popular politicians in American history – a fact that still drives his opponents bananas.

Mostly, however, debates have degenerated into wooden talking heads speaking their pre-fabricated points while carefully avoiding any real discussion of the issues with other debaters. ‘Make no mistakes’ has taken over from scoring a knockout blow. When they do engage, it often seems to be red faced politicians yelling at each other or more likely trying to yell each other down.

Still telling moments can come – often when you least expect them as in the foolish and patronizing remark by Jim Prentice of Alberta when he told (now-Premier) Rachel Notley that math was hard. It solidified people’s views of him as arrogant and out of touch – not to mention sexist.

Yet, one wonders: do debates matter? Obviously they do – give how rigorously the political parties, especially the Conservatives are trying to manipulate the process. But it’s not because of huge audiences or even the likelihood of winning moments. It has to do of finding moments of advantage while avoiding the possibility of an unrecoverable error.

In any case, I’ll be watching – unless they have them in August.

But that’s ten minutes.

Projections

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Being able to predict the future was one of the greatest evolutionary advantages that humans had. Discerning the pattern of animal migrations, for example, or where a predator was likely to be lurking was very useful indeed. Equally valuable was to be able to guess the thoughts and moods of the people you lived with. Was Groog – the big guy who was prone to violence – in a good mood today? Does Alllalllea feel warm thoughts for me or will she scream if I put my hands on her? All valuable stuff – especially in the days when language was still rudimentary.

Of course, we still carry these evolutionary tools with us – even though they aren’t as useful as they once were or as necessary. After all why guess what someone is feeling or thinking when you can simply ask them? Why indeed?

Of course, most of us do these predictions without thinking about them too hard. It often comes down to what we are thinking or feeling. Some people, for example, might be called down to the boss’s office and go full of excitement, fully expecting to be given a choice assignment or maybe a promotion. They may have no reason to think that – indeed the evidence might be they are a lousy employee. But why rain on their parade? They will find out soon enough.

Others, of course, will take a completely different tack. They will assume they have done something wrong – that the boss is going to haul them on the carpet or maybe even fire them. This despite the fact they have been consistently shown in (apparently too) subtle ways that they are a good employee.

My wife and I occasionally get into these little projection wars – which fortunately almost always ends with one of us laughing and saying – you’re right. I guess you know me better than I know myself.

One of the interesting things about this is that women are accused of doing it more than men. It might seem logical enough – women have often depended on being able to read the moods and intentions of the men around them. Men have been rewarded for being taciturn and besides, sadly, are sometimes dangerous and it behooves people to know when they might explode.

However, men are equally guilty in this regard. Men’s behavior, perhaps – though the evidence is not entirely certain – less linguistically focused spend a lot of time trying to figure out how other people are thinking – sometimes women but more often other men. Figuring out what can be said and done will determine whether you will be accepted, whether you will gain status or lose it, whether you will be bullied for deviating from group thinks.

Projection used to be a useful tool in the struggle for survival – one of several we used to predict the future. But now, more often than not, projecting our fears and doubts on others leads to trouble – not only at the personal level but on the world stage. There we sometimes fall into the trap of projecting one of our inner demons on our opponent rather than thinking of them as a human being with legitimate concerns, fears and needs of their own.

Maybe we need to stop silently assuming what others think, feel or want and start using our words. That’s what they’re there for.

But that’s ten minutes.

The Will to Live

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Animals may struggle to survive but they have no will to live. Driven by their selfish genes who want nothing more than one more chance to reproduce themselves, animals will run and hide and fight but in the end they surrender to the inevitable. The rabbit relaxes in the eagle’s claws, the deer falls to the lion’s jaws and even predators slink away to die when the time comes. Animals live in the present, sentient, yes, able to distinguish between good things and bad, good moments and fatal ones. But they have no concept of tomorrow. Lucky them.

Only humans — and perhaps a few other species — have the capacity to contemplate their own death. They can know that present joy may still lead to sorrow and that present pain may have future relief. They can weigh the merits of holding on versus letting go.

So why do some let go so easily while others cling to the sweetness that is life?

I had a friend, Frank, who was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of prostate cancer. He was given six months to a year, perhaps two with treatment. Many people would have slumped their shoulders and accepted their fate. Not Frank. He eagerly took the treatment offered and then the next one; he volunteered for experimental drugs, changed his diet and his lifestyle. He held on for nearly a decade.

But he didn’t merely hold on; he embraced life — travelled and explored, tried new foods and new things, did things that scared him like skydiving and through it all laughed and met every new challenge with grace. Even at the end, when he could no longer eat, he would come to dinner and drink clear soup while the rest of us feasted. He would laugh and sing and enjoy the company of friends. I never knew a more graceful approach to death — or, rather, to life.

My mother-in-law, Dorothy, was widowed some years ago after a lifetime with the same man, an Anglican priest. Even in their last days together they were clearly in love. Dorothy grieved and wondered what was left to her, other than heaven. Until she was told that her heart was literally broken and that she might not have much more to life. She decided then and there that she wasn’t ready, in her words ‘to leave the party.’ She took the promise of a year or two and following every instruction of her doctors to the letter has now stretched it to more than a decade. Last week she broke her hip. At 89 and with a heart condition, they discussed the issue of resuscitation during surgery. It might break your ribs; there could be a lot of pain. Her answer: absolutely bring me back if you can. I still have flowers to grow and berries to eat and yes, a little wine to drink and great grand children to visit with and oh so many books to read. I’m not ready to leave yet.

The surgery went well — no extreme measures needed — and Dorothy looks forward to returning home.

There are days when the grind of bad knees and gradual slowing of every part of my body makes me wonder what I will do when it gets to be too much. Will I slip away like an old dog and find someplace to die or will I cling to the party until the last dog is hung? What will you do? Merely struggle to survive or will you struggle to live. Because that’s what separates us all — not the will to live but the joie de vivre that makes living worthwhile.

But that’s ten minutes.

Rights 2

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“Man is born free but he everywhere is in chains.” Rousseau’s conclusion marked the end of the first stage of the Enlightenment — which came with the recognition that all people were possessed of basic rights but for the most part they were not able to exercise them. While Rousseau has a lot to answer for — he created the concept of the Noble Savage, after all —this aphoristic description of the state of politics has driven much of the rest of the enlightenment project — an effort to allow people to express the rights they already possess. The free expression of rights by others has been what has driven the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the civil rights movement, feminism, the establishment of gay rights and so on.

While the final stages of all these movements require individuals and groups to assert and take their rights, in every case the first step required a change in the social culture wherein those who could already express their rights created the conditions that allowed freedom to bloom. It has not always been easy and has been fought at every step of the way.

In some cases the fights have been verbal or political but sometimes they have required the taking up of arms. The end of slavery in the United States required a civil war. Some people are still fighting it.

I was inspired to think of this the other day by the people who expressed discomfort over the Irish referendum that changed the constitution to recognize gay marriage (well, that work is still to come in the legislature but it is a foregone conclusion after the vote). People shouldn’t vote on other people’s rights was the general sentiment.

But how else do you think it can happen? Revolutions? They sometimes work but the French revolution was followed by The Terror and then Napoleon.

Although generally, national referendums have not been the route to inclusivity and the expansion of freedom, it is hardly invalid. The alternative is a political process wherein legislatures pass laws to remove restrictions on people. This was how women gained the vote in the end — it was brought about by protests and arguments (some of which were unfortunate) but ultimately required the law to be changed by the only people who already had the vote: men.

The courts have also played a role — but not by “making law” but by forcing legislatures to obey the highest law of the land, the written and unwritten constitution that lays the foundation of society. But even then it was the political process that created those possibilities. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” And it was the evolution of culture and society that led to the understanding that all men meant all humans.

Rights may be inherent to all people but without the freedom to exercise them they are nothing but a beautiful dream. As Ireland has shown it is time to stop dreaming and start living.

And that’s ten minutes.