Friday, October 29, 2010


"So this is Samhain,
And what have you done?
Another year over,
And a new year just begun."
With appologies to John Lennon, we arrive at the start of another new year.... if you believe in Hallowe'en, that is.
I am amazed at how Hallowe'en has changed over the years. When we were kids, of course, Hallowe'en was a big deal. We would spend hours planning our costume, which we'd wear twice: once on the big night, but, even more importantly, we'd wear them to school on the day immediately before Hallowe'en or on the day itself. We'd get to parade around the school, visiting other classes and showing off the costumes and guessing who was inside the clown, or cowboy, or pirate, or witch mask. Often, the costumes were home-made: old bedsheets for ghosts, face paint for missing teeth or scars, parents' old coats or shirts for those dressed as hoboes.

Then, the big night would arrive. We'd get a quart peach basket and decorate it with cut-out ghosts or bats, and wander the neighbourhood.... alone, without parents or older kids to look out for us. When our basket was full, we'd dash home, empty the contents on the kitchen table... and then head out again to hit the houses we'd missed the first time. Candy kisses, apples, rice crispy squares, suckers and rockets... yum !

The house was decorated too.... with a single pumpkin. Zig-zag mouth, slanted eyes, triangle nose and a candle burning the scraped-out insides black. The front room lights were turned out, giving the pumpkin a strange and eerie glow.

In university, my roomates and I did more or less the same thing: except we'd be hammered when the little kids in the townhouse complex came around. No matter, we were harmless, and we always shelled out. We were sometimes in costume too. And the highlight was listening to a recording of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds"... the Orson Welles version. It was strangely frightening for an old 1920's era radio play.

Today, we go all out for Hallowe'en. Houses seem to out-do each other in spectacular displays of graveyards, torture chambers, crime scenes .... all with the gory, blood-spattered, CSI inspired dismemberment that we have grown insensitive to. And the costumes.... such creativity in the attempt to be the sexiest woman on the block. Cleavage, bondage, French maids, naughty school girls, and playmates arrive at the door, instead of witches, fairy princesses, cowgirls, and tigers. Well, some of the old costumes are still around, but they'd be better suited for strip clubs instead of trick or treat. Not that I'm complaining !!

We've come a long way. But one thing never changes. Hallowe'en is a time of transition. For, when the displays are turned off, the costumes put away, and the candy eaten, we are ready to settle in for the long, dark, sleepy nights of winter. We slow down and turn inward, largely shunning the cold outside, and retreat to the safety and warmth of the home, curled in front of fireplaces, TV's, video games, and the internet.

The old ones believed that this time of year, Samhain, was a time when the distance between the living and spritual worlds was at its closest. It marked the completion of one year, as it crept towards the winter-death, only to see the days grow longer at the coldest time, bringing the promise of a new year and new life. It was a time of looking back on the year completed, on the harvest just gathered, and to look ahead to the gathering age of all of us, and to our ultimate fate. It was a time to remember our ancestors, and to remind ourselves that we will join them soon. And to not fear that prospect. It was a celebration of the connection between life and death. Laughter and joy could mingle with ghosts and talismans.

And so, to all wiccans and neo-druids, to all ghosts and goblins, to all of us going to parties and bars, and especially to all kids trick or treating, a very heartfelt wish for a Happy Hallowe'en and a Happy New Year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


"The sun never sets," the old saying goes, "on the British Empire." If you're a certain age, you are probably familiar with that slogan. As schoolchildren, we were taught it as though it was the eleventh commandment. Our grade 4 teacher at Graham Bell Public School in Brantford, Mrs. Palmer, was a wonderful teacher in the "old school" image. She was probably middle aged in the mid 1960's, which would have meant that her career began in the 1930's. She was kindly, matronly, plump, wore those sensible shoes female teachers wore back then, had her steel grey hair permanently styled in a bob cut, and smelled of lilly-of-the-valley. And she was staunchly proud of the fact that Canada was the largest member of the British Empire. Our classroom was decorated with pictures of long dead Kings and Queens, and festooned with Union Jacks, and a huge map of the world upon which large swatches of red meant only one thing: British supremacy.

Never mind that, in 1964, Britain was trying to set speed records to get rid of all that red on the map. Never mind that several of the kids in the class were Polish or Ukrainian or Italian. Never mind that Canada had just recently unveiled its new, distinctive Maple Leaf flag, a heresy to our beloved teacher. Mrs. Palmer was convinced, and managed to convince all of us, that the British Empire was a select club, and that Canada, as the largest and one of the oldest "possessions" was the most fortunate country on earth to belong to that club.

The sun, of course, did set upon that Empire, as it does on all empires. The myths of British invincibility, of British supremacy, and of British permanence were exposed as just that: myths. Any close reading of British colonial history will show that the Empire was created largely by accident. The Empire was all things: a commercial empire, a collection of military bases, protectorates, colonies, and penal institutions. It was created through conquest, negotiation, purchase and lease, influence, trade agreements, and alliances. There was no central plan in its creation, and no cohesive organization in its administration. At any given time, the Empire was run from the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Ireland Office, the Admiralty, or the head offices of various companies. In short, the greatest Empire the world has ever known had all the grand vision of a Monty Python comedy sketch.

The eminent Canadian historian George Woodcock tried to explain the demise of the British Empire in his 1974 book "Who Killed the British Empire?" Woodcock claimed that the Empire, and all other empires in history, go through a period of growth and then eventual decline leading to its ultimate demise. According to his analysis, the British Empire died because of four things:

1) many people in the Empire no longer wished to be ruled by the British
2) external threats, especially those from Germany, Japan, and the United States
3) the decline in the will of the British people to rule and protect its own Empire
4) economic pressures ( world wars, depressions ) which made the Empire too expensive to own.

Add these all up and the conclusion is inevitable: the British Empire died of natural causes. It grew old, tired, feeble, and unable to survive serious threats from within and without. Woodcock argues that the high-water mark for the Empire was the late Victorian age, when the British actually began to take great interest in all its colonies and tried to unite them in a larger Imperial Federation. The decline began after the exhaustion of World War One, and was in full swing with the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which allowed for the creation of dominions, or fully independent coutries, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland. The death knell was sounded after World War Two, where, despite the propoganda that showed a strong and united Empire rallying around a just Mother Country in its death struggle with the forces of evil and tyranny, Britain demonstrated that it was no longer the world military and economic power it once was. The patient was on life support when the Empire lost India in 1948. All that was left was to bury the corpse in the Suez Crisis in 1956.

But that did not spell the end for all empires. For, with the death of the British Empire, the American Empire was allowed to grow in earnest. American wealth, influence, and military power were thought to be unchallenged in the immediate post WWII years. Threats from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other Cold War rivals were brushed aside. But now, the new collossus faces grave external pressures. Economic rivals such as China and India join Japan and Germany to challenge American wealth. Muslim extremists keep American forces pinned down in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations. Latin America seethes with resentment towards the gringo arrogance it perceives in its relations with the United States. Allies, such as Canada, Germany, France, Israel, and even Britain itself, question the motives for American decisions. No country seems ready to snap to attention at the command of the Imperial Power of the U. S.

Could history be repeating? Are we in the early stages of the decline and fall of the American Empire? History is a stern teacher. We should all pay attention to the lessons it presents us.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


I love October. It is a time for thanksgiving, for families to get together and celebrate what we have and enjoy. It is a time of colour on the trees and pumpkins at our windows, of little ghost and goblins scaring us for tricks and treats. And, for the sports fan, it is a time for completely pigging out on our favourite games. Major League Baseball heads into the playoffs and World Series. The CFL, NFL, and college football are in full swing. NASCAR heads into the Chase for the Cup. Basketball, for its fans ( I am not one ) begins. And, best of all, the National Hockey League serves up a new season. The so-called experts have made their predictions. Now it's time for me to correct their errors and make the true and lasting predictions. You can take these to the bank.

The Eastern Conference seems to be a contest between the two marquee teams and marquee players. Look for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins to battle it out for supremacy. Crosby and Malkin versus Ovechkin and Semin. Need I say more?

The Capitals feature some of the best young talent in the game. When you scan their roster, you notice that their best players are around the middle twenties. That means that they are, as a group, heading into their most productive years. They have youth, confidence and talent in abundance. Pittsburgh is in the same situation. What will separate them are the intangibles: injuries, slumps, and coaching mistakes. Washington's Bruce Boudreau, who looks like he belongs on a TV game show featuring C-list celebrities, is a good coach who motivates his players, as if they need motivation. But is he another Scotty Bowman? Hardly. I mean, he was a Leafs draft pick once upon a time: how good can he be? Pittsburgh's coach is Dan Bylsma... exactly. A real house-hold name, isn't he? He looks like he should be coaching in Harvard. But he knows his stuff. Maybe it boils down to goaltending: Varlamov in Washington versus Fleury in Pittsburgh. Or maybe both teams will just have to content themselves with scoring more goals than these guys let in, which will be a lot.

Montreal Canadiens fans were more excited than ever ( if that's possible ) last spring when they got hot at the right time, rode a hot goaltender's unbelievable talent, and went deep into the playoffs. Here's the good news: they won't do that again. The Habs traded the wrong goalie last year, and the smart money says Carey Price will play lots and win some games, but will fall flat on his face at some point. So, the Habs can count on.... wait for it....Alex Auld to bail them out. Oh well, it was a nice dream, eh Habs fans? The rest of the team is overrated: Cammalleri, Gionta, Plekanec and Gomez sound like some European law firm, and the defence will depend on PK Subban. I like Subban, but he's a hot dog and will cost them some stupid goals. I joyfully predict the Habs will struggle to get to post season, where they will crash and burn. Yay !!

The rest of the conference will be a free-for-all. The New Jersey Devils will probably contend again, but they are so boring and predictable, no one will care. The Boston Bruins will depend on Tukka Rask, and hope that Tyler Seguin can score some goals ( the rest of the team can't ). If those names make Leaf fans shudder, it's because of what might have been. Ottawa will depend on Sergei Gonchar to improve their power play, but they have too many fragile players because of age or confidence. They'll be somewhat flashy, but won't get far. Philadelphia? How they made it to the Cup final last year is still a mystery. No goaltending. Too many idiots on the team. Party on, boys !! Buffalo have always been a miserable team, but Lindy Ruff just may be the best coach in the NHL and Ryan Miller is incredible in goal. One thing's for sure: the Sabres can beat the Leafs any time they want to. Too bad for them they only play the Leafs six or eight times.

Which brings me to my beloved Maple Leafs. Beloved? I actually don't like this team, which makes me sad. What I mean is, I have always rooted for them, and followed them through thick and thin. (Mostly thin) But this current edition is so bad, it is almost comical. I really don't like Brian Burke: he comes across as an Irish thug, all bombast and bluster. But he seriously misjudges the talent on his teams. Ron Wilson is a poor coach: he enjoys publicly criticising his players and lashes out at the media ( of which I approve, by the way), but that's all he can do. And the players? There's no one to get excited about. I don't much like the players. Kessel is good, Kaberle has talent, but plays soft and timid, Kadri is worth waiting for, and Bozak has some potential. The rest are hockey morons. They may be nice guys, but who cares? Pick these guys to finish near the bottom of the conference, along with such hockey powers as the Panthers, Thrashers, Islanders, and Hurricanes.

In the Western Conference, the favoured teams are predictable: Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit and San Jose. All of these are fine teams. But there are always teams that come from out of nowhere to rise up in the standings. Last year it was the Phoenix Coyotes. This year, two different teams will emerge as powers and make some real noise in the playoffs, and they're both in the Wild West.

The Vancouver Canucks boast some good forwards and a defence corps that just may be the best in the league. The additions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard are key in the success of the defence. Their problem is in goal: I know this may surprise many, but I am not sold on Roberto Luongo. In the Olympics, his appearances were nothing short of an adventure. And what has he accomplished in 10 seasons? Exactly. Nothing. Which is what he'll accomplish this year. Look for Vancouver to skate swiftly, score goals, wins many games and then flame out early in the playoffs.

Which brings us to the perrenial powerhouses in the West, Detriot and Chicago. These are two of the so-called original six and it is heartening to see them back in prominence again, especially Chicago with their Cup victory last year. But they present some problems this year. In Detroit's case, when you scan the roster, you see too many players on the wrong side not just of 30, but 35 !! Injuries will take their toll on this group of geezers. Mind you, after having seen them live last year, I'm a huge fan of Johan Franzen: he may be the most underrated player in the league. Zetterburg and Datsyuk are still good, but Jimmy Howard in goal? Come on !! You're kidding, right? As for the 'Hawks, I've never seen a championship team dismantled in so sudden and dramatic a fashion. The core is still there ( Toews, Kane, Seabrook, Keith, Hossa ) and Joel Quenneville, a former Leaf, is a great coach. But who's playing goal? Marty Turko on a last hurrah. Enough said. The 'Hawks will be good, but not good enough.

The rest of the Conference features the San Jose Sharks, a team that can be counted on to screw up in the playoffs. Joe Thornton is another Mats Sundin: a captain who will lead his team to nowhere. Phoenix was a great story last year, but that's all they get: they will become an irrlevence in the desert again. Colorado will only be good if they can resurrect Joe Sakic, Ray Bourque and Patrick Roy: in other words, maybe in the next life they'll win a Cup, but not in this one. Nashville, Columbus and Minnesota have teams ?? Who knew?

Which brings me to my most outrageous predictions: greatness for either or both of the Los Angeles Kings and the St. Louis Blues. Start your howls of indignation now !!

In the case of the Kings, they feature several fine young players, including the best two young defensemen in the game: Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. Doughty was the most interesting player to watch on Team Canada in the Olympics. Jackson is an American Olympian who plays big and skilled. Add a fast forward unit, and the Kings will be entertaining to watch. How far will they go? That depends on the goalie with the best name for his position: James Quick. He's OK, but he needs to be great to carry this team to the cup.
And the dark horse for the entire NHL? The St. Louis Blues.
Now you know. The Blues have gotten rid of some of their old driftwood, and added one of the best young goalies on the planet in Jaroslav Halak. Brad Boyes seems ready to lead the team, and Eric Johnson is a fine defenseman. TJ Oshie is an unknown who will be known very soon. If the Blues don't win the Cup this year, they will win in the next two years.
The old saying is "youth will be served." If you're looking for the top four teams to contend this year, go young. Washington and Pittsburgh will battle it out for the East, while Los Angeles and probably Chicago will battle it out in the West. St. Louis and Boston will be lurking in the weeds for an opportunity to challenge. New Jersey, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Jose and Vancouver will disappoint their fans. Toronto and Edmonton will dream of better years ahead... way ahead, although Hall and Eberle in Edmonton will give the Oil some sweeter dreams than Kessel and Kadri will for the Leafs. Ah me.... thank God there's good lacrosse in Toronto.
The Stanley Cup goes to..... the Washington Capitals. All other teams must submit to the new hockey gods of Ovechkin, Semin, Greene, Backstrom and Varlamov.... Varlamov? Sure, why not? He's evolved ... his first name's Semyon... get it, like a monkey?? Evolved ??? Ah crap, they can't all be gems.