Friday, March 30, 2012


Tried to reach Sir Harry on the secure line, but this apparently not possible. I did get Sir Peter Crapp, who informed me that I wouldn't want to talk to Harry anyway.

"The ribs acting up again?" I queried.

"No. This times it's teeth."


"As I understand it," he replied, "Harry somehow infected a tooth, and the infection spread. The teeth were then impacted, but the impactions keep falling out. Harry is almost ready to authorize an 'termination with extreme prejudice' order against the dentist, but was dissuaded, and sent home. So no, you don't want to talk to him. Can I help?"

"Perhaps. There is a situation in Beijing that needs looking into. If I have it right, they are closing in on Wei Lo, and she may need an extraction."

"And you know"

"The source has been reliable in the past. But it does, I think bear looking into."

"We'll get on it. Might do it myself."

"Beijing being about as far from HIM as you can get."


Sir Peter hung up, and I was left with my thoughts. Afflictions seemed to be striking a lot of my friends and colleagues these days, what with the Emp and my financial advisor WD both undergoing heart valve surgery. The only one who seems to be escaping all this is my sugar beet manager, Bohdan, but then, Ukrainians are hardy. (Hang in there, Yulia!)

I myself succumbed to what I thought first was The Undertaker's Disease (Beri-beri) but was later diagnosed as Walking Pneumonia. I guess I should be grateful that it wasn't the running or sprinting kind. In any event, my energy level fell to zero for three days, and it is only now that some capability has returned. The whole period, though, allowed for time to reflect on things, during which I developed some tenets and principles upon which to base a life. My credo, as it were.

Here it is.

1) Do no harm. This may strike the reader as odd, given that I am in The Trade. It is not. I use my Erma SR 100 rifle to take out those who, for whatever reason (mainly religion) delight in torturing and killing innocents, and throwing acid in the faces of young girls and women. My rifle then becomes a scalpel removing a cancerous growth from the body politic. I rest my case.

2) Never whine. It accomplishes nothing, and those to whom you are whining will quickly come to think of you as a pain in the ass.

3) Get as much happiness as possible.

4) And finally, as I have previously stressed, Feel the importance of compassion, and respond to it.

So there. Of course there are always The Ten Commandments. But only the Ten Commandments. After all, the rest is just commentary.

Enough. Discuss among yourselves.

Friday, March 23, 2012

It's All Greek To Me

So....a quiet afternoon, time to keep up my mother tongue of Italian in good shape. I had just started re-reading Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi* when the secure line rang. It was Sir Harry, apparently recovered from his cracked ribs.

"So we're all better then?"

"Not by half." he replied, "but it's now bearable. But you would have no idea --"

"Actually, I do. Remember? Cracked some ribs myself when you ill-advisedly sent me to Kiev without first --"

"Oh, forgot about that," he interrupted. "Water under the bridge. Now I would like your analysis of what's going on in Greece."

"Really, Sir Harry? Really? I mean, there have been volumes written on this, what with I.M.F. Reports, World Bank discussions, a vast amount of hand-wringing on the part of the European Union -- "

"True. But I want something different, a feel of the situation if you will."

"You have feelings?"

"Shut up. You know what I mean." Then the line went dead.

I must confess that I knew what he was driving at. What Sir Harry wanted was the human element stressed, rather than the financial arabesques being bruited about. In order to accomplish this, I called up my old friend Theo, who had been in The Trade himself not that long ago, where he was in charge of Athenian security. Theo had been let go for wanting to cut his budget into something more manageable by laying off a goodly number of people who had been politically appointed and were contributing precisely nothing. Disgusted, he had emigrated to Canada, and now owned and operated a first class restaurant on the Danforth in Toronto.

We met, and over a first class moussaka I learned a lot. For one thing, the situation in Greece is not as bad as the media makes out. You see, in Greece, over 80% of the population own their own houses. These are, however, located in various villages and hamlets scattered throughout the country. Many had left their abodes to live the good life in Athens, but had held on to their property. When things went south, they returned, and picked up where they had left off, usually cultivating olive orchards and tending vineyards. Hard scrabble to be sure, but a living.

"What on earth did they do for money?" I asked.

"Oh," replied Theo, "they always had a bit of money. Usually stashed in an urn or under the mattress. Certainly enough to make things meet. Just."

"Wouldn't they just put their savings into a bank?"

"Would you put your savings into a Greek bank?"

Point taken.

Theo then went on to indicate that vast numbers of Greeks were pulling up stakes and emigrating, with the two most popular locations being Australia and Canada. In his view, this was doing much to ease the financial burden on the state. Also helping were a number of projects involving the creation of resort hotels dotted hither and yon on Greece's magnificent coastline and stunningly beautiful islands. I was not surprised to learn that Chinese money was heavily involved, given the amount of cash China has stashed away. In this area, the future looks bright.

According to Theo, the ones most affected by the crisis, and were raising hell on the streets, were those in the public service. He had no sympathy: jobs for life, accompanied by constant pay raises and wonderful pensions, were great, but only if state revenues could support all these. They couldn't.

Theo also felt that most of those affected knew this, but simply ignored the implications. The international bond market didn't, and the death spiral began, with various economists now holding centre stage. As for economists, Theo concluded his remarks by quoting Peter Drucker: "In all recorded history, there has not been one economist who has had to worry about where the next meal would come from."

Sounds about right.

* 'The Betrothed'

Thursday, March 15, 2012

To Lose Is To Win

My daughter Isolde flounced in, and announced that she would be staying at the Manor for a few weeks. She is an up and coming violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic. Apparently, the concert master of the Canadian Opera Orchestra had come to grief -- his four-year old son had inadvertently slammed the car door on his fingers -- and he realized that this would severely affect his violin playing. There being a close network in this area, a call was put out, with the end result that Isolde was deemed available in that the season in Vienna coming to an end.

"And Mum," she said excitedly,"you know that opera is a passion of mine. This could be a big break. Also, the COC rehearsal schedule is not that bad. I can even go to FOUR Leaf games. The tickets are just behind the Leaf's bench."

"The arena is sold out. How on earth did you manage--"

"Jenny got them."

That explained it. "Jenny" was Isolde's current girlfriend, and a former member of Canada's National Women's Team.

I should mention that Isolde, as well as being more than proficient with the violin, loves hockey, and simply adores the Toronto Maple Leafs. I was glad to see her, wished her well, although I remain baffled with her attachment to a team that is, well, simply not that good.

This got me to thinking.

The hockey team would seem to fit the title of Leonard Cohen's novel, Beautiful Losers. I mean, here is this team that has players who, with one or two exceptions, are not really of NHL calibre. So the losses pile up, AND YET THE ARENA IS ALWAYS PACKED. Even in other Canadian arenas, there are vociferous fans that give the Leafs their support. One wonders why.

Further brooding on this question led to the following hypothesis. The Canadian psyche has always had a pronounced streak of pessimism running through it, whether due to the harsh climate, the awesome geography, or even the distances that must be covered in order to connect with other Canadians. The glass is always half empty.

I believe it was Margaret Atwood who once wrote, "If a Canadian had written Moby Dick, it would have been told from the whale's point of view." Or, I thought further, if Moses had been a Canadian, he would have gladly received the Ten Commandments, but then looked skyward and said plaintively, "The Commandments are fine, but, O Lord, what about funding?"

You see what I mean.

Yet this attitude has served us well. Canada is well regarded internationally, and is a magnet for immigration for many who find themselves in dire circumstances. Only lately has our inherent modesty in international relations lessened, probably because at this moment Canada is led by a Western economist, Stephen Harper, who exudes confidence in the country. This tends to horrify many, who state, "I will never vote for the man!' But then they add, sotto voce, "Except perhaps on election day."

After all, Harper's policies did much to keep Canada from falling into the financial pits that now bedevil the U.S. and Europe. (I did mention that the man was an economist.)

So maybe Canada's psyche is beginning to change to a more positive outlook. This was always true where international hockey was concerned, where we in our support rival Brazil and Argentina in their support of their soccer teams. Losses here lead directly to a depression that lasts a considerable time. In all other areas, losses are accepted. Indeed, such losses are expected, on the grounds made explicit by the statement, "Builds character, eh?"

I could hear Isolde in the adjoining room, chatting happily to Jenny, and was glad, yet still somewhat stumped by her passion for opera and the Leafs. Then I had it.

Both deal in tragedy.

And I can hear my late mentor, Dr. L., saying softly, "And comedy, Milady. And comedy."

Friday, March 9, 2012

South Of The Border, Down Washington Way

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a reception at the American Consulate, courtesy Matilda Hatt. This provided a means to re-connect with some colleagues in The Trade, and to reminisce on some past actions. For the first time, I understood just how my involvement had limited the damage in what is known as the Dubrovnik Debacle, by entering a brothel to -- but enough; the incident is still deeply buried in some 'For Your Eyes Only' file, and there I must leave it.

At the reception, the conversation was all gloom and doom. In fact, I was approached by at least six senior employees who wanted to know the steps necessary to become Canadian citizens. The leitmotif running through all these requests was a feeling that they were not leaving their country; their country was leaving them.

I could see where they were coming from -- the growth of the chasm between Democrat and Republican, the politicizing of the Supreme Court, and the sheer nastiness that was fast becoming a hallmark of the current Presidential campaign.

Now there has always been a tension between left and right in the good old U.S.A. The federalism espoused by Alexander Hamilton was countered by the states' rights thesis of Thomas Jefferson. This duality can be traced throughout American history to the present day, but previously, when push came to shove, a compromise was always reached. What is different now is that, to Republicans, 'compromise' is a dirty word.

The Democrats, or at least Barack Obama, saw 'compromise' as a valid technique to accomplish reach agreement on issues related to legislation.

What quickly became apparent to the American electorate was the intransigence of the Republicans on this point, what with their emphasis on God, Sarah, guns, abortion, low or non-existent taxes and the wonder of Tea Parties. Even Mitt Romney, a sound businessman who as Governor did a good job in Massachusetts, is now caught in the maelstrom. Democrats have now realized that compromise is off the table, but the realization has come late. Perhaps too late, and hence the request by some for a possible life in Canada. Not an easy step for an American, in that a Canadian citizen owes allegiance to the Queen. I mean, they can't help thinking, "Was that wee tussle in 1776 all for naught?"

This conundrum was discussed at length. Finally, the senior aide to the Consul leaned forward and asked, "And what would you suggest?'

"To do some remembering," I replied. "It seems to me that what has gotten lost in the shuffle is the founding motto: E pluribus unum.

At this point a sweet young thing by my side whispered, "What does that mean?"

"Out of many, one," I replied. Lord, we never should have dropped Latin from the curriculum. "Moreover, there needs to be more consideration given by all in a leadership position to the truth of a certain statement, the Strunsky Principle if you will."

Even Tilly Hatt was intrigued by now. "And just what statement is that?"

"Goes as follows: 'To feel the authority of compassion, and respond to it'. This is inarguable, and now I feel the need for another martini."

"I will see to that," said the Consul himself.

And he did.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Two Equities

My quiet evening at the Manor got interrupted when Matilda Hatt stormed in, all agog to watch the Oscars. I hadn't planned to, but Tilly was a good friend and colleague in The Trade, and I acquiesced.

We headed for the den, where my massive flat screen TV was located. Soon we were settled with some superb hors d'oeuvres prepared by my cook, Henri, and serious inroads were being made into an excellent Chablis. Before the show began, Tilly asked me, "Where did the name 'Oscar' originate?"

"The matter is under some dispute. My own research indicates that one of the Academy secretaries, upon seeing the statuette, remarked that it resembled her uncle Oscar. From there, the name simply stuck."

"Well, whatever," replied Tilly. "But I do like the show. Don't you?"

"Only so-so. Some history,however, is worth mentioning. The first show was in 1929, and the majority of best actor votes went to a dog, Rin Tin Tin. This sent a certain frisson through the Academy, and it was decided that canines were not eligible. Pity. It would be interesting to see the front row of the Kodak Theatre lined, not with stars and starlets, but kennels."

"Then who did win best actor?"

"Emil Jannings," I said. "For the films The Last Command and The Way Of All Flesh. Yet there is one aspect of the Oscars that I find commendable."

"What's that?" said Tilly, taking a good swallow of Chablis.

"The fact that there are winners and losers, something true of life itself."

During the show, I was able to elaborate on this dichotomy. Or, put another way, the difference between Equity of Opportunity and Equity of Outcome.

Equity of Opportunity

This should be striven for mightily. A race is perhaps the best example, where all the runners line up at the starting line. All are equal at this point. Hence what we have to do is ensure a similar model in other areas. A perfect world, then. would be one where everyone started out equally to make there way through life. A moment's thought, however, quickly demonstrates that we are some distance away from this ideal. Doesn't mean that we should stop trying.

Equity of Outcome

Here be dragons. To return to our race model for a moment, under this philosophy a runner such as the magnificent Usain Bolt would have to start well back from the starting line, to ensure equity of outcome. In a short story by Kurt Vonnegut -- the name escapes me -- those ballet dancers who are proficient in leaps, twirls and footwork are forced to wear lead-lined tutus to weigh them down. By the same token, Vonnegut tells of a school where particularly good-looking boys and girls have to wear masks that emphasize the plain. Everyone's a winner. So with the six-grader who comes home with a gold star, delighting her parents, until they learn that everyone got a star.

Well I'm sorry, that's not how life operates. You win some, you lose some, and you learn more from failure than you do from success. So let's concentrate on downplaying equity of outcome and work to provide equity of opportunity. This is essential. After all, in global society, some classes do well, some do not: classes with indoor plumbing have the best chance.