Multicultural Christmas


Thinking Outside The Box

Our present trip to Mexico serves three purposes: 1) to visit family; 2) to monitor progress on a couple of houses we’re having built in an effort to not do actual work; and 3) to get our Mexican criminal record checks.

The family visit has gone well…ish…but then again, they never go perfectly do they?

The housing project is proceeding. All we’ve done so far is spend money, and sometimes I think that by the time we finish, humans will be living in space pods, not houses. Time will tell.

The criminal record check – la carta de antecedentes no penales – is a requirement because we’ve decided to adopt – I know! I’m just as surprised as you are – and we have to get criminal record checks for all places we’ve lived as adults.

I’ve dealt with bureaucracy here in the past, and I was spoiling for a fight with the office responsible for the maintenance of criminal archives. As it turns out, it went fairly smoothly…for my wife, who is Mexican.

I however, am not Mexican, and I thought I could get my carta by showing my passport and a few other minor bits of identification (they want proof of residence, e.g. phone bill, anything that shows where you actually live). Not so…I must also provide a copy of my birth certificate, which I didn’t bring with me.

I approached the coordinator – the man who patrols the long line of people waiting outside, in order to make sure they have their documents in order – and tried the Jedi mind trick.

Me: “You don’t need my birth certificate. Surely my passport suffices. After all, it’s an internationally recognized document that shows my date and place of birth.”

Him: “It’s the process”, he said. “We need to respect the process. You need your birth certificate. Can’t someone email a scanned copy down to you?”

Me: “No, I can’t, because it’s in a safe at home in Canada, and nobody has access.”

Him: “Are you sure you don’t have a copy somewhere?”

Me: “Yes. I’m sure. So, just to be clear, when I go all the way home, and come all the way back with my birth certificate, does it need to be translated into Spanish?”

Him: “That would help. But it’s not necessary. As long as it says where and when you were born. You don’t even have to bring the original, just a copy. Are you sure someone can’t get into the safe?”

Me (sarcasm and realizing the Jedi mind trick wasn’t going to work): “So if you don’t need the original, or a certified copy, or even a Spanish translation, I could basically go invent something on my computer and pretend it’s my birth certificate?”

Him: “No, that won’t work. We need to respect the process.”

In the end, my wife intervened. As the yin to my yang, she always does better in situations like this. And in the end, a compromise. Here’s how we’re going to ‘respect the process’. Once we get home, we’re going to email a scan of my birth certificate and the other required documents to a family member. That family member is going to call the coordinator on his cell phone (which he gave to us) to arrange a date and time when he’ll be working. Then they’ll go to the office with a power of attorney authorizing them to get my carta. Because he thinks that ‘should’ work.

I hate process. But at least this one has some elasticity, some imagination.

Here’s some more imagination. Everyone shows up at the office of criminal archives with their original documents. But the office only accepts copies and won’t make them for you. So, just around the corner, is the copy car…there’s a big photocopier in the back seat, another one in the front passenger seat, and two of the most efficient young entrepreneurs I’ve ever seen. They make a LOT of copies. I tried to do the math.

2 pesos per copy

2 copies per minute (minimum)

60 minutes per hour

8 hours per day

5 days per week

= 9600 pesos ($800 CAD) per week


You’ll note the extra battery hooked to the back of the car. Also that the car is registered as a taxi (see the plates). What the hell…put the copier in the trunk at the end of the day and pick up a few fares on the way home. Thinking outside the box.


Tis The Season


It was a time of great food. Pea soup and meat pies on Christmas Eve, a hearty brunch on the 25th, and a traditional turkey dinner. In between: home-baked treats, Japanese oranges, nuts, eggnog.

It was a sporting time: tobogganing, snowshoeing, pond-hockey, TV hockey, American college football. My father would occasionally reflect on the spiritual nature of the season:

Jesus Christ! Shoot the puck!

My Christmas traditions, such as they were, got shot all to hell when I married a Mexican, whose sister then married a German. Mexicans and Germans do everything on the 24th…dinner, gifts, the whole shebang. The 25th is now the day between Christmas and Boxing Day. My sister-in-law and Ze German are coming out this year for the holidays, and once again my rights and feelings will be trampled by the majority.

It’s just as well. By rights, I shouldn’t even be celebrating Christmas. As a lifetime non-believer, the religious underpinnings are of little significance to me. This didn’t present a problem until later in life, when I started to think about it a little more. At least if I were a believer, I’d have something to celebrate and it’d make sense. But I’m not, and I don’t, and it’s all a little fake. My rational skeptic side has difficulty seeing Christmas as anything other than a crass marketing scam in which a LOT of shit gets purchased unnecessarily, with very little thought, by people who have better things to do with their money.

Worse, perhaps, are the ostensibly religious types who adorn their houses with Santa paraphernalia and drive around with fuzzy reindeer antlers on their vehicles. It seems to me they shouldn’t be allowed to do that…pick one or the other, or accept that you’re spiritually bogus.

Speaking of superficiality, I’m writing this from Mexico (a place called Queretaro), where we’re visiting the in-laws. The other day, we went to a swank new shopping mall called the Antea Lifestyle Center. “Lifestyle Center” is Spanish for “shameless usage of a foreign language so as to appear more classy”. Kind of like Tuscany…not the place in Italy, but the Calgary suburb.

At any rate, the shopping centre was in full Christmas regalia: big fake tree, lots of lights, Santa booth (he’s Catholic, right?), and snow. Yes, snow! In central Mexico! In the form of little bits of soap froth, ejected from spray guns mounted in the mall’s roof structure while English-language Christmas carols played in the background. All this so people can stop for snow-scene poses and selfies, which can promptly be posted to social media saying,

Mira, estoy en el polo norte!

The fact that a certain class of Mexicans have chosen to borrow and recreate the Christmas snow theme is both comical and disappointing. It’s a testament to the global reach of brand power, and the plastic nature of some people.

The shopping centre is in stark contrast to the (rather excellent) old part of the city, where elements of a traditional and presumably more authentic Mexican Christmas abound: piñatas, handmade ornaments woven from corn leaves, religious icons, nativity scenes. No soap froth. It’s refreshing, even if you aren’t religious. And it’s packed with families enjoying a more meaningful Christmas environment. There’s hope.

Look, I don’t mean to be a Grinch. And I’m not immune to the nostalgia and the fun of Christmas (see below). But let’s at least be a bit skeptical, examine our motives, and keep it real, whatever our beliefs.

Merry Christmas.

Jan 5, 2014, Grañon Spain. A fellow Camino walker and I got roped into playing shepherds in the town’s Dia de Reyes (Day of the Kings) pageant. The Three Kings were played by Koreans…they did, after all, come from the East…


Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

SenecaIt is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

You will hear people saying: ‘When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.’ And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it?… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!

Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.

But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.

So it is inevitable that life will not be just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They will achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.

Peak Shite

I went for a walk downtown the other day. As one does, when there is no work to be done. Across the bridge, past the homeless shelter, past that bakery that I’ve been meaning to try, up to the high-end retail stores. The specialty soap company. The scented candle company. The year-round Christmas store with all the latest “classic” plastic ornaments. Precision kitchen accoutrements. Designer clothes. Etcetera. And it occurred to me, again, that there is a lot of superfluous shite being peddled.

I get it, though. People have done a bit of research. They’ve done some math. And they’ve said,

I want to make some money, and I’m going to make that money by selling utter shite to any fool willing to part with their money (and hence, their time). Whether or not they actually need my shite is of little concern, nor is the amount of packaging that goes around my shite, nor is the social usefulness of it…I just want to sell sufficient shite to enable me to buy some shite of my own.

Ah! Who am I to judge the social utility of scented candles, specialty soap, or plastic Christmas ornaments? In fact, as I look around our apartment, I can honestly say that 90% of what little we have left is not essential. I don’t need coffee, let alone three different methods of brewing it. I don’t need my bike, and I don’t need my camping gear. My camping gear is marginally more useful than scented candles, in that it’ll provide shelter when the system collapses.

But it begs the question, don’t you think? I mean, here we have the G20 leaders pledging to boost world economic growth by 2.1% through 2018, thereby creating demand and more quality jobs.

Growth toward what? Demand for what? More scented candles? Plastic reindeer? One would hope for a greater project, for a noble objective of growth, and for a deliberate, focused use of wealth and resources. Quality of life, better health care, more leisure. But no. Just plastic reindeer, scented candles, and cool t-shirts.

We’ll know we’ve reached Peak Shite when the growth rate of plastic reindeer production and sales crests, and subsequently falls below 2.1% per year.

At that point, I’ll start selling spears and shields from my tent.

The Dumbed-Down Smart Phone

As you know, I have a lot of free time these days. I have no “pressing matters” to speak of. No highly-anticipated emails or phone calls of great urgency or consequence.

And yet, like so many people, my phone has become an extension of my hand, and I constantly check my notifications. Why?

According to this article: dopamine.

This smartphone-hand-involuntary-temptation, as it is commonly referred to in the scientific vernacular, is further discussed in a CBC Spark podcast. I think you’ll find both the article and the podcast interesting. Spark is consistently thought-provoking, and worth your time.

To combat my growing notification addiction, I’ve decided to go cold cool turkey. I’ve disabled email and non-SMS text messaging on my phone, I’ve deleted the Twitter app, and I’ve hidden the browser icon. What I now have is a telephone (the number to which is known to my wife, my mother, and a handful of close associates), a map, a calculator, and a calendar.

Today was Day 1.

I feel better already.

Leadership, Revisited

The military equivalent of this would be the Colonel or Brigadier General going out on a foot patrol or a convoy with the troops. Sticking their balls out, as it were, and leading from the front. Functionally not required, yet morally necessary.

Again, here’s Uruguay’s Jose Mujica leading from the front.

The Best Of HDT, And Others

Henry_David_ThoreauToday, immediately after emailing back and forth with a friend about minimalism, I did the only practical thing: I went downtown and bought several books.

I have a particular weakness for books, notebooks, and pens. I didn’t actually intend to buy anything, I just went to the bookstore to peruse…in the same way a raging alcoholic might casually head down to the pub, stick his head under the tap, and pull the lever.

Mitigating my guilt is the fact that I don’t read fiction, therefore I convince myself that I’ll read my books more than once, or at least use them for reference. I’ve tried and failed to use e-books (whose pages you can’t flip back and forth between, whose margins you can’t scribble in, and whose corners you can’t bend) and so I’m sticking to the paper kind. Yes, I know, the environment…but we don’t have children, which means we enjoy a certain carbon neutrality.

[I’ve actually contemplated a carbon-trading scheme, whereby we sell the rights to our foregone children to wealthy, guilt-ridden parents who’ve exceeded their replacement limit. Find this offensive? Feel free to leave a comment.]

Inspired by the interview at Five Books that I mentioned, and somewhat ironically given my preceding b.s. about carbon trading, I picked up Walden And Other Writings. And not just because Thoreau had one of the coolest beards of all time, although that was a part of it.

I’ve just begun reading Life Without Principle, and realized once again that HDT is a non-stop fountain of quote material. I’ve decided to compile a “best-of” collection when I read. Stand by for such posts, in which Category = Quotes, Tag = name of author.

Spare Some Change?

As I was walking along the street today, I passed a middle aged guy standing on the corner.

“Spare some change?”

“Sorry man, can’t help you.”

He didn’t strike me as the type, to be honest, based on appearances.

Not more than three seconds later, another fellow, who did strike me as the type, approached the first guy.

“Spare some change?”

The look on the first guy’s face was priceless.

But it’s actually not very funny when you get right down to it.

The Bench

When my wife and I were recently married, we went through a period where “let’s accumulate as much unnecessary shit as humanly possible” dovetailed nicely with “let’s try to be fit”. And so we started buying all sorts of fitness equipment, because clearly it’s the equipment that makes the difference. Weights, a treadmill, a spinning bike.

We stopped short of buying one of those workout benches with the adjustable back. You know, like the one in your basement that you use as a clothes rack? Yeah, that one. In the grand scheme, it would have been a drop in the bucket, but at the time we felt it would represent a point of financial no return. Unlike the treadmill.

As it turns out, the unpurchased workout bench cost more than we could have imagined. Whenever we had the urge to buy something, we’d say “well, we didn’t buy the bench, so I guess we can afford this”. It became a running joke, to the extent that we were still saying it ten years later.

That was one expensive bench.

The urge to buy stuff never really goes away, and it can take superhuman discipline to overcome, especially when grand plans intersect with irrational exuberance. A case in point: shortly after moving to Victoria, we rented some sea kayaks and went for a really nice paddle. After we’d finished, I predictably started doing the math. Used kayaks: $1000 x 2; paddling accoutrements: $500; rack for car: $500. How many times would we have to rent kayaks to justify that? A mere 50 times!

“Christ, honey, we can’t afford not to buy kayaks.”

Thankfully, Sofia is no fool. “Okay, when you’ve gone kayaking 50 times we’ll talk.”

We’re not getting the kayaks.

But we’ve finally replaced the bench.