Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas At The Manor

For the first time in some years, my entire little family will be together. All four brats are now here, and happily playing hockey on the rink (we flood the tennis court in winter). As for the kids' genders, well, let us just say, one of each. More on them in future posts; for now, I am content to enjoy the afternoon from the conservatory window, taking occasional sips from a very serious martini.

From that vantage point, I can watch Consuela, my Mexican groundskeeper, enjoying plowing snow along the driveway to the front of the manor. She loves the big John Deere, and delights in making huge snowbanks at each side, then ramming even more snow into the banks. The girl was not always so happy, and had to be retrieved from a Ciudad Juarez drug cartel moments before she faced beheading. How that rescue occurred is still under official wraps, so to speak, but when I learn that that the cartel is no more, I will relate the story.

Ahmed, my driver, is quite smitten with Consuela, but the courtship is not going well. Ahmed is an observant Muslim, and has trouble with Consuela's attitude towards life. Oh, she is modest in her dress, and would never be caught dead in a tight sweater and mini-skirt. Well, she dressed this way once, but that was a special occasion where I had directed some undercover work in San Diego. For the most part, however, she dresses sensibly, yet adheres to the song lyric "I enjoy being a girl." She quite likes Ahmed, but when he suggested that she wear a hijab, that was a bridge too far. Consuela has glorious raven tresses, and wants then to be seen not just by Ahmed, but by anyone else. Religion making things difficult again. As when does it not?

I suppressed any further thought in this direction -- the moment was too peaceful for religious irritation -- and focused on the imminent arrival of my good friend and quondam lover, the Compte de Rienville. The roads being an icy mess, I had sent Ahmed in the Hummer to pick him up at the airport. The Compte would be bringing a case of exquisite burgundy from his estate, and with his connections to the French D.G.S.E., would have no trouble at customs. A shiver of anticipation ran through me, and I was, for the first time in years, looking forward to Christmas.

And no regrets at all for having to turn down Stephen Harper's kind offer of a Senate seat. Way too public, and given the number of contracts and fatwas out on me, well, the appointment was just not on. So I declined, but not without first urging Stephen to come to terms with the Russian, Ignatieff, and leave the Canadian electorate in peace for a while.

Now that would be a FINE Christmas present!

But I see that the Compte has arrived, and I must do something with my hair.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wherefrom The Wherewithal?

I have had a number of queries recently about finance, more specifically, my own. It appears that few have a staffed manor house in Toronto, complete with helipad, or a beach house in California, a villa on the Costa Del Sol, apartments in Paris and London, and a neat little condo in Tokyo. Maintaining all this, of course, makes certain fiscal demands, but to me these are not onerous. The reason is a simple one:

Ecce beta vulgaris.

Or put another way, "Behold the sugar beet."

My late husband, dear Lord Strunsky, had spotted the utility of this useful vegetable some decades ago, and had quietly bought controlling interests in major plantations in the prime producing countries, Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and Germany. Now I will admit that the sugar beet is not talked of often, and rarely appears in novels or stories. (One remarkable exception is Tom Robbins excellent Jitterbug Perfume, although Lord Strunsky thought that Robbins terribly abused the sugar beet by turning it into a perfume base.)

I should note as well that France is also prominent in the area of sugar beets, but Lord Strunsky was unsuccessful in moving into this particular market. Apparently the Elysee Palace sees the production of sugar beets as a "National Champion" and therefore opts for total control. Such production is also seen as a national security issue. Baffling, but we are dealing with the French.

Now even in this time of credit horror, with even large banks staring into a ghastly abyss of debit, the sugar beet continues to add to its value. After all, it supplies 30% of the world's sugar. But there is more.

The Czechs, always an enterprising folk, have developed a rum-like beverage from the sugar beet, called tuzemak. I first sampled this some years ago at a party in Prague, and had a great time. I think -- the details are a bit hazy. When I woke up, I was glad to see that clothing, cash and jewellery were all intact. Not so my virginity, but that didn't matter. That "intactness" went during my teen age years, and that's enough of that.

The Germans, being somewhat down to earth, made a syrup from the sugar beet, and then went on to develop a very fine soup called Zuckerruben. But it is the Brits, bless them, that have really sent the price soaring. British Petroleum, along with Dupont, are working with various agriculture authorities to create a fuel additive, and the enterprise shows much promise, as well as being on the side of the eco-angels.

So there we are, and it's amazing how the money rolls in.

I should confess that I do supplement my balance book from time to time by undertaking assignments for various governments that, well let us say, are somewhat beyond the remit of the average civil servant. Can't really elaborate here, the Official Secrets Act being what it is. But, where finances are concerned, one must think carefully, and I leave you with a comment made by my second cousin, Simeon: "Money is that element that makes stupidity shine."

Wherefrom The Wherwithal?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Busy Day At The Manor

As indicated in my last note, I reached the Prime Minister this morning without much fuss. No doubt visions of funds being deposited in Conservative coffers danced in his head, but he was quickly disabused of such largesse. In fact, if he wanted further Strunksian contributions, he must give serious consideration to the following:

1) Confess error in removing the arts funding in Quebec. I mean, who cares if a number of Quebec soi-disante artistes are swanning around Europe on the Canadian taxpayer's dime? This action, I assured him, cost him the Quebec votes that could have resulted in a majority. I mean, could you not have waited until AFTER the election?

2) Confess further error in removing the political funds from the opposition parties. Yes, they are rats, and usually run and hide, but even a rat will fight when cornered. Forgot that, eh Stephen?

3) If it was not you, whoever suggested these two things should be fired immediately.

3) After accomplishing these little exercises in humility, make a real effort to get together with the new leader of what is now a rather bedraggled Natural Governing Party. Michael Ignatieff is, in my opinion, even further right than you are, so it shouldn't be difficult. And the current economic mess provides the perfect excuse. So get with it.

Well, the man didn't hang up.

At this point, the Bishop of the local parish dropped round for lunch.My chef, Giacomo, had prepared some wonderful quiches, washed down with a stunning Chardonnay. The Bishop was appreciative. What had prompted his visit was his awareness of a Foundation established by my late husband, Lord Strunsky, entitled The Creative Challenge. This Foundation provided grants to young artists and writers in various countries who were finding it impossible to crack their local Arts Mafias. (In Canada, this is called the Canada Council). The Bishop was attempting to fund the creation of a new stained glass window in a small but historic church, Our Lady of the Sorrowful Chains. He wanted the window to commemorate the martyrdom of St Perpetua, an early daughter of Holy Mother Church who had seen the Light and was determined to walk into it, aided and abetted by some gladiator or other.

I had no quarrel with this request, other than to make the point that all too many women were looked upon as victims, and that the Church should at least be giving some thought to bringing the Magdalene into a more favourable place in the canon. Ignoring the Bishop's blanched face, I did insist that there be some kind of competition to select the artist, and that I be one of the judges. One must do what one can to help the unknown become known, when possible.

I should add that while funding artistic endeavour is one thing, funding organized religion per se is quite another. Lord Strunsky was adamant on that point, and I agree. The historical record of organized religion is appalling in terms of vicious behaviour and lives lost -- the "my sacred stone is better than your sacred stone" type of thing. We really have to grow up.

The Bishop was hardly out the door when George Lucas (of all people) dropped by for tea. George was seeking backing for a possible film focussing on Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern series. Since I was enamoured of old Ramoth and the versatile Ruth, I ageed to forward the odd million or so, depending on other contributors and an appropriate number of equity points. (I had done very well indeed on George's Star Wars efforts). He enjoyed the scones I had provided (or Giacomo had, to be fair) and amused me by casting the Canadian political scene in terms of that epic. The Jedis had all fled to the south (although one might be re-appearing there on January 20th) and the northern Empire was now in the hands of Darth Vader (Ignatieff) with the Evil Emperor still lurking in the shadows, man by the name of Chretien.

"And Stephen Harper," I asked, "what of him?"

"Oh, that's easy," replied George. "He's Ice Planet Thoth."


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Return From Chicago

To Chicago, where I had an enjoyable lunch with Michelle Obama and the girls. (A $2 M campaign contribution has its rewards). The girls were delightful, as was Michelle. Soft-spoken, to be sure, but I sensed steel there. It will be needed, given the media maelstrom that is Washington. Barack wasn't available, and was actually in Washington hammering out some policy issues with Hillary. I wondered where Bill was, and made a mental note to call him. Must be careful, though. Past experience has taught me not to phone him from an hotel room, and when meeting, dress down. Bill Clinton and a tight skirt is a recipe for disaster.

On the plane back to Toronto, I had some thoughts about Americans. Although my home base is Canada, I have dual citizenship (actually quadruple citizenship, but that's a story for another day) and have always enjoyed my stays in the U.S. Americans are the most generous people on earth, but it is unwise to cross them. They possess a streak of violence, and are armed to the teeth owing to a terribly botched reading of the Second Amendment of their Constitution. The Supreme Court really doesn't understand either comma placement or the ablative absolute, something the original framers knew intimately. So it goes.

I had some trouble when boarding at O'Hare. I had to remove my shoes, and when the conveyor belt ate them, I knew instantly what had happened. The security officer, a thin, hatchet-faced woman, tried to pretend that she didn't know what had happened. This was bullshit. The shoes were Manolo Blahniks, and the closest this woman would ever get to them would be looking through a showcase window. I spotted a golden heel protruding from one of her trouser pockets, grabbed her bicep and applied pressure in a certain way. She collapsed of course. I was all concern, calling for medical assistance, creating a great fuss, and was commended for my fast action. Got my shoes back too.


Upon deplaning in Toronto, I became aware that the government was about to fall, Jack Layton, Stephane Dion and Gilles Duceppe were beside themselves with joy, and worst of all, learned that someone had unsealed a coffin and Jean Chretien was abroad in the land. What had Stephen done? I will call him immediately (a $2M campaign contribution has its rewards) and get to the bottom of all this.

Stay tuned.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Global Warming -- It Happens

I humoured a good but somewhat misguided friend the other day and accompanied her to a mini-conference on the global warming issue, entitled "A Planet In Dire Peril." I listened to speaker after speaker bemoan the state of things, the common leitmotif to all this being that the very survival of the planet was in doubt. Making a superhuman effort -- no point in embarrassing my friend -- I held my tongue in check, but when we joined a group later at the bar, my resolve collapsed when one of the attendees, close to tears (or too many martinis) complained bitterly that the earth was done for.

Now I well realized that the points I wished to make would fall on deaf ears, in that if you argue with a reformer, you are always wrong, but really, this was getting completely out of hand.

"That's rubbish," I said loudly and clearly.

Silence for a moment, and then someone asked, "What's rubbish? You can't ignore global warming. Look at what Al Gore --"

"Let's conveniently forget about inconvenient truths for a moment," I interrupted, "and concentrate on the issue of the earth. It may get warmer, it may get colder, but it sure isn't in peril. Think for a moment about a planet undergoing real global warming. Think about Venus, average temperature on the surface of 500 degrees Centigrade, with an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulphuric acid and smaller traces of God knows what. Now that's a planet in peril, yet you know what? It gets along just fine, does Venus. As does Earth."

"So?' asked one of the enviromentalists who had given one of the more hair-raising talks.

"So, my friend" I replied, "the planet has been there, done that, and is still with us. Let's review, and yes, you can buy me another Cosmopolitan. First, the Pleistocene Ice Age, 110,000 years ago. Then the Bolling Warm Period, 14,700 years ago. Lasted for some 800 years. This gave way to the Older Dryas Cooling for 300 years, to be followed by the Allerod Warming that went on for 700 years. Most recently we had the Little Ice Age from 1500 to 1850, and since then things have been getting gradually warmer, although nowhere near the Bolling Period. Hence, as you can see, the Conference has been asking the wrong question."

This was greeted by blank stares. Too much information, I thought, too soon.

"The real question" I continued, "should centre upon us. It is we, not the planet, that are in peril. And we will have to act imaginatively. Curtailing greenhouse gases will help, but not that much. The planetary forces at work are far beyond our ability to rein them in, at least outside of an Iain Banks novel, and therefore as much emphasis should be placed on adaptation as on carbon capping and stashing. Oh, and thanks for the drink."

Two minutes later our little section of the bar was deserted.

"Really, Simone." my friend said.

"Yes, I replied, "really."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sometimes The Drastic Is Called For

In my last little missive, dealing with the horrific things that women are subjected to in certain cultures and countries, I indicated that a good way out of the mess lies in the kitchen. But before this way can be utilized, one great hurdle must be overcome.

I first became cognizant of this hurdle at a Man Booker reception, where my good friend Peggy Atwood was reading selections from her work. One sentence, germane to the discussion at hand, will forever resonate in my memory. It goes as follows: "This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that, I am nothing."

This deserves some thought. First, as one believes, so it is. Or, as the poet Wallace Stephens put it, "Let be be the finale of seem." Now if the seeming makes it so, something I take to be inarguable, then it follows that if one sees oneself as a victim, well, doors just shut all over the place, and it all continues. The abusive relationship. The adherence to a male code of behaviour (calling it ethics is not on) rooted in the 9th century. The stoning to death for adultery, proven or not. And so on, for ever and ever, world without end.

To stop this idiocy, the seeing yourself as a victim has to stop as well. Not easy, but it can be done. Only then do various options present themselves, and this brings me back to the kitchen.

Girls, think about it. No other room in the house, hut or hovel contains such weaponry. Knives (for vegetables must be cut) spices (some dangerous if applied too liberally) foodstuffs (which can be added to in certain ways) -- the list goes on. And you don't have to kill the tyrant immediately (which would call for suspicion) , just debilitate, and tend with not so loving care. Of course, in extreme cases, where speed becomes a necessity, "spices" such as arsenic, belladonna and strychnine come to mind. And stash what monies you can in the flour bowl. Or wherever.

Along with the above, a good deal of thought should be given to developing a sound exit strategy after your "beloved" has shuffled off his mortal coil. This is not overly difficult in most cases. The 9th century doesn't have much time for widows, and they will be glad to see the backside of you.

And your flour bowl will not be missed.

Good luck, and should you manage to make it to Canada, you will always have a welcome at Strunsky Manor.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Are We Really That Frightening?

A news item came to my attention the other day -- I believe from the Manchester Guardian -- that described a mad dash to a hospital in Saudi Arabia. When the car arrived at the emergency entrance, various Saudi medical personnel were stunned to note that it had been driven by a woman. Turned out that it was the sick man's daughter, and had it not been for her quick transport, her father faced almost certain death. To the religious authorities, who were horrified to learn that not only could this young girl drive a car, but drive it with some expertise, there could only be one result -- a goodly number of lashes and a lengthy prison term. Women do not drive in Saudi Arabia. Her dire fate was averted, however, when it was learned that the father was a man with powerful connections in The Kingdom, and these said "authorities" could go fly a kite. Indeed, he wanted to reward her, and when he had recovered somewhat, asked her what she might like. "A Ferrari," she replied.

This is a girl I would like to meet.

Yet the anecdote raises some interesting questions, all of which can be summed up under the rubric, "Certain Muslim men are terrified of women." Hence I can understand the driving ban, which, if lifted, would give women a death-dealing weapon equal to those driven by men.

But this doesn't quite get at the sheer terror felt by those men inhabiting a great deal of the Middle east, to say nothing of those in the tribal areas of Pakistan or in much of Afghanistan. Educating a female, for instance, is anathema -- witness the recent courageous act of throwing acid in the faces of thirteen-year-old schoolgirls, and of course any unprotected girl's school is ripe for bombing, preferably with the inhabitants still in it. And the insanity of their rape laws, where the act must be testified to by four witnesses before any redress can be offered, well, this just beggars belief. I mean, just imagine. There you have four guys standing around, taking notes on the act (more likely a gang bang) and then trotting off to the local mullah to report. Unless of course the mullah himself -- oh, enough. The point is made.

But this is sanctioned in the Qu'ran you say. Like hell it is. All the Qu'ran states is that women should dress and act modestly. Full stop. The rest stems from some asshole "interpreting" the text.

No, the problem goes deeper. I have long held that fear and hatred stem from not understanding the person or thing being beheld. Now it is true that no man will ever understand a woman completely, but at least in civilized society men give women the benefit of the doubt. Most of the time. In the areas discussed above, where we are deep into the ninth century, no such benefit is given. Women are lesser beings, contaminated with evil, and begrudgingly necessary for procreation. Abortion is punishable by death, yet if I have it right, and if it were men giving birth, all the mullahs, imams, and not a few rabbis and priests, would make abortion a sacrament.

There is an answer to this, and it lies in an odd place -- the kitchen. More on that next time.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Great Expectations

No, this is not an analysis of the relationships among Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham (although Mr. Wemmick's stressing the benefits of 'portable property' might proffer a small contribution to the current financial mess) but rather some thoughts on the recent American election.

Good on Barack Obama, and good on the American electorate for turning a number of corners, not the least of which is the election of an African-American to the Presidency. I have lived through Selma, Dr. King's address, the saga of Rosa Parks, Brown v. Board of Education and considering all that, thought it would still take decades for such an event to occur. And never mind the carping comment (made by several grumpy analysts ) that in the U.S. it always takes a black man to clean up the white man's messes. All of which brings me to my point

The mess left by the unholy combination of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- Bush, Cheney, Rove and Rumsfeld -- is truly gargantuan. It will not be solved speedily, and herein lies the problem. The expectations raised by the election of Obama verge on the fantastical. It as if he could wave a magic wand, and presto! the economy starts humming again, job creation soars, two wars end with resounding success, and those wee tussles in the Congo, Somalia and Darfur all get quickly resolved. (Note to Sarah -- Africa is a continent, not a country. I must have a little talk with that woman.) And as the good Barack begins to slog his way through all this, people's impatience is bound to rise; current society, aided and abetted by technology, is lousy at deferred gratification. The message that has to get through is that it took eight years of idiocy to get the U.S. where it is. It is going to take eight years to get back to where the country was.

One bright aspect, if I remember my T.S. Eliot, is as follows: "And the purpose of all our journeyings is to get back to the place where we started, and know it for the first time." So perhaps, just perhaps, that knowledge will come about. So let's all of us give it time.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hallowe'en At Strunsky Manor

It had been some time since I last witnessed shelling out and tricking and treating. My last three years were spent in geographical locations really not conducive to celebrating All Hallow's Eve. Last year, for instance, I was in Vladivostock hunting down an assassin by the name of Nadia Nerevko, who had tortured and killed one of my colleagues. And it was late at night, in an alley near Nabereznaya Street that we met. I took my 9mm Glock in two hands and -- oh, never mind. It was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. So to speak. Then on to a much needed vacation in the Caucuses, until, as you know if you have been diligent in following all this, I was summarily uprooted by the Russian army.

On that point, I can tell you that I did receive a nice apology that reads as follows: "Simone, my dearest, so sorry for the eviction. I hadn't realized you were in the area. I well remember that night in Omsk -- considering what we did, how could I forget it -- and truly regret any inconvenience the invasion might have caused you." Signed: V. Putin.

Nice of him, but still....

Anyway, it turns out that Irving my butler loves Halloween, and can discourse at length on the original Celtic festival of Samhain, and the use of frightening masks in order to not be recognized by the dead (they see October 31st as party time.) Thus Irving has kept the tradition alive at my house, and the staff spent uncounted hours decorating the front and the extended driveway. No small feat -- the driveway is about a half kilometre from the municipal road -- and trick or treaters, along with their somewhat spooked out parents, were met at the front of the driveway by a series of golf carts. These were then whipped up to the front doors, and homemade candy apples distributed. These had been marked with my address and coat of arms, to ease parental concerns and to indicate that they were not dealing with a psychopath along the lines of the aforementioned Nadia Nerevko.

I watched all this with amusement, but felt a touch of nostalgia as well; it would be nice to be a little girl again, with your biggest problem being what to wear on Hallowe'en. Some of the costumes were amazing, some were charming, and one was highly original, an outfit resembling a Crayola crayon. None however, touched on the scary or the downright evil.

Wait. I lie. One lad did plumb the depths of actual horror. He wore a Dick Cheney mask.

See you soon.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Retaining Retainers

Irving, my butler for many a year, approached me yesterday with a problem. Apparently the TV cable to the servant's quarters had been inadvertently cut by some oaf hired by the city to clean out culverts. Attempts to have the cable company rectify this situation had all fallen flat, with a series of little trucks appearing off and on, with their occupants all bearing the same message: "Your cable is cut." This Irving already knew. What he wanted was someone to fix the damn thing.

"Well," one cable employee said, "we will need a permit from the city in order to dig. This may take between six and eight weeks." Irving, knowing that the staff would find this intolerable, came to me.

Now it has always been my policy to keep retainers happy, and if access to such things as cable TV fell into this category, so be it. Although why both the upstairs and downstairs maids were so intent on gardening and food channels escaped me. What is "Reality Cooking" anyway? Surely not haute cuisine, a phrase, to my way of thinking, that describes food eaten on the moon. Nevertheless, a happy staff is an industrious staff, and action was called for.

Actually, the whole matter was resolved rather easily. I placed a phone call to the CEO of the cable company (on his private line -- we have had dealings before -- and suggested the problem should get fixed within the next half hour, reminding him as well that I was privy to certain of his actions with regards to just who could, and who couldn't, get the food concessions at a little baseball emporium he owns. Within the aforesaid half hour, three trucks appeared along with a small army of technicians, and all was done, permits be damned. (I suspect he has a number of permits already filled out for just such occasions.)

That night the staff were especially attentive, reinforcing my policy of contentment breeding contentment. As for my own TV needs, a discreet satellite tucked under the east wing eave serves all my HBO needs, a small gift from NASA for certain services rendered in the past.

I wonder, however, what people must go through with cut cable lines when one doesn't have access to the CEO? Perhaps it is just as well that Canada has very strict gun control laws.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Great Financial Fiasco

Well, finally back in Toronto from Washington, and sorry about the delay in writing these little slices of life. The time has been spent in endless meetings with financiers where hands were wrung, sweat wiped from brows, and everyone bemoaning, and bemoaning, It was really sad. I mean, it was not rocket science to see this thing coming. I had, of course, liquidated most of my holdings in mid-2007, following the advice of a good friend (and maybe somewhat more) of my great Aunt Maud, Bernard Baruch, who once said, "I made all my money by selling too early".

The prevailing zeitgeist in Washington was not to do anything, and leave the whole mess in the lap of the incoming President. However, things were a bit too hairy for that, and so massive infusions of capital were decided upon, with the U.S. Government buying into a number of financial institutions. This received my full support -- needs must -- but of course the action provoked howls of outrage from a number of the more diehard Republicans, who saw the dandruffy head of socialism arising. Maybe so, maybe not, but one thing is certain -- the American taxpayer is on the hook for a lot of cash.

Yet all was not entirely gloom and doom. The Watergate being under renovation, I was forced into The Willard, and while sipping a fine martini in the Round Robin bar encountered my old friend, the Compte de Rienville, who had made, and continues to make, a fortune in sugar beets.
Way led on to way, as these things will, and in his five room suite, the earth moved that night. To divulge any other details would be prurient, and sex in the city is not what this column is about. At least not this time.

As for the second major topic in Washington, the election, I will have more to say on this in another post. Suffice it to say that there are troublesome fiscal seas ahead, and a sturdy ship is called for. McCain looks to embark on the U.S.S. Phil Gramm, while Obama hopes to board U.S.S. Paul Krugman. McCain's choice would be a disaster (Gramm saw the Dow Jones Index surpassing 30,00 some six months ago) while Obama's looks shrewd, particularly after Krugman has just received a Nobel Prize for his work in international finance. And if you don't really know who Gramm and Krugman are, well dig, folks, dig -- I am not writing these things for an audience that says, "Oh, who cares what economists think. I don't have to -- I watch Oprah."

See you soon.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Somewhat Hairy Hiatus

I had thought to do this on a two or three day basis, but got called away to Washington to attend a number of meetings. Apologies. It appears that a number of financial chickens have come home to roost, and since I had managed to keep my little credits some distance away from my debits, certain economists and politicians wondered t just how I had accomplished this feat. Particularly at the multi-million level. A meeting of a number of key players was called, and I proceeded to address the meeting.

The address was not particularly well -received.

Perhaps this was because I began with that great economist Charles Dickens, who made the point, I believe in Bleak House, that if income was more than expenditure, the result was happiness. If income was exceeded by expenditure, the result was misery.

From the looks on faces, it appeared that misery was in full sway.

Well what do you expect? I mean, if you're going to offer $400,000 mortgages on houses worth $200,00, then bundle the deals together and sell the packages off in the form of debt that was unaccountably given an AAA rating in terms of eventual return, and then compound the whole mess by re-packaging in the form of swaps, debentures, derivatives or God knows what else, then eventually some institution somewhere is going to default, and suddenly everyone wants their cash back. Only it isn't there.

There is a name for this sort of thing. It is called a Ponzi Scheme, whereby a financial pyramid is created. Now as long as members keep joining, and throwing their money into the pot, those at the top of the pyramid cash in and do very well indeed. When the bottom frays, however, and the incoming funds dry up, the whole thing comes crashing down. And it is not pleasant -- just ask any Albanian.

So in America now, and since a number of global institutions also dove into these murky and dangerous waters, the debt crisis now has international legs.

In several papers, I had warned my financial colleagues that they were sailing in a very leaky ship, but these were laughed at or ignored. What hurt was a comment by one CEO: "Simone's a woman -- what does she know?" This from a twit that, had I a mind to, I could buy his bank out from under him in two hours. Stupid man. I take comfort in Schiller: "Against stupidity, the gods themselves rail in vain."

There is a way out, but that is for another day.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Little Discussion With The Mayor

I can let you know that I've settled in nicely, having purchased a small holding in the north central area of town. Well, not that small -- one must have adequate,if austere, rooms for the servants -- but all in the household seem content. The grounds are not what I recall from my English ancestral home, but to find several acres of land in the middle of a city is not possible. Unless one purchases a park. I flirted with this idea for a time (there is a neat one in the West End) but decided I would put my financial resources to better purpose.

I have also taken time to review the governance of the city, and was appalled. Nothing would do but to have a discussion with the Mayor. This was easily arranged by one of my colleagues. All she did was to put into His Honour's tinted ear that a sizable campaign offering could be on the table if he could free himself from bicycle paths for a moment and enjoy lunch with the erstwhile contributor. That is, me.

His Honour accepted immediately.

Now the Greeks, having given up on mathematics and entered the restaurant business, run some superb places, and it was at just such a place that I met the Mayor, and over some fine moussaka and feta drizzled salad, aided by a vintage Retsina, we got along famously, even to the point that he allowed that I was one of the most attractive women he had encountered. Compliments are always welcome, and I was going to return the favour, but thought I would first raise some questions that needed some clarification.

"Would you agree, sir," I asked forthrightly, "that socialism is what makes capitalism bearable?"

"Absolutely," he replied. "If only some of my fellow councillors --"

"And would you further agree," I interrupted, " in the reverse of the medal?"


A blank look. Oh, oh. This is going to be a bit more difficult that I thought. But I persevered.

"Just flip the phrase. That is, if socialism makes capitalism bearable, then would not capitalism make socialism bearable?"

"Not really," he said. "The poor need our help. Capitalists don't."

Which was not an answer to the question, but now he was warming to his topic.

"You see, the city never has enough money. We have to obtain it through other levels of government, and our own revenue enhancers."

"Revenue enhancers?" I queried. "You mean taxes. But where on earth does the money come from that is to be taxed?"

"The term 'taxes' is misleading," he replied, a note of superiority in his voice, and again ignoring my question. "We at the Executive Council prefer the tern 'revenue enhancers.'"

"The Executive Council. What's that?" I said, fixing him with my eyes.

"Well, it's sort of a Cabinet. To work out, er, final details."

"The deliberations of this Executive thingy. Are they open to the public?"

"In a sense. When the policy is presented to the full Council."

"So it's a kind of Star Chamber."

His Honour looked at me, confusion in his eyes. "I don't know what you mean. Do you mean that we have our meetings in the offices of the newspaper, The Toronto Star?"

"No, my dear Mayor, I mean the Chamber dating back to Henry VII of England, a judicial body separate from the Privy Council, and later became more powerful than the Council under Charles I. There was a star painted on the ceiling in the palace at Westminster where the meetings were held. All was done in secrecy, and the illegality of the Chamber proved one of the reasons Charles lost his head. I think, Your Honour, with your Executive Council, you are treading on dangerous ground."

"I really must go," he said, "I'm already late for a meeting on traffic calming."

He rose, and hurriedly left the restaurant.

Oh, dear, I thought. Poor Toronto.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


So there I was, enjoying the sunlit afternoon at my rented villa on the Black Sea, when I heard a rumble in the courtyard. Closer inspection revealed a Russian tank , a T90 if I was not mistaken (and about such things, I rarely am). I made my way down to the courtyard and greeted the soldiers, who were busily scrambling out of their lumbering conveyance. Hoping that my Russian was up to it, I invited them in for tea. This took them somewhat by surprise, but after a brief discussion among themselves they followed me into the villa.

Over tea and scones, I learned that they were, Sherman like, going to march through Georgia. Apparently the powers that be in Tbilisi had seen fit to poke the Russian bear in the eye, always an ill-advised move. The tank crew had received orders to commandeer the villa and establish some sort of staging area, and I was asked to leave. The request was made politely -- I make a very good scone -- and besides, the owner of the villa, a clan leader with some 200 men at his command, would be perfectly capable of sorting the whole thing out. One way or the other.

And so I returned to North America, after a rather tortuous journey involving a hike through the Caucuses, and a grim trip through Bulgaria involving third class rail. But needs must, and from Sofia I could access my accounts, and arrange a flight from Sofia that eventually landed me in the leafy and somewhat socialist city of Toronto, where everyone was chattering about elections -- the Canadian (just announced) and the American (perpetual).

Before going into these elections, I want to take some time to adjust to the North American way of doing things before posting any deeper thoughts on the process. But I will say this. In Canada, it would appear that the Conservatives have a leader much more popular than his party, while the Liberals as a party are better received than their leader, even if aided and abetted by the Greens. And (this is a bit worrisome) the Socialist party, the NDP, appears to be making strides. There are other parties, but these serve more as background noise to the main event rather than having any chance to grab the brass ring.

America features a rather inexperienced but charismatic black contender, accompanied by a battle-hardened politico, against which we have another battle hardened veteran accompanied by an attractive, gun-toting paragon of Christian womanhood.

I rather suspect the American thing will trump the Canadian in terms of public interest, but we will see.

All for now, it's good to be back, and may all live long and prosper.