The Infinite Chain of Causality

Not to get all philosophical on you, but do you ever ponder much about the concept of cause and effect? “Zzzzzz,” you’re thinking to yourself. What’s this idiot on about this week? Bear with me for a moment and I’ll see if I’m able to connect the dots for you.

Several weeks ago, a longtime friend and I were sitting outside the Rogers Centre in Toronto, waiting to watch my beloved Blue Jays get hammered one more time before the players headed off for another long winter of golf. As we munched on our traditional pre-game street meat treat, somehow we got onto the topic of our friendship, which dates back to a particularly random introduction over 30 years ago.

The two of us were both attending an interview session for a popular college program in Kitchener-Waterloo, hoping to be two of just 25 applicants selected from a group of several hundred hopefuls, which, in turn, had already been narrowed down from multiple hundreds more.

Just prior to the interview, I’d realized that, after flying more than a thousand miles to be there, I’d left my entire portfolio back at my hotel room, which was far, far across town. I must have had a particularly dejected look on my face because, suddenly, another potential student came up to ask if I was having a problem.

I explained my dilemma and this kindly stranger offered to drive me back to the hotel and retrieve my missing portfolio. Long story short, this Good Samaritan not only got me to my interview on time, but the pair of us ended up in the same program and became lifelong friends.

Take away any tiny thread in that anecdote and the result is that we never get to know each other – and our lives both take off in completely different directions. Cause and effect, my friends.

But, the story hardly ends there. A few years later, while working in Sarnia, a buddy of mine who lived in Kitchener at the time invited me to come spend the weekend celebrating the 40th birthday of a common friend, who just happens to be the above-mentioned Good Samaritan. Not so strange, you’re thinking. Oh, just wait.

The buddy also happens to have a roommate, someone I had formally worked with in Sarnia. On the same precise weekend, the roommate’s girlfriend just happened to invite her own best friend from Sarnia for a visit.

If you’re wondering where this is all leading, let’s jump ahead a bit. The roommate’s girlfriend and I ended up staying at the same house in Kitchener on the same weekend, hit it off, fell in love, got married, had three wonderful children and, somehow, landed back here where, some quarter-century later yours truly is writing this very column that you’re reading at this precise moment.

So, now you’ve heard the effect of a chance meeting way back in 1981 that would have never happened if, somehow, my friend and I hadn’t both been fated to arrive at exactly the same interview 33 years ago.

But, as my friend pointed out the other week at the Rogers Centre, why stop there? Why not consider the circumstances that led us both to be there on that serendipitous day? Why had I decided to apply for this particular course after being out of school for a year and wondering where I wanted to go with my life? Why had my friend decided to go back to school years and years after working in a civil service job? And how many millions of causes and effects had to take place for our paths to intersect precisely when they did?

Think of your own life and how you ended up where you are at this exact moment. Think of all the causes and effects of all the decisions you’ve made in your life – and exactly how they all link together. And when you’re done that, think back to your parents and what led them to create you in the first place. Or the parents of your spouse or your friends.

Why stop there? Why not consider your parents’ parents and their parents and all the generations that came before them? If any of these dozens or thousands or millions of people you’re considering had made even one tiny alteration in their lives, how would the effects have changed the course of their existence and, in turn, your ultimate existence?
Deep stuff, huh?

As my friend and I finished our snacks and proceeded to return our thoughts to the present, it was with an infinitesimally enlarged perspective of what had brought us to this point in our lives. There is a mystical, magical, spiritual chain that links my friend and I together – and every person who has been part of that chain. Our past, our present and our future are inextricably joined in a great continuum built from the millions of causes and millions of effects that have occurred during the roller coasters of our lives – and long before we were born.

I won’t be with my friend when he celebrates his birthday on October 8th. Perhaps we won’t even talk on the phone or exchange e-mails. But, we will be bonded together nonetheless, just as we have been for more than three decades and, reaching back, as we’ve likely been conjoined for many millennia before that in ways we’ll never know. All courtesy of the infinite chain of causality.

Advertisements

An Unfortunate Love Affair

Hockey. Maple syrup. Freedom. Nature’s beauty. Whining about the weather. There are so many things Canadians love. And then there’s the thing we love the most. It’s a little something called debt. We’re positively enamoured of the stuff, just can’t get enough and savour it so much we just keep adding more.

According to a recent Maclean’s magazine article by columnist Jason Kirby entitled Canada’s Fatal Attraction to Debt, our total household debt jumped from $360 billion in 1990 to over $1.7 trillion last year, a staggering increase.

What’s causing our insatiable passion for credit? It’s easy to point the finger in several directions but, honestly, there’s one overwhelming cause: low interest rates. Looking at a graph accompanying Kirby’s article, it’s amazing how closely a rise in household debt to disposable income has mirrored a similar decrease in five-year mortgage rates since 1990.

It’s absolutely undeniable that low interest rates have led to a feeding frenzy of increased debt. Kirby says it’s like watching a movie called How Canadians stopped worrying and learned to love the debt bomb.

Despite warning after warning that interest rates are bound to rise sometime soon, most of us have grown immune to such predictions. After all, the rates have been virtually locked at historic lows for so many years, anyone who forecasts an increase is generally dismissed. As Kirby says, “We’re pretty much at the point now where it’s just accepted interest rates will stay low.”

But, betting that will happen and, consequently, that we’ll all be enjoying what Kirby calls “essentially free money” for years to come is a dangerous risk.

The columnist gives a generic example of a young couple earning $100,000 and wanting to purchase a home with a 25-year mortgage. Using the accepted guideline of not devoting more than 32 percent of your income to housing costs, the couple would have been eligible to borrow $200,000 in the days of 10 percent mortgage rates, which, although it may seem hard to imagine for some, was roughly the average rate over the last 40 years.

Instead, with rates today hovering around three percent, that same couple would now be able to borrow $300,000, 50% more than in the past. If they did, they’d be paying roughly $1,420 a month. However, should rates increase to that historic 10 percent mark, their monthly payments would balloon to something like $2,700. If you’re a new homeowner, try to imagine how that would affect your life.

And, of course, the same holds true for everything we buy. As Kirby points out, “An era of low rates has desensitized borrowers to the risks inherent in carrying too much debt. A whole generation of young Canadians has come of age in an era when no bungalow, renovated kitchen cabinets or TV is ever truly out of reach.”

There’s little doubt that the entire world’s economy is one giant house of cards. It wasn’t too long before the recession hit in late 2007 that many countries, including the U.S. and most of Europe, were considered to have booming economies that, ostensibly, showed no signs of collapse. Then BOOM!

For a few short years, there were some tough reality checks where credit dried up, houses were repossessed and much of Europe was revealed to be a virtual economic sinkhole. Then things started turning around again and – voila – people returned to their same old ways.

In Canada, due to a highly regulated banking industry and some relatively prudent government schemes, we were spared the worst of the recession’s woes and some people took a small breather from spending like drunken, financially-lobotomized sailors. But, that tendency was short-lived and now we’re pretty much back to where we started pre-recession.

The one saving mercy for all of us is that interest rates continue to hold steady, long after it was predicted over and over and over by economists and other financial geniuses that they would rise. Now, even the most rabid predictors of interest rate increases are hedging their bets, saying it could happen in 2015 or the next year or the year after that.

It doesn’t much matter. As Kirby concludes so eloquently: “Central banks have consistently proven themselves incapable of spotting bubbles. It happened in the U.S. It will happen here. And when the consensus among economists, and more importantly, borrowers, is for rates to stay low, it’s a safe bet they’ll be proven wrong. The story of Canada’s love affair with debt has all the makings of a cliffhanger, and those who’ve overextended themselves are standing at the precipice.”

Don’t miss the surprise ending to this spine-chilling thriller. I hear it’s a real shocker. Or maybe not so shocking at all.

 

 

Read All About It

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the CBC. To be honest, I can’t even remember the last time I turned on either CBC Television or Radio. How about you? I imagine if you enjoy hockey or The National or some of CBC’s radio programs, you can count yourself as a supporter. Certainly, I’m not an advocate of disbanding either service, as it’s always nice to know they’re there if you ever need or want them.

On the other hand, I receive several daily news summaries from CBC in my email, which help give me their perspective on what’s going on in the news, arts, etc. So, it’s not like I’ve shut the Corporation out of my life entirely.

There’s one initiative they’re involved with that does excite me, however. It’s called Canada Reads and it’s been operating on CBC Radio since 2001. Each year, the program covers a different theme and involves narrowing down a list of Canadian books that listeners and a panel choose as best representing that theme.

For Canada Reads 2014, they’re looking for the one novel that could change the nation or, perhaps, even the world. A long list of 40 books chosen by Canadians was revealed last October 24th. People voted to narrow that number down to a Top 10.

That list was given to the 2014 panelists, who have the task of defending their choice during a series of debates that air on CBC Radio and CBC-TV from March 3rd to the 6th. They’ll also be streamed online. One at a time, the panelists will narrow the list down until only the winner remains.

In the past, I’ve only glanced briefly at the nominees. However, this year I seem to have a little more invested. That’s probably because I had already read two of the five novels and was actually reading a third at the exact moment when the list was released. Since then, I’ve completed a fourth.

So, who are these mysterious nominees?

In alphabetical order by author, the first is The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood, who is by far the most famous and recognizable name on the list and generally regarded as Canada’s finest novelist. This is the only one of the five books I haven’t read, as it’s in a genre, science fiction, that I have a lot of trouble getting my head around. Atwood’s book about a future world that emerges following a manmade pandemic will be defended by Stephen Lewis, a longtime leader of Ontario’s NDP, but now known as one of Canada’s most prominent philanthropists.

The second nominee, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, is also the most recent, having been released last September. Boyden is probably my favourite current Canadian novelist and this is an interesting and controversial book set during the early history of Canada and involving the crossed paths of three characters: a Jesuit missionary, a Huron elder and a young Iroquois girl. It’s been attacked by segments of the religious community, the native community and just about everyone else, so you know what you’re getting into. And there’s a lot of violence, so be forewarned. It will be defended by Wab Kinew, a journalist, aboriginal activist and hip-hop artist.

Next on the list is Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. It’s not often I remember exactly where I was when I read a book but, in this case, I recall being on vacation in the sunny south and absolutely loving this novel, which tells the story of young, black German jazz musician’s disappearance during World War II. It’s written in a “jazz language,” if that makes sense and is a wonderful piece of literature that deservedly won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Two-time Olympic gold medal winning runner Donovan Bailey will defend the book.

It’s been a long time since I read Cockroach by Rawi Hage, but it’s managed to stick with me pretty well because of its dark, unsettling nature. It captures the life of a recent immigrant during one bitterly cold month in Montreal. The lead character, who imagines himself a cockroach, lives on the edge of society as a petty criminal eking out a marginalized existence. While searching out some summaries of the book, I noticed it was described as a black comedy for teens and young adults, but I’m not sure it’s a book that youngsters would necessarily be drawn to. In any case, it will be defended by comic, actor and writer Samantha Bee, who’s been a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for more than a decade.

Finally, there’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter, which I just finished reading a couple of weeks ago, so I can offer a very fresh perspective on it. This is a heart-wrenching story of a child who is born hermaphroditic (both boy/girl), but raised as a boy, with disturbing and sad results. It’s a book that has moments of both extreme tenderness and ugly brutality, but one I also think will remain with me forever. Sarah Gadon, a young Canadian actress who’s starting to make a big name for herself in Hollywood (with five movies set to come out in 2014), will champion Annabel.

It will be interesting to see how each of the celebrities defends the book they’ve chosen. It’s one thing to enjoy a novel, but to debate how that book might change Canada or the world is something entirely different. Excluding Atwood’s book, which I haven’t read, I’d lean towards either Boyden’s or Winter’s, mainly because the issues of native rights and sexual equality will continue to play huge roles in our country’s future.

In any case, the choice in this battle of the books will be an interesting one, as each of the novels speaks in an entirely different voice and, without a doubt, definitely has the potential to change Canada. Read on!

 

Warm Thoughts In The Dead Of Winter

It’s hard to find much good to say about last week’s extreme frigidity. Offhand, the only thing that lightens my mood when it’s -25 C out is the reappearance of the anti-climate change Luddites. I’m talking about the diehard few who cling to the completely debunked idea that global temperatures aren’t continuing to climb at an alarming rate.

Nothing brings these folks out of hiding like a record-setting cold snap. Refrains of “Whatever happened to your global warming?” were all the rage last week, rising meteorically in equal proportion to the plummeting temperatures outside.

I appreciate the fact that many of these people are just joking. It’s their winter equivalent of “Hot enough for you?” in the dog days of summer – and, just like that popular slogan, it gets tired mighty fast.

Like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, these “denialists” claim glaciers aren’t melting, snow cover isn’t disappearing, spring isn’t coming earlier, humidity isn’t rising, temperatures over lands and oceans aren’t increasing, sea levels aren’t rising, sea ice and ice sheets aren’t disappearing, oceans aren’t warming, species aren’t migrating and tree-lines aren’t moving poleward and upward.

Thankfully, the number of misinformed individuals continues to decline – and worldwide acceptance of manmade climate change continues to grow. Apparently, all it took was a series of epic extreme weather incidents to make a large chunk of the few remaining naysayers change their opinions.

That’s especially true with Americans, a nation that often seems to thrive on dismissing everything that’s happening around them. After a series of cataclysmic events, including Hurricane Katrina (over 1,800 dead, $81 billion in damage, according to Wikipedia), Hurricane Sandy (nearly 300 dead, $68 billion in damage and massive flooding), drought (the current one is called the largest natural disaster in American history) and record-setting heat waves, the number of climate change deniers in that country may soon drop to less than 10%. Hallelujah.

It’s always nice to see Americans catching up to the rest of the world, considering the untold destruction and loss of human life that’s already occurred in other parts of the planet, directly or indirectly caused by climate change.

Personally, I knew the tide was turning when one of the last bastions of global warming denial crumbled last year. In my case, I’d be talking about my 86-year old father who I always assumed would drown underneath a melting polar ice cap while holding a placard that said, “Climate Change Is A Hoax.” I nearly fell off my soapbox when he informed me that, “There might be something to this global warming after all.” Miracles never cease.

Like many popular hoaxes, the anti-climate change folks still cling to the junk science that exists on the Internet, although the remaining websites that promote this crud are starting to look like projects some college pranksters might have designed when they were both extremely wasted – and terminally bored.

It was priceless to see right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh hit the crackpot jackpot last week after he claimed scientists had made up the idea of a “polar vortex” to explain the frigid temperatures. In Limbaugh’s words, “They’re relying on their total dominance of the media to lie to you each and every day about climate change and global warming.”

When the anti-climate change contingent is forced to rely on someone like Limbaugh to make its case, you know they’re in trouble. This is the same clown who regularly rants against women, African Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, any religion except Christianity, homosexuals, immigrants and anyone who’s not a member of the Republican Party. This is someone you want on your side? Why not hire Krusty the Clown? At least that clown’s got a sense of humour.

Thankfully for Limbaugh, he probably won’t be around in 20 years or so when the world starts to get really nasty. As if it isn’t already insufferable enough in many tropical countries where temperatures are making life nearly unlivable for much of the year, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. According to a study in the respected journal Nature, tropical countries like Indonesia will start experiencing regular, unprecedented heat waves just five years from now.

An article in USA Today from last October 10th, says these heat waves will start to affect much of the U.S. just 20 years later and will create a tipping point after which the temperatures will rise every year. The figures will break every record set in the last 150 years if climate conditions continue to change at their current pace. The study’s lead author says, “Whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.” Scary stuff.

It’s fun to make jokes about global warming – but man-made climate change will soon be anything except a laughing matter. Living in Canada, we may end up being insulated from some of the most radical changes for a few extra years. Right now, it’s rather enjoyable to have spring arrive earlier, winters pass faster, less snowfall and rainfall, and some of the other benefits we’re becoming accustomed to.

But, ask people in tropical countries what their lives are like today compared to what they grew up with – or talk to Americans in the drought-stricken regions – and you’ll gain a different appreciation for why climate change is something none of us should be looking forward to.

“Hot enough for you?” will no longer be a tired, summer catchphrase. Instead, it will be an inescapable reality. As the number of those opposed to the idea of manmade climate change dwindles and the temperatures skyrocket, it will be more than hot enough for everyone. And clowns like Rush Limbaugh will, no doubt, find someone else to blame for it.

 

13 Biggest Regrets Of 2013

New Year’s resolutions. We make them. We break them. We bend them. We shape them. Instead of resolutions, I prefer to look back on the previous year and think about what I could have done differently – ways I can make myself a better person. It’s probably a fool’s errand, but it gives me a stick to measure my life’s progress, even if I don’t like what I see down the road.

In that spirit, here are 13 regrets from the past year – and my weak attempts at why I think I can do better in 2014:

1) Working too many days: There’s a reason this is number one on the list. It’s because most of the other 12 items flow from this one issue. During the first 11 months of the year, I worked 316 out of a possible 334 days, taking off just 18 days – or about 1.5 per month. Not only is this bad for my home life, it also affects my ability to tell stories properly and cover what’s important in our communities. Something’s got to give. When there’s no balance between working and not working, life becomes a runaway train.

2) Not listening: There’s an old expression, “going in one ear and out the other.” People tell me something – whether it’s my wife, the people I’m interviewing, or even the annoying telemarketer trying to sell me a cruise to the Bahamas – and I nod my head, write it down and swear it will never leave my mind. Then, five seconds later, it’s like it never happened.

3) Being too long-winded: If you’re reading this, you know what I mean. Considering one of my jobs is “Editor,” I realize I do a pretty poor job of telling stories briefly. Write tight, Nixon.

4) Neglecting my friends: I have the most loyal friends in the world. Also the most patient, forgiving and undemanding. If you’re one of them and happen to be reading this, please accept my blanket apology for all the emails, letters, or phone calls I was supposed to return. Mea culpa.

5) Missing stories: In my full-time job at two small town newspapers, this is probably the biggest complaint I receive. I’m not talking about the “You missed covering my five-year old’s clarinet recital” variety, although we get plenty of those, too. I’m talking about the legitimate, newsworthy stories that, somehow, elude us. Those are the ones we really feel bad about – and also the ones we count on you to help us with. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not psychic, we don’t have some hidden news source, and things happen right under our noses we don’t even hear about. If you’ve got news, we trust our readers to tell us about it.

6) Not fixing my house: I’ve written about this before and, let me tell you, it’s not getting any better. This is probably one of the major victims of the “working too many days” syndrome. My poor house.

7) Not remembering names: Perhaps it’s just a variation on “not listening,” but when I meet someone for the fifth time and still can’t put a name to a face, it makes me think I have some rare medical condition that prevents me from being able to remember names. To the hundreds of people this happened to in the last year, I truly apologize, what’s-your-name.

8) Not following up on stories: They say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and that’s never truer than with news stories. I have such great intentions about following up on stories I’ve heard about, but as each week begins to snowball, the lesser items get buried deeper and deeper in the pile. Many people have discovered that whacking my head with a 2×4 is the best way to get me to do something. Painful, yet effective.

9) Bad eating habits: Maybe this is my way of saying I need to go on a diet and, therefore, just another typical New Year’s resolution, but working and driving so much has destroyed my ability to eat properly. How my stomach is still in one piece (or however many pieces it’s supposed to have) is an unsolvable mystery.

10) Breaking promises: As a person who prides himself on being reliable, honest and trustworthy, when I fail to follow through on something, it’s very hard on me – and something I vow not to do again – every single time I do it.

11) Falling behind on housework: Similar to “not fixing my house,” but probably even worse. Exhibit A – the unraked leaves in our backyard. And that’s just item number one on the world’s longest list.

12) Failing to stop and smell the roses: This can be combined with not learning how to relax. As the world flies by and the years pass more and more quickly, I realize every day how much of life I’ve missed – and is now lost forever.

13) Not spending enough time with my family: I talk a lot about my lovely wife and my three amazing kids. In reality, however, you’d be shocked to know how little time I actually spend with them. I could make a thousand excuses, but they’d never be enough to undo my neglect. Quite simply, I just have to do better. The 12 other regrets on this list are nothing compared to how I feel every time I let these four people down, because the rest of life would not be worth living without their love.

Becoming a better person is never easy – and having regrets isn’t the same as living your life the way it should be lived. Will 2014 mean an improved Eric Nixon? Only if I want it to be and work harder at making it happen. If that doesn’t occur, you’ll be forced to read my FOURTEEN biggest regrets this time next year. And, trust me, nobody wants that.

 

Gazing Into A Crystal Ball

Imagine being able to predict the future, knowing what lies ahead in your life and all the amazing changes that are in store for our world. This past week, I found an unread magazine in a kitchen cupboard and glanced briefly at the date, noticing it was from June. I got absorbed in a fascinating feature article about the history and future of Calgary before something suddenly seemed amiss and I checked the publication date again. As it turned out, I hadn’t looked closely enough, because the magazine actually turned out to be from June of 2012. Oops.

Unless you’ve been hiding out in a bomb shelter the last month, you know what kind of unprecedented maelstrom the great city of Calgary has been going through lately. Massive flooding, extended blackouts, a state of emergency and derailed freight trains are just some of the tests the residents have been put through. Somehow, they’ve still managed to pull it all together in time to hold their signature Calgary Stampede, which is a massive tribute to its citizens’ fortitude, resilience and positive attitude.

Of course, reading an article from last year, it was like none of this had ever happened – because, of course, it hadn’t yet. If that same article was written about the city today, it makes you wonder how differently it would have turned out.

Similarly, another article was about the financial and artistic success of Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil, the worldwide billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut. How things have changed in the 12 months since that article came out. In January, the company announced the layoff of 400 employees, close to ten percent of its workforce. On top of that, a veteran Cirque acrobat died during a performance in Las Vegas at the end of last month, the first fatality in the troupe’s nearly 30-year history.

Again, with those earth-shattering changes taking place, how would a story about the Cirque du Soleil be different if it was being written today, rather than being composed a year ago?

All of this made me ponder the precious, unpredictable nature of our lives. Day after day, we go about our business without giving much thought to what could possibly lie ahead. I am guiltier of this than just about anybody. Routinely, I take for granted my family, my friends, my health and, indeed, my very life. And I bet that applies to many people.

When our anniversary comes up each year, we might thank our spouse for being there for us. If our boss gives us a pat on the back or a small raise, it reminds us that we’re lucky to have a job. When Canada Day passes each year, we think about how fortunate we are to live in a free country with universal health care and a decent standard of living. But, for so many of our days we’re content to let life wash over us, without stopping to consider how quickly it could all be gone.

Not to be too dramatic, but everything we have, every single person we hold close to our hearts, all the tiny things that make our lives what they are could be gone in an instant. Boom. That’s it.

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” Although she may not be the world’s most eloquent philosopher, Oprah Winfrey was definitely on to something when she said those words.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big or wanting more, but it’s easy to get caught up in chasing rainbows – when many of those rainbows are already yours to enjoy. Right here. Right now. People used to say, “Take time to stop and smell the roses.” There are likely hundreds of other quotes and song lyrics and philosophies that restate the same premise in a different way.

However you want to say it, absolutely no one knows what’s around the next corner, let alone what the future holds down its long, winding, unpredictable path. All we can know for sure is what we have at this very moment – and how important it is to take every tiny morsel of our lives and celebrate it for all it’s worth. The party starts now.