March’s Letter from South America

Dear Bob,

 I don’t know if I’ve told you that when I think of happiness I often think of you. You’re a true professor, a role model for many, an intellectual, an author, a man with a wonderful family, so successful, so admired. And I say and think these things, like Bob must be happysomeone must be happy, or I want to be happy or someone is not happy. It is a fact that everyone wants to be happy (or at least it is a fact that people say that). What do we mean? We look at so many things that are supposed to make us happy: tenure, money, beauty, or skillfulness. My mother used to say that a peasant must be happy: the countryside is so beautiful, so peaceful and so natural. But country life is hard work for little reward; especially in the developing world. And if you belong to a pampered circle you surely find a lot of satisfaction, basic needs fully satisfied and so many perks, but no happiness is guaranteed of course.

 The point here, the thing that I am thinking about, is not the profound question of what happiness is, although perhaps it is unavoidable. My question is how can I be happy? This doesn’t imply that I don’t feel like I am happy at times. You know, every time I go into my classroom and I engage my students in some fun topic I truly feel alive and useful and formidable. And whenever I sit to write to you I truly feel gooood (please don’t correct it. I mean it!). The thing is, is it possible to achieve this ideal: be happy? Not to have moments of glory, or moments of pleasure, or moments of success, but to reach some state of mind, impervious to tragedy, loss, failure, to your own tendency to regret or anything that seems opposed to happiness.

 The definition of being happy eludes me. But I somehow feel that the definition escapes language and I just know what that is. Perhaps I am bullshitting myself here. Maybe I believe it on faith! Who invented this term “happy” anyway! Did she refer just to moments of glory, moments of pleasure or moments of accomplishment? So is there only the temporary mood of feeling happy? Estoy feliz, as opposed to Soy feliz, the first one indicating a mood, the second one an inner characteristic.

 I want to tell you about a practice I have: if I feel lazy or tired or slow at times when I am not supposed to feel that way, first, I have something sweet to eat, and second, I make an inventory of the positive in my life which requires an inventory of the negative that is not part of my life; something like: I don’t have any debts, I don’t have ailments, etc. It works and I feel good. But of course I want more than that. Anyway, Bob, I meant what I said at the beginning of this letter. Being as intellectually active as you are must be happiness, just like Aristotle’s happiness: a philosopher always exercising his reason.


Until next time,


More on happiness: here and here.

Secular Awards


Forkosch Awards Honor the Best in Secular Humanist Writing 

Since 1988, CFI’s Council for Secular Humanism has presented the Morris D. and Selma V. Forkosch Awards, honoring the books and Free Inquiry articles that best represent and advance the values and ideals of secular humanism. Last week, the winners for 2015 and 2016 were bestowed upon a truly brilliant collection of works that range from the scholarly and academic to the deeply personal.

The 2016 Morris D. Forkosch book award was given to Ali A. Rizvi for The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason, in which he both recounts his own story of doubt and discovery, and seeks to reconcile a cultural Islam with a modern, progressive world. Rizvi took to Twitter to express his gratitude, calling CFI “an amazing organization.” (Rizvi was just the subject of a profile in a recent article at The Atlantic.) Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, head of secular studies at Pitzer College, won the Selma V. Forkosch article award for his Free Inquiry piece “Secularism and Social Progress.”

The book award for 2015 went to Mark A. Smith for Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, a look at how religion has been compelled to adapt with the times, even more so than it has defined those times. Leah Mickens was the winner of the 2015 award for best Free Inquiry article for “Theology of the Odd Body: The Castrati, the Church, and the Transgender Moment,” which considers the Catholic Church’s sixteenth-century reliance on castrated male singers, contrasted with its current rigid notions of gender conformity.

Our congratulations to all the winners, with an eager eye to the next award-worthy works of secular humanist thought.


M – 103

As I’ve written before, there’s a big fracas in Canadian politics about a motion (“M-103”, which is not a law but a recommendation) against religious discrimination, one that singles out “Islamophobia” as deserving special mention. The bill was introduced last December by the Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, a Pakistani-Canadian, and is being discussed now in the […]

Click on link if above isn’t working – via Canadian minister gets all balled up about the meaning of “Islamophobia” — Why Evolution Is True

SS: On the power of poetry


Several years ago now our daughter, while a young student at VIU, wrote this piece as a way of honouring a family friend:


John, my father’s friend, his English student, his protégé.


John, who often saw me in a long flannel nightgown as I would rush from the bath to bed. As I woke from a dream or needed to go to the bathroom late at night, I’d see John, dancing in our darkened living room with one of his girlfriends. Dancing? Perhaps more clearly leaning on one another. The girlfriend either A or B, interchangeable to me, since my glimpses of them were always through sleep—filled, eyes. The song was always “Cracklin’ Rose” by Neil Diamond, the volume turned a little too loud to sleep, but not loud enough to complain. John and my father, drinking beer most of the night, and Scotch. Scotch only when the quality of it no longer mattered, but it was always the best.

John knew my parents and me quite well, but only Dad found the friendship mutual. My mother and I thought John was very distant, only wanting to spend time at the house at night. A “typical artist”. We felt that to John we were accessories my father had acquired — items to be tolerated, but not paid much attention.

From Oxford Press came John’s first professional check as a poet. He gave it, uncashed, to Dad. Tears were behind my father’s eyes Christmas morning as he held that framed check, signed on the matting, but not endorsed. The check was never cashed, though Oxford Press has asked that it be cashed — their accountant’s books have not balanced since that Christmas.

Saltspring, a collection of poems, followed that initial publication by a couple years. Saltspring is the name of an island near Vancouver Island, on which lived; the title alone made me curious to read the collection. Each of us, my mother, my father, and myself, received autographed copies of the book.

In it my mother found, dedicated to her, the poem,

This Neighbourhood

for Karen

in this neighbourhood

the mothers are calling

their sons in

 and the sons are

always coming

I’ve lived here so long I know

all the sons names

and I have come to recognize

the voices of mothers

and it brought tears to her eyes. She thought John had only thought of her as his friend’s wife. But no, perhaps more. A mother? Or at least a mother figure. One who cooks Mother Meals (balanced meals containing meat, starch, vegetable, and always milk to drink), and raises children. Another side of my mother was discovered. A side she knew existed, but thought had eluded John.

In the same book we read

One Love

loved one

mother us all

 we ended up

being born,


. . . .


I thought

everything  I

 saw was


 all I want

is wool & rain,

 to sleep in your lap

of jergens

 & bleach


dedicated to John’s mother, recently dead from cancer, and my mother and I both cried. Each remembering her own memories of childhood, of Jergens, of the smell of bleach, and all of it: Just a few words, but enough to bring so many pictures and feelings to our minds.

I didn’t expect it as I read through the book. Turning a page, I saw facing me the words “Denman Island”, and underneath, “to Margaret Lane”.  Following was one of the book’s longest poems, a picture of myself I was certain John did not care to create. From that poem I realized he knew me in a way I had not imagined, that he did not dislike me, as I had come to believe. No, perhaps I wasn’t such an awful creature — merely the daughter of a friend — but a friend myself.

I read “Denman Island” many times; I wrote a paper in Canadian Lit class about it, as I tried to understand it, to interpret it, to know it like no other poem. Not because it was an assignment or in a textbook, but because it was my poem.


My father has the check, my mother has the neighbourhood, and me?

“Denman Island” is mine.




Journalism after Snowden

Emily Bell’s interview with Edward Snowden.

Alan Rusbridger: “Life after Snowden: Journalists’ new moral responsibility.

Clay Shirky: “The value of digital data

Jill Abramson on putting the public interest first: Defying the White House, from the Pentagon Papers to Snowden

PLUS: Jonathan Peters examines the ethical and legal case of the media publishing on the hacked DNC emails in “Putin, Politics, and the Press.”

Your Smart TV is spying on you!