Christmas eve at YYZ

I wake up with a start.

It's 3am. Christmas Eve.

At least I got a few minutes of sleep on these airport benches.

I decide to collect by bags and head toward the ticket counter to see if I can get my boarding pass for the last leg of my journey. Just 36 hours ago I was leaving Hong Kong. It has been a long trip filled with flight delays and cramped intercontinental flights.

As I round a corner, I hear a woman crying. Not just crying, sobbing. This is not the crying of a person who is love sick or homesick. This is the kind of sobbing that reaches deap into your soul. This is the cry of a person stricken with grief.

She is trying to talk on a cell phone with one hand. The other covering her mouth with disbelief. A young woman, barely 20, awkwardly has her arm wrapped around the weeping woman. Someone from airport authority is standing a respectful distance and talking into her walkie-talkie.

I take a deep breath. I know what this feels like. I want to help, but there is nothing I can do that will fix this. I want to offer her the prayers from the book of common prayer that I once committed to memory - prayers to console, and to greave.

That was a different lifetime. I cannot offer the prayers that I no longer believe in. It would be hollow. It would be demeaning.

Instead I pass by and stand in line to check in. I can still hear her in the distance. Soon an ambulance pulls up in front of the terminal with its lights flashing. Two paramedics and a gurney come through the doors.

I can see a host of airport personnel congregating near where I think the woman is. I turn my back for a moment and when I return my focus on the scene, I catch a glimpse of the paramedics navigating the gurney through the sliding doors. I can't tell if it is occupied or not, but it looks like it is taking a little more effort to navigate.

The ambulance pulls away and the flashing lights become only a memory.

A teenager with a surf board passes by oblivious. A family passes where the woman was, dressed in shorts, looking eager to spend Christmas somewhere tropical. The world goes on.

"Merry Christmas," I think.

Another deep breath. I exhale the brewing emotion of the moment as I fumble for my passport.

"Just two bags to check in for you today sir?"



I've only been in Shenzhen for a couple of hours but I already miss Beijing. Actually it's not that I miss Beijing; I just don't like Shenzhen that much.

The smog is much worse than Beijing. The buildings are older and run down. Everyone walks around with their backpacks on their front fearful of pickpockets.

My room in the so-called four star hotel we are staying at has a leaky faucet in the bathroom and the shower drain doesn't drain. Even the breakfast is mediocre (but palatable).

As I'm collecting my breakfast from the buffet I catch a glimpse of one of the hostesses walking the chef to the kitchen. They both look like they are in they are in their mid 20s. They're walking really close together. As I get closer I can see that they are holding hands but trying to be discrete about it.

The hostess notices my approach and promptly lets go of the chef's hand. Changing direction, she escorts me the rest of the way to my table and pulls out my chair.

"Enjoy your breakfast," she says in slightly broken english.

Ah love. Even here, on the other side of the globe they have love.

Maybe Shenzhen isn't that bad after all.

De-Conversion Primer: a short resource list


Sorry for the delay getting back to you. As you can expect, school is crazy busy. Anyway, here are some resources, websites, talks and books that you might want to look into. Consider this list a quick primer. As you can probably guess, there is a lot out there so I'll try and keep this list limited to a few high profile authors.

Dan Dennett
* prominent philosopher on evolutionary biology and cognitive science at Tufts University
* Ted Talk which is a great response to Rick Warren's Ted Talk.
* Breaking the Spell - a scientific analysis of the social evolution of religion
* I would also recommend his other Ted Talk "Can we know our own minds?"
* overall I really like Dan Dennett's material. I find he is a lot gentler when addressing religion and atheism than other authors that I'll recommend.

Richard Dawkins
* leading evolutionary biologist at Oxford
* God Delusion - a good general overview of the atheist argument. Some of his arguments are pretty easy to defeat, yet I think he presents a very good overall argument. Check out the video links below related to this book
** Book Reading and Q/A in Lynchburg VA - be warned, Dawkins is much more brash when in a Q&A forum. This is probably the result of his Oxford Professor tenure.
** Preface to the Second Edition
* Selfish Gene - a very provocative work that advances modern evolutionary theory. I would recommend most of his other works too on the subject.
* Root of all evil (and Part 2)- made for TV episode that is a slightly simplistic in its arguments and suffers at times from the ad hominem fallacy. However, it does have a few entertaining and legitimate points to offer. Of particular interest is the interview with Ted Haggard.

Sam Harris
* Writer with PhD in philosophy and neuroscience; he focuses his writing on the philosophy of the mind and criticism of religion.
* End of Faith - I found this at times very insightful, but at other times rather degenerate. He sometimes can become too extreme and not very compassionate. Worth the read though.
* Letter to a Christian Nation - ditto
* Pop!Tech keynote: The Future of Ideas - worth a listen - a much more tolerant presentation.

Julia Sweeney
* Comedian, play write, former SNL actor and atheist; always an entertaining listen or read
* Letting Go of God - a humourous, entertaining, witty and thoughtful performance on her own journey of letting go of god.
** Excerpt performed at TED 2006 - a great excerpt
* Blog - lots of good stuff on her blog, worth perusing.
* Her Reading List - she once compiled her own reading recommendations, which is much more extensive than this. I have yet to make a significant dent on her reading list.

John Shelby Spong
* Retired Anglican Bishop; defender of the rights of the gay, lesbian, bi, trans community
* Why Christianity Must Change or Die - a really good comprehensive summary of how he has wrestled with the tension of his faith and its erosion by science. I don't necessarily agree with his conclusions, but it is a rather frank and open dialog. I would recommend his other works as well.

Other stuff
* My response on the topic of textual statistics of the bible (I tend to stop responding once the argument gets out of hand).
* My response on the topic of lack of apologetics with other religions
* Atheism Tapes - a collection of interviews on the subject of religion, atheism and convictions. Read the transcript if you can't get your hands on the audio/video
* Skeptic's guide to the Universe Podcast - lots of interesting material covered here.

Ok. That's plenty; I'll stop there for now. If you want a place to start, I would pick up the God Delusion (2nd edition if you can). Then I'd pick and choose from the above list. If you're interested I can send you a few email excerpts from exchanges I've had over the years.

I'm really interested to hear some of your thoughts as you work your way through these resources. What stands out to you, what were good / bad arguments, etc. And feel free to ask any questions along the way too.

Have a great summer and don't forget to enjoy the sun once in a while :)


Genetics, part 2

Thanks to Rachel's chromosome analysis, I've been able to show Avery what it really means to have two X chromosomes. I don't think Avery gets it though.

On a completely unrelated note, you must check out Ken Miller discuss the chromosome #2 fusion site. This stuff blows my mind! This is absolutely fantastic stuff!

If you are interested, the above segment is part of a 2hr lecture titled The collapse of Intelligent Design. The real juicy stuff starts around 30:46.


“Daddy, you and Kieran are boys, right?” my oldest daughter, Avery, proclaims at the supper table.

“That’s right.”

“And me and mommy are girls.”

“Yep. That’s right. Why are you a girl?” I ask, not wanting to miss a learning opportunity.

“Because I have two,” she replies.

“Two what?”

“Two X chromosomosomosomsomes!” she exclaims triumphantly.

My daughter has been intensely fascinated with gender ever since Kieran was born. In the last six months she has asked a million questions about anatomy and the differences between girls and boys. Boys always get the bad rap for being preoccupied with anatomy, but I think girls are just preoccupied with it earlier in life.

Unfortunately when little girls and boys have gender on the mind, that’s all they think about. That’s why I’ve started teaching her about dna and genetics. Otherwise I knew that one day would come and Avery will shock some poor elderly lady in the grocery store about her knowledge in antomy. 

But this got me thinking about gender: Is gender only defined by our sexual organs or more broadly by the combinations of dna we possess?

I recently read an article on about a kid who has been diagnosed as transgenedered: a boy trapped in a girl’s body.

In New York City, the laws are changing to allow a person to change the gender on his or her birth certificate – even if the person has not undergone a sex change operation.

These are just two examples that I have come across in the last week on the subject. Not to mention issues of sex changes, simultaneous hermaphrodites, homosexuality, down's syndrome and a whole host of other gender related genetic mutations.

Clearly gender is more than the nature of our sexual organs. It is even broader than our chromosome combinations. Then again, that might be a little too much for Avery to catch on to just yet.

(no subject)

Remembrance Day this year has a little more meaning for me this year than previous years. No, it is not because I have family serving in Afghanistan. What has changed is that I am more aware of my family history since my 91 year old grandmother visited me in the spring. Sometimes I wish I was much more interested in hearing family stories when I was a kid.

Leonard Cantrill, my Great Grandfather, served in WW1 in the trenches a communications officer and signaler. Much of WW1 depended on adhoc communication systems using flags, flares and signals. He returned home after the war, shell-shocked and gassed. As a result, when they immigrated to Canada during the 20s, his capacity to help and function within the family was limited, leaving the responsibility to raise their three children up to his wife. After the war, he never was the same and wasn't really 'with it' ever again.

The second story, although it will sound kinda lame, has made me sensitive to WW2 in a whole new way. My bio-grandfather, Norman Hilton, was a jew. He successfully hid this from my grandmother until years after he had died. No, he doesn't have a harrowing story about an escape for Auschwitz . He grew up in England and immigrated to Canada as a child. Although Canada was no more welcoming to Jews at the time, he lived a relatively safe life.

I do not mean to trivialize the atrocities of WW2 but what struck me was that if my grandfather and his family had grown up just a couple hundred kilometers further east they likely would have died during the holocost. There were people in Nazi Germany that would have liked nothing more than to kill people like my grandparents - to kill people like me - just because of our ethnicity. The truth is, I likely would not be alive today had Nazi Germany won.

Sure, this might sound a bit melodramatic and extreme but deep down, I feel a greater pride for those 1.1 million Canadians who served in WW2.

You think I'm from where?

Last month I spent a weekend working evenings at the Premier Show. Once again I was promoting wines brought into the province by Doug Reichel Wine Marketing.

Compared to the Top of the Hops event that I worked at in the spring, this event is much higher class. (Though I still wouldn't call it ritzy.)

Each evening of the event we are assigned floor hosts who are responsible for refreshing the water and baskets of bread, making sure our we have enough ice to chill the wines and also empty our swish buckets periodically through the night.

"So where are you from?" asks one of the guys assigned to my booth.

I've never heard that pick up line before. Sure, I may occasionally flirt with the gay guys who come to the booth but that's because they like it and I'm really just trying to push product. I never really expected anyone to reciprocate; especially not from event staff.

"Pardon me?"

"Where did you come from for the event?"

"Uhh, I live on the south end of the city."

"Really?" He asks with a puzzled look.

"Yea, really. Where did you think I was from?"

"Oh, I see" the guy looks slightly embarassed now. I guess he really wasn't hitting on me (and I'm secretly slightly disappointed).
"I thought you were from Australia or something."

"No, sorry. I'm from here. I'm from Saskatoon. But we do have two vineyard owners from Cape Jaffa, Australia here at the event. They're in the Premier Room if you would like to meet them."

"Uhh. Thanks. Sorry about that."

Australia?! What? Sure I might have a slight Ontario drawl, but Australia?

melaniemaryjane thinks its because my presentation/salesman voice is different than my normal voice. Even so, Australia? Very doubtful.

The odd thing is that later that evening someone else asked me the same thing. How culturally inept are you people?! I officially retract my comment about this show being slightly higher class!

Van Gogh

“Hey, do you guys have 30 cents?”

It’s Friday night, downtown Ottawa, just outside the National Art Center. This guy is probably the fourth in the last block to ask the same question.

“Sorry man,” I say, “I don’t have anything on me.” It’s the truth. In fact, I rarely ever have cash on me.

I try not to make eye contact as I turn away. I join my friends who are waiting for the traffic light to change. We’re all trying to politely ignore the guy on the corner as we wait to cross the street.

It’s hard to have compassion on those types of people sometimes. Jeeze. I just said “those type of people.” How offensive. But in truth, this is what I am thinking - as offensive as it is. I have to admit that I have become hardened over the years and tend to ignore people asking for money like the way I ignore banner ads. I just pretend they don’t exist.

I am a shameful example of a human being sometimes. Sure I might have on occasion given money or bought a meal for a panhandler/beggar in the past. But a couple good deeds do not make good karma.

The guy on the street is still talking to us. He’s not going away.

“… and they said in the last election that this city has the warmest and nicest people in the country. I say bullshit. People are just walking by as if you don’t exist. They pretend you aren’t even there.”

He’s got us pegged.

“All I want is 30 lousy cents so I can buy a new paint brush. I’m a painter and I’m working on a new painting to sell. I just need a new paintbrush. Is that too much to ask for?”

I notice now that he’s carrying what looks like a bag with a large canvas inside.

“Sorry. We don’t have anything on us,” one of my friends reply.

The light turns green and we cross the street, leaving the aspiring painter behind. After all, we are trying to find an open Beer Store before 10pm. We heard there might be one down on Isabella so we have to pick up the pace.

As we leave we make a few jokes amongst ourselves about the aspiring painter and his 30cent paintbrushes. Very quickly the man fades from our conversation and we forget all about him.

Despite the fact that he appeared to be just another panhandler, what if he really was a painter, trying to make his way through life? t_repeat, Oliver and I reflect on this the next day as we are killing time before the reception.

“Wasn’t it Van Gogh who was dirt poor all his life and never really saw a dime from his paintings or any fame?” t_repeat asks rhetorically.

Who knows, maybe this guy’s art will one day show up at the Mendel Art Gallery and when I’ll point to the picture of the artist on the wall and say, “Hey, I remember him.”

Maybe. You never know.


My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Ottawa the other weekend to attend an old friend’s wedding. This wedding was a perfect demonstration of balance and respect of two different cultural traditions. The ceremony was a beautiful mixture of Catholic liturgy and Hindu tradition. The reception, while being large for Amanda’s family and small for Jayant’s, was a perfect balance of expectations and desires from both families.

Amanda and Jayant: You have already learned what takes many couples years to understand. Even though we celebrated our 6th anniversary on the day of your wedding, you have demonstrated to us that we have much more to learn. May your lives together be a blessing to those around you and may your marriage see many fruitful and fun-filled years ahead.