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


FDR memorial

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.


More words of wisdom at the FDR memorial.

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






The unbearable weight of stuff


Blossoms on a roadside, wild-apple tree. And good apples they are too, as I discovered last fall. Not sure what this has to do with “stuff” and garbage. But it sure makes a better sight, or site.

What will they think of us, those otherworldly beings, when thousands or millions of years from now, they reach whatever is left of our world and can hardly believe what they find?

So much garbage – deep mounds of it in what we euphemistically called “landfill sites.”

Or, if their arrival is far enough in the future, maybe the space travellers will find places where seismic acitivity has exposed thick layers of a peculiar rock largely composed of fossilized garbage; and, here and there, scattered bits and pieces of stuff  that remains strangely intact: a child’s plastic toy, a small lockbox full of keepsakes and trinkets, a porcelain bluebird on the wing.

The strangers will turn those things over and over in their hands – or whatever – and wonder at the apparent ingenuity of the long-gone beings who created such things. But they will also be appalled and confounded by the shear volume of our waste. Continue reading

Ontario’s forest flower


One of the most pleasant, accessible short hikes on Ontario’s famous Bruce Trail begins here, at the end of Cathedral Drive in Hope Ness, on the Bruce Peninsula. And right at the end of my driveway too, by the way.

Depending how leisurely you want to walk, Hope Bay is more or less a two-hour hike south. Or, conversely, a two-hour hike north from Hope Bay to this point.

If you start here, about 15 minutes in you’ll want to take a side trail to the cliff edge overlooking Hope Bay, reaching out in the distance to the broad, blue expanse of Georgian Bay.

I try to walk to the lookout, which I regard as a very special place, at least once a week. A few days ago on the way I saw the trilliums were starting to bloom. But I didn’t have my camera with me. Sometimes I would just as soon let the fleeting moments of natural beauty have their freedom, rather than capture them.


But this morning, to keep a promise, (Hi, Julie) I took a short walk in with my camera to take a few photos of the Province of Ontario’s official flower to post here. Trilliums are mostly white. But I saw quite a few of the rarer, delicately mauve variety.

Not everyone gets to live beside the Hope Bay Forest, so I hope you enjoy these few photos: Continue reading

Fear and Trembling in Hope Ness

Finding Hope Ness

cloud-979849__340 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.)

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In praise of living naturally



Cultivating the “new garden” for planting this spring of sweet corn, squash, and beans. Yes, hope springs eternal. That’s a good-old Massey Ferguson 65, built about 50 years ago and still going strong.

The most interesting thing about the new Statistics Canada numbers detailing an increase in the number of farms in Grey County is not so much that it flies in the face of the continuing trend in Ontario and the rest of Canada; it’s that the growth in the number of small-farm operations in that part of our local, Grey-Bruce area is clearly linked to the presence of a diverse, natural environment, or “natural forage,” as a Grey County official called it.

I call it meadows full of wild flowers and critters, a spring-marsh chorus of singing frogs, lots of songbirds, especially robins and red-wing blackbirds. I call it an abundance of various insect pollinators that will soon be buzzing around, doing their vital work of keeping the natural world, and my vegetable garden, growing and healthy. Continue reading

Thoughts at Sunset


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

My little climate-change reality

Now, this much is for sure, in the wider world a whole lot of people are having a lot worst experience with climate change than I am here in Hope Ness, southwestern Ontario, Canada.

Hundreds of homes near Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River waterway systems in parts of Ontario and Quebec have flooded in the past week as a result of unusually high rainfall amounts in the the past month; and then on top of that a storm system bringing several days’ more rain to make those matters even worse.

Extreme wet and unseasonably cold weather has also descended as the deep south states in the U.S. where the turbulent weather has already spawned a lot of destructive and deadly tornado activity.

So, I have to put my little climate problem in the proper perspective and count my blessings.

But I’ve been growing vegetables for a lot of years in this area and I’ve never seen anything like this. 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

In memory of Mom


My Mom and Dad, circa 1948

I’ve wondered since my Mom’s passing a few days ago, indeed struggled with thoughts about whether or not I should say something here about it.

Uppermost in my thoughts are what she would want; and on top of that now is the realization I’ve come to fairly recently in life that she would be well aware of whatever I might say about her, and others – especially family members now long gone – who had an important, formative role in her life.

I will not dare try to express an understanding of the after-life being a human spirit has after worldly death. That would be foolish and more than likely only diminish the wonderful truth others more attuned to such things have known and experienced first-hand.

But based on what others I know and trust have experienced, I will say I have absolute faith my Mom knows what everyone she loved in life is doing and saying – and, in my case at this moment, writing. Continue reading

Trump takes aim at Canada


Cows being milked on a modern dairy factory-farm


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