Index

The Meadowlark

Spring doesn’t come early at 54 degrees N.   Conventional wisdom dictates the children don’t go swimming in the lakes until Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24.   The snow might have disappeared in late March or early April but the spring sun takes its good time to warm the earth, pussy willows notwithstanding.   Yet the advent of spring on the Canadian prairie is still a time of celebration

In the 1950’s, there were no spring festivals like those celebrated in Europe.  Perhaps people were too busy trying to survive the harsh climate to afford any frivolous celebrations of spring.   Prairie celebrations were more subdued.   Spring will come but the Earth at this latitude won’t make it a smooth arrival.

First, the snow must melt.  Water begins to pool on ponds.  Miniature rivers begin running on the streets of towns, the melt seeking bottomland.  Young boys patrol these small streams watching their imaginary ships of popsicle sticks as they sail on.

People are seen to walk slightly more upright, no longer bent over by the cold. End of season bonspiels are held, trophies handed out.  Hockey playoffs are rushed in contests with crumbling ice.  Jacket zippers sometimes lounge half closed.  Rubber boots replace galoshes.  Conversations can be heard on a walk down Main Street. Store windows are washed.  People look at the sky again and discuss clouds. Farmers urge their fields to dry quickly. Nature intrudes  . . . .

Everybody waits to hear the first robin but it’s more likely a returning crow will beat him to it.   But there’s no magic to a “caw”, only a welcome familiarity, and the song of the robin remains the one everyone wants to hear.  Fat buds appear overnight on willows and poplars.  The unbroken brown and grey of the landscape is first  broken on the railroad right-of-ways where the close-cropped grasses, burnt twice a year to prevent runaway grass fires, turn a vivid green and invite crocuses to make a brief and colorful appearance.   This pleasing sight will disappear when the age of the steam engine is eclipsed by diesel locomotives.

Young boys and their dogs watch the countryside and know when it’s okay to hike the fields again, maybe to play catch, maybe to hunt gophers, maybe simply to leave footprint on the grass.   And they’re waiting to hear a song.

And what a song it is.   It’s the song of the Western Meadowark, a beautiful melody that strains the ear’s talent to appreciate spectacular originality, a song far too complex to be imitated or even translated into a gibberish-type English. 

The boys smile at one another when they hear the first one.  They see the bird sitting atop a fence post.  A nesting pair has returned to this field. As they did the year before. Spring hasarrived

In the 1950’s, the meadowlark (there are eastern and western meadowlarks on the North American prairie but the latter is more prevalent) was relatively common. Mating pairs (or sometimes trios when the male attracts two females) make their nest on the ground.  There is very little difference between the eastern and western meadowlarks.  A bit of white coloration around the collar and a wider song repertoire with the eastern bird is about it.  They do not cross breed as far as anyone knows.  

The bird is not actually a lark, but a member of the blackbird family.  It’s an insect eater and is the state bird of no less than 6 states, Kansas, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming, Nebraska and North Dakota.  

It’s song is special.  The mockingbird may also deliver a similarly complex song and no doubt the tropical rain forests are home to exotic birds with flamboyant songs but for the western prairies, normally home to the bland offerings of magpies, robins, crows, english sparrows, and the screech of raptors, the meadowlark’s song is rhapsodic, imitated only later in summer by song sparrows and warblers.

Sometimes, the nest is set next to a wetland and the meadowlark has neighbors who will help warn of potential intruders.  Neighbors will include Geese, Mallards, Wilson Snipes, Phalaropes, Sandpipers, and Killdeer.   Thanks to DDT, the 1950’s is almost empty of raptors and meat-eaters. The biggest threat to the nest is from a few weasels that survived the DDT scourge and the feet of young boys. 

The boys do not hunt for the nest. The nest is well-hidden, often with a canopy and they do not want to inadvertently make a mis-step and crush the eggs. Even at a young age, the boys see the bird as a symbol of the thrill of spring and its promise.  They want the song to continue even knowing, as always, the bird will stop singing in mid-June to raise its family.

The young boys revel in the outdoors now that spring has released them from parkas, mittens, and flight boots.   Their spirits ride high in the stiff breezes of April and May and the song of the meadowlark holds pure in all winds. The memory of brief sightings and the indelible song will remain for the long lives of the young boys, even when environmental change dictates the experience becomes a rare treat.  Maybe next year, old men hope, a meadowlark will nest close to whatever place they call home.   For them, the bird and its song are cherished symbols of the freedom and beauty of the North American prairie.

Robert Alan Davidson

February, 2019

Trump

As a student of history, it’s natural, I suppose, to cling to that oft-repeated maxim that ‘history repeats itself’ even though we know it simply is not true.  Still, it’s comforting, in times of severe upheaval, to think that what you are witnessing is merely another cycle in man’s eternal quest to confound himself.  

And so it is with Donald Trump’s ascendancy.  We want to think he’s just another obstacle for America to face as it tries to evolve as a democratic nation.  The country went through turmoil with Lincoln, with Nixon, Reagan and Bush.  We made it through with the state intact and we will do so again.

But.

This IS different.  We ALL know it is different.  This isn’t George Bush and a bunch of lightweight hawks sallying out to save America’s oil supply.   This isn’t FDR twisting America’s arm and forcing them to become their brother’s keeper.  This IS different.

It begins with an unbelievable longshot winning the election despite losing the popular vote by 3 million Americans.  How the hell did we elect  a man who doesn’t read, can’t talk coherently, never strays too far from a mirror, talks about women as if he was still in a Junior High School locker room, lies about virtually everything he does, chisels everyone who does business with him, has no obvious friends, has no political opinion other than a terse “I Like It” or “I Don’t Like It”, and has no obvious sense of where America has been or should be going beyond closing its borders and building walls?   His slogan “Make America Great Again” has no basis in history and no substance to suggest what it might mean., It’s an empty slogan – make of it what you will.

So now we have this appallingly unqualified egomaniac sitting in the oval office.  The first thing he did was appoint a gaggle of similarly unqualified rich white people whose general claim to notoriety is the ability to milk the system and who share Trump’s lack of vision or appreciation of any history save, perhaps, Lenin’s trip to the Finland Station or Hitler’s beerhall putsch, two famous events that effectively killed democracy in Russia and Germany.

With Trump,  we have experienced a blizzard of executive orders, a convenient tool for anyone leery of working with a democratically elected government. These orders did nothing to encourage the hopes of any American, save the rich and the greedy and the xenophobic.  Finally, he issued an EO that closed the country’s borders to Muslims.

So what we know at this point is that we are now in the grip of a dangerous megalomaniac whose support has, by and large, been grounded in an ignorant minority of the American public and the help of a disinformation program that is absolutely awesome in its size and reach.  He is surrounded by people who have no regard for truth or discussion.  They are on their way to do something but what that is, is speculative.  

 Should the country be worried?   Is this but another snag in the evolution of a country?   Does history suggest anything?

Yes.  No.  No.

I have no idea what mechanisms can be brought to bear to muzzle Trump and his henchmen.   But it is impossible to overstate the threat to the future of the country and, to some extent, the world.   We are in the thrall of a bunch of thugs who got there by thuggish means. The neighborhood has been lost to a gang of bullies.   There is nothing democratically or decently redeeming about anything they have done or are likely to do.

Pissing and moaning about the individual acts of insanity won’t solve the problem.  The body politic of the United States has to convene to deal with an ominous threat to its existence.  Gilding our responses in a knee-jerk respect to the highest office in the land is a luxury we cannot afford.  Respect is earned and none of the people in the Trump administration qualify.    Let’s get to work to clean out that office and start over.  

Just remember, once it is done, the country still needs to face the frustration that gave rise to Trump’s popularity and do something about the entrenched politics in Washington.  But first things first.

Robert Alan Davidson

Strange Economics

T

Time is money.   How many times in your life have you heard that hoary old axiom?   It’s a fundamental tenet of capitalism and free enterprise, isn’t it?   You snooze, you lose.   Time waits for no man.   The time value of money.   The early bird gets the worm.   The meter is running.   A day late and a dollar short.  Heck, we could probably fill a book with clichés that underline the importance of time when it comes to money.   I doubt you could even raise an argument about its innate truth in North America.

But what if you’re in another part of the world where this rule does not apply? A part of the world that is unbelievably wealthy yet does not really subscribe to any notion that time is money?   Well, there is such a place.   It is Dubai. The second richest emirate in the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai has a well-deserved reputation as a fast-moving modern city that is rapidly becoming one of the travel crossroads of the world, a destination in some demand.  Spectacular architecture, luxurious hotels, attractive beaches, and a shiny huge airport combine to make it one of only a few places in the Middle East where the rest of the world feels safe to travel.  With the help of a very large police force and army, the ruling Sheikhs have seen to it that Dubai is a safe city, at least from a crime point of view. Being a shipping centre, they fight a continual battle with drugs and smuggling but compared to most cities with that problem, Dubai is almost crime-free.  

You could be forgiven for thinking that with all the wealth and the outward appearance of a dynamic commercial centre that the phrase ‘time is money’ would be near and dear to the city’s heart.   But you would be wrong.

Consider the construction of a high-rise office or apartment building.  In North America, the focus on a timely transition from acquiring the property to making the decision to proceed to breaking the ground to achieving a 100% occupancy rate, is, shall we say, intense.  A lot of money is going to be spent before a return is forthcoming.  The money spent has a cost attached to it.   We call it the Opportunity Cost, the return that could be made from doing something else with the money.  Developers, Investors, and Bankers all consider the Opportunity Cost of this building.  IF, and it’s a major ‘IF’, they think the return from this investment will be greater or safer or whatever, they will invest in it.   But they want their Return on Investment to begin as soon as possible, knowing that with the erection of a large and complex structure like a high-rise building considerable time must elapse before that ROI can begin.  Of course, a lot of other things can happen while the building is being constructed, some good, some not so good.  But the overall emphasis is on getting the building up as quickly as possible and leased out as quickly as possible.

There is no such emphasis in the UAE.   Construction proceeds sporadically, much of the work performed by unskilled Indian laborers.  There is no such thing in the UAE as the Marginal Rate of Technical Substitution.   Increased productivity, if it is required, is achieved with yet more untrained workers swarming over the job site.  It is not inconceivable that a construction project will take three years or more just to reach the stage where leasing can begin.   No one seems to be in a hurry to do anything.   Incidental to this casual approach to project management is the nagging spectre of non-payment.  Sub-trades and construction workers are habitually stiffed by a developer clique one might expect to exist in a land of sheikhs and secrecy.   

The situation does not change appreciably after the building is ready for occupancy.  The owners set the rental/lease/purchase prices and then tend to stick with them, regardless of public demand.  They will, in effect, wait for the market to come to them (With the attendant strain on the time value of money).  And, perhaps most peculiar of all, the prospective tenant/buyer will in all likelihood, have to pay a commission to a real estate agent for the privilege of renting or leasing or buying.

If this all sounds slightly backward and impossible from a North American perspective, it’s because we don’t understand the nature of the UAE wealth.  Beginning with the ruling Sheikhs, there is an intricate web of generations-old tribal loyalties that props up the ruling regime.  Fifty years ago, the tribes were still being fought over by the Sheikhs of Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi in a competition to see who could command the most loyalty and consequently, the most power.  Allegiances shifted with rapidity and it could be argued that it’s only since the discovery of oil that some political stability has been attained.  But when studying the economy of Dubai, this lacework of tribal-family loyalty is important to understanding.  It is with the leaders of these tribes that the wealth is shared if it is shared at all. Outsiders do occasionally infiltrate this elite – aggressive businessmen who thrive in any environment are no less evident in Dubai and they eventually form part of this elite economic fabric. They will also tell you it was not easy.  This association with the Sheikhs is called ‘Wusta’’ and means the power one wields because of proximity to the Sheikh.  For instance, a man with wusta is not someone you want to run into with your car, right or wrong.  You will be wrong.

Those of us from North America who have experienced the excesses of the oil industry when it is in full bloom have some idea of how money can be spilled when things are good.  It used to be said of the oil industry that the amount of money didn’t really matter – what mattered was getting the job done on time.  If you could do that, they would pay you handsomely, perhaps even excessively.  It didn’t matter, the profits would take care all the excesses.  And this is coming from corporations that had to share their revenues with shareholders, employees, and governments.   

Now imagine those same kinds of revenue streaming in and you don’t have to worry about shareholders, employees or governments.   That’s the Arab world of petroleum and it’s on a scale sometimes greater than the oil revenues generated in North America.  The money is staggering. It’s every hour of every day pouring into the coffers of the elite and used to create a lifestyle that dwarfs everyone save 0.1 percenters perhaps.  The economy of the UAE is run by the ruling sheikhs, a handful of associates who have ‘wusta’  and a small band of compliant banks with interlocking directorates and close ties with those who call the business shots.  Factor in some Islamic rules regarding the evil of passive income known better in the west as interest, and you have a situation where decisions are made based on factors only incidentally related to what we westerners traditionally think of as sound business practices.  No one NEEDS to be in a hurry to get that project finished.  No one is going to call them for lack of due diligence.  Ever.   The rich literally throwmoney at projects and lose no sleep over the economic merits.   There’s more money where that came from.

It will be indeed be interesting to see what happens when the money runs out. When the UAE youth are asked about this, chances are they will simply shrug and admit they will probably have to go back to living a life similar to their grandfather’s before the oil was discovered.   They don’t really believe that but neither do they see any solutions to a situation where the wealth is being splashed about in the most ostentatious way possible, with little of it being shared with the general population.  There should be widespread resentment but it’s hard to detect.

When it comes to operating as a dynamic western-style economy, I like to think of the UAE as ‘Three-Quartersville’.  Everything is taken three-quarters of the way to completion.   If it’s a restaurant or hotel, they will build the most fabulous facilities imaginable, produce a good menu, and a solicitous staff and then deliver the shabbiest meal you’ve ever eaten for 50 dollars an entrée.  This shortcoming is evident is almost everything the country does.   It’s as if some point in a project is reached where the protagonists stand back and say ‘Well, that’s enough for now.  Let’s move on.”

`

I’d be happy to conclude that the situation is not beyond redemption.  But after you see the economy in action for a number of years, you realize this is not likely to happen. There’s simply too much money and too few constraints on how it is spent.   In fairness, I suppose, we might all ask ourselves if we would do differently if it were our country and our money and we didn’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves.  After all, the excesses of the Western wealthy are hardly examples of what not to do flagrantly and tastelessly.  

Robert Alan Davidson

Robert Alan Davidson

What Happened?

W

The United States is headed toward oblivion.  Rapidly.

It is impossible to overstate both the speed and the extent to which the United States as a) a home to democratic institutions and b) a safe environment has deteriorated into a true have-not country in which the spoils go ONLY to a small percentage of the population and in which fairness in any context is an alien concept.

Donald Trump is the emblem of this catastrophic collapse but he is by no means its only architect.  For that we must point to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the white racist, poorly-educated minority and a manipulative corporate world.

How precipitous was this fall from grace?   Consider the following sad facts about the country we loved:

It’s entire infrastructure is crumbling – bridges, roads, water works, utility grids all are well past their prime.  Legislators behave as if there was no funding available to address these problems.  Yes, well over 50% of federal tax dollars go to funding wars and defense industries rather than ear-marking any portion for maintaining a domestic battle against deterioration and neglect.

The health care system is the most expensive in the world, is run by the pharmaceutical companies and their corporate cronies, and excludes a large portion of the population while placing the rest in mortal fear of a bankrupting health issue. No country in the world has anything close to this usurious and inhumane practice imposed on its people.

The country is a police state.  People are rooted from their homes and arrested without due process. Minorities are beaten and killed for merely encountering the police.  The police are now armed like the military and behave all too often as an invading force. With a police culture that will vigorously defend almost any transgression by its members, it is a very difficult task for any policeman who does want to serve the community    Meanwhile, the prison system has become a profit centre and with the help of a punitive court system, cells are filled to capacity, usually by minorities.  The rate of incarceration is the highest in the world and the absolute numbers have risen by a factor of 6 since 1970.  The US prison system now represents 24% of ALL imprisoned persons in the world.  How could this happen in a supposedly civilized country?

The school system is grotesquely uneven with too many graduating high school still functionally illiterate, challenged by the simplest mathematics, and woefully unaware of the world they inhabit.  Under-funding is epidemic and reveals a high level of disdain for the value of education beyond turning out a consumer.  This has always been true of the North American public education system but with the rest of the world concentrating more energetically on turning out a literate high school graduate (literate in many ways), the lethargy and disdain for American public education is an invitation to weep. What can anyone say when someone as unfit for ANY position of responsibility as Betsy DeVos is in charge?

The preposterously high cost of secondary education speaks to a vicious trap for young people who can think.  Gulled into believing they must have that degree in order to land a decent job, they incur a back-breaking debt load that, in effect, renders the majority of them helpless to do anything more than try to keep from starving.  Universities have become trade schools for the corporate world, young people likely to be pliant in a corporate world of rigid rules and zeal for profits above all else.

Low wages have delivered millions into a world of poverty and  destitution.  Unions are non-existent, job security is precarious, hours are erratic, and benefits illusory.

The entire political system has been hijacked by the wealthy and elections have become farces in which any voters are excluded, results are tampered with, and no skullduggery prohibited.

The wealth of the country now goes almost exclusively to the wealthy, leaving the majority as modern-day peasants. 

An obscene percentage of the GNP goes to the war machine with the result there is a) a state of continual war somewhere and b) little money left over for anything else, an unfair tax regime not withstanding. 

A wholesale assault on the environment, fueled by greed and shortsightedness has increased the danger to every living organism on the planet and reduced vital climate change discussion to coffee houses and the occasional classroom.

A campaign of misinformation has been conducted for several decades now with the result a discouragingly high percentage of the poorly-educated now live in a cocoon of lies and fabrications.  Brainwashed as they are, these people – who firmly believe the “outside world” is against them, can be used to physically stifle opposition. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out when asked about the growth of membership in “flat earth” societies, it’s what happens when you combine free speech with a terrible education system.

Make no mistake – this as all come about by a deliberate campaign to demolish the state as we knew it in the1970’s.  Its perpetrators, including Mercer and the Koch brothers, are a cabal of libertarians and free-booters who want the playing field open to them only. Trump is a useful tool for them as it focuses our anger at a public buffoon instead of the real criminal in America, the arch-criminals who work to monopolize the country’s wealth and impoverish everyone else.

The propaganda spread by these ruling elites guarantees every attempt at a reasoned dialogue devolves into a bitter left-vs-right ad hominum attack. It’s as if 2 languages were being spoken, neither of which is understood by the other.  It goes beyond this left-right divide.  Thanks probably to social media, you cannot conduct any conversation on any subject without arousing pockets of opposition. Think about that.  It means, for one thing, there is no “objective” truth, such as, so help me, the earth is a sphere.  In a functioning democracy, there are winners and losers at the polls.  The losers act as an opposition to the winners but, to varying degrees, keep their eyes on the overall welfare of the state and will cooperate when issues of national emergency and safety arise.  Not so with the present political divide and the tragedy is compounded by a two-party system that doesn’t allow for a third voice.

Finally, it is hard to argue now that the US has not become a rogue state all its own. It values nothing but corruption and profit and cares not at all for its citizens.  All those noble myths that helped build the country now are expressed only in irony. The millions upon millions of hard-working honest people who still believe in the country have been isolated by an angry racist minority on one side and, on the other, by the machinations of a bunch of oligarchs and mega-corporations who own governments at every level and don’t want anything except more profits.  The media seems content to perpetuate this tragedy.   If there is hope it lies with the youth, like the ones now fighting the NRA.   But they need to widen their vision to first absorb and then combat the terrible corruption that has overtaken their land.  I wish them luck.  Living up to those myths would have been nice.   

Our families deserve better; our communities deserve better; the nation deserves better; and the planet deserves better.Robert Alan Davidson

What Happened?

W

The United States is headed toward oblivion.  Rapidly.

It is impossible to overstate both the speed and the extent to which the United States as a) a home to democratic institutions and b) a safe environment has deteriorated into a true have-not country in which the spoils go ONLY to a small percentage of the population and in which fairness in any context is an alien concept.

Donald Trump is the emblem of this catastrophic collapse but he is by no means its only architect.  For that we must point to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the white racist, poorly-educated minority and a manipulative corporate world.

How precipitous was this fall from grace?   Consider the following sad facts about the country we loved:

It’s entire infrastructure is crumbling – bridges, roads, water works, utility grids all are well past their prime.  Legislators behave as if there was no funding available to address these problems.  Yes, well over 50% of federal tax dollars go to funding wars and defense industries rather than ear-marking any portion for maintaining a domestic battle against deterioration and neglect.

The health care system is the most expensive in the world, is run by the pharmaceutical companies and their corporate cronies, and excludes a large portion of the population while placing the rest in mortal fear of a bankrupting health issue. No country in the world has anything close to this usurious and inhumane practice imposed on its people.

The country is a police state.  People are rooted from their homes and arrested without due process. Minorities are beaten and killed for merely encountering the police.  The police are now armed like the military and behave all too often as an invading force. With a police culture that will vigorously defend almost any transgression by its members, it is a very difficult task for any policeman who does want to serve the community    Meanwhile, the prison system has become a profit centre and with the help of a punitive court system, cells are filled to capacity, usually by minorities.  The rate of incarceration is the highest in the world and the absolute numbers have risen by a factor of 6 since 1970.  The US prison system now represents 24% of ALL imprisoned persons in the world.  How could this happen in a supposedly civilized country?

The school system is grotesquely uneven with too many graduating high school still functionally illiterate, challenged by the simplest mathematics, and woefully unaware of the world they inhabit.  Under-funding is epidemic and reveals a high level of disdain for the value of education beyond turning out a consumer.  This has always been true of the North American public education system but with the rest of the world concentrating more energetically on turning out a literate high school graduate (literate in many ways), the lethargy and disdain for American public education is an invitation to weep. What can anyone say when someone as unfit for ANY position of responsibility as Betsy DeVos is in charge?

The preposterously high cost of secondary education speaks to a vicious trap for young people who can think.  Gulled into believing they must have that degree in order to land a decent job, they incur a back-breaking debt load that, in effect, renders the majority of them helpless to do anything more than try to keep from starving.  Universities have become trade schools for the corporate world, young people likely to be pliant in a corporate world of rigid rules and zeal for profits above all else.

Low wages have delivered millions into a world of poverty and  destitution.  Unions are non-existent, job security is precarious, hours are erratic, and benefits illusory.

The entire political system has been hijacked by the wealthy and elections have become farces in which any voters are excluded, results are tampered with, and no skullduggery prohibited.

The wealth of the country now goes almost exclusively to the wealthy, leaving the majority as modern-day peasants. 

An obscene percentage of the GNP goes to the war machine with the result there is a) a state of continual war somewhere and b) little money left over for anything else, an unfair tax regime not withstanding. 

A wholesale assault on the environment, fueled by greed and shortsightedness has increased the danger to every living organism on the planet and reduced vital climate change discussion to coffee houses and the occasional classroom.

A campaign of misinformation has been conducted for several decades now with the result a discouragingly high percentage of the poorly-educated now live in a cocoon of lies and fabrications.  Brainwashed as they are, these people – who firmly believe the “outside world” is against them, can be used to physically stifle opposition. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out when asked about the growth of membership in “flat earth” societies, it’s what happens when you combine free speech with a terrible education system.

Make no mistake – this as all come about by a deliberate campaign to demolish the state as we knew it in the1970’s.  Its perpetrators, including Mercer and the Koch brothers, are a cabal of libertarians and free-booters who want the playing field open to them only. Trump is a useful tool for them as it focuses our anger at a public buffoon instead of the real criminal in America, the arch-criminals who work to monopolize the country’s wealth and impoverish everyone else.

The propaganda spread by these ruling elites guarantees every attempt at a reasoned dialogue devolves into a bitter left-vs-right ad hominum attack. It’s as if 2 languages were being spoken, neither of which is understood by the other.  It goes beyond this left-right divide.  Thanks probably to social media, you cannot conduct any conversation on any subject without arousing pockets of opposition. Think about that.  It means, for one thing, there is no “objective” truth, such as, so help me, the earth is a sphere.  In a functioning democracy, there are winners and losers at the polls.  The losers act as an opposition to the winners but, to varying degrees, keep their eyes on the overall welfare of the state and will cooperate when issues of national emergency and safety arise.  Not so with the present political divide and the tragedy is compounded by a two-party system that doesn’t allow for a third voice.

Finally, it is hard to argue now that the US has not become a rogue state all its own. It values nothing but corruption and profit and cares not at all for its citizens.  All those noble myths that helped build the country now are expressed only in irony. The millions upon millions of hard-working honest people who still believe in the country have been isolated by an angry racist minority on one side and, on the other, by the machinations of a bunch of oligarchs and mega-corporations who own governments at every level and don’t want anything except more profits.  The media seems content to perpetuate this tragedy.   If there is hope it lies with the youth, like the ones now fighting the NRA.   But they need to widen their vision to first absorb and then combat the terrible corruption that has overtaken their land.  I wish them luck.  Living up to those myths would have been nice.   

Our families deserve better; our communities deserve better; the nation deserves better; and the planet deserves better.Robert Alan Davidson

Great Minds

“Great minds think alike.”    Don’t we love that statement?  In the annals of self-congratulation, it stands tall, much like “what a team we make!” and “Look at what I did!”  Phrases we all like to use when it’s time to pat ourselves on the back.

But is the first one true?   Do great minds think alike?   

Time to head for the library.   The idea was to make a list of ‘great minds’ and follow it up with some serious examination into how and what they thought. With luck, the research would reveal if similarity in thought characterizes great minds.

Alas, it was not to be so.

What resulted is pretty amazing, especially if you keep in mind that history is a concoction of fact and fiction anyway, that the real truth of anything will always be elusive.  The best we can hope for is that something is on ‘good authority’. The following is on good authority.  Don’t ask me what constitutes a ‘good authority’.

Selecting a list of great minds was easier than you would think, at least when it comes to famous dead people.   The field is limited – most famous dead people are either kings, queens, politicians, or generals and, as we all know, there aren’t many great minds in that group.  I also eschewed live great minds mostly because I don’t know very many and most of them live quietly and unheralded in this grotesque age of self-promotion and spin doctoring.  The only people I seriously considered were Umberto Eco and Noam Chomsky but I demurred out of respect; why would they want to be thrown in with a bunch of dead people?

Anyway, I picked some obvious great minds – Einstein, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Dante Alighieri, Galileo and Isaac Newton.  Bohr, Kepler, Archimedes, and Marconi were added to the list.  I arbitrarily excluded ancient great minds like Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, and – dare I say it? – Jesus.  No good reason for this other than their works tend to get candy-coated by centuries of various interpretations and I couldn’t trust the veracity of everything that was attributed to them. No doubt that what they said was actually said.  But by whom?  And when?  (I also passed on Marie Curie because you have to wonder about someone who worked their entire lives with something they knew would kill them.  Did you know that to this day, her notebooks are too toxic to handle without protective clothing?)

I then added some not-so-obvious great minds:  Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant scientist whose work was quashed then cribbed by Crick and Watson; Orson Welles, just because; Beethoven; Benjamin Franklin; and Emily Carr (how many successful painter-writers do you know?) because I needed another female.   This raises the interesting question as to why more brilliant women were not handed down to us from history.  Male domination?  Mysogynistic historians? Probably.

So, did all these ‘great minds’ think alike?    

Not a bit.   Half of them said they preferred to do their ‘great’ thinking in the morning, leaving ‘everyday’ thinking (Should I eat that second leg of ox?) to the remainder of the day, while the other half were the reverse. Two said they’d established a routine in which they thought one day and communed with nature the next.  One laughed at this, saying the closest he ever got to nature was a visit to the outhouse.  Another said he couldn’t take a day off because he had three mortgages and four ex-wives.  Five eyed him enviously, two with pity.

Some said they liked to entertain great thoughts while enjoying a glass or two or more of schnapps (or its equivalent) while others thought it too early in the day for that but, if the muse of inspiration were to skedaddle, they’d reconsider.  Three professed to be believe that Socrates might have passed up the opportunity to drink hemlock if only Xanthippe had been nicer to him, while others said he got what he deserved for marrying someone forty years his junior.    

Four announced that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush but the rest laughed and said the saying made no sense as an analogy and, at best, was a ‘regional’ aphorism that should have stayed in the region. Sixty per cent said they believed in God but differed widely on how He/She might look like.  The remaining forty percent refused to answer on the grounds it could cost them their jobs.   They all agreed that Ptolemy was wrong but three said he should be admired for trying to figure things out at a time when people worshipped beetles. 

Five thought King David could have been a boffo song-writer on Tin Pan Alley (“Right up there with Berlin and Paul Anka!”crowed one)  but others thought his talents lay more in the area of giant-killing and wife-stealing.  And one thought the 1927 Yankees were a better team than the 1964 Cardinals.   The rest said “Don’t you have better things to think about?”   Upon hearing a description of life in the western world in the 21stcentury, five said “You must be joking”, while the others simply shook their heads (One made the sign of the cross but refused to explain).  Eighty per cent agreed with Thomas Hobbes when he said life is ‘mean, brutish, nasty, and short’. The twenty per cent claimed it didn’t have to be that way if you had enough money.

Finally, eight believed Johnny Fever should not have lost his job in LA for saying ‘booger’ on air, while the rest claimed not to have any familiarity with the word, ‘booger’.

There was unanimity on a couple of subjects.  Honesty is the best policy.  Bigger is not better.   Wearing white after Labor Day seemed to work for the Romans. And, a good sleep is elusive. That’s it.

But, on balance, they don’t think alike.   The saying is, as they say, bogus.

But what about Not-So-Great minds?  Little minds.  Do theythink alike?    Surprisingly, there is also considerable research on this subject.  Not to mention a sharp uptick in candidates.  

Little minds agree on a lot of things.   Ricky Nelson was a good singer.  If you didn’t like to think about things too strenuously, the bible’s zillion and one quotes could provide a handy summation for any argument.    Life is short, but not necessarily, if you’re college-educated, live in the western world, and have enough money to retire to a gated community.  Special effects improve a movie.

There is strength in numbers but not when it comes to arithmetic.  Kentucky Fried Chicken is okay once a week.  Wal-Mart is your friend. An apple a day will keep the doctor away but be careful if you happen to really need a doctor. Truth will probably set you free but it’s hard to know what’s really true.  Television, especially in the daytime, is a great educator.  Winning is the only thing that matters – except when it eludes you.   Truth and opinion are two different things but you can get a real headache if you want to form a clear opinion on the matter.   Love doesn’t conquer all; it’s not even in the running.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t put a fish in a barn.   People aren’t really funny but kids do say the darndest things.  Breaking up is hard to do.

And, finally, while there was no agreement on the truth of these statements, almost everyone agreed they sounded familiar and were enticing.  The statements are attributed to the late, great James Boren:

When in charge, ponder; 

When in trouble, delegate; 

When in doubt, mumble.  

Truisms, perhaps, that straddle both worlds.

The Local

Trainspotting, the amateur’s interest in watching trains, is an activity normally associated with the British Isles.  It has a grand tradition, leading to both a novel and a movie.   But let’s consider, for a moment, trainspotting and the two vast railway systems that connect Canada. And let’s consider it before the diesel locomotive robbed the industry of most of its charm.  For roughly 70 years, steam locomotives of astonishing diversity criss-crossed 3500+ miles of largely unsettled country.  From the edge of a small prairie town, it was my good fortune to have experienced 10 years of this often hectic traffic.

As a boy, our family lived next to the CNR main rail line that connected Moncton, New Brunswick, with Vancouver and Prince Rupert.  We lived so close to the tracks that – in the words of Daniel Woodrell – “if the train came through at breakfast time, all the eggs were scrambled”.  From 1946 until steam faded into history around 1955, I watched hundreds of locomotives pull their loads across the country.  Our town was what the railroad called a divisional point. This meant that every locomotive had to stop to take on water, get a splash of oil on squeaky bearings, perhaps re-fuel, and often undergo a change of crew.  Think of a pit stop writ large.

Not every locomotive stopped.  On rare occasions a heavyweight locomotive (a 5500 series, if I recall) sported white flags across on either side of its forehead.   This meant the main rail line was to be cleared and this monster allowed to race to its destination as fast as it was allowed to go, its cargo a secret and its comings-and-goings unannounced. Where it began and where it finished we never knew.  Often they passed in the night and only their fierce huffing told of this brief dash through town. Rumours abounded as to the possible cargo – silk, munitions, nuclear weapons.   These ‘phantom’ trains fueled many a conversation at the beanery.

My brothers and I were self-trained experts on CNR train traffic.  We had names for the different types of locomotives that had nothing to do with the standard wheel assignation, such 2-6-4-4. We knew approximately how long a train would lay over by how far its siding was from the main track.   We knew the language of the whistle.  When a freight carried what we called a ‘dead’ engine, a locomotive headed either to the Winnipeg repair centre or the locomotive boneyard, we would try to sneak onto it and play engineer.  Thanks to this proximity to the CNR main line, our childhood was enriched greatly.

But there was one train that consistently received special attention.  It was called the Local and it ran from Edmonton to Saskatoon.     Every day.  One train going west, one train going east.  They passed each other somewhere, we guessed, around North Battleford.  

The Local  was not a big train, like the Continental and Super Continental, either of which could run to twenty or more cars.  On a big day, it might have a baggage-passenger car mix of eight. Often it was only four cars long.  The local began its service sometime in the early thirties and continued through to the early sixties, that sadly brief period of Western Canadian history when travel by passenger train waxed and waned on the Canadian prairies.  And if you ask the small-town prairie people who lived on the CNR or CPR main lines what they remember about train travel, they’re quite likely to cite the Locals.  The bigger, continental trains were flashier and state of the art but they generally traversed the prairies in the dark of night (the assumption being their fare-paying clientele had no wish to gaze at unending grasslands and wheatfields.  Unfortunate, because many of those passengers would never know the subtle and varied beauty of the Canadian prairie.  Moreover, the continentals had no intention of even slowing down for most prairie towns.  They stopped only at divisional points and then but briefly.

But the Locals were special.  They were generally stubby affairs that roamed a vast sparsely-populated swath of Canada.   They were, in a very real way, thereliable link. The highway system was well-developed by 1950 (if not paved) but weather could disrupt traffic at any time. Not so the Local.

The locomotive itself was a sleek black machine, almost diminutive compared to its transcontinental cousins.  If the larger locomotives could be likened to noble thoroughbreds, the Local engine was a perfectly proportioned quarter horse, no less beautiful for its smaller size.  It shone brightly in the prairie sun, always appearing as if it had received a fresh coat of shiny enamel.  The Local did its job so briskly that gawkers of all ages came out regularly just to watch its arrival and departure, to watch its huge wheels slowly begin to roll, to edge as close as one dared to avoid steam suddenly released from one of the many valves, and to wave to the man with the best job in the world, the engineer. 

Today, few people expect passenger trains to run on time (probably because passenger rail traffic has no status with railroads fixated on freight) but the Local, unless impeded by a blizzard or a crossing accident, was rarely off schedule by more than 10 minutes.  It was, for many, the model of beauty and efficiency.  Of course, it only had to go 300 miles.  Why shouldn’t it be able to keep to its schedule?

Well, between Edmonton and the Saskatchewan border – roughly 170 miles – the Local had to be prepared to stop a few times.  In this 170 mile stretch, these towns and villages were stops for the Local – Clover Bar, Ardrossan, Uncas, DeVille, Lindbrook, Tofield, Ryley, Poe, Holden, Bruce, Torlea, Viking, Phillips, Kinsella, Jarrow, Irma, Fabyan, Wainwright, Greenshields, Heath, Edgerton, Ribstone and, finally, Chauvin. With only one or two exceptions, each stop had a small sandy-coloured station and at least one grain elevator. 23 stops in 170 miles and 5 hours.    Try replicating that in a car and you’ll have some idea of how conscientious the trainmen were to stay on schedule.   There was none of that ‘grabbing the mail bag off a hook as you race by’– stuff either.  

For a traveler in a hurry, taking the Local could be frustrating, even when the timetable was apparent.  All that stopping and starting every 6 or 7 miles could try one’s patience. But most travelers took it all in stride and it was cleaner, roomier, and brighter than the bus.  The occasional whiff of smoke and dusting of cinders was preferable to the gravel highway alternatives of choking dust, knee-deep mud or four-foot snowdrifts.

The Local rarely had more than one or two passenger cars, day coaches with less-than luxurious seating.  But it was an important freight conduit to the small communities along the way. The dominance of the trucking industry was in the future and for smaller freight loads the Local was a reliable option.   Prompt delivery was important for many rural businesses and the Local delivered.

Why were there so many towns?  One word.  Grain.  Getting the grain to the elevator was an arduous task.   The grain was heavy, the equipment clumsy and accident-prone, and the ‘engines’ were dray horses.  Both the wagons and the horses often had to be borrowed from a more affluent neighbour and keeping their loaned use to a minimum was both polite and prudent.  The town began with the elevator (if one considers there may have been as many as 60 elevators along that 170-mile stretch, there must have been one hell of a building boom in the first 30 years of the 20thcentury).

The elevator was the town centre and what happened after that was a matter of speculation.   Some towns grew and others did not.  And, as far as I know, no Ph.D candidate ever researched this phenomenom.  All I knew was that physical beauty didn’t have anything to do with it.  The prettiest town locations were more than likely the sparest. Our town, healthy and growing, was set in a dreary slough bottom. Seven miles away, a beautiful valley was home to a dying hamlet.  

It may seem obvious now that not all of these towns could survive. I am also sure no one thought that at the time.  Perhaps they were hoping the European model might be replicated and may have simply underestimated the harshness of the prairies.

Now in the second decade of the 21stcentury, in that 170-mile from Edmonton to the Saskatchewan border, only Wainwright, the divisional point could be described as a healthy town.  Others, like Tofield, Viking, Ryley, and perhaps Irma are clinging to a small population base.  Edgerton has a small but vibrant arts community.  The rest have either disappeared or are nearly deserted. And, of course, the Local is no more.   

But for an all-too-brief period of our history, trainspotting on the Canadian prairies was a splendidly varied and exciting affair.  And there was always the Local.   I wish my grandchildren could have seen it. An imitation of sorts can be seen – and experienced – these days with the steam train running from Stettler to Big Valley in central Alberta, although the promoters seem more interested in portraying an old west evocation rather than the mid-20thcentury.  That’s understandable, it’s entertainment, not history, even if, to people like me, history IS entertainment.

Robert Alan Davidson

June 15, 2015