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.

Routine

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Routine can be a good thing. It can help you keep your day productive and your life on an even keel. Some people can barely function without a level of routine; taken to extremes it can become obsessive compulsive. Others abhor the quotidian; they seek constant stimulation in the novel. Any kind of routine seems to them like a prison – the most routine place in the world outside a monastery.

Society, of course, relies on routines. We all go to work at more or less the same time, take our lunch at noon and carry on the rest of our day in a more or less predictable way. Even the cowboys of capitalism – stock traders – live their lives according to opening and closing bells.

It’s easy to see how all this comes about. We divide the year in weeks and weeks into days and each day has its own characteristic. Blue Mondays and Thank God It’s Friday. The cycles of the year become institutionalized into the cycles of life – each season having its own rituals and regular activities.

It’s hard to imagine a life without any routines. One would have to eat one’s meals at different times every day. Since the purpose of breakfast is to break our fast after sleep – without routine, you would have to rise at a different time each day – sometimes at 5 a.m., sometimes at noon. Who could sustain such an irregular life?

Yet one could imagine it. Sleeping only when sleepy and rising when awake. Freed from the routine of sunrise and sunset – say aboard a deep space vessel – would the clock cease to mean anything? For some, it might, but, for others – those drawn to military roles for example – they might live their lives even more by bells and signals. Imagine the conflicts between anarchists and martinets in a crew on a five year mission. Yet – that conflict of strict routine and those who flout it has never, as far as I can tell, been much explored in science fiction. Crews rise together, eat together and work in shifts – continuing the cycles that were set for them by the diurnal character of their evolution.

All this is to say that, while I generally embrace routines – getting up at roughly the same time every day and eating much the same breakfast before sitting down, each day, to write these ten  minute essays, occasionally my mind rebels at the necessity of obeying self-imposed schedules. Every once in a while I demand a change in the routines of life.

Every once in a while I need a vacation from my life.

So, I hope you enjoyed this last little ramble because tomorrow I’m going to Cozumel and I’ll rise when I wish and sleep when I must and swim at a different time every day and walk on the beach – sometimes going left and sometimes right as whim takes me. And I’ll even try new foods and drink different drinks and talk to strangers.

Then I’ll come back and see if life has changed. Think of it as rehearsal for the next phase when I’ll answer to no one’s schedule but my own. Well, and Liz’s, of course.

And that’s ten minutes.

Spies!

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Do you remember the scene near the start of Casablanca, where a man is warning an elderly couple to be very careful because there are thieves everywhere? In the meantime he is slipping the gentleman’s wallet out of his jacket pocket. These days the warning would be that there are spies everywhere, told to you by people who are busily invading your privacy.

Of course, we are being spied on relentlessly – by corporations, by governments, both domestic and foreign and, most of all, by our friends and acquaintances.

Yesterday, the new Canadian government declared a moratorium on supplying communications meta-data to our allies because it illegally contained personal information about Canadian citizens – rather than simply visitors or perceived foreign threats. They won’t start up again until they are sure that the Canadian spy agency is obeying the law. Of course, in the United States, there would be no such problem because the law apparently lets – even encourages – the security apparatus spy on presumably innocent citizens. If you don’t believe me ask Edward Snowden.

Spying has a long tradition – it’s been going on ever since formal states were created. States have spied on their enemies and often on their own citizens. In communist China, grannies were the primary recruits, combining their natural inclination to gossip and judge their neighbours with a small state stipend.

Soon, everyone got in on the game, and spies were dispatched far and wide. If they were caught, their governments disavowed any knowledge of their actions – yes, just like in Mission Impossible. The Canadians who were just arrested in China were no more guilty of spying than the Chinese diplomats Canada expelled a couple of years ago.

And so it goes. Spying is big business. Most corporate security firms have branches that carry out industrial espionage. Knowledge is power and information – which may want to be free – is worth big bucks.

But of course, it is not only the big bad corporations and the security apparatus of out of control governments that engage in spying. Increasingly, we spy on each other. We even spy on ourselves. In the age of social media and cellphone cameras, everything gets recorded and then posted on-line for others to see. Take the guy in the Oregon occupation who thought it was a brilliant idea to film his fellow freedom fighters committing illegal – or just stupid – acts and post them on YouTube. Those clips will undoubtedly be very useful to the prosecutors.

For myself I have nothing to hide – well nothing I’m going to reveal here. I’ll probably continue to post pictures of my vacations and Christmas trees, my meals and my garden, for everyone to see. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? Wait a second, someone is banging on my door and yelling for me to come out with my hands up. It’s…

But that’s ten minutes.

Being Bundy

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If you google: Is Cliven Bundy related to…, Google will autocomplete with ‘Ted Bundy.’ Clearly enough people are doing it to set the algorithms atwitter. The answer, by the way, is no; ted Bundy assumed the name of his mother’s husband when he was twelve.

A better question might be: is he related to Al Bundy? It certainly seems plausible. Al spent most of his time not on the job but occupying the sofa of his living room while other people brought him snacks.

I suppose it is wrong to make fun of these folks – the endlessly procreative elder Bundy and his wayward sons who seem to have all the time in the world to takeover a wildlife refuge. Most of the ranchers I know – and I know a few in Alberta – are too busy working their land to take extended leave elsewhere. Half of them are lucky to get away for a couple of days to visit neighbours in the next town over.

But the Bundy’s seem to beg for ridicule. They asked to have snacks and socks sent to them through the mail – an institution of the federal government that goes back to the time of Ben Franklin. I doubt if they are capable of seeing the irony of it all. In fact, viewing the video a young Muslim woman made of the occupiers, they don’t come across as malicious or dangerous or even all that stupid. They come across as naive and confused, defensive and maybe a little bit uninformed.

They certainly don’t seem to understand that public land set aside as a refuge in the time Teddy Roosevelt already belongs to the people. Of course, they don’t mean the actual People writ large when they claim to be taking back land from the government for ‘the people.’ They mean them.

It is equally easy to laugh at Ammon Bundy’s claim to despise the federal government when he has benefited from numerous federally funded programs to support his ranching business. I suppose when they talk about using their own personal money they feel the same way about it that they do about the nature reserve. It’s all mine anyway. Federal grants are just my way of taking back money the government took from ‘the people’.

I get that – I feel the same way about arts grants.

And of course, the allegations of fake marine qualifications, fistfights over misappropriated money (apparently used for a booze up) and all the rest – really makes us wonder if this isn’t all a distraction to keep people thinking too deeply about the other things wrong in America. I get a feeling that one of Trump’s campaign officials is in Oregon for a reason. What it is one can only guess. When it comes to Trump – it’s all a mystery, my friends.

So the Bundy’s manage to drift in and out of our consciousness – pissing off progressives and birders (and there are more of those than belong to the NRA) but, in the end, who cares? Let them stay in those poorly insulated shelters. The winter is long – even in Oregon – and I’m sure that what doesn’t kill them will make them stronger. After all, many are cold but few are frozen.

And that’s ten minutes.