Senate Sunset

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In a few days I’ll be retiring from my job at the Senate of Canada. When I came to work as Senator Nick Sibbeston’s policy advisor some 15 and a half years ago, I never thought I’d stay so long. I’d originally accepted the job right after 9/11 because I wanted to get back into government work after an 11 year absence. I thought I’d stay with him for a couple of years before moving on to the public service. I almost went a couple of times – I came very close to getting a job with the Canadian Space Agency in 2011 but it was not to be.

In the end I stayed as long as I did because the work was interesting and the working conditions amenable. The pay wasn’t as much as I might have gotten elsewhere but it was certainly a living wage.

Having been there so long, I can attest to some of the substantial changes that have occurred in this 150 year old institution this century. When I arrived, the security guards at the Senate were required to salute Senators when they entered the building. My own boss thought this was hilarious but you could see that some of his colleagues lapped it up. In those days, about the only real rules about expenditures was ‘don’t exceed your budget’ and ‘don’t get caught spending money on your private concerns’. Even then a few Senators got into trouble and one even went to jail. Senate administration generally would question Senators’ staff but never Senators themselves. Only the Internal Economy Committee – made up of other Senators – could do that.

In that atmosphere, is it any surprise that a few people might go astray? But in reality it was very few and, generally, it was among those Senators, appointed for highly partisan reasons, with already questionable moral compasses that proved the most troublesome.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve been supportive of the move to make the Senate much less partisan. There have been bumps along the road and there are still rocky times ahead I’m sure. But one by one the bad apples are being gotten rid of or at least polished up. The rules under which Senators and their staff operate have been tightened considerably – a process that had actually begun years before the Duffy suspension, trial and eventual acquittal on all charges.

There are new rules regarding harassment that will make sure that the behavior of people like former Senator Don Meredith is nipped in the bud, long before it gets to the point of sleeping with teenagers. One hopes.

And lessons were learned from the experience with the Auditor General, too, though not necessarily what you might think. Bureaucrats and especially auditors (accountants who failed the personality test) have very little understanding what the job of politicians actually is. The biggest shame I ever saw in the Senate was when Romeo Dallaire resigned because some piddly-assed number cruncher decided working to eliminate the use of child soldiers was not public business. And before you say, yeah but they found a million dollars in inappropriate expenditures, I’ll mention that they spent $24M to do it.

And tomorrow I’ll tell you about some of the great things I got to do working at the Senate because that is a bit more than 10 minutes.

The first 200 days

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I wasn’t going to write about the POTUS today but I weakened…

There was a great meme going around just after Donald Trump’s election last fall. It showed a smirking Trump with a list of proposed accomplishments. They weren’t what he had promised in the campaign; they were, according to the headline, the list of things presidents do in their final year in office. At the time it seemed like wishful thinking on the part of disappointed Democrats but now it’s not so clear.

While Trump’s firing of Comey as head of the FBI was perfectly within his authority, asking him to stop investigating General Flynn certainly verges on obstruction of justice and perhaps even crosses the line. He must have known he was being naughty if, as reported, he asked other senior officials to leave the room while he had a private chat. Before you ask how often Democrats asked the FBI to stop investigating Clinton’s (giant yawn) e-mails, note the difference. The FBI director reports to the president. The president has the power to fire him. Make the link – it’s not that hard.

The revelation of classified information to the Russians was also within the president’s power since he can de-classify whatever he sees fit. Whether it was legal or appropriate, it certainly shows poor judgement. Many people already think Trump is in the back pocket of the Russian government and his behavior undoubtedly throws gasoline on that fire.

It almost seems like he is daring his Republican colleagues to impeach him – which, given his aggressive macho approach to life, might be exactly what he’s up to. He always enjoyed embarrassing and belittling those whom he viewed as competitors and this could just be another example of the “You’re fired!” mentality of the former realty TV show star. Wanting to be the biggest silverback in the cage may work in the locker room but it is hardly conducive to getting things done in Washington.

Or, maybe, the explanation lies deeper in the man’s psychology than we think. His wife has referred to him as a little boy and his former ghost writer has called him traumatized and his own worst enemy. It is possible that Trump really can’t control his impulses – which doesn’t bode well for global stability.

Or maybe it is as I’ve felt all along that the man is incompetent, maybe so incompetent he doesn’t even know how bad he’s doing. While he might have been able to cheat his fellow cheaters successfully, he could now be out of his depth. A man who is drowning will almost always start flailing madly and is likely to pull down anyone who tries to rescue him. Pity the poor advisor who tries to make an intervention. There may be a lot more departures from the Trump administration before the man himself departs the White House.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Man Who Would Be King

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During the years between the end of the American Revolution and the drafting and adoption of the constitution, there were lots of ideas of how the new country should govern itself. Some even suggested a monarchy and, while that idea didn’t gain much traction, it must have made the drafters a little nervous because they made sure that no President could ever assume the powers imbued in a King.

The constitution was deliberately designed to limit the power of the president by checking and balancing his powers and responsibilities with those of Congress and the Supreme Court. The President of the USA is not called the most powerful person in the world because of his unlimited authority but rather for the size of the American economy and the power of its armed forces and nuclear arsenal. In terms of getting his own way, a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament can exercise more raw authority.

The drafters must have gotten it right since the American Republic (a better description than democracy) has survived presidents who were drunks, thieves, liars, and buffoons. Although the union (more perfect but not actually perfect) teetered at times – especially during the years leading up to and following the Civil War, it never collapsed.

There are those who worry that things have changed in America and that the current President might – by intent or by accident – break the system once and for all. There are reasons to fear. Congress has become increasingly partisan and, due to gerrymandering, the advantage of incumbency and the role of big money, less sensitive to bad polls or even bad election results. The Republicans have gained a tremendous edge in winning more seats that their popular votes warrant and seem unlikely to turn against the president, even as his approval ratings fall.

The recent sacking of the head of the FBI, while certainly neither unconstitutional nor unprecedented, is a worrying sign. The absolute insouciance of the Republican leadership regarding the matter is even more worrying. Worst of all are the rumours that Trump is demanding oaths of loyalty – not to the Constitution but to him personally. That begins to sound more kinglike all the time – or at least, more like a tin pot dictator of a banana republic, since kings are largely passé.

But there is hope on the horizon. Some Republicans have rediscovered their principals while others have begun to grow worried about their jobs. The courts have been consistently rolling back the efforts of state governments to gerrymander congressional districts in favour of their own party, which, if it continues, will severely limit the ability of the Republicans – who have natural advantages in the Senate and Oval Office – to dominate the House of Representatives, which was always meant to be a close reflection of the popular vote.

The renewed activism of American citizens is also a good sign but whether it can be maintained for two or four years is always open to doubt. Democracy is hard and fighting for your rights is a tiring business. The Democratic Party needs to change, too – finding ways to make allies in the Republican Party rather than vilifying them at every turn. I remain, as ever, optimistic.

And that’s ten minutes.

Putting It Off

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They say that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Personally, I doubt I would be able to think anything if I knew they were going to put a noose around my neck – but that may just be me.

You would think that after 40 some years of working and having to meet deadlines, I’d be better at getting things started. Sadly, no. If they offered degrees in procrastination I’d almost certainly have a Ph.D – if I ever got around to applying for it. It’s not that I don’t work hard; it’s not even that I don’t want to work hard. I do. I enjoy work – whatever that work is – once I get stuck in.

But starting is always a challenge. Take today. I normally write my ten minutes when I first get up. But now it’s almost 10:30 and I’m just getting started. And I’m only doing it so I don’t have to begin the number one item on my list – which is to re-write the story my critique group commented on. Nearly two weeks ago.

I try every trick in the book – endless lists, arbitrary deadlines, self-loathing – but none of them seem to work. Maybe I should threaten to kill myself at the end of an unproductive day. Good night, Hayden. Good work. Most likely kill you in the morning.

It’s as if I thought that at my age, I really shouldn’t have to work anymore. Nonsense! As everyone on Facebook tells me, if you aren’t being continuously creative and productive, you’re not really living. Which makes me wonder why they spend so much time on Facebook telling me how to live my life.

Oh well, nothing to do but forge ahead. As soon as this is finished, polished and posted with any relevant links I can dream up, I’ll get right to those re-writes. It’s not that it will be so hard – I’ve already re-written the story six times in my head (mostly while lying in bed, urging myself to get up and start the day).

Of course, I’m a little grubby and need a shower – clearly you can’t work effectively if you don’t smell fresh and clean.

Okay, so I’ll admit it, I’m really only writing about procrastination so I can avoid the really tough ten minute diatribe I should be writing. If I was really determined I’d scrap this nonsense and do the really important work of making the world a better place.

Maybe tomorrow.

First I have to have a shower. Then my second cup of coffee (one can’t be brilliant on a single cup) and then maybe I should think about those edits again before I commit myself to electrons. Then, it will be lunch. But after that for sure.

Though I do have a date to go see Logan this afternoon. Oh, hell.

I guess there’s always later. Is it later now?

And that’s ten minutes.

Taking Offence

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I have a friend who used to say he didn’t take offence even if it was offered.

What the hell does he know? Everyone these days takes offence at pretty much everything someone else says or does and, what’s more, they demand that the offending person by sufficiently punished. Personally I’m offended – and soon you will be, too.

This morning a man is complaining because his anti-abortion flag was taken down by City Hall. He was offended at this insult – which occurred apparently because so many people were offended by the flag. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone demanded that people stop talking about Mother’s Day because he had recently lost his mother. And so it goes.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that the only use for Trump’s mouth was as Putin’s cock holster. This offended people on both the right and the left; the former thought it vulgar and an insult to the presidency while the later called it homophobic. Meanwhile, Colbert has apologized (sort of) even though he’s frequently said much worse things about better people. This has not stopped the demands for his firing nor diminished the ratings of his late night show.

Over in Ireland, Stephen Fry was under investigation for blasphemy over remarks he made about some generalized God. Never mind that he was addressing an age old theological problem as to why there is evil in the world. And don’t say free will – that might explain evil people but it hardly explains tsunamis or cancer in 4-year olds. The investigation was dropped when it was discovered there was only one complainant and he wasn’t really offended but thought others might be. How presumptuous! I’m offended that he appropriated other people’s offence for his own purposes.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation, which apparently now means observing, talking about, thinking of or imagining anything that is not directly taken from your own culture. This is not to diminish the real issues of colonialism and the silencing of the voice of the other – which may well be a factor in why some writers and artists do not get the attention they deserve – but to suggest that it is inappropriate to even imagine the other is a crime against… well, I’m not sure who. Some have even suggested that eating ethnic food might be inappropriate (and don’t get me started on the evils of tourism) which I’m sure would come as a big shock – and economic blow – to the Chinese family that sells me noodles.

This is not simply an issue of free speech as some have framed it but something much deeper and concerning. It is a form of cultural isolationism, an ahistorical approach that appeals equally to the xenophobic right and the identity-obsessed left.

But if we actually are one race – the human race – and live on one world, as environmentalists like to say, shouldn’t we all be learning from each other and using our imaginations to make the other us?

But maybe that’s just offensive.

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.

Making Stories

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Once, while doing a reading at an SF convention, I was asked: that’s a good story; did you download it from the Internet? Granted the questioner was slightly drunk and, one suspects, majorly stupid but still, the same question in other forms does arise. How do you come up with those crazy ideas? Or more politely, where do you get your story ideas?

The easy answer is: stories are everywhere.

Or you could respond facetiously as in: I buy them by the gross from Walmart. And now, with the rise of writing bots, one might actually say you downloaded them from the internet.

At a more recent reading, I tried to illustrate the multiple sources of story by reading bits of three and describing how they came about.

The first was Marion’s War which appeared last year in the anthology, Strangers Among Us. That story, about an elderly soldier suffering the effects of a war with aliens, arose directly from personal experience. I experienced mild PTSD after witnessing the murder of Cpl Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial in Ottawa – a story many of you have heard before. That inspired me to look into the issue of soldiers’ mental health and led directly to writing what I consider to be one of my best stories ever.

The second was called The Burdens We Bear, which appeared in another anthology, The Sum of Us, this year. This story came about through the tried and true method of brainstorming. I took a number of key words from the anthology’s guidelines and then tried to imagine connections between them, free associating images and situations until, out of a mass of connecting and overlapping circles, a character and a story appeared. Quite literally, it was a story out of thin air (as I like to describe the space between my ears.

Finally, I read from a new, as yet untitled, unfinished and unsold story. That one came out of the other main source of stories from me – experiences that others have and that I learn about by observing, interacting, reading or researching. I was recently in Puerto Escondido, Mexico and, while there, I spent a lot of time walking around, looking at things and listening to people. I had one conversation with a couple in their forties who described their kids’ interest in travelling around – experiencing things while remaining largely disengaged from the world. These twenty somethings travel from place to place, working for food and shelter and spending most of their spare cash on tattoos and piercings. I now had a setting and some characters and when I brought in a theme of running away from political engagement, I had a story.

Stories, for me, almost always come from observing, feeling, thinking and pondering what it is that I’ve seen or felt or thought that causes me problems. Then, in my effort to solve those problems, I turn to fiction, to story.

And that’s ten minutes.