Sunday, December 30, 2007

Miles from Ottawa, in the best sense

The title of this entry was shamelessly taken from an article written for The Edmonton Journal by Lorne Gunter reviewing a new book titled, And God Created Manyberries. As Gunter implies in the article, the mention of Manyberries isn’t going to get too many folks excited, but it did unleash a flood of memories for me – memories of the summer of 1976 and one of those experiences of a lifetime.

Having been in the workforce for all of six years at that point, I had decided that an extended vacation was needed. Looking back on it now that was probably the one time in my working life I least needed a long break as being low man on the civil service totem pole wasn’t exactly a stressful occupation. But then again, I was working for Canada Post and they sure weren’t going to miss me for 10 weeks, so I strapped a tent, sleeping bag, and an extra pair of jeans on the Honda 500 and headed west to Vancouver, where I would meet up with my wife (then girlfriend) who could only get sufficient time off to make the return trip.

While in Vancouver we stayed for a couple of weeks with friends of friends who turned out to be terrific hosts, making us feel welcome and right at home from day one. So to show our appreciation, on our last night we gave them a copy of the then-new photo book, Between Friends. As it was our last night, the beer and the hippie lettuce were in abundance, and we were all well under the influence when we came across the photo of two grizzled cowboys standing in front of a grain silo in a place called Manyberries, Alberta. For whatever reason(!) that photo struck us all as particularly hilarious at the time.

So it was that a few days later, when we came upon a road sign on Highway 1 pointing the way to Manyberries, we just had to detour to see the town now made famous by Between Friends. I'm not sure what we expected exactly, but I grew up in a small village in western Quebec, so I'm no stranger to small towns. But this was small-town living on the edge. A few low buildings, a grain elevator or two, and that was it. Surrounded by endless prairie, Manyberries was the quintessential small prairie town – beautiful, but in a very Spartan kind of way. And there was no sign of the cowboys; just a very attractive young lady driving a bloody great tractor through town wearing cut-off jeans, a bikini top, and a straw cowboy hat. An injudicious remark that she should have been in the book instead of the two guys earned me a quick jab in the ribs from the girlfriend and a reminder that it was going to be a long ride home if I didn't behave.

But we took a quick look around, and since the road in had been pretty dry and dusty, we stopped in at the local watering hole for a quick pint. It may have been the Southern Ranchmen’s Inn mentioned in the book, but I don’t remember its name. I do recall being the only two people in the place besides the bartender though – and I don’t think he was too pleased to have a couple of long-haired “hippie bikers” in his bar. But our money was good, and he was keen to take it, so we quenched our thirsts, saddled up, and headed back out of town, north to Medicine Hat.

It was a beautiful day for riding - hawks circling in a clear blue sky and antelope in the fields. One of those rare, perfect days that you just know can't last. And sure enough, it didn't.

There is only one hill between Manyberries and Medicine Hat, and it was just as we crested that hill that we came into intimate contact with the gumbo that’s used to surface roads in those parts. A mixture of water, oil, and dust, this goop is spread and graded until it packs down and dries into something of the consistency of concrete. But while it’s being worked, it’s more like molasses, very, very thick molasses. Which is what it was when we hit it. At 70 mph. At the same instant we saw all the heavy equipment all over the road. We went down so fast I didn’t even have a chance to say, “What the f....?”

Some of the workers immediately raced over to help us up out of the mud and their safety guy dragged out the First Aid Kit to patch the scrapes and minor cuts. Fortunately, aside from a bit of road rash, a broken turn signal, and a bent handlebar, we and the bike were fine. It was only when they told us how lucky we were because “The guy last week went right into that grader there. Killed him.” that I got a little irate and suggested, very politely under the circumstances I thought, that they should put up a FUCKING WARNING SIGN! With that, we prised the mud out from under the fenders, got on the bike, and continued on to Medicine Hat, me driving with the left handlebar pointing to the sky and both of us covered head to toe in oil and mud.

We managed to find a dealership in Medicine Hat that stocked the spare parts we needed (As we entered the store, the parts guy took one look at us and said: “Coming up from Manyberries?”) and found a campsite just outside town where we could pitch our tent and affect the necessary repairs. It turned out that the campsite was in between Highway 1 and the major east-west CP Rail line, and a favourite camping spot for the Hell’s Angels, but that’s another story.

Yup. Manyberries. Miles from Ottawa, and in the very best sense.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Don't stop now!

The expression “a mile wide and a foot deep”, once used to describe the Rio Grande, now appears even more appropriate when applied to much of today’s media.

One of the best (worst?) examples can be found on CBC television. George Stroumboulopoulos’ The Hour is a frantic, balls-to-the-wall, series of drive-by interviews in which one’s appetite is whetted, only to be subsequently denied any substance. In the two or three minutes allocated to each interview, he skips along the surface, never really engaging his guest, or for that matter, this viewer. It’s like having to survive on hors d'oeuvres when what one really craves is an honest-to-goodness, sit-down, four-course dinner.

And of course, the blogosphere is worse (yours truly excluded, of course). Toss out the web equivalent of a couple of catchy sound bites and then leave the reader to go away hungry, with only a small, very selective glimpse of the real story.

None of this is really new, as the supermarket-checkout scandal sheets have made an art of the superficial and meaningless, but I was always able to retreat into the pages of a good book to satisfy my meat-and-potatoes craving (keeping the food metaphor going).

Now even that is changing. In our family, Christmas is a time for books – lots of books – and this year I was pleased to receive a copy of In The Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars. Kevin Sites, the author, is a war correspondent who undertook this project for Yahoo! News, and he delivers a series of simply told and compelling human stories that we rarely get in the mainstream media coverage from these war zones. But, however fascinating the frequently horrific human dramas that he describes, I can't help but think I'm reading the Cliff Notes version of a planet at war, with layers of context and detail missing from the narrative. This is a very good book, but it would be an even better three books or four books.

As a person who's attention span actually exceeds that of a gnat, I sure hope this does not represent the shape of things to come in the publishing business.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A failure to communicate ...

As everyone who’s ever had a real (as opposed to artificial) Christmas tree knows, 23½ minutes after Christmas is over they throw all their needles on the floor, to get caught up in socks and stick in the soles of your bare feet for months afterwards.

Now it turns out that some scientists are trying to ruin this part of the festive experience. According to a professor of plant physiology at the Nova Scotia Agriculture College, “Needle drop is a major issue after a tree is detached from its roots and used as a Christmas tree”.

“Detached from its roots”? Is that, like, PhD talk for “cut”?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

General Hillier on Cross Country Checkup

I just finished listening to General Hillier on Rex Murphy’s Cross Country Checkup. Regardless of one’s views on the appropriateness of the Afghanistan mission, it would be hard to find a more passionate and eloquent supporter of the men and women who we put in harm’s way. Well done, General Hillier.

But it is of more than passing interest that it was General Hillier and not Junior MacKay talking to Canadians about the mission and our troops. Where is our National Defence Minister anyway?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Flip-flop alert update.

Well it took about 24 hours longer than I expected, but the Canadian Forces has relented and agreed to take the 1,700 care packages to the troops in Afghanistan after all. Today, CBC radio reports that the packages will depart the Port of Montreal within the next few days, and be delivered to the men and women serving in Afghanistan by the end of January.

But how about this for a suggestion? Since these will be much better received than another visit by Harper or Junior MacKay for a photo-op, use a plane to get the gift boxes there by Christmas and offset the cost by sending the next batch of MPs by boat.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Flip-flop alert!

All we hear from Harper, Hillier and Junior McKay is “support the troops”. Well here’s a heart-warming story of a Montreal group that is trying to do just that, having put together over 1,700 care packages for our men and women serving in Afghanistan.

And a grateful Canadian Forces’ response?

“Citing security concerns and a lack of space on transport aircraft, the Canadian Forces informed the members of the Roxboro Legion, who spearheaded the drive, that it cannot accept the packages. Parcels must be addressed to a specific soldier, the military said, and not "Any CF member."”
Bet that policy is changed as soon as it hits Question Period tomorrow!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Jimbo Flaherty's income trust boondoggle just won't go away ....

A little over a year ago, our bumbling finance minister whacked about $35 Billion out of the Canadian investment markets with his ill-advised sledge-hammering of income trusts. Since then, there has been no shortage of investors and independent experts pointing out the errors in the Cons own calculations (less the 18 blacked-out pages). Now comes one of the most damning reports yet.

The Con's (how appropriate) income trust strategy, intended to address a small and possibly fictitious tax leakage problem, has instead, according to this
article by Diane Francis, “done the opposite and created multi-billion dollar tax leakage.”

Don't you just long for the good old days when Flaherty was still ambulance chasing in southern Ontario and hadn't yet begun to consider himself a financial wizard?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Another broken Tory promise ....

In the Tories much-touted Taxpayers Bill of Rights, they guaranteed taxpayers “the right to have the law applied consistently”. Now it turns out that a group of some ex-JDS Uniphase employees, mostly residents of Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn’s riding, will have their tax bills forgiven under some obscure tax regulation. I guess SH&Co. must have forgotten to include the “unless you’re in a Conservative riding” bit.

This is clearly not tax law being applied consistently. Granted the law in this case is a bad law, but what about the thousands or even tens of thousands of others in the same or similar situations who, at great personal expense, paid rather than fight the tax man? What about them? Is the law being applied consistently to them? Not as far as I know.

If the Cons really wanted to do something about this, they would do it through proper channels. Change the law and get it passed through Parliament so that everyone gets the same benefit – not just those with friends in high places and an effective lobby group.

Saturday's news ...

This has been a rough week for blogging as a long-deferred household project took center stage so the spousal unit could “have my new bathroom in for Christmas”. And since nothing got me riled enough that wasn’t more than adequately covered by other, more erudite bloggers, I basically took the week off.

But as is often the case, the Saturday papers opened the flood gates. Our local rag (The Ottawa Citizen) saves the interesting stories for the weekend papers. Like steroids to an athlete, these little snippets bulk it up to justify the higher weekend price.

Here are a few that caught my eye:

$400 toboggans. Say what?!? Talk about conspicuous consumption. The idea of paying that much money and more for a Porsche-designed sled or a “heirloom” toboggan so your kid can race it down a hill (and if he’s a male, intentionally crash it into something at the bottom, like the toboggan carrying the cute girl from next door) is beyond me. Folks, it’ll get just as wrecked, and just as fast, as the $20 Canadian Tire special. Put your money to better use.

Joe Clark gets a bloodied nose. While he’s walking down the street in Montreal, minding his own business, former PM Joe Clark gets punched in the nose by some guy who apparently held a grudge. It’s like Hockey Night in Canada broke out in downtown Montreal. Fortunately, aside from being a bit sore, Mr. Clark is fine. He and the RCMP are now discussing whether he should have a full time bodyguard (the decision to not have one was Mr. Clark’s) although I expect that will be considered an over-reaction and Mr. Clark will continue to walk the streets unencumbered and, hopefully unmolested, in future.

Hindu gods summoned to court. In a New Delhi courthouse, a disagreement over who owns a Hindu temple has resulted in the judge issuing a summons to “Ram, the most worshipped incarnation of the deities in the Hindu trinity, and to the monkey god Hanuman”. Apparently court officers are having some difficulty trying to find someone (anyone) to accept the summonses on behalf of the named gods. I can’t imagine why that would be. Perhaps they need a public inquiry. We should send them one.

New cobra species discovered in Africa. This new spitting cobra was discovered in Kenya and is described as being “about 2.6 meters long and with enough venom to kill up to 20 people in one bite.” Yup, that’s 20 people with ONE bite. The article doesn’t go on to explain how the cobra actually manages to bite 20 people at once, so I’ll just stay away from spitting cobras until they have all the answers.

And that was just in the first section. I can’t wait to see what’s in the rest of the paper.