A Council Christmas Carol – part 1

STAVE ONE.

Winter driving

It was one of those long winter days. I was back in town late, that Thursday, well after dark, driving down the main street watching the heavy snow cover the road and sidewalks. I’d been out of town almost the whole day, entombed in various meetings. Too much time spent driving to and fro, too much coffee, junk food, and not enough exercise. I was tired, hungry, cranky and not at all in the holiday season spirit. All I wanted to do was get home and get into bed.

But first I had to pick up the agenda from town hall. The weather over the next few days was going to be rough and I didn’t want to venture out again until the storm cleared up. I pulled into a parking space nearby and got out. Stumbling over the snowbank, I walked through ankle-deep snow to the entrance. Humbug to the snow, humbug to the cold, humbug to the decorations that graced the downtown. I flashed my key card and opened the locked door.

Damn, it was dark inside. I opened the doorway to the stairwell and flicked the switch. Nothing. Power must have gone out. Well, there were still streetlights on, so it wasn’t pitch black. Except in the stairwell, of course. Nothing I could do about it. I knew the lay of the building well enough that I could feel my way upstairs and to the council room with no problem, if I was careful and slow. I stumbled a bit, but soon reached the second floor and was pawing through the piles of paper in my mail box.

The agenda was there, and it felt to be about 200 pages thick. I groaned. That defined what I’d be doing all weekend: reading and making my notes for Monday’s council meeting. That and shovelling my driveway.

In the feeble light from the street, I could barely make out a the dense type on the front page of the agenda. It promised to be a long meeting. They’d been getting that way, of late. The thick brown envelope under the agenda told me a lengthy in-camera meeting would follow. I sighed and gathered up the paperwork.

I was just about to leave and work my way back downstairs when I heard an odd sound. Metal on metal, a dull but substantial clinking, followed by a dragging sound. What the hell? There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in the building at this time of night, aside from the odd councillor coming to check his mail box. Intruder? I patted my pocket and realized I had left my Blackberry in the car. Couldn’t even call the police. I quietly slipped into the hall, listening to hear the sound again.

Clank, clank. There it was, coming, it seemed, from the council chamber. Something being dragged across the carpet. That puzzled me. There’s nothing valuable in there, not even a mayor’s gavel. Maybe a bottle of well-past-its-best-before-date hot sauce in my drawer, hardly worth breaking and entering for. We all take our computers home – what’s there to steal? I decided to confront whoever it was.

Clank, sssscrape…. clank…. sssscrape… clank….

Now I’m not a superstitious guy, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at that sound. It was just too weird. An odd, eerie sound that brought goosebumps.Like someone was dragging heavy chains across the chamber. Or maybe the special effects sounds from a George Romero movie. And then I heard the moan, a low, rasping sound, forced through the tortured lungs of something not quite human. My thoughts turned rapidly from fight to flight.

The Ghost of VOTEBut it was too late. To my shock and horror a luminous shape oozed into the hallway, right through the closed door, barely two meters from where I stood. I dropped my jaw and my bundles of papers as I stood, transfixed. A ghost! I had actually encountered a ghost! Man, did I have a lot of apologizing to do to those psychics I had humiliated in so many blog posts.

The figure coalesced slowly into a ragged spectre of a man, manacled hand and foot and dragging what seemed to be metres of heavy chain. But since I could see through him, I suspected those chains weren’t heavy in my world, just in his spiritual plane.

He was short. Not very imposing for a denizen of the spirit world, and he was wearing a white turtle-neck sweater under a faded blue sports jacket that sported a prominent lapel button with the words, “Harper: 2008” written on it.

Coun…sssssilorrrrrrrrrrrrr…. Chadwickkkkk…..,” the apparition hissed as he pointed a scrawny hand at my chest.

“Wh… wh… wh….” I stammered, struggling to remember those meditation exercises about deep breathing. Wasn’t working very well. Must have missed a lesson. I gulped some air and tried to calm down under the chilling influence of his death-cold eyes. “What do you want from me?”

Muchhhhhhhhhhh!” It was a vaguely familiar voice, no doubt about it. Even the face was almost, but not quite recognizable. Was this the spirit of someone I knew? Or was I imagining the likeness to someone living? It was hard to tell, with all that glow-in-the-dark makeup.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Assssk me who I wassss…ssss….sss.”

“What?”

Assssk me who I wassss!

“Uh, look, I’m sorry, but it’s hard to understand you. I think it’s the reverb in your voice. Can you tone it down a bit? Otherwise we’ll be here all night, you saying something, me saying what, you repeating yourself.”

“Ask me who I was. Is that better?”

“Yeah, thanks. You’re a bit odd, for a shade, you know. I expected someone… taller. Okay, I’ll bite. Who were you?” I raised my voice, feeling a little more confidence.

“In life, I was your conscience, Councillor Chadwick. These days I am the ghossssst of… councilssss passsst….” the spirit said.

“There’s that reverb thing again. I’m losing you.”

“Sorry. It’s part of the package. Can you hear me now?”

“Perfectly. Look, I don’t think my conscience has died.I clearly recall using it recently in a vote over a casino.”

“Gaming facility,” the spirit corrected. “Slot barn. Hardly a casino.”

“Whatever. Look, I’m pretty sure I still have mine and even if it’s buried deep in this black heart of a politician, It wouldn’t leave me without a significant bribe, and to date I haven’t managed to get as much as a cup of coffee from a developer. So who are you really?”

“I am the ghost of many who kept our councils on the straight and narrow. We held you accountable, we held your feet to the political fire. We made public your sins. We could have been your salvation, had you heeded us.”

“Ah, a ratepayer’s group. You mean VOTE, don’t you? Humbug. Weren’t you simply a special interest group created to get a slate of politicians elected to council one year?”

“That, too,” the spirit admitted with a small shrug, then raised a crooked finger towards the ceiling. “But we served a loftier purpose as well. Good governansssssssss… was our true mandate”

“Let’s agree to disagree on that point. Okay, so spirits walk the earth. Why come to me?”

“It is required of every politician,” the Ghost returned, waving his chained arms over his head and rattling them, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to due process!”

“I think you’ve got the wrong politician. I’m on municipal council. I don’t have the expense account to travel far and wide. Ottawa is as far as I’ve ever gone. I think you want our Member of Parliament. MPs get to go to China and India. They buy fighter jets.  We buy buses. Let me give you her address.” I patted my pocket for my missing Blackberry.

Again the spectre raised a cry; it shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

“Okay, okay. Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, still trembling a bit at that soul-searing sound. “Listen, what’s with the chains?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?

“Well, it kind of looks like the mayor’s chain of office, if you bought it in the dollar store that is. But every link has the letters O, A and T on  it. Some sort of cereal?”

[pullquote]Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain![/pullquote]“They stand for Openness, Accountability and Transparency” replied the Ghost. “Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!”

“Ponderous. I like that word. reminds me of a public planning meeting. So you were you a politician in your past life. From a former council, perhaps? Did you ever donate $100 to cover a ratepayer’s group’s legal bills when they were suing the town? Or maybe you were a real estate agent? They’re always caught up in conflict of interest and haunting the halls while council debates a land sale. ”

“I have at sat the table,” the Ghost replied. “I have served the public interest, but served my own agendas as well. And for that, I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. Weary journeys lie before me!”

I put my hands in my pants pockets as I pondered what the ghost had said. “You must have been very clumsy about it,” I observed,” Sounds like you got caught with your hands in the cookie jar. Or maybe the voters realized who you were and chucked you out of office. Pursing personal agendas too aggressively will do that.”

At that, the spirit cried in anguish and rattled his chains so loudly it made me step back. “You’re not making me feel good about this meeting, spirit. Haven’t you got anything positive to say?”

“I have none,” the Ghost replied, shaking his head. “I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere.”

“Ex-politicians have that effect on people,” I answered. The spirit nodded glumly.

“Well, you certainly took your time about it. Haunting town hall, I mean,” I observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference, in case the spirit had something more than just noisy lamentations for me.

“Took me time!” the Ghost repeated with an edge to his voice.

“Well face, it. VOTE imploded four or five years ago,” I responded. “Pretty much everyone left; just a half-dozen of diehards stuck it out to the bitter end. I don’t think anyone around here even remembers them by name these days. A few of us recall the police investigation, of course. Gets a chuckle when you’re swapping stories at the AMO conference.”

“The whole time since,” said the Ghost. “I have had no rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.”

“I get that remorse thing if you’re talking about last term,” I said. “But it must have been pretty quiet this term. We’re behaving well at council.”

“You wish,” replied the Ghost. “Why do you think I’m here in the dead of winter? I could be haunting someone in Florida, you know.”

“Come on,” I said. “You can’t have that many issues to raise with us. We’ve been sticking pretty close to the procedural bylaw. Hardly an in-camera meeting worth mentioning. Oath of office is still shiny and nary a spot of tarnish on it. Not like last term. Not a single incident of spying on council emails has raised its head.”

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the bylaw officers, should they have been present, would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

[pullquote]Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed! You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread[/pullquote]“Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of your kind is developed. Not to know that any councillor working in your own little sphere will find your mortal life too short for your vast avarice. No space of regret can make amends for one life’s dedicated to self-interest!”

“You remind me of someone who set council’s gold standard for personal agendas.” I said. “Can you imagine putting political junk mail from your party of choice on the consent agenda? Gotta be a low, even for a politician. Immoral creatures that we are.”

“Personal agenda!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my agenda. The common welfare was my agenda; I lived only to educate the masses in the higher meaning of wholesome ideologies.”

“Uh, yeah. I read the party platform. It came in the mail. Went right into the blue bin. Sorry.”

The spirit held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“I will,” I said. “But get to the point! Don’t be so flowery!”

“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell,” the spirit said with a slow sigh. “I have sat invisible beside you, beside all of council, during many and many a meeting.”

It was not an agreeable idea. I shivered, thinking of those dead eyes peering at my laptop screen while a meeting progressed. At least I wasn’t caught playing solitaire during a council meeting. “Even the in camera stuff?”

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A slim chance.”

“Ever wonder how a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing?” I asked.

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by three spirits.”

“Come on! What sort of chance is that? I need to get home and get dinner. Besides I don’t want to miss tonight’s episode of Downton Abby. Can’t it wait until next weekend?

“No way, José. This weekend it is. Time of the year for epiphanies, and all that.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” I picked up the papers from the hall floor and tucked them under my arm. “There are eight others at the table, surely one of them isn’t planning anything tonight. What about the DM? He deserves a good haunting, don’t you think?”

“Without their visits,” continued the Ghost, ignoring my protests, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls one.”

“The bell tolls? Where do you get this script? Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and get it over with?”

“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate.”

“I have a digital clock. It doesn’t vibrate. Unless you mean my Blackberry. Look, that’s three late nights. I’m not a spring chicken any more. If I don’t get my full eight hours of shut-eye and I’m cranky for the rest of the day. These friends of yours won’t like me if I’m cranky.”

“Look to see me no more,” the Ghost answered. “For your own sake, remember what has passed between us!”

“Like I could forget a memorable evening like this.”

“You think the public will re-elect a smart-ass? Keep it up and I’ll write nasty things about you on my blog.”

When it had said these words, the spectre walked backward from me; and at every step it took, the door to the council chamber opened itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned me to approach, which I did. When we were within two paces of each other, the Ghost held up its hand, warning me to come no nearer.

I stopped. Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of that hand, I heard a babble of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated into the dark Chamber.

I followed to the door, desperate in my curiosity, and looked in.

The air around the room was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like the Ghost who had spoken with me; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Some I personally recognized as former mayors and councillors; others I knew only by their photographs that line the hall near the mayor’s office. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good or worse, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

I knew that feeling. I had served on  council long enough to know what impotence meant, in a metaphorical sense anyway. Was this my fate? To forever haunt the council chambers quoting lines from the Municipal Act? I left the door, hurried down the stairs, and out of doors, not caring if I tripped in the dark. I really needed to get home. And get a stiff drink once I arrived.

To be continued…

Work and time slip by unnoticed

Red Queen's RaceYou’d think being semi-retired (or as I call it, creatively unemployed) would give me more time to do the things I like to do, more time to be creative.

Nah. Things seem to intervene to prevent a focused approach on creativity these days. Not to mention that my Rogers internet crashed for a couple of days because their servers couldn’t keep my IP constant, so I was cast adrift from my virtual life and back into the depths of the printed work – poking through the mini-library upstairs.

Most of yesterday was spent cleaning and reloading files after my blueagaveforum.com site got hacked. Two hours wasted on the phone trying to get some advice from Norton tech service, which ended up with one of their techies resetting my browser setup, which required another 30-45 minutes of tinkering to get it working as I had before. Meanwhile I was searching through hundreds of PHP files for the source of the malicious code. At the end of the day I was back to where I had been last week.

The Red Queen’s Race: you run as fast as you can in order to stay in the same place.

On the plus side, I get to listen to a lot more CBC Radio during the day. That’s good and bad. Bad because I get distracted by some of CBC’s superb content and turn my attention to the radio and away from my writing. Some days I just have to shut it off to get anything done, although I try to hear at least the hourly news. Good because CBC always expands my horizons and often challenges my intellect (one day I’ll have to blog on how CBC is the acausal connecting principle that binds Canada, a bit like Jung’s synchronicity).

I should – or could, if I focused – be doing serious things like posting on my blog. Work on my next book for Municipal World. Working on my novel. Updating my websites. Researching, reading, walking the dog. Exercising. Practicing the ukulele. Working on my photography. Grooming the dog. Practicing the bass. Okay, painting the hallway, too.

Instead, time seems to get fragmented and I end up doing a bit of this, a bit of that, rather than doing any one thing. I sometimes start blog pieces or articles based on good ideas, but they slide away unfinished when I turn my attention to something else.

Yes, I managed to write three books this past year (and get two published, the third still waiting), and have a fourth started, as well as 30,000 words into a novel. But I’ve slowed down quite a bit since

Wasting timeAt least I haven’t fallen into the trap of TV watching. I don’t play many computer games these days, either, and usually only in a desultory manner (computer games don’t seem to engage me like they did a while back, although I play a few rather lackluster games of Go and chess on the iPad now and then). Nor have I sunk to doodling, filling in crossword and sudoku puzzles or taking afternoon naps. Yet.

Maybe I need to schedule my time better. Set aside blocks to exercise, to write, to read… But then I get distracted by writing something pointless like this… *sigh*… back to work…

Digital Connections is in print

My new bookMunicipal World has released my newest book: Digital Connections. It came out this week.

This book is about the benefits and challenges of using social media for municipalities and municipal politicians. The target audience is politicians, staff, boards and committees, but a lot of what I wrote can apply to anyone in business or industry.

The sell sheet says:

Social media: everyone’s using it today. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, blogs, and photo/video sharing sites. These and other services have literally hundreds of millions of users. But what does it mean for your municipality? Or for you as a municipal politician?
Is it a potentially huge audience for marketing, business attraction, staff recruitment and even votes? Or is it all hype?
What services should you use? What are the rewards and what are the risks? How do you measure success and failure in social media? How do you measure activity and response rates? Who owns and controls usernames and passwords? How do staff update and monitor your municipal pages in social media?
Social media is both a boon and a minefield for municipalities. For newcomers, this book is a practical guide about where to start. For municipalities already using social media, it offers thought-provoking issues: liability, staff access, compensation, security and crafting social media policies.

I am currently working on my next book for Municipal World, about e-government and the impact of technology on municipal governance and politics, due out in December.

My other book, The Municipal Machiavelli, has been finished, but has not got a publisher yet. Personally, I think it’s the best book I’ve ever written.

54,232 words… and it’s done

The Municipal MachiavelliI passed 54,000 words yesterday in my book on Machiavelli for municipal politicians. A little tweaking today, and an additional selection from The Discourses pushed it to 54,232 words. It prints out at 163 letter-sized pages.

Even though that count includes chapter titles and subheads, as well as the opening notes and quotes, dedication, bibliography, and back page copy, it’s still about 20,000 more than my original target. I just don’t seem to be able to stop working on it. I’m still reading books about him and his writing – bios and denser, academic tomes by scholars like Mansfield and Benner mostly. I find material to add daily.

I still have a dozen books in transit from various Abebooks sellers, too. There may be more lurking within their pages. I have amassed a large box of books by and about Machiavelli already. But I’ve stopped buying more, at least.

The size concerns me. Will it deter a potential publisher? I hope not.

The average typed, letter-size page has about 500 words in 12-point text (mine is mostly in 11pt Calibri). A typical paperback novel page has about half that, usually 10 pt. type. So based on paperback size, the book would exceed 200 pages. Not quite Tom Clancy or Stephen King, but still substantial.

A trade paperback around 6×9″ has roughly 340 words per page, so at that size it would be about 160 pages. But due to the formatting style I’ve used (including numerous quotations from Machiavelli’s works and others offset with whitespace for clarity), it is probably 25-40% larger in size than a book with simple, linear text. That would make it 200-225 pages.

A paperback novel-sized book with similar formatting would come in at over 250-280 pages.

As a comparison, most paperback copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince – my basic source – are around 100-125 pages, sometimes fleshed out to 150 with selections from others of his works, glossary, intro and so on. I guess I’ve gone a bit overboard.

But the content is basically finished, just some tweaking, editing and a little tightening to do. I really have to stop adding to it, despite my obsession to make it as rich, as clear and as full as I can. But I must stop because I have to return to my third book for Municipal World, and get it completed for publication in December.

I think it’s my best book to date, and I’m proud enough of it to consider self-publishing if I can’t find a print publisher willing to take it on. But that’s an other hurdle to tackle a bit later…

Fifty thousand words…

This morning I crossed the 50,000 word mark in my book on Machiavelli’s The Prince for municipal politicians. It’s longer than I had originally intended, but I think it’s a reasonable length for the content. I’m pleased with the current draft and should have my reading and self-editing done by next Monday. Then it’s on to my next book, about e-government.

I have an overhead of perhaps 2,000 words I could reduce it by through my own editing. Primarily that would involve deleting the addendum with the maxims from his Art of War and from Sun Tzu’s book of the same name, trimming the conclusion a tad, and reducing some of the extraneous references in the bibliography. Other textual edits in the biography and intro material might gain me 200-500 words. I can’t see how it could get any lower.

Problem is, it could get longer. As I continue to read and study, I gain more insight about the work that I want to insert into my own text. Damn, but I find it difficult to write fewer rather than more words when I enjoy the subject so much! I had to trim 3-5,000 words from each of my last two books to make them fit into the publisher’s format.

Along the way, I’ve accumulated a large box of books about and by Machiavelli, including no less than ten translations of The Prince, with at least two more still in the mail. Why so many? because many of the translations are rather dodgy, especially the ones now in the public domain.

I’ve enjoyed working through how each translator tackles Machiavelli’s language, however. It’s given me some insight into how he wrote, as well as into the varieties of understanding each translator has. Just looking at how each one presents a word like fortuna or virtu is enlightening.

I’ve read two biographies of Machiavelli, am part way through a third, and received a fourth by mail this week. There’s a new bio due this fall I’ve already pre-ordered from Amazon.

I wanted to rewrite the selections I’ve taken from the public domain sources, which often sound too archaic and stodgy for modern ears. I’ve used more modern translations as my guide when looking for appropriate wording. That meant I needed to compare several versions of the same paragraph simultaneously. A lot of work and I spread books all over the dining room table as I hunted through the translations.

Sometimes when I have a few minutes, I’ll create a post that shows how all these translators handle one paragraph. It’s interesting to compare them. I did something similar with various translations of Chaucer not long ago. I wish I could read Italian, particularly Renaissance Italian to translate it myself.

I’ve also learned a great deal about how various translators and commentators assess and translate Machiavelli’s writing and how they each conclude meaning from his words.

A lot of the books I’ve bought are analyses of his works, not simply translations of original documents. A few are university-level scholarly works. Some are about Machiavelli and modern politics or management. Not all have proven relevant to my work, but most have something to offer.

I also got an audio course from The Great Courses, called Machiavelli in Context. I’ve been listening to it on my MP3 player when I walk the dog, and in the car. Have heard the first 7 and a bit lectures out of 24, each 30-40 minutes long. I have enjoyed several of their courses in the past, and recommend them to anyone who likes learning.

I think I’ve probably killed a few acres of forest printing earlier drafts, but that will end soon, once I finalize the submittable draft. That’s a few days away, but the end is in sight.