Second Fiddle

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There are people who crave the limelight, who always have to be in the forefront, the leader of the pack. We’ve all seen them, pretending to listen to others while waiting their turn to dominate the conversation. Men are particularly noted for this behavior but I’ve known a few women with the exact same trait.

Some people are suited for leadership I’m sure—though not nearly as many who seem to think so. In fact, a lot of people (again mainly men) seem to think they are better than they are. But the sad truth is; they are seldom as good as they think they are.

Personally, having tried to move to the forefront in my youth, I long ago came to the conclusion I’d rather be the second fiddle. When offered the position on a board I’m more often to take the job of treasurer or secretary than president. The best job of all is vice-president because, really, you don’t have to do anything at all except hope that nothing bad happens to the president.

I have had the lead from time to time—I was a federal candidate twice, though I learned from that experience the candidate is often the least important person in the campaign. They pretty much do what the campaign manager or the party HQ tell them to do—mostly smile, shake hands and not stumble of the talking points.

I also was once the bureaucratic head of an arts education organization—which meant I had to run the thing on a day to day basis but never actually made any policy decisions. Though I gave a lot of advice. That, in fact, is what I’ve proven best at: giving advice, laying out options and then doing whatever the decision makers tell me to do. If you do it well, and I generally did, you can control a lot of the action without having to take much heat if things went wrong. No credit, of course, but you hardly need fame if they pay you well enough.

Maybe that’s why I preferred being a director to being an actor—a lot of control over the final product but it wasn’t my naked ass out there on the stage when the show didn’t go well. In a similar way, I sort of prefer being an editor to being an author—though in that case it’s not as definitive (I like telling my own stories). As an editor, I give a lot of advice and sometimes the writers take it and sometimes they don’t. In the end if the story or novel falls on its face it will be the author who takes the blame. Of course, if you help make it turn out brilliantly, all you can expect is a mention in the acknowledgements and maybe in the acceptance speech when they get the award.

Ultimately, all human endeavours are a team effort no matter what those at the top may think. As a friend of mine likes to say: the graveyards are full of indispensable people. While everyone—especially those who think of themselves as natural born leaders—would like to think they are like George Bailey and the world would be a worse place if they had never been born, the sad truth is that most of us would disappear without a trace and the world would go its way with hardly a ripple.

At least when you play second fiddle you don’t suffer from delusions of grandeur and that has to be worth something, right?

And that’s ten minutes.

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Where is thy sting now?

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I’ve been strangely preoccupied with death lately. This is not unusual—I am much closer to the day of my death than I am to that of my birth. Still, my health is good and I have plans enough that I hope the final day is still well off.

Death is all around us, of course. I am an orphan and I’ve lost several good friends over the years. Social media seldom lets a day go by without recording some loss or another whether it be a parent, a friend, a pet or some celebrity who has touched one of us in some way. Most of us have pictures on our walls or albums of those who are no longer with us.

Still, that hasn’t changed nor is it likely to change any time soon.

What has brought death to my mind lately is one particular death and the way it occurred.

A few weeks ago I heard that someone I once cared a lot about was scheduled to die on a certain Tuesday. No, they weren’t on death row in Texas; they were in a hospice bed in Halifax.

Jeanne was my second wife—we stopped being a couple nearly 30 years ago and haven’t had much contact for nearly 15. That was her choice but I can’t blame her for that. I was the one who left and while I still have feelings from those days, they are not tinged with sadness or hard-feelings.

Over the years, I know that Jeanne had made a good life for herself—filled with the love of her partner, her friends and her family and she had some real successes to look back on. When my mother was dying, she found it in her heart—no matter how she felt about me—to be kind to her and my brother.

Unfortunately, cancer came calling far too early and eventually her condition was declared terminal.

That’s when Jeanne did an incredibly brave thing. She chose to seek medical assistance in dying (MAID as it is called in Nova Scotia). She chose the time and place of her death. I don’t know what led her to that place—it could not have been easy, she loved life and had religious views that must have made the decision more difficult—but I am happy for her that she had that choice to make.

I’ve long been an advocate for assisted death for those who want it. I supported the legislative changes made last year—though I didn’t think they went far enough. That may yet come—it is a moving legal and moral landscape. However, it is one thing to support something intellectually but quite another to have it impact you directly even at a distance of many years and miles.

Now that it has, I have to tell you I am more supportive than ever. Jeanne died with great grace and strength and she died with her family beside her—saying good bye in the way we would all like to say good-bye, with full hearts.

And she died without pain and without the indignity that death tries to bring to us all at the end. Who wouldn’t want that?

I hope that when my time comes I can approach it with joy and courage the way Jeanne did. Then we can truly say: Death, where is thy sting?

And that’s 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.

Triggers

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I have a friend who has a colony of feral cats living close to his house – well, practically right outside his house. He feeds them – a bit – but mostly they are on their own. He lives in the country, well away from his neighbours and his property is also home to hawks, coyotes and weasels. Not surprisingly, the number of cats goes up and down over the course of the year, reaching their peak at about this time of year.

Most of the cats are pretty skittish. Most will accept food but won’t be touched. A few, especially the younger ones are a bit friendlier and will purr and accept pats. One black and white kitten was particularly cuddly. Was.

Recently a relative was visiting with his dog. The dog had had previous run-ins with the cats and had not come out well. This time he chose his target well. He killed the friendly kitten.

When my buddy told me about it, I was upset and angry. I told him I would have kicked hell out of the dog. At the very least that dog should have been muzzled. I’ve thought of that little kitten several times since then and it still upsets me.

So why did I tell you that? Some of you are probably as upset as I was. Some of you might now be upset, angry, grief-stricken, remembering when one of your pets died. Some of you probably feel I should have warned you.

I should have started off by saying: Trigger Warning – dead cat. But I didn’t. On purpose.

Being upset by life is part of the process of living. It also part of the process of finding your moral centre. Confronting events or ideas that upset you help define who you are. To some extent the desire to avoid them is understandable. I certainly turn away from racist or misogynistic remarks and from those who make them. But turning away does not make them go away.

Not that some people haven’t been badly traumatized and need help to get over their pain. Sometimes that means protecting them or letting them protect themselves from painful reminders. But sometimes they need to confront their pain and figuring out what it is about the world that you need to try to change.

A couple of years ago (has it really been that long?) I witnessed the shooting of Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial. It made it hard to go to work – to be anywhere near the memorial or even Parliament Hill. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I also had mild depression, compounded by anxiety. For the former, the treatment was straight forward enough. My doctor told me to go to the site of the shooting every day until I could define it as a safe place. I had to exercise agency to reclaim that place for myself. Avoiding it would have made my condition worse and made it last longer.

The depression and anxiety was another thing. Those I needed to work through rationally and slowly, identifying the things that made me feel that way and figuring out alternative narratives or possible actions that would resolve them. It was a real thing and it gave me insight into what people who have faced much worse go through. Sometimes alternative narratives are hard to find; actions hard to take.

Which is why we do need trigger warnings and safe places sometimes – but not to protect us from being upset or angry or sad. Being emotionally engaged – even painfully – is not the same thing as being traumatized. And treating them the same does nobody any good and may well do them harm. And using other people’s trauma to shut off discourse we don’t like is just plain wrong.

And useless. It will make no more difference to the world than wanting dogs to stop being dogs. And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

 

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.

Restless

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Sometimes I feel restless. It could be my father’s genes showing through. He spent 6 years a hobo, riding the rails in the dirty thirties, then more than two decades as a travelling salesman, away from home two weeks out of three. But on the other hand, he lived in that home for more than thirty years and was married to the same woman for longer still.

More than I can say for myself. I worked it out – since I first married at 19, I’ve lived in 8 towns and cities in six provinces and territories. During that span, I lived in 18 apartments or houses, moving on average every 28 months. I’ve been in my current place for nearly twice that. I’ve practically grown roots. Maybe I need to move.

I’ve switched jobs a lot, too, not to mention careers. I started out to be a chemist – got a degree and even a publication in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry – before switching to political science (2 degrees) and working at the municipal and territorial level, holding 4 different jobs in a little over 11 years. Over the next 11, I was a writer, actor, arts administrator, bartender and telemarketer. So much for 7 years at university. In 2002, I came to Ottawa and went to work for a Senator. I’ve been here ever since. Maybe I need a new job.

Although since I’ve also written a number of novels and bought a publishing company, maybe I already have one. Or two.

Maybe it’s the promise of spring that has been given us this week as the temperatures rise and the snow melts – except, for me, the season of change has always been the fall.

And yet, some mornings I wake up and want to get in a car and keep driving until I reach somewhere I’ve never been before. That’s problematic since I’d have to steal one. I may want to travel but I don’t want to be on the run from the law.

Maybe I feel I’m on the edge of something new but I’m not quite sure what it is or even when it will begin. I know I’ll be retiring soon – from my government job at least – but when exactly? Six months or sixteen? Maybe even 30 or more. Not in my hands – though I suppose it could be. I know what walking away feel like.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve got a book done but not released, two more half-edited but months away from seeing the light of day. A third even farther down the road – and more and more until I turn off that road, too.

What it reminds me of more than anything else is how I felt my last year in university. One thing was done; the next not yet started or even clearly defined. I could feel it in my twitching hands and in my restless feet. I could smell the new on the air but I couldn’t taste it yet or feel it.

But if I look over my shoulder, I see so much behind me, but if I look ahead all I see is fog.fog-1

And that’s ten minutes.