Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Productive Tea

To the Old Mill and tea with my good friend Fiona, with whom I had shared a room with at Oxford. I was reading English literature, she was studying tribolite fossils, so we got along just fine. From there I had gone to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to pursue my interest in Ruhmkorff coils, while Fiona had come to Toronto, and obtained work at the Royal Ontario Museum (it has an excellent tribolite collection). I had stayed in England, and because I was fluent in Russian and Mandarin, was interviewed by Sir Harry (as he then wasn't) and the rest is mostly classified history.

Fiona's interest in tribolites waned, and she then was hired by the Canadian Government, where she now had a Directorate in Immigration, and was to my knowledge being squired about by Code Barry, my CSIS contact. How her expertise in fossils helps her work in immigration policies and programs escapes me.

We dressed up for this occasion. I wore an YSL paisley blouse and a knee-high brown corduroy skirt designed by Vera Wang. My Robert Clergerie boots helped things along. I was, however, particularly enamoured of the skirt -- I had it altered slightly to include a small inner pocket close to my left thigh, just right for a Derringer. I could retrieve and fire the weapon in a split second (practice is always a Good Thing).

Well, a girl in my line of work can't be too careful these days.

Fiona looked lovely in a blue woolen sheath that screamed Donna Karan, and her blue Jimmy Choo pumps were a perfect match. The government was obviously paying well. Recession? What recession?

As we daintily gobbled (possible oxymoron there) delicious cucumber sandwiches and scones laced with large dollops of black currant jam, all washed down with a good Oolong, I learned what is new in the immigration game. Fiona mentioned how important it was to master either English or French, and obtain at least a working knowledge of Canadian history. No news there. What was new was the following.

According to Fiona, Canadian gun control came as a revelation to many landed immigrants, including a fair smattering of Americans. A crime committed was, needless to say, not helpful in obtaining citizenship. A crime committed with a gun was fatal, and even possession was quite enough to incur deportation. And at this point in the conversation, Fiona gave me a hard stare, an action which led me to think that Code Barry had let something slip....

Another hurdle that immigrants had to master was, of all things, queuing. There was an etiquette at work here, and nothing enraged Canadians more than someone butting into the head of a line and displacing those patiently waiting. Not a few politicians have come to grief on this cross, and the practice should be avoided at all costs. Except perhaps where the Sherbourne bus is concerned, given that any number of mental health operations are strung out along its route. The exception, then, that proves the rule.

Finally, bribery in any form was forbidden. This, Fiona stated, was perhaps the most difficult thing for a landed immigrant to grasp. The societies from which they had come often bloody well ran on bribery, and to eschew the practice was very difficult indeed. In Fiona's words, "It had become a habit, and not one easily broken."

"I understand," I said. As the physicist Rupert Sheldrake once commented, 'The universe has habits, not laws.'"

Fiona just stared, then continued, indicating that the Immigration Ministry had reached a deal with the various police forces that when offered a bribe from a prospective immigrant, the cop was to indicate to the person that they had committed a criminal offence. The next time it occurred, a charge would be laid. For the most part, this approach seemed to be working, although Fiona mentioned that the policy was received with amazement by the immigrants.

"But what," I asked, "of refugees?"

"Now that," Fiona replied, "is a different ballgame entirely. Let's talk about that another time. Right now I'm enjoying this, and why ruin a perfectly good tea?"

Why indeed.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fun With Ill-Gotten Finances

Back from Tucson, and with some time on my hands, I began to delve into Conrad Black's life of Franklin Roosevelt. Curled up on the sofa in my study, sipping a Grey Goose over ice, I began to read. Goodness, I thought, the man can write, and I thought it a pity that Lord Black of Crossharbour had not made a career of teaching and writing history, rather than grubbing around in finance, raiding pension funds, and sneaking financial records out of buildings facing dimly-lit alleys. Oh well, as my mentor once observed, this also applied to Hermann Goering, an acknowledged expert in the poetry of John Keats. Would that he had stuck to nightingales rather than Messerschmitts! Can't have everything, though.

I had barely started when my secure phone line rang. It was Sister Cecelia of a charity I support, the Little Sisters of Poverty and Pain, a gathering of atheistic nuns that have appeared in these pages before. The good Sister is in charge of the organization's finances, and wanted to thank me for the most recent, very large, donation.

"What donation?" I asked. I have a good head for where my money goes, and the Sisters had already received their 2011 allotment.

"Why the funds that you transferred to our account," said Cecilia. "About $300,000.00 dollars. In fact, we've gone ahead and purchased two Cessna Skylanes, and have contracted with a very good mechanic to help us out. The planes will do wonders for our Can Do Program. A woman who can control and fly an airplane... well, just think about it. [See entries for July 15 and 22, entitled Employing Empowerment]. And you didn't have to indicate that the donation was anonymous. After all, since Holy Mother Church withdrew their financial backing, you are our main supporter, although the women who have turned their lives around give us what they can."

What was she talking about? I had done nothing to -- and then realization struck. The funds had obviously been transferred electronically, and I had a very good idea how it had come about. I wished Cecilia well, rang off, and headed downstairs to the computer room.

There I encountered Rachel, hunched over one of her machines. (She has six of various capabilities).

She looked up, said "Hi" and continued to type God knows what on the keyboard.

"Rachel," I said firmly, "we must talk."

"OK," she replied. "I needed a break anyway". She shut her machine down, rose, and stretched her six foot frame, then settled back into her chair. She really was an imposing woman.

I sat down beside her. "Where is Irving?" Lately, they've been inseparable.

"He strained his back. Not serious, but he needs to rest. We were working out in the gym, and he tried to counter Arrow Over The Mountain with Cactus Frozen In Ice. Not a good move."

"No, he should have used Cactus In Coriander. But that's not what's at issue here. What's with the donation to the Little Sisters of Poverty and Pain?"

"Oh, you found out."

"It wasn't rocket science. You do have a reputation."

"Well, this whole thing began with a suggestion from your friend, Matilda Hatt. She thought that if it were possible, it would be of benefit to many if funds obtained illegally could somehow be extracted from their 'secret' accounts, and then given to those who do good work. I thought about this a bit, worked on some code, inserted it into the WRAITH software, and went to work."

"What 'work?' Specifically."

"I took over accounts housed in places like Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Grand Cayman Islands -- places like that. I then transferred sizeable chunks of cash to Medicins Sans Frontieres, the Red Cross, UNICEF, and other organizations that do positive things. I mean, no point in the money just sitting there, doing no good for anyone."

I paled. "And just who had access to these accounts?"

"Ah," replied Rachel sweetly. "Here's the beauty. The owners of the accounts would be the last to raise an outcry, because they have all publicly denied having such accounts. People like Robert Mugabe, and a slew of other African so-called leaders. People like some hedge fund managers who did a nice skimming job during the recent financial mess. Oh, then there's Tunisia. I just finished taking a rather hefty debit from Ben Ali's account. He'll get a surprise when he taps into his holdings from wherever he has fled to."

"Saudi Arabia. But Rachel, I want you to stop. To be sure, the owners won't scream, but the bankers will be frantic, and banks have very deep pockets. Deep enough that over time they will crack your code, and then this place becomes vulnerable. I already have Al-Qaeda breathing down my neck. I don't want the gnomes of Zurich as well."

Rachel thought for a moment, sighed, and said, "I take your point. But it was fun while it lasted."

"It's always fun until someone loses an eye."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reappraising Arizona

Sir Harry, my employer in The Trade, had been quiet for some time. This usually meant that either things were very quiet, or he, Cheney-like, had been whisked off to some undisclosed location because things were far from being quiet. As it turned out, he had simply taken some vacation time where he had enjoyed swanning around the Costa Del Sol. (I found this out via Rachel's WRAITH software, which, by means of taking over a computer, allows me to find people, anywhere, anytime. Wonderful stuff.)

"I need a report," stated Sir Harry, never one to waste time in pleasantries.

"Nice tan you've acquired," I replied.

"How did you --"

"Uh, uh. That would be telling."

A long pause, followed by, "Well, we'll put that aside for now. What I want to know is what is going on in Arizona."

I said, "The media is full of what is going on in Arizona. Some of the stories are even accurate. You don't need me on this one."

"Actually, you're right. But I would like to hear an assessment from your contact there."

This stymied me. "What contact?" I asked.

"There was this sheriff you got to know when you were reporting on illegal immigrants. Dupstick or Dipstick or something. He spoke sense then. Maybe he can speak sense now."

I thought for a moment, then it hit me. Clarence. Clarence Dupnik. The sane sheriff in Pima county in contrast to the out of control Joe Arpaio in Maricopa county. (Cf. Appraising Arizona, entry for May 1, 2010).

I told Sir Harry I could have a talk with Clarence Dupnik, but this would necessitate a trip to Tucson.

"Just do it quickly. Use Grimsby if you have to. The Home Secretary is interested in this one for some reason."

I got in touch with my pilot on retainer, Hank Grimsby, and shortly was in the Lear heading for Arizona. I booked in to an inexpensive but clean-looking motel near the centre of town, slipped into jeans, western boots and my 'Truckers For Christ' T-shirt, and sauntered off to meet Clarence, receiving some approving glances by the way. I mean when in Rome....

My outfit certainly impressed the deputies, and I had no trouble getting right in to Clarence's office.

He looked up, took in my appearance, and said "Really, Simone?'

"Helps to pass unnoticed. You OK?"

"I've been better. I enjoyed our first meeting. How is Ms Hatt? And the immigrant woman, Maria, wasn't it?"

"It was. Tilly is doing just fine. As for Maria, she stayed with us awhile, helping her cousin Consuela. Shortly after, she met a young Guatemalan man who was just entering a metal-bashing course somewhere. She decided to do the same thing, and now both are gainfully employed at a Guatemalan auto-body shop. Apparently she is somewhat of a genius at spot welding. Who knew?"

Then we got down to business. I was aware that Clarence had spoken of the need to use the tragic shooting of the Congresswoman, judge and the others -- a nine year old girl, for Heaven's sake! -- as an opportunity to dampen down the fierce rhetoric between the American right and left. He also stressed that President Obama had given perhaps his finest speech ever urging the same thing. Sadly, it doesn't look like pleas such as these will work, and the good Mr. Dupnik made the following points.

First, the National Rifle Association views this as a marketing opportunity, with the NRA urging everyone to acquire more weaponry in order to be more adept at self-defence. (Well, that crazed organization would, wouldn't they?) Secondly, while the Congress cooled down a bit, the radio talk shows didn't, and even Clarence found himself pilloried for trying to calm things down. And then there was Sarah Palin.

Clarence is always fair, and he stated that Palin had begun her remarks in a reasonable and even- handed way. All was fine, and if she had simply signed off at that point, she would have gained stature.

She didn't, and out came the reference to 'blood libel'. Clarence hastened to say that he doubted very much if Palin had the slightest idea of what the term meant, but rather had evolved it all on her own. I tended to agree. Sarah Palin would not be the first source I would go to for data on medieval Europe (although she does seem, from time to time, to hail from the 14th century). Therefore she would have been unaware that the term applied to Jews using children's blood to prepare Passover matzo. The term's usage by Palin ignited a firestorm, and saner Republicans lamented that the Jewish vote was now a lost cause. Not that it was any hell to begin with.

On hearing all this, I leaned forward and said, "Clarence, my good friend, I can state truly that I admire your courage in speaking out, and at least attempting to put forward a position with reason and integrity."

"Yeah," he said glumly. "But the next election for sheriff doesn't look good."

"Oh, you might be surprised. and I brought you a little Russian message."

I handed him a piece of paper. He read it, then said, "A Russian wrote this?"

"Yes. A poet. Yevgeny Yevtushenko."

"I will tape it to my desk. And thank you."

What I handed to him was this:

"How sharply our children will be ashamed taking at last their vengeance for these horrors, remembering in how strange a time, common integrity could look like courage."

Might want to tape that to your desk, too.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Well, finally, peace has descended on the Manor. All progeny and guests have departed, save for daughter Victoria, who is involved in a movie and, even as I write this, is happily being stuffed into a culvert somewhere around Stoney Creek. I do wish she would drop this proclivity and stick with her historical writing and research, but she loves doing these cinematic stunts. Makes a good buck, too, but this is all too reminiscent of the fate of Conrad, Lord Black of Crossharbour, who would have been much better off writing history rather than raiding worker's pension funds and various other nefarious fiscal activities. But enough -- unwise career choices is a topic for another day.

The quiet and calm gave me an opportunity to catch up on what has been going on in the world. As I perused some sources, print and non-print, I was struck by the prominence of the weird and unusual.

First, their appears to be some force disturbing the hell out of the earth's fauna. Thousands of birds crash to the ground on Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and, for some odd reason, Sweden. Forty thousand crabs wash up on the Thanet shoreline in the U.K., while one hundred thousand drum fish surface lifeless in the Arkansas river. My scientific friends assure me that these things happen from time to time, but still....And it is somewhat of a pity that such a suicidal affliction couldn't be visited upon the slew of religious zealots presently causing mayhem. The world would instantly become a kinder, gentler, and, most of all, saner place.

Then I read of the case of the Florida professor who was turfed from a U.S. Air flight after fellow passengers were worried about a suspicious package he had put in the overhead bin. Suspicious indeed -- the package contained a bagel with cream cheese. In America today, I guess you can't be careful enough.

Next came the revelation that Canada's junior hockey team was deficient in mathematics, a deficiency that cost them the gold medal at the recent competition. Didn't anyone teach these young lads that there are three periods in a hockey game, not two? Really and truly....

Finally, I note that Chinese firms have been drawn to Saudi Arabia, and have been investing in Saudi infrastructure and industry, including a large aluminium smelter in the southern province of Jizan and a railway construction project in Mecca. This involves hundreds of Chinese workers. This last project was of interest, for the Saudis insist that all non-Muslims are prohibited from even being in Mecca, let alone working there. China, however, has long experience in handling such issues, citing Confucious: "When on the horns of a dilemma, the wise man throws sand in the bull's face." Thus China simply converted all the workers to Islam.

If I had been able, I would have cornered the circumcision market. Been on the cutting edge.

So to speak.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Weird. Weider. Weirdest

Yes, a bit late with this note, but A LOT happened this Christmas at the Manor. Here are the highlights.

The Weird.

Daughter Isolde and son Mark were late arriving, and appeared in the company of Irving and his computer maven, Rachel. An odder foursome would be hard to imagine. Even odder was how it had all come about.

It all started at the airport security check at the Vienna Airport. (Isolde is First Violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic). It seems that someone attempted to steal Isolde's Stradivarius while going through the airport security check. As the Strad was being seized by a nasty individual with a straggly goatee (I hate goatees) another hand quickly covered the thief's hand, crushing it and causing the person to faint from the pain. The perpetrator was soon rushed away for medical, and hopefully penal, care. This was Irving in action, and I immediately recognized the hold, 'Tom Thumb On Anvil'. Works every time, although the hand involved would never completely recover. Nice Islamic touch, if you will.

Just how they all came together at the airport Irving put down to coincidence. I thought this was rubbish -- he and Rachel had obviously planned it, thus allowing Irving to look out for my kids. Once a minder, always a minder. Isolde was suitably grateful, but Irving did exact a price: a 2012 date with the Israeli Philharmonic and a performance of Bruch's Violin Concerto.


Just as things were settling down a bit, a huge ruckus developed at the front gate. Irving reported the presence of a petitioner who would not go away. Normally Irving would have settled the matter himself -- 'Bone Marrow Over Cranberry' works well in these situations, and leaves no permanent harm -- but apparently the petitioner cited a reference of my immediate neighbour, urging me to see him. Intrigued now, I donned parka and scarf and trotted out to the front.

There I encountered a nice young man sporting a Toronto Maple Leaf cap. I warmed to him immediately, for I am drawn to those who support lost causes. He was garnering support for the Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub, a group that faces certain charges for maintaining backyard chicken coops. He indicated that my neighbour had signed this petition, and had directed him here. Since my neighbour could buy and sell Toronto itself, I wondered about all this. The only connection with poultry he would have would be his collection of Faberge eggs. Then I got it, once I worked out the acronym: C.L.U.C.K.


I signed the petition, and invited him in for a small seasonal libation. He and Mark, also a Leafs fan, bonded in no time, and happily bemoaned, and bemoaned,


In my last writing, I mentioned that my gardener and housekeeper Consuela had given birth to a girl. This, of course, while significant, couldn't be termed weird. What was weird was the little girl's father, Ahmad. Their marriage was one between Muslim and Catholic, and the birth of the baby had brought certain decisions to a head. In a quiet conversation with Ahmad, he informed me of the following.

For some time now, he said, he had been outraged what had been occurring in the name of Islam. He finally had determined that the religion had been hijacked, an opinion reinforced by some work in the greenhouse. (Ahmad had been taking over some of Consuela's chores while she was enceinte.) He had been wrapping some parsnip seedlings in discarded newspapers, when he spotted an article in the New York Times Magazine by novelist Hanif Kureishi. It caused him to think deeply, and finally to dispense with religion entirely. I was glad to see another spring from superstition, but what on earth had he read?

Some scurrying around occurred at this point, but the article was eventually produced, and Ahmad pointed to one paragraph in particular. Here it is:

"Fundamentalism is dictatorship of the mind, but a live culture is an exploration, and represents our endless curiosity about our own strangeness and impossible sexuality: wisdom is more important than doctrine, doubt more important than certainty. Fundamentalism implies the failure of our most significant attribute, our imagination."

Can't say it better than that. Happy New Year to all.