Boxing Day


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.

Faith, Hope and Love


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.

Coming Home


Over the course of sixty years I’ve lived in 8 towns or cities covering four provinces and two territories. I’ve visited, sometimes for extended periods, every other province and territory in Canada, about 15 American states and parts of 9 other countries. I’ve been around – not as much as some but enough to know what it’s like to try to figure your way around someplace new. Enough to know what it’s like to finally come home.

My trips have always been my choice – moving for school or work or because I wanted to live someplace new, visit someplace different. I’ve relished the difference, the smells and flavours of new places, the sound of new languages, the different landscapes and the line of buildings that mark one culture from another. There have been surprises and occasional shocks. I’ve witnessed almost everything the human race has to offer – joy, generosity, fear, violence, happiness, grief, riches and poverty. More than anything I’ve witnessed the desire we all seem to share for normalcy, peace and a better life for ourselves and our children.

Not that I have children but I understand the concept.

I’ve lived a fortunate life to see all that and still be walking around, mostly whole and unharmed. I’ve had my moments when I feared my luck would end – but so far, so good.

Not everyone has been so lucky. People who have faced natural disaster, economic and social collapse, war and the grinding life of poverty have seldom seen much more than the doom that hovers over them, that threatens to end their lives and their children’s’ future in a flash. They do not move by choice, do not visit to experience something new; they do not even migrate with the expectation of a better life. They run, they hide and then they run some more.

When they arrive at our doorstep we can choose to react in one of two ways – with fear or with generosity. In the drudgery of our own hard – but incredibly privileged – lives we may forget what it is like to lose everything – home, community, friends, family, children – may have forgotten how desperate we might be to cling to a dying parent or a job we loved. Our losses pale in comparison, but it is in our loss of memory that we risk losing the most important thing we have – our humanity.

These days, it makes me so proud to be a Canadian, to watch my Prime Minister personally greet refuges from Syria, to watch my fellow citizens open their arms and their pocketbooks to help people who can no longer help themselves. I know that we will be better because of what we are doing right now. This is a lesson we have learned in the past but it is a lesson others seem to have forgotten.

Fear is a terrible thing. The people fleeing war and terror know it full well. They have looked fear in its face and understood what it promises them. But they persevere. Who are we – so comfortable in our perceived First World insecurity — to do less? What does it really cost to say: Welcome Home?

But that’s ten minutes.



Being Social


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.



They say that lottery winners are inundated with requests for help. Literally hundreds or thousands of e-mails, phone calls, appeals on Facebook or notes in the mail. Some people have to go into hiding; others erect a stony faced defence. Some of the requests are from con artists or crazies but most, it seems, are genuine, people who are desperate and in need and don’t understand why some people should have all the good luck while they have all the bad.

As an alternative to prayer, asking money from complete strangers probably seems like a reasonable thing to do.

Of course, you don’t have to be a lottery winner to feel overwhelmed with pleas for help. Rich people — I’m told by the few I know — get similar requests all the time. Not all at once but in a steady stream. Those who are rich enough and human enough generally set up foundations  or give a significant amount of their money to charity, not to deal with individual requests but to set up support systems or to address the underlying causes — poverty, illness, drug addition, poor education — that lie at the root these problems. You know, the kinds of things civilized states generally deal with. The other rich people crow about how deserving they are and say screw you to the rest. Sadly, there is no hell to consign them to.

But most of us aren’t rich; a lot are just scraping by. What can average person do? We don’t have time and energy (let alone money) to answer all the appeals. And there are plenty to answer. Requests for money to save the children of Nepal — I got three of those today — or, more locally, to buy tickets to an event to stop cyber bullying or help a family who was burnt out of their apartment. It seems endless.

And that doesn’t even count the immediate personal things, like helping friends dealing with illness or who have fallen on hard times for no reason other than the struggles of trying to live.

Sometimes it seems so easy just to ignore it — especially the silent appeals, the requests that aren’t really requests. We all know people who suffer in silence and sometimes we think they want to be left alone. They don’t. But they may be embarrassed or they may be proud or they may be afraid. That’s when it is up to us to go that one extra step.

No is an easy word to say. Yes isn’t much harder. So, if you have a friend of family member in need of help, reach out. It can be as simple as a phone call or a visit, a night out or a night away from their troubles, a little cash if that’s what it takes or a casserole. Kind words — however clumsily delivered — are like gold. That family that got burnt out — surely you have something in your closet or garage they could use. Or cash — skip coffee out for a week and you’d be surprised. Give it locally or give it to the children of Nepal. Volunteering at the food bank cuts both ways — you help but you also learn to be thankful for what you have.

Not everyone has a few dollars kicking around. Yet, I’ve often seen those with little be the most generous of all — with their time, their energy, their love and, most of all, their kindness. I can think of a few billionaires who could learn about life from them.

But that’s ten minutes.

Positive Thinking


Relentless optimism is a pain in the ass. The idea that we should always face the world with a smile on our face — no matter how dismal the day might be — is advice that will occasionally illicit murderous responses.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m mostly a glass is half full kind of guy. In fact I’d even say that the glass was designed only to be half full in any case. Maybe that’s because I’m usually talking about red wine glasses. Whatever — they aren’t whine glasses.

Still, telling people to think positively when they are dealing with real problems is seldom helpful. There were times in my own life and in the lives of my closest intimates when things really weren’t going well — struggles with health, money, feelings that the world was out to get us (which as it turned out wasn’t true though some individuals in that world were). My ex-wife and I would take turns saying to each other: “Buck up, buckaroo!” as a sort of sarcastic acknowledgment that sometimes all you really can do is smile through the tears. But the smile doesn’t make the pain go away.

Still, for myself, as bad as things go, I usually bounce back. Or else I walk away. There have been times when my situation was simply so grim, with so little likelihood of improvement, that walking away, leaving behind everything was the easiest or at least less painful option. But I’ve talked about that before.

There are, in fact, some things you can’t walk away from. Ill health has this nasty habit of following you wherever you go. In those cases all you can do is try to get better or, if it is chronic, adapt to the condition, as I’ve tried to adapt to asthma and arthritis. I’ve known lots of people who have arrived at a place where their life is simply their life. They make the best of it and, often, they do amazing things. But they don’t get there by having their able-bodied or mentally healthy friends telling them to put on a happy face.

Some have argued that our way of dealing with cancer is plagued with a disease of optimism. People are told that the best way to tackle illness is to fight it, to have a positive attitude, to not give in to feelings of despair. Like paranoia, despair is sometimes just clear thinking. I happen to think that proper treatment — surgery, radiation, chemo — plus efforts at ‘wellness’ such as good food, exercise and the unconditional (that is unpreachy) love of others is more helpful. It doesn’t always work.

Then relentless optimism is a form of blaming — if you don’t get well, it must be a problem with your attitude. And when you have to face the fact you might be dying, who really needs that extra burden of guilt and shame?

And that’s ten dyspeptic minutes.

10 Ways to Change the World


Everyone wants to change the world — some for the worse but most for the better. But it seems so daunting. The world is a big place and it’s hard to know where to start. Since I love to be helpful, here’s a list.

The first and easiest thing you can do is give money. Whoa, you say, I can’t afford that. Sure, you can. It doesn’t have to be much. Even $5 a month makes a difference (it can feed a person or even a family for a day) and you can do it the easy way through an automatic deduction from your bank or credit card. Give more if you can. You might have to cut back on some of the luxuries of life but we can all do with fewer donuts.

Really can’t give money? Give time. Find a worthwhile organization that reflects your values and donate some time. It could be a shift sorting groceries at the local food bank or an afternoon going door-to-door for a charity. Got mobility issues, you can work on a phone bank from your home. It has been estimated that if every American donated 5 hours a month of their time to fight poverty, homelessness and illiteracy — all three could be wiped out in 3 years.

Charity not you bag? Join a political party. Work to see people you believe in get elected to office. They take money too and what you will discover is that they listen to the views of the people who work for them. Get sufficiently engaged and you will find yourself on local policy making committees.

Practical and private things are more appealing? Spend a day walking through your neighbourhood picking up litter. Or seeing if some of your neighbours need some chores done that they can’t do themselves because of age and infirmity.

On the most personal note, learn to listen. Learn to sympathize while avoiding the need to interfere. Men are prone to mansplaining while women are prone to wanting to ‘take care of people.’ I discovered from years of constituency work that the first thing a person with a problem needs and wants is validation that what they are going through is real and it’s wrong. Worry about fixing it later (or better yet, helping them fix it.)

Of course we all know that we can reduce, reuse and recycle. Walk instead of drive three times a week. It will reduce pollution and make you healthier as well. Keep your cell phone an extra year. Disposal of electronics is a growing crisis for the environment. Those things are full of poisonous materials.

Times running out so here are four more in brief. Write to a politician about an issue you think needs fixing. A personal letter has a hundred times the impact of a petition. Just make sure you are polite and well-reasoned and researched. Letters to the editor are a good idea too — not just snarky flames on the comment sections but well-argued and brief letters. It expands the ideas being debated. Go to a public meeting and engage in the topic; join a peaceful protest; go out on a limb and set an example of activism.

Finally, and maybe most important, be kind to your family, friends, your community, complete strangers, the world. Avoid anger and hate. Refuse to be afraid. Change the world.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes because changing the world doesn’t happen overnight.

Newfoundland Sorrow


I’ve been to Newfoundland (really just St. John’s) four times — twice during my art education phase and once on Senate business, studying the oil industry. But it is the first visit — the one a week after my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer — that colours them all.

It was December 1995. Lynne had discovered a lump while showering on the day of her thesis defence. She said nothing to me — or to anyone else — but went to the defence, kicked ass and came home with her Master’s degree. It was Friday, so we had a party. On Monday, she went to her doctor and that night told me that she was scheduled for a biopsy the following Monday.

Given her age (41) and the rapidity of the lump’s growth (it hadn’t been there three months before during her exam), the biopsy was done in the morning and the results were delivered that afternoon. Stage 2 but aggressive.

They offered to do the surgery that week but we had a trip planned to Newfoundland to visit Lynne’s closest friends before going on to Nova Scotia to spend Christmas with my family. We had put a lot of resources — time and money — into the trip and she refused to give it up. The doctors agreed that there was no harm waiting a few weeks (it actually was optimal because it would then occur in the middle of her menstrual cycle — maximizing chances of success) so a few days later we were off to St. John’s.

Lynne was determined that the trip would be fun and focussed on our friends who were in Newfoundland teaching at Memorial on a term assignment. They weren’t all that happy and she didn’t want to make them unhappier.

So we didn’t say a word for four days. We visited museums and shops, climbed Signal Hill in the fog, ate and drank and listened to music at their house — a beautiful old place on the waterfront — or at the many bars and restaurants scattered through downtown.

Winter often comes late to St. John’s and so it was that year. It was mild — I doubt if it ever is warm there, at least not based on subsequent trips — with a couple of beautiful clear days, the sun shining like gems on the harbour, plus some real low overcast days with the banks of fog moving in and out with the tide. It was, in a word, perfectly beautiful. It was Newfoundland.

But sun or cloud it was all coloured with a deep shade of blue and the weight of impending doom.

On our final night there we broke the news. There was wine mixed with the tears but as the night progressed there was also love and laughter. That colours my memory, too.

Lynne was lucky. Her cancer was effectively treated and she is still well to this day, though we are no longer together. But I can never think of Newfoundland without thinking of that first visit and her toughness and tenderness. And the sorrow — not for her, but for those who weren’t so lucky.

And that’s ten minutes.

Christmas Music


People who think they know me are often surprised to discover that I like Christmas music. They are shocked to learn that I have nearly 200 albums. This, of course, is a paltry collection — Manny Jules, former chief of the Kamloops First Nation once told me he had 900. My mind boggled and my secret Santa got jealous.

How can someone who is not only an atheist but a secular empiricist, who demands that nothing— whether in science or politics — should be taken without proof, like Christmas music so much? It’s not for the mystical qualities. I’m not in the least connected to anything that can’t be measured; people who have called me spiritual may recall the blank bemused stare I gave them and my remark of: You’re projecting your own insecurities.

Yet I do like Christmas music. I find it entertaining, often moving, sometimes amusing, And fun to hum along with. Though what I call Christmas music might not pass muster with those whose experience is limited to Church choirs and shopping malls.

One of my favorites of all time is from rocker, Melissa Etheridge whose riff on O Holy Night is truly divine. It manages to merge pure secular values of optimism and action with both pagan and Christian themes of the solstice/Christmas season.

Then there is Little Drummer Boy — one of the most often performed but frequently most annoying of all songs of the season. It shot up my list as a seasonal favorite because my friend, George Roseme, who walked into the woods and died about seven years ago, hated it so much. He would moan and cover his ears when it played and curse the musician for performing it. So, now, whenever I hear it, I think of George. It is one of the bittersweet memories of Christmas for me.

There are some strange ones too. Every one points to the Pogues, “Christmas in New York” as particularly disturbing but it has nothing on Henry Rollin’s recital of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Some music is so bad it holds a weird fascination. All of Bob Dylan’s Christmas album is strange, some of it horrifying and it is hard to know if he is being sincere or sinister. Then there is the Jethro Tull Christmas. The less said about that, the better. And I certainly have my limits when it comes to rank sentimentality: I can’t listen all the way through to “The Cat Carol.

I also love the ethereal beauty of the classics when they performed with delicacy and grace. Libera, the international boys’ choir, is particularly good at that but I’d also recommend Katherine Jenkins and the Canadian Measha Brueggergosman.

But one of my favorite songs is the little known ‘Boy from the Woods.‘ For me it captures the purest secular values of kindness, charity and altruism and the philosophy of ‘pass it on.’ Yet, if you want, you can accept it as a religious song, too. The writing is so clever that either interpretation works and is emotionally satisfying.

But that’s ten minutes. (Merry Christmas)

Christmas Cheer(less)


I spent last evening at a Christmas concert at the NAC. The Skydiggers, a band that has been performing for over 25 years, promised a slightly different take on the Christmas season — the one experienced by the lonely, the ill, the destitute, the unhappy. As the lead singer, Andy Maize, said: you can’t have joy without understanding sorrow.

There is a real truth to that. While we  — most of us , or at least the most visible of us — go around, eating and drinking and shopping and partying, filling the churches in some cases, singing songs and being with friends, we should remember those for whom this Christmas, maybe every Christmas (and substitute whatever holiday your culture might celebrate) is nothing but misery and heartbreak.

I thought about the family of Nathan Cirillo, for example, who must carry on despite the terrible murder of their son. But they are not alone. Many families struggle at the holidays when someone close dies in the weeks or months before this great celebratory season comes upon us.

My sister-in-law’s mother died a few days ago and I know that she and my brother and their kids — all of whom are great lovers of the festive season— will have a blue Christmas this year. I still remember the struggle my family had when we had to carry on with Christmas a few weeks after my father died suddenly — us boys going through the motions while my mother sat red-eyed on the sofa by the tree.

It all seems hollow in those circumstances; your grief overwhelms all your traditions. Yet, we tried to carry on (that phrase keeps coming up) because we didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s good time. Sometimes I feel that the entire cheeriness of the holidays is one big fake — everyone feeling miserable while trying to appear jolly for the sake of those around us.

I personally am the most Christmas loving atheist you will ever meet. I love the music and the decorations and the gift giving. But I also love the feeling for others that seems more intense at this time of year — though these are feelings we should embrace and welcome year around. The spirit of giving can extend beyond our own small circle.

But not everyone wants to be given to. Some people want to be left alone to their sorrow, not the addressee of your insistence to be merry. Try sympathy instead. And some people don’t want to be the Bob Cratchit to our generous reformed Scrooge. Receiving charity often feels diminishing. No one wants to go to a food bank; no one wants to see their children hungry either.

If the Christmas spirit really meant anything it should mean that justice prevails — not mercy, not charity, certainly not mere hope. But those are useful, too.

So, on that cheery note, merry Christmas. There are still a couple of weeks to go. Go out and do something. Give a present to the world by making it a little more just and a little more kind. Hold a food drive at your Christmas party (as my friend Marie did). Listen to your better self and do something. It’s what Santa would want.

And that’s ten minutes.