Sunday, July 31, 2005

We shoot, they score

You might have missed the initial story that a possible permanent peace was breaking out in Ireland, after all, on the cover of my daily newspaper on July 29th, the top story, giant central photo and biggest headline were busy bemoaning the rather abrupt departure of Hockey Players’ Association boss, Bob Goodenow.
I somehow managed to contain my empathetic grief long enough to glance at the sideline story which caught my eye with a smaller headline: “IRA gives up armed struggle”.
Heaven knows how the laying down of weapons after 36 years of deadly insurgency in Northern Ireland (not to mention the pain and death inflicted by some of Ireland’s angriest sons abroad) could compete with “A legacy of being unappreciated” (the story detailing the deep disappointment felt by the ousted negotiator, one of a number of obscenely rich men tussling night and day over the fortunes of a number of other obscenely rich men, who in turn make their money mostly by literally tussling… on ice) but bless Ireland, plucky little headline maker, it did catch my attention and the story, though possibly long anticipated and less surprising than the departure of Goodenow, may be just the teensiest bit more significant.
Though the language surrounding the statement made by Sinn Fein has been (and continues to be) parsed to eke out the most straightforward nuggets (does this mean that the war is over? is it the end of the Irish Republican Army itself?) and there is some argument over these not exactly trifling details, that the leadership has “formally ordered an end to the armed campaign” that the individual units have been ordered to dump arms and work through “exclusively peaceful means” seems reason enough to rejoice. How about that? A war has ended. Peacefully. Geez.
But it shouldn’t be so surprising; after all, Ireland has been pulling a fairly substantial number of positive stories out of its bright green leprechaun’s hat lo’ these many years.
With an economy that falls second only to Luxembourg of all European Union signatories (remind me to check out just what it is Luxembourg does that is so seriously profitable), a group that includes lesser lights such as Britain, Germany and France, Ireland is experiencing not a renaissance, but a re-birth – a re-birth that through the most diligent of prenatal preparation and postnatal care, bears all the hallmarks of a nation united in explosive growth and prosperity for years to come.
And what did they do? Why, they did all the things your father ever insisted upon: they examined their situation ruthlessly and honestly, made decisions that were difficult or unpopular in the short term, stuck by their plan and continued (and continue) to innovate and build upon those successes.
More than that, and really at the core, they did it with the support and inclusion of the population, whose substantial personal gains are the engines that drive the ongoing ascension of the nation’s collective fortunes.
It didn’t happen overnight. After the second world war when the rest of the western world was gearing up for postwar prosperity, Ireland continued to molder in the past, retaining protectionist barriers and presiding over a national balance sheet that reflected an unhealthy balance of agricultural exports – a full 30% in 1960, mostly animals – against manufactured exports that topped out at a pathetic 19% of the GDP.
The plan (or more accurately, the non-plan) could only hinder growth, add to inefficiencies and pretty much cement swinging 60’s Ireland into a bog of poverty, debt and few – if any – future prospects.
(Interestingly, farm income now exceeds non-farm income as farmers and their families have moved into part-time farming, adding to their income from professional positions in big cities and small towns alike. There’s an attractive balance there that both pleases with it’s practicality while it maintains a beautiful small Irish countryside – another reason why tourism continues as a growth industry.)
By 1970, Ireland had entered the European Union, and with it began to formulate a long term plan to boost its economy as well as the prospects of its people.
Huge changes were made in a government that supported many rather parochial branches; the poorly run telecommunications sector was ruthlessly snatched from the jealous, fumbling fingers of the outdated bureaucracy and with the assistance of EU investment, replaced with a system that to this day has made it the call centre of choice for multinationals at the top of their respective games.
(Apparently two major airlines that don’t even fly into Ireland have relocated their marketing and reservations centres to Ireland, as have many international medical insurance companies and financial institutions headquartered their document processing operations there.
Note also: nine out of ten top international pharmaceutical companies, sixteen out of twenty medical device manufacturers and seven out of ten software designers are all benefiting the world’s current ‘Economic Tiger’.)
And virtually all of the fixes were far from quick: inefficient public concerns – national air, rail and sea carriers – were absorbing significant proportions of the public investment, while local infrastructure suffered. It may have taken until the mid-eighties to achieve dominion over the budgets, but finally the government broke the airline monopolies with the result that prices fell, tourism increased and another employment sector was beefed up.
But the two biggies – the ones without which any of the supplementary decisions made, no matter how innovative, might have ended up failures – was the decision to fundamentally alter the industrial relations climate by choosing to support employer, union and government equally, opening the door to trust-inducing labour negotiations, wage moderation through agreed upon business tax cuts, whilst committing to ensuring social welfare payments would remain untouched.
You could say ‘Voila!’ right now and consider the government had done its job pretty darn well – but there was more: Ireland further committed to making a college education virtually free and available to all Irish citizens.
An educated citizenry complete with established social partnerships that promote competitiveness and improvement via the promise of further tax cuts through economies of scale and ongoing progress.
Success begets success.
Foreign Direct Investment – a concept many industrialized nations including our own consider with suspicion and often ill-concealed mistrust – is the backbone of country whose citizens benefit enormously from the resulting general economic stability. Multinationals continue to invest because the market created has focused on three important factors: 1. An English speaking population (most of the world’s big business is still conducted in English); 2. ‘First movers’ status (early adoption of key concepts); and 3. Low taxes and a stable rate of corporate profits.
Perhaps Ireland is supported by so many other nations and international corporations because Ireland so fiercely and so committedly supports itself.
It’s interesting isn’t it, that as the west concerns itself with ways and means of getting around poorly negotiated free trade agreements, the cost of education skyrockets out of the reach of all but the wealthiest, and our attention is constantly being diverted by a pointless, cruel and bloody war (and we’re learning nothing of its root causes nor how to deal with them) one small country, once known more for potato famines, internecine religious war, grinding poverty and periods of mass emigration, has transformed itself into a high tech marvel of across-the-board prosperity and international goodwill. And with Northern Ireland potentially leaving behind its ‘Troubles’, further expansion seems the next logical step.
But as you’d imagine, they can’t do everything with the same committed, focused will of the west; while they’ve been messing about, beavering away at ensuring economic and social freedoms, educating their citizens and securing multi-billion dollar international contracts, it seems they haven’t spent much time securing a decent national hockey team.
So we’ve got that going for us.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Follow the God

Scared yet? Gibbering in mind-blowing fear? Shaking like hairless Chihuahua in an icy draught?
You’re not? Shame on you – you’re part of the problem.
The most important issue today, and as usual the liberals (small and large ‘L’) the libertarians, the left-leaning and the laissez-faire are out to lunch.
Not that I’ve got anything against lunch – why, I love lunch! Love to take a couple of hours to lounge at an outdoor café, sipping mineral water, indulging in moules and frites, gossiping with a girlfriend, watching all the boys strut by, closing my eyes and tipping my face into the sunshine, a self-satisfied smile playing across my dreaming features, the hustle and flow of the workaday world simply white noise punctuated by the clink and chatter of ice cubes in my gently perspiring glass… wait – what, hold on; the bill?
As ever there’s a price to be paid – a tab to be tallied – and this reckoning bears all the hallmarks of an earth shattering score to be settled.
Aesop didn’t miss much in his fables, and the one with which our current and future situation bears the closest resemblance is ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’.
You know the story: the grasshopper sings and plays all day (and no doubt orders the salad instead of the frites at the insect outdoor café) whilst the industrious little ant labours all summer long, collecting food and necessities for the inevitable long cold winter ahead. Fast forward to the inevitable long, cold winter, and the grasshopper is starving and shivering, the ant, cozy and well fed. The moral: prepare like a Republican, or shiver on the outside like a defeated (and demoralized) Democrat.
The pundits were all over that analogy during the last election, reminding listeners and viewers and readers alike that while the Democrats may make a fine showing in the moment, the end result is inevitably undermined by foundations long laid by Republicans who labour and till and toil even in the off season, never resting on their laurels, never relaxing for a lazy lunch, keeping their eye firmly on the ball that has long been bouncing in their home court.
The result: the President can seemingly do no wrong. He can threaten social security, stack the Supreme Court deck with right wing cards – he can have his war and eat it too. And with the exception of a few lackluster polls, he can go on doing so merrily, merrily – his only recent misstep the nomination of a world-class jerk as U.N. Ambassador, a misstep he corrected nicely by making his Supreme Court nom a scandal-free, upright, uptight, bandbox clean and shiny keeper of the Republican faith, John Roberts.
It’s that crafty legerdemain again – distract them with the whitest white guy ever born and back him up with a bookend perfect wife and two precocious and porcelain blonde tots and your audience will never notice the petition to overturn Roe V. Wade secreted up your sleeve, or the motion being brought to limit marriage to a man and a woman concealed behind your squirting flower boutonnière.
But once again even the distraction isn’t the distraction we should be watching; as Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times column last week, even the Judith Miller/Karl Rove contretemps wasn’t really about the principals in the story. The real story, the story behind the story, is the story of the Iraq war and how dishonestly it was set about and achieved. “Follow the uranium,” he wrote, in a tip of the hat to Watergate’s Deep Throat, who advised The Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein to ignore the machinations and monkey business of Nixon and his minions, and instead “follow the money” to get at the truth.
Back to the future (or at least to the present) and we make a mistake by focusing on the Supreme Court to the detriment of the underlying disease of which John Roberts (and Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and their ilk) are simply the unpleasant and noxious symptoms. Symptoms of the rot that has set in at the top; and by the top, I refer not to the President, but to the fundamentalist leaders of the Religious Right whose presence is only beginning to be felt even as they feel their own powerful oats, flexing their increasingly powerful political muscles.
The President they bought and elected and whose core constituency they control with a will of unforgiving, unbending iron is already subservient to their central cause: to firmly entrench God at the top of the nominal democracy that is swiftly shifting to a near-theocracy – a theocracy that proclaims Jesus the main man and the bible as the Bill of Rights, making the Ten Commandments the basis of a Constitution for a nation that seems to have been lounging like a grasshopper at a sidewalk café, paying only scant attention as the first signs of snow herald the coming blizzard.
It’s a cold world they’re planning alright – a world that only begins with a Supreme Court that will reflect their agenda for years, even decades to come.
With a smoothness and an oiliness that has enabled them to slither through some tight spaces previously thought impenetrable, church and state, far from remaining separate are on a collision course – a rock and a hard place that when they smash together will simultaneously smash the principles and the people who have long been labouring to hold at arm’s length the delicate balance of morality and law that hold fairness and equality at their core.
But the onion has at least one more layer I believe, the layer that conceals what is behind the Religious Right, and this is the bitterest concealment of all; for even as we may disagree with the spiritual beliefs of one another, even as we attempt to balance the wide array of faiths that form the foundation for the private values and consciences of many, we trust and believe that we all mean well; we have to - it’s called respect. And it's necessary to a peaceful coexistence.
Not necessary though for those who choose to co-exist with none – the 'my way or the highway' folks who identify themselves as Christians and openly advocate the murder of abortion doctors, the punishment of stem cell scientists (cannibals they call them) and the segregation of gay and lesbian citizens, as well as a list of places, institutions and positions they should be compelled by law to relinquish: teaching, parenting, ministering and administering. This is who these people are and these are the issues they hold dear, and the basis of their belief appears to be hatred, bigotry and punishment.
What I’m saying is (and I don’t refer to any Deity I’ve ever imagined, the one Whose hands-off mission of free will – I pray – is at the centre a message of love) keep an eye and an ear on folks at the top; listen in particular for words and clues and phrases that imply a union with the Almighty, statements that suggest an insider knowledge and an ability to interpret the intentions and wishes of Himself.
Watch for pronouncements that cede the rights of the individual to the power of the state, and further, to the state-sponsored interpretation of the cruelest and bloodiest parts of the Bible.
“Follow the God” is what I’m saying.
And when you hear His name evoked by a politician, be afraid.
And listen even harder.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Welcome to Washington

Judy Miller of the New York Times is now marking week two of her incarceration for the crime of not revealing her sources for a story that was never published.
Though the putative article remains unread (and as far as we know, unwritten) it’s certain that the story would have focused on the leak of information that ended in the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Word is that the leak was payback on Plame’s husband Joe Wilson, who himself published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times two years ago refuting the State of the Union claims made by the Bush administration on the proliferation of WMD as justification for the war on Iraq, and specifically that yellowcake uranium was being mass produced in Niger for delivery to a certain sadistic dictator.
The White House was a little disappointed with Wilson’s point of view and, so the story goes, Rove spread the word that Wilson’s credibility was questionable, as evinced by the fact that it was his wife whose connections in the CIA got him the job; clearly a liar and a bum unable to find employment with out the assistance of his widdle wifey. A twofer, maybe even a threefer! 1. Wife outed, 2. Wilson’s suspect loyalties, and 3. Pussy whipped!
Judy wasn’t the only one with the story. As anybody who has taken even the most cursory notice of the news in the last few weeks is aware, at least two other reporters were favoured with the insider information – TIME Magazine’s Matt Cooper who narrowly escaped jail time himself and was saved at the last minute by the machinations of his corporate bosses TIME Warner Inc (with whose actions in supplying his emails and notes to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald Cooper contends he disagreed – he honestly thought he was going to jail) and indeed by the putative leak himself – Bush senior advisor, the Machiavellian (he was the source for the whisper attack on 2000 Republican Presidential candidate John McCain – “Is he stable? Is his wife on drugs?” and Swift Boat Veterans victim John Kerry “A war hero – oh really?”, not to mention back in the day his attack on Bush opponent for Governor, the incumbent Ann Richards “lesbo?”) administration ‘Architect’ Karl (Trash Mouth) Rove – who freed Cooper from all ‘Double Super Secret Background’ promises. And Robert Novak, right wing commentator and Bush pet poodle who was actually the one who broke the story naming Plame in his column, and interestingly wasn’t at any time in any danger of arrest for his principles – if he indeed has any.
Rove’s current strategy is to suggest he never at any time actually, positively, literally, in so many words named the CIA operative, a claim that is parsed out from the fact that he only ever identified her as ‘Wilson’s wife’. A Herculean mental leap one assumes, and impossible for the average reporter to suss out.
Hey, is it his fault if even Novak is smart enough to pick up the Washington telephone directory?
And as the story wends its way across the weeks, months and years (all the action took place more than two years ago) pundits from all sides of the argument continue to join in the fracas.
Today on CNN's Sunday talk show ‘Reliable Sources’, Matt Cooper gave his first official interview and a handful of journalists along with Watergate eminence grise Bob Woodward weighed in with points of view that ran the gamut from “Rove is the devil” to “Wilson had it coming” to “She (Valerie Plame) was never in any danger and wasn’t even equal to the designation that would make identifying her a federal crime, so what’s the big deal?”
The deal feels very real indeed – and the implications, regardless of the finer points (was Plame in her position technically protected by the law?) indicate that the freeze may well descend on journalists who have the understandable desire to stay outside of lockdown in order to pursue their careers, maintaining their bill-paying abilities and who may have to abandon all stories requiring deep background source secrecy as the precedent set will make it impossible for reporters to guarantee anonymity. Even a reporter who might promise personal trustworthiness, hand on heart like Cooper, could be undercut by their corporate bosses. What's a source to do?
Interestingly, there was argument – even from some journalists themselves – that the source (Rove) was undeserving of protection, unlike Deep Throat say, who was informing on a dishonest and dangerous President and administration, as compared to Rove, whose actions were taken to back up his President by sly discrediting of former public servant and whistleblower Wilson.
Seems to me that as distasteful as it might be, your slimy sources need just as much protection as your saints. Information is information, and whether we like it or not, or suspect the source has questionable motives, what’s sauce for the goose etc. What other rationale can there be? All are protected or none are.
Woodward was just the teensiest bit superior in his segments, questioning the size and scope of the contretemps and deciding it didn’t meet the standard of high crime, again for Plame’s technical potential as an outed operative (though she did work for the CIA, her identity was a secret and her area of operation the search for WMD) and the issue’s non-resemblance to Watergate...
He did make one helpful comment – he said that the worst mistake that had been made throughout the exercise was that the reporters didn’t then (and haven’t now) unearthed the entire story – a story that should be told all in a piece, facts checked, conclusion inescapable. Of course the media now are in the uncomfortable position of not having access to all the elements of the story, still under investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
And this morning’s Toronto Sunday Star wasn’t particularly helpful in providing insight. In the weekly Sunday Op-Ed ‘Point/Counterpoint’ between lefty Linda McQuaig and right-wing-nut-job Rondi Adamson, both their sparring arguments were sloppy, their justifications emotional and partisan, the discussion not pushed forward one whit.
(Normally I would side with McQuaig, but her contention that Rove should be fired because he’s clearly a Creepy Creeperson left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed, while Adamson’s “we should wait until all the information is in” whilst simultaneously taking cheap shots at Wilson – hers is the first piece of punditry I’ve read that suggests that Wilson cooked the books and there was in fact enough yellowcake to snuff out birthday candles the world over – achieves the double play of acting the wide-eyed innocent while taking care to blame the victim. Guess there’s only one side that deserves to wait for facts instead of braying out all sorts of unfounded, unproven allegations…)
And in the middle of it all are the President and Rove – best friend status unassailable, smiling and handshaking/backpatting, boarding Airforce One as one, opticals in place, sharing deep secrets and strategies, while Judy Miller molders away in some Washington snake pit, all concerns of first amendment rights, double standard judging and plain common sense as solid and stable as early morning fog. Poof! – it’s gone.
And I still don’t know how he does it – Bush, I mean. From the war in Iraq, to alleged (and in many cases, proven) torture of prisoners by American operatives, to this most recent do-si-do with the truth (everyone today is recalling – with an almost nostalgic fondness – the Clinton “It all depends what ‘is’ is” argument) I just don’t know how he gets away with it.
The Pope who worries about the moral dangers posed by fictional wizard Harry Potter should spare a prayer for a country whose real live magician can take it to war, kill it’s beloved sons and daughters, change the rules halfway through, never admit to making a mistake, STILL blame the entire mess on 9/11 and without saying it in so many words, clearly indicate that only an idiot doesn’t know that the ends justify the means. Some people might call it misdirection or sleight of hand, but there’s no doubt the result is a certain kind of sinister black magic.
Bob Woodward said something else – he said he was concerned not so much about the silence the indictment of reporters for refusing to reveal sources might achieve so much as the casual deep background bullshit that might be lost from the picture. He suggests that reporters can only really get the full flavour of a story when government officials and those others in the know, can casually and without any personal responsibility for the facts, mark the ticket of someone they themselves want to silence by whisper rather than shout; that it’s the whole picture – the gossip good, bad and completely imaginary – that helps journalists paint a picture, build a relationship with sources and basically paste together some sort of a story.
The interviewer was clearly nonplussed as to what this might mean to the guys (and gals) that get caught in the crossfire.
Woodward smiled cynically: “Welcome to Washington,” he said.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

War and remembrance... Part two

“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all…”

1973 – Richard Nixon is President of the U.S.… the military draft ends… Roe V. Wade becomes law… Tory Spelling is born… Paul Simon releases Kodachrome… I wave good bye permanently to the ability to do math without a calculator, or, actually, to be perfectly honest, to do math at all.
1973 – the year I entered Dwight Frankin International School, 44 Crowndale Road, London NW1. A school that doesn’t even exist anymore – the only reference I can find to it on the internet is on the resume of some poor sap who presumably feels it gives his CV that certain ‘je ne sais quois’. I’ll say it does: nobody knows what it is, or was, anymore.
But I remember.
I remember that in the year it began, the year I was enrolled, there were only fifty students. We were outnumbered by headmaster, teachers, administrative staff, volunteer mothers, lunch ladies and cleaning personnel, but still somehow managed to skip class, hideout in the lavs, go down to the cafe for buttered toast and tea (sophisticates we!) go visit one of the local seniors in the misguidedly school-inspired Senior Visiting Program who were always good for a smoke and a little mutual midday television watching (not to mention further endless cups of tea), hang upside down from the bars in the gymnasium and talk about boys – anything really, except go to class.
It was the confusion you see – fifty teenagers from at least ten countries that I remember (U.S., Canada, Germany, Japan, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Egypt, France, Spain), kids that didn’t speak a word of English, teachers that didn’t speak a word of their language. (I think we had English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Latin covered – for everything else, there was the good old pocket dic…)
And we were all new – teachers included. I think it was all they could do to stop from pulling out their hair (and I bet there were a lot of despairing staff meetings “What made us think we could EVER do this? They’re monsters!”) let alone call roll, produce text books and lesson plans, police the students and even communicate on the most basic level.
Everything was new – everything but the school itself.
DFIS was based in a space we continued to share with the original occupants – occupants who are themselves still there today – the night school of the Working Men’s College.
Founded in 1854, the college moved to the Crowndale Road location in 1904, and when we moved in nearly seventy years later, I don’t think it had changed overmuch besides the exchange of gaslight for electricity.
The rooms were small and dark and pokey. Most of them had fireplaces, cold stone and tile floors, rattling, drafty windows, unreliable central heating and high hammered tin ceilings (where presumably the heat rose – it certainly wasn’t down with us where we were all suffering from chilblains and chapped skin by October) and were furnished with desks and chairs that still bore the carved in initials of students who studied in years with decades that began with ‘2’ and ‘3’ and ‘4’. There were inkwells (and we used them) and sets of moldering text books some of which I am convinced still hadn’t acknowledged the discovery of the spherical nature of the planet.
The science labs were something out of Dickens, with gas lit Bunsen burners, gigantic glass fronted cabinets filled with brown glass bottles which were subsequently filled with ancient acidic liquids and poisonous powders. We sat at high benches – a room full of shivering Bob Cratchits – complete with scratched and stained stone sinks and our own individual gas taps, and wound our ankles around stools with seats worn shiny by hundreds of long gone student asses who’d polished them since nigh on the turn of the century.
The gymnasium (seriously) was a joke. The walls covered with cracked wooden monkey bars, two frayed and sad little ropes hung from the ceiling and two netless netball nets stood guard at either end of a room that smelled like the inside of a thousand gaping plimsolls: aged sweat and elderly funk fighting it out for noxious supremacy. We never cared who won – we were just trying to keep our gorges in place, for lunch always followed P.E.
(And I shall only take a casual swipe at lunch, as it was the same revolting, monotonous menu day after day – flabby white chips, Spam (cold or fried) and something green, I know not what. Sausage day was the only day we all looked forward to – say what you like about certain elements of British cuisine: those people know their way around a sausage.)
But every now and then we would go to class and have to sit through lessons led by whatever must have been the scrapings on the bottom of the barrel of the teaching contingent in London at the time.
To tell the truth, I remember very little about the teachers save Mr. Bambridge, the huge red-headed P.E. teacher who taught straight out of the Monty Python Sergeant Major handbook, (think Graham Chapman screaming “You ‘orrible little man!” and substitute ‘girl’) complete with threats as inducement to exercise, disgust at the pathetic raw material he’d been charged with shaping up, and headshaking, eye rolling horror at the depths to which his career had sunk.
There was also the math(s) teacher, a man whose name has been long lost under layers of merciful mental scar tissue, but whose manner, health and personal habits were so compellingly revolting that we literally couldn’t keep our eyes off him.
He wore the same graying, fraying dirty shirt every day with the same filthy egg-stained tie (we got to know the stain and splodge pattern) the same dirty holey-soled black wing tips (I know nothing of his socks, though I suspect much that doesn’t bear imagining) and the exact same wrinkled, smelly grey suit, the pockets stretched and sagging with the weight of the used and soggy Kleenexes he stuffed down into them relentlessly. His hair was lank and greasy, his black-framed eyeglasses so smudged and sprinkled with dandruff, you had to wonder how he ever managed to so accurately assign detention.
The description may sound pretty cruel, but remember that no matter his financial circumstances, he could at least have showered and washed his hair (even if with school-sponsored warmish water), or sponged or scraped the largest spots off his suit, or wiped down his glasses by sacrificing one of the seemingly endless number of Kleenexes he was constantly transferring from one pocket to the next (and sometimes like a little old lady, shoved up his sleeve!) or even – God help us – polished the top of one shoe against the fabric-clad calf of an opposite leg. But no.
We were mesmerized by the griminess of the man – the utter and complete revolting unwholesome filth he seemed positively dipped in. It became almost (almost) comic; surely he’d have to come to class in a new shirt someday – surely he’d have to stop sniffling and blowing his nose and empty his bulging germ-laden pockets some day.
In a strange way, he achieved a sort of putrid perfection – but seriously: is it my fault geometry eludes me to this day?
Into this ancient, crumbling, not altogether spotless seat of learning poured my new friends – the other forty-nine casualties of an alternate Anglo-American education.
My friends at DFIS were mostly American (Cate, Caren, Gil, Wade, Lisa) a couple of Canadians (Alison, Melanie) a handful of foreigners (Eva, Beata, Masayuki, Mario and Zig) and most of the British contingent.
Interestingly, all the English kids, with the exception of a girl with the unfortunate surname of Slack (and it didn’t help that she was an explosively early bloomer and pretty tarty too) were the children of film directors - Nicholas Roeg and Ken Russell – all boys – Luke, Nick, Waldo and Alex – and all weird. But nice. Definitely nice.
All the kids were nice. And the setup of the school – everybody new, nobody established and school uniforms that cut down on the gaping differences in fashion choices and the cruel neglect of parents who didn’t understand the very real need for blue tie-dyed suede platform boots – led to a certain leveling of the playing field.
Maybe you were gorgeous, but didn’t speak English; maybe you were bright, but nobody knew (or cared) maybe you were rich (but with the exception of the Egyptian boy and his sisters who were brought to school in a chauffeur driven limo every morning) nobody could really tell.
So there we were: at a brand new school in a foreign country (to most of us) not overly hindered by teacher supervision (unbeknownst to our parents) not particularly stimulated by our immediate surroundings (which seem kind of bizarrely retro-cool now, but were simply grim and dismal and cold at the time) and either entering or becoming more firmly entrenched in puberty by the nanosecond.
It was a very exciting time.
Dwight Franklin International School might not have had much of a location, it might not have employed the world’s greatest teaching staff, it might not even have had much of a curriculum, but the one thing it did have was golden: it had proximity to the rest of Europe, and students whose parents balked at neither the notion of travel, nor (for the most part – I exclude my father here) the expense a little travel incurred.
So we traveled.
Our first trip was our French class trip to France for the day. Nothing simpler: we just hopped en masse onto the boat train and slipped as easily into Calais as we slipped down the polished-with-age climbing ropes in P.E. class. Frictionless French. A Dwight Franklin specialty.
The breakdown occurred in the areas of planning, supervision and actually speaking a syllable en francais. Our French teacher was absolutely hopeless. The moment we hit foreign soil, ignoring the little teachery twitterings and squeaks, we split off into groups of three and four and hastened into the shops and cafes and boulangeries of the ugly little town, stocking up on Gitanes and Disc Bleus. And shockingly, for a group aged between about fourteen and seventeen, into the bars where cheap wine and the local homemade Anisette (sold in plastic jugs like milk in Ontario) was provided to us – in school uniform I'll remind you - straight up, no questions asked, merci’s proffered en Anglais.
It seems odd now – to go to France for a day – and do nothing more than eat crusty French bread and drink alcohol (or in my case espressos – I couldn’t stand the taste of liquor until I was in my twenties, a preference that has changed somewhat in the intervening years) caring for nothing more than that we get to sit next to the boy we had a crush on, or be able to blow smoke rings like the older sophisticates who lit their butts with smelly brass Zippo lighters.
I will always associate the smell of butane with Calais and the soul-stirring profile of Wade Cunningham. (Sigh.)
But we did return to the train on time, and even promised we wouldn't say a word about the drinking and the non-French speaking. The teacher was such a craven coward, we were thanked; the thanks, however, should have waited until we’d arrived back home, as some clown offered one of the boys (one of the film director’s sons – I’ll say not which, my lips are sealed) a quart or so of anisette which he drank down in minutes, and which occasioned a trip to the lavatory – a trip from which he was unable to retrace his steps by dint of complete and utter rat-assed drunkenness, locking himself in the toilet and wedging himself in by passing out sideways, inextricable until the door was removed by the police at the aptly named Waterloo station, where he so soggily met his.
Somehow, covered in shame (and vomit) he and we managed to keep the disastrous trip quiet, with the result that we were again scheduled to travel to Switzerland for a ten day ski trip. Two teachers to chaperone, all the cute boys were coming, and I begged and begged and BEGGED my parents to let me go.
I cannot remember what I promised – I hope I did whatever chores or penances or promises were extracted – because the trip to Montreux was an adventure… a transformation… the most exciting thing I had ever done.
This time about twenty of us had signed on for the ten days – plus two teachers/chaperones: Mr. Bambridge and some female teacher… the mists of time etc – all my favourite girlfriends, plus the boys they liked, PLUS Wade (sigh) Cunningham. All of seventeen years old, he was a towering manly figure in my mind; he was cute, he could shave, he knew all the best music – he was unutterably cool, and I pined for him like the proverbial pony.
And then magic happened: another boat train, another occasion, but Wade asked me to sit next to him and casually put his arm around the back of my seat and actually TALKED TO ME! I cannot imagine what I said – I cannot remember what he said – all I remember is that at that moment I went into something like a drug-induced high that lasted from embarkation to debarkation and every day in between.
I was a pretty shy kid, skinny, sort of plain, but funny; and I actually had had boyfriends before. But this was something different – this was something deliberate and grown-up seeming and intoxicatingly exciting because after all that travel and all those new schools and all the mysterious functionings of cliques and gangs and groups I had never been quite able to wrap my mind around, I finally felt like I belonged.
Wrap that in a romantic haze and plop it down into a sunny spring ski trip to Switzerland, with virtually no one (like in the Octopus’s Garden) to tell us what to do, and I’m only surprised (even now) that I didn’t explode or burst into spontaneous flames from pure excitement and joy.
And the trip by itself was wonderful. We had an entire chalet to ourselves, within walking distance of the ski slope which was so smooth and gentle and warm and sunny, that learning to ski was a piece of torte; and passing the time in between runs was just day after day of drinking hot chocolate or coffee in the chalet and nibbling on bar chocolate in bed, and spending most of the time in between learning how to French kiss with Wade Cunningham.
To the strains of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’, Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Cat Stevens ‘Teaser and the Firecat’, Paul Simon ‘There Goes Rhymin' Simon’; Good lord – who wouldn’t fall madly and passionately in love?
But it ended – the trip and my romance – Wade grew cool on the boat train home, and by the time we reached London he was flirting with another girl.
I arrived home at Albert Court in the middle of a dinner party from which my mum excused herself to come rushing up to welcome me home. I fell into her arms and sobbed and sobbed. And sobbed. I couldn’t speak. She had to excuse herself from the party and put me in a tub of warm water and rub my back until I stopped crying. I had a farmer’s tan – brown arms and neck and face – but under my clothes I’d lost at least ten pounds from excitement and eating nothing but chocolate and drinking coffee for ten days. I looked healthy, but I was a debilitated toothpick, exhausted and confused and totally and completely overwrought. I was sick for a further ten days and at the end, though I had regained my weight and composure, my heart was a bedraggled little organ – one I thought would never mend.
A few (!) years have passed since then, and I have since seen more beautiful sights than a sunny spring in Switzerland, and I have loved more beautiful men, more deeply and more truly than Wade Cunningham.I've even been kissed by better kissers.
But I don’t think I’ve ever been so purely happy, or so completely, heart-stoppingly, blood-thrillingly excited as I was on the Dwight Franklin International School ski trip in the spring of 1974.
But who knows what the future holds? After all, I’m still pretty crazy after all these years.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

War and remembrance

There’s a fascinating tool available on the internet. It’s called Google Earth and you can download it (free!) at
Google Earth is a graphical database of the world’s geography. You begin by looking at the world as if you're in outer space, then by typing in addresses or postal codes and hitting enter, you fly from space and zoom into a satellite photograph of whatever neighbourhood you’ve selected. The beauty of Google Earth is that you can look north or south, east or west, tilt and rotate the 3D view to see the terrain and buildings changing your vantage point from bird’s eye to almost as if you were on the ground or driving around the streets.
I began by zooming around London.
I can’t stop thinking of London.
Even before Thursday’s deadly explosions in the underground at three separate locations and the subsequent bombing of the double decker bus near Tavistock Square, London has been on my mind.
It always is more or less, after all, it’s my favourite city in the world and the scene of many, many deeply meaningful memories. Memories that include people I love beyond all measure, people who are lost to me forever. No one lost in this latest hideous terrorist attack, but lost all the same, though those places and the remembrances they almost physically contain are still there.
So I zoom in by Google Earth to the place in London I remember most vividly, though not most recently, to Albert Court, directly behind the Royal Albert Hall in SW7, my family’s home for a couple of years in the early seventies.
Albert Court was built in the 1890’s by order of Queen Victoria purportedly to house the lesser members of the Royal Court – the dukes and duchesses, lords and ladies, earls and countesses and viscounts and their similarly titled ilk who would live in white-trimmed red brick splendour adrift on a virtual sea of buildings and statues and stone likenesses of her beloved husband the Prince Consort Albert, originally Prince of Saxe Coburg-Gotha and eternal possessor of her broken widow’s heart.
Besides the domed concert hall, eponymous flats and statuary in the immediate vicinity, right across the street you can find the Albert Memorial tucked (hardly) away in Kensington Gardens. It’s Albert-palooza in that part of the city – just minutes away from the Victoria and Albert Museum, just steps away from Prince Consort Road.
It’s gorgeous is what it is, and we were lucky enough to live there for a few years – and all I can wish now is that teenagers were more deeply capable of appreciation, less apt to accept every extraordinary occurrence and opportunity as no more than their due. Might as well expect Her Late Royal Highness’s favoured pugs to fly, or for Queen Victoria herself to lift her voluminous black skirts and dance the Watusi down Exhibition Road.
My father was an international banker – the top man in the International Division for the Toronto Dominion Bank. A story in and of himself (high school drop-out to bank president, PLUS he taught Frank Sinatra how to sing and Fred Astaire to dance – amazing when you think they would have had to travel all the way from Hollywood to Winnipeg for instruction, and dad still in diapers too!) he had already taken us from Montreal to Toronto to the Bahamas to England (living in Sevenoaks, a small town outside London) then back to Toronto, before returning to London for a second go ‘round in the financial capital of the world.
It remains true to this day, so far as I can tell, that only the oil rich and the bankers can afford to live in luxury in London/Paris/New York, and that was certainly how we achieved our address in SW7. Though I think he made a fair wage as VP of the TD, the real dough was in the non-taxable assets we chalked up by living abroad. Home, cars, schools, expenses – all were covered by the bank. He may have paid for a tooth pick every now and then, though probably not for the dinner that occassioned its use, but if there was a way to legally expense an item or find the tax situation most beneficial to his circumstances, you can be absolutely sure (take it to the bank-style) that he would find it.
(He was dead honest – would have considered cheating on his taxes on par with armed robbery – but I understand it was some of his creative, though entirely legal interpretations of certain tax shelters that were the reason for widespread changes in those laws in years to follow.)
I didn’t know anything of banks – I just knew we lived in a palace.
Albert Court is enormous and shares the crenellated styling and wedding-cakey architecture of the nearby Albert Hall. With a wide stone ballustraded entrance approached from an extraordinary centre courtyard, the ‘mansion flats’ were eye-poppingly luxurious. Our flat (reached by extravagantly outfitted bird cage elevator complete with velvet upholstered couch) was on the second floor and covered well over 4000 square feet. From the red carpeted entrance hall, to my brother’s bedroom at the furthest end of the farthest hall, was a good three minute walk from the front door. Clearly designed for the servanted set, the kitchen was almost as far away from the dining room, which was located next to the 41 foot long living room (reception room) whose balcony overlooked the Artist’s Entrance of the Albert Hall. (We did see Frank Sinatra exit once – with neither tip of hat, nor acknowledgment to his teacher. Typical!)
The flat was on three levels – my sister had the below-stairs suite originally designated for the maid; I coveted her little apartment with a fervour heretofore reserved for ponies and bras – and was built on the two upper levels around a central well within the building, thereby providing windows with natural light for rooms located on the inside of the flat. Even if those windows only looked upon the bedroom windows of the neighbouring neighbours.
(Thought there was virtually no to-ing and fro-ing between the flats in the well, it was across the airshaft where I met neighbour Tatum O’Neil,living temporarily in London with her father while he was shooting Barry Lyndon, just shortly after she won the Academy Award for Paper Moon. The O’Neil’s are another story for another time – a time when I’ve brushed up on current slander laws and libel statutes. Interesting story though…)
All too quickly we became accustomed and even blasé living in the style of the privileged. And when I say ‘we’, I mean my brother and sister and I; my mum remained resolutely thrilled to bits. My dad just worked.
I was much more impressed with the homes of some of my schoolmates – an intriguing group of strangers I met while attending The Dwight Franklin International School, a warehouse for the children of foreign nationals. A potential breeding ground for further spoilage and elevated self-opinions, but interestingly, actually, a safe place for the disenfranchised and shy to reach out and make contact with others similarly inclined. Or disinclined. Depending.
And that’s part two of this particular zoom-in from outer space: another dot on the map of London – a location reached by going underground (not accessible from Google Earth) traveling from South Kensington on the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square (three stops short of Russell Square, four short of King’s Cross) then changing to the Northern Line, traveling all the way up to Mornington Crescent, then a hop, skip and a doddle (plus a cigarette – Silk Cut – shared with one or two friends) from the tube station to the converted Workingman’s College which taught working class adults at night and the children of business class gypsies during the day.
Dwight Franklin: the pairing of two American high schools to create a foreign specialty school that combined all the easiest elements of the British curriculum with the least taxing courses within the American version. Result: holiday for two years!
More later… if you’re so inclined…

Sunday, July 03, 2005


I’m tired.
Exhausted. Bone weary, brain numbed, body limp.
Thank God for an autonomic nervous system, because quite frankly, I can hardly be bothered to breathe.
A dead lump of poured out flesh.
Pooped. Thoroughly.
What am I tired from you ask? Tired from painting the hallway? (25 feet x 2 sides; baseboards, moldings, four doors – 1 entrance, 1 bedroom, 2 closet – 1 coat of primer, 3 of colour, 2 of enamel for trim and doors…)
Enervated by the oppressive heat wave? (Days of high 30’s/early 40’s temperatures, murderous humidity and a clapped-out bedroom air conditioner…)
Worn out from the job search? (Applications, updating resumes, reaching out, making contacts, being ignored…)
Debilitated by the news that the potential lawsuit until recently advanced by the freelance writers who contributed to that ignominious organ formerly known as Toronto Living Luxury Lifestyle Magazine (and dear God, what a stupid name!) will now be remembered exclusively for its potential, as legal redress has now been placed firmly in the negative column by the legal bod we engaged to do the math?
(Frightening fact: all the publisher had to do was change their name and sell the old corporate identity to a bankrupt for a dollar. It’s not that the connection would be difficult to make – after all, they’re still pumping out the similarly stupidly named Calgary Living Luxury Lifestyle Magazine – just that it would cost money, more money than we’re collectively suing for. And this is exactly what the creeps in Calgary counted on. And it worked.)
All of the above might be grounds for a touch of fatigue… a hint of weariness… a smidge of lassitude… but the bedrock bottom reason for my prostration is what I’m not doing.
I’m not making that call. I’m not saying what I’m practically dying to say. I’m not picking up the phone.
Like a dieter who still must eat to survive, I have to use the phone on a daily basis. But the number I want to call – like the cream bun the dieter imagines over and over sinking their teeth into (thick cream, pastry the sole sweet resistance) – is the number that I simply cannot dial.
I feel like a collapsed soufflé, or a slowly deflating balloon. The energy that exists not to perform this call dissipates like a slow leak.
I’m a flat tire.
(And I imagine if only I could reharness this energy I could finally have that flat stomach I’ve been hankering for.)
I think the physical feel of resisting the pull to action must be somewhat like using isometrics to tone the abs: a dull ache accompanied by muscle-twanging tension that makes you sweat and shake with the effort. Fighting yourself for fitness.
Not calling for sanity.
Sorry seems to be the hardest word? How about not calling being the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
I know there are those of you who understand; those who understand that the difference between calling and not calling is simply years of the experience of making the call. The action you can’t take back, the words you cannot erase, the advantage of simply not trying to affect an outcome gone forever and ever. Amen.
If this were an Olympic event, I believe I’ve put in the time and training, mental conditioning and focus to get into the medals. If this were a ditch I was digging, I’d now be eating Peking Duck in Beijing. If world peace could be achieved by the act of not acting, the world would be in permanent ceasefire. If not calling were to be recognized for the back-breaking effort and creative concentration required to keep not doing it, Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, Medals of Honour and keys to cities would be dispatched in my direction posthaste.
Everything is considered as a potential distracter and time waster: jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, solitaire, British newspapers (there’s simply nothing like reading about the humiliations and sexual escapades of either the Royal Family or Reverends, or TV stars you’ve never heard of – but wow, do most of the women ever have big tits! – or ever will again; it’s Zen-like in its faraway fantasy appeal) floor scrubbing, wall washing, under the cushions change collecting, alphabetizing cookbooks, re-reading saved newspapers and magazines from the time surrounding the event of September 28th 2000, emptying the freezer of everything older than September 28th 2000. Sadly, I cannot seem to pay bills or clean the oven. (It must be admitted that there are some things that simply don’t help.)
And so it goes.
I never think of what I would say if my call called me. Here I’d be in my enfeebled state, perhaps lying stretched across the bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to gather the calories necessary to remove the spider webs festooned across the far corner. Trying and failing – frozen in a state of near total catalepsy.
What would I say? Something like, maybe,
Me: Hello?
Caller: How are you?
Me: Fantastic!