Power in high places, and the tragic failure of a lack of self-awareness

 

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U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great words remembered at his memorial in Washington, D.C. As true and timely now as ever, perhaps even more so.

I’ve said it before, but it’s well worth repeating because of recent, bull-in-a-china-shop events in world affairs: self-awareness is a really important thing.

That’s especially true when you’re young. The time you take then to get to know yourself and the gifts you bring into the world, as well as the challenges you may have to face, could make all the difference in your life.

It’s never too late, to grow up, one might say. But the sooner the better. A lack of self-awarenss greatly increases the odds that you’ll make a mess of your life, and the lives of others too, for that matter – maybe lots of others.

It’s not an easy thing to do, to dive into the deep end of yourself: you may find pearls, but you may also find other things that aren’t at all easy to look at; like a wise young man I knew years ago said, “the hardest things for a man to accept are his limitations.”

I’ve often recalled that comment, including in connection with my own stop-and-start journey of self-awareness. I’ve only in recent years been able to be fully honest with myself about having an attention-deficit disorder.

Looking back to my boyhood I might still find that easy enough to deny if I was still so inclined. After all, I used to devour a certain kind of books: narrative, adventure classics like Robinson Crusoe, Two Years Before the Mast, The Last of the Mohicans. I picked up a book of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, Winner Take Nothing, and read it from cover to cover when I was 11 years old. It was one of my Dad’s books. As the years went by I read many more Hemingway short stories, which I much preferred to his novels. I read few novels when I was young. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel was an exception. But it was more a torrent of poetic prose that caught me up in its current and carried me along.

As a teenager my bedside book was a wonderful anthology, Canadian Short Stories. My favourite was Morley Callaghan’s A Sick Call, a touching and sensitive story about an elderly priest’s visit to give the Last Rites to a dying young woman. It’s one of those stories that is so well told that it transcends words. Callaghan makes it an immediate experience.

I’ve come to realize that my preference for short stories, rather than novels, is symptomatic of my attention-deficit disorder.

I’ve always enjoyed history books that read like a narrative of people and events, rather than an academic treatise. My current read is One Christmas in Washington, by two Canadian authors, David Bercuson and Holger Herwig. It’s subtitled, “the secret meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill that changed the world,” and reads like a gripping narrative with lots of memorable anecdotes.

It’s actually about a series of meetings that mainly took place at the White House beginning just a barely three weeks after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbout on December 7, 1941.

Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, decided to waste no time in meeting with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). At the height of the U-boat menace Churchill crossed the Atlantic on a British battleship in a storm so bad several much smaller destroyers couldn’t keep up and had to be left behind.

The often irascable Churchill essentially moved into, and virtually took over, the White House for several weeks. When the mattress on the bed in the first room he was offered wasn’t to his liking, he went from room to room until he found one that suited him better, much to Eleanor Roosevelt’s irritation. She was greatly relieved when Churchill took off for a few days on a side trip to Ottawa.

The meetings at the White House were often fractious. Several times the whole process almost fell apart. But the strong personalities of the two leaders, and several other key figures, especially U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshal and his then-aide, Dwight Eisenhower, kept the focus on the goal of negotiating a “grand alliance” to win the Second World War. The Canadian-born British peer, Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), Churchill’s Minister of Production at the time, also played an important role in encouraging the Americans not to underestimate their capacity to produce tanks, aircraft, and ships. He was proven right.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entry into the Second World War, and its leadership role in the alliance also marked the end of a prevailing attitude of isolationism in the pre-war U.S. and the beginning of 70 years of American preeminence in world affairs.

Eisenhower went on to become Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe before and after D-Day. In 1953 he was elected U.S. President and served two four-year terms.

One can hardly imagine what might have happened if those meetings between Roosevelt and Churchill had not happened, or if those two great men had not lived, and the U.S. had not dedicated itself totally to the defeat of the mass-murderous tyranny of Nazi Germany as well as Japan.

If one looks for one moment in history that makes America “great,” surely that’s it.

Any man or woman who seeks the office of President of the United States, must measure themself against the responsibility of being able to live up to, and stand on the shoulders, of that historic greatness.

And being able to do that of course requires a high level of self-awareness. Otherwise, the stage is set for a tragedy of epic proportions, affecting not just a fool in the White House, but the future of the whole world.

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More words of wisdom at the FDR memorial.

A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in June, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts at Sunset

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The setting sun appears to be resting for a moment on the tin roof of an old shed at Cathedral Drive Farm before going down

Dark hills at evening in the west,
Where sunset hovers like a sound
Of golden horns that sang to rest
Old bones of warriors under ground,
Far now from all the bannered ways
Where flash the legions of the sun,
You fade—as if the last of days
Were fading, and all wars were done.

The Dark Hills, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

That’s always been my favourite poem, ever since I first read it as a teenager and put it to memory.

It’s a poem with more than one level of meaning, including the most obvious one that usually brings Second World War General Douglas McArthur to mind – mine, anyway. I don’t know if he was recalling this poem when he uttered his famous, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” line in his farewell address to Congress after being relieved of command during the Korea War by President Harry Truman.

If so, his sentimental reference didn’t do justice to a great poem.

Though it certainly works on the literal level, it’s always moved me – and I hesitate to risk breaking the spell by trying to explain what really doesn’t require explanation and, God forbid, analysis – on a deeper level of pathos that speaks to being alive in the world, and then the end of it. Perhaps even the end of all things.

That may sound morbid. But I sometimes find myself, like tonight as sunset approached here at Cathedral Drive Farm, reciting it quietly over and over to myself, for spiritual consolation.

It’s comforting as well to know that their was a man – an American, by the way – who once lived in the world and was so wonderfully inspired to write such a great poem, so simple and accessible, yet so utterly, and mysteriously profound.

I am reminded of my favourite moment in music, a few minutes into the first movement of Sergei Prokoviev’s last piano sonata, the 9th. I first heard that too as a teenager listening to a recording of it played by Sviatoslav Richter. Prokoviev dedicated the work to Richter.

I am approaching an age now where the poem is becoming more meaningful for me, and the state of the world, which I confess I find depressing. But that’s not helpful, either for me or the world. So I’ve got to do something about that.

And one thing I do, perhaps too often, is bear witness here to the reason why I, and, I think, a lot of other people are also feeling discouraged about hopeful prospects for the future.  Continue reading

Searching for hope on rainy days

This question is often asked by historians, and others who take an interest in such things:

How did one of the most civilized, cultured nations on earth fall victim to takeover by a ruthless, mass-murdering, dictatorial tyranny? How was the nation that gave the world the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart led into a world war that killed many millions of people and left much of Europe in ruins, including Germany itself? Continue reading

Trump takes aim at Canada

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Cows being milked on a modern dairy factory-farm

Oh-oh.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, in the midst of worsening tensions with North Korea and the risk of a major, possibly nuclear war that entails, U.S., President Donald Trump took aim at Canada and fire what sounded an awful lot like a trade-war shot across our bows.

But of all the things Trump had to pick as an excuse to get bigly tough with Canada on trade, why did it have to be dairy? Continue reading

Let’s make a miracle

 

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Cathedral Drive Farm homestead

It’s a lovely spring day here at Cathedral Drive Farm. The sun is shining in a clear, absolutely cloudless, blue sky.

I walk around making mental notes of all there is to do: a big pile of scrap wood to sort out and do something with; new eavestroughing to put on the new roof I built last fall for the extension on the house; a big barn-door to rebuild after it got blown off during a winter storm; and last but by no means least, garden-ground to cultivate when it’s dry enough, maybe by the end of this month. Continue reading

The tears of the hopeful dead

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The Canadian National Vimy Memorial

Yesterday Canada celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War. That battle in which thousands of Canadian, British and German soldiers died has become part of Canada’s national mythology, a seminal event from which its emergence as full-fledged country in its own right is often dated.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and and a total of 25,000 other Canadians were there, along with many other dignitaries, including members of Great Britain’s Royal Family, Prince of Wales, Charles, and his two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. French President Francois Hollande, were also in attendance.

But I daresay the dominant presence was the collective spirits of those who died there, watched over by one of the most strikingly-impressive, national war memorials ever conceived and built. The crowd has gone; the field of battle is relatively quiet again except perhaps for some visitors paying their respects. And of course the dead remain, in known and unknown graves.

Continue reading

Fear and Trembling in Hope Ness

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A storm clod taking shape

(Author’s note, May 23, 2017: since I first wrote and published this post, U.S. President Donald Trump has fired now-former FBI director James Comey. He has offered several reasons for doing so, including to relieve the pressure he felt he was under on account of the FBI investigation into Russia’s meddling into last fall’s U.S. election to allegedly help his campaign. It’s been widely reported Trump told high-ranking Russian officials in the Oval Office the day after the firing that he felt relieved the pressure was off. Turns out it wasn’t, as subsequent events clearly showed. His firing of Comey may yet prove to have been a huge blunder for him, setting in motion fateful consequences. We’ll see. Anything, and I mean anything, can still happen. Trump will not let the investigations, finish, including the one now in the hands of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.)

The definition of the word “terror” is easy enough: The Oxford dictionary defines it as “extreme fear.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a state of intense fear.”

Some examples of how the word is used include, “a regime that rules by terror; bombings and other acts of terror; a campaign of terror against ethnic minority groups.”

But a suitable definition for the word “terrorism” is harder to come by. “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims,” says Oxford.  “The systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion,” says Merriam-Webster. Continue reading

Here’s hoping in Hope Ness

 

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Mirabella helped Grandpa in the potato patch last spring

Potatoes are a semi-hardy crop. You don’t have to wait until all risk of frost has passed, which is traditionally  the May 24th long, holiday weekend here in Hope Ness on the Bruce Peninsula, and most of the rest of southern Ontario. I’ve planted my certified seed spuds as early as mid-April and ran into a frost warning at least once later that month after those two rows young plants had just started breaking through the ground. So, I covered them with a fairly thick blanket of straw and hoped for the best. The frost didn’t actually happen. I pulled the straw aside and later used it as mulch around those plants. That’s how, by chance, I happened to discover mulching your potatos with straw is a fool-proof way of avoiding the major insect pest of potato plants, the Colorado potato beetle. Those two rows remained totally bug-free, while my many other rows that weren’t straw-mulched got the usual invasion, necessitating the usual early morning inspection and, well, crushing, one bug at a time. I later found from an agricultural professor at the University of Guelph who I happened to interview on another topic, that, with the straw mulch, “you interrupted the life-cycle of the potato beetle.” So, ever since then, I’ve mulched my potatoes with straw and never had Colorado potato beetle problem, thus saving myself a lot of time and money spent over the years on the organic pesticide known as bacillus Thuringiensis.

Continue reading