Gatekeepers

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The other day, a friend was critical of the arts granting process, objecting to the fact that writers had to have had 2 or more ‘professional’ publications to qualify for a grant, effectively excluding self-published writers no matter how successful they had been at selling their work. He went on to suggest that similar restrictions were not placed on musicians or dancers or painters.

The latter statement is simply not true. Except for occasional special programs to encourage new artists, (Canada Council used to have a category called Explorations grants – I applied unsuccessfully several times when I was starting out), all grants require that artists demonstrate they are professionals or on their way to becoming one. The wording differs but essentially it says you must be making an effort to make art a significant part of your work and livelihood. One of the ways you have historically done that is through professional publications (or performances in a professional venue or showings in a professional gallery).

But, of course, the world is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or, if you prefer, indie publishing. Some of them are quite good. And granting agencies and professional organizations are responding. For example SFWA – the organization representing professional science fiction and fantasy writers – recently changed their membership requirements to include indie publishers, provided they had made an income from their writing equivalent to the minimum advance required for traditional published writers (roughly $3000USD in a single year). In this case they are using the marketplace to establish your professional standards. Given how few indie authors make that, it still represents a significant barrier and keeps the organization ‘professional’ in its mandate.

The Canada Council of the Arts studied ways that it can be more relevant and helpful in the digital age. It is doubtful they will base their qualifications on income but nonetheless they are looking for ways to include professional artists who have been previously excluded. I strongly suggest those interested to provide input in the still on-going consultation process.

But why have qualifications at all? Why not let anyone who claims to be an artist apply and let the chips and grant dollars fall where they may?

Two reasons come to mind. First most professional artists served an apprenticeship, years or sometimes even decades working on their craft – getting rejected and then accepted, taking courses and workshops and finally winning acceptance from the larger community. A lot of them – myself included – resent the fact that all that might have been pointless. We could have just slapped together a document on our first try and then with the click of mouse published it on Amazon. We take some comfort that most of those books don’t get read but take even more in the idea that they aren’t viewed as professional.

For grant agencies there are practical concerns. They already can’t fund all the proposals that do get through the qualification process. Dropping those requirements would lead to flood of applications – almost all of which wouldn’t and, in fact, shouldn’t be funded. The purpose of government grants is to fund people to become self-supporting artists not to support their hobbies or whims. Sorry. And, on top of that, the only way they could judge the quality of someone’s work – without the screening of professional gatekeepers – would be to actually read the self-published books themselves.

Not only would the workload overwhelm the lightly-paid juries, it would probably burn the eyes out of their heads. Because while some self-published work is very good, the vast majority is unreadable drek. Trust me – having read some of the things at the bottom of my own slush pile, I know. Oh, god, how I know.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

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TGIF

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Who among us, after a hard week at work, has not bellowed (or at least muttered): TGIF? Depending on your point of view, the G stands for either God or Goodness and we are thankful the weekend has arrived. Unless of course you are in the service industry in which case you have long hours and rowdy customers to contend with (and the faint hope of decent tips).

In any case, neither God nor Goodness has anything to do with having two days a week to ourselves. While the Bible (and other religious texts) calls for a day of rest, this was generally interpreted as a day spent in service to the church. Certainly, serfs in the middle ages didn’t sit around watching sports and drinking beer (although it was a fairly common breakfast food). When their work for their feudal Lord was done, they spent most of Sunday working in church fields for their heavenly one.

As for goodness, the owners of the means of production have never been driven solely (or at all) by altruism. These are the people who brought us sweat shops and child labour.

Few societies have valued leisure time as much as our own. Sure the Romans were notorious for their frequent holy days and mass celebrations – but their economy was run by slaves, who only got a break for one day a year when during Saturnalia,  they got to give the orders. Though, of course, they were careful not to go to excess. After all, it was back to the yoke the very next day.

The weekend, like almost everything we value in modern society, was gained for us by the struggle of working people, almost always organized into collectives called unions. A quick perusal of the newspapers of the nineteenth century and you will see endless diatribes about the evils of workers’ organizations. By God, they were teaching factory workers how to read! What next, the vote?!

Days off, shorter working hours, coffee breaks, unemployment benefits, health care (no matter how mediocre), pensions and disability insurance – all of these were wrested from society (that is, the rich) by the collective actions of workers and their allies in the intellectual class and the more progressive churches. Yeah, social gospel used to be a thing before most churches lost their way and became more concerned with limiting human rights than expanding them.

Nowadays, people like to say that unions are a relic of a by-gone era – even though they haven’t been around as long as capitalism or consumerism – and have outlived their usefulness. We should get rid of them or break their power. But every American state who has followed that route has sunk into a quagmire of lower employment, greater poverty and more rich people filling their pockets at the taxpayers’ expense (cause you know the first thing on a billionaire’s list of things to do is: avoid taxes).

So as you kick back and enjoy your weekend, maybe you should spend a moment thanking your grandfather and mother for the struggles they went through on your behalf. And maybe take a look at your own workplace and wonder if a little collective action wouldn’t do some good.

But that’s ten minutes.

Faith, Hope and Love

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One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Boy from the Woods.” It’s not particularly religious (God is mentioned but Jesus isn’t) but it is moral and describes the exact kind of life that a secular humanist strives to live. It is based on those traditional values of faith, hope and love.

Faith, of course, means something quite different to an atheist than it does to someone who is religious. I don’t place my faith in a higher power; I undertake something much more difficult, I put my faith in my fellow man. I honestly believe (for those of you who wonder what atheists believe) that people are capable of great good. This, despite the evidence that they are also capable of great evil, is what sustains me and makes it possible for me to get up and face the day. It is clear to me that given the chance, most people will choose to do the right thing rather than the wrong one – not because of promise of reward or fear of punishment – but because it is part of fundamental nature to be altruistic. This is not blind selflessness. Rather it is something evolution has created as an advantage for creatures who cannot survive alone, outside of social situations. You may point out the occasional loner or hermit but I can tell you they would never have gotten out of their crib if not for the multi-year support of a social construct.

So faith is an important part of my daily life – but no gods are required. Simply civilization and human progress – something we continue to make despite the best efforts of certain politicians and religious leaders to prevent it.

Hope is essential to our on-going existence. This becomes increasingly clear to me as I grow older. It seems that not a day goes by without some further bad news – not the kind that is broadcast on the TV but the personal kind, of friends who have sickened or died, relatives who have fallen on hard times, businesses that have failed. Life is filled with bad news and bad news has a way of impacting and weighing on you in ways that good news doesn’t seem to do. Hope is what we use to shed those burdens – hope that tomorrow will be a better day. That a friend will recover or at least hold on long enough so you can be together one more time – or ten. Hope is the thing that makes us look at children and think – maybe they can solve the problems we failed to get around to (or created). Sometimes it is hard to be optimistic – the glass seems to be draining fast – but what other choice do we have? The future is unknowable but I suspect that our attitude towards it will help shape it.

And finally there is love. It does triumph over fear and hate. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. A little hug at the right moment is restorative. Putting your hand in your pocket to feed someone who is hungry may restore their faith and hope. And faith and hope doubled can’t be a bad thing, right?

Faith, hope and love. You know you have it in you. Just look at your moral compass and it will show you the way.

And that’s ten minutes.

Reunions

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It’s been a good week for reunions. I’m up in Yellowknife, a place I lived for seven years and where I frequently go as part of my job as policy advisor to the Senator to the NWT. It’s not surprising that I would regularly run into people I know. But this week was special. The new government in the consensus system was being selected so there were a lot of people from all over the NWT in town for that. Others were attending a major conference on Aboriginal Wellness and there was the usual flux of people out and about simply because it is dark and cold and Christmas and staying inside seems a bit like hibernating.

As a result I saw people I hadn’t seen in years – including one former colleague who I lost track of when I left in 1991. He spotted me in the gallery of the legislature and was kind enough to come over and say hello – taking time out from the drama of finding out if his son was going to become Premier. He didn’t though he is in Cabinet. At lunch yesterday, I had not one but two former Premiers of the NWT stop by my table to wish me the best of the season. I’m sure that other people were staring at me, wondering who the hell I was. Reflected glory is still glorious.

Not all reunions take place in person. I recently reconnected with a friend on Facebook who I hadn’t seen in 20 years. This was an acting friend rather than a political one; we did a few shows together in the early nineties. You can read about one of them here. In any case, we have now reconnected on Facebook and I drew his attention to a photo from the night we won the one-act play festival in Calgary. Before long, almost every other member of the cast had weighed in and we had a fun time remembering the night and some of the antics we got up to in celebrating the win. It was a virtual reunion but one that almost prompted me to propose a reunion tour of the play – though I suspect adding twenty years or so to the characters in that story would make for quite a different play. Still, it was fun to all get together once more and remember when we were young. Well, some of the crew is still relatively young – you know, in their forties – but we are all still more mature. Well, I’m sure they are.

This weekend – once I’m back in Ontario – I’ll travel down to Burlington to reunite with family I don’t see often enough and then it will be time for all the Christmas and New Year get-togethers. It is the season I guess for remembering old friends and, whenever possible, touching base even if you can’t actually touch hands over the miles.

I hope all your reunions are going so well.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Being Social

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Today is the day of our Christmas open house – one of the three or four big social events we organize each year. The others are mainly publisher’s parties at science fiction conventions, so this is the one where we welcome people into our own space. As you can imagine we’ve spent most of the last few days, cleaning, shopping, cooking and decorating to welcome the 40 or so people we expect to show up today.

It’s not always easy being social. While my wife, Liz, would likely have people over every other day, I find I have my limits. By the time Christmas and New Year’s is over, I’ll probably be happy not to see another soul – outside work requirements – for at least three weeks. I need some time away to recharge my batteries. Don’t get me wrong – I like people and being alone for too long doesn’t make me happy but I do need my breaks and alone time.

Others struggle a lot more than I do. Because many of my friends are writers or otherwise involved in the ‘geek’ community as we affectionately and proudly call ourselves, I know my fair share of introverts, for whom big social gatherings can be a chore. I’m always pleased and a little honoured to see them show up at my place. I must be doing something right.

I think it is important to remember – especially if you are the gregarious sort – that while it is in our nature as primates to be social and to want others around us, we all have our definition of what social means and we all have our limits as to how to express it.

I remember when I was a graduate student and would go to any event with a buffet. I was standing up in a balcony overlooking a crowd and watched as students from cultures where personal space was narrower than it was for most Canadians try to interact with their hosts. While engaged in conversation, they would move closer and the Canadian they were talking to would step back. Closer, back, closer, back as they wove an intricate dance pattern around the room.

It’s important to think of those kinds of differences when asking people to be social. You need to let them define the nature of their interaction. After all the purpose of a social event is not to change people, it is for them to have fun. And fun can only be held when people are comfortable.

So if you are hosting an event this year, make sure you have some spaces for people to retreat to so they can have a moment alone or with just a friend or two. Make sure everyone gets the experience you would want for yourself – comfort and joy, happiness and convivial surroundings. Parties aren’t sporting events, where you have to win and impose your idea of fun on others. They are places to let people know you care for them and want them to be around you.

And that’s ten minutes.

Migrants

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My father always told me Canada was a nation of immigrants. Our own family had come from England in the late 1700s. But we were hardly the first; the Acadians were there (we took their land) and before them, the First Peoples of Canada who themselves had come in successive waves across the Bering Strait.

Perhaps it was because he had lived the migrant experience himself. He had fled the climate catastrophe of the Dust Bowl to go down to the USA where he lived and worked as an undocumented immigrant for several years. He didn’t use social services – there weren’t any in those days other than a few church soup kitchens and municipal relief rolls – but worked wherever he could to survive.

He swung a shovel at Boulder Dam, worked on a variety of farms and as a fruit picker; he bussed dishes in New York and worked as an orderly in a mental hospital in Boston. He contributed and, maybe, in some small way, helped America work its way out of depression. Sound at all familiar?

Canada has long been open to immigrants. Waves of them came to Canada to open up the West before WWI. There was a dark period when we placed a ‘head tax‘ on Chinese, turned away Indians fleeing poverty and war in their own country and Jews fleeing persecution and genocide in Europe. But we redeemed ourselves in the post war years as we took people from all over the world – fleeing poverty, oppression, war, climate disaster or merely seeking a better life. After the Vietnam War we welcomed tens of thousands of ‘boat people’ to our shores.

Almost every one of these immigrants came and contributed to our country – making us strong economically and socially and creating the diverse, multicultural, and free democracy we all love so much.

Now the world is faced with another refuge crisis. Fleeing a situation, partly, if not entirely, caused by a century of western intervention and the endless quest for oil, Iraqis and Syrians are looking to Europe and North America to protect them from war and social disaster. More war is unlikely to solve this; western intervention of any kind is almost futile and to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results is clearly a sign of madness.

The issue now, as brought home by the image of a dead toddler on a beach – a dead toddler whose family wanted to come to Canada – is a simple humanitarian one. People are dying, people are starving, people are fleeing, people are looking for a place where they can work and live in safety.

We can’t take them all – but we need to take a lot more than we currently are and we need a Minister who understands that and doesn’t simply repeat the lines given him – and then lie about doing so. (And congratulations to him for suspending his election campaign to work on it)

And we need a better solution to what is happening in the Middle East than simply dropping more bombs.

And that’s ten minutes.

Teams

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Everyone talks about the values of teamwork but they seldom mean it. Most people who extol teams as a great thing are people who expect to be in charge. What they mean by a team is unquestioning loyalty to the orders from on high. What they don’t mean is a collaboration of equals where the strengths of one member balance out the weaknesses of another.

True collaboration has been shown over and over to result in better outcomes than people working alone or simply following orders. Abraham Lincoln understood that. While he was the President and was tasked with the final decision, he drew together advisors who did not see eye-to-eye. He would encourage debate so all sides of a problem could be explored. He also waited until some sort of consensus was formed – or at least a majority opinion – before stating his own views. He didn’t always go with that decision but he understood the consequences of deviating from it.

A team leader should always be the last to speak and when she does her words should reflect the voices of all the other members. He should seek out common ground rather than simply listening to the loudest and most aggressive. I’ve often worked in teams – sometimes as the ‘boss,’ sometimes as a mere foot soldier. Most times the results were better than anything I could have devised by myself.

But it is not often easy even if it is actually natural. Humans tend to be collaborative and to work well in groups; it was pretty much essential to our evolutionary survival. One of the failures of the Enlightenment was to put individual reason and individualism at the top of the human hierarchy. Many enlightenment thinkers believed that collaboration and collective problem solving was a primitive expression of human potential. Progress depended on individuals seeking their own self-interest and negotiating (not collaborating) with others to get it.

The first thing you have to overcome when trying to forge an effective team is the sense that discussion is a competitive sport, that it is better to win than be right. Team members have to learn to listen to each other and they have to be willing to abandon – at some point – their own views in favour of a better solution. This does not mean meekly following the most confident or even the brightest person in the room. Everyone must have something to contribute and feel empowered to offer it.

This was all brought home once again recently when I tried with four relative strangers to work my way, our way, out of locked room at Escape Manor. We failed – mostly because we didn’t truly act as a team. We simply forged ahead, each approaching the task from an individual perspective and spending too much time arguing over approaches instead of working together to find the most effective one.

There’s a lesson to be learned here for everyone. Maybe if Stephen Harper gets re-elected we should chip in and send the PMO to try to escape from locked rooms. If they succeed, they will probably provide better government; if they fail, we might all be better off.

And that’s ten minutes.