The Writing Life

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The most common view of the writing life is that it is a solitary one. Even many writers who should know better make the claim. But the writing life is not quite that simple. True, most people are alone in their heads when they begin to put fingers to keyboard. Writing cogent sentences and paragraphs requires a certain level of concentration seldom experienced outside of combat or fly-fishing. Still, while some writers are introverts, very few are actual hermits. Almost none of them do their writing from their mother’s basements (we prefer garrets).

And, more than anything, we frequently seek out the company of other writers. There is a reason we go to coffee shops – even if we are initially alone, pretty soon we notice others engaged in a similar activity. We may share a smile or a small word of encouragement as we pass on our way to pay of the barista. We will occasionally catch other’s eye as we wind up staring into the same empty space. It is a very rich life.

All joking aside (a third of my writing friends are now saying, what joking?), writers are often a gregarious lot. We enjoy being alone together. For example, tomorrow I am heading off with my wife for a write-off in Mississauga (I know, we get to go to all the exotic places). There will be seven other writers there, all staying in the same penthouse apartment. We will each find our own niche and spend the days with our heads down, typing away on our respective projects. We will nod and smile as we pass each other in the hall – after all, we’ve been friends for years.

Eventually the demands of nature will draw us together for a communal lunch – at Moxies or Swiss Chalet – where we will sit silently, thinking about our work and occasionally making a short burst of non-sequitur laden conversation. It will be monk-like.

So I am pulling your leg now. We will chatter incessantly, exactly like monks released from their vow of silence. Because really there is only one thing writers like to do more than write. And that’s drink… sorry, I meant to say, talk. Especially about writing but also about missing (writer) friends and about research and whether or not we are going to make next month’s rent. Well, the successful ones have already got next month’s rent…

None of this should come as a surprise. Writers have always gathered to compare notes and talk about ideas. Byron and Keats and Mary Shelley vacationed together; Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the rest drank together in Paris. We crave each other’s company precisely because we spend so much time alone in our heads. We crave it because we know that writing is another form of conversation; indeed, it sometimes seems that every writer and every book has been engaged in the same centuries-long discussion.

That’s why, when we are not writing or talking or eating or, yes, drinking, we are usually found reading.

But that’s ten minutes.

Grexit

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The deadline for Greece to reach a deal on its relationship with Europe is fast approaching. It is still possible that a last minute agreement can be reached but it looks increasingly doubtful. On the Greek side, there is a deep resentment of the measures that Europe is demanding for continued borrowing combined with a growing mistrust of all political parties. The Prime Minister, elected on a promise to end austerity without leaving Europe, finds himself in tighter and tighter corners. Meanwhile, European lenders complain that Greece’s problems are of their own making – a combination of too rich benefits (to be fair, Greek retirement benefits in particular would have made most people in the world envious) and a reluctance to crack down on wealthy and middle-class tax cheats.

Regardless of where you stand on the Greek situation, you have to wonder what the impacts will be for Greece, Europe and the world. Greek banks are closed and the ability of ordinary Greeks to get their hands on their own money is limited. The fear is that a run on the banks will lead to a complete financial collapse and destroy the ability of the government to do anything for good or ill. Stock markets in Europe are taking a massive hit – 3-5% — and other world markets are down and likely to keep falling for the next week.

If Greece leaves the Euro-Zone, there will be profound ramifications for the Greek people who will likely see a fall in their standard of living – at least in the short term. Europe will see its dream diminished and may face other countries like Spain leaving as well. Countries that have been clamouring to get in may have second thoughts. Europe may have second thoughts about them.

Still, some countries have prospered while remaining on the outside or limiting their participation. The Nordic countries (3 are members while 2 are not) are doing fine. Iceland weathered its own financial crisis by taking an Europe-independent and radical approach. Britain (which may be emboldened to reconsider its role in Europe) has always maintained its separate currency. This has had mixed results but is unlikely to change.

A smaller Europe may be a more prosperous one and may be better able to deal with its current crises around refugees and immigration integration.

If we want a model of the long term results, they abound. In 2001, Argentina defaulted entirely on its debt. It took ten years for the Argentine economy to recover only to fall back into default by hedge fund managers’ lawsuits. Still, most people feel that the long term results were less calamitous than predicted. The Asian currency crisis of 1997 also had a tremendous local and short term impact on the effected economies but the region has bounced back to become a powerhouse in the global economy.

Unlike the depression of the 1930s, economic downturns in a global economy tend to be more frequent but shorter in duration and muted in impact. The interconnectedness that causes a Greek crisis to impact Canadian investors (unheard of before WWII) also cushions the impacts. Although globalization has had many negative effects, it has lent resilience to economic systems that prevent long-term local depressions which were common when countries were more isolationist and disconnected.

But that’s ten minutes.

I’ll Add a Title Later

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This is a blog I’ve been meaning to write for some time but I never seemed to get around to it. It’s just one of those things, you know. It sits there on the list but there always seems to be something more important to write about. Like many things that languish on the list of life, it sometimes seems to be important but never really important enough to get started. There is always some other task that takes priority – like cleaning the bathroom, reading a book, washing my hair, or, you know, sitting and staring out the window.

I’m talking, of course, about procrastination. There. I’ve said it. I suffer from procrastination – well, I do when I get around to thinking about it and the consequences it has for my life.

This is nothing new. I’ve always been very good at putting things off. Well, no, that’s not exactly true. Some things I get done right away – happy hour, for example. If it weren’t for happy hour, I probably would never get anything done. When I was in University, I would always get my homework finished early in order to be able to have happy hour right on time. It has been the one saving grace in a lifetime of putting things off.

Okay, to be honest, I only put off things that I don’t like – such as starting a new short story or a novel, sorting through my possessions in order to whittle them down, getting out of bed, going to work. Stuff like that.

But once I get started – you can watch my dust. Took me forever to get started on my first novel but then I wrote it in 3 days. Okay so that was a contest and I actually couldn’t start until the contest period did but still… 3 days.

I’ve been putting off a lot of things lately. But no more. I’m turning over a new leaf. Starting Wednesday. Well, one can’t rush into these things. But on Wednesday (Thursday latest) you will see a whole new man. Nothing will appear on the horizon that I will not immediately tackle and defeat it. This proactive approach will thankfully allow me to ignore all the backlog of things I already need to do. By several weeks at least. Maybe months.

Still, one wouldn’t want to die with nothing left on the list of things to do. It would be embarrassing. Not only that, it would imply that for a period of time, however brief, your life was bereft of meaning and purpose. Without a full list of things to do, you would, of course, be listless.

So, my advice to you is to make your list as long as possible. In fact, make it impossibly long – add to it every day and chip away at it regularly. Start now. I mean, start making your list now. That’s what I’m going to do. It’s better than actually accomplishing something.

But that’s ten minutes.

At the End of the Rainbow

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Rainbows everywhere and I couldn’t be happier. The extension of marriage rights to all Americans on an equal basis is long overdue. Canadians did it ten years ago and guess what? The world didn’t end, society didn’t collapse. No pastors set themselves on fire.

Okay it is true that a 44-year old conservative government was defeated this year in a surprise rise of the NDP, Canada’s modestly left wing party and the same party is leading in the polls nationally. But I’m sure the two things aren’t related.

Besides it took ten years to work through the system so that hardly impacts on the ability of the Republicans to take back the White House, now does it?

However, their unbelievably weak response both to the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, the one on Obamacare earlier this week as well as to the Charleston race-crime murders all demonstrate why the Grand Old Party is rapidly losing touch with America.

Ten years ago, before Obama, 59% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. This year 60% approve of it, similar to the majority that approved it in Ireland. Over time that number will continue to rise. There will always be people who will oppose it – either for reasons based in their strongly held moral code or based solely in hate – but eventually most people will discover that rights are not privileges.

Whereas privileges can only be gained by one person at the expense of another, rights are infinitely expandable. Increasing the rights of others in no way diminishes the rights of those who already had them. My marriage is in no way reduced by the ability of two men or two women to marry. In fact, as I have recounted elsewhere, it was the recognition of gay marriage in Ontario that led me to get married.

But where does this leave America—increasingly divided into those who want the expansion of liberty and those who only want liberty for themselves? There is a hard core minority who view the rights of others as simply wrong-headed and evil; who view opposing opinions as something that need to be corrected—by Second Amendment remedies if need be. There is no future for a Republican party locked in past grievances and appealing to an aging demographic dominated by old white men. America risks becoming a one party state with a permanent angry minority.

The path forward seems treacherous but it is also one lined with opportunities. One of the multitude of GOP candidates has to find the courage to rise from the crowd and distinguish himself (or herself if Carly Fiorina uses this to climb out of obscurity) by standing for the true conservative values written in the Constitution: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then perhaps there is real hope for the GOP to stop its demographically driven death spiral and, so, real hope for democracy in America.

But that’s ten minutes

Stuff

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Things tend to accumulate until you can hardly navigate around them. You don’t have to be a hoarder to experience the feeling of being enclosed and trapped by your things. Che Guevara used to steal from Francis Bacon and call children hostages to society but your things can be just as confining.

As I sit here, I am surrounded by stuff I probably don’t need but which I am loathe to give up. The list begins with books but hardly stops there. Periodically, like all bibliophiles, I go through the stacks looking for those few volumes I can afford to give away. Too often they have special meaning. Not yet read but I am sure I will someday, for example. Who am I kidding? If I haven’t read it in ten years why do I think I will read it in the next ten or, if I have that long, the next twenty.

Yet there they sit, staring at me with their sad puppy dog eyes (especially the military SF) daring me to put them on the curb.

But books are only the beginning. Like every man who ever lived I have dozens of t-shirts that no longer fit but which represent some special stage in my life. A passage or a trip or a sporting event. To part with them would be like carving out a square inch of memory-containing brain tissue. By the way, if your wives or girlfriends bug you about your t-shirts, just ask them about their shoes.

It is everywhere; I have things stored in boxes which I don’t even know about. I have stuff shoved in cupboards, not because I have any use for it but kept it only because it was a present from someone – though often I can’t quite remember who.

I have CDs I never play, DVDs I never watch. And besides the t-shirts I have a lot of clothes I never wear. It is like the baggage of my life taken material form. Hell, I even have baggage I keep in the storage room in case I ever need that impossibly large suitcase for some sort of endless world journey to places that don’t have washing facilities.

Stuff begins to weigh you down. I sometimes discuss with my wife the idea of living somewhere else for four months or six. But inevitably it comes down to the question of where we will put all our stuff. Will it survive in storage? Could we trust renters (if we simply abandon our condo to others) not to destroy or steal it? And what about the condo itself? Nothing sometimes but a gilded cage to hold our stuff. And us.

Che Guevera also used to say property is theft. And he may have been right. But not quite in the way he meant it. Sometimes property steals your freedom – locks you in an ever growing prison of possession. Maybe it’s time for the revolution! Time to abandon all things!

But first I have to see if there is another book I can part with.

And that’s ten minutes.

Take Down the Flag

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I’ve always had an attraction to flags – not a Sheldon Cooper level attraction, but when I was in Boy Scouts I learned semaphore while all the other boys were learning Morse code. There was something about openly standing on a hilltop to send secret messages that appealed to me.

As an adult, I was pleased and proud to work on a project for Expo 86 to gather and in some cases encourage the creation of community flags in the Northwest Territories. Every time I go to Yellowknife and walk along the path that leads from City Hall to the Heritage Centre I look up at the row of flags and feel a twinge of pleasure.

I know that flags can cause controversy. The Canadian Maple Leaf flag, now considered an icon of our nation, was initially greeted with hatred and derision. Those who clung to the old flag claimed it was a desecration and an insult to all the soldiers who had fought under the Red Ensign. What people said in public was bad; what I heard it called in private was worse.

We got over it.

The controversy about the Confederate flag sounds vaguely similar. Its proponents claim it is a symbol of heritage not hatred. It remembers and honours all those who fought and died. It is nostalgia for the finer aspects of the old days and ways. Most people look at it and see it as a glorification of a society based on slavery. They see it as code for Jim Crow and the KKK. Secret messages sent openly from hilltops.

So what is this heritage you are talking about? Is it a society where the rich few lorded it over everyone else? Where people were treated as mere commodities? A society whose economic system was based on stealing people’s labour? Confederate society depended on supporting the privledged few on the backs of slaves and indentured servants.

Maybe it was the war you are trying to commemorate. Never mind that this was only one of the flags of the Confederate states, the one adopted when the war was at its bloodiest and no hope of reconciliation was seen. Commemorations are meant to heal wounds not keep them open.

And the Civil War and the so-called reconstruction that followed is a deep wound on the American soul. The war took more American lives than all of the other wars that the USA has fought combined. 750,000 dead – nearly 2.5% of the living population – and many more wounded. Towns burnt to the ground. Populations displaced. And for many people living in the south, nothing really changed. Nothing improved. Which is why so many left.

The South blames the North for that but maybe they should look in the mirror. People who cover their wounds – whether with bandages or flags – seldom see them heal. America is still wounded by slavery and by the Civil War – which now presents itself in the pathology of hatred, xenophobia, intolerance and, yes, a desire to have a society where the wealthy few prosper while the masses huddle and suffer and yearn for freedom.

It’s time. Take down the flag.

And that’s ten minutes.

Scams

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Today’s ten minutes might be considered in the form of an extended PSA. While I doubt if any of my dear readers would fall for the many scams that are making the rounds, someone must, so here is a little advice for anyone who you might know who is at risk of being robbed.

Robbed. Calling it a scam makes it sound like a prank but these pranksters are no different than folks who break into your house, terrorize your family and then declare you have nothing worth stealing. Not that that ever happened to me.

The latest thing is for people to get a call from the CRA (the Canadian IRS for American friends) telling them that they owe a thousand dollars or more and if they don’t pay up right away the police will come to your house and arrest you. They advise that you wire them money or use pre-paid Visa cards. First of all, if the CRA wants your money, they can just take it. You can then try to get it back. That’s how the tax man works, my friend. Besides, have you ever actually tried to get someone from the CRA on the phone? I do it for a living and half the time all I get is a message that their inbox is full. Sure you can call the 1-800 number but none of those people actually have a clue about anything but the simplest things – like how to apply for a tax credit for sending your goldfish to school.

So, if they are calling you (and not sending a letter – which is both threatening and perfectly impersonal) it is likely a scam. If they suggest pre-paid Visas for anything, it is definitely a scam. The best defence – because a lot of these guys are from conservative countries – is to tell them to send the cops over because “I just loooove a man in uniform.” It will throw them for a loop every time.

Then there is the computer scam where they call and tell you they are Bob from Microsoft and they’ve detected something wrong with your computer. Apparently Microsoft can do this even if your machine is turned off or not connected to the internet (well, some people aren’t hooked up 24 hours a day I’m sure). Do you think if Microsoft could do that they wouldn’t be using that technology to track down hackers and make their computers blow up? Cause I understand they can do that too.

If you don’t contact a help service desk from a Internet provider you trust (okay so that is an oxymoron but you know what I mean), then you don’t want to turn your computer over to a friendly fellow from Mumbai that calls to offer you assistance.

Here’s the funny thing about this scam. What they want to do is kidnap you. Well, not the real you but the digital you. Essentially they will lock down your computer and hold it hostage until you pay them money to release it. Technically this is extortion but they tell you – you invited us in so… — but it still is extortion. Most people though are too worried about being embarrassed either by admitting they were dumb or by the threats that their intimate photos will be splashed over the Interwebs. When you are 60 this is not something you want to have happen.

There are, of course, lots of other scams but I’ve written about those elsewhere. Be safe out there. There are people who want to take your money. And they don’t all work for Amazon.

But that’s ten minutes.