Saturday, September 21, 2013

That's All Folks (for now)

Loyal readers of my column in the Calgary Sun (all six of you) may have noticed I’ve been missing in action for the past two weekend papers.

About ten days ago I got a call from my editor. It is never good news when your editor calls you. Sometimes it’s not good news about your editor – in my almost 17 years at the Calgary Sun I have outlived at least six editors by my count.

In this case, it was about the dreaded cutbacks the newspaper industry has been going through since about forever. Newspapers everywhere are convinced they can cut their way to prosperity. I lost my last editor to staffing cutbacks.

“You’re one of our more popular columns,” my editor told me, “and I know I’ll get letters, but I’ve been told to cut back on freelancers.”

The funny thing is that even though I have appeared weekly in the Calgary Sun every Saturday since 1997 in almost 900 columns, I have never had a written contract or agreement with them. I declined to sign their standard freelancer agreement on several occasions since it was one of those “here’s your smallish cheque – we now own everything you create” type legal documents. I was told there were only two of us in the whole Sun chain who got away with declining to sign over all rights in our columns.

Still, the Calgary Sun was always very good to me. My editors were all nice and supportive people. They let me write about anything I liked and never censored me. Mostly, I never heard from them. I just sent in my columns and they were printed. If I haven’t said thanks to them, let me say it now – thanks.

They didn’t even mind that I was from Toronto – a fact I never hid but never really emphasized either.

They even let me be me – a tolerant small “l” liberal. And the oddest thing happened – I discovered that Calgary is full of like-minded people who don’t always fit the perception of some of the noisier Sun-reading Calgarians seen in the rest of Canada. Ezra – I’m looking at you. 

And no - my departure wasn't about my politics, which I don't think anyone at The Sun took any notice of, in spite a couple of dedicated right-wing basement bloggers who felt my mere presence at the Calgary Sun was an affront to right wing nut jobs everywhere.

Even though being a columnist has never been my day job, it does become habit forming. Before the Calgary Sun I wrote a weekly column for the Toronto Sun, the London Free Press and The National Post going back to 1993. 

I have to say I’ve enjoyed not writing to deadline the last couple of weeks, but I’ve missed it too.

I’m also pleased that I’ve already had another paper express an interest in picking up my column. We’ll see how that goes.

Plus there’s this blog, Twitter and an unfinished novel or two. I'll post some of my favourite columns on this blog and maybe even assemble them into a book. My last collection of columns published in book (and e-book) form was in 2005, so I have some catching up to do.

Anyway – thanks to my readers and the Calgary Sun for a great run. You guys are great.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Have a seat

 I was walking in the Church and Queen area of Toronto today and wandered past the park in the corner of the church yard. Years ago my family got (ie: paid) the city to have a bench installed with a little brass plaque in memory of my dad, Gary Lautens. 

It was a lot of red tape for some reason, but we finally got it put in on the northwest corner of Church and Queen, which my father passed every day on his walk down to the Toronto Star.

About a month later a car driven by a drunk driver jumped the curb and smashed the bench to toothpicks.

That was about 20 years ago.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that the bench had been replaced by the city along with the brass plaque.

So if you're ever in the neighbourhood of Church and Queen, drop in and have seat (bottle of cheap booze in a paper bag optional).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Towers

I figure I’m entitled to one serious story a year, so this is it. 
It’s not a story I’ve told before, not even to many members of my family, but I think about it every anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. It’s a story about good timing and plain dumb luck, and how a single decision can change your life.

A few years ago my day job was with a software company. It was a great little company. Nice people, fun work. Everyone worked hard to get us on the map. The technical people were very bright. Not being that bright myself, I looked after sales.

We went to all the trade shows, and managed to have more fun than most other people there combined. And none of it involved booze, flirting or staying out past ten o’clock. We just loved what we were doing.

Then one day a new customer appeared - at the time one of the biggest software companies in the world. They liked what we were doing so much they wanted to buy the company, even though it wasn’t for sale. Eventually they made an offer that no one could refuse (this was before the dot-com technology bubble broke and people were paying stupid amounts for software companies), and in the beginning of 2001 they arranged to buy the company.

As luck would have it, since we were such a small company there were only two of us in sales - the president and me. The president decided early on that he would be leaving the newly purchased company for fresh challenges. That left me. 

The new owners decided they needed someone to run the Canadian operation, and offered the job to me. To go with the job, they were going to make me their newest Vice President. The position came with a bigger salary than I may ever see again, stock options and the works.

The new owners all talked about their private airplanes and personal helicopters, or the multimillion dollar homes they were building for their very early retirement. There were week long seminars in Tuscany and Paris, and bonuses that were bigger than what most people paid for their houses. They even announced that I was their new Vice President.

I hemmed and hawed for a while. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay on without my friend, but it isn’t every day you walk away from a job as Vice President of the fourth largest software company in the world.

Still, that’s what I did. 

It sounds stupid now, but I didn’t think the job would be much fun and the people I would have been working for seemed a little too sharp for their own good. Eventually I'd also likely have to move to the US, and I don't think I could leave Canada for mere money. 

My friend the former president said I was welcome to join him in his new venture, so I said so long to the golden carrot dangling before me and instead went with my friend.

About six months later I watched the unimaginable as the World Trade Center crumbled to dust with so many people inside.

When the dead were finally given names I realized that one of them was the new senior person in the Canadian office where I had worked and had been offered the job. He had been on a company seminar in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, and managed a brief cell phone call to a loved one before he died.

Would that have been me? Who knows. Maybe, maybe not. It’s not something I really want to think about too much, but he had taken the job that I turned down.

On 9/11 I know where I was. After watching that horrible morning unfold on TV, my wife and I kept an appointment for an ultrasound, where I saw my unborn son curled up and oblivious to what was going on in the outside world.

And if that’s the last bit of good luck I ever have in my life, you won’t hear me complain.

© Stephen Lautens 2003

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Column - On Her Majesty's Secret Office Furniture Service

Sept 7, 2013

by Stephen Lautens

A good friend of mine brought me back a souvenir from his recent visit to a science fiction convention in Toronto.

Usually he can be counted on for a pair of rubber Spock ears or a Battlestar Galactica action figure.

This year he came back with something completely different for me.

“Here you go,” he said handing over a small brochure.

At first glance it looked like a Canada Post pamphlet for a new stamp, maybe honouring Bill Shatner, the greatest Governor General we never had.

“It’s from CSIS,” he said. “The Canadian Security Intelligence Service had a recruitment booth at the science fiction fan convention.”

Sure enough, the little government brochure he handed me is called “CSIS Smart Career Choice” and advertises the “over 100 specializations” that Canada’s spy agency is looking to fill.

At first I wondered about CSIS having a booth at a nerdy science fiction fan convention.

The clean cut intel types must have stood out in the sea of Star Trek velour uniforms, Star Wars Imperial Storm Troopers, Walking Dead zombies and guys and gals with rubber foreheads.

When I thought about the logic of it, I was genuinely pleased Canada’s Security Intelligence Service had the actual intelligence to set up shop to recruit at a SF convention.

Being of the nerdy persuasion myself, I like to think of science fiction as having more than its fair share of creative, imaginative people.

To me it shows a commitment to hiring brainy types in addition to the muscle of law enforcement.

Plus those fans who still live in their parents’ basements will be used to the close quarters of stakeouts and hiding in closets.

Science fiction fans would also be especially useful if you’re trying to infiltrate the Klingon embassy.

The first thing I looked for in the 100 or so job descriptions in the CSIS recruitment brochure was a need for spies.

The words “spy” or “secret agent” don’t appear anywhere in their literature, which is a bit disappointing.

The closest I could find was “Intelligence Officer”, which is I guess what they are called by the industry, although if I was one I would definitely ask to have “Secret Agent” put on my business card.

The amazing thing was the other jobs CSIS offers to qualified candidates.

Of the traditional spy desk jobs, you can be a researcher or security analyst if you don’t fancy a field job with people trying to shoot poison-tipped blowgun darts at your neck while dancing with the ambassador’s wife.

Every spy agency these days needs computer people, so you could be CSIS’s next engineer, programmer or “Data Exploitation Analyst”.

As with all tech jobs, I’m sure the problem is that even if you work for CSIS cracking North Korean codes, your mother will still ask you to come over and figure out why her iPhone won’t sync with her contact list.

More surprising are the mundane jobs CSIS needs filled.

How disappointing would it be to tell people you work for Canada’s spy agency, but then explain your job is “Pay Verifier” or “Accommodation Officer”?

Still, they can’t be worse than the CSIS job listed in their brochure as “Furniture Policy Officer” — with all due respect to whoever does it now.

“The name is Bond, James Bond. I’m here to assess your need for additional filing cabinets — with extreme prejudice.”

Or I suppose you can be in charge of standing in the booth at science fiction conventions.

© Stephen Lautens

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Privy Council Memo Paper - Soft & Not So Durable!

The Prime Minister's public government department is called the Privy Council Office (PCO), which is separate from the more familiar personal office of the PM known as the PMO. But you knew that.

It therefore came as a surprise when in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from news outlets the PCO claimed in June that it had no documents of any kind related to the ongoing Senate scandal or anyone involved in it (Duffy, Wallin, Brazeau, Nigel Wright, etc.).
"Documents" of course refer to memos, letters, emails, briefing notes, phone logs, legal opinions or even as someone pointed out, Post-It Notes.

The federal Justice Department likewise said it has no documents of any kind that mention the recent Senate scandal.

None. Nada. Zip. 

No one in these key Harper departments has written down anything since the scandal started.

I know - it beggars belief.

Harper and his PCO have gone completely paperless and now exchange important information through chats without taking any pesky notes that may be later used against them.

Or as I suggest in my illustration above, perhaps the Privy Council Office has taken to writing everything on toilet paper that can be flushed after use.

After all, that may be what the "privy" in Privy Council office stands for...