Wave the Flag

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This year is Canada’s 150th birthday and big celebrations are planned from coast to coast to coast. Nowhere will the party be bigger than in Ottawa on July 1st. As it happens I’m going to miss it. Was it intentional? Not consciously perhaps but, unconsciously, probably so. I’ve liked the annual foo-foo-rah less every year and, since the tightening of security over the last 10 years or so, it is a positively negative experience as far as I’m concerned. The crowds, the lines, the noise and, usually, the heat – it all seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

Then, there are the flag wavers. Canada doesn’t do patriotism/nationalism quite the way Americans do. When people wrap themselves in the flag (literally) it is often done with modified Canadian flags that express their identity – cultural, sexual or drug (replacing the maple leaf with a cannabis plant). They paint maple leaves on their faces and bellow incoherent versions of O Canada at passersby. And they get drunk and watch fireworks. Mostly good fun.

You seldom see demonstrations by white nationalists and when you do, other Canadians tend to stand around and stare disapprovingly. The sound of tut-tut-tut can sometimes be overwhelming.

Nonetheless, there is a streak of ugly exclusivity that still exists in certain parts of the country – not geographic parts so much (though that is a factor) but ideological parts. Take for example the current shenanigans around the changing of the words to our national anthem. The change is pretty minor: replacing the line ‘in all our sons command’ with ‘in all of us command.’ The arguments currently being voiced in the Senate border on the absurd. It’s traditional, they say. While I will acknowledge that Canada was traditionally a sexist patriarchy, it is now 2017 and we’ve had complete equality of the sexes in our constitution for 35 years. Besides, the anthem hardly dates back to the founding of the country (written in French in 1880 it was only adopted as the anthem in 1967) and has been changed numerous times over the years. My favorite argument, by one Senator, is that it is ungrammatical. Now there’s a cause most Canadians can rally around.

The reality is that few people sing the anthem anyway and when they do, they pretty much sing it the way they want. While one so-called patriot was up in arms because a choir in Toronto recorded the anthem using the as-yet unapproved words, few people are too concerned. They’ve been to hockey and baseball games and heard the mangling of the anthem too often to really care. At least they’ve stopped booing the French version when it’s sung.

Besides, there are bigger issues for some of us. One line extols God to keep our land glorious and free. One friend sings that line as ‘Dog keep our land’. I’m not sure if that is an expression of atheism, animal rights or simply a case of dyslexia. Other friends – avowed atheists – simply refuse to sing the anthem at all.

Flags and anthems are all well and good but too much adherence to any of them is not a mark of patriotism but a sign of impending fascism. The extreme right just love their little symbols; it would be cute if it wasn’t so ugly. One American friend of mine was shot at shorty after publishing a defence of flag-burning in a local paper. Coincidence? I think not. Still, it is worrisome that someone thinks shooting a person for expressing their opinion is a ‘defence of freedom.’

So I may watch the celebrations from England but I’m just as happy to miss all the patriotic noise and honour Canadian values of equality, multiculturalism and freedom in my own quiet way.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

Retirement

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In two weeks I will be retired, or as a friend of mine wisely calls it, refocused. Still it will be a strange thing not to work for someone else. I took my first paid job when I was fourteen (though I did freelance for a few years before that as a lawnmower and snow-shoveller and berry-picker). I still have the pay-stub from my first regular job. It was for $4.65 for 3.5 hours work. That was obviously a long time ago.

Since then I’ve worked for a lot of different people and organizations – mostly on regular salary though sometimes on contract. It has been a varied life. I’ve worked as a library assistant, a gardener, a chemist, a research manager, a house painter, a labour negotiator, an actor, a bartender, a pizza cook, an arts administrator, a policy advisor, a medical researcher, a telemarketer, a political assistant and several other professions I now forget.

During that time I did work for myself as well. I spent my teenage years selling greeting cards door-to-door and, later, took research jobs on contract. Of course, I’ve been a freelance writer for more than  25 years and, most recently, an editor and publisher for my own company.

I expect that I’ll keep writing on a regular basis and I hope to even make some money in the process. But it’s not the same as having to go to the office every day. I only have myself to answer to and only I can make me sit at the computer and work. I expect to be a pretty easy going boss. Although I intend to write a novel between now and the end of September, that’s only about 900 words a day of new prose. I can generally do that in an hour or two. There will be research, of course, and re-writing and editing, not to mention the publishing company, but still, I don’t plan to write every day and I don’t plan to work any more than 4 hours in any given day.

But what will I do to fill the time? After spending most of my life working 8 or more hours a day – for someone far less easy going than me – what will I do to stop from being bored?

Even to ask that question suggests you don’t know me very well. I can’t stand being inactive – it doesn’t just bore me it makes me grumpy. So I will read and walk and talk and party and cook and travel and photograph and think and watch and listen and play and dream up adventures to do or write about.

Retirement? I don’t think so. Refocus – it is a wiser term.

And that’s ten minutes.

Democracy is Hard

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We have it right from the horse’s mouth; Donald Trump has expressed surprise at how difficult it is to be president. It’s almost as if he thought he had been elected king and could rule by divine right. But no, he actually has to work – and it hasn’t been easy.

Trump touted his ability to make deals and to be decisive. It seems neither has served him well in the White House. The thing is this – it’s easy to make a deal when people have common interests, where people want to make a deal. What he has discovered is that a lot of representatives in Congress simply aren’t prepared to compromise. They would rather stick to what they refer to as principles then be seen as ideologically impure.

Take the repeal of parts of the Affordable Care Act yesterday. The vote was close and one group of moderate Republicans threatened to fire their leader when he made a deal – not with Democrats – with another group of Republicans. Even though the Bill passed in the House, it is unlikely to get through the Senate without amendment requiring it all to be done again next month or next year. Obamacare may still be in the gun-sights of Trump when he runs for re-election – providing it all doesn’t get too hard before then.

The real concern isn’t that Donald Trump finds the process of democracy hard; it is that people throughout the West are giving up on the democratic process. More and more, those on both right and left want change and are quite willing to put their faith in autocrats to bring it about. A recent poll has shown that increasing numbers of people, and especially the young, no longer believe that democratic governments are a necessary precondition to their own freedom.

This is more than simple minded libertarianism that proposes individuals can be free when societies are not. It is, in fact, a deeper malaise that seems to have led to a belief that society itself no longer exists. Didn’t Margaret Thatcher predict this some years ago when she said that there was no such thing as society – only individuals and families? Apparently, for her, friendship and common cause were not significant factors in how people behave (despite the cozy deals that the ruling elite commonly made). Now , as we all withdraw into our silos and where some even argue that whole communities should withdraw from the world in a kind of new monasticism, it is difficult to see  how we will ever come together to solve the really big problems which we can only solve collectively.

Still, there is some hope on the horizon. The sudden threat of the return of fascism in Europe – and indeed the very election of Donald Trump – has reinvigorated people who had grown complacent. Maybe democracy isn’t hard – it’s just lazy.

And that’s ten minutes.

Freedom

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Everywhere man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. So thought Jean Jacques Rousseau back before the French Revolution. One wonders what he might think now. Plus ça change… and all that, I guess.

Freedom is relative, of course. Very much a case of the chains half on or half off. In the West, we often talk about how free we are and, yet, whenever someone chooses to exercise that freedom, say by refusing to stand up when an anthem was played, we get all sorts of responses – such as the pastor who stated at a football game (to wild cheers) that anyone who refused to stand, should be shot.

That struck home since, on occasion, I’ve refused to stand for such ceremonies. I got some dirty looks – or, this being Canada, some sidelong glances – but no one pulled a gun on me. Of course, talk is one thing – it’s a free country isn’t it? – but action is quite another. “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?

Religious freedom is one area where people become particularly confused. They feel that their freedom has been limited if they aren’t allowed to impose their views and values on other people, aren’t allowed to be paid by the government but refuse to serve citizens if they don’t like the cut of their jib. It’s public service folks! If you want a cult-run state, move to North Korea.

Or they believe in freedom religion but only for their own. Daesh (ISIS if you like) is all for freedom of religion – you’re free to convert anytime you like. And if you don’t… well, you have no one to blame for yourself.

But, of course, freedom can take many forms. In some places, people have proposed right-to-work legislation – even imposed it – but what they really want to do is take away your freedom of association, or put it more bluntly, they want to outlaw unions. And why not? Employment they say is a matter of a contract between two people – a boss and a worker. It’s a bit like saying that anyone can get in the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world and expect a fair fight.

Still, we have the right to vote, right? Well, we do as long as someone is watching. But look away for even a moment, and someone will start to find ways to exclude some voters. Voter registration and identification is just a modern form of the Jim Crow laws that were designed to keep black Americans from voting or the Indian Act in Canada that denied indigenous people the vote into the 1960s. Even when we talk of wasted votes or design systems where votes don’t really matter, we find ways to limit political freedom – at least for some of us. The very wealthy can always buy whatever freedom they want and often do.

Still, not all is lost. In the West at least, what used to be solved by force of arms – war and revolution – is now achieved through voter revolts and populist movements. Not always pretty but less likely to enslave us. And if it does we can turn to another old time thinker who said, echoing Rousseau: Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.

And that’s ten minutes.

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.

Big Brother

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In 1948, George Orwell wrote one of the first dystopic SF novels. The horrors of Nazi Germany were evident and, slowly, the monstrous impact of Stalinism was becoming apparent. Orwell wrote 1984 as a cautionary tale of what totalitarianism might bring – even to supposedly safe places like England and America.

Nowadays, it might seem more like an instruction manual. We all know – and some are outraged – by the surveillance of the state of their own citizens. The omnipresent closed circuit televisions (CCTV) in England, where there is one camera for every eleven citizens is one symptom. The only people who seem to have benefited are the manufacturers of hoodies and Guy Fawkes masks. Edward Snowden revealed US spying on both their citizens and on their so-called allies. Relations between America and Germany became decidedly chill when it was claimed that Washington had tapped Andrea Merkel’s phone.

Right now, Apple is fighting with the FBI over the encryption of a single iPhone, that owned by mass murderer (and presumed terrorist), Sayed Farouk, who killed dozens in a California attack. The FBI says it needs the information to save lives; Apple argues that breaking encryption will put everyone’s privacy (and financial security) at risk.

Yet, our phones are already used against us. These days, Big Brother is sitting in our pockets. Apps on millions of electronic devices are streaming private information to China – to what end no one quite knows. Certainly, most of us willingly give up private information on Twitter and Facebook, and while many may grumble about targeted ads, we don’t stop engaging in the addiction that is social media. Some buy ad-blocker apps – but if you think they aren’t mining your activities for information, I’ve got a bridge in New York I’d like to sell you.

Social media fulfills yet another of Orwell’s predictions. With the death of evidence-based and fact-checked journalism – started by Fox News, but perfected by dozens of blogger based ‘news’ sites, social media has made sure that, for many people, Truth is Lies and War is Peace. Propaganda has become the new reality; simply listen to the current debates in the US presidential campaign and you know that some people have come to prefer the pleasing lie to the hard truth.

In Orwell’s day, a novelist could actually have an impact. His novels – both 1984 and Animal Farm – did wake people up to the dangers of totalitarianism in both its government and corporate form, though it hardly stopped millions of people from flocking to new charismatic leaders and causes.

Can anyone wake up America and Europe, where neo-fascist parties of both the right and left are gaining traction?

It won’t be a politician though it might be a philosopher. And angry shouts and shaking fists are not the alarm clock we need. Those are the weapons of the enemy.

If I seem despairing, I’m not. I have a lot of faith in people. I’ve seen communities embrace the better angels of their nature. I’d like to leave you with a nice aphorism – such as ‘do you think I’ve come this far to stop now,’ but it turns out that those who listen to aphorisms may be prone to totalitarian thoughts.

And that’s ten minutes.

No End in Sight

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I talk a lot these days about retiring. What I’m really talking about is moving from one occupation to another. Frankly I’m tired of working in a regular job – getting up every day to someone else’s schedule and trundling off to an office where my activities are constrained by those around me and the systems in place to manage the work.

I’ve never been keen on systems. I didn’t mind school but found plenty of ways to circumvent or at least ameliorate the rules. It was not a case of rebelling – I was a radical but not much of a revolutionary – but of co-opting them to my own interests. Being smart and working hard can buy you a lot of freedom. It helped that the high school I went to had 2000 students and my university only 1300. You could choose to be invisible if you liked – or you could stand out in ways that seemed to buy into the system while secretly subverting it.

Good times.

Real life was never so easy. Governments and corporations have had a lot of practice shackling their employees, locking us into the iron cage of bureaucracy. Small businesses – unless you happen to be the owner – are nothing but arbitrary fiefdoms where employees are treated like family – in the worst sense of the word – and expected to work like slaves.

Work – the curse of the drinking class.

But, having been smart enough and lucky enough to work in a place that offers a defined benefit pension plan (indexed to inflation) means that soon I will celebrate, not freedom 55 but freedom 61 or 62 (the timing remains uncertain). I will have an income free from any obligation.

It’s as if I was suddenly a member of the gentry in a Jane Austin novel!

But as they say a man with an income is soon in need of, well not a wife – I have one of those – but an occupation. Something useful – at least to them – to fill the hours until happy hour. Without it, happy hour may start to come at 10 in the morning.

But what to do? Fortunately I’ve been planning for these days for a very long time and have plenty that will fill my hours with interesting tasks while still leaving me free to pursue my real hobbies of traveling and sampling all the various foods and drinks the world has to offer.

I have my publishing company and my writing. I don’t see giving up the latter – ever – and as for the former, well, that depends upon other people, those who choose to buy or not buy the books I publish. But for now it continues to beckon me. After all, writing and publishing have their own benefits and not merely in terms of being engaged in a creative process but in being engaged with creative people.

That’s what keeps your mind young even as the rest of you ages into decrepitude. Even after my body stops moving my mind can journey to far shores.

I’ve seen the alternative and it isn’t pretty. Wasting away in body AND mind. No, I’d rather go out like Robertson Davies, starting a short story on the morning of my death at age 90.

But that’s ten minutes.