Sunday, May 29, 2011

Greed and Religious Fanaticism

I'm reading Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy. It is the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and it reminds me once again that in a world of remarkable churn, human stubbornness continues to prevent needed change.  

Cortes' conquest of the Aztecs was driven by greed and religious fanaticism. He lusted for the Aztecs' gold and their unqualified conversion to his one true God. That meant accepting the cross of Christ and renouncing gods that demanded daily human sacrifices.
Montezuma had no problem with giving up some gold. But every cell in his body argued that defying the Aztec gods would bring on the end of the world.

Cortes could not comprehend worship of several gods and appeasement of them through human sacrifices. (Although he didn’t seem to have any problem burning people at the stake or accepting gifts of native maidens and distributing them among his officers). There was only one faith; all others must be destroyed.

Montezuma could not comprehend temples in which a cross replaced braziers on which human hearts, still quivering after being ripped from some unfortunate's chest, were roasted for the gods.

There could be no compromise. No room for more than one belief. The Aztecs lost, and world changed -- in some ways. More than 500 years later, however, we still haven’t learned to tolerate completely other religions, or other cultures. (Also, we’re still having some problems in respecting women, as demonstrated by Arnold Slimenator, Dominique (The Grand Seducer) Strauss-Kahn, John Edwards and dozens of other “leaders.”)

Parts of the Muslim world still argue over how to relate to non-believers. Jews and Arabs continue the dialogue of hatred. The Roman Catholic Church, trying to stay away from the larger issues, has just finished 29 years of fiddling with its Mass missal. One of the big changes is that Jesus as “one in being with the father,” (old version), now is referred to as “consubstantial with the Father.”

No wonder there is a trend to spirituality outside organized religion. Religion, like party politics, often puts too much emphasis on things that distract from the goal of achieving greater common good. Both politics and religion are needed by many, but both need to be refocussed on things that really matter.

Cortes and Montezuma arguably couldn't help being the way they were. Five hundred years, and much enlightenment later, there is no excuse for us.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Happy Mission into Moose Country

I am on a mission four hours north of Toronto and six kilometres down a forest-lined sideroad.  Deep enough into bush country that I have to brake for a moose standing on the edge of the road.

The mission is to find a new front tire for my 2010 New Holland tractor which is not yet one year old. I wrecked the tire while doing some work on my bush lot. No problem. Remove wheel, bring into a shop and get a new tire. Put on. Not quite.

After five days, no one is able to help me. The tire manufacturer used by New Holland is out of business. No one can suggest a suitable replacement. It seems obvious now that I will spend the rest of my life with an expensive, and useless, three-wheel tractor.

Diane refuses to give up, dialing shop after shop in hopes of hitting someone who likes a challenge, is interested, and willing to help. Bingo! We hit a woman who confirms I have a big problem, but she will help solve it. She is about to close so I said I’d be at her doorstep first thing in the morning. Turns out I confuse her location with a town close to where I live. In fact, her shop is almost three hours north of where I assumed it was.

So, we are threading our way through the forest road, watching for more moose, when we see a sign on  tree reading: Gilroy Tire. We continue, and find the tire shop is a house in the bush with a large side garage. My heart sinks. No home operation in the bush is going to find a specialty tire that the big boys have ruled out.

Back working thanks to Gilroy
Inside the garage, two guys are busy working on a tire the size of the moose I just saw. Another customer arrives seeking two tires on rims. The place is getting busy but I’m not sure why because there is nothing around but bush.

Through a doorway I find a tiny office. There is the bright and busy woman I spoke to on the phone. She has a computer, telephone headset, and rows of books showing more tires than I knew existed. It soon becomes evident that she would be an asset in any executive office in downtown Toronto.
As we talk, in comes Laurie Gilroy, the owner. In an instant I see that he is as action-oriented as she is.  Between the two of them I am out of there in less than an hour with the exact size tire I need (but not quite same tread). They also have laid out options for me getting a tire with a tread to match the wrecked one. In the meantime, my tractor is mobile again.

As I wind my way back down the forested road, eyes peeled for moose, three things come to mind:

1. How many times do I need to be reminded that looks are deceiving?
2. Country people get things done.
3. Why are people like this not running the government?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

SVU and the French Connection

Writers and producers of the TV drama Law and Order: Special Victims Unit must be wearing grins as long as the Brooklyn Bridge. For them, the arrest of world heavyweight political-finance guy Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 62, on serious sexual assault charges is manna from heaven.
Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund and powerful French Socialist politico has been sitting in the noisy and dangerous Rikers Island jail since being arrested by NYPD on the weekend. If you watch Law and Order, you have an idea just how far removed Rikers is from Monsieur Strauss-Kahn’s rich and privileged world.
Law and Order episodes often are based on real cases, and this one is bound to show in future. The real SVU took Strauss-Kahn into custody and the charges against him were laid by SVU Detective Steven Lane, shield 03295. One hopes that Detective Lane does not have an anger management problem like Detective Elliot Stabler in the TV show.
Strauss-Kahn had been poised to win the French presidency in the next election. Now he will stand trial on charges of confining a Sofitel Hotel maid and trying to rape her. His time before the courts will not be helped by his admitted affair with a married IMF employee, and an alleged sexual assault on a young novelist during an interview. He is publicly known in France as “the Great Seducer.”
The prosecutors and the defence lawyers already are doing their pre-trial dog-and-pony shows. Strauss-Kahn was made to do the famous NYPD perp walk, while his defence team is working the media with teasing tidbits about how they already have the stuff to prove their guy innocent.
Well, the courts will sort through all this and decide whether Strauss-Kahn is innocent or guilty. What they will not decide is why people like Strauss-Kahn become seduced by power and wealth.
The man is a Socialist. Yet he stays in a $3,000-a-night suite at the Sofitel, wears $7,000 suits, travels first class and drives wildly-expensive sports cars. He earns roughly $500,000 a year (tax free no less). He is married to millionaire art heiress Anne Sinclair and they have a $5-million Paris apartment, vacation home in Morocco and a place in Washington, D.C. No one begrudges him the wealth, but you would think France’s top Socialist would be a little less haughty and more restrained in flashing it about.
Until now, he has lived under the protection of the French code in which sexual indiscretions are not for serious public discussion. The French like their politicians to display sexual prowess as a sign of vigor for leading. “Live happy, live hidden,” the French say.
That’s not the way NYPD’s Special Victims Unit sees things. Stabler, Benson and Fin would not be amused. Watch for the real-life show in the New York courts, then wait for the Law and Order: SVU version.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Walk in the Woods

Spring is a favourite time for walking in the woods. Much of what is hidden most of the year by foliage or snow is revealed. You see the real humps, ridges and valleys of the land. The woods are more open, less forbidding.
It is easy to spot signs of what has been going on in the woods. Nests soon to be hidden by heavy leaf cover are clearly visible. So are game paths.
A pasttime gaining popularity is walking the woods for deer sheds. Buck deer shed their antlers at winter’s end and it is fun to prowl the bush in search of unusual antlers left behind. Some people collect antlers to make chandeliers, table legs, knife handles or other crafty items.
Both antlers are not usually dropped at the same time, so it’s challenging to find a complete set.
Sheds are found wherever deer spend a lot of time. Bucks are wary and often sleep in heavy thickets. They love groves of pine that provide protection from weather and predators.
Southern exposures provide good shed hunting. Deer like to snooze on the southern slopes of ridges where they can soak up heat from the sun.
Set of deer antlers still attached to skull. This deer
died before spring shedding 
You can find sheds at any time of year, but spring is best because antlers contain calcium, and the longer they lie about, the better the chances are that mice and squirrels will chew them.
If you are going to be a serious shed hunter mark the locations of your previous finds. Chances are the deer will shed in that area again next year.
Antlers clean up nicely and can be polished to produce a great shine. There’s all kinds of information on the Internet about how to clean, polish and mount antlers.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day and the Frozen Popsicle

I’m in the woods behind the lake, enjoying the first real day of spring. My cell phone pings a message, and I answer immediately because texting is the way Diane and I make sure each other is OK when I am in the woods.
The message is a forwarded statement from the Prime Minister on Mother’s Day. The person who forwarded it is someone I greatly respect, and that person is not amused. I read why.
“Our Government recognizes the importance of supporting mothers both at home and abroad,” reads the PMO statement. “We are showing true leadership on the world stage by taking tangible and practical measures . . . .”
I want to puke, but don’t want to spoil the budding wildflowers.
I thought we were done with that nonsense. The man has a majority government for the next four or five years and is sitting pretty to govern instead of playing political games.
I think of my wife, three daughters, daughter in law, sisters -- all wonderful moms who deserve a day of recognition. I think of my mom, who taught me how to love the woods, and I am insulted.
Could not the message from the Prime Minister simply have been: “Thanks to all moms. We appreciate all the sacrifices you make for us. We love you all and hope you have a wonderful Mother’s Day.”
“True leadership.” “World stage.” My ass. Get off the stage Stevie and start governing like a human being instead of a politically-obsessed frozen Popsicle.
A lot of people feel this government probably is right for the time. A lot of people are trying to understand and like its leader. He is making it very difficult.
However, it’s too good a day to remain upset by a boneheaded statement from the PMO. A prehistoric-looking pileated woodpecker is hammering a dead tree off to my right. The trilliums near my feet are starting to bloom. And at the edge of a little clearing, daffodils, presumably carried into the woods by a thieving squirrel, are beaming bright yellow. They’ve grabbed the first warm sunshine of this spring, and  are broadcasting it to the birds and animals, and to the trees, which are yawning and still not quite awake from winter’s sleep.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

'Three Cups of Deceit'

Scepticism often is seen as a fault in today’s ‘happy face’ society. Join the crowd. Look on the positive side. Asking questions just complicates life.
Well, blessed be the people who have asked questions about that wonderfully warm and fuzzy book Three Cups of Tea. American mountain climber Greg Mortenson stumbles out of the mountains into Pakistan, is gripped by the poverty and lack of education of the children, and decides to build schools. He starts a humanitarian effort that raises millions of dollars for schools for kids who otherwise would become terrorists.
Then sceptics begin asking questions. One is Jon Krakauer, fellow mountaineer, one-time supporter and writer who became famous with his book Into the Wild about a mentally ill young man who starves himself to death in Alaska.

Krakauer has exhibited the mark of a true pro: When something looks too good, start sniffing and probing and asking unpopular questions. He has produced an online booklet titled Three Cups of Deceit, which accuses Mortenson of lying about how he got started in humanitarian work and of using his Central Asia Institute charity as a personal ATM.
CBS 60 Minutes also has done an expose. The attorney-general of Montana, where Mortenson is based, has started an inquiry into the allegations. Viking, publisher of Three Cups of Tea, has said it will review the book’s content.
Millions of people have been inspired by Three Cups of Tea. Millions have donated hard-earned dollars, some of which, according to the allegations, have been misused. Saddest of all is the fact that Mortenson is not a crook; he’s dedicated and has done some wonderful work, but is a lousy manager who doesn’t like to take anyone else’s advice. He appears to be a visionary who is too disorganized to run a Kool-Aid stand.
Some people are upset that Mortenson’s good work has been questioned. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, a Mortenson friend, has written: “Part of me wishes that all this journalistic energy had been directed instead to ferret out abuses by politicians who allocate government resources to campaign donors rather than to the neediest among us . . . .”
But then Kristof shows his professionalism and writes that the questions raised about Three Cups of Tea deserve better answers.
“We need to hold school-builders accountable as well as fat cats.”
Exactly. Healthy scepticism - as opposed to cranky cynicism - is much needed in today's world.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The People Won, the Media Lost

There were many winners in the federal election. Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, and of course, the Canadian people. The people were big winners because they brought in a two-party Parliament in which the Conservatives and New Democrats ignore each other at their own future peril.
The big losers, aside from the Bloc Quebecois and Liberals, were the news media. The media tried desperately to deny the Conservatives another win. In almost 50 years of journalism I have never seen such biased reporting, pretty much throughout the media.  
The media just can’t seem to accept the message that its role is to shed the huge egos, find unspun and unvarnished facts, report them clearly and fairly, and let the people decide for themselves what kind of government they want. The media must take blame for much of the increasingly dysfunctional politics we have seen during the last decade.
The people have demanded a return to a sane, functional and productive system. Harper and Layton and their parties must start performing their jobs with respect, constructive criticism, and a willingness to listen to the ideas of others.
Where I live, Helena Guergis was defeated, which is not a surprise. She exhibited poor judgment on several fronts. However, what she and the riding which elected her originally did not deserve was the shabby treatment from the prime minister. Harper had every right to fire her from cabinet and have her driven from the Conservative caucus. His haughtiness, and the fact he did not come to the riding and explain to the people why he dumped their representative, is inexcusable.
Maybe with the New Democrats breathing down his back, Harper will learn to be more open and more tolerant of other people’s views. And, now much closer to real power, perhaps Layton will become more realistic about the serious problems that face this country.
Most Canadians are fiscal Conservatives and social democrats. They will be watching Harper and Layton closely and in future will not hesitate to swing between the right and the left to get what they want and need.