Thursday, February 25, 2010

Case 12 from the files of Wally Marte: Disappearance on the Hill

My name is Wally Marte. I know, sounds familiar, but I swear my parents thought of it way before Sam Walton ever did. I am a private detective and this is a case from my files.

It was a gloomy morning in downtown Ottawa. The fresh snow that came down overnight had now turned into a wet mixture of water, ice, salt, sand and dirt. I had finally made it to the downtown core after a hellish commute from the ends of the earth or, as the locals called it, Kanata. I walked into my usual Starbucks, order my usual tall half-skinny half-1 percent extra hot split quad shot latte with whip and sat down to read the free but oh so limited morning Metro. I had been working on this case and was really surprised when I saw that one of the headlines was linked directly to it. It read something like this: “Find that you're shy? Learn how to make a 'splash'”, sorry wrong headline. The important one was: “Daily stress takes its toll on sexual desire”. Wrong again; this was the one: “'No new spending in Canada's upcoming budget: official”. Upcoming budget? A colon used to quote an official? As I burned my tongue with my latte, I thought that this sounded like the handy work of a government.

A few weeks before, I had been contacted by an anonymous Sudbury born billionaire, now living in Montreal; a man well known for his connections with a lacklustre national political party. My client was worried because he had not seen or heard from the government for an alarmingly long time and wanted to find out what had happened to it. For me, this case was like no other in my short and almost illustrious career: first the client had some money, second the case had nothing to do with marriage and/or sex and third it didn’t require me eating cold Chinese food in my ’72 Pinto while waiting for something interesting to happen at Stornoway. The case, which I aptly named 12 – I’ve always been a sequential kind of guy –, had brought me into the seediest, most derelict monuments to bad architecture Ottawa had to offer; it had required me to meet with the most bizarre, “days left ‘til retirement” counting, blackberry addicted bureaucrats; it had forced me to sit through many long meetings with people that had nothing to say about the case but still kept talking at length to make sure they didn’t have to go back to their desks. Hell, I even had to sit through an Ottawa Senators hockey game. All that for nothing; I had brought me no further ahead then when I started: the Federal government was nowhere to be found.

I then asked myself what I could read into this headline. If there was talk of an upcoming budget, there must be a government somewhere? Who was that “official” who seemed to be acting as a spokesperson for the absent government? I knew that my only choice was to find the journalist who wrote the story and walk the chain. Still having the paper in hand, it was easy for me to find the first link in the chain: the name I needed was right there, a strange but evocative name, Canadian Press. So I got up, chugged down the rest of my latte, burning my upper lip in the process, and quickly walked out of the Starbucks to look for a phone booth. In these days of intelligent phones, phone booths are rare – I actually made a mental note to find a client that would be interested in paying me to investigate their disappearance- , I did locate one and, although it was covered with spray from the slush covered macadam, was able to consult the phone book. I finally caught a break, or so I thought: while being generously covered with wet crap propelled by a passing OC Tranpo articulated bus, I was able to find out that Canadian Press lived only a few blocks away. Jumping sideways to avoid another spray, I ran as quickly as I could to where Canadian was purported to reside. To my surprise, this happened to be a Canada Post outlet. The address details brought me straight to a post office box. I wondered how small Canadian Press was if he could actually live out of such a tiny place. I knocked but got no answer, another dead end.

Dejected, I walked down Bank Street, then made a right on Gladstone, then another right on Lyon, paying close attention to the stupid speed bumps, then left again on Laurier (or was it right?). I knew I had to meet with my client the next day and I really had nothing to show for my efforts. As I was thinking through what I was going to say, I realized I was standing on the Laurier Bridge, overlooking the Rideau Canal. Watching skaters of all walks of life coming and going on the ice, I recalled a cryptic message given to him by a brave but strange civil servant who wanted to be called “profound gorge” - or was it “abyssal throat” - any way, the message said: “Beware the Winterlude thaw, the government may sink.”. Try as I could, I could not read anything into it. I had no clue what it meant, but I did find though that by recombining the letters in the word “government” you could end up with the phrase “no germ vent”; cute but useless. I attempted to get more information out of “deep oesophagus” - or was it “bottomless pharynx” – but he was not willing to discuss the matter further, even when I promised a free lunch at Mama Theresa. I finally decided to dismiss the message as yet another boredom induced vision.

But now, seeing the Canal, I was struck by a thought; could it be that… And then, out of the blue, I saw Steven, wearing his old Calgary Flames “tuque” and Edmonton Oilers team jacket getting ready to throw a snowball at Michael who was skating away, munching on a beaver tail and reading an essay on the deterministic effects of common indo-european language roots on Bermuda’s Hansard.

So the government hadn’t gone missing after all; it had just decided to take a really, really long pause. Having finally understood what had happened, it now seemed that everywhere I looked I could see MPs and their staff smiling, laughing, playing; all in all being as unproductive as schoolchildren at recess. I remember thinking to myself how nice it was to see our representatives doing what they do best.

With a clear conscience, I returned home to type up my report. Suffice to say that my client was really happy when I told him the news and he signed me a big, income tax deductible cheque.

Thus ended case 12; another successful case for the files of Wally Marte.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Canada's real golden boys (and girls)

So we lost to the Americans; I guess it should not have been a surprise after the moral defeat against the Swiss. A hockey team with a combined salary of around 120 million dollars should be expected to win every game, right? After all we are the best hockey nation in the world, right? We have been the dominating everyone in the sport for as long as we can remember, right? Well, actually, it's not really the case. Don't get me wrong, we are really strong at the sport. On any given day we can field a team that brings fear to opponents' eyes, but dominating we are not. We must remember that the gold medal we won in Salt Lake City was our first in 50 years. That's right 50 years! Forget about the old controversy about professional VS amateur players: if we were that dominant a nation in hockey, we should have been able to win at least a few of those gold medals.

Am I disappointed with the results of lat night's game with the US? Damn right I am, I thought the close call with Switzerland would have been enough to show the boys that this was serious and that self-sacrifice would be required. Nifty moves, picture perfect goals and avoiding corners would not provide a sure path to the Gold. But no, we had to loose to the US of A. Loosing a hockey game to the Americans is like loosing an arm wrestling match against your younger sister: it shouldn't happen.

But, as made evident last night, we did loose; so today I am looking for a plan B. If we, as a nation, feel the need to root for a sure winner, we should concentrate on curling. Our worst result ever in the sport at the Olympics was silver on the men's side and bronze on the women's side. If we look at the World Championships well, Canada's men have won 31 of 50 (with medals in a total of 45) and Canada's women have won 15 of 31 (with medals in a total of 26). That is as close to dominance as you can get, especially in a sport that is almost as widely played as hockey – there are 46 nations in the World Curling Federation and 68 in the International Ice Hockey Federation – and is becoming more evenly competed than hockey – China won the women World Championship in 2009.  

So I suggest we drop “hockey sticks, pucks, slap shots, goalies and top shelf” from our vocabulary and start taking “brush, stone, hack, take out, draw, in turn, out turn and button” like true patriotic Canadians.  All we need is to find a way to bring some fighting into curling and life would be grand!

Go Cheryl!  Go Kevin!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Almost Making History 5 - The tenderfoot

It seems that making history, becoming famous, changing the world is as much about having dumb luck as having great talent, superior intelligence or innate predisposition. There are so many stories of people that just happened to have the right idea, at the right place and at the right time that I decided to write about those that happened to have the wrong idea, at the wrong place or at the wrong time. Note that the names, dates and events have been changed to protect the innocent and ensure their continued anonymity.

Nick was in a bad mood. His boss, Joe Horton had agreed to let a sickly tenderfoot from New Jersey join their party as they were ready to leave St. Joseph, Missouri to head towards Pike’s Peak in the Territory of Colorado. The party was gearing up to go prospecting for gold and Nick knew that another mouth to feed and, most importantly another potential shareholder, was not good for his bottom line. Nick had embarked on this adventure to make a quick buck so that he could finally marry his Isobel, and anything that could potentially get in the way was not well received.

JB, as the Easterner wanted to be called, was a mild mannered young man who had decided to come to the wide open spaces of the West to help cure his tuberculosis. After having worked in the brick business for a while, the call of the wild proved irresistible. As it’s often the case, he just happened to be sitting next to Joe Horton one night in a local saloon and overheard him talk about his expedition. JB jumped on the occasion and asked to join the party. Joe, who when sober starts any negotiation with a “no”, quickly accepted JB in exchange for another shot of whiskey. And so it is that JB joined the party.

Over the first few days of trekking, it seemed that Nick and JB were travelling next to each other more and more. Maybe their pace was similar or maybe Nick and JB had more in common than Nick initially thought. Whatever the reason, Nick actually started to enjoy JB’s company. JB was quick witted and he always had a funny way to look at things. It also helped that he seemed in no way intimidated by Joe, always saying the right things to get the Boss going; it may have made Joe’s life miserable but it made the trip a lot more enjoyable! One way JB continuously jabbed Joe was by referring to him as the “pane boss”. This strange nickname came about after an incident that occurred just before leaving St. Joseph. Joe, upon leaving the saloon piss drunk, walked face first into a window, breaking his nose. As he shook off the pain he yelled out: “You ain’t the boss of me”, and then proceeded to break the pane of glass with his now amply bandaged left fist and walk out through the new opening. Once the laughing died down, someone raised a toast to Joe Horton, the uncontested boss of the pane, and the nickname stuck.

The journey’s routine was pretty simple. Get up early, have coffee, walk for hours, have a quick break to munch on some god awful pemmican, walk some more, find a convenient place to camp, build a fire, prepare a dinner of fresh meat (when available) and beans, and have a shot of whiskey around the campfire. Most nights the weather allowed the party to sleep under the stars but when it rained, all they had to protect themselves were fairly fresh animal skins of different sizes thrown on a quickly assembled wood frame. They had not brought any tents in order to travel light but when they found themselves trying to sleep with water leaking through untanned hides, it seemed like a stupid decision. On a bet with some other party members, JB showed how the hides could be turned into a much stronger and waterproof material. Using his axe to shave the hair from the animal skins, he fashioned a piece of felt which won him the bet but was way too small to offer any protection for those rainy nights. In order to do that, they would need hundreds of hides and a lot of time on their hands. They had neither because gold was waiting.

As they continued on their journey, JB used the piece of felt to fashion a simple hat, something that vaguely resembled the conical shaped one worn by immigrant China men. Every time JB wore the hat, Nick could not stop laughing. Nick thought JB looked like an arrow with no feathers… Out of frustration, JB threw the felt hat at Nick and challenged him to come up with something better. Having learned from JB how to work the felt, Nick spend many sleepless nights coming up with a good design: something that would protect the wearer from sun and rain, provide some warmth on cold days and be adjustable so that it could be made to shelter the head from the dominant wind. Through trial and error, Nick came up with a pretty decent looking hat. In fact, it looked so good that Joe Horton offered 5 dollars for it. Nick gladly sold it as it brought him a step closer to Isobel.

When Joe started wearing the hat, it had quite an impact. Everyone thought it looked real nice and gave Joe an air of importance. One day, Richard, a trapper from Quebec who was responsible for providing the meat needed by the party, returned from a hunting expedition and noticed Joe’s hat. In surprise, he yelled out in his funny French accent: “Look at de big Joe with is nice chapeau, now he really looks like de Boss of de pane!!!”. It is often really hard to explain these things but, over time, “boss of the pane” evolved into “boss of the plain” and the name become associated with the hat itself.

After weeks and weeks of travel, the party finally made it to the hills of Colorado but, a lot of digging and panning never resulted in the anticipated earnings: finding gold was hard. Over the months, the party started to break up: some pushed further west, some stayed put in hope of finding the mother lode and others decided to go back east. Nick was one of them. He returned home to married his belle, bought a piece of land on a lake in the wilds of Quebec and completely forgot about his contribution to the hat industry.

As for JB, he also returned east and settled down in Philadelphia where he founded the John B. Stetson Hat Company. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why did the chicken cross the road? III

Sigmund Freud's viewpoint

Freud took a long drag on his cigar and watch as the smoke dissipated in the air of the stuffy wood veneered room. "Interesting question", he said still looking up at the remnants of the smoke cloud. "Before a satisfactory answer can be attained, we must first try to determine whether a chicken has an Ego or if it is simply a prime example of an Id run wild. Beyond the more or less automatic mechanisms that support pro-creation and self-preservation, does a chicken demonstrate other ways of dealing with situations that would provide the telltale signs that indeed it has an Ego?". Freud then paused for a moment, absentmindedly looking out the window onto the bustling street of London where his office was situated. "Since I have never had the pleasure to have a chicken as a patient, I am at a loss coming to a firm conclusion on the state of its mind. I would therefore have to hazard a guess as to why it felt compelled to cross the road, if that is acceptable."

So why did the chicken cross the road? "Because it fears becoming a capon."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why did the chicken cross the road? II

Buddha's viewpoint

Buddha listened to the question in silence and remained deep in thought for what seemed like hours. When he finally spoke, he did not address the question but instead inquired about the state of mind of the questioner. Buddha asked him why the faith of the adventurous chicken occupied his mind: did the desire to know the answer to the question cause him grief? Buddha went on to explain that wanting causes suffering and, in that sense, looking for an answer to a question, however simple, may lead to a restless mind. But Buddha, compassion incarnate, finally accepted to focus on the interrogation.

So why did the chicken cross the road? "Because its on the path to non-returning".

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche's viewpoint

"Vell, dat iss a difficult question" Nietzsche answered in his strong German accent, "Who knowss what drifes a huhn?". After pondering the question a bit, Friedrich went on to explain that possibly the chicken saw the road as a means to elevate itself above others in chickendom, the will to power. Chickens are equalitarian by nature but sometimes one of them may feel the need to stand out, be better than the rest. As there is no God to ensure fairness in the game of life, the road could represent a sort of insurance against chickeness, crossing it would make it an overchicken.

So why did the chicken cross the road? "Because zit iss stupid."