The End

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This is the end. A little over 20 months ago I began this 10 Minutes of Words blog. Since then and counting today, I’ve written 591 of them – totaling more than 300,000 words. If I had written that many words of fiction, I’d have more than three novels. Which I guess is a lesson for those who say they can’t find time to write.

Of course, I wouldn’t have written 3 novels (fiction is such a different process) – but I might have written one. Or a bunch of short stories.

To be fair, during the first few months, writing every morning for ten minutes or so (I occasionally went longer) was a great way to start my day and get my brain up and running. For someone who can’t even imagine being a morning person that wasn’t a bad thing. But eventually, I found I dreaded it. I’d sit and stare at the screen for five minutes or more before I even had an idea what to write. Sometimes I’d have to start over when my thoughts refused to follow a logical path. More than a few times I erased an entire blog and started again with a different topic.

In short, this ten minutes began to stretch out to 30 on some days. It was no longer an exercise in thinking and writing – it became a central focus of my day. Some nights, I’d even lie awake in bed trying to work out a particularly complex argument. Ten Minutes began to occupy an inordinate amount of space in my head.

I tried various strategies – writing out lists of possible topics, writing a series of related blogs and so on. Often I’d look at the list and wonder what I had had in mind. The series almost always seemed forced. I eventually decided that winging it with a blank slate at least had the advantage of being spontaneous. Sometimes, they were the funniest blogs I wrote if not the most profound.

Still, I think I did hit profound on occasion – at least based on the responses I got from my readers. Eventually I may go back and see if I can mine these nuggets to see if there is enough gold to make a short e-book worthwhile. Or not.

For those who have been regular readers – all 40 or so of you – I appreciate your loyalty and support. On occasion it has seemed pretty lonely in here. Other times I’d hit a resonant note and several hundred people would drop in and see what I had to say. My record was the piece I wrote about the shooting at the Ottawa War Memorial which garnered over 700 views since it was published. Not exactly best selling territory. The least read entry was one about Gardens which attracted only 8 readers.

In any case, it wasn’t all about numbers – though obviously if I had 10,000 readers I’d probably still be doing it or actively looking for a book deal somewhere. I’ve enjoyed the process and the contacts I’ve made.

But this is it. I may be back from time to time as the mood strikes me but it won’t be a regular, or even frequent, thing. I’ve got other stories to tell in other venues. If you look for me – you will find me.

And that, at last, is ten minutes.

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Purpose

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“A life without purpose is like the life of a dog.” I’m not sure who first said this. Me, maybe. Don’t get me wrong; a dog’s life might not be so bad. You sleep until someone – or your stomach – wakes you. You eat whatever is available (though it may well make you sick) and you hump whatever you can. Best of all, you always know where you fit in – alpha dog, beta dog, gamma dog.

No alarm clocks, no going to the office, no worries about what is right or wrong. Nothing to do but live in the moment. A great life. If you are a dog.

Humans are not so lucky. We are aware of our own death from an early age. We are prompted by religion, politics, economics and family to do something. Get a job or prepare for death. Be like Jesus or Buddha.

Yet, most of us go through life without any real sense of why we are here and what we are supposed to do in our brief span upon the earth. As noted, there are plenty who are willing to tell you, willing to take the answer out of your hands and mind.

Some tell us to practice mindfulness – which is to be aware of the forces, internal and external that act on us and to focus fully on the present. A bit like dogs, I suppose. The proponents have appropriated aspects of Buddhism (mostly stripping it off its spiritual elements) to create a ‘meditative practice.’ You can take weekend courses or go to summer camp to learn it. Those that love it love it a lot. Those who don’t suggest it might cause psychotic episodes.

But if it lowers your stress and reduces the chances of you beating your kids when they annoy you, I say meditate away. Even if all that focus on the self seems a little – well, selfish.

Purpose isn’t about you. Purpose is about what you do in and with the world. Some people discover that early on; realize that it is possible to make the world a better place through concerted and focused action. Often we can only make change in groups but some people express their purpose in small ways – helping neighbours or supporting candidates who are motivated by hope and charity rather than fear and anger.

Because of course a purpose-filled life is not much good if your purposes are self-aggrandizement and the oppression of others. But you know that isn’t what I mean.

It’s important to remember one thing: you can never fail when you lead a purpose-filled life. The meaning comes from the striving not in reaching the goal. If your purpose is to end world poverty, you are apt to end your life in failure – unless you accept small victories for exactly that.

I like to summarize it by saying you should always strive to live your values. Whenever you do something that is likely to affect your family, friends, neighbourhood, community, country, world, you can ask: is this consistent with my most deeply held and cherished beliefs.  This does not mean you will always do good – some beliefs shouldn’t be actualized – but it does mean you will always do something.

But of course, first you have to know what your values are. The good news is that, unlike a dog, it is something you can actually do.

And that’s ten minutes.

Focus

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The ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others is a great skill. It is far superior to multi-tasking, which gets all the good press. But, really, multi-tasking is simply shifting your focus rapidly from one thing to another. Or it’s a sign you are easily distracted.

But focus is not something that can be achieved in a moment. Deep focus takes effort. You have to learn to push aside all other thoughts, all emotions, even all sensations. Focus is what lets athletes play through pain; it is what allows scientists to concentrate on a single variable at a time as they work to a solution. Focus is the only thing that will allow you to complete a significant work of art.

I’ve always been good at focusing on things – at least for a time. I can immerse myself in a complex effort, like doing the year-end books or writing a short story and lose all track of time. Later, when my back is throbbing or my eyes are itchy and irritated, I sometimes wish I couldn’t.

Focusing on tasks is one thing; focusing on a career is quite another. That is a skill I’ve struggled with. It’s not so much that I am easily distracted but that I am easily bored. I do something for a while but then it ceases to be challenging; it ceases to hold my attention.

For a while now, I’ve been multi-tasking my life. I have a job – one I’ve been doing for fifteen years. Trust me, there isn’t an issue I haven’t seen before. I’ve acquired expertise in a variety of topics only to forget it all when the job required a different emphasis. Well, it’s not really forgotten – just put aside until I need it again. I seldom find myself having to do anything original these days.

Publishing is a complex process, especially when you are pretty much managing or doing all aspects of the job from reading slush to marketing books to doing the books. Still, it has its rhythms, its repetitive tasks and while each book is unique, the work required to get it on bookshelves is not.

I’ve also been writing for years and, again, while each story I tell is different, there is a familiarity to the task of plotting and crafting and writing that makes it all the same. I wrote most of a short story this weekend and, at a certain point – about ¾ of the way through, I thought: I know how this all works out. And only an effort of will, an application of focus, actually made me write down the words necessary to get to the end. It was satisfying but…

Another thing I’ve been doing is experimenting with being a ‘public intellectual.’ It started as an off-hand remark to friends but I got such positive affirmation, I experimented with it, in part right here. Robert J. Sawyer thought enough of the concept that he made me a political pundit in his latest novel, Quantum Night. At the very least, I’ll be able to say: I’m not a public intellectual but I played one in a book.

So now, it has come time to choose: what will I focus on for the next 10 years, perhaps the last decade of my active engagement with the world? That’s an answer I’ll have to focus on before I can tell you. Or myself.

And that’s ten minutes.

Memes

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Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook which consisted of an unflattering picture of an angry looking Hilary Clinton and a caption “I’ll get you and your little bird, too,” a reference to the finch that landed on the podium during a Bernie Sanders speech. It was posted by a progressive woman (a Sanders supporter) with a note saying that it should be taken as humorous.

Let’s be clear: this was meant to remind you of the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz (who is eventually killed). The word ‘witch’ is often used as a euphemism for the word ‘bitch.’ What struck me about this is the number of times I’ve heard right wing white men make misogynistic and racist remarks and then excuse it with: It’s just a joke. Don’t you have a sense of humour?

I get it. We often make rude jokes among ourselves – denigrating people for aspects of their character or background because attacking their policies is just too time and energy consuming. My wife and I have often said that it’s a good thing our living room isn’t bugged, given some of the snarky remarks we’ve made about politicians and, even, about tragic public events. We say things to each other that we would never dream of saying in public. Or on Facebook.

What’s the harm, you might say? When politics is reduced to memes, discourse is reduced to angry shouts, democracy becomes demagoguery and racists and sexists are given a free hand. It is no more acceptable for those on the left to do it than those on the right.

But it is so damn easy, isn’t it? I’ve been guilty myself. I made a meme showing a smarmy looking Ted Cruz with the logo beneath his face saying “Five Affairs” as if he were bragging. Below that was Vezzini from the Princess Bride (Cruz is a big fan) saying “Inconceivable.” With two images and three words I both call attention to the rumours around Cruz and question his ‘manhood.’

Here’s an easy one for Clinton supporters to use. Find a picture of Sanders making a speech – hand raised, preferably in a fist. The caption? “Old Man Shouting at Clouds” Now we get to point out that Sanders is indeed the oldest candidate for President ever and suggest that his policies are not only fuelled by anger but also that they are unlikely to change anything.

Would that be fair? Not in the least. Would it be funny? To some people maybe; others would see it as ageist and simple-minded. That’s what memes do. Make light of everything and reduce it to the lowest common denominator – usually by playing on half-truths or outright lies. Lies seem to be the main currency of modern politics in America.

The solution to division in America is not more insults, lies, invective or bad and unpleasant jokes. The solution is honest discourse and spirited but reasoned debate. You actually see that, for the most part, between Sanders and Clinton. It even, from time to time, appeared in the Republican debates. Maybe, whoever becomes the candidate for their respective parties, we’ll see it in the presidential debates.

But in America in 2016, I suspect it will all be reduced to an insulting picture and a few simplistic insults. Funny? In a sick kind of way, I suppose. I’m sure anti-democratic thugs the world over are laughing their heads off.

And that’s ten minutes.

What Journalists Know

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Very few journalists understand how politics work. Even fewer have a clue how governments work. Almost none grasp the complexities of public policy. Not surprising – they were never trained to know and were actively discouraged from taking part. Even when they have acquired some understanding, they assume none of their readers and listeners are interested or capable of following them, so they dumb it down. Better to report on a well-developed cliché than do any deep analysis. It improves your chance of hosting your own show or appearing on page one.

Take the recent response of reporters to the Federal budget. Their initial reaction was to focus on the deficit and on the ‘path to a balanced budget.’ They also noticed that the budget was a lot shorter than in previous years. Deep.

Of course, it wasn’t a lot shorter. The government had provided two volumes – the first the budget proper and the second the fiscal background, which they knew that no-one but policy wonks would care about. They also thinned down the political rhetoric – though they certainly didn’t eliminate it. Maybe the question should have been: why were Conservative budgets so needlessly long?

It is the fiscal analysis that gets at the issue of the deficit and the debt. It is pointless to talk about raw numbers, since, because of inflation and economic growth, they aren’t based on the same calculation from year to year. Think of it this way. In 1980 you made $20,000 but spent $30,000. You had a deficit of $10,000 or 50% of your income. In 2010, you made $60,000 but spent $75,000 (by now your banker should be worried). You had a deficit of $15,000 but that was only 25% of your income. Not good, but better.

But here is the number that really counts. In 1980, you ran your first debt so your total debt was 50% of your income. This puts you in a position similar to France. But in 2010, your debt (let’s say you overspent by $10,000 a year) has reached $300,000 which is now 500% of your income. This places you in roughly the position of Argentina just before the country went bankrupt. By the way, if you are worried about government debt in Canada, you should be terrified by personal debt which now stands at 164% of disposable income. Fortunately most of that debt is in mortgages.

Canada’s current debt to income (GDP) ratio is 31% (this is only federal debt; count in provincial debt and it’s not so rosy) one of the best in the world – much better than our European and North American friends. You might think this is because of the fiscal prudence of the previous Conservative governments but you would be wrong. While the Conservatives did shrink the ratio initially – though not as quickly as the previous Martin government had – it began to rise again in 2008. While the Conservatives claim to have left the country in surplus, it was accomplished, if at all, through financial tricks that actually left the country in worse shape than it had been even a year or two before. It was, as they say, good politics but lousy policy.

The current fiscal plan is a steady state one. The debt ratio won’t rise – though it won’t fall either. Given the huge contingency fund, the low estimate of the price of oil and the pessimistic forecasts for economic growth, the deficits might actually be smaller than projected – or the government may have the fiscal room to fulfill those of their election promises, like homecare, left out of this budget, without running up big bills.

But that – the real story – is apparently too hard to explain or to figure out how to dig into. So, when they interview the PM or the Minister of Finance, they constantly interrupt and return to the tired old shibboleths of the evils of the deficit, as they were trained to do by Reform and Conservative rhetoric — Stockholm (or Stockwell Day) syndrome, maybe. Meanwhile they let the opposition blather on with nary a question even when the union-bashing, poverty-shaming neo-con Ms Ambrose spouts Tea Party language – calling the request for the rich to pay their share “class warfare.” They are only slightly tougher on Mr. Mulcair. Maybe they just feel sorry for them both, since neither of them are likely to be leaders for long.

Journalists need to up their game and trust their audiences to follow along. Or just give up and admit they take their orders from on high. And, though I’m writing this on Easter, I don’t mean from Jesus.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

Down in The Gutter

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American politics may have hit a new low with accusations that Ted Cruz engaged in extra-marital affairs. This comes after a nude picture of Donald Trump’s wife was used in an attack ad by a pro-Cruz SuperPAC. Never have such tactics appeared in American politics. Well, if you don’t count the outing of John Edwards and Gary Hart, the vicious attacks on serial monogamist Newt Gingrich, efforts to impeach Clinton over a blowjob, the various Senators and congressmen caught doing the dirty in public washrooms or the various rumours spread about Presidential infidelities going right back to the founding fathers.

Sex and politics have always been mixed up in the United States – not surprising for a country founded by Puritans and other fundamentalist Christians. Of course, this is also the country that gave us Mormonism, the religion that solved the problem of philandering males by letting them “marry” as many young girls as they like.

Of course, everyone says that it is not the sex that matters but the hypocrisy. I’m sure that if Cruz hadn’t been so rigid, I mean, firm, or rather, determined in his sexual purity, none of this would have come up. In any case, after a brief spurt of outrage, I’m sure we’ll soon return to more usual discourse – idiot, snivelling coward, jerk, liar – to which we’ve become accustomed.

All this is being driven by the on-going uncertainty about who will get the Republican nomination. Analysis of the latest polls suggest that Donald Trump will win just enough delegates for victory before the convention is held. Or he will be a few dozen short. Neither result will ensure he gets the nomination if the organizers adjust the rules to let delegates become unbound before the first vote. It’s all very complicated but you can read about it here. Trump has threatened lawsuits and predicted riots if such shenanigans occur. I think I’ll avoid Cleveland this July (or, well, forever. I mean, Cleveland!)

On the Democratic side, Sanders supporters have begun a ‘we was robbed’ narrative, starting some time ago but reaching a crescendo with the total mess that came down in Arizona. No one questions that it was a voting disaster but it was run by the state of Arizona and its hard-right Republican government. The gutting of the Fair Voting Act – which was implemented precisely because of states like Arizona with a history of depriving minorities with the vote – coupled by the archaic rules used by the state for registering voters was the source of the problem. It’s notable that voters were particularly impeded from voting in counties with high black and Hispanic populations, hardly fertile ground for Sanders based on past performance.

Of course, a few Sanders supporters probably think the clearly liberal, Ms. Clinton, is in cahoots with the Republicans to keep their guy out of the White House – highly plausible given the warm and cozy relationship the GOP has had with the Clintons over the years. Of course, Clinton hasn’t been exactly nice to Mr. Sanders either – though so far she hasn’t suggested he’s a closet communist. But as June approaches and if the race stays close – I wouldn’t be surprised if photographs of baby Bernie in the arms of Joseph Stalin appear.

And that’s ten minutes.

Medical Mysteries

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Everybody likes a mystery right? Especially a medical mystery – whether it’s a crime show based on forensics, like Bones or CSI, or a doctor show with an irascible but brilliant main character like House, medical mysteries are great fun for all involved.

Well, except the patient. Or corpse. And if you are the patient, it’s no fun at all.

Recently, I’ve been feeling tired. A lot. My doctor suggested I drank too much wine (and I have dutifully reduced my consumption by a quarter – though it is still a lot) but also ordered a lot of blood tests. There was a lot of good news – almost everything was normal, including, by the way, liver function. My glycerides were high but that’s fixable by cutting out some carbs. My bad cholesterol, to quote the doctor, “looks like it would if I were taking drugs to control it.” Which I am not – so go me.

My B12 is low – low enough that diet won’t fix it, so it’s a daily supplement from here on in and a re-test in a couple of months. Low B-12 can lead to fatigue and may also cause a certain amount of poor moods. And I thought that was being caused by work.

Usually, low B12 is also a sign of anemia. But, mysteriously, my iron levels are abnormally high; high enough that the doctor will consult with a blood specialist. Because, right now, there is no explanation for this result – and it’s not one prone to false positives. Nothing in my diet explains it, I don’t take iron supplements (I actually take almost nothing on a daily basis) and I haven’t recently been blood doping. Not since my days as an Olympic sprinter. So low B12 and high iron is a bit of a mystery.

Big deal, you might think, high iron can’t be a bad thing right. Iron helps oxygenate your body and high iron should give you a real energy boost. Actually, according to my other physician, Dr. Google, high iron is just as bad as low iron when it comes to energy – so it might be contributing to my fatigue. And, when really high (I’m not – I don’t think) it can cause liver damage (or cancer), heart disease and, not surprisingly, premature death. More horrifying, it can even cause impotence! Fortunately, I’m like Donald Trump that way – no problem in that department. No, seriously. I wouldn’t kid you about something like that.

Strangely, the cure for high iron is quite simple – though somewhat medieval. There are no drugs or dietary changes that will help. The solution is to give blood every six weeks or so and, if for some reason you can’t give blood, that’s okay they’ll just take it. It has a fancy name – phlebotomy – but really it’s bloodletting. Like in the Middle Ages. With leeches or vampires or something.

I’m sure all this will work out fine. In the meantime, I’ll keep analyzing the clues and stay away from large magnets.

And that’s ten minutes.