Random Thoughts For January

It’s a month after Santa Claus, a week after the credit card bills told us how much he cost us, and winter has settled into the Northern hemisphere.  This year, Mother Nature seems particularly unhappy with her children, but life goes on.  So, a few random thoughts for January.

After enduring nearly a year of a planetary plague, I can now fully understand why all the women in Renaissance paintings are a little overweight and braless.

I’m a hockey fan, and I’m glad to see the Boys of Winter back on the ice.  My team, the Vancouver Canucks, aren’t doing very well, but this is hockey — and if it were easy, they’d call it baseball.

Speaking of baseball, Hank Aaron passed away last week.  He was the last great pure baseball player – just a regular guy who worked hard and hit the ball better than most pitchers could throw it.  Since Hank’s time, baseball players have become walking pharmaceutical experiments.  There are so many performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball these days even Lance Armstrong is embarrassed.   

And sticking with sports, this year’s American football Super Bowl is going to be unique.  Tom Brady will be the oldest quarterback ever to probably cheat in a championship game. 

I’ll betcha right about now, Joe Biden’s thinking, “Hey, people!  I’ve got mittens, too!”

In Canada, the Governor General (FYI, this is Canada’s symbolic Head of State) Julie Payette resigned when an independent inquiry found she had created a “toxic workplace.”  She’d been verbally abusing the staff, and (come to find out) has a history of losing her cool – including being charged with second degree assault.  (Rumour has it her ex-husband got a noggin floggin’ one angry night in Maryland.)  You’d think somebody would have checked to see if Ms. Payette was actually the right person to represent the world’s politest nation.  So much for the Canadian “I’m sorry” myth.  Not to worry, though: Ms. Payette is going to get an annual $150,000.00 pension.  Apparently, being a bully has a financial upside – even in Canada.

Kiera Knightley said she will no longer do nude scenes in films with male directors.  Okay, your choice.  But, quite frankly, if you’re willing to take your clothes off for the entertainment of a million or so movie- going strangers, I don’t think it matters which gender tells you how to do it.  Personally, I think nudity in films is never necessary.  Every movie I’ve ever seen would be just as good (or bad) without it – except porn, of course, where nudity is, in fact, “integral to the storyline.”

I’m almost binge-watching a Dutch television series, Adulterer (Overspel) on Prime.  It’s 10 years old, which shows you how far out of the loop I am — but hey, the last time I was relevant, The Clintons roamed the Earth.  Anyway, it has a good storyline, nuanced characters, some twists, a couple of turns, suspense and a few surprises.  Plus, if you look closely and don’t mind hitting the pause button (a lot) you get a look at Dutch design and some very cool art.  That’s the thing about European television — you can get a total cultural experience just looking behind the actors at the sets.

And finally:

I remember Larry King not for his CNN suspenders but for his voice – on the radio.  He and I became friends in the early 80s when, once a week, I drove through the late night/early morning vast American desert.  For a couple of hours, with nothing to do but break the speed limit, Larry introduced me to America.  On his program, I heard people from all over the country — the great America tribes talking to each other – agreeing, disagreeing, unconsciously sharing their common ground.  To a Canadian kid who had only seen America in the movies, this was quite an education, and so, I will always remember him fondly.

July 4 – Special Edition


Today is the 4th of July, American Independence Day.  And there isn’t a person on this planet who doesn’t have a strong opinion about The Land of Milk and Money – everything from the last bastion of liberty to the first convulsions of a dying giant.  However, today is not the day for that debate, and as much as contemporary passions don’t concern themselves with facts, unfortunately, to quote John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things” – they just won’t go away.

So, yes, there is a lot wrong with the world’s oldest surviving democracy, but here are just a very few “facts” that seldom get a mention these days.

There are more museums, art galleries and live theatres in the United States than in any other nation in the world.

The US has more public libraries (read: free) than the rest of the world combined.

There are 3 times as many teachers in America as there are police officers.

And, unlike most places on this planet, on average, university professors in America earn more than Army generals.

Those professors work at American universities which spend mega-money on research.  There is more medical and scientific research conducted in the United States than in any other country.

In fact, in 2018, the top 10 US schools alone spent over 11 billion dollars studying everything from laser surgery to micro agriculture.  And here’s the best part.  Nearly 90% of that research is available to the world – for free.  All you have to do is ask.

Meanwhile, there are nearly 2 million registered volunteer agencies in America (and that doesn’t include all the ad hoc local groups, who run bake sales, sell raffle tickets, plant community gardens, visit seniors, etc., etc., etc.)  In all, over 70 million Americans do some kind of recognized volunteer work every year.  That’s nearly 20% of the population – far more than in any other country in the world.

In 2015, the top ten charities in America raised and distributed over $26 billion dollars.  That’s more than the next three most generous nations (New Zealand, Canada and the UK) combined.

And not to be out done, American corporations, the capitalist bogeyman of sophomores everywhere, contributed more money, material and in- kind work hours to charity than any other country.

In all, it’s estimated that Americans donate 258 billion dollars — that’s $258,000,000,000.00 — to charities (domestic and foreign) every year.

Plus, in 2016, the United States paid 10 billion of the roughly 50 billion dollar United Nations operating budget.  That kind of money goes a long way to keeping IFAD, ILO, UNESCO, UNICEF and UN Women going.  By contrast, China, the world largest nation, paid $1.3 billion and Vladimir Putin’s Russia paid a measly $562 million.

And every year, the US government gives – GIVES – over $30 billion in non-military foreign aid to countries around the world.  FYI, nearly one billion of that goes to free vaccinations for children.  That’s free money, folks — courtesy of the American taxpayer.  It comes from the woman who drives the truck.  The guy with 3 kids in school.  The barista working the night shift.  The recent college graduate with 2 part-time jobs, a useless boyfriend and a student loan.  It comes from the architect, the nurse, the butcher, the baker and even the candlestick maker.  It comes from the millions of Americans who never show up on the news.

Over the last 244 years, since John Hancock and the boys signed the Declaration of Independence, US presidents, policies and perceptions have changed many times.  However, ordinary Americans have always maintained a remarkable ability to cope, an incredible desire to help — at home and around the world — and an extraordinary willingness to share their good fortune.


Happy Birthday, America!


Pearl Harbor — Outside The History Books


I love history.  It reads like a bad novel.  History has so many oddities, improbabilities and strange coincidences that, if you didn’t know it was true, you’d think it was all fake.  For example, today is the 77th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  (FYI: you can’t just say “Pearl Harbor” anymore; nobody knows what you’re talking about.)  Whatever you call it though, aside from the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima three and a half years later, Pearl Harbor was the most important event in the 20th century.  It turned a European civil war into World War II, ended the worst economic depression in history and catapulted smalltown Americans onto the global stage – a role they’ve never been comfortable with.  That’s the thing about history though it’s full of unintended consequences that very few people see at the time.  I doubt very much if many Americans — even today — realize that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not the opening salvo in a carefully orchestrated Japanese plan to dominate the Pacific.  In fact, I think they’d be surprised to learn that, in general, the Japanese didn’t even want to go to war with the US (they were much more interested in Britain) and the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor was actually the direct result of a half-forgotten battle near the nowhere village of Nomonhan stuck somewhere on the Mongolian border.

Depending on how much time you’ve got, you can trace what Franklin Roosevelt called “December 7th, a day that will live in infamy” all the way back to a cold night in 1930, when a couple of Japanese colonels, stationed in Kwantung, China , got into the sake and hatched a plot to invade Manchuria.  Ishawara Kanji and Itagaki Seishiro, the particular colonels, knew what every person in Japan knows to this day.  Japan is a small bunch of islands that can hardly feed itself.  It has no natural resources, and unless it dominates international trade, it will always be at the mercy of every bullyboy with an attitude who happens to stroll by.  Remember, it was the American, Commodore Perry who dramatically pointed this out in 1853, when he sailed into Tokyo Bay, pointed his cannons  at anyone who poked their head up, and suggested the Japanese sign a treaty he just happened to have lying around the quarterdeck.  Anyway, Ishawara and Itagaki got to talking and decided that Japan needed a dependable source of raw materials (which, by coincidence, was going begging just across the border in Manchuria.)  They came up with a cunning plan, and on September 18th, 1931 manufactured an “incident” with China that sent Imperial Japanese troops across the border.  The Pacific Ocean, Pearl Harbor and America were never on the agenda.

In the 1930s, Japanese politics was so complicated it’s almost impossible to understand.  For example, the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, who, as a living god, commanded absolute obedience from every Japanese citizen, never actually issued any orders just in case they weren’t obeyed.  However, in a nutshell, there were two political factions: the army (who saw the future intimately tied to mainland Asia) and the navy (who wanted a crack at the European imperial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands.)  For most of the decade, the army dominated the government in Tokyo.  They saw China falling apart at the seams and figured with a few armoured divisions, some airplanes, and maybe a little poison gas here and there, they could take advantage of the situation.  China would become a Japanese province with a vast pool of subservient labour and a ready market for Japanese goods.  They also saw the resources of Manchuria dwarfed by the almost limitless expanse of Soviet Russia, which (once again) was now just across the border.  Plus, Japan, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, was a member of the Anti-Comintern (anti-communist) Pact.  They saw the Soviets as their natural enemies.  Besides, quite a few senior army officers had been young soldiers when Japan slapped the snot out of Russia back in 1905.  They didn’t see any problem with pointing their tanks north again.  It was quick and easy and handy to the homeland.

In 1932, Japanese troops reached the border between Manchuria and Soviet Mongolia.  The well trained victorious Kwantung army didn’t really see any need to slam on the brakes when their natural enemy, the Soviet Union was just an imaginary line away from getting its ass kicked a second time.  Over the next seven years, there were hundreds of very bloody “incidents” in the undeclared border war.  These “incidents” escalated over time until 1939, when a bunch of Japanese officers (again, without permission from Tokyo) decided to get serious and see just how tough these Soviets were.  They sent a couple of divisions to occupy the disputed territory.

The battle of Khalkhin Gol went back and forth for a couple of months.  However, times were changing for the Soviet Union.  They were in the middle of negotiating a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, which they signed in August, 1939.  This gave them the freedom to send a lot of soldiers and armour — that weren’t going to be needed against Germany in Europe — to the Far East to settle scores with Japan.  They were commanded by General Zhukov (the guy who would go on to defend Stalingrad in 1942 and take the Nazi surrender in Berlin in 1945.)  He massed over 50,000 Soviet troops, complete with tanks and airplanes, in an offensive assault in August.  He encircled the Japanese forces, at a village called Nomonhan, and when they wouldn’t surrender, destroyed them.  It was a humiliating defeat and it broke the back of the army’s independent power in Tokyo.  The way north was now blocked by a resurgent enemy, the Soviet Union and a back-stabbing ally, the Germans.  It was the navy’s turn to run the show.

Japan still needed raw materials, and the only other place to get them was in southern Asia where the Europeans, preoccupied by their own war in Europe, were hanging on to their colonies by prestige alone.  There was rubber in British Malaysia and oil and gas in Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies.)   The problem was, in the ocean, directly between Japan and Jakarta, was The Philippines, an American colony.   Japan could not run the risk of having their military cut off from the homeland by a belligerent American navy, possibly based in the Philippines.  They needed to neutralize American sea power in the Pacific before they could go after the resources of the crumbling European empires.  And where was the America Pacific fleet?  Pearl Harbor!

And the rest, as they say, is history.


Originally written in 2011