Saturday, December 31, 2011

A memory of summer

Our new town hall

Happy New Year!
It’s my lot to preach the sermon at the Horse Lake Mennonite Church on New Year’s Day. I’ve decided to use the allegory of The Wizard of Oz alongside various Biblical references as the medium for making the case that we don’t need new “stuff” nearly as much as we need a renewal of wisdom, courage and heart in order to make 2012 a more victorious enterprise than 2011. If you’ve read the novel lately (which isn’t likely) you’ll know that three characters accompany Dorothy to the Wizard in the hope that he’ll grant them what they lack. The cowardly lion wants courage, the tin woodsman needs heart and the scarecrow lacks brains.
               In short, I’ll pursue the point that a new commitment to courage, heart and wisdom is what we ought to be seeking in the New Year; we and the world are going to need it.
               If you want to read the whole sermon on this New Year’s Day, just go back to the email that pointed you here and open the attachment.
               Otherwise, simply acknowledge my wish for you all, that in 2012 you are granted the wisdom to make good choices, the heart to feel joy and sorrow in a new way and the courage to go where your wisdom and your heart tell you. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Kananaskis Christmas

Kananaskis Country - Courtesy James Bernier

Consorting with the Reindeer - Courtesy James Bernier

Christmas Eve. Outside our window in the Delta Lodge in Kananaskis, a child is being photographed against a background of penned reindeer under the watchful eye of a six-foot elf. Santa is nowhere to be seen but I presume these reindeer are not HIS reindeer since getting them to fly to the North Pole before nightfall would be difficult.
Beyond the pen of reindeer and a spruce forest, a jagged mountain peak rises into a dark cloud; they say there’ll be snow tomorrow.
This is a great place to be; a comfortable lodge that welcomes kids and dogs, both of which have the run of the place. (Not quite true, actually; the dogs are on leashes.) We’ve met people for whom coming to Kananaskis for Christmas has become a longstanding tradition. A huge hot tub—half inside and half outside—is great just before bed. Cross-country skiing is not great; it’s too warm and the trails are icy. Luckily, we had no intention of skiing anyway. Earlier, we hiked past an outdoor rink where a rollicking hockey game was in progress, a skating oval just behind the lodge is busy all day and into the evening.
I remember Christmas in 1987 when Agnes and I took the train up to Oberammergau as a diversion from the emptiness of a Christmas far from home. It was like this place, this year: mountains in the background, snow melting in unseasonably warm temperatures, plenty of time and places to take long walks and marvel at the views. We’ve gone to Jasper for Christmas since, as well as to the spa in Moose Jaw. Seems being somewhere that’s not home is becoming a tradition for us. I wonder why that is.
In my experience, it’s not possible to “recreate,” to rejuvenate without leaving home. The old adage, out of sight, out of mind, applies here; everything you see, do and experience at home is a reminder of any stresses from which relief is wanted. The reindeer outside my window are no stressors whatsoever, especially now at five o’clock when they’ve nearly disappeared into the early dusk.
The upshot: you must go home for Christmas, and then you must go away. That, of course, makes no sense whatever.
I don’t know how you describe your experience of Christmas. I don’t mean when you were a kid and couldn’t wait to open your presents. I mean now, when you’ve passed all that, when you’ve long since ceased anticipating Santa Claus. For me, it’s become a much-needed sabbatical at exactly the right time of year, when the shortness of the days, the length of the nights threaten to dampen the spirit.
And it’s in this vein that I wish you all a wonderful, sabbatical Christmas with opportunity aplenty to put your tools and your anxieties aside for a few days, and to refresh your relationship with those you love, and with the vision we follow. The vision of which Christmas should be a reminder but, alas, is often more of a distraction.
Merry Christmas anyway, and a Happy New Year!
And now, it’s Christmas morning. The first cup of coffee is sweet. At 10:00, the hotel will lay on an enormous brunch buffet for us in the Olympic Ballroom and tonight, a “Traditional Christmas Dinner.” I’m guessing . . . oh, turkey? After which the elves from Ontario, Australia, Great Britain, the Maritimes—the young folk who have followed some private dream to the mountains of Canada—will clean up after us.
There certainly is that to be said for Christmas away!
Have a great day, wherever you are.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

For I am involved . . .

 "Full fathom five thy father lies . . ."

 EMC Cemetery on Highway 312
A host of good friends came over a few days ago to celebrate—or mourn—my passage of the three-score-and-ten millstone . . . er, milestone. It was a great party with enough gag gifts and cards and just as many of the warm, well-wishing kind to melt anyone’s heart, even that of a 70-year old curmudgeon (which, I suspect, doesn’t truthfully describe me). A friend reminded me that it wasn’t a significant date at all; that I’d actually begun my 70th year a year ago. The jury is still out on whether or not that’s a distinction without a difference. A card I received said “Age is just a number . . .” and inside “. . . and yours happens to be a pretty big one!
               My Blackberry Playbook told me the very next morning that Christopher Hitchens, renowned journalist, polemicist and irritating anti-religionist, had died of esophageal cancer at age 62. (It might be fair to say that he smoked himself to death—his consumption of cigarettes was said to peak at 130 per day.) You may know Hitchens from his best-selling diatribe against all religion: God is not Great, published in 2007.
               One day later, an acquaintance and sister of a near neighbour died peacefully at 104. Her very last thought—her sister told me—was about the imminent reunion with her mother.
               It’s been a week of passages and numbers and conversations about passages and numbers.
               I’m currently reading the diary of Jacob Klaassen, early minister in the Eigenheim Mennonite Church, and I’m learning from him what thoughts were raised by passages experienced in the 1920s. In my last reading, his good friend and brother-in-law, David Toews, survives a house fire in which his four year-old daughter dies; a teenage boy dies on the operating table in Rosthern from an overdose of chloroform and a man in Neuanlage is killed in a threshing accident. Jacob Klaassen mourns these deaths with understated poignancy, and usually adds something like a quotation from Psalm 39:4: “Show me, LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.”
               There are echoes in Klaassen’s diary of John Donne’s “Meditation 17” in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, later published as the poem, “No Man is an Island.”
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
               Then there’s that other view of death from the pen of William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: Caesar: "Cowards die many times before their deaths / The valiant never taste of death but once." Julius Caesar (II, ii, 32-37). In other words; why should the fear and anticipation of old age and death characterize us? Death will come when it will come. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s characters leaned toward predestination, both in the inevitability and the timing of significant events.
               I believe more in the significance of influences around us and their effects on critical constructions in our minds: more simply put, if my experiences and thoughts circle increasingly around aging and death, I can easily come to see the world as characterized by aging and death. The reverse, of course, is also true: if I remain fixed as much as possible on deliberate, ongoing participation in the events of the world, that will be the world view for which I will be known and by which I will continue to know myself. But as a TV ad says: “Good luck with that.”
Don’t retire; retool. The universe exists in your head.  
Next week, I hope we can all joyfully get on with it, whatever “it” is, as another ad says.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What the Sam's Hill is going on??

So how are my stalks doing today?
I know numerous people who cultivate soil, seed vegetables or grain, nurture the crop they’ve planted and harvest the results. They trade their potatoes, tomatoes, wheat or canola for cash and the buyers are fed and the grower is able to feed and clothe his/her family. It’s a happy exchange. Everybody benefits. It’s how economies are supposed to look.
               I also know a few people who spend a great deal of time at their computers, following the current value of investment packages, hoping to enrich themselves by selling stocks, bonds, derivatives, gold, foreign currency etc. at a higher price than they paid for them. Their activity produces nothing useful to their neighbours while having the power—given any crisis that leads to panic sell-offs—to bring an economy to its knees, including the crippling of growers’ and consumers’ legitimate ability to trade for food in a workable manner. It’s what an economy should NOT look like.  

               Given the news of economic doom and gloom in the USA and Europe with which we’re being bombarded daily, I’ve tried to understand some of the underlying principles at work here. I began with derivatives, a word one hears constantly but only speculators generally understand. It works something like this:
               A farmer plants, say, 100 acres of lentils but he can’t be sure that hail, early frosts, pests or drought won’t mean that the crop will fail. So to reduce the risk of loss, he finds a speculator who agrees to pay him, say, $15,000 for that crop on October 1, whatever crop comes to fruition. They sign a paper to that effect.
Now suppose that this same speculator makes similar deals with 100 other farmers, betting that the canola crops will come in at a higher value than the derivative agreements he has made. The speculator is assuming an awesome risk; if the crops are all wiped out by disease, he’s bankrupt. If there’s a bumper crop, he’ll be an overnight millionaire, of course. To reduce HIS risk, he packages up the agreements and finds other speculators willing to bet on a good crop. He sells bundles of derivatives to these new speculators for the equivalent of, say, $16,000 per 100 acres so that should some of the crop fail, his losses will be minimized.
               There’s potentially no end to the ways derivatives can be repackaged and resold. What has been erected here, however, is a house of cards. Follow the bouncing ball: if all the canola crops in question should fail, the individual farmers will call in their $15,000 per 100 acre payments; but in order to meet that payment, the buyer of the farmers’ derivatives will need to collect from those to whom he has sold them and so on up the chain. But there is no crop for anyone to resell, and so the chance that payment will actually work its way down the chain to the farmyard is minimal, depending on the final holder of the derivatives.  No one up and down the chain is required to back up his purchases of derivatives with actual money! The house of cards collapses, naturally.
               In the USA, the “lentil crop” consisted of bundles of below-prime mortgage agreements that “got hailed out” because thousands upon thousands of mortgage holders defaulted. We all know what the fallout looked like: banks faced failure, companies dealing in the derivative market went belly up and taxpayers had to rescue American banking institutions lest the very core of the financial system should be forced into receivership.
               A real, smoothly-working economy would have eliminated speculation entirely, either by prohibiting it or taxing it to the point where it becomes uninviting.
               But it’s hard to imagine how that could happen. We are so attuned to the gambling temperament by now that eliminating the prospect of unearned, windfall rewards in the marketplace would kill investment outright and quickly. And once you’ve decided to live in a casino, you apparently have to play by the rules of the casino.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

My house is a very fine house . . .

 "My house is a very fine house, with two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard . . ."

 At home in Attawapiskat . . . courtesy
So it begins again, the political debates about why conditions are so bad on some reserves that other countries are offering to send aid . . . to Canada, and who’s to blame, what might constitute a solution to the problem of poverty in places like Attawapiskat, etc., etc. The situation in Attawapiskat is summarized by Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay in the Huffington Post, Politics Blog:

Within a day, the media coverage turned from humanitarian relief to a full out national exercise in a forensic investigation of the behavior of a desperately poor community. Where did the money go? Why was the Band hiding its finances? Why, questioned one reporter on national television, was such a poor community even "allowed" to have a hockey arena?
It did little to explain that the Band's financial statements were posted online. Or to point out that $50,000 per person divided over six years, works out to about $8,300 per person per year, less than 50% of what is spent on Non-Native people. Or that 80% of this funding is allocated for education, 10% for social programs, leaving a paltry 10% to maintain housing and deal with infrastructure.
All of this could be explained, but as one veteran politico used to tell me, "in politics when you're 'splaining, you're losing." (

Charlie Angus, of course, is biased against the current Harper Government; it’s the nature of our political setup where the first-past-the-post party gets to govern and the rest get to oppose. The result historically has been that a raucous PR battle ensues, stories like Attawapiskat are spun left by one party, right by another until everyone has tired himself out, emergency help is given and the same-old practices are left in place to prepare the next disaster.
               But “having said that,” it strikes me as unconscionable that our Prime Minister would jump so quickly to the feeding of old prejudices. An elderly lady in the local nursing home said something like this to me: “Those Indians just want us to pay and pay them all the time.” This is the sentiment that Harper’s questioning: “What did they do with all the money we gave them?” reawakened in many people. Never mind that for the lady in question, government Old Age Security and supplements provide her with more than double the average annual amount government expenditures provided to each Attawapiskat citizen.
               The question all of us Canadians should be pondering is the nature of our treaty relationship to Canada’s Aboriginal people . . . today. Successive governments have failed to address these matters in a manner that provides a broad understanding of the significance of treaty relationships.  It’s not surprising that non-Aboriginal Canadians are prone to making uninformed, erroneous judgments about situations like Attawapiskat, in this case that the 90 million dollar figure Harper put out there was a gift, that it was charity offered out of the goodness of our hearts, and that it was wasted.  
               Mike Holmes, the TV home inspection guru, recently described the housing provided on reserves as “junk.” I’ve lived on and around reserves enough to know that this is an apt description. Reserve housing is typically mass-produced on the cheap and along with the water, sewer and power infrastructure failures, conditions that wouldn’t be tolerated in the rest of the country are allowed to persist. It’s just one more way of telling children growing up in places like Attawapiskat that they don’t really matter that much.
               Something is rotten in the state of Denmark  Canada.