A Christmas Casual

It’s the time of year that even atheists like me feel spiritual and look to the winter solstice as a time of hope and renewal.

A cynical old news hound like myself doesn’t really believe there are seers or if there are, you climb a mountain to find one, or go deep into a cave or an ancient temple with hundreds of candles.

But a vision that begins from a speaker system that only works one third of the time????

Well it happened and so behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.

“Attention passengers on the Yonge-University-Spadina Line” ………. buzz white sound …….”signal failure”… silence …. ” trains are turning around” ….. snap, crackle, pop, buzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ……… “shuttle buses are being provided”

Of course there were no shuttle buses (are there ever any shuttle buses?).

So I went to Starbucks (not Timmy’s!). (No shuttle buses).

It was standing room only of course, with freezing rain and no shuttle buses.

But with my tall Awake tea (I am not latte person, no matter what Margaret Wente and the National Post may think), I noticed an elegant, middle-aged woman (about my age that is) at a table with a free chair and so she waved in a way that meant, yes you can sit down.

She recognized me of course, from my days on air and actually recalled an item I did for The National, back when Knowlton was anchor (when I was much younger and a lot better looking).

She was a well off matron from an old Ontario family, one who didn’t waste her money on cabs (which of course is why she was so well off).

So we chatted. I kept an eye on the street. No shuttle buses. She was from an old Conservative Ontario family—but she blamed Mike Harris for the mess that had once been the better way.

So we talked about the news of the day, she actually knew Brian Mulroney from her family connections but called herself a Bill Davis Conservative. The one thing she didn’t like was how KHS (that’s what the people in the newsroom call Karlheinz Schreiber these days) bankrolled the overthrow of Joe Clark. The rest she didn’t care about, apparently her father made his money by being a big crook with lots of political connections and her late husband, whom she sorely missed, was also a bit of a small crook with lots of political connections. So that’s how she got her money.

She said it was becoming harder and harder to watch or listen to CBC these days. “There’s nothing anymore for an old girl like me, and despite what they say about looking for a younger audience, my son spends all his time at his office and my grandchildren are playing video games and iPods.

Then, out of the blue, she asked. “What’s a casual?”

So I explained that a casual was a person who worked for the CBC on call, never sure if they would have work, when they did have work, they were overworked and exploited, all for the same pay as the rest of us, but no benefits, no security and never any guarantee that it would turn into a full time job.

“So,” she said, “the lowest of the low. Now it all make sense.”

She leaned forward and put her cool, perfumed hand on mine, and it seemed in that moment the chatter in Starbucks went silent.

“You see,” she said, “I tell very few people this, but I have the second sight. It helped me warn my husband before he got himself into trouble a couple of times. My son wouldn’t listen to me the first time I warned him something was going to happen. Well he learned his lesson and now he pays attention when his mother’s second sight gives her an intuition.

“I used to love to listen to Peter Gzowski every morning, and it is so sad what has happened to the CBC, but I know, I really know, that things are going to be all right but it will be a close thing and it will all be because of a Christmas Casual.

“You see, I had a vision, first of a young man working in a big lonely room where only one or two of hundreds of computers are working, all alone on Christmas, far from home, family, and friends, doing the job of three people when he should be celebrating with his parents or his young friends. And there he sits, staring at a computer monitor festooned with fairy lights and sipping egg nog (fortified by a little rum the acting senior producer brought in).

“His wish for a Christmas present is that his talent and skill would be recognized and appreciated.

“But it wasn’t.

“Now I am sure from my vision this was some time ago. Not this Christmas, not last. Sometime in the recent past. That means the one you call ‘He Who Cannot Be Named’ can’t hunt him down like King Herod did with the boys born in that time 2000 years ago.

“But that doesn’t mean he is safe. In fact, our young man is in grave danger, for in my vision, it will only be if he survives that he can return to save the CBC.

“You see this young man went traveling. Somewhere in Italy, he is hiking and comes across an ancient cave. When he emerges from that cave, he finds himself in what might be called a galaxy far, far away, on a planet somewhat like ours.

“He finds himself in a kingdom that has become a wasteland. The kingdom was once ruled by wise rulers and it was land known for its great troubadours, magnificent tapestries, brave knights (and some of those brave knights were women) and the people were as happy as any people could be.

“Then a new king came to rule the land. This king was a cruel man, a man who never went among the people, but spent his time in his treasury counting his gold. The king wanted so much gold that he told his servants they had to leave their rooms in his castle so he could rent out part of the castle. But it was an old castle and not many people wanted to rent an old castle. The king did rent one tower to a wicked witch who enticed young people to the tower with great promises that they would become troubadours and then locked them in the tower and took all their gold and silver and even their copper coins.

“This cruel king had no love for the people, in fact his greed for gold became so powerful that to get a few more pennies he locked the people out of their homes in the dead of winter and made them walk around and around his castle in the snow.

“Even worse than the cruel king, was his evil Chief Counselor (in the Arabian Nights, this counselor could be called the Grand Vizier). This evil counselor wanted all power to himself and wanted to rule in place of the king and with the king spending all his time in his treasury counting his gold, so that it was the Chief Counselor that really ruled the land. The king had a few wise counselors but the Chief Counselor found ways to drive those wise counselors from office or to have the king order them into exile. So it came to be that the Chief Counselor (the Grand Vizier) gathered all power to himself.

“At a time when the cruel, greedy king wanted more money in his counting house, he went to the chief counselors and said we must lock the peasants out of their houses again. The king said it would teach the peasants to respect their betters.

“But the Chief Counselor made a mistake and he locked the people of the castle out as well, and that included the troubadours and the knights and the men and women at arms and even people who lit the candles and the lanterns in the castle. So the king and his counselors were all alone in that big dark castle with no lanterns or candles (for they did not know how to even light candles) while outside the troubadours and even wandering minstrels entertained the people while they walked around and around the castle. This time they locked the people out in the summer.

“Now each year the king got most of his new gold from a strange custom in that country. For when it came to winter and the moat around the castle froze, there would be one group of knights who would put on their armor and take big wooden lances and they would have tournaments and fights and even brawls on the frozen moat. People would come from far and wide to see the fights and the king would take a lot of their gold so they could watch the fights.

“It came to pass that the chill winds of winter were felt in the air and the king and the Chief Counselor realized that if they did not let the people back in the castle, people would not come to see the knights on ice fighting because most of the tournaments were at night and the people who lit the lanterns and candles were walking around the castle and the king and his counselors did not know even how to light a single candle.

“So the king and his Chief Counselor let the people back in the castle and the ice was frozen on the moat and the lanterns were lit and the people came back to see the knights fight on the ice.

“The Chief Counselor was more determined than ever to get more power, so he pushed the last of the king’s counselors who were men and women who knew everything about the land from the council and he ruled by himself. So the land became a wasteland but the Chief Counselor told the people that it was good.

“So the people longed for a hero to free them from the tyranny of the Chief Counselor.

“When their longing was greatest, the young man we call the Christmas Casual goes to sleep in a cave in Italy and wakes up on this far planet. Now this young man was not born in a stable or a cave (he was born, like most of us, in a delivery room in a hospital), he doesn’t have a scar on his forehead (if he did, there would be an investigation by Children’s Aid), he was not suckled by a she wolf (although a wolf’s milk is probably better than some of the baby formulas available today), he couldn’t pull a sword of a stone (sharp objects like that are banned from playgrounds) and he doesn’t have a little blue fairy, a talking cricket or a pair of strange robots to help him along the way (He does have a an iPod and one of those 12-in-tools. His cell phone and GPS unit only work on Earth, unfortunately).

But he is a hero.”

Here my new friend paused.

“Visions are never complete,” she said. “The rest isn’t clear because it hasn’t happened yet.

“This young man meets a band of outlaws, men and women driven away by the evil Chief Counselor and he becomes their leader and then he becomes a knight. The rebels lay siege to the castle and then the hero must fight a life and death battle with the Chief Counselor.

“At this point, the outcome is uncertain. I do not know if the Christmas Casual will win the battle or the Chief Counselor will win. It will be a great battle with the outcome depending on the littlest things.

“This I do know, if the Christmas Casual wins the fight (and in most stories the hero does win) then the people will ask him to be Chief Counselor to the new king, even though he is very young. But the Christmas Casual will tell the people that he can’t stay, he has another evil Chief Counselor to defeat and that they must find their own way. He will return to that cave and sleep the sleep of the heroes and then wake and emerge back at home at that cave in Italy.

“The first sign that this Christmas Casual is a hero is that he will continue his journey and he will show he has good journalist’s karma and be at the right time and the right place and cover a major story for the CBC and so the lonely Christmas Casual will return to the Toronto Broadcast Centre a hero. He will know that he has a great a task before him as he did in that galaxy far, far away.

“It will be this young Christmas Casual who will, a few years from now, save the CBC from the bureaucrats and the beancounters. He will defeat He Who Must Not Be Named. It won’t be Peter Gzowski’s CBC, but it will be a good CBC, a CBC my son will stop work to watch, my grandchildren and great grandchildren will listen to and watch online (it’s no good having a whole lot of platforms with no content, it’s like having lots of horses but no knights in shining armor to ride the horses).

“Of course these are just shadows of things that might be.”

She sipped the last of her grande latte. “So that is my vision, my second sight, my intuition.”

As she said these words, the noise of the crowd in Starbucks was loud once again and we were back in Toronto on an afternoon of freezing rain.

Just then a man in a purple jacket came into Starbucks and yelled. “Subway is running again.”

I turned to thank the lady. The chair was empty. She had vanished.

I thought it was a momentary fantasy while I was waiting out a TTC delay.

I walked out on the street and there in the freezing rain talking on his cell phone, without an umbrella, looking very angry (as he always does) was He Who Must Not Be Named. He just walked through the crowd as if there were no other people.

I got in the subway and saw across from the platform a poster for the Royal Ontario Museum.

In the poster was a old painting of a medieval great lady that looked just like my companion in Starbucks handing a handsome young knight a sword. Right beside it was a poster for a new video game. Same middle-aged woman (or so it seemed) watching a heroic space hero, the same guy (or so it seemed) reach for the stars.

As the train came into the station, all four turned to me (so it seemed) and winked.

I checked the next day, and the posters were different, one advertising a cell phone service and the second pushing trips to the Caribbean.

I still wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was a fantasy.

Then I got an e-mail. You may get spam, but you don’t get e-mail from a fantasy. Every time I try to run a check on the e-mail address, my browsers crash (doesn’t matter if it’s Firefox or Explorer). My questions go unanswered.

The e-mail said. “Our boy has done it. He awoke in the cave in Italy which means he has completed the first part of his quest successfully. He went back to London and has a job with one of the satellite networks. And he has a mentor, the Merlin of broadcasting, the Obi-wan Kenobi of television, the Yoda of reporting, and he is learning all he needs to know to fight the dark side. That wasn’t in my vision, but sometimes the paths of energy divert on their way to their goal. But it means that things may be unfolding as they should. Happy Holidays, Sybil.”

So that’s my Christmas fable, a little hope for this time of year.

Best wishes to all,

J. Frank Willis


  1. z
    Posted December 24, 2009 at 11:00 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Dude. I didn’t say any of those things. But I still think you’re cute.

    Bygone days of yore notwithstanding. And I didn’t think you thought I was that old.

    (Dear Santa…I need more botox…)

  2. abg
    Posted December 22, 2009 at 8:09 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Kew’el dude. Have you been sneakin’ the Tea Makers Herb mix again?

  3. Anonymous
    Posted December 11, 2007 at 10:25 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    The CBC is arguably the most dysfunctional and toxic workplace in the country. Anyone who makes themselves available as a casual is a sucker for punishment.

  4. Bloody Moderated Comments
    Posted December 11, 2007 at 6:24 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece


  5. Anonymous
    Posted December 10, 2007 at 5:01 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    That was a lovely read. I enjoyed that very much.

    As for anon and his arteries, it isn’t just that youngins will be on contract until some old fogey retires. They’ll be on contract regardless.

    That’s CBC’s vision of the future, and CMG signed on to it and called it a victory.

  6. Allan
    Posted December 10, 2007 at 3:09 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    For some reason I feel like having a Bud Light.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted December 10, 2007 at 1:19 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Yes Anon. 2:38 pm but this crop of senior managers are so inept they moved to a contract system just when the labour market is beginning to favour the supplier. They were suckers for not having signed up the youngsters when they could, in a very short time they are going be paying a very high premium for base competence, let alone real talent. Any of the newer growth outfits coddle their employees these days lest they lose them. They have to. The CBC case is going to be found in management text books for a generation … as an example of how to fuck it up.

    • anon
      Posted December 27, 2009 at 11:02 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

      That is exactly it. Senior management picked exactly the worst time in the past 30 years to go to the contract system. And they have made matters worse still by offering such mean deals. Any one with half a wit can make considerably more elsewhere.

  8. Anonymous
    Posted December 10, 2007 at 12:38 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    The usual nostalgia for the fabled glory days of the CBC is tiresome enough but the twee “Alchemist” fable version is extra nauseating. If the good ol’ days folks took their rose-coloured glasses off for a minute they’d realize they’re the ones clogging up the arteries here. Yes, upper management sucks but the reality is anyone under 45 is destined to be forever on contract or casually employed here until some of the tenured professor types leave the cocoon here.

  9. BrainDrainXP
    Posted December 10, 2007 at 10:57 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    You know, it was Norma Bob Rae that emptied the asylums. I remember similar conversations with Ghandi, Churchill and three JFKs whilst living in Toronto.

  10. Anonymous
    Posted December 10, 2007 at 3:54 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I had a temporary pass card for over 12 years, not for “that place” though.

    Leaving CBC and the life of a casual was the best thing I ever did.

  11. Dave Richards
    Posted December 10, 2007 at 3:49 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Hmmm…nice fable. ;)

  12. Anonymous
    Posted December 9, 2007 at 9:08 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I had a “temporary” pass card for 9 years! Fuck that place.

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