Month: December 2017

Christmas 2017

Five more sleeps and then…Christmas!  Do you still get excited?  Do you remember Christmases past as better or sadder?  Do you pull the covers over your head and wish the holiday were over?

I confess, I’m a lover of Christmas.  As a child I could barely contain myself as the house filled with scent of cinnamon and nutmeg, pine and spruce.  We shopped from the catalogue in those days and my brothers and I wore the pages to shreds as we debated and decided and debated again on which gift to give each member of our family.  Christmas morning was the most joyful time of the year.

I’m older now.  The family has spread far and wide.  Christmas dinner is a small affair, but I still love the season.  I love to put up the tree, to sing carols, to bake goodies that only appear in my cookie tins in December.  I love having friends come in to share a piece of Christmas cake.

And I love to read Christmas stories.  I hope you do too, because I have a new on for you. It’s titled “The Neighbour.”  Here’s a sample.  To read the complete story, sign up for my newsletter and receive your free copy.

Who Is My Neighbour?

Isobel Jordan drew a pan of shortbread out of the oven and set it on a rack to cool. With the edge of a spatula she lifted one cookie to peer at the bottom. Not black. An improvement on her last effort, but still not the perfectly golden rounds that Bella Barclay turned out.

She sighed and sat down at the kitchen table. She wished for a cup of tea but felt too defeated to fill the kettle from the pump, let alone add more wood to the stove. Instead, she nibbled on an over-done shortbread and stared out the window. Under a brilliant blue sky, the flat prairie lay smothered beneath a layer of deep snow, the surface marred only by the occasional rabbit track or bird scratch. Closer to the house, the sharply pitched roof of the barn drew a straight line against the sky. Johnny was out there now, coddling his team of big Clydesdales and mending their harnesses. At the edge of her vision, stretched the long rope running from house to barn. Johnny put it up every fall, even before the first snowstorm.

“A man can get lost in a blizzard three steps from his own door,” he’d said when she questioned him.

Her spirits lifted a little as she remembered last Christmas, her first as Mrs. Johnny Jordan. What a flurry it had all been. A mail-order bride. She shook her head in wonder. She’d been so desperate to escape the gold rush town of Prospect and her job as its school teacher, she’d answered a letter from Johnny Jordan in the Western Home Monthly. A husband, even one with a scarred face, seemed preferable to another minute of trying to keep order among the restless pupils in Prospect’s one room schoolhouse.

She bit into another cookie and made a face as the taste of charred sugar filled her mouth. Gloom descended once more. Before she left town, Prospect’s best cook, Bella Barclay, had given her a sheaf of recipes. Yet Isobel’s efforts never produced the desired results. Had Bella deliberately sabotaged the recipes?

She jumped to her feet and set about washing the mixing bowls. Bella would never do anything so underhanded. It was just her own bad mood that had produced such thoughts. And why was she in a bad mood? She scrubbed hard at a bit of stuck-on dough. Because she was a foolish, ungrateful woman, that’s why.

She set the bowl on the draining board with a sharp thump. She’d chosen to marry Johnny because she wanted peace and quiet and a kind husband. Which was exactly what she’d got – and a little more besides. She felt her cheeks warm and knew she blushed.

She looked out at the silent, white world and banged a pot hard against the stove, just to hear the clang. She wouldn’t have believed a body could get too much peace and quiet, but . . .

The kitchen door opened and Johnny surged in, bringing with him a shower of snow, and the smell of out-of-doors and horses. Her mood lifted. The sight of her broad-shouldered, handsome husband never failed to move her. Despite the disfiguring scar on one side of his face where a snapped chain had struck him as a child, he was handsome. The other side of his face was perfect. And his heart was large and kind, and to her amazement and delight, full of love for her. Just because he didn’t relish the sound of his own voice didn’t mean he was indifferent or neglectful. He was just Johnny, a man who preferred action to words.

To read more of this story, fill in your e-mail address and click on the sign-up form at the right side of this page.  You will need to confirm your e-address from your e-mail.

Have a Merry Christmas.  I’ll be back at this site in the new year.

Finishing Touches

One of the Christmas traditions on my list is a handmade tree ornament for each of the children in my clan who are under eighteen. I started the practice when I moved far away from my birth family.  Although I kept tabs on everyone, I was not up-to-date on the interests, needs and desires of the youngest generation.  Some said I should just forget about presents, but I like Christmas.  I like the excitement of wrapping a gift, of hiding it under the tree, of watching the smiles on Christmas morning when someone receives exactly what he wanted.  Besides, I worried I’d become nothing but a name in my extended family if I didn’t do something to maintain a presence with young relatives I rarely saw face-to-face.  So, as a compromise, I agreed not to spend much money and my siblings agreed I could send little remembrances. 

All went well for the first generation. There were eight of them.  A manageable number.  When each of them reached the age of eighteen, they had a collection of eighteen ornaments for their own tree.  (I assumed the kids would move out of the family home and set up on their own.)  At first, I didn’t know whether my idea was well received or not, but in later years I’ve heard from nieces and nephews that my gift to them had a special ceremony all of its own.  In one family, it was the only gift to be opened on Christmas Eve and then hung on the tree.  Another wrote to me years later, when she was a mother herself, about unpacking her collection of hand-made ornaments and explaining them to her children, and feeling loved. 

So, now I’m full of warm fuzzies, and could have said “my work is done,” but instead, I started in on the children of the children. Now there are thirteen ornaments to be made every year, often in a mad, last-minute scramble.

This year, I tried to get ahead of the game by completing the ornaments in October. I set them aside, feeling smug, with a note that they needed a few finishing touches, but I had lots of time.  NOT! 

When I went to package up the gifts, I realized there were many finishing touches still needed. Names to add, loops to attach, ribbons to affix.  I was, once again, behind the eight ball.

As a writer, there is a lesson for me here. That first draft, or even second draft, that I confidently put away saying it only needs a tweak here and there, is not ready for other eyes.  In this age of instant communication, it is wise to pause before hitting the publish button.  Novels, short stories, social media posts, even e-mails, can all benefit from fine tuning.  Where my ornaments needed ribbons and tags, my prose might need tightening, the plot might need clarification, the characters could do with some polish.

I’m happy to report, that my Christmas gifts, with loops and ribbons attached, are all in the mail, carrying love from me to little folk I may not have met but who hold a place in my heart.

What about you? Any Christmas traditions in your family you’d like to share? A favourite book? Movie you have to watch?

Artificial Intelligence

My brain seems to have gone onto Christmas mode and I have no idea whatever for today’s blog. So, I thought I’d try one of those “blog idea” generators. 

I got a bunch of titles like 5 Ways to —–, 10 Things You Should —–, and a bunch of verbs and nouns.  I also got some weird stick figures with various parts of speech attached to them.  None of this produced anything for a blog but it did make me think of the current discussion on artificial intelligence.  You know, that thing where machines are smarter than humans and make decisions for us.  e.g. Facebook’s algorithms decides which ads you should see.  Amazon’s brain decides which books you should buy.

So long as artificial intelligence is confined to advertising blurbs, I guess it won’t hurt me, but if AI starts running political parties, or setting government policy, or determining patient treatment in medical situations, we’re in trouble. Some would argue that that is already happening.  Since I just spent a fruitless hour trying to place an order on-line, I can attest to the fact that computer programs don’t always work.  I would be afraid of a situation where there was no human to over-ride the machine’s decisions.

Have a look at this report aired on the CBC Monday night.

Robert McCheseney is a leading author on the subject of economic, democracy and technology. He suggests that deep artificial intelligence can pose a serious risk to society and even the future of humankind. e.g. AI, which is built and programmed by humans, can become autonomous and put their “prime directive” above all other considerations.  Thus humans could lose control of  autonomous weapons, programmed to kill.  The weapon then kills indiscriminately because there is no check on its operation.

Self-driving cars already exhibit a form of artificial intelligence, but if the self-driving car is told to drive on the left hand side of the road in North America, mayhem will ensue. I’d want the human driver of that automobile to have an over-ride button.

And that brings me back to the question at the top of this blog, “what will I write about today?”

Mr. McChesney tells us that a robot, or deep artificial intelligence is unlikely to adopt human emotions like love or hate or jealousy or forgiveness. So, I’ll keep writing stories about humans who suffer the joy and despair of love. Characters who struggle to find meaning in hardship, and sacrifice for the good of others;  people who’s souls respond to beautiful music or poetry; children who delight in the first snowfall and the wonder of Christmas.

Maybe, one day, a computer will write better plays than Shakespeare, or greater symphonies than Beethoven, or paint masterpieces that surpass Rembrandt. Until that time, I plan to revel in my humanity.  I’ll celebrate other humans and I’ll give thanks for the Child born in Bethlehem, come to save us all.

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