New Year

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Calvin and Hobbes have a lot to answer for.

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Not that Calvin and Hobbes — the other ones. Luther and Marx aren’t far behind. Calvin and Luther of course gave us the Protestant work ethic – an insistence that we are known by our success in life. The more successful you are the more likely are you to be favoured in the eyes of God. That was Calvin’s shtick at least; Luther was mostly a cheerleader.

As for Hobbes he warned us that life was nasty, brutish and short and the world was a terrible place where the war of all against all was inevitable. Only firm resolve and obedience to order would get us through. And Marx? He might seem like a jolly fellow, promising a workers’ paradise after the last vestiges of capitalism were torn down, but his central aphorism was: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. In other words if you had ability, you had a duty to achieve, a duty to produce a surplus to be lapped up by those less able to contribute.

So there it is: All of western philosophy and religion conspire to make us all feel inadequate and never so much as at this time of the rolling year.

So this is New Year’s and what have you done? Another year older and nothing much begun.

The reason we make resolutions is because we feel like we were such failures in the previous year, right? And we feel like failures strictly because of philosophy. I say, first thing we do is kill all the philosophers; they are even more trouble than lawyers. Does that count as a resolution?

In any case, I refuse to play along any longer. I resolve to do nothing next year. That’s not a decision to make no resolutions. You should take it literally. I plan to accomplish absolutely nothing of value in 2016. I will not write a novel or even a short story. I’ll be completely unproductive at work. I will let the books at Bundoran Press publish themselves – I’m sure there is an app for that.

I’m going to stay away from the gym, drink exactly as much as I do now, stay fat. And I’m going to completely ignore my family and friends. Who needs them anyway?

And I’ll probably fail to achieve any of those goals either.

Doesn’t matter. As a friend of mine used to say, goals are for hockey players. (She could have said soccer players but they hardly ever seem to score goals.)

Hell, to get the year off to the right start, I won’t even finish this blog.

And that’s nine and a half minutes.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Winter

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Winter has arrived and once again it appears that no one was expecting it. The City of Ottawa, having saved a million dollars in snow removal charges by our mild December, seemed reluctant to spend a little of the savings to get all the plows on the road in a timely manner. Maybe they had hoped no-one would notice. I believe they noticed.

There were over 80 traffic accidents in the last 24 hours – after a month of one or two a day. Once again, drivers have suffered from seasonally affected amnesia and forgotten that snow and ice are slippery and you can’t travel so fast or follow so close. Well, actually you can but there are consequences.

My wife’s office declared a snow day and sent all the workers home at 2 pm. The snow stopped falling about 15 minutes later – but it is the thought that counts. Most people probably didn’t get home until well after their usual commute. Liz wasn’t affected; her bus – several of them in fact – didn’t bother to come by so she worked from home. I can attest she really did work, too, despite my best efforts to distract her. Some people are way too dedicated.

It was pretty though – all that falling white stuff and the light glinting off the ice. I particularly like it when the big fluffy flakes get blown sideways. Of course, I haven’t been outside since Tuesday so it is easy for me to talk.

Winter is a lovely season of the year, especially if you know you are going to get to Mexico for a week or so in the middle of it. Not that this matters a lot – there will be plenty of winter left over when we come back –probably two months. Winter is a great time for sitting inside and drinking mulled wine, listening to music by candle light, drawing the drapes and pretending you are living in a bio-dome. Now that one can get groceries (and wine) delivered to your condo door, winter is perfectly fine.

Go out? Why would anyone do that? Skiing? Skating? Well, sure I’ve heard of those – even watched them on TV from time to time but actually do them – you must be joking.

I might have to go out this afternoon though. I need a haircut – my semi-annual trim is overdue. I’d do it myself but I’m already starting to sound like Howard Hughes (he didn’t go out in winter – nor any other season of the year either) and I wouldn’t want to start to look like him, too. Well, there must be a parka and boots in here somewhere. And I wonder where I put my glove warmers, five foot long scarf and insulated toque.

Well, I better go look because that’s ten minutes.

Resolutions

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It’s that time of year again. A time for looking back and summing up; for looking ahead and making resolutions. Some people claim not to make them; some people avoid resolutions the way bureaucrats eschew obfuscation. That is, not at all: they just say they do and take a course to prove it.

After all, who hasn’t woken up on the day after the night before and resolved: Never again! Who hasn’t looked in the mirror by accident after their shower and thought: Just 5 pounds. Who hasn’t come home from work tired and depressed and thought: I need to get a different job.

We do it all the time, whether we make a formal effort at New Year’s is merely a trivial detail. We all think that soon, we will work harder, look better and be a nicer person. Is that so bad?

If it were only so easy. Life, like everything else in the macro-universe, operates on the three laws of motion. You know, the ones you learned in high school physics and vowed never to forget. I can’t quite quote them verbatim but I do recall that things in motion tend to stay in motion (and those at rest sit on the sofa) until some external force comes along to change them.

You see, Red Green was right. I can change. If I have to. I guess. All it takes is a little shove. From someone. So why not me?

I think everyone should have a few resolutions but not ones that are too hard. After all, it hardly helps your reformation to fail right away, now does it?

Let’s start with a simple one.

I resolve to get up every day. There, that can’t be too hard. Well, unless you’re confined to a “hospital” and they have you strapped down for your own and others’ safety. It could happen.

But still, you get the idea. Start with the easy ones and work your way up. No point in going crazy with things like: I’ll go to the gym every day. That’s just a waste of money. Because what you will do is buy a gym membership. You think, if I’ve spent all that money, I’ll surely go more often. Nope. You will go exactly as many times a month as if you paid for it on a per visit basis – that is, about 5. Studies have proven this. Which is why gyms make it so easy to sign up for a membership and so hard to cancel it.

Free money for them. Which of course defeats YOUR resolution to be more careful with your cash.

So whatever you do, don’t promise to do what you know you can’t do. If you haven’t gone to the gym in a year, don’t plan on going three times a week. Resolve to go to the gym once. Just once. If you do that, you can make another resolution (there is no rule that it all has to be done at once). I’ve been to the gym once, I’ll go again some time. How hard is that?

Baby steps. After all, you are starting a new life.

And that’s ten minutes.

Revolution

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It has been suggested that radicalism cannot survive the aging process. A quote widely attributed to Churchill states: if you aren’t a communist at 20, you have no heart; if you are still one at 60, you have no head. The implication is that revolution is a game for the young and that, eventually, cooler heads will prevail. A greater (false) argument for the gerontocracy has never been made. Old men are very good at holding on to what they have.

Still, I find my own desire for manning the barricades has diminished with the passing years. I really never was much of a marcher; I preferred to plot my revolutions in ivory towers or, more often, in the back rooms of political parties. In my twenties, I was a Marxist of sorts but certainly no hardliner. I had a distaste for the more violent proponents of revolutionary change. I believed – still do – that change can be achieved through the ballot box as well as through direct, but peaceful action, through labour negotiations and strikes, the courts, social protests, boycotts. Gradualism was my mantra; evolution rather than revolution.

Now, as I pass through my sixties, I’m not so sure. The patience of youth has been replaced by the impatience of age. I no longer want change to occur ‘someday’ but ‘right now.’ I suppose I want to see it happen in my lifetime not in some mythical future that will, for me, not exist.

Not that there hasn’t been tremendous progress in the course of my life – most of it brought about through the lurching mechanisms of human progress, rather than through sudden upheaval and revolutionary destruction. Certainly some of the change that has occurred in Africa and South America and China has flowed out of the revolutions and wars, the social experiment of the Cultural Revolution and the greater evils of genocide and ethnic cleansing. But these changes were not because of the violence but in revolted response to its consequences. Perhaps the old ways had to be broken – perhaps – but the breaking did not in any way lead to the utopia promised by the breakers.

But I digress. In many parts of the world poverty has been reduced, the chains of serfdom have been thrown aside, women have achieved some measure of equality – more some places than others – the hold of ancient religions have been (mostly) loosened, the worst excesses of capitalism have been moderated. Yes, all that is true.

Yet, the forces of reaction – the power of old men – remain strong. Far too many people are too cowed or too easily bought with bread and circuses, are too easily frightened by the spectre of change (and after all, some of the revolutions I mentioned have been pretty fearful) to ever embrace the possibilities of real democracy, real liberty, real equality.

Some days, it makes me so angry… but I’ve also reached a place where ‘old men shouting at clouds’ seems particularly futile. So I do what I can. Propose changes to the status quo that move my part of the world towards a more just place; use my limited money and time and energy to do some good. And trust that the fire of youth will forge a better future.

And that’s ten minutes.

Promises

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Promises are the lifeblood of politics. People want to hear them; politicians want to make them. Political platforms are full of both specifics and aspirational goals. We will do this and we want to do that as well. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between them. Parties out of power can only guess what the financial and legal situation will be after election day; the incumbent party closely guards the bad news while still trying to present an attractive platform.

Some promises are simple and easy to keep (or break). For example, in his first election, Stephen Harper promised to reduce the GST from 7% to 6%. Doing that took a single line amendment in the tax code. Of course, the consequences for public finance were huge and ultimately quite complex but fulfilling the promise was dead simple. Harper also promised massive increases in accountability. He even passed a complex and substantial bill to that effect – called the Accountability Act. However, when faced with opposition to his chosen public appointments Commissioner – an oil company executive with strong Conservative ties, Harper threw up his hands and refused to appoint an alternative. The implementation of the Act suffered and, gradually, his government became the most secretive we ever had.

You can see a similar set of promises in the current government. One of their promises was simple – cut middle class taxes and raise those on people making more than $200,000 in taxable income. Again, it was quite simple to do – a few lines of amendments to the tax code and voila, mission accomplished. The tax changes will come into effect this Friday, despite grumblings from those in higher tax brackets.

The more complicated promise was that to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of December. While some – including many in the Liberal party – may have believed this was feasible, few experts thought it was more than aspirational. When the Liberals reduced the goal to 10,000 by year’s end, the experts said maybe. As it turns out, even that goal will be difficult to make – though the government is going all out to move the process along as expeditiously as possible. Recognizing that it may be difficult to reach 25000 even by the end of March, the government has upped the ante to 50000 over the next few years. Some might say the Liberals have reneged on their promise but, at least, when faced with difficulties and opposition, they didn’t’ throw up their hands and give up. And, I suspect, most Canadians recognize that the promise was too ambitious and more complicated than most elements of the short term election platform. And in any case, the main opposition party has little really to say on the refugee issue – whatever numbers the Liberals achieve by December 31 they will exceed in 6 weeks what the previous government managed in the last twelve months or more.

Of course, the ambition of Trudeau and his cabinet are high and time will tell whether the more complicated parts of the platform – such as improved relations with indigenous people, tackling climate change in a real and substantive way and managing the fiscal framework to provide stimulus without letting debt loads rise faster than the growth of the economy – can be achieved. Plus there are a whole bunch of economic issues and social justice matters, barely mentioned in the platform, that require urgent attention.

I like to be optimistic but I expect there will be bigger stumbles ahead than the trivial issues the media is currently focusing on.

And that’s ten minutes.

Boxing Day

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Boxing Day has been part of Christmas traditions in England, Canada and other commonwealth countries for over 500 years. References to the Christmas boxes given to tradesmen and household servants were mentioned in Pepys’ diaries in the 17th century and the tradition certainly goes back farther than that.

Generally, these people didn’t get the whole day off – as is offered to Cratchit in The Christmas Carol – but were expected to render service to their masters – cooking, serving, cleaning and tending to the over-indulged – throughout Christmas Day. In recompense they were given a day off – usually the day after Christmas or the day after that and sent off to visit their nearby family, usually with a small box of gifts, gratuities or even leftover food. These boxes are what give Boxing Day its name.

Even when I was a child, it was customary to hand a small envelope of cash to the postman, the milkman, the paperboy or anyone who had provided you a service during the previous year. While you might give an actual present to the lady who cleaned your house, others, whose service was not directly in your pay, expected and often received a small tip, especially if they had been particularly faithful in their duties.

Even today, I give a card and a bit of cash to the maintenance man in our building (one of them; the other refuses such things on religious grounds) and, when I used to get a paper delivered, to the paper boy. But I would never think of tipping the bus driver on my regular route or even the security guards who work on Parliament Hill (my colleague does give them cookies though so at least someone is thinking of them.) Of course, these days, people in service – thanks mostly to unions – actually make a decent salary and don’t require the ‘patronage’ of their so-called betters.

Boxing Day now has stopped being about others and become mostly about ourselves. In Canada it is still the biggest shopping day of the year as people flock to the malls or go on-line to give themselves the presents they didn’t get for Christmas. I’ve done it a few times myself but have found that it leads to an end of the Christmas Spirit like a dip in a frozen lake might put an end to your thoughts of fathering children. I try to avoid the shopping frenzy before Christmas – why would I indulge in it after? Besides, as I’ve opined elsewhere, I already have too much stuff.

But here’s something I learned a couple of years ago. While donations to charities and especially food banks spike at Christmas, they face an even more dramatic dip in revenues in January and February. Not only does money dry up but so do volunteers – perhaps too exhausted from all that shopping.

So this year, maybe you should set aside a little time and money to help out your local food bank or homeless shelter or maybe Syrian refugees and dole it out over the next couple of months. Hunger and loneliness, pain and fear are not seasonal commodities; they don’t go away when the decorations come down.

And that’s ten minutes.

Merry Merry

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Merry Christmas everyone. Or Happy Hanukkah. Joyous Kwanza. If it was occurring this time of year – it very seldom is – I’d wish you a pleasant Ramadan. Certainly, have a fine Solstice or Saturnalia. Festivus for the rest of us for those Seinfeld fans (I don’t worship at that particular altar). I’m sure I’ve left some out. There are just so many religions; it’s hard for an atheist to keep track.

But I send each and every one of you Seasons’ Greetings – for whatever it means to you. That, after all, is the nature of communication. I send a message – containing what is meaningful to me – and you receive it and place your interpretation on it.

Some might say this is a war on Christmas. Which is to say, a war on exclusiveness. A war on imposing your particular religious views on everyone around you. Which, if you are an evangelical whatever, is exactly what your religion requires of you. I say whatever, because proselytization is not simply a Christian thing.

Anyway, all I’m really trying to say is that I grok this Christmas thing. Or things. It is, after all, a very amorphous event. Celebrated at solstice (or damn close to it) despite the fact the birth being celebrated was almost certainly a spring one (shepherds in their fields or big clue: Lamb of God; lambs being born in the spring). There was a lot of competition with other holidays and if you weren’t doing the solstice thing, you weren’t doing it right. I often wonder what would have happened if all these religions had been born at the equator where the solstice is just another day.

Then, of course, there are all those northern European tie-ins. Christmas trees and lights – bringing nature indoors, which by the way is specifically condemned in the Bible. And of course Santa Claus, who has as much to do with Krampus as Saint Nicholas (‘he knows if you’ve been bad or good’ is kind of a threat of punishment, isn’t it?).

For those who think Christmas has become too commercial – that part is in the Bible. Those three wise guys didn’t exactly stint on the birthday gifts. Gold and incense is kind of neat but myrrh? Wasn’t that used in embalming? Well, I guess they knew what was coming; they were Magi after all (which is just a fancy word for magician or fortune-teller).

But none of it really matters. I like it when people wish me Merry Christmas and I like to wish it back at them. Because what they are really wishing me is peace, joy and happiness. What they are hoping for is a new beginning better than the last messed up year. Why would anyone object to that? Sure a few cranky curmudgeons might get their knickers in a knot and proclaim their atheism from the mountaintop but who cares? They are no more fun than those supersensitive church goers who find offence at everything.

So Merry Christmas or whatever it is you celebrate. And if you don’t celebrate anything? I wish you well, my friend, I wish you well.

And that’s ten minutes (which is taking a few days off for Christmas).