New Year’s Balls

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We all have our own way to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Over the years my celebrations have pretty much covered the waterfront — from tame to lame to mighty peculiar. In Frobisher Bay, we would gather for a party and at midnight would brave the -40 temperatures to go watch the aurora borealis. On years there was none, we compensated by lighting sparklers and waving them around. See, grand and lame in the same memory.

Then there was the year I bought tickets, months in advance, for a medieval feast to be held in a downtown bar in Calgary. When we showed up in full costume, we discovered the management had changed and the only sign of the middle ages were a few cardboard sets scattered around. We were the only ones in costume (unless you count little black dresses and tuxes as costumes) and everyone thought we were the floor show. We ate our meal and took off long before midnight arrived.

However, the strangest way I ever ushered in the new year was in 1991/2. We were new to Calgary and didn’t really know anyone yet so my wife and I decided to spend 8 days in California. Our last night was in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve and we had scoured the papers for something fun and typically Californian to do.

What we found was the Exotic Erotic Ball, (you can Google more explicit links yourself) held at a large conference centre well out of downtown. We got some fancy clothes and fancier masks and joined 8000 other people for an evening of… well, adult entertainment, I suppose you might call it.

Run by the local — not to put too fine a point on it — porn industry, the Ball was a combination of trade show, concert, frenzy of eating and drinking and more than anything else, voyeurism.

There were two bands playing at opposite ends of the facility — emceed by porn stars in various states of undress. There were also about 30 places scattered around the place where you could eat and drink.

I recall when we came in we were asked to leave our weapons at the door — but cameras were perfectly welcome. It was strange. Not the professional shows but the participatory audience.

There were half-naked women leading nearly naked men around on leashes. There was a guy in a ski-mask and sneakers who honestly had the smallest penis I’ve ever seen. There was another guy in spats, a bow-tie and a great big grin. It was quite the night — though as the evening progressed we found ourselves trying to find quiet spaces away from the crowds. When the New Year came, we toasted each other with champagne and had a quiet kiss before loading ourselves back in the shuttle to return to the comfort and privacy of our hotel.

It was exotic all right — but erotic? I’m not so sure. Tonight, I’ll gather with old friends and, if it’s not too cold, will sit in a hot tub outdoors to toast the new year under the stars. Of course, these days, soaking in a hot tub is not erotic — just therapeutic.

And that’s ten minutes.

Once and Future Crises

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Fifteen years ago, everyone was battening down the hatches in nervous anticipation of the New Year. While some people were partying like it was 1999 (cause, well, it was), others were frantically working to ensure the world as we know it didn’t come to an end. Although, when I look around, it seems that the world as I know it pretty much comes to an end every other week — this time we all thought it was the real thing. Or we thought it was a massive hype designed to steal our money.

Something like that anyway. The crisis du jour, if you haven’t figured it out already, was Y2K — the supposed bug that would cause all the clocks in all the computers in the world to reset to zero, thus upsetting commerce, security, even weapons systems. Planes, we were told, would fall from the sky.

None of that happened, of course, and the world sighed and went on with its business. Some in the media went a step further and hounded the primary proponents of the Y2K problem, accusing them of making the whole thing up for unknown reasons but ‘nothing good’ they were sure.

It turns out that Y2K was a legitimate and serious problem and it was only the work of an army of old COBOL programmers (mostly retired by then) tthat fixed the bug in the vast majority of important computer systems around the world. Y2K didn’t happen — not because it was never a threat but because these men and women worked long hours to make sure it didn’t happen.

This phenomenon is nothing new and nothing special. The news — merely a proxy for human endeavours of all kinds — has a hard time dealing with the hypothetical. Once they had latched onto the idea of a major disaster that would have ruined their lives they were frankly disappointed when only a few systems crashed and no planes fell from the air. They couldn’t wrap their head around the idea that people could actually prevent a bad thing from happening. It was easier to create a ludicrous conspiracy theory to explain it all away.

I’ve often found that this impediment to future thinking is what lays at the heart of most public (and private) policy failures. Once someone is seized with an idea it is hard to get them to think of its negative.

A classic in Canada is the much hated (in the west) National Energy Program (NEP) which was imposed by Canada after negotiations with oil producing provinces on oil pricing broke down (and yes, Alberta did participate in those early negotiations — indeed, embraced them, as did the oil industry) to create a two price system for oil that was meant to shelter consumers from world prices while enriching both federal and provincial provinces. It was predicated on the idea that oil prices would continue to rise indefinitely. A few people asked: ‘but what if they don’t?’, but they were shouted down. Of course, oil prices not only stopped rising; they actually fell. The fall-out has impacted intergovernmental relations for decades.

Now, what do you suppose the inability to see the future has done to ability of some to recognize climate change?

But that’s ten minutes.

What Doesn’t Kill You

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At a certain point in your life you cannot get together with friends without talking about the various things that ail you, about the sicknesses of those who are absent and, regrettably, about those who will be absent forever. A friend of mine cleverly calls this the ‘organ recital.’

However, I’m not here to complain. Rather, as the year approaches it is nice to think of how much better the world is than it was even fifty or sixty years ago. This was brought home the other day when I was chatting with my mother-in law and I mentioned we both had major years ahead as I was turning 60 and she would have her 90th birthday. She replied that she would be quite happy to be 60 again. Given her health — not bad but shaky with more problems every day — it gave me pause. Really, my few complaints — my creaky knees mostly — are pretty minor compared to hers.

And, significantly, she doesn’t waste much time complaining but rather worries about what she will make for lunch. When the time left to you grows slim, I suppose, you concentrate on the immediate pleasures and not the long term pains.

Fifty years ago, we wouldn’t have had that conversation. Dorothy has had a fairly serious heart condition for over 15 years. Yet, through diet and careful medication, she has been able to not only continue living but live a life worth living. She has her books and her pets and her grand-children and, increasingly, great-grand children. And she retains an enormous will to live, because, for now and for her, living is still better than the alternative.

Imagine the lives of people 100 years ago. Few people than died of heart disease or cancer — but only because they had already died of something else. When people talk about a cancer epidemic it is really only a matter of focus. Cancer rates have not significantly increased among those under fifty in a very long time and indeed for some cancers have dropped dramatically (along with the drop in smoking). Cancer is, of course, a disease of the old, as is, for the most part, heart disease and other major organ failures. But because it is the only game in town we think of it as rampant.

It is a tragedy when people die young — I had two friends die way too young this year — but it is only a tragedy because it is no longer routine.

Think of all the diseases that no longer kill us — diphtheria, polio, smallpox, measles —and you realize how good we have it, especially in the West. There are still world-wide challenges — malaria and tuberculosis (but Ebola not so much) but for the most part the news is good. Life spans are increasing and child mortality falling.

We need to be vigilant (anti-vaxers seem determined to let measles and polio make a comeback) but for the most part life is good.

So have a happy and healthy new year. The odds are in your favour.

And that’s ten minutes.

Improvization

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There is an article going around social media about what made Star Trek: the Next Generation special was that in the show everyone’s opinion and contribution is respected. They may be wrong but the assumption is always that they should be listened to and their ideas examined with respect and thoughtfulness. Like all generalizations it is easy enough to find exceptions and pick away at it. Can we all say: Shut up Wesley. Yet it is those exceptions that prove the rule.

There is a fundamental truth to this idea. Value can always be found from the affirmative examination of ideas as opposed to the immediate insistence that other people’s thoughts should be dismissed or at least disputed — just because of the status, gender, race, whatever of the person making the suggestion.

I learned this a long time ago by doing theatre improvisation. The first rule of improv is that you never say: No. If one actor says, “Hey, look at that dog over there”. You do not respond — “you’re wrong it is a cat.”

This is called a scene killer. It is not funny and it leads nowhere. The improv dies and the audience gets pissed off at the actor who is so vain they have to control every situation by refuting the contributions of others.

The proper response to “Look at that dog over there” might be “He sure has big teeth.” Which might lead to “But why are two of them gold?” Each idea builds a bigger and more interesting description of the imaginary dog. Before you know it that dog is playing the piano and reminiscing about his days in the French foreign legion. The possibilities of playing on each other’s ideas are amazing.

The same lesson can apply to organizations, whether in government, business or the non-profit sector. The standard model is hierarchal with the boss having a monopoly on the best ideas and strongest opinions (and rewards). Good organizations encourage the flow of ideas from all levels but everyone knows where the buck stops. These organizations can be effective for certain things but are seldom the most innovative and adaptable. In a rapidly changing world they can fail as the ground shifts beneath them and the pyramid sinks into the sand.

New structures are emerging where the company or division is organized in a flat and circular fashion. There may be a CEO but he or she wields little control over the innovative management practices where each individual contributes based on their own particular set of skills and perceptions. Point of view is particularly valued in companies who realize they are operating in a world where perception can change practice as much as anything else. These flat organizations are spreading and becoming increasingly important and powerful in a variety of sectors.

And they have the advantage of rewarding people in a more egalitarian manner instead of having all the money flow to the top.

But that’s ten minutes.

Books

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I sometimes imagine that buying books for me is a bit like what heroin is like for a recovering addict. I know I don’t need any more. Really, I have enough to last me most of my life at my current rate of reading and besides, there really is no more room in the house. I really shouldn’t get another hit — it’s almost certainly not good for me but it feels so good. It’s not even the reading of the books — too often I get the same letdown I’m sure an addict feels at the end of his high. Is that all there is? Well, if that’s all there is my friend, let’s keep dancing…

Okay, so my reading habit isn’t likely to lead to a life of crime though books are the only thing I ever did steal— during a brief desperate period as an young teen but that’s another story — nor is it likely to actually kill me unless a book shelf falls over and crushes me beneath the weight of too many brick-like volumes. Not impossible but unlikely. I still have reasonable reflexes.

At Christmas, I always tell people not to buy me books unless it is from the list I provide. Some people do anyway and I dutifully put them on my shelf for a year or so out of respect, knowing that I am unlikely to ever read it. Hell, I have books I bought myself that I haven’t gotten around to reading even after five years!

There’s the rub — try as I might I still buy more books in a year than I can possibly find time to read (maybe after I retire… yeah, no). I’ve tried every trick in the book (that reminds me — I need to get a new book of tricks). Only buy a book when you finish one; don’t buy any books at all for a month; only buy a book when you’ve given one away. It never works.

Oh, I can go a few weeks — even five or six without feeding my habit, but then I get the itch. A craving. Just to try something a little different. I heard there was this one book that provides an incredible high — the pacing is fast, the language beautiful, the story innovative and strange, whatever…. It can’t hurt to give it a little try, can it?

So I go to the store or on-line with the intention of buying just that one book. But there’s this other one that looks fascinating and, OMG, my favorite (one of thirty) author has a new book and it’s on sale. And I should see what’s in my wish list and if I buy two or three I get free shipping.

See, just like heroin. I was only going to buy books this year that I could afford from my gift cards. That would have been about 7. So how did I wind up with 14?

But that’s ten minutes.

Avarice

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There is a line in Star Trek: The Voyage Home where McCoy promises the Plexiglas manufacturer that he will be ‘rich beyond the dreams of avarice.’ I sometimes wonder if that is possible. It seems to me that money just makes avarice dream bigger. There is no end to the wealth rich men and women want to acquire. Enough is never enough.

I have to believe that the desire to accumulate great wealth is a psychological disorder akin to hoarding. People who must stuff their portfolios to the point of bursting are surely no different than those who stack their hallways with old magazines or who obsessively save tinfoil or rubber bands. At a certain point all you can do is sit on the wealth like some sleeping (but still evil) dragon. Rich people are like Smaug or King Thorin who become ill with the desire for gold.

Or perhaps they are like the legendary King Midas whose lust for gold led him to wish for the golden touch. “Let all that I grasp turn to gold” he begged and the gods granted his wish. The result was that he could not eat for the fruit or meat he lifted to his lips became metal. The final blow came when his daughter returned home after a long absence and turned to a golden statue in his embrace.

Sad, really. Money can break families — if not in the first generation then in the second when brothers and sisters turn on each other in their squabbles over inheritance. Getting the bigger share is their way of proving: ‘mom always loved me best.

There is a cure for avarice, of course, and that is generosity. A number of billionaires — those who haven’t deluded themselves into thinking that every dime they have comes from their own doing —have taken the pledge, initiated by Warren Buffet, to give their money away, either while they are still living or in death. They are building hospitals and education systems; they are funding small scale entrepreneurship to create the next generation of wealth; they are endowing arts foundations and museums. They are returning their money to whence it came — the society that made them wealthy in the first place.

Wealth is not created by the rich; it is organized and accumulated by them from the work of others and, often, by the collective investments of society. Could Jeff Bezos have grown so wealthy if there were not roads and airports to carry his goods (quite apart from all the people who actually make them)? Of course not. Notably Mr. Bezos — who in some respects is a glorified truck dispatcher — has not taken the pledge.

So as we come to the end of Xmas — on Boxing Day, the day that in Canada serves the same function as the shopping frenzy of black Friday, think a little about what you already have and pause before you acquire something else.

And send a positive thought in the direction of those sitting at the top of their heap of gold that they think a little about what they really need.

But that’s ten minutes.

Christmas Day

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Well, here it is Christmas morning and I’m stuffed to the gills with licorice all-sorts, the crack cocaine of candy. The presents are open, the home made croissants are eaten, music is playing on the CD and Liz is poodling around in the kitchen planning something fabulous for lunch. You should all be so lucky (and I hope you are).

This will likely be the last 10 minutes of words I write so enjoy it.

Early April Fool’s Day joke — if I’m writing this on Christmas day , do you think I’ll let you off the hook for the rest of the year? Not a chance.

I’ve got plenty of things left to say and now that I have a handy portable notebook specifically dedicated to the project, there is no chance I’ll run out soon.

It looks to be a great rest of the day, what with brand new red socks to wear and an electronic wine thermometer to make sure my late vintage port is served at precisely the right number of degrees. Port and chocolate and nice non-wooly scarves to wear when I go out to my good friend Mike’s place for dinner.

And when I come home tomorrow I can settle in and read one of my six new books or maybe watch a Charlie Chaplin marathon while drinking coffee from one of several new mugs. Yes, the holidays don’t come better than that. Too bad the lottery tickets didn’t work out — but there is always next year to become a millionaire, right?

Does that about cover it? Not by half! There is a nice new set of sweat pants and jacket to lounge around in and bear bells (catering to my pathological fear of grizzly home invasions) nicely attached to a chocolate bear. And if I get tired of sweets, there are always some nice cheeses and smoked meats to eat. All my favorites — all at once.

So, what I’m trying to tell you is — thanks to everyone who shared my Christmas this year, giving gifts of time and attention and love and friendship. Thanks to all who came to our open house or sent us cards or well-wishes by e-mail or Facebook. Thanks to everyone who spared a kind thought for us — or even better for a friend or, best of all, a complete stranger.

Best wishes to you all. I hope your holiday brought you a measure of comfort and joy. Or at least — for those who are suffering — a moment of release and relief.

And that’s ten minutes.

Charity

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Faith, hope and charity. These are the three great virtues. Faith is not one I practice or even much understand — I think the secular humanist, rational empiricist description I use for myself pretty much explains that.

Hope is another matter. I am by nature an optimist. The glass is not only half full; it is filling up and getting bigger. And it’s not hope based on faith. There is plenty of reason to hope. You might think not — but that’s only the 24-hour news cycle talking. Compared to what was happening thirty, fifty or a hundred years ago, we practically live in a paradise.

But we’re not there yet.

Charity seems to be the tie breaker — except here my views are — ambivalent. I certainly give to charity. There are four charities that get my money every single month and a half dozen more that get contributions from time to time through the year. There are a lot of problems in my city, my country and around the world and I recognize the need to help where I can.

Generally, I give a little more than average but less than some. Ironically, as a percentage of income I give less than people much poorer than me. I’d give more except… I don’t really believe in charity. It is after all pretty paternalistic. You can’t help yourself — so I’ll play Santa Claus and help you. It makes me feel good and it makes you feel… both grateful and resentful, I suspect.

What I really believe in is a collective responsibility of society to ensure that everyone has the basics of a decent life. We have patched together a kind of social safety net but it is largely unreliable, full of gaps and designed to make recipients feel bad about themselves — even when that guilt has no reasonable outlet. Circumstances often play against people from getting out of poverty — whether because of illness, disability, addiction, mental health problems, lack of skills, too many dependents, etc.

The welfare system is both inefficient and expensive. Far more effective (and cheaper to administer) would be a guaranteed annual income — an idea that has been promoted by spokesmen and politicians from left, right and centre.

The naysayers suggest that it would destroy the incentive to work. But the evidence says otherwise. A multi-year study was conducted in a Manitoba town and it showed that a GAI didn’t significantly reduce the work incentive. The main group leaving the work force was teenagers resulting in higher graduation rates from school. It actually reduced governmental and health costs, eliminated the need for welfare and improved mental health and community cohesion.

Unfortunately the results of that study were kept buried for years and the data has only recently begun to be examined. You have to wonder why, don’t you?

But that’s ten minutes.

Empty Chairs

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Christmas for me is about memory. I find that the rituals and routines of the holidays — putting up the tree, shopping for gifts, Christmas parties, the music — all serve to evoke strong and vivid recollections of places I’ve been and people I’ve spent my time with. People who live on in memory.

When I lived in Frobisher Bay, I became good friends with John and Nicole Barclay. These two couldn’t be more different. John was a tall, slim English Canadian with a love of the outdoors. Nicole was short, in constant battle with her weight, a French Canadian who couldn’t imagine going a day without washing her hair. He was full of corny jokes and she with passionate ideas about life and work. Yet they were a great couple.

On Christmas Eve they hosted a traditional Quebec fete. It was a remarkable time. Friends and not-so-friends would gather at their place, all differences set aside for that one night. We would talk and laugh and especially, we would sing. There was food and drink through the evening but the best was yet to come. At midnight the Catholics and the Anglicans would head off to midnight mass, leaving the heathens and the Baptists to fend for ourselves. A half hour later and they would return, buoyed up by the service and flushed with the -30 degree evening air.

Then the party would start. Turkey and ham and tourtière would appear. Desserts of every imaginable type, Drinks — wine beer and spirits for the imbibers and elaborate punches for the teetotallers — flowed like water. The lights were dimmed and replaced with the glow of candle and firelight and the sparkle from the Christmas tree. One year, someone looked out the front windows and suddenly threw back the curtains to let the light of the moon and stars and an amazing aurora borealis flood in.

Faces gleamed in the diffuse light, voices, somewhat restrained before midnight, now rang out with joy and hope and wishes for peace on earth, good will toward men. I recall two men in particular — Rick and Mike —- who seldom saw eye to eye on anything, standing side by side, harmonizing on ‘Away in a Manger.

We would talk and laugh and sing and finally roll home at about 4 in the morning to gather a few hours sleep before the more relaxed celebrations of Christmas day.

It was a glorious time and I remember them all so well. A few years after I left Frobisher Bay, Rick, 38, died of a massive heart attack. One night, a few years after that I got a frantic call from Nicole. John had died in a climbing accident in Switzerland. Nicole never recovered and faded from everyone’s view. Mike lost his son when he died in a blizzard a few miles from town. Mike struggled after that and died a few years ago.

So many empty chairs now. Vacancies that can only be filled by memories. Yet I still see their shining faces, filled with joy and pleasure and gentle loving companionship. That’s what Christmas means to me.

And that’s ten minutes.

XMAS

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When I was much younger I would religiously use Xmas whenever I spoke of Christmas. I would even say that I was the guy who put the X back in Xmas. I was a bit of a dick back then. I was only doing it to annoy people who knew little about their faith other than the fact I didn’t share it. These days, I try not to poke people with sticks. Too much.

Xmas would produce red faces and exhortations to understand the reason for the season. Etc. They would go on to lament how their holiday was being stolen away. They would rail against Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays and insist that only Merry Christmas should be intoned during December.

I would then happily point out that there was nothing more Christian than X. After all, the original gospels were spread as a Greek text and, in Greek, Christ was spelled with an X at the beginning. The X symbol was used as a sort of short hand to save time and paper. Or more precisely to save lives. After all, in those early days being a Christian was actually dangerous. You could be thrown to the lions. A few actually were. So the X was a code so that the early Christians could meet in secret and safety.

As for stealing the season, all I could say was — well, you started it. Any reasonable reading of the Gospels would suggest that Christ’s birth —- which probably was a real thing — occurred in the spring of the year (though both June and October have also been proposed). But the early church fathers decided that it would be better to move it to mid-winter.

Why would they do that — move a celebration that honours the coming of the Light of the World to the darkest and dreariest part of the year? Well, in part because in the Mediterranean it is not really that dark and dreary perhaps, but I digress.

One of the reasons to celebrate the solstice (other than the obvious metaphor that it marks the return of the light) was camouflage. Danger, remember? Saturnalia and other solstice related feasts were common in the Roman Empire so who would notice if you were celebrating something a little different? And of course as Christianity became more popular it was an easy transition; people were already celebrating in December so they could easily switch over.

And of course, you don’t want to celebrate the birth and death of your god at the same time of year. It would be confusing and a waste of celebratory capital. And can you imagine having to do all your Christmas shopping during Lent? Talk about temptation!

In any case, the Christmas you see today is hardly the original thing which was mostly a somber time of reflection and quiet prayers. The Christmas tree? Stolen from German pagan traditions. Carolling — strictly a Victorian thing. One could go on but Xmas Eve is coming and I have things to do.

But if you want to see people really abusing Christmas — try the Puritans. They wouldn’t call it that all. You know, that Mas(s) thing, way too papist for them. You know the Puritans — ancestors of the people who now insist on putting Christ back in Christmas.

But that’s ten minutes.