Monthly Archives: March 2004

Nowhere else I’d rather be

Sleep? I barely remember it. Mud, on the other hand, is very familiar. I’m lying in it. It’s 4:30 a.m. I’ve been up since 1:00 (yes, a.m.). I know if I close my eyes I will pass out. And there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

The same thing, oddly, is true of the 30 or so Canadian army reservists sharing my cold, foggy field very late Saturday night or, arguably, very early Sunday morning in Fort Drum, New York.

You see, I’d been given an extraordinary opportunity to join the Brockville Rifles and other army reserve regiments in an urban warfare exercise at a special facility on the home base of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Continue reading

At the end of the day we’ll be blue-skying nutritionally

Someone is finally trying to do something about plane speech. I should hope so. On my last flight the ticket said “Dinner” and all I got was a bag of pretzels. Also I … oh, sorry, plain speech. P-l-a-i-n. Once again we’re being told to avoid cliches like leprosy. (Gotcha!)

It’s about time. Literally. At the top of the Plain English Campaign’s poll of annoying cliches was “At the end of the day.”

And tied for second was “at this moment in time.” Good. Members of my family have been campaigning for years to replace “at this point in time” with the possibly obscure but certainly concise term “now.” Continue reading

Spot the amateur in our politics

Before you get all excited about this budget, the next election or some other kick of the political mule, let me remind you that we all know politics is sordid.

We must know it. Why else would politicians from William Henry Harrison to Jimmy Carter to Belinda Stronach keep campaigning as outsiders? In January, complaining about Ms. Stronach’s refrain of “I am not a professional politician,” my colleague Susan Riley said “Imagine someone boasting ‘I am not a professional pipe-fitter.’ Wouldn’t the response be, then find me one, quick?” And in the March 22 Maclean’s, Paul Wells noted that Ms. Stronach “has the outsider cachet that inexplicably draws supporters to the candidate who knows least about politics. When my pipes burst during the last cold snap of winter, I didn’t say to myself: ‘Here’s the proof that traditional plumbing has failed … It’s time to bring in a non-plumber who can do plumbing differently.’ No, I called a pro. I’ll never understand why people think politics requires less expertise.”

Maybe they don’t. Maybe there’s a more convoluted explanation for our chronic enthusiasm for drawing people into politics who have no experience and thus presumably no understanding of it. It certainly requires explanation. Plumbers may attract apprentices who don’t know the trade, but then they train them to do it the old-fashioned way. Your grandfather joined pipes so they didn’t leak; your father joined pipes so they didn’t leak; you will join pipes so they don’t leak. No one talks about reinventing plumbing. Yet even people who’ve been in politics for years suddenly tell us that as soon as it’s totally different it will be great. Continue reading

Don’t ridicule the ancients; learn from them

Say, what ever happened to Fabius Maximus? I don’t mean is he on your couch drinking beer. I mean why don’t we tell ourselves instructive stories about famous people any more.

Some folks might think I’m a snob for reading Plutarch’s Lives, which describes and compares the lives of noble Greeks and Romans in search of examples to imitate or avoid. Others might think I’m a boor for doing so on the recommendation of the great western writer Louis L’Amour, whose battered heroes surprisingly often read Plutarch while recuperating. I haven’t been riddled with lead and no buzzards are in sight, but I do not hesitate to recommend both. L’Amour, like Plutarch, tells a ripping good tale accompanied by memorable turns of phrase like the villain who “acts like he was raised on sour milk.” And both offer valuable moral lessons.

For instance, Fabius Maximus was the Roman general who used patience to defeat the great Cartheginian general Hannibal. He shadowed the invader through Italy, harassed his communications and supply lines, but refused to be drawn into a possibly catastrophic decisive battle. Every now and then the Roman people got impatient, gave command to some hot-blooded demagogue who confronted Hannibal and promptly got crushed, then came back to Fabius and said, “Um, if we scrape together another army would you go try that delaying stuff again?” He did, in the end triumphing totally and earning the nickname “Cunctator” or “the delayer.” Gee, maybe we should try patience in warfare. But wait. There’s more. Continue reading

Something fishy in our politics

It is small consolation that they haven’t forgotten me. I returned from vacation and was instantly plunged into gloom by 435 e-mail messages, most implying that I was depraved, stupid or both. Outside the window I saw Liberal election signs that somehow conveyed a not entirely dissimilar message. So I had managed to get away from it all but it didn’t get better in my absence.

At the risk of seeming positively Clarksonian, I confess that I have been in the tropics, chugging around in a little rented houseboat and snorkeling with the fishes. To my mind our finny friends are doing better than the politicians. I didn’t wear shoes, get e-mail or receive a phone call for an entire week and didn’t miss any of them. Then I got back to grey skies, foul-mouthed pop stars and unbridled, if inept, political ambition. I wasn’t glad.

It’s so peaceful drifting lazily over the seabed, occasionally fighting to keep from being swept onto sharp rocks, fire coral or possibly a scorpionfish by pounding waves, then finding you can’t get back through the little gap out through which you glided with ease because Mr. Tide is much stronger than he seemed. True, life and limb may be in peril but it’s all so straightforward and under your own control. Only you and your brother-in-law can run the boat onto a sandbank, mistake north for east-south-west or fall overboard trying to snare the mooring buoy. Continue reading