Thursday, December 18, 2014

THE COLD WAR IS OVER ?

I have been going to Cuba for several years now and have recently gone "off the resort" to get glimpses, however small, of life for the Cuban people. My love affair with the island and its people has only grown because of these visits, and I have blogged about them and shared my thoughts with you. We have noticed changes for quite some time now and we have been anxious to watch and take note of these changes and how they affect the Cubans and also our place as tourists in that country. The pace of change, while noticeable, has been measured and careful. Until now.

Yesterday's announcement by
President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro was the announcement we had all been waiting for. We knew it was coming: it was only a matter of time. But it certainly took us by surprise and has created quite a stir on twitter and facebook.

I have a Cuban friend who now lives in Canada. He used to work at the resort we affectionately call our "Cuban cottage". He left that job for greater opportunities in Canada and married a Canadian girl as well. Yesterday, he was ecstatic with the news. Finally, he said, the Cuban people will be able to have more. He spoke eloquently about how difficult life is for Cubans, and how hard it is to do even the simple things, like feed your kids or put shoes on their feet or clothes on their backs. His words were happy but also profound and impactful.

I also have many Canadian friends who have been messaging about this. While happy for the Cuban people, they worry that our little corner of paradise will be changed forever, and not for the best. We go to Cuba for the obvious reasons: sun, warmth, beach, booze and fun. But we also go because, like me, everyone who goes there falls in love with the island and the people. We love their friendly charm and their positive outlook and strength in the face of adversity. We admire their courage and feel proud of their accomplishments, all done in the face of hostility from the United States.

There's no question that yesterday's announcement will signal more profound changes to come. But we must all keep our perspective and maintain a sense of reality. If the Cuban people think that the announcement will bring instant prosperity, if they believe that good paying jobs will be at their finger tips, if they believe that consumer goods that we take for granted will be filling up the shelves in their shops, they are sadly mistaken. All they need to do is to look at other Caribbean nations, such as the Dominican Republic or Haiti or Jamaica. These nations have trade and investment with the US. There is still crushing poverty and reduced expectations for the bulk of their people. True, there is wealth in those nations, but it is only for the select few. Cuba will be no different.

And we tourists must keep a sense of reality. Cuba will continue to change, but the change will continue to be managed by the Cuban government. We will not see McDonald's restaurants popping up on every corner. We will certainly see American tourists at "our" resorts, but not in great numbers at first: too many Americans still see Cuba as hostile territory. Some Americans will arrive right away, but mainly for curiosity. More will arrive, but, hopefully, the tourist infrastructure will improve to absorb them. And, in this way, more jobs will be available for the Cubans. Not great paying jobs, but jobs nonetheless.

Yesterday's announcement was indeed historic. The reaction by Cuban Americans, largely based in Miami, and Republicans generally, was predictable. They are lashing out at Obama as being a traitor for even speaking to a Castro. They hold the Castro brothers in complete contempt and want their heads on spikes. These are the people the Cubans and Canadian tourists should be worried about. If they attempt to go to Cuba in large numbers, it will not be to go to reunite with family or spend quality time at a nice resort. It will be to foment anger and discord, to speed up the change until it erupts in chaos, all allowing them to exact their revenge on the old revolutionaries who chased them or their grandparents out of Cuba fifty years ago. This is the potential danger for all of us. Civil war ? Not out of the question. The Miami based Cuban Americans have been like angry dogs on a short leash for half a century. They are ready to be let loose, where the cry of havoc may be real.

We must be wary and hopeful. Of course, we wish nothing but the best for the people of Cuba. But the Cold War is not dead. Not by a long shot. After all,  Fidel and Raul are still with us, at least for a little while yet.



Friday, September 19, 2014

A NEW BRITAIN?

Nothing is certain in life: we all generally subscribe to this bromide. But certain things can be predicted with some confidence, based on past experience. Now that the votes in the Scottish independence referendum have been counted, and Scotland has voted quite clearly to remain in the United Kingdom, some things are bound to happen.

Britain can learn from the Canadian experience. In recent times, the Province of Quebec has gone down the same path as Scotland: the most recent referendum, in 1995, saw the sovereignty movement lose by the narrowest of margins, approximately 51% to 49%. Quebec is still in Canada, but there are some truths that Britain must learn from.

First, it would be wrong for Britain to assume that the independence movement in Scotland is finished. Far from it. The tally from last night reveals that 1.6 million Scots voted for independence. That's 45% of the total. Further, the concentration of Yes votes around the Glasgow area indicates that there is a base for the independence movement to work from. Those who voted in favour of independence were willing to take a chance on a risky venture of which nobody knows the outcome. The 55% who voted to remain in the UK may have done so out of loyalty to the crown, the flag, and the union: or they may have done so out of uncertainty how the future independence would unfold. As Scots get used to the idea of a possible independent Scotland, they may well put these fears aside. Quebec soundly rejected sovereignty in the first referendum in 1980 by approximately 60% to 40%, but the 1995 referendum, as described above, was much closer.

Second, and related to the first point, the genie is very much out of the bottle. Britain can never go back to the comfortable, somewhat complacent nation-state is was prior to this referendum. Independence has been discussed for years. I remember the time that Lou and I travelled around Scotland in 1992. We ended up in a pub ( imagine that!) in Edinborough on a Friday night. The pub was crowded with the after work business folks. We got talking to a couple of well dressed business men and they were fascinated with the Canada/Quebec situation. When I broached the topic of possible Scottish independence, they both smiled and one of them said "It's a beautiful dream." These men were not wide-eyed radicals. Even back then, the thought of independence was an ideal worth striving for, but not thought to be really possible. Look at Scotland now. The past is gone forever.

Third, in the last few days leading up to the vote, a nervous No side brought out everything they had to try to keep Scotland in the union. Famously, the three main party leaders made a "Vow" to the Scots promising changes. That reminded me of the years after the first Quebec referendum when Brian Mulroney, to his credit, tried to bring Quebec into the Canadian constitution with the Meech Lake Accord. Mulroney, a Quebecker, knew that the first referendum meant that significant changes were necessary to keep separatism silent permanently, and he tried to do the right thing. Whether the accord was a good deal or not, historians will have to judge. The fact is, he tried to bring the changes Quebec wanted, and the rest of Canada said "no" to those changes. The result is that separatism has never really died in Quebec, and a second referendum followed that almost won. To this day, Quebec remains outside the Canadian constitution.

I bring this up to warn Britons that, if the government in Westminster does not live up to its famous "Vow", Scotland will try again. It has nothing to lose by doing so. The idea is tantalizing to many Scots. There are and have been grievances between Scotland and Westminster for decades. If Westminster comes through, then Scotland may not go ahead with a second referendum. But the changes for Britain will be staggering. Not only will Scotland get more powers from Westminster, the national government will have to do the same for Wales and Northern Ireland. And what of England? Will there be an English parliament with devolved powers? Why would England be content to continue to have important issues affecting it decided by politicians from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while those lands can make their own decisions? Britain may have to seriously examine the possibility of becoming a federal state, similar to Canada or Australia, and de-centralize power from London. And, if that happens, an actual written constitution will be necessary, the first in British history.

Britain would be well-advised to pay attention to the Canadian experience. In this sense, the mother will have to learn from her daughters.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

THE END OF THE NATION-STATE

Note: this entry was composed at approx. 4:30 pm on Sept. 18, 2014, roughly 40 minutes before the polls closed in Scotland. The results of the referendum were unknown at this time.

The modern nation state took its form in the eighteenth century. Depending on who you read, France is given as the earliest example of a modern nation-state. Since the French Revolution, France has undergone several changes, some very violent, before settling on the entity we have today. Since the eighteenth century, the world has created untold versions of the nation-state, but the consistent thing in all of this is that the nation-state is regarded as the most advanced and most modern political expression of humanity's will to live and work together as a cohesive unit.

Simply put, a nation-state is a political organization that derives its authority from a sovereign people. The nation-state may comprise several ethnic or cultural groups of people: several religions, several languages, several philosophies may exist within a nation-state. For example, before the French Revolution, there was no real idea of what "France" was. "France", in the middle ages, was the area surrounding the city of Paris: other people who lived in what we now call France identified themselves as Gascons, Bretons, Normans, Acquitanians, etc. Only through centuries of effort by strong monarchs and equally strong ministers such as Richilieu, Mazarin and others, did the far-flung regions begin to feel that they were part of something larger, something stronger, something more secure ... something that they began to call "French".  Other nations in Europe, notably Germany, Italy and Spain went through similar experiences.

In the Middle Ages, it was relatively easy to determine a "nation". If you shared an ethnicity within a defined geographical space, if you spoke the same language, if you worshipped the same gods, then you were a citizen of a nation. In England, all people eventually spoke English and worshipped in the same church. In Japan or Korea, all people living in those lands were of the same ethnic background. In the aboriginal history of North and South America, you knew you were Mohawk, Lakota, Maya, Quechua, Aymara or Inuit because the other people in your general land area were the same as you. But as the centuries unfolded, people began to overlap. Mohawks joined with Seneca and others to form the Six Nations Confederacy. Incas evolved out of a Quechua tribe conquering other tribes to forge an empire. Saxons, Bavarians, Westphalians and others fell into the Prussian influence to become Germans. And, as a result, nation-states were born. Over time, people took on the larger identities as explained above.

The key ingredient in forming the nation-state, besides the emotional and visceral feeling of being a "Frenchman", or a "German", or an "Italian", or any other nationality, is having a strong central authority to keep the nation-state together. In older times, this was usually in the form of a strong monarchy. Later, the authority was in a strong central or federal government. As long as the authority of the central government went unchallenged, the nation-state worked smoothly, and loyalty to the nation-state was unquestioned. But, occasionally, people or regions would begin to question the authority of the central government. That's when the nation-state began to totter. The best example of this is the Civil War in the United States. Other nation-states have endured brutal civil wars: Greece, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, many modern Arab and Middle Eastern nation-states come to mind. And when people decide to explore the dissolution of nation-states peacefully, separatist movements and referenda occur: Canada, the former Czechoslovakia, and currently the United Kingdom come to mind.

Which brings us to the present day. Events around the world seem to be heralding the demise of the nation-state. Not just politically, but economically and culturally, do we see people more willing to shed the narrow definitions of who they are. Politically, we may be on the verge of witnessing the historic dissolution of the United Kingdom if Scotland votes in favour of independence. In 1989, an equally unbelievable event occurred with the dissolution of the USSR into its several components. In the 1990's, Czechoslovakia went through the "velvet revolution", breaking themselves peacefully and willingly in half, forming the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Even stable and thriving nation-states such as the United States and Canada are fraught with division and disagreement that sometimes results in political paralysis. The nation-state of Belgium, one of the most stable states in Europe, famously went without a federal government for several years because the two major ethnic components, Flemings and Walloons, couldn't find a way to form a workable political coalition.

Perhaps the most insidious threat to the nation-state is economic in nature. The rise of multi-national corporations has been such that it is difficult to determine where a corporation's "country" or "home office" is located. Questions arise: to whom does a multi-national corporation answer or obey? Under what laws does a business operate? If a multi-national runs afoul of a nation-state's laws, does it simply shut down operations in that nation-state and relocate elsewhere? If workers try to organize or earn higher wages, benefits and pensions in one nation-state, does the multi-national have any obligation to allow this when workers in a different nation-state do not organize or earn higher wages etc? Do multi-national corporations make decisions based on the corporation's best interest, or in the best interest of a nation or a people?

So, as Scots today go to the polls to determine their place in the larger nation-state of the United Kingdom, we watch fascinated and a little apprehensive. But does the apparent demise of the nation-state mean disaster? Or is it a good thing? Nation-states, particularly strong ones, have caused wars and injustice throughout our history. Could smaller nations, possessing no large forces, or large egos, or external ambitions be the way to go? It has been suggested that the possibility of large-scale wars, like the world wars of the last century, could be a thing of the past since such wars are bad for business, and multi-national corporations are so inter-connected , so global in their outlook, that war would be unacceptable to the corporations. And people may evolve into feeling a greater loyalty for the world itself, given the ease with which we travel, the amount of global culture we consume, and the financial wealth we accumulate from the far corners of the world.

The end of the nation-state could be one of the most enlightened choices we, as a species, could ever make.

Friday, September 5, 2014

PHEASANT SEASON FOR BARACK AND HIS FRIENDS

Every year, Barack and his friends looked forward to their favourite hobby: pheasant hunting. They couldn't wait for the months to pass until, finally, pheasant hunting season was only a few days away. Barack called his good friends David, Francois, Angela and even little Stephen, the smallest of the group, and invited them to join him on the first day of the pheasant hunt. Barack told them he'd get his pick-up truck, the most expensive and fancy of all of the friends' vehicles, and load it up with enough ammunition and supplies to ensure a great day of hunting. The friends agreed and the date was set.

Early on the morning of the start of pheasant hunting season, Barack gathered all the supplies and put them into the truck. There was plenty of food and water, because it promised to be a very long day of fun. He made sure there was a good GPS system, because the woods were vast and deep and they didn't want to get lost. He made sure that there was a safety kit for the truck and a first aid kit for the friends, in case of accidents. And he made sure there was plenty of ammunition for the hunt.

Barack picked up his friends David, Francois, Angela and Stephen one by one. It was still very early, the sun hadn't even appeared on the horizon yet. All the friends were excited and chattered endlessly about all the fun they were going to have. They drove many miles out of the city and into the countryside. As the sun was just coming up over the eastern horizon, they arrived at their destination, at the edge of a large forest.

Barack and his friends got out of the truck and began to unload their supplies for their day of fun in the woods. They put on their camouflage suits and hats, painted their faces to blend into the bush, and loaded their backpacks with food, water, first aid and lots and lots of ammunition. Then, they took out their shotguns and made sure they were safe and secure: gun safety was of the utmost importance for them. At last they were ready.

They walked alongside each other in a straight line, about 10 feet apart from each other. They had their orange safety vests on and agreed that they would stay within sight of each other at all times. Barack had a whistle and it was agreed that, when he blew it, they would safe their guns and gather towards him for a meeting. All was in readiness.

When they were 10 feet away from the edge of the bush, they began to load their shotguns. With a final nod to each other, they entered the bush. When they had taken three steps inside the forest, they raised their guns to their shoulders and fired off a blast ahead of them. They took another three steps and blasted again. They reloaded, continued to walk three steps and blasted into the forest. The noise and power of their shooting shook the forest to its core. This went on for four or five hours. Finally, Barack blew his whistle and the friends ceased fire and gathered to where Barack stood.

They agreed to stop and have some lunch and drink some water. A couple of the friends had some minor cuts and scrapes from walking through the dense bush and so the first aid kits came out. After the cuts were bandaged, and the lunch eaten, the friends checked their supply of ammunition and found they had quite a bit left. So they agreed that they would continue the hunt for another couple of hours. They reloaded, got back into their line and continued walking into the bush, firing off blasts from their shotguns every three steps. After another couple of hours, Barack blew his whistle and they gathered to discuss their fun day. There was very little ammunition left, so they decided to use their GPS and go back to where the truck was parked.

As they walked back, they searched the ground that they had covered. Several dead squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines, even a couple of possums, and dozens of songbirds were found, almost blown apart by the shotgun blasts. But, alas, no pheasant was found among the dead animals. Many trees had blast holes in their trunks, and branches and boughs littered the forest floor.

When the friends arrived back at Barack's truck, they agreed that, while it had been a fun day, they were disappointed that they had not killed a pheasant. No problem, they reasoned. Tomorrow was another day, and the forest was vast. They would do it all again the next day at a different location. And so they did. They were picked up early the next morning in Barack's truck, re-supplied with food, water, first aid and ammunition, and walked into the new section of forest, blasting with their shotguns every three steps in, and did this for most of the daylight hours. When they walked out, retracing their steps, they found more dead small animals and more blast marks on the trees ... but no pheasant.

No matter, they decided. Pheasant season stretched for many weeks yet. They would do this every day until they killed a pheasant. And, sure enough, early in the morning, every day, they drove in Barack's truck to a different part of the vast forest, re-stocked with supplies, and repeated their hunting method. They killed many small animals, but did not kill a single pheasant.

Finally, on the last day of the season, the friends met at the last part of the forest they hadn't yet hunted. They were a little discouraged, but nevertheless went into the bush with high hopes. They blasted into the bush every three steps for the usual ten or twelve hours, then retraced their steps to go back to Barack's truck, parked on the edge of the forest. At last, just before they emerged from the forest darkness, they found a dead pheasant. They hoisted the body of the bird above their heads, cheered loudly and declared the hunting season a roaring success.

Later that evening, Barack was relaxing at home with his lovely wife, Michelle. He was very tired from a long day, indeed a long season of exerting himself in the hunt. But he was immensely proud and satisfied of his success, along with his friends. Michelle was sitting beside him and asked him if the last day of the hunt had been fun and successful.

"Yes, it was. We killed a pheasant today. All our hunting skill paid off!" Barack said excitedly.

"So that's it, then, is it?" Michelle asked. "You killed the only pheasant in the forest?"

"Oh no," said Barack. "There must be several more pheasants in the forest. But we'll have to wait until next year to get them."

"Hmm," said Michelle thoughtfully. "I'm glad you finally got your pheasant, but it took a long time. And how much do you think it cost to get it? You know, you used a lot of gas in the truck, ate a lot of food and drank a lot of water. And the ammunition ... how much ammunition did you use?"

Barack thought about it a minute and added it all up. He had to admit to his wife that it cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to get the pheasant.

"Well, that's OK, I guess," Michelle said. "But I wonder if there is a better way?"

Barack had to admit that she had a point. He immediately picked up the phone and called David, Francois, Angela and even little Stephen on conference call and summarized his talk with Michelle. They agreed that there had to be a better way to kill next year's pheasant.

"I know," said Barack. "We should get a hunting dog. He can pick up the pheasant's scent, flush it out and we could shoot the bird as it sprang up out of the bush."

The friends liked the sound of it, but wondered where they could get such a dog. Barack thought about it for a long time and finally spoke.

"I don't know right now. But we will take our time and search high and low to find the right dog. When we find one, we will spend whatever we need to train the dog, lean how to hunt with him, and get ready for next year. That way, we will save money, kill more pheasants, and not shoot up the whole forest. That is what we will do. It will take much time, but we'll do it."

The friends agreed. And that is what they did. The hunt went very well the following year. Many, many pheasants were killed, but very few of the other animals were hit. The trees were not blasted apart as much either. And the hunt only took about half the season until every last pheasant had been killed. Barack and his friends were satisfied with the hunt, but knew, deep down inside, that, even though there were no more pheasants left in this forest to hunt, there were many more forests in the country that were full of pheasants that needed to be killed. They looked at one another with knowing glances and smiled broadly.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SOME INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

A conservative believes in "the bottom line".

                    A liberal believes in " a just society".

A conservative believes in "taxpayers".

                    A liberal believes in "citizens".

A conservative seeks to find a "cause".

                    A liberal seeks to find a "solution".

A conservative says "we can't afford to do that".

                    A liberal says "we can't afford not to do that".

A conservative believes in "common law".

                    A liberal believes in a "charter of rights and freedoms".

A conservative sees the land as full of "resources to be developed".

                    A liberal sees the land as having "resources to be protected".

A conservative sees the "corporate model" as  the best way to run things.

                    A liberal sees the "community model" as the best way to run things.

A conservative praises the "sacrifices of soldiers".

                    A liberal praises the "efforts of peace keepers".

A conservative claims that Canada is not "competitive".

                    A liberal claims that Canada needs to "re-prioritize".

A conservative wants to rate "public institutions" according to performance standards.

                    A liberal wants to invest in "public institutions" in order to improve service to citizens.

A conservative believes in the "efficiency of the private sector".

                    A liberal believes in the "efficiency of collective action".

A conservative sees taxes as a "burden".

                    A liberal sees taxes as a "price of admission into society".

A conservative sees himself as a "job creator".

                    A liberal sees himself as a "job preserver".

A conservative loves "free trade" as a way of improving profits.

                    A liberal loves "free trade" as a way of creating jobs.

A conservative puts much stock in the advice of " accountants".

                     A liberal puts much stock in the advice of "experts".

A conservative seeks to "win".

                    A liberal seeks to "conciliate".

A conservative believes that "compromise" is a sign of weakness.

                    A liberal believes that "compromise" is a sign of wisdom.

A conservative believes in "charity".

                    A liberal believes in  "social security".

A conservative wraps himself in the flag.

                    A liberal creates a national flag.

A conservative trusts in God to help with decisions.

                    A liberal trusts in people to help with decisions.

A conservative enjoys the status quo.

                    A liberal enjoys the challenge of new initiatives.

A conservative loves his country.

                    A liberal builds his country.

A conservative fears the world.

                    A liberal feels at home in the world.

A conservative reads financial reports.

                    A liberal reads novels.

A conservative likes to listen to music.

                    A liberal likes to play music.

A conservative loves his family.

                    A liberal loves all families.

A conservative enjoys the destination.

                    A liberal enjoys the journey.

A conservative bleeds red blood.

                    A liberal bleeds red blood.

A conservative is a person.

                    A liberal is a person.


                   

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

ARE WE GOOD STUDENTS ?

"History will teach us nothing"

Sting


We often speak of the lessons of history, and how, if we study the events of the past, we gain insight into the times in which we live and obtain a glimpse into our future. Theoretically, if we apply that knowledge correctly, we may avoid the mistakes of the past and create a better world for the generations to come. At least, that is the hope. But, it seems, we have not learned many lessons at all. We seem to continue to blunder from one catastrophe to another, all the while believing that, somehow, things will be better. They never seem to be better. Hence, the cynicism of Sting's song title and lyrics. He suggests that history has no lessons to offer, and that the cycle of catastrophe is doomed to be repeated.

I take another view. History is, indeed, a good teacher. We now have the ability to record almost everything that is done, said, shown or thought. The amount of stored information that is available to everyone is staggering. Even before the digital age, the amount of stored information was immense, but now, thanks to technology, it is beyond belief. And it is readily obtained by everyone. No need to make special trips to libraries or archives or historical sites to find the information. It's here literally at our finger tips.

So, the question becomes this: if there is so much historical information and knowledge at our disposal, why do we continue to make the same errors ? It is a question asked by any teacher of any subject in any part of the world and at any time in our history. Why don't our students learn ? We are good teachers, we have the resources, we know what we're doing ... why do some students fail to learn?

The eminent historian Margaret MacMillan touches on this dilemma in her latest work The War That Ended Peace. She attempts to shed light on the causes of the First World War, and it is timely that she published her book, given the fact that this month, June of 2014, marks the centennial of the start of that horrible bloodbath. MacMillan acknowledges that the topic has been examined several times in the last hundred years. Indeed, one of my favourite histories which I read about twenty years ago, covered the topic in minute detail. It was the immense work Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie, and it was excellent. Why re-visit this topic again? And what could MacMillan possibly offer to us in the way of lessons?

Briefly, MacMillan differs from Massie and the other historians who treated this topic in that she attempts to compare the events of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to our own times. In that simple way, she is trying to help us to understand that the forces of history do, indeed, seem to repeat themselves, and often seem to be cyclical in nature. But the key word here is "seems": in her examination, the events of that time do not fall into a type of inevitability that we have no control over. If we finally realize this, she suggests, we can halt the events which, in the past, were thought to be inevitable and irreversible. The most tragic aspects of her book occur at the end, in the months between mid 1913 and the summer of 1914, when general war was declared. As she takes us through this time period, she shows us that, at several points, the war could have been avoided by anyone with the courage to stop the so-called "inevitable" forces at play. And she shows us that, indeed, those forces were stopped at several times before 1913-1914. There were several crises, notably at Fashoda in east Africa, at Morocco in the early 1900's, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and the two Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, where patience and genuine efforts to mediate resulted in the de-escalation of tensions. But, she argues, in 1913 and 1914, those people of wisdom or patience were either dead or retired, and the fatigue of a world gone to the brink too often resulted in the feeling of inevitability. It was heart-wrenching to read of the failures of the leaders of the major nations who allowed themselves to be swept along by events that were completely within their control, but were allowed to go out of control because of the mind sets of the leaders and their followers. And the leaders were not the only ones to blame, she contends. Professional diplomats, military figures, journalists, business people, and the common citizens all had their roles to play in this tragedy. The fact that the war broke out in one of the most exciting, intellectually progressive, and technologically innovative times in world history adds to the tragic nature of the start of the First World War, and has haunting echoes in our own time.

No one can doubt that we live in times that are equally charged with tension and pressure. Conflict abounds. Like the age before World War One, we have lived in relative peace for decades. There has been no major, general world war, although our times are littered with several small wars, no less destructive, no less tragic. Are we on a similar course to a major disaster as the world of the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries was?  MacMillan, the astute teacher of history, shows us that we are. But she ends her work on an optimistic note:

...if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.

The lessons are there before us. And MacMillan and others like her have done their best to teach us these lessons. The question remains: will we finally learn the lessons, and avoid the costly errors of the past? Or are we doomed to repeat them?

Are we good students? We need to hope so.

Monday, May 19, 2014

THE RACE FOR THE CUP, PART THREE

I had a good first round in this year's playoffs, but was taken to the woodshed in the second round. I certainly did not foresee Montreal coming on strong against the Bruins, who played more like teddy bears than big, bad bears in the last two games of their series. Nor did I foresee the Rangers getting the better of a jittery Pittsburgh squad. It looks like the Penguins are in for some real soul-searching and possible rebuilding in the off-season. As for the west, I pretty much got it right with the 'Hawks looking like serious defenders of their championship, and the Kings out-duelling their cross-town rivals. Now, we move on.

Montreal Canadiens vs New York Rangers

The first game is in the books and the Rangers administered an old fashioned butt-kicking on the Habs in their own building. The Habs looked tired and slow, uncharacteristic for them this playoff year. They have impressed me with their team speed and dedication to winning. But with Carey Price on the shelf for the series now, they are very beatable. On the other side, I have been consistently underestimating the Rangers all year, and especially in the playoffs. There is a lot to like in their game, and Lundqvist seems to rounding into all-world form just at the right time. Before the series started and before Price's injury, I would have said Montreal would win in maybe 5 games. Now ..... I am still going with the Habs, disrespecting the Rangers once again. But it will be tough and it could go seven.


Chicago Blackhawks vs Los Angeles Kings

I like both teams in this series, but since there is only one winner, I'll have to make a decision. The first game is in the books here too, and the 'Hawks looked pretty good in beating the Kings. But the Kings can take a licking and come back strong, and they will do so in this series. Goaltending looks good for both teams, but the 'Hawks know what it takes to win, and they may have the grittiest corps of talented players in the league. So, the 'Hawks will take the series in seven games.


So, this sets up an original six Stanley Cup for another year. If the 'Hawks do indeed go up against the Habs, it will probably be Chicago in 6 games unless Price coms back from his injury. If the 'Hawks go up against the Rangers, it will be over in 5 games for sure, with Chicago winning. So , for the first time in a while, we will have a back-to-back defence of the Cup with the champions being...

The Chicago Blackhawks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

PRIORITIES

Since 2008, a phrase has dominated much of the discourse in the world. This phrase creeps into conversations, on news casts, and in political speeches. We have been so imbued with the words that most of us believe in its truth. The phrase is ... "in these tough economic times."

I have never believed that we live in "tough economic times." Easy for me to say, I guess, since I enjoyed working in a profession that had an excellent salary grid, good benefits package and a top-drawer pension, which I am enjoying today. But the truth of the matter is that, for most people in North America before 2008, we were enjoying similar situations. In fact, the perception is that if you go further back in recent history, times were positively giddy with almost full employment, large union membership which guaranteed good benefits and pensions and opportunities for all. What went wrong?

In fact, very little went wrong. Well, let us qualify that a bit. Certainly, things went wrong for large numbers of people. Those who lost their investment portfolios and, therefore, their retirement plans suffered. Plants shut down, sending many out of work. Large corporations struggled and saw profit margins shrink. Consumer confidence eroded drastically. Politically, in many countries, all this resulted in distrust and crises in many parliaments. It seemed that the times were, indeed, "tough." We shrugged our shoulders, did our best to hold on to what we had, and listened to the media and corporate and political leaders who exhorted us to "save", "work harder", "become more competitive", and "tighten our belts".

Utter nonsense. Why? Because the crisis of 2008 was no worse than any other downturn in the so-called "business cycle". Because media and corporate and political leaders found convenient and easy phrases to throw at us. Because many of us who suffered the above losses, or knew someone who had suffered, believed the phrase. "We live in tough economic times." It's an easy mantra to swallow and it implies that, somehow, it is the fault of something else, something huge and unknowable, something sinister and heartless, that is causing these "tough economic times".

The reality is that we are not in "tough economic times". Instead, we are in what I like to call "times of misplaced priorities." What does that mean? It means that, instead of making choices that make sense, instead of becoming more involved in decision making, instead of paying attention to situations in the world around us, we choose to take the easy road. We like to think of trivial and pleasurable things, rather than the dull, dreary nuts and bolts items that affect us greatly. We can't be bothered with details: we'd rather pay simple and quick attention to things and then turn off. We'd rather have fun than be serious. We like the glitz and glamour instead of the hard work. We'd rather leave the hard work to someone else, but we like to complain when things go wrong.

We have lost our way. How can we justify a professional athlete like Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs making $7 million per year to play hockey? In fact, how can we justify a player in the American Hockey League, a minor league, making a two way salary of $894,000 per year. That is what a young man named Tyler Biggs makes playing for the Toronto Marlies. Biggs has never played a game in the NHL, and is, by all accounts, a decent but unexceptional player for the Marlies. But his salary is major league indeed.

Compare those numbers to these salaries, which I quickly researched in a google frenzy preparing for this column:

Lawyer ..... average salary $123,000
General Practitioner ..... average salary $132,000
Dentist ....average salary $131,000
OPP officer .... average salary $76,000
RCMP officer .... average salary $72,000
Bank Manager ..... average salary $101,000
Nurse .... average salary $63,000                    ( there was a wide discrepancy here )
Secondary school teacher .... average salary $90,000   (there was a wide discrepancy here )
Member of Parliament .... average salary $163,000
Prime Minister ..... average salary $327,000
Cabinet Minister, Speaker, Leader of Opposition .... average salary $242,000
Captain, Canadian Armed Forces .... average salary $77,000
General, Canadian Armed Forces .... average salary $156,000
Private, Canadian Armed Forces ..... average salary $48,000
Engineering Manager ..... average salary $113,000
Construction Manager .... average salary $160,000
Construction Worker .... average salary $39,000
Electrician ..... average salary $40,000
Plumber .... average salary $25,000      (there is a wide discrepancy here)

This list goes on. Pick your salary to complain about, we all have our bĂȘte noirs. The point is that there is clearly something wrong when we willingly accept that some people who do jobs that involve playing games, sitting in an office, telling us what to do or think, or other such things, are paid more than those who heal, protect, work with their hands, and, in the most extreme example, die or suffer grievous injuries in the name of defending the society that pays them their wage.

How did this happen? How did we allow this ? And, perhaps more importantly, what does this say about us as a society? Our priorities are indeed out of whack. In the bigger picture, it's not just about salaries or who does what kind of work. I chose salaries as a means to shed light on what I perceive to be our inability to make the right kinds of decisions in the direction we, as a society, indeed as a species, are heading. We are, as John McFarlane, the editor of "The Walrus" magazine, says, "drunk on popular culture" and are unwilling or unable or just too lazy to face certain truths. We enjoy hearing about the latest childish misadventures of pop stars or actors, but don't want to be bothered about famine, war, disease or suffering.  We pollute our environment despite the dire warnings. We allow the wealthy corporate elites to increase their profit margins by sending good-paying jobs to foreign countries. Indeed, we encourage foreigners to come here to take jobs from Canadians simply because the foreigners are willing to work for small wages and no benefits. And, out of that, we are told to believe that anyone who is different from us, who come to our shores seeking a better life than the one they left behind, are somehow sinister, threatening, or making us give up our traditions or beliefs. We don't see their humanity and wishes for working to improve their own or their family's situation. We shrink from solving our impending pension and debt crises, believing that, somehow, winning an imaginary lottery will be our salvation. We spend like there is no tomorrow. We try to keep up appearances, thus heightening our self worth and self esteem. We turn away from images of cruelty and violence in other parts of the world, yet lap up entertainment in sports and movies and video games that glorify gore and suffering. We incessantly complain about our cowardly and cynical leaders, both corporate and political, yet refuse to get involved in the process of demanding better from them. We gobble up petroleum in obscene amounts, and call those who advocate for cleaner and renewable sources of energy cranks or tree huggers. We eat and drink like obese gluttons while billions eat very little and eat very poorly. We vilify those who raise alarm bells and praise those who entertain or titillate us.

As the cartoon character Pogo once said: "we have met the enemy, and he is us."

What went wrong?    

Thursday, May 1, 2014

THE RACE FOR THE CUP, PART TWO

My Cup bracket survived the first round fairly intact.  There was some interesting hockey played over the past couple of weeks: in fact, much of it was inspiring. All teams with the possible exception of the troubled Tampa Bay Lightning acquitted themselves well. Kudos to the teams who went the full seven games. In sports, a best of seven series is a severe test of stamina and will, especially in hockey, which is one of the most demanding sports, physically and emotionally.

But as Macbeth said, " we are but young in deed. "  Three rounds to go and some good hockey lies ahead. Since many of you want to know who will win in advance, I humbly reveal my choices for the second round.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Rangers

I didn't think the Rangers would make it past the Flyers, and they nearly didn't. But never underestimate the power of the underdog, home ice, or veteran goaltending. The Rangers have proven to be a gritty and determined team. They deserve respect. As for the Pens, we are waiting for the superstars to show up. Crosby, Malkin et al did their least to survive the first round and it was certainly enough over a hard working Columbus team. I'm guessing that the big guys got their wake up call and will be ready to play now. But the big question, as always, is goaltending. And the Rangers have a decided edge here. Lundqvist outplays Fleury any day of the week. Will it be enough for the Rangers? Not this time. Talent will win out in this round. Penguins will win in 6 or 7 games.




Boston Bruins vs Montreal Canadiens

This should be a beauty. Montreal looked great against Tampa and they have been rolling for a while now. The big question is whether the few days off has hurt their momentum. I'm guessing it hasn't simply because they are playing their true rivals, the Boston Bruins. Sorry, Leafs, but it's true, the Habs against Bruins rivalry is more important for both teams. Montreal features fast forwards who have learned how to put great pressure on opposing defences and get quality shots on goal. And their goalie is red-hot. But the Bruins proved that they are ready to go deep in the playoffs too. When they were interested in dominating a plucky Detroit Red Wing squad, they did. Then, they seemed to go into sleep mode and Detroit were able to make a series of it. I'm guessing that there will be no lapses of concentration in the Bruins in this series. All games should be intense and exciting. The edge goes to the team with better goaltending and more ruggedness for playoff hockey and that means Boston wins in seven gruelling games. Buckle up !!



Chicago Blackhawks vs Minnesota Wild

The 'Hawks got a tougher than expected series from St. Louis, but the fact that they ground the Blues down in the last four games tells me that what I expected was correct: that the Blues were banged up to begin the series, and even though they jumped out front in the first two games, they didn't have it for the last four. The 'Hawks, on the other hand, remained calm and went about their business, as champions do. Their game is solid all the way around, and they look ready. As for Minnesota, I now refuse to write them off as unknowns. But they may have shot their bolt. I don't think they have enough for Chicago, but, as a sign of respect, I will refer to them as the North Stars instead of the Wild because the old Minnesota North Stars were pretty good playoff teams back in the day. Chicago takes this series in 6 games.



Anaheim Ducks vs Los Angeles Kings

There is always something interesting about a "local" series: bragging rights, turf wars, neighbourhood vs neighbourhood, call it what you will. That's why I will be interested in this series. The Ducks are a good team and they showed some good, hard nosed tough playoff hockey. Getzlaff and Perry took some pounding and kept coming for more. There's a lot of talent on the Ducks. But the Kings proved that they are still a solid playoff team. And Jonathan Quick seems ready to play some spectacular goal again. Logic says that the Ducks should win, but there is always an upset in any round of the playoffs ( except for the final round perhaps ) so my heart says the Kings will win in 6 or 7 tough games.



There you have it. Hopefully, we will continue to enjoy top quality hockey for a good long while yet.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

WHAT IS A UNIVERSITY?

Trinity Western University is one of Canada's largest private universities and is located in Langley, BC. Normally, I would not even have heard of TWU, much less feel compelled to write a blog about this school. But a recent column in The Globe and Mail prompted some anguished thought.

Briefly, TWU is a rather new institution of higher learning. Its foundation was back in the 1960's and stemmed from a desire on the part of some well-intentioned people to found a university that not only promoted a rigorous and thorough academic programme, but combined those programmes with a devout and complete adherence to Christian ideals. Students who wish to enroll at TWU are required to sign a covenant that makes them promise to maintain high scholastic performance as well as adhere to the school's beliefs: they must forswear alcohol, drugs, premarital sex, and other behaviour the university finds contrary to its Christian ideals. The school also very publicly denounces same-sex marriage, or in fact, any acceptance of gay rights.

Recently, TWU announced its intention to begin a faculty of law. Something of an uproar ensued. Law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia ruled that those provinces would not recognize degrees in law granted by TWU because of its discriminatory stance on same-sex marriage. The Law Society of British Columbia, however, ruled in favour of recognizing these degrees. Tony Wilson, a columnist in the Globe and Mail and a "bencher" in the LSBC, justified the Society's decision as being that of a belief in "the rule of law", which states that the Canadian Constitution defends and guarantees the expression of religious ideals. Despite his standing as a lawyer and columnist of high reputation, I found his defence disturbing, to say the least.

The criticism of TWU's potential law graduates centers around the possibility that lawyers and judges and any other officer of BC's judicial system will administer a legal system while harbouring prejudicial beliefs against gay people. To me, this criticism makes perfect sense. Why have people, many of whom are paid by society, administer justice when they are publicly and openly biased against a group of people who are supposed to be protected against bias by law?

In 2001, a similar situation involving TWU emerged. In that year, the school opened a faculty of education. A red flag emerged. That faculty would, in theory, be graduating people who espoused a bias against gay people who would quite possibly find employment in the public education system of British Columbia, and would, quite possibly, be prejudiced against students or parents from same-sex relationships, or try to foist their anti-gay views upon their students in a system where that is not supposed to happen. The education system in BC, and elsewhere in Canada, is supposed to be free of such potential bias.

Yet the College of Teachers of British Columbia were thwarted in their attempt to have teaching degrees from TWU not recognized, and to have graduates from TWU not be allowed to teach in the public system. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in favour of the university, citing, again, the Constitution which guaranteed religious freedom. Tony Wilson, in his Globe column, stated that, as far as he was aware, no teacher in BC who graduated from TWU had been hauled before a review board for teaching anti-gay or anti-same-sex marriage ideas in a classroom or school. It would seem, therefore, that TWU has won significant victories over their critics.

For me, the criticism and concern of TWU's graduates in law, education or any other faculty where graduates may work in some type of public system is valid. I am a strong believer in the secular nature of our society, and, while I also believe in a person's freedom to hold any religious beliefs they want, I believe more strongly that society has an obligation to recognize bigotry and radical evangelicalism where they exist and treat them with suspicion and, in most cases, prohibit people who have philosophies  that contain bigotry, racism, hatred or narrow beliefs from practicing these philosophies in the performance of their duties as a lawyer or teacher etc. I believe this because I want to live in a modern society where all beliefs and life-styles are accepted. In the broadest context, this would include beliefs contained in TWU's covenant, but not when that covenant seeks to impose itself on the rest of society.

What do I mean by this? I challenge the reader of my blog to go to Trinity Western University's web site and read their mission statement. Also read their core beliefs. This is a "university" which claims a complete and strict adherence to Scripture. This is a "university" that seeks to involve itself in a training of graduates to go forth into society to excel in their chosen fields but with a decidedly Christian and evangelical zeal. This is a "university" which believes in the "Kingdom" of Christ and wants to be at the forefront of spreading this philosophy with the zeal of missionaries. What if, instead of espousing a profound dislike for same-sex marriage and, by extension, of gay rights generally, TWU espoused a belief in the natural inferiority of people of colour, or women, or Aboriginals, or people of other faiths? Would the Law Society of British Columbia or the Supreme Court of Canada rule in favour of such an institution? I would certainly hope not, and I would hope that you, the reader of this blog, would agree.

My greatest dilemma in all of this, however, is that the controversy surrounding TWU really is about the role and purpose of a university. You may have noticed in my preceding paragraph, that I wrote the word "university" in quotation marks when referencing Trinity Western University. To me, a university is supposed to be more than a place people go after high school. It is supposed to be the highest expression of human intellect, where research is performed fully and, to use TWU's word, "rigorously", where discourse and debate flourish and where there is to be no restriction on ideas or beliefs. To me, TWU's slavish devotion to its evangelical approach to everything and its mission of promoting its strong Christian beliefs in the wider context of society is anathema to what a modern university is supposed to be. Doctrine is not a guidepost in intellectual development, it is a barrier. TWU openly puts barriers on thought, and while the "university" certainly has a right to exist and preach these dogmas, it does not have a right to have its apostles preach them to students or clients in public schools or court rooms.

On its web page, TWU puts a series of Frequently Asked Questions about the gay rights issue. It is in the context of the controversy surrounding the proposed law faculty. The FAQ's are actually an imaginary debate between a concerned person and the "university" itself. The "university" claims that gay students are in fact comfortably enrolled at the school and so too are atheists and those from other faiths. They are welcome to study there: as long as they sign the covenant. If they are not comfortable doing so, they are "welcome" to go elsewhere. I find this disingenuous and repugnant. This is not freedom to choose, as TWU claims. It is a polite way of saying "it's our way or the highway." Fair enough, you might say. But it is not fair. It is exclusionary for a university. Yes, it is a private university, but it is sanctioned by the province and is graduating people who adhere to its doctrine who are ready and willing to work in society, possibly waiting for an opportunity to spread their doctrines. Politeness be damned, it is contrary to what a university is supposed to be.

Monday, April 14, 2014

THE RACE FOR THE CUP PART ONE

As of this writing, it has not been announced who the Leafs' first round opponents will be .... oh ... never mind.

A new format has certainly created an interesting grouping of match-ups in this year's playoff structure. Also new is the "bracket" concept, which means that winners of a playoff grouping will automatically meet up with a winner of a divisional and conference grouping. No more re-seeding of match-ups in second, third and final rounds. In this sense, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a true bracket similar to "March Madness" in the NCAA men's and women's basketball. So, in case you need to know who will win the first round of the NHL playoffs, I humbly offer this assessment. Let the debate begin.

Eastern Conference

Boston Bruins vs Detroit Red Wings

Much has been made about the "original six" aspect of this match-up. Indeed, it is always special when a couple of old teams renew acquaintances. And much has been made of the fact that these are two perennial playoff participants. Boston has gone deep in the playoffs in many recent years. They are true playoff warriors. They feature a bruising group of forwards, a corps of defensemen who move the puck well and take care of business in their own zone, and an all-world goalie in Tukka Rask. They miss defenseman Dennis Seidenburg, but have compensated for this loss well. The Red Wings have also suffered from the injury bug, but seem to always find players from their AHL team to fill in. The Wings also have a fine goalie in Jimmy Howard, and probably the best coach in the NHL, if not the world, in Mike Babcock. This figures to be a good series and it will go 6 tough, hard-fought games. But, despite Babcock's genius for tactically managing a game, the winner of this series will be the Boston Bruins.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Montreal Canadiens

How the Canadiens not only made the playoffs but became an all 'round good hockey team is a mystery to me. Carey Price has emerged as another all-world goalie because of his stellar performance in the Olympics and has not missed a beat since then, except for some nagging injuries. The Habs have quick and talented forwards and a mobile defense corps. For the Lightning, it's been a strange year of adversity. The loss of Vinny Lecavalier last year and Marty St. Louis this year ( surely one of the messiest divorces in history ) seems to have galvanized the team around their one bona fide star, Steven Stamkos, who lost valuale time and an Olympic experience to injury. Stamkos is back, a tribute to his fitness and reputation as one of the best athletes in the NHL. This figures to be an interesting series, but the quirky year for the Lightning and the stellar goaltending of Price will make this a 5 game series, with the winner being the Montreal Canadiens. It kills me to say this, too.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets

Pittsburgh has been one of the NHL's more exciting and also one of its most enigmatic teams over the last few years. They are loaded with talent, featuring perhaps two of the most talented players in the game, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  Malkin may be banged up a bit at this time of writing, but the supporting cast is solid. The one aspect of the game that is the most inconsistent is goaltending, with Marc-Andre Fleury still on the cusp of stardom, but not quite there. Dan Bylsma is one of the game's more underrated coaches too. As for the Columbus Blue Jackets, two things emerge: first, they did well down the stretch to win a playoff spot as a wild card team: second, it is remarkable that the city of Columbus, Ohio has a team. This one figures to be a short series. Columbus did well just to qualify and it will be over mercifully quick for them. The winner in 4 straight will be the Pittsburgh Penguins.



New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers

This figures to be the nastiest series in the first round. Both teams hate each other and play tough hockey, which is needed in the playoffs. The Rangers have made many changes during the last off-season and during the regular season as well. They surprise everyone with any success they have, and it's mostly due to good goaltending from Henrick Lundquist and solid coaching from Alain Vigneult. As for the Flyers, they seem to knock on the door of success every year. Vinny Lecavalier seems to have settled in for solid, but not spectacular play, and Hartnell and Simmons lend tough play along the boards. Claude Giroux, if healthy, is one of the most talented players in the game. The Flyers' Achilles heel, as always, is goaltending. As of this writing, Bob Mason may not be available, or if he is, he may be banged up. Despite the obvious goaltending edge to the Rangers, the outcome will be close and bloody. In seven war-like games, the winner will be the Philadelphia Flyers.

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks vs St. Louis Blues

A week or so ago, I would have said that this would be the best first-round series. Both clubs had stellar seasons and seem to have the players and coaches to win it all. But the Blues have gone into an injury-induced death spiral over the last few games. I believe they are on a 6 game losing streak to close out the regular season, and prize acquisition Ryan Miller has been less than spectacular. The 'Hawks have been banged up too, with stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane out with nagging injuries, but they figure to be back and contributing to the cup defense. If the Blues get their stars back from sick bay, ( Oshie, Pietrangelo, Shattenkirck ) they will give the 'Hawks all they can handle, but class wins out all the time. Joel Quennville is a much underrated coach, and Kevin Hitchcock, while a competent coach, is, in my view, overrated. So it will go 6 games, with the winner being the Chicago Blackhawks.

Colorado Avalanche vs Minnesota Wild

I don't really know much about these two teams. I do know that the Avalanche were a bunch of also-rans last year, so their turn-around is nothing short of remarkable. The addition of one of the truly psychotic personalities in the game, namely their coach, Patrick Roy, has been instrumental. After that, I don't really know much. As for the Wild, well .... Minnesota likes hockey, so they will be glad to be in the playoffs. How many games? Who will win? Who will care !! But for the record, I'll say 6 games that nobody will watch and Colorado, by virtue of the fact that they had more points, will win.

San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings

San Jose is a perennially good team that never seems to go anywhere. It won't be much different this year . Los Angeles won the Cup recently but that really doesn't matter. The Kings still have potentially the best goalie in the Western Conference in Jonathan Quick, and Drew Doughty on defense and Anze Kopitar up front are among the better players in the league. History and experience are with the Los Angeles Kings in 6 games. But, truthfully, does anyone care ?


Anaheim Ducks vs Dallas Stars

I know so very little about these teams, it's a bit embarrassing. Maybe one of them will get on an unholy roll and go all the way ? Nah, not going to happen. I know the Ducks have Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, two pretty good players. And I know that one of the Dallas Stars had a heart attack during the regular season, so the Stars will be motivated to play for him. But this is such an irrelevant series, it really doesn't matter. It will be over in 4 games and the winner will be the Anaheim Ducks in probably the most one-sided series.  Or maybe both teams will just surrender now?



So, there you have it. Enter your NHL brackets now and enjoy the games. It will be a long and eventful ride.                                                                                                                                  
 
 
 
 








 
 
 
 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

NOTES FROM PARADISE, PART FOUR

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading a novel called "In the Embrace of the Alligator" by Amanda Hale . In it, the main character, a Canadian woman, becomes involved with a Cuban man and tries to become involved in his life and those of his family and friends. What follows is a highly readable and thoughtful story about life in Cuba, the plight of Cuban people, and, perhaps more tellingly, how foreigners ( mostly Canadian ) look at their own lives and values. The Canadian character becomes so involved in Cuba that she begins to feel like a foreigner when she returns to Canada, but slowly realizes that she can never truly become involved in Cuba either. She feels both lost and part of both worlds. It is a wonderful novel and worth the read.

I bring this up to set up my own "embrace of the alligator." The alligator in all cases is Cuba itself. If you look at a map of the country, and use a little imagination, you see that it indeed resembles an alligator, with its head in the east and its large and dangerous tail in the west. Of course, the metaphor goes further: you don't have to be an animal expert to know that to be embraced by an alligator is a highly dangerous thing. Once in the alligator's grip, you are faced with two difficult choices: you can let the alligator have its way with you, which has all kinds of nasty implications, or you can choose to embrace back. The first choice is perhaps the easiest: you become passive, accept your fate and endure the results. Most people in this situation are those who go to Cuba and emerge from the visit disappointed or angry. These people never go back and are able to forget about the experience.

The second choice, however, is the more complicated one. I admit that I have made this choice and always wonder why I did. The choice is to take the alligator close to your heart, wrap yourself around it and hold on for dear life, adjusting to every twist and turn and movement the beast makes. You must hold on forever, never letting go for the obvious reasons. Most people I know who go to Cuba make this choice and, together, we hang on, hoping that the ride never stops, but wondering how much longer we can hold on before we're either exhausted or the alligator overpowers us and turns on us.

Quite a choice !

Cuba gets into a person's heart and soul. Maybe it's the climate, so warm and sunny ( most times!). Or maybe it's the history, full of tumult and triumph, chaos and suffering. Perhaps, it's the time machine aspect, where you can literally step back fifty years and see things and experience life in a different era. It could be the music, so perfect and sensual, sweeping you off your feet as you give yourself up to the rhythm and skill of Cuban musicians (aren't all Cubans musicians?).

For me, it's all these plus one thing more: the Cuban people. We have been fortunate to meet a few of them. With only one or two exceptions, they are among the most remarkable people on earth. They possess a good humour that has to be experienced to be believed. They put up with a lot, yet are happy and resourceful. They are intelligent and highly aware of the outside world, and yearn to achieve the things we take for granted, yet are unbelievably patient and stoic. Any other people would be storming the halls of power to demand more things, but the Cubans are adopting a "wait and see" attitude: perhaps the old revolution still lingers in the consciousness and they have a "one revolution is enough" mindset. They laugh and dance easily, but are also capable of tears and empathy. Family is their strength and pride: the best thing you can ask a Cuban is "how is your family?" If a Cuban calls you "my family" , then you know that they like and trust you.

None of this sounds much like a menacing alligator. So how does the metaphor work? Because you can easily be trapped and forced to think that all is well and beautiful in Cuba. But, as we have learned, it is not all good. So, a visitor has to be on guard always. Love the island, love the culture, love the people .... but be aware that the alligator has a hold on you. If you reach out and grab it to save yourself, you can never let go. And, when that happens, you can never really leave.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

NOTES FROM PARADISE, PART THREE

One of the truly wonderful aspects of our visits to Cuba is the friendships we have formed over the years. We have met so many great people, both Canadian and Cuban. The Canadians seem to represent the stereotype our nation has been given: they are unfailingly friendly and completely willing to accept the fact that they are not home anymore, and willing to try to understand the reality of life of the people who actually live here. And the Cubans are happy to meet foreigners and proud to show off their resort and their country. Despite the challenges of living in a land that can best be compared to a political and economic science experiment, they remain unfailingly cheerful, happy and positive. But we have always been curious as to why they are so happy: is it because they are just naturally positive, or is it because they know nothing else than their experience in living in such a closed and insular society?

We have become particularly close to one of the staff at the resort. I will not use his real name because he asked us to keep our visit low key, so I will call him Fred. We've known him for a few years now, and he is easy to like. Fred is a big, athletic, good looking man. He is also good natured, good humoured, and easy going. Over the years, we've been fortunate to benefit from his friendly manner at the resort, and we have done our best to help him out a bit.

This year, we had the opportunity to visit Fred and his family at his home. He lives in Holguin with his wife, Joan, and his daughter Jane (also not their real names). Joan is a dentist, and she also teaches dentistry at a local college. Jane is a ten year old school girl, and is cute and shy: a lovely girl. Together, they make a nice family.

Fred arranged our transportation to Holguin with a taxi driver/ tour guide named Mauro, who I introduced you to in  my first post. The plan was to drive in with Mauro, who would wait for us in Holguin for the day while we did some sightseeing with Fred. Then, we'd go to Fred's house for lunch and  meet the family. After lunch, Fred would go back to the resort with us and Mauro for his afternoon shift.

It was a hot and sunny afternoon when Mauro parked at the Plaza of Flowers in central Holguin. We had been to Holguin about five years ago, and the scene was familiar to us. It was Saturday, so the square was bustling with families enjoying a day off from work or school. We were astounded at the number of vintage cars still working hard: everyone knows about the old cars in Cuba, and you certainly see them at resorts or in the tourist centre of Havana. But here, the cars were plentiful and decidedly less shiny. They belched out black smoke and made strange and loud noises, but they were working. Nothing touristy about them.

Fred joined us shortly afterward and Mauro left us in his care. Fred is proud of his home town and we visited plazas, shops, the local cathedral, and walked the side streets. The stores were interesting to see. When we visited five years ago, the stores seemed to be badly organized and lacking in goods. We remember that, in one particular store, auto parts were stacked beside toiletries, which were beside light bulbs and next to the school supplies. It was basically whatever the store could get its hands on. But in the stores Fred showed us, there was a plentiful supply of goods, all grouped together in some idea of "departments."  Fred wanted us to pay attention to the price of goods. They were not expensive by Canadian standards, but the price was listed in convertible pesos, which meant that they were highly expensive for Cubans. An example would be a washer/dryer set, which cost about 300 pesos. Not bad, but when one considers that a good Cuban working wage is about 20 pesos a month, one begins to see the problem. A washer/dryer is more than a year's wages for an average Cuban.

We visited the basilica and were delighted to see that it was a day for families to bring babies for baptisms. Proud parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters crowded around the beautifully dressed babies awaiting their turn at the baptismal font. Certainly a proud day for them and further proof as to the importance of family for the Cuban people. Then, to finish off a morning of celebration, we went to a nice covered patio and enjoyed a friendly beer to talk about the greatest of Cuban passions, baseball.

Finally, it was time to find Mauro and drive to Fred's house. Through a rabbit warren of winding, busy streets our '51 Chevy careened and we took in as much as we could. This was the real Holguin, far removed from the downtown areas where the few tourists walked. Now, we were confronted by large crowds of pedestrians and horse and buggies. Fewer cars competed with us for space on the roads, but many large trucks rumbled through the narrow streets. Deeper we went, and, had we been abandoned by our hosts, we would be there still. Finally, we turned off the pavement onto a narrow dirt road and bounced our way past low rise buildings, most of them two and three stories tall. Then, Mauro pulled over and we stepped out to Fred's house.

We climbed a spiral staircase to be greeted by Joan and Jane at the door. A warm welcome brought us out of the hot sun and into the cool shade of their home. As we settled in, Fred told us proudly that he had built the house himself, with some help from family and neighbours. Fred is a carpenter by trade, but he told us he learned plumbing and electricity at school. He began construction in 1995 and it has just recently been completed. He said all these things with a quiet pride that comes from such a solid accomplishment. Fred built the house over top of his father's home, which occupied the main floor. We have seen this many times before in our trips to Latin America. It's a great way to build homes without using up valuable land or paying exorbitant prices for real estate.

We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of good conversation, despite the fact that many of us didn't know the others' language: my Spanish is non-existent, while Joan and Jane know no English. It was largely Fred and Lou who carried the translation duties. Fred's English is pretty good, while Lou's Spanish is surprisingly good. The lunch was plentiful and delicious: we enjoyed pork medallions cooked in oil and garlic, congris rice, friend plantain, and salad, all prepared by Joan. Cold beer complimented the feast.

The house is small, but comfortable and with many "mod cons". We are led to believe that Fred's salary at the resort is the main source of income when he's working. But he cannot count on full time employment. In fact, he told us that he had been called back to the resort only a day before we arrived, and hadn't worked there since April. When he's not at the resort, he and his dad do carpentry and other construction work. Joan's work is year 'round, and she works at a clinic in Holguin. Thus, they can afford good furniture, appliances and, the pride of the house, a modern and spacious bathroom. Out the back and in the central courtyard of the cluster of buildings sat Fred's workshop. All in all, an impressive house.

We were able to trade ideas and information freely and frankly during lunch. Fred and Joan are honest about their lives: they know they live fairly well, but would like more for themselves and for Jane. When I asked them about the changes in Cuba, they were somewhat stoic about the future. Basically, their attitude was that changes were coming, but slowly, and that they would accept whatever came their way. There was no sense of bitterness or disappointment in their talk. Perhaps that is the Cuban way: they are constantly told about their new freedoms, but are completely realistic and resigned to the slow pace. They are also fully aware of life outside Cuba. Fred discussed a wide range of issues with us that showed that he knew what was happening in the wider world. He also expressed a slight regret that Canada and Cuba were not closer, and by that, he did not mean geographically closer, but rather that relations were not better. I expressed my agreement and, as will be no surprise to readers, blamed Stephen Harper for the colder relations.

We said a fond and reluctant farewell to Joan and Jane, found Mauro and made our way back to the resort. During the ride, we passed through more of the twisting and winding streets of Holguin's suburbs until we found our way to the more familiar highway to the coast. On the way, Mauro and Fred kept up a lively and animated conversation in Spanish. Lou and I sat mostly quiet in the back seat. It had been a rare day, and we needed time to digest all of it. We reached the resort where we deposited Fred outside at the workers' entrance. Mauro drove us to the main entrance and we thanked him for his safe driving and interesting insights.

What did we learn? Are we better off for the visit ? And, are we more "expert" in all things Cuban? Hard to answer. We certainly felt honoured to be part of the lives of these people, even for a short time. We learned a lot, but not enough to claim to be "expert." I doubt if even Cuban people themselves would claim to be "expert" on their own country. Cuba is endlessly fascinating, endlessly complicated, and always will be. Why ? Because it is changing in noticeable and interesting ways. We feel as though we have been invited in to a party that is just starting to get going. It would be rude and impolite not to stay a bit longer. And so, we will return to continue our education in this earthly and imperfect Paradise.

Monday, February 10, 2014

NOTES FROM PARADISE, PART TWO

The bus ride from Frank Pais airport in Holguin to the Playa Costa Verde resort takes about an hour. We've travelled that road several times now and I honestly think that, if I had to drive the route, I could do it and get to the resort with no problem or road map. I remember a small "incident" about four years ago which shouldn't even have registered with us on that road, but, in retrospect, it certainly did have great portent. We saw several fruit stands along the road: small huts in front of farm houses selling everything from pineapples to bananas. What's the big deal with fruit stands? They were the first signs of the changes coming to Cuba. The stands were owned and operated by the farmers themselves and, amazingly, whatever they sold and earned, the could keep for themselves.

Fast forward a couple of years and the changes became even more apparent. One of the resort's most popular bar tenders, a man called Jesus, opened his own restaurant in the nearby town of Melilla.  Jesus is quite a character: articulate, quick witted, funny, friendly and energetic. I always liked Jesus and figured that when you have a bar tender with that name, you're going to be well looked after. Jesus started the enterprise with his brother in law and was openly encouraging resort guests to visit the restaurant with his own business card. Word of mouth spread the name and reputation of the restaurant. It has the catchy name of "La Finquita Alegre", which, loosely translated, means the Happy Farmhouse. We were not able to visit the restaurant that year because of timing, so we made sure to visit this year.

You may be wondering, "why write a blog about fruit stands and a guy's restaurant?" Good question: such things pass unnoticed here in Canada because they are such every-day things. But in Cuba, these are about as significant as you can get. They mark the start of a type of free-market entrepreneurialism that was unthinkable only a few short years ago. They are the leading edge of the new effort to move Cuba away from the rigid state-controlled communism of Fidel and Raul Castro and into a new era where Cubans can at least have a chance at some kind of personal prosperity.

Cuba has stagnated in the two decades since the fall of the USSR in the early 1990's. The Soviet Union was very much Cuba's "sugar daddy" in those days and helped develop a highly organized and controlled society. There were positives and negatives to this relationship. On the plus side, when Cuba overthrew the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencia Baptista in 1959 and installed Fidel Castro as its leader, Cuba moved into the modern world. Its education system developed a large and well-trained cadre of professionals: engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses, all of whom are among the best in the world. People were able to move out of the peasantry that they had been living in and became modern and largely urban. Cuba became a very ordered and civilized society. The down side, however, was that, with communism, individual liberty and initiative were stifled and eliminated. The Castro regime tolerated no criticism, and jails filled up with political critics, journalists, and anyone who dared to stand up to the regime. Cuba also became a puppet of the USSR and fought several wars, particularly in Africa and South America, at the Soviet Union's command as proxy troops: undoubtedly, many Cuban families lost sons in those wars in the 1970's and 80's, and many Cubans lie buried in unmarked graves in those far-off lands.

When the USSR collapsed in the 1990's, Cuba was particularly hard hit. The trade embargo placed on it by the United States was still in full effect ( as it is today ) and trade with other countries was almost reduced to a stand-still. The dozen years from 1990 to around 2002 are referred to in Cuba as the "Special Period". Not much is known by foreigners of this time period, but it must have been an exceptionally harsh period. Food was rationed: industries shut down: schools and hospitals ran out of supplies. I would not be surprised at all if people starved in Cuba during that time, and I'd be interested to do some research into this "Special Period". Almost desperately, Fidel Castro realized that he had to open up his island to foreign tourism and foreign investment, which began in the early 2000's and continues to this day.

With foreigners coming into the country, the Cuban government and Cuban people were finally awakened to the wider world outside their little version of paradise. Fidel has given way to his younger brother Raul, who has presided over these small changes. The result: old style communism is on the way out, and a more market-oriented way of looking at things is emerging. The changes are small and almost imperceptible. But frequent visitors notice them every time they go back.

"La Finquita Alegre" is a lovely country restaurant, situated in the back part of a small farm house. It is an outdoor dining area, so that, on a lovely warm Cuban evening, you enjoy the beautiful stars over your head. There is a small bar that is well-stocked with beer, wine, spirits and soft drinks. The washroom is fully functional and immaculately clean. And the food .... excellent !! On the night we visited, Jesus arranged for a whole pig to be roasted on a spit because there were several of us. We had three kinds of rice, including congris which is the famous Cuban staple of rice and black beans fried in pork fat. There were fried bananas, salads, breads, soups, and other side dishes, all prepared skillfully by the chef that Jesus had been able to hire. The server was a lovely woman who, we believed, was Jesus' sister-in-law. And, best of all, we observed that some of the diners that night were Cubans. They may have had to save up a long time for the night out, but it was good to see that not all the patrons were tourists. Drinks flowed: conversation mixed with laughter filled the night: food was delicious and plentiful. It was a wonderful night.

Jesus arranged the whole night for us. Our taxi ride to and from the resort ( in a beautiful 1951 Chevrolet convertible ) , plus one complementary drink, and the dinner itself was included in a package that cost us 20 convertible pesos: the equivalent of $20.00 US. Not a bad night !! Finally, we learned that La Finquita Alegre has its own facebook page: I urge readers to find it and like it.

Is this the face of the new Cuba? Will Jesus and his partners emerge as the new Cuban entrepreneurs? And will Cuba itself be able to control the pace of the inevitable changes that are coming? Will the changes be beneficial ? There are no easy answers to these questions. Only two things became clear to us. First, the changes, now underway, cannot be stopped. And second, there will undoubtedly be winners and losers in the "new" Cuba that these changes create.

For those of us foreigners who have come to love Cuba, we are left with a dilemma of our own. Do we celebrate the possibility of a better life to the winners in the "new" Cuba? Or do we mourn the passing of a place that we have grown to love: a place that was, despite the hardships, a quiet, friendly, slow-paced, simple and honest place. Cuba had and still has no pretentions of being something glamourous or glitzy. But the signs of material prosperity are starting to show. One thing I remain confident in is this: the change will largely be controlled by the Cubans themselves.

On our ride back to the resort in a different 1951 Chevy ( this one a sedan because of the coolness of the night ) I looked up to the immense stars in the heavens over the island. I don't believe in omens, but, as I contemplated my wonderful evening and my full stomach, I believe I saw a shooting star overhead.