Saturday, December 27, 2008

Late. A little. It is a little late. But here it is. It is here.

A Visit from Saint Nicholas in the Ernest Hemingway Manner

It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren't even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them.

The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn't move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.

"Father," the children said.

There was no answer. He's there, all right, they thought.

"Father," they said, and banged on their beds.

"What do you want?" I asked.

"We have visions of sugarplums," the children said.

"Go to sleep," said mamma.

"We can't sleep," said the children. They stopped talking, but I could hear them moving. They made sounds.

"Can you sleep?" asked the children.

"No," I said.

"You ought to sleep."

"I know. I ought to sleep."

"Can we have some sugarplums?"

"You can't have any sugarplums," said mamma.

"We just asked you."

There was a long silence. I could hear the children moving again.

"Is Saint Nicholas asleep?" asked the children.

"No," mamma said. "Be quiet."

"What the hell would he be asleep tonight for?" I asked.

"He might be," the children said.

"He isn't," I said.

"Let's try to sleep," said mamma...


For those who weren't reading the New Yorker in 1927, catch the rest of Thurber's parody here. Even Papa probably chuckled, between drinks.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Pacem in Terris

No Christmas musings. I've just moved into a house that's still undergoing the magic of a renovation or two (after a blizzard, yet) so I'm not much into introspection. I am into drinking coffee, making sure my son is in good stead (he is) and savouring the people around me without focusing on those most conspicious in their absence. Yin and yang, right? And in the immortal words of John Cougar Mellencamp, life goes on.

Divide time between the ecumenical and secular pleasures of the season. A Christmas Carol is a fine Christmas movie, as is Die Hard (and yeah, I'm not the first to figure that out). The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a neo-realist favourite around Christmas and Easter for me (and yeah, I might be the first person to use the phrase 'neo-realist favourite'), but chasing a three year old around and vacumning up drywall dust takes up most of the time. Really, it's just nice to spend time with the usual suspects.

If you're feeling in a giving mood, is more than willing to spread whatever goodwill you've got to the charity of your choice regardless of your political/social stripe. They list everybody.

If the giving's done, just have one for me. All the best, all around.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

So it is Christmas and WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!

PTA Mom, Boy Found Half Naked In Car

Okay. The heart wants what it wants, right? But c'mon. If I remember High School properly, I seem to recall that when you've almost been caught in flagrante, you're supposed to say "We were just talking," not "We were just kissing." Oh, and being naked from the waist down is a clear give-away. In more ways than one.

Christmas Spirit Rating - A surprising 7 out of 10. The act itself was ill-advised, but it is the season for giving.

Harper's pessimistic talk making a bad situation worse, critics say

This Globe and Mail piece suggests that Harper's comments "...might have scared Canadians six months ago but they predicted consumers are mostly inured to dire talk after months of awful economic developments." So, he's given us the news we've already got.

Christmas Spirit Rating: 5 out of 10. He did give. We don't want, but hey, the effort was there.

Music industry drops effort to sue song swappers

"RIAA Chairman and Chief Executive Mitch Bainwol. 'Filing lawsuits as a strategy to deal with a big problem was not our first choice five years ago.'" Apparently hanging, shooting, drawing and quartering wasn't really an option, so this was a close second. And they did famously.

Christmas Spirit Rating: 10 out of 10. Cooler heads prevailed.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Woke up and was Forty

Hey, it happens. Let's move on.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Ernie Kovacs and the Nairobi Trio

I felt like the one in the middle for the last 2 weeks of November.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

You don't believe them, do you?

"One of the tendencies of the conspiracy notion, the whole appeal, is that a lot of the information the believer has is secret or special...The real evidence is out there, [and] you can give them all this evidence, but they'll have convenient ways to discredit [it]."

- Evan Harrington, associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, quoted in Salon

For anyone outside of Toronto: the Taste of the Danforth is a street festival held in a predominantly Greek area of town once every summer. Traffic is shut down and every business and restaurant drags their wares onto the street for a weekend. Depending on the weather, the heat, the crowds and your own interpretation of the term 'fun,' it's either heaven or hell to navigate.

Last year, it was heaven. It was friendly, there was an alarming amount of good and cheap food to wander along with (and a surprising amount of Sushi for a Greek area) and there were a lot of local bands ranging from Bouzouki (of course) to bar rock to Samba. You couldn't walk 10 paces without being urged to buy something, eat something, drink something, or take a pamphlet to support a local cause. And at Danforth and Broadview, beside the Samba band (Brazilian restaurant), the stage with bellydancers (my wife's school) and the crisping lamb on a spit (I think three Greek places hosted it together) was a long 9/11 was an Inside Job banner held by some of the faithful.

The crowd looked fairly indifferent - one or two people called them out on it and asked for details, they were pleasantly referred to a website that you can Google on your own time - and it was a public place, so they were entitled to hold up whatever banner they wanted. But I didn't think that there was a lot of dignity involved in it - a bunch of conspiracy-minded souls taking advantage of concentrated crowds to suggest that the US government was behind 9/11 at a street festival with free tapas and dancers and cheap souvlaki.

This was called 'expanding awareness' rather than 'generating web traffic' and maybe they were refused access to the CNE so Taste of the Danforth was a close second. Maybe they got the attention of 5% of the crowd. Maybe they debated the semantics of jet fuel fires and the melting point of steel with a few cranky engineers. Maybe it just felt good to stand around on a hot day and go home feeling like the world was a little changed due to their efforts.

They weren't around this year, or I didn't see them. The same people could come back with the same banners and different theories this time around, while still claiming the same mantle of truth-teller. If their evidence changes, well, that's just fine. A good conspiracy theory is based on rock-hard truth that changes because the truth is never the same, of course. The conspiracy part - the one nobody knows about but them - is a delicious morsel that transmogrifies. If last year the planes were piloted by CIA operatives and this year they were radio-controlled by black ops, it's because that morsel has given so much more. It'll change again. It can be whatever you want it to be.


Norman Wilner recently pointed out that President Obama is a US citizen, that he was born in Hawaii which has confirmed that he's a US citizen and therefore he can't be removed from the office of the President of the United States for (you guessed it) not being a US citizen. It doesn't matter to those who consider themselves in the know, and the subset of Average Joes who want to believe otherwise are going to do so. Let's assume just for a minute that not all of these Average Joes are necessarily bred-in-the-bone Republicans (although the numbers appear to veer in that direction), let's say that some of them have just latched-on to the story and won't let go. It's overloaded a silicon chip inside their head and any evidence to the contrary has been fabricated just to make them mad and they want to tell you about it.

Or maybe not tell you about it. They'll probably tell me about it. I don't know if I look nonthreatening, easily led, or simply don't wear an iPod often enough to avoid the kind of people who talk to strangers on the subway and tell me about what's really happening. Here's a quick summing-up of the latest- Stephane Dion is a communist and a junkie (he's so thin), Bush and Harper are buying up real estate in South America in anticipation of the coming dissolution of North America (I hear Rio's rather pretty), the Poverty Industry (food banks, apparently) is trying to take the food out of my mouth through high taxes and the mafia (which was never explained). One guy pointed at a poster and said "I've never trusted triangles," with a frown. I didn't question it further.

I didn't - don't - believe any of these stories and noticed that all of the people telling me were not conspiciously wearing tinfoil hats, exactly. They looked prepared (all had pamphlets, including the born-again triangle guy) and could all probably handle a day job without a second look. They just had a thing they couldn't let go of. They weren't as scary as the bookstore owner who told me about the RCMP's interment camps in Northern Ontario that were waiting for Clinton to annex Canada and mark everyone's right-hands with tattoos like in the Bible and like the Nazis did to the Jews, and while we were on the topic, what if less than 6 million died? Of course, it's wrong if even one person died, but there were some people (i.e. Jews) who might be milking it and did I want to see some of the literature he had to prove that maybe...

I left. This guy scared me for the nonsense he was spouting and for the fact he was running a bookstore that catered to churches (it's since gone out of business). And his particular line was a grab-bag of black helicopters, evil bankers, biblical prophecy, and old fashioned anti-Semitism disguised behind a desire for decent accounting.

I haven't seen a lot of that face-to-face. I worked one summer with a woman who told me that since the Jews ran the newspapers, they'd censor the news (she was speaking about the Toronto Sun at the time, of all things). And a guy in a coffee shop once asked me what my heritage was: the code was pretty unsubtle. I told him I was a German Jew to see what he'd do.

This was not a smart move on my part (I was around 26yrs old at the time and it struck me as a valid means of discourse). It encouraged conversation with a undesirable and, not being Jewish and having almost no working knowledge of German, I had no idea what I was supposed to say next. The guy shrugged and retreated, and I think it was Norman who winced later and said "You really didn't have to take that tack..."


Let's go back to the tinfoil derby people. I put most them in the 'odd, but mostly out of my universe' crowd. I'd rather run into somebody who believes there are secret underground tunnels beneath Toronto (click here and scroll down) that potentially house grey reptilian aliens than be sat down by a 9/11 truth person who has specially refined photos (i.e. photoshopped) that reveal the secret explosions which took down the towers. I take the alien people less seriously. I have fewer concerns about aliens from below than I do about the basics of physics being ignored via a rather flexible timeline and indeterminate case of characters.

It comes down to this: eventually, anyone wearing a tinfoil hat will enourage you to put one on. You can try to talk to them, discover a common point of reference, agree to disagree on certain points and schedule later debates. And at some point, they're going to insist that you put on the hat they've made especially for you as protection from the forces their hat protects them from.

You have a choice. You can look carefully at the chapeau and decide whether it's tinfoil or not. If you don't put it on, you're going to lose whatever dialogue is possible between yourself and the kind who feel that the Reynolds Wrap beanie is de rigeur. And if you put it on...then you're wearing a tinfoil hat. Full stop.

I don't care that Canada is a cold country. Maybe its a sign of age, but whenever I'm asked to sit down and discuss some issue in detail, I am more and more inclined to insist that one takes off one's hat at the table. At least you stay on the same level.

Better yet - don't accept every seat at the table that's offered to you.

And watch out for those triangles.

"Sunny loved Christmas..."

"We realize that this is not just a skimpy reenactment of tabloid truths when the narrator turns out to be Sunny, the comatose yet irreverent heiress. 'Brain dead. Body better than ever,' she says as nurses tend to her lovely shell. With the wisdom we expect of the departed, Sunny asks us to weigh the evidence, both subjective and factual, against her husband. 'Is he the Devil?' she asks. 'Can the Devil get justice?'"

- Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

The former Mrs. Von Bulow has slipped this mortal coil after 28yrs in a coma that her husband Claus was accused of precipitating. The case delighted tabloids in the early 80's and inspired Reversal of Fortune, a chilly black comedy which somehow manages equal sympathy to the (potentially) wronged Sunny and the (potentially) culpable Claus. It suggests that death's door had not been propped open exactly, but it maybe it hadn't been closed as quickly as one might have hoped.

Jeremy Irons won an Oscar for playing Von Bulow and apologized later for having intruded on the family's privacy (I remember the clip and I really want to cite this, but I can't find an reference to it online- any suggestions?) It was an odd move - the enterprise obviously didn't bother him enough to turn down the part - but I can understand why he did it. The film looks at people rich enough to have no idea of how good things are for them, so anyone without a house in the Hamptons and trust funds from European aristocracy will find the experience rather abstract. It's a great movie, and it stops short of sensationalism because of this abstraction.

I've always thought that Irons met a few of the Von Bulow clan or simply realized that his arch little film still boiled down to several people who walked the earth (and one who was breathing but static), and when you know the subjects are watching, you're likely to feel the weight of their eyes.

The film closes with Sunny's oddly reassuring voice informing us that "Claus von Bülow was given a second trial, and acquitted...this is all you can know, all you can be told. When you get where I am, you will know the rest." That line is the invention of screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, who must be feeling rather odd on the day that at least half of this prophecy is fulfilled. Sunny must know, Claus knows his side. Both stories must jibe at some point. All I know is what I see in the movies.

(raising an imaginary glass of Kristal towards the late Mrs. Von Bulow) Here's to knowledge.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Sixty-Two Percent

A little perspective, from Slate. And Drudge had linked to a Bloomberg story about the Governor General's ruling, but has since (as of 1:39PM) dropped it in favour of a story about a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton getting fondled by an Obama staffer. And anyone surprised?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Stephen, it's not a coup d’état. Stop whining.

My, my, my. What. A. Mess.

"Tactically, a coup d’état usually involves control by an active portion of the country's military, while neutralizing the remainder of the armed services' possible counteraction. The acting group either captures or expels the political and military leaders, seizes physical control of the most important government offices, means of communication, and the physical infrastructure, such as key streets and electric power plants."

- Wikipedia (so take it with a grain of salt if you wish and do your own damn research)

Unless I've missed the military presence on the streets of Ottawa, I don't see the aformentioned scenario happening. Dion, Layton and Duceppe, who've been at each other's throats for the last few months, have decided to act as one throttle and lean in the direction of Harper. I'm amazed that they've been able to stay in the same room, let alone pull this off, and the 30 month agreement will probably dissolve at the first act of overheated mon pays (Duceppe), ego (Layton) or walking into a sharp object (Dion). It's sneaky, I'm not convinced it's a good idea and it's rickity. But it ain't no coup.

In black and white:

"Canada's Parliament is based on Britain's Westminster system and follows the conventions of responsible government. That means the government must have the confidence of the House of Commons in order to function.

Therefore, if the government loses the confidence of the House, or doesn't have it, the House is supposed to get a new government...The Governor General essentially has two options: dissolving Parliament and sending Canadians to the polls, or finding a new government that does have the confidence of the House. If the country has recently had an election, like in the present case, then finding an alternative coalition government is preferable.

Parliament Hill has only ever seen one real coalition, and that was back in 1917, when Sir Robert Borden managed to combine his own Unionist party with the Liberals

- CTV News, Democracy or Bloodless Coup

This is a game of numbers. If the greatest number of seats in the house are in favour of a coalition, that coalition will form the government, full stop.

I don't know if any of this is a good idea, even with my usual feeling that Harper has impulse-control issues and makes his policy up on the fly depending on how badly he wants to look tough on any particular morning. I'm not alone in this: the Globe and Mail endorsed Harper a few weeks ago, and ran this Lawrence Martin piece yesterday:

"Up until now, the Prime Minister has been able to get away with his strong-arm tactics, his disavowing of his own election law being another recent example. But the economic update did much to expose the essence of him. My suspicion is that we don't know the half of what went on in his first term and that if there were more journalistic inquiry the extent of his attempts to put a stranglehold on the system would be found to be startling.

Last week, a bureaucrat with close ties to the PMO, said Mr. Harper has told colleagues, “When I'm hiring someone, I want to see fear in their eyes.” It may be an apocryphal story, seems to fit the mould. In any case, the fear isn't in the eyes of others now. It's in his own

I hadn't heard the phrase prorogue before yesterday, it amounts to Harper closing this session of parliment and letting the opposition linger before pulling this stunt in the spring. It's the equivalent of taking his soccer ball and going home, leaving the other kids with nothing to play with after school. Of course, he's gotta go back to school eventually, and they'll be waiting. It'd be a cheap trick, and the odds appear 50/50 that he's going to play it.

The National Post crowd is predictably sulking or hysterical, but even David Frum appears to see at least some of the writing on the wall:

"The Harper government may manage to prorogue Parliament. But sooner or later, Parliament will have to meet again. And when it does, the government will face a wall of mistrust, resentment and non-co-operation. Nothing will pass. No legislation will get through. Question Period will be pandemonium. If there was a second-term agenda, it is now utterly dead.

Coming out of the October election, the government’s best strategy was to play for time, avoiding an election for the 12 or 18 months it will take for the economy to recover from the U.S. financial crisis. Before the Ottawa Parliamentary manoeuvre, that strategy was feasible: The Liberals would not want another election until they had chosen a new leader and raised some campaign funds.

But now? Now that schedule is sure to be accelerated. The next election will arrive soon, probably very soon - as unemployment is rising, as families are cancelling vacation plans, as retirees confront RRSP declines of 30% and 40%. And how will the government explain why it has been obliged to return to the people so soon: “Sorry to bother you again, but you see our first priority after returning to office was to rewrite the campaign finance laws to beat down our opponents - and we did not count the votes carefully enough to realize that we probably couldn’t get away with it. Vote for us so we can try again!”

That too seems an invitation to a catastrophic defeat."

Dion ran a lousy campaign. Layton was overconfident. Harper was dismissive. Duceppe is single minded. Flaherty tried to pawn off economic responsibilities and play for time. The results are plain to see. These people are running the country. 2009's gonna be great.

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