Grace & Steel Ep. 83 – Production Notes

Listeners now know the name of the mystery guest, mentioned in this post, who ordered the mic from Amazon with one-day delivery and, while waiting more than one day for that delivery, dropped off the radar. It was Katie McHugh, as featured in Episode 83.

The mic she’d ordered was the Snowball by Blue. In the initial discussions about Katie appearing on the podcast, Katie had asked KMG for a mic recommendation and he turned to me. One reason I recommended the Snowball was because it’s made by Blue. I had owned a Blue mic, the Yeti (which I shipped to KMG) and it’s a solid piece of equipment. So I figured the build quality on the Snowball would be as good, though at a slightly lower price than the Yeti. The main reason for recommending it, though, was because that was the mic used by Candice Malcolm when she appeared in the second half of Episode 40 (Jun. 6, 2016) of our podcast.

Candice’s recording was very clear, and so I’d asked about her set-up. To my surprise, she told me she had her Snowball plugged into a laptop and had recorded the podcast in a hotel room using a wifi connection. Now, previous experience had taught the 2Kevins to avoid avoid avoid the wifi—many drop-offs through Skype—and to avoid using laptops, if possible, because of the lesser processing power. But here was Candice, clear as a bell. So I gave much of the credit to the mic she chose. (Bear in mind, however, some of the problems KMG and I experienced with wifi and laptops might have been due to pilot error and old equipment.)

Katie’s recording of her half of the conversation (using Audacity) was similar in quality to Candice’s, very clear. So, here I will express my thanks to Katie McHugh for taking the time, trouble and expense in preparation to give our audience not only good quality sound, but an extremely interesting interview as well.

As for Katie falling off the radar, we now have an explanation for that. KMG and Katie were communicating through Twitter Direct Messaging and, as Katie explains in the podcast, Twitter had shut her down completely for a time without notification. I guess they were both wondering what the heck the other person was doing.

After the dust had settled, and the podcast was in the can (so to speak), Katie emailed asking when would I be posting it (I was immersed in the final edit, which always seems to take forever because I do the Show Notes at the same time). She added that she was perhaps a little too excited to hear herself on the show because she was a long-time Grace & Steel listener. That warmed my heart.

When I told Grace about this, I said, I bet we get a lot of people in Washington D.C. listening to this episode. So this morning I checked the Soundcloud stats. You can view your listenership broken down by country and by city. Under “Top Cities” by far and away, number one this week was… Port Talbot, United Kingdom? What? According to Infogalactic, a steel town in Wales dating back to the Bronze Age. Go figure.

One final production note. This isn’t about something that happened with the podcast, but rather something that didn’t. When KMG first told me that we would be having Katie McHugh on the show and that she had just been fired from Breitbart, I thought, wow, bummer, I hope she isn’t too too down in the dumps over this. And around that same time, I heard on the radio—a classic country music station—Jessi Colter singing her tune, “Storms Never Last.” This, I thought at that moment, might be a good tune to end the show on if Ms. McHugh had sounded particularly low. (As long time listeners know, from time to time I’ve substituted a bit of music at the finale instead of our regular theme.) But after reading the lyrics, I quickly dismissed the idea because the song is far too personal. Ultimately, it didn’t matter because Ms. McHugh was quite upbeat and positive about her future. Still, I particularly like the lines, “And every road we took, God knows, our search was for the truth / And the storm brewin’ now won’t be the last.”

Though I had discarded the idea of using this song in the podcast, I did go far enough down that road on Youtube to discover that Dr. Hook had covered it. And so, for no good reason, I spent about an hour clicking on old Dr. Hook videos. After that, I discovered the video I’ve pasted below. It’s by a bunch of folks, Atlantic Canadians I’m guessing, who crank out a cover version of “Storms Never Last” in their living room. I don’t know any of these people, and I’m not quite sure why I like this video so much. It might be the floor lamp used as mic stand, with copious amounts of duct tape. It might be the bottle of Crown Royal on the side table beside the bowl of potato chips. It might be the way the singer pronounces “the truth” as “da trut.” It might be the whole idea of a simple social gathering, country jamming in someone’s home, suitably updated with contemporary electronics; getting together, making a music video and sticking it up on YouTube. I mean, you sit there, play a few tunes, have some fun, get a bit pie-eyed, and the next day you wake up with a headache, and “Holy crap, come look at this! so-and-so’s put us on the computer!”

Thinking about it now, and remembering what Katie says in the podcast about dignity and work, I can’t help but wonder if anyone in the video has done a few shifts at Walmart or known someone who got tangled up with bad drugs. Well, storms never last… do they?

Math blame, from general to the specific

This article by David Staples in the Edmonton Journal, about dropping math test scores here in Alberta has kicked up some dust locally. Everyone is pointing to something called Discovery Math, which I don’t know much about, and trying to figure out who to blame for implementing it 20 years ago. As Staples explains;

Many math professors and teachers blame the failing results on the pervasive influence of a new style of teaching math, known as “constructivism” or “discovery math.”

Across western Canada for the past 20 years, the memorization of times tables and the teaching and diligent practice of standard arithmetic has been downplayed. Indeed, the conventional style of teaching math has been derided by discovery math advocates as “rote learning” and “drill and kill.”

Instead, elementary school teachers have been required to guide children as they explore multiple strategies to attempt simple math problems.

“The first discovery-based curriculum was attempted with the Western Canadian and Northern Protocol 95-96 curriculum,” says University of Winnipeg math professor Anna Stokke. “The later (2006) curriculum that our students use now was a doubling down.”

First observation; can a teaching method that is 20-years-old be referred to “new”? Second, this phrase, “doubling down,” makes it sound like something ugly or deceptive was at work, as in, they knew they were promoting a failure but doubled down in the hope that miracle would save their skins. Maybe I read it that way because of my experience; these education policy discussions can get nasty.

Reading the article and the comments below it brought back old memories. Years ago, in the late 1990s, when I was working for Alberta Report newsmagazine, I was assigned the education beat. I had no idea why. Maybe no one else wanted it and since I was the junior joe in the office… Or maybe my boss just hated me. I wasn’t sure. Back then, the big education issue in Alberta—or at least for the readers of Alberta Report—was charter schools. I mean, how many people give a hoot about these esoteric education issues, I asked (rhetorically) the reporter sitting at the desk beside mine. His answer surprised me. He said that while it was true that not many readers are interested in the education beat, those who were interested paid very close attention indeed. Every sentence I’d write in that section, he cautioned, would be parsed and discussed among passionate, even fanatical, followers of educational issues. And he was right. After a few weeks on the beat, I began to get phone calls from people who would bawl me out because I hadn’t included this or that data point in some piece or questioning my slant. Some would actually drive half way across the province to confront me with pages and pages of numbers that proved almost conclusively that this or that area of public education was failing, and badly.

btw another thing my colleague in the newsroom told me was that very soon (after taking over the education beat) I would learn to hate the ATA (Alberta Teacher’s Association), the provincial body that functioned as both the teacher’s union and as the teachers’ professional governing body. My predecessor on the education beat, Mike Jenkinson, who had just moved on to work for the Edmonton Sun, had developed real animosity for the ATA and carried that with him as he became the head editorial writer. The ATA leadership seemed to hate the whole of Alberta Report, and the whole of Alberta Report appeared to hate it back. This mutual disgust dated back to magazine’s beginning. Ted Byfield, founder of Alberta Report, had moved to Alberta originally to start a branch of a religious school he had founded in Manitoba. Ted’s motivation for starting these schools was a belief that public education was going off the rails. He started the magazine as a side project for that school.

Upper level, professional educators—those who run teachers’ unions and head the faculties of education at universities in North America—tend to hate upstarts trampling on their turf, and they hate Christians. Byfield was both. I mention all this simply because the ATA and Byfield pop up in what follows.

The Staples article got me thinking. Discovery Math sounded familiar, but I honestly couldn’t remember whether I had written about it, or whether it had perhaps appeared in an Alberta Report column by Byfield or his son Link, then the publisher of the magazine.

As it turns out, my memory wasn’t too bad. Discovery Math was mentioned in Alberta Report four times, and all around the time that I was covering education. But it wasn’t me writing about, nor the Byfields. All references to Discovery Math were by a guy named Nathan M. Greenfield, a guest columnist, who is described in magazine as a teacher of “English at Algonquin College, Nepean, Ont., and is Canadian correspondent for the Times Educational Supplement of London.”

What’s interesting about these Greenfield’s references is how completely dismissive he is of Discovery Math. You get the sense that it was already at that time widely regarded as a colossal failure.

Here are those references (bolding mine);

Yet another ‘right’
NATHAN M. GREENFIELD
Alberta Report. 26.31 (Aug. 16, 1999): p23.
Excerpt:

What is surprising–and most disturbing–is Mr. Justice Halvorson’s assertion that “Modern educators take the child centred approach that each child has an equal right to develop self-esteem.” This amounts to a juridical endorsement of the pedagogical nostrums that have visited such disasters as whole language reading and discovery math on students across the land.

Childish delusions
NATHAN M. GREENFIELD
Alberta Report. 26.46 (Jan. 24, 2000): p58.
Excerpt:

The business community may cheer [Kay Hymowitz’s] attack on the follies of progressive education; she does an especially satisfying demolition job on “discovery math.”

Fanatics never change
NATHAN GREENFIELD
Alberta Report. 27.1 (May 8, 2000): p57.
Excerpt

With education faculties themselves now staffed by people nurtured in Discovery Math, Creative Spelling and Co-operative Learning, where can we find “teachers of teachers” who might wince at the motto displayed in a State University of New York classroom: “We Choose to Feel Special and Worthwhile No Matter What”? Or, to put it more plainly still, understand the “principal” (sic) behind the various uses of the apostrophe, or know that “biest” (sic) is, well, an “emenly” (sic) bad spelling of “biased”?

A century of perverse doctrine
NATHAN GREENFIELD
Alberta Report. 27.15 (Dec. 4, 2000): p65.
Excerpt

In her detailed account of American education, Diane Ravitch, undersecretary of education in the Bush administration, effectively backgrounds the Canadian “progressivism” manifested in such unhappy ventures as “new math,” “discovery math” and “self-esteem programs.” The only Canadian she actually mentions is Professor Frank Smith of the University of Victoria– but what a splendid choice! With Professor Kenneth Goodman of the University of Arizona, Frank Smith is the actual originator of the “whole language” method of teaching children to read, the most quintessentially Deweyist of any “child-centred” educational scheme yet devised.

There are other mentions of Discovery Math, of course, in other publications, but not that many. A Feb. 28, 1992 Globe and Mail column—”FIFTH COLUMN EDUCATION: The way we teach math, says Andrew Nikiforuk, just doesn’t add up”—blames Discovery Math and “spirally designed textbooks” for falling test scores in Ontario, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

There’s an article in the Los Angeles Magazine by Robert Ito, “Less Than Zero—Will L.A. Unified School District Dump the Controversial “New New Math” (44.12 [Dec. 1999]: p52.) which takes a whack at all “discovery learning.”

While looking into all of this I discovered a few other interesting things. First, I was surprised to learn that Ted Byfield, 88-years-old, is still writing; he has his own blog and is as stridently critical of public education as ever. You’ll find a few entries bashing the ATA, as well as public education in general and minister of education. Here’s a sample from Feb. 13 this year, “18,000 sign protest against math program. So what, replies the gov’t

Next, I found that the recent spate of criticism of Discovery Math dates back to around 2013/2014. Here’s an article from the Globe and Mail, Jan. 24, 2014: “Provinces stick with ‘discovery math’ despite back-to-basics push” which suggests that Quebec does better in math because some teachers push a back-to-basics memorization method of teaching math despite being told otherwise.

As per the blame game, in the Edmonton Sun, Oct. 7, 2016 article: “Plenty of blame to go around as Alberta provincial math exam scores continue to slide” we get the surprising news that diversity (as in “diversity is our strength”) is allotted some of the blame;

At a board meeting to release district-level results, Edmonton Catholic Schools superintendent Joan Carr said maintaining exam scores is hard work as classrooms become more diverse. Five years ago, 13 per cent of the district’s students were English language learners. This year, that number is 23 per cent.

Trustee Cindy Olsen said the board should continue to lobby for more provincial funding to work more intensively to help newcomers learn the language.

I’m truly surprised to discover that diversity isn’t our strength; but funding is.

Speaking of blame, while googling (and binging and duck-ducking) around, I came across this article from the ATA News Vol. 31, 1996-1997; “Western Canadian Protocol: Ensuring a bright future for math education in Alberta.” When I saw that link, I thought, ah-ha!, the old nemesis, I wonder if they share any blame in this? The author, Wendy McGrath, writes glowingly about the Western Canadian Protocol, which includes Discovery Math, and the support it has in Alberta Education, as laid out by Hugh Sanders, program manager, Secondary Mathematics of the Curriculum Standards Branch. Sanders, so it seems, was a big supporter of discovery education;

Currently, the Curriculum Standards Branch, Alberta Education, is working with post-secondary institutions to gain acceptance of the Protocol. According to Hugh Sanders, program manager, Secondary Mathematics of the Curriculum Standards Branch, the math Protocol emphasizes and stresses the importance of a conceptual understanding of math. Sanders feels that students are better served when they are taught the how’s and why’s of things, rather than simply being taught to memorize facts. According to Sanders, the intent of the Protocol is to find a better balance between technology and traditional learning methods to produce better mathematical skills. He does not limit this belief to mathematics and asserts that problem solving abilities, like those learned in mathematics, apply to all realms of daily life.

Goals of the Western Canadian Math Protocol

Sanders notes two principal expectations of the Protocol: a lower failure rate and high standards. To achieve these goals, Sanders cites the need to establish clear guidelines for parents, teachers and the public with respect to what is expected from students at the end of a given year. He notes the need for reasonable standards for students and points to the role of both government and Alberta Education in establishing these standards. According to Sanders, the more strongly teachers and parents support standards, the more students will strive to meet these standards. The protocol establishes a new set of desired outcomes grade-by-grade and course-by-course. It identifies four strands in the K to 12 program, moving beyond standard mathematical exercise of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And while Sanders admits the importance of basics (“We want students to understand why 3 x 5 = 15”), he notes that the key to learning is understanding, not memorization. “Memorizing without content is not going to help us in problem solving,” he adds.

There you have it. Dropping math test scores in Alberta can be  blamed in the past on Hugh Sanders and Alberta Education, and in the present on diversity. Blame game? Now we’re getting somewhere.

P.S. You know, thinking about it, I don’t even know what that last quote from Hugh Sanders means. When you memorize something, the “something” that you memorize is content, isn’t it? In other words, the act of memorization includes content; you can’t memorize without content… amirite? “Memorizing without content is not going to help us in problem solving.” Blah blah blah How ’bout the ol’ switcharoo; “Content without memorization is not going to help us in solving problems.” I like that. I like it a lot. “Content without memorization…” I think I should promote my new educational theory. First, I need to apply for some strength, I mean diversity, I mean funding.

When is the next podcast?

To kick off the behinds-the-scenes peek at the Grace & Steel podcast, I’ll make excuses for why we’re slow in producing another episode.

First of all, shortly after posting Episode 82 – Rivers of Blood, I was sent off on my bi-annual, week-long forced vacation. This probably demands a bit of explanation. One of my current responsibilities is the primary care of an elderly relative in the mid stages of Alzheimer’s. Twice a year, other relatives, concerned for my mental health, relieve me of that responsibility. They pretty much kick me out of the house and order me to go relax somewhere for a week while they take over the caregiver role.

This time I drove three and a half hours from Edmonton to Meadow Lake Provincial Park just across the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. There I stayed in a rustic cabin, without internet, for five days. When I picked that location I knew there was no internet access in the cabin, but I kinda figured there would be wifi/internet access in the office slash convenience store nearby. Never assume. As it turned out, the internet was a 45-minute drive down a dusty gravel road. Screw that. So I was offline for about 6 days.

While I was off relaxing in non-cyberspace, my co-host in Victoria, Kevin Michael Grace, was undergoing a hernia operation. All went well, Grace reports; guts pushed back in, chicken wire in place. I contacted him when I returned home, about five days following the operation, and he said that he was managing the pain okay, but the painkillers were screwing with his head. His speech was clear, but he kept muddling words, getting his wires crossed, so to speak. For instance, he would say something like, “The white wasn’t anything surprising. Yet she was fired for supporting tweet supremacy.” Actually, it wasn’t exactly like that; it was more like his mind was capable of running in multi-track mode, but his voice would, at unpredictable moments, skip between tracks. It was obvious that any attempt to record a podcast at that time would have produced a less than stellar conversation. And, as our listeners know, we strive for stellar.

Despite his disability, Grace had managed to line up a couple of guests while I was away. However, both guests wanted to upgrade their recording capability so we would have to wait a bit. No problem. When people want to take the time to give us good sound, we’re more than happy to oblige. Besides, a delay would give KMG a couple of extra days to get his brain in order.

The guest Grace decided to interview first had ordered a new mic through Amazon, one-day delivery. It was to arrive on Sunday.

But Amazon failed. And then that guest inexplicably dropped off the radar. So, after giving it a couple of days, Grace turned to the next guest to set something up. That was Wednesday. Nothing firm yet on that front. Today is Thursday.

We decided that if we didn’t have a podcast with a guest recorded by Saturday, we’d do one with the two of us, though we haven’t settled on a topic. It usually takes me a couple of days to do all the clean-up on the audio files, then mix and edit. So that means we’ll have a podcast coming out early next week at the latest. In meantime, we have things to work on, our Patreon projects and getting the blogs working again.

Yusipka repurposed

This blog will now become a place to post info about my activity in and around the Grace & Steel podcast, now up to 82 episodes (as of this writing).  I intend to include some behind-the-scenes stuff for our listeners; i.e. problems we encounter putting an episode together, some tech babble, reflections on past episodes, etc.

There will also be updates on, and insights into, our Patreon projects as we push forward. I’ll find a way to integrate our social media accounts as well.

And who knows, maybe there will be the occasional angry-old-man rant. But I’ve been trying to keep a lid on that sort of thing.

Maurice Strong, a remembrance

Ensconced at the United Nations for over 30 years, Maurice Strong became the world’s premier diplomatic networker. He seemed to know everybody in the world of politics, in government and nongovernmental organizations, anyone who mattered, all across the globe, from Sweden to China, from Rio to Pyongyang. One of his friends boasted that Strong was the only man in the world who could get that Fidel Castro, that widely recognized world-class windbag, to limit a speech to five minutes.

Strong was a man of great contradictions. He was the father of global warming and an oilman, a socialist and a committed capitalist, a staunch friend of the Americans, and an ally of many of their enemies. When the Wall Street Journal‘s Claudia Rosett interviewed and wrote about him in 2008 she used a tag line that had followed Strong for over 20 years, he was “a man of mystery” and Fox News had labelled him “shadowy” and his called his career “murky.”

Strong became acquainted with the Rockefellers when he was still a young man, and after that he appeared to be unstoppable. In his 30s, he headed the business that pretty much ran the Canadian government. By the time he was 40, he was a key member of the Club of Rome and had established the UN’s Environmental Programme.

Back in 2006 I had the good fortune to sit down with him for an interview. This took place in a posh hotel room in Vancouver while he was attending an international environmental conference, Globe 2006. I call it “good fortune” because when I pitched the idea to my editor to go interview Strong, the chances of me pulling it off were pretty slim.

I was at the time working for a right-wing magazine, now out of business, called the Western Standard, based out of Calgary. I had written extensively about the oil-for-food scandal at the United Nations and Strong was at the heart of this, as was Canada in fact. The UN’s Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette, a Canadian national and widely considered a Strong appointee, was smack in the middle of it. And the name of the Quebec-based Desmarais family through their ownership stakes in the French oil company Total and the bank BNP Paribas, which handled the financial transactions in the oil-for-food programme, kept cropping up again and again. The Desmarais family controlled Power Corp, a company the family patriarch Paul had acquired from Maurice Strong.

In the course of covering that story, and other stories about the Canadian establishment, I had written some not very nice things about Maurice Strong.

Also, Maurice Strong had been widely described as the Father of the Kyoto Accord and my boss at the time, the magazine’s publisher, Ezra Levant, had written a book entitled Fight Kyoto. Ezra alleged, among other things, that the Kyoto Accord was primarily an economic agreement that gave China an advantage over the United States. This was pretty much the position of the American government of the day.

So by giving me an interview, Mr. Strong allowed into his hotel suite probably the journalist most hostile to his agenda, and who had an extensive knowledge of his recent tribulations.

I hadn’t contacted Strong’s people before the conference because I didn’t want my interview request rejected outright. I calculated it would be better to make the request on the spot. This was a risky strategy, and as it turned out, somewhat unnecessary. As I was to discover in subsequent research, Strong had no problem granting interviews to hostile journalists.

I assumed that when I got there and checked in, because of my magazine’s positions on environmentalism and Maurice Strong, minions would run interference and make sure I got no where near their honoured guest. But I was wrong. No one bothered me at all. Perhaps it was because I was easy to keep an eye on; as it turned out, I was the only journalist at the conference.

This threw me for a loop. Maurice Strong was giving the opening address, and the head of an oil company, British Petroleum, Tony Hayward, was giving the keynote speech. And yet I appeared to be the only journalist reporting on this event.

This became obvious the moment I walked into the main room to listen to Strong’s opening remarks. Usually at big do-s such as this, all the big television cameras are set up on a riser at the back behind the audience. Anyone who’s been to a big political event knows the setup. The whole back of the room is usually given over to the media; the TV crews, the print photogs, the writers, they all gather around back there and then spread out when the show starts.

There was no one at the back except for myself and one person in a blue blazer, a hotel employee, operating the small video camera that fed the jumbotron picture at the front.

At the reception afterwards, I saw Mr. Strong come in, and I have to admit, he looked a bit lost. A few people came over to him and shook his hand. He spoke a few words to folks here and there, but mostly stood alone. I walked up to him, introduced myself. We spoke briefly about the magazine I worked for–he was aware of it, he knew of my articles and knew of my boss’s book. He seemed like a pretty straight-forward guy. I asked him for an interview. He said he would probably be able to do it, but couldn’t commit and asked me to check with him the next day. And that was it. I thought, “Damn! he blew me off! Now he’s just going to keep me dangling and run out the clock.”

The next day I couldn’t reach him by phone in his suite, though I left messages. He had no public appearances scheduled and was no where to be seen. On the final day of the conference, I went to the hotel front desk, had them call up and suddenly bingo! I was told he would see me in a half an hour. One stipulation, he wanted no questions about Tongsun Park, environment talk only. I had to agree if I wanted the interview. I was on his turf.

My experience during this interview was something of a snapshot of Strong’s networking existence. When I showed up at Strong’s suite, I met the financier Robert Fung coming out the door. About half way through the interview, the head of the Chery automobile company called up from China and I was directed to switch off my recorder while he took that call in front of me. And as I was packing up to leave, Strong was on the phone discussing the candidacy of an Englishman for the Secretary General of UN (note: it sounded like Strong was opposed to it.) All in all, pretty interesting stuff for a hick like me.

During the interview, Strong’s wife Hanna sat at the kitchen table behind me with a newspaper spread out before her. I couldn’t shake the notion that the seating arrangement was strategic.

About half way through our session, Strong referred to an article he had written back in 1974. Someone had recently reminded him of it and lent him their copy. This article, in the 50th Anniversary issue of the Saturday Review (Dec. 14, 1974), was titled “The Case for Optimism.” and he seemed quite proud of this. Hanna said she had made photocopies and offered me one, which I accepted.

When I heard that Maurice Strong had died, I thought about this interview I had with him back in 2006. After some digging I found that photocopy given to me, and I re-read it. I’ll PDF it and post it on our site.

During his lifetime many a conspiracy theorist claimed Strong through the UN was secretly attempting to establish a New World Order. You’ll see in this article that the call for a new world order was no secret. It’s right here. And I’ll play a short section of the recording of the interview, as my little to tribute to the passing of the man. It’s the part where he talks about the article he was so proud of.

The quality is poor; it was done on an old Olympus recorder that had it’s own unique file compression. At the top of my typescript, which I’ve also found and will post, there is the note: “Maurice Strong Interview March 31, 2006 4 PM PST–Topaz Room #1038, Pan Pacific Hotel, Vancouver.”

This is the script I wrote and read for Episode 15 of Grace & Steel, November 30, 2015 in my “Remembrance of Maurice Strong” that followed news of his passing.

Interview with Maurice Strong – Transcript

Maurice Strong
Interview March 31, 2006 4 PM PST–Topaz Room #1038, Pan Pacific Hotel, Vancouver.

KS: …you want me to turn it off you just tell me. I realize time is short so I won’t spend a whole lot of time… We’ll go straight for the Kyoto thing. My boss, Ezra Levant…

Maurice Strong: Yes

KS: …wrote a book, Fight Kyoto. I know you are aware of the book (reference to brief conversation day before). I don’t know if you’ve read it…

Maurice Strong: No, I haven’t read it. I’ve heard of it, that’s all.

KS: Okay. How do you respond to critics, like Ezra, who are highly suspicious of the Kyoto Accord?

Maurice Strong: Well, I would just say, look objectively at the evidence, the scientific evidence, which of course continues to unfold. But overwhelming the world scientific community agrees that human activities are giving rise to changes in the earth’s filtering mechanism which is largely but not exclusively CO2 subject. And I know critics say that there isn’t scientific evidence, but there is far more scientific consensus on this issue than there is on almost every other issue on which people make decisions every day. I mean, for example, the oil and gas industry which I was involved in for years; everyday they use the best scientific knowledge available to make their decisions. But the best scientific knowledge available is not always perfect, and that’s why they have to drill several wells to have one discovery. But if they waited to do what many of the critics say about climate change, that you wait until the evidence is absolute, then they’d never drill any wells. In fact the whole of industry would stop if we did in our business life what many critics feel we should do in respect to climate change, and that is, wait until a post mortem. It just isn’t reasonable on issues like that, especially when we already know companies like BP and Dow that we heard from here at the opening (of the conference)—and others—have demonstrated that it is entirely possible to meet bottom line requirements and at the same time to reduce CO2 emissions. So, people can be critical of Kyoto. Whether Kyoto is alive or not, the climate change issue is not going to go away. Kyoto didn’t create the issue. Kyoto was a response to the issue. And if Kyoto were to go away—and certainly its influence has been significantly diminished—that doesn’t mean the climate change issue is going to go away.

KS: Well, the word Kyoto is now synonymous with climate change…

Maurice Strong: Yes it is, but Kyoto could disappear, that doesn’t mean the issue is going to disappear, because it was the issue itself—the evidence that the issue is an important issue—that gave rise to Kyoto. Therefore if Kyoto were to die, it doesn’t mean the climate change issue is going to go away, not at all.

KS: People, including myself, have been suspicious of the Kyoto Accord, particularly in regard to China because it appears to economically benefit them while punishing their global competitor—I guess the U.S. could be called their global competitor and their customer too—and that’s been a focus of a lot of criticism. China seems to benefit and the US gets punished and…

Maurice Strong: ‘Punish’ is not the word. The fact is in anything that the biggest offenders are obviously the ones that have to make the first adjustments. China is a party to the climate change convention. Those who say it is exempted are wrong. It is exempted from the first set of targets. That’s true. But the reason for that is quite valid. I mean, China’s per capita emissions are very low compared to the emissions of Canada and the U.S. and others. So the whole basis of the convention was that the countries that have given rise to the issue and have benefited economically from it are the ones who should take the lead, and that’s a perfectly valid premise in my view. And one of the reasons Montreal succeeded—to a degree at least, it kept the issue alive—was because China was very positive. China has done a lot actually to reduce its per capita emissions, even though its economic growth is obviously making it in the aggregate a very major source. There’s no question of that. But you cannot say… it’s not reasonable to expect the Chinese at their level of economic development and their very low level of per capita emissions to take the lead when we’re not doing anything.

KS: The follow-up to that question goes to something that you said yesterday and that was in regard to Canada. You actually echoed critics of Montreal and the Kyoto Accord in saying that Canada has lost its moral leadership. You actually said we’re coasting on our reputation. Maybe you could expand on that.

Maurice Strong: Well, the fact is that over many years Canada’s earned a place in the world out of proportion to our economic and political strength. We’ve done that because we’ve basically been in the vanguard of some of the more positive changes—not that everybody agrees that their positive—but that the world regards as reasonably positive, peacekeeping, climate change, the environment, that’s one of them. But in fact now people are looking behind our good guy image and looking at what is happening and we’re actually—we do some good things, I’m not trying to suggest it’s all bad—but over all we have lost the basis for leadership. I mean our environmental record is frankly in recent years very poor.

KS: This goes to the per capita thing the way Kyoto was calculated…

Maurice Strong: That’s right. I’m not anti-Canadian. I am Canadian and that’s why I want to remind my fellow Canadians that, yeah, you can be proud to be Canadian but don’t think that we’re full of virtue. We’ve got to keep earning it and we’ve been slipping behind.

KS: Yes, actually I agree with you on that, and surprised by how it sounded very much like the critics of Montreal in saying that, so…

Maurice Strong: I don’t whitewash all the things that have been done. Kyoto is a very weak agreement, no question. However, it was an important agreement because it did represent a step forward in the attempts of the world community to create a framework in which they could cooperate in dealing with an issue which no one of them could deal with alone. And my contention is not that Kyoto is perfect, far from it, but it is a lot better to work within a framework and make the changes that need to be made within that framework to deal with some of the obvious weaknesses than it is to start from zero again.

KS: Right, you have had some experience at the UN and probably know how difficult it is to get everybody together to do things.

Maurice Strong: Yes. And even when they agree to do them it’s even more difficult to get them to actually do them.

KS: (frantically flipping through notebook) I just actually, I was scribbling down the…I must confess I was making more stories up about how I didn’t get the interview than questions for you because I didn’t think I would get it.

Maurice Strong: I wasn’t trying to elude you.

KS: No, no.

Maurice Strong: But I’m back in home country and I’m very seldom here, and so all kinds of people trying to…

KS: Oh, actually, I do have a question on that and I hope you don’t mind me skipping around.

Maurice Strong: No, no, any question.

KS: You have said publicly a couple of times this week you are spending most of your time in China. Why are you doing that?

Maurice Strong: Well, because I’ve a long relationship with China. I active in the government, a deputy foreign minister when we recognized China. I started the Canada-China Trade Counsel and was its first co-chair. I had a trading company with China years ago. I’ve been very active in my environmental work and my UN and World Bank work, so I’ve had a long relationship with China. I’m getting to a stage in life where I said, how can I make use my latter years and whatever experience I have? And I’ve kept up a good relationship with China over the years—not in the ideological sense, but just because China is an important place and it’s an interesting place—and so I just thought that, you know, that—it was so step-by-step—and I thought what’s going on there is important to the whole world and the fact that I did have some good connections and experience there meant that perhaps in a very small way whatever impact I could have at this later stage in life might at least mean more in China than anywhere else.

KS: I’m going to go off my page here and let me know if I’m out of bounds here because…

Maurice Strong: No, that’s alright.

KS: One connection that people have talked about in the past was, I think it was your second cousin…

Maurice Strong: Well, she was not…

KS: Was she related?

Maurice Strong: Well, she was. Actually, when I was very young I very influenced by her letters from China, and I used to wonder. I didn’t know for sure. My family weren’t really good at keeping up with distant family members. We thought she was related but she wasn’t actually very close. But she was interesting to me because she was always talking about China and that got… so she had a lot of influence on me. But she was an American actually, an American journalist. And it wasn’t until later on that I realized… we thought she was related but she wasn’t close. But then her brother was head of the world YMCA in Geneva, Switzerland. And I became very active in the world YMCA. And he said, ‘Oh of course we’re related!’ And he showed me. So we have a distant relative and I tend to down… the Chinese up-play that, but I tend to downplay that. I say yes, she is a distant relative, but more particularly she was quite an influence on me because when she wrote about China it fascinated me. But yes, she was a cousin. She was maybe three steps removed, so it was a (phone rings) somewhat distant relationship.

KS: Okay. Actually, there was one (phone rings again) comment you made yesterday…

Hanna: (answering phone) Hello?

KS: …that sounded somewhat controversial when you were talking about…

Hanna: Who is this?

KS: …peoples rising up, or a people’s movement…

Maurice Strong: Peoples movement, yes

Hanna: (inaudible in background)

KS: …And you actually got quite passionate about it and said people should get angry about it (climate change) and I was thinking to myself, I know the Chinese leadership like order and they don’t like to hear that kind of stuff. And I was thinking, how would your Chinese hosts react to that?

Maurice Strong: They’re… I think they would… I mean, I’m pretty open in China. I get a lot of media coverage in China. I don’t see it, but I’ve been on national television, an audience of a billion people, two one-hour programs. I’m fairly… I’m careful how I say things but I say them. I say some controversial things. And remember the communist revolution was a people’s revolution. And they talk a lot these days about people’s movements. Now, they don’t want people’s movements that are going to overturn their government. That’s clear. But what I said was not just China, but it’s true in China, too, that the key to political action is in fact public attitudes. And there are very few governments that can resist major popular movements for long periods of time. That’s my point. And if we really want, don’t just wait for the government, political leaders. You know, people’s movements do make a difference. Now of course, they vary from country to country (phone rings)

KS: (movement) sorry, I was just checking to see if it (the recorder) was on, I get paranoid about that. “They vary from country to country” I know they’ve had a lot of protests especially when they try to…

Maurice Strong: And there’s a lot more people, citizen action there—not always negative action. You know, most Chinese will be supportive of their government because most Chinese are better off. They’ve raised more people out of poverty than any country has ever done in history.

KS: Yeah, you made that point yesterday. But of course there’s always that 800 million that everybody else worries about.

Maurice Strong: Oh yes, oh yeah. Oh no, look…

KS: That actually figured into the… (climate change discussion the day before) when people talked about what happens when they raise their standard of living, what happens when that happens, when they get up to our level…

Maurice Strong: That’s right. You know, but you know when you get to know the Chinese people they’re attractive people, too.

Hanna: (talking on phone in background.) I don’t know. Oh, let me see. Hold on.

Maurice Strong: They’re innovative, they’re hard working. Although the regime is still devoted to communism, to socialism, they’re all entrepreneurs…

Hanna: (into phone) Yeah, let me just ask. (to Maurice) Mr. (barely audible “Cam”?) from Chery.

Maurice Strong: Oh, I better take that. It’s from China.

Hanna: (to phone) Yeah, he will take the call.

Maurice Strong: Hello?

(at this point Hanna as she handed the phone to Maurice signals for me to shut off my recorder. Recording pause)

KS: …(not on recording—my question was about Chery Automobiles, and critics pointing out the hypocrisy of his being an environmentalist and yet being involved in the automobile industry; recording resumes)…okay, I’ve turned it on by the way…

Maurice Strong: That’s fine. Because their

Hanna: (seated at kitchenette table behind me, asking sarcastically) “Does he have critics?”

Maurice Strong: (laughs)…Because the Chinese are not going to be denied automobiles. No use saying, ‘Don’t use automobiles.’ So therefore I got in on helping to suggest to them that they become leaders in environmentally sound automobiles and hybrids for their own good, but also that could be a comparative advantage for them internationally. And the Chery company has made a commitment to becoming [sic] you know, real environmentally sound automobiles. And therefore, yes, I have been encouraging them with help. I even got offered… I was, for ten years I was on the international board of Toyota.

KS: Oh yes, I saw that on your résumé…

Maurice Strong: And I got off the board in order to help the Chinese. So yes, it’s true; I get in there where I think I can make a difference.

KS: Well, it was interesting to me sitting down there listening to you yesterday because I’ve done articles about you. I’ve done research into your career…

Maurice Strong: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

KS: …and whatnot because I’ve had to sort of put the puzzles together, and over the years, reading some of the articles about you on the one hand you get criticized by environmentalists who are suspicious of your motives; on the other hand you get criticized by industry who are suspicious of your motives…

Maurice Strong: That’s true, that’s true.

KS: But what I see down there (gesture meaning, at the conference)—and I like this stuff, where technology is providing solutions—we see industry I guess moving (gesture: towards MS). So how is the environmental movement treating you these days?

Maurice Strong: Well, it’s always… I guess I’ve been sustainable. But actually, someone just brought to my attention—(to Hanna) do you want to bring it, dear?—an article that I did 32 years ago in the Saturday Review of Literature, (Dec. 14, 1974) a very prestigious magazine. They had their 50th anniversary… they had their 50th anniversary and they asked a number of world leaders—I was just a young guy at that stage but I was in charge of the environment in the UN—and they asked me to do an article. I did a quick one and they liked and they made it the lead article in their 50th anniversary issue. That doesn’t show no great merit but it does show you I’ve been around.

KS: Oh, I know you’ve been around and doing this stuff for a while.

Hanna: (says something in background “He was the editor [inaudible]”)

Maurice Strong: This was the lead article, (reads) “The Case for Optimism: We do face risks for survival, but if we change course, there are probabilities of a decent life for all people. Here are ten major steps that must be taken now.” And ‘now’ is 32 years ago. So you see I’m a slow mover. It’s true. I learn along the way, but… you see (flipping through the pages; reads) “A new approach to growth… economic incentives and penalties.”

KS: Do you have an extra copy of that? No, I’ll write down the title and look it up…

Hanna: I can give you a copy. I just went down and made a bunch. [gets up and brings me a copy]

Maurice Strong: Oh. Anyway, (referring to the authors listed on the photocopied front cover of the magazine) these are all famous people and I was an unfamous person, but they did make my article the lead article.

KS: Well, this is actually this is the thing…

Maurice Strong: And I had forgotten about it until somebody brought it to my attention just the other day. That’s the reason I happen to have it now.

KS: Well, to say you’re ‘unfamous,’ I don’t know… that’s… excuse me I don’t mean to make a derogatory comment, but they call you the “international man of mystery”…

Maurice Strong: Well, yeah, they call me all kinds of things.

KS: …almost like, you know, I hate to say it, Forest Gump; but you’ve been in key places at key times.

Maurice Strong: Oh, I have been. But I haven’t been trying to do that. I just decided to do what I think is the right thing to do at any moment. I may be wrong, but still I do the best I can even though it does get me into controversy. I don’t do it for that reason, but I don’t avoid it either.

KS: Well, obviously you are talking to me, I guess, and I’ve been suspicious. I’m going to try to present this by the way as a Q&A in the magazine…

Maurice Strong: That’s fine, that’s fine. I’m used to criticism. But the kind of criticism where basically you use an interview to really simply demonstrate an already fixed ideological point of view… And what I was trying to say yesterday, though not in respect to me particularly, but that those who invoke science to condemn the process, and those who invoke science to… there is perhaps some common ground there, if they are both true to science. I don’t know if you actually know but I’m actually a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the US…

KS: You mentioned that yesterday…

Maurice Strong: It’s very unusual for me. I think I’m the only non-scientist member. Well, I don’t know that I deserve it. I’m kind of surprised at it. It doesn’t mean that I know more but it does mean I get exposed to a lot of information, at least a lot of information which I do get considered with.

KS: That might lead to a question to a current topic here. We’ve talked about you’re relationship with China. Right now as we’re talking, Canada’s new prime minister is down in Cancun talking to the presidents of the United States and Mexico. How do you view Canada’s relationship with the United States?

Maurice Strong: Well, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the United States. I’m very pro-American. But I have differences with the U.S. on policy, but not anymore than a lot of the U.S. people [who] have differences. I would love to see America returned to kind of moral leadership that it has exerted over the years and which has provided the world with such a model of how a real value-oriented democracy should work. And I still believe that and I would like to see them return to that. What the sad thing about the existing situation is that America has lost much of the basis for moral leadership which has made it, which was the great source of its strength over the years. I don’t think it has lost it irrevocably, but it certainly lost a huge amount of the support that’s necessary for leadership. I mean, coercive leadership isn’t very durable. Leadership requires being able to bring people along with you. And I think the U.S. realizes that. And the U.S. government, strong as it is, has gone through a learning experience. And I think it’s learned that it’s in the U.S.’s interests not to go it alone because it has to bear all the costs and consequences, whereas if it brings other people along it is able to be far more effective and the world leader. I mean, if the U.S. isn’t going to be the world leader, who is? You know, I want the U.S. to remain world leader, but I don’t like some of the things it is doing now which I believe are contributing to its lack of ability to lead.

KS: Any specific things there?

Maurice Strong: Well, I think the way in which it has gone about trying to support for, you know, military action, uh, it’s not so much whether it should or shouldn’t be military action. Everybody knows you’ve got to have a strong military. But how you use it, and to simply expect others to go along without giving them any role in the decision-making. And the U.S. is changing that. I think that was a big problem with support for the Iraq war. And the question, can anybody else take over the U.S. role, well, it can’t. But what concerns me is that the U.S. role itself is weakened if it does not lead by being, how we said, by at least consulting those whose participation and cooperation can help it to prevail.

KS: I know we haven’t got too much longer here so I’ll quickly…

Maurice Strong: No, we haven’t got…

KS: …and this will be just yes or no and then lead to the last questions. Do you have any role formally or informally with the United Nations now?

Maurice Strong: I’ve had roles over the years and incidentally—I don’t know about your paper—but the suggestion I left my Korean job had anything to do with this oil… it’s just not right.

KS: This would be Oil-for-Food…

Maurice Strong: Yeah.

KS: Okay.

Maurice Strong: It had nothing to do with that. Basically, I had this Korean role long before and it was just an advisory monitoring role, then I took on a more full-time role. And the negotiations were moving very slowly and I wanted to be free of them. And my contract ended anyway in July and so it just ended. I was just on the phone—just before my Chinese friend phoned—with the deputy secretary general of the UN. I’m in constant touch with the UN. I’ve always had a friendly relationship with the UN whatever my formal role was. And I continue to have. But I have no formal role.

[Hanna comes over and stands beside Maurice]

KS: Okay, I’ll wrap it up with this question. There are little questions (recording pause; recording resumes) …just a second.

Maurice Strong: It’s okay. We can go on.

KS: What advice would you have for the next secretary general of the United Nations?

Maurice Strong: Well, I guess, I think it is a difficult job. The next secretary general should be one who can the organization function. And in fact it does function better than most people think, not across the board because the UN is many things. Some things it does extremely well, some things it doesn’t do well. And the next secretary general has got to demonstrate he can make the machine work. Kofi Annan has been in my view one of the best secretary generals. Yes, it is a tough job but more than enough. That doesn’t mean he is to be immune to criticism but over all he’s restored the position of the UN. On almost any global issue now, you look at the media and one of the first things they do is quote Kofi Annan. Now, they didn’t used to do that with Boutros-Ghali and the others. With all the criticisms he’s received he’s done a good job. It’s not easy to do the job. You have to exercise a combination of moral leadership and pragmatic leadership, managerial leadership. It’s got to continue the reform process but it’s got to be more than rhetoric. You’ve got to remember, the secretary general is very limited in what he can do about reform. I headed up his first reform program and there were two sections to it. One was the things that were under his control and every one of those things was done. We took 30 different departments and consolidated them into four decision making groups. It wasn’t perfect but we did make some real progress at that level. But not a single thing that we recommended to governments, which only governments could do because they’re the board of directors, they’re the shareholders, they’re the owners of the organization, not a single one of them was done. So the secretary general always has to bear the brunt of criticism for lack of reform and yet the real decisions on reform are usually withheld by the very governments that keep pressing rhetorically for reform. So the secretary general has to be strong. He has to be a person of character. He has to have capacity. He’s got to have a type of willingness to withstand, to deal with a variety of crosscurrents of criticism and opportunity. So, you know, I think the quality of the person is the key thing, whether he has the characteristics to permit him to command confidence of his staff, yes, of governments, and to command confidence in a world in which agreement and consensus around every issue is simply not going to be feasible. But if you can command respect and confidence, you can help to come up with answers, and you can help to come up with the capacity to implement the decisions that are made. You can’t expect the secretary general to be a miracle person, but he’s got to be as close to it as we can find on this human planet.

This interview was referenced in Episode 15 of Grace & Steel, November 30, 2015 in my “Remembrance of Maurice Strong” that followed news of his passing.

Itsy Bitsy Part 3

My previous installment ended at the ferry in Port Angeles, Washington. There I’d met up with a group of adventurers headed for Alaska in a van, a wine red Chevy van, in fact. Invited to go along, I jumped at the chance. However, in order to finance the trip I needed to take a side trip to my hometown in Edmonton, one province to the east. There I’d quickly fire sale my meager assets for cash. My new friends proved more than accommodating; they changed course, deciding to tour the national parks Banff and Jasper, while I hurried ahead and sold off all that I could. We met up a few days later and off we went.

We entered the US at the Yukon-Alaska border, along a route called the Top of the World Highway, a scenic drive entirely deserving of its name. It was mid-September. Summer holidays were well over. We had the road to ourselves. My experience at this border crossing was quite different from the third degree I received at the Osoyoos station the first time I entered America. There wasn’t much that was intimidating here. It was a lonely outpost, a single small brown wooden shack beside the road. As we slowed on our approach, out popped a uniformed young fella with a big grin on his face.

We pulled over and un-piled out of the van to stretch our legs and chat with the official. This guy was no grizzled, world-weary, hard-ass with a flat-top crew cut. He seemed quite amiable. We introduced ourselves, the guy from Chicago, the girl from Texas, the girl from Israel, the guy from New Zealand and me, the Canadian. He liked the cosmopolitan composition of our group. He had all kinds of questions. He said hoped to go to New Zealand one day. What was that like? How about Israel? Was it really safe for tourists? He asked us about our trip, if we’d seen the can-can in Dawson City. We had a good long talk, a bit of a laugh, some fresh air, an excellent stretch. Refreshed, we all piled back in the van and said good-bye to the lonely border guard, who wished us a bon voyage, and then we drove off cheering because we had finally reached our goal; we were in Alaska!

Following the cheers, after a minute or two of silence, the driver asked, did anybody show that border guy any ID? Come to think of it, no, no one had. Strange, it never came up. We all fell back into silence. That WAS a most unusual border experience.

Now I skip ahead to the end of October. Our troop is breaking up. We’d been hiking in Denali; we’d been fishing down in Homer. But now the big adventure was over. The Texan, the New Zealander and the Israeli, booked and boarded their flights home. The guy from Chicago had decided to stay in Anchorage. He confessed he’d been thinking about doing this the whole trip. He thought he would have no trouble finding work in his field.

I decided that I, too, wanted to stay, to keep the adventure going. But I had no clue what I’d do for work. There weren’t any restrictions imposed on me at the border. Officially, I wasn’t even in the country, I guess. However, I had no social security number permitting me to work.

At first I sought out places that hired illegals, fish canneries mostly. I’d been about these by various travelers we’d met over the course of our month in Alaska. But no doing. The ones I went to had shut down for the winter. Then my friend from Chicago suggested that I simply adopt his name and use his social security number for work. He said he would be making so much money in the oil and gas sector that the little bit I would add to his tax burden would hardly be noticed by him or the government.

I resorted to the local day labor office to get my start in the Alaskan working world. It was all grunt work, mostly on construction sites; carrying hod, setting up a Quonset hut in the snow, that kind of thing. It was through this office that I did the worst job I’ve ever done in my life, and one of the easiest. These anecdotes I’ll set aside, maybe for next week.

One day I ended up as a day laborer on construction site owned by this Brian guy. It was a small project, about ten bungalows around cul-de-sac out in a new suburb on the east of Anchorage. The general contractor’s crew was then only two; a site supervisor and a carpenter. I was hired on around the time they started pouring the final few foundations, mostly to lug material around and pick up garbage.

But then fate provided me with a small opportunity. The temperature was well below freezing and the company needed someone to fill up the big diesel heaters in the middle of the night to keep the concrete in the new foundations alive until it set and cure for a few days. When the boss realized I was willing to do this, he offered me a full-time job. No one else wanted to do it; wake up at midnight, drive across town to a frozen construction site to start splashing diesel fuel around in the dark with the howling wind throwing snow in your face, and then the drive home, and then waking up again in 5 hours to go put in a full day’s work. It was nuts but I needed the money.

My buddy kindly lent me his Chevy van for this. So I was in. After about a month, this small company had a crisis. One day the site supervisor went to meet with the boss and he never came back. I was told he got canned for using the company’s charge account to buy material used to renovate his own home. So then we were two. The carpenter became the site super, and I became… well, I was still the laborer.

It was around then that the carpenter informed me that our boss was actually the Brian Hyland, singer of such pop hits as “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Sealed With A Kiss,” though he went by his real name now. I was skeptical at first, but I came around to accepting it. I thought it was pretty cool. And I thought it was really cool that the boss didn’t mind strapping on the tool belt and pitching in when an extra hand was needed. He was nice guy. The carpenter and I were invited over to his house to meet his family. I was introduced as the young man who intervened at a critical time in the construction project by filling the heaters on those long cold nights. It was during this visit that I saw the gold records on the wall in the hallway.

As spring approached and the construction project neared completion, the carpenter decided to cave to his wife’s demands and move his young family—they two children under six—back to their home state of Michigan, closer to the grandparents.

And then there would be one. A few months previous, I arrived on site as a day laborer. Now I was the last man standing, about to become site supervisor by default.

All this time I’d been working under a name that wasn’t mine. My alias like my real name started with a “K,” but after this promising start it veered off in a different direction. There were more than a few potential, unrealized comic moments when people would stand next to me and be forced to repeat what they thought was my name over and over again, waiting for me to answer, similar to that Simpsons episode, “Your name is Thompson…”

I found out later the consensus on the job-site was that I was actually a bit deaf. It had to be that. This was the contract painter’s theory. I didn’t seem like a stupid person, so what other explanation for this non-response was there? And when I was out drinking with the gang? The situation was worse.

And so it was one night at the bar, just before the carpenter moved away, we got drunk together, plastered, shitfaced. And I spilled the beans about my identity. It probably wasn’t the best moment to do this. But it had to be done; I’ll explain that in just a moment.

There was a third person with us at the bar that evening, the painter. He was to provide the outrage, on behalf of all America, at my illegal alien status. He was in fact the instigator of most of our drinking bouts. He was a gigantic fellow, about 6’6″, around 40-years-old, lean and dark-haired, a bearded Kris Kristofferson type, if that singer was a lot taller, wore ugly glasses and was a lot meaner. I had be informed at some earlier point on the QT that this guy was former “special forces” and a bit nuts. So watch out.

Drinking with him on several occasions, I discovered his passion was “collecting” weapons—I don’t mean rifles and stuff, I mean like mortars and machine guns, the bigger the better. From what I gathered from his bar talk, he thought that the government—the government that he had fought for, that he had killed for, some killed with these bare hands, YIKES!—was evil and that anarchy was just around the corner. He wasn’t a Foxfire survivalist. He was going to fight it out. I think he liked me because I’d drink with him, and he was the type of combat vet—and I met a few guys up there like this—who needed to drink every night just to get to sleep.

Now, the practical reason for my confession. The company was turning over houses to owners at that time, and there were certain legal responsibilities involved with this. I was about to be promoted and I wasn’t sure what would be required of me. I felt a certain amount of guilt regarding my personal fraud. Also, I wasn’t looking for a future with this company. I just wanted to take the money I made and go to Europe, and I wanted to leave in about a month. This is what I broke down and told the carpenter and the painter. And as I told them my real name, I actually started crying. Yes, I ashamed to admit it, but that’s what happened. Did I forget to mention that I had fallen hard for that Israeli girl and that I intended to visit her? Yeah, so there was that. I was kinda doing this for love, wasn’t I? I thought it was love at the time. Anyway, I was pretty drunk and really maudlin.

So was the painter, the ex-special forces guy. He actually became super patriotic, at least temporarily. He got really mad at me and I recall him waving a fist in my face, a fist as big as face, and he swore and called me a little shit I should break yer neck blah blah. He then stood up and stormed out without—I should add—committing any atrocities on behalf of his homeland. The carpenter grew quiet and serious. Did I mention he had a chin curtain beard? Yeah, he did, and when he got thoughtful he looked positively Amish. Finally, my Amish-looking carpenter friend collected himself and told me he really had no choice, he would have to tell the boss.

So now we’ve finally arrived at the moment, the big reveal. Why did the supposedly retired singer forgive the shit-for-brains illegal alien Canadian for his deception? According to the carpenter, who told me this a day or two later, it went something like this. And I want to stress that I was never-ever once told this by the man who was supposedly Brian Hyland. It’s all second hand, never verified which is why I’ve never committed this story to print before. But time has passed. The truth—or something similar—will out.

The carpenter said to his surprise the boss didn’t want to fire me. He realized he couldn’t promote me, but I could still babysit the job-site. He would be the supervisor and I would just be his eyes and ears for the month or so remaining before I flew on to Europe.

Then the boss explained to the carpenter that he himself was attempting to get his own travel documents together. He wanted to travel to Italy to visit his mother who was dying. But there was a problem. Years ago, his father had been associated with the Italian mafia, had entered the country illegally and remained undocumented. His parents split when he was young and his mother returned to Italy, leaving him in the care of his dad. Bottom line, Brian’s birth had never been properly registered. Now he desperately needed a passport and was having all kinds of trouble. Because of this, he had some empathy for me. And, as long as I was leaving soon and the taxes on my work had been paid, he was content to leave it at that. A month later, I flew from Anchorage to London, England. I never found out whether my boss ever got to see his mother, or even if any of this was, in fact, true.

I began this anecdote by referring to a letter of recommendation from that construction company. Before I flew out, I mailed the letter home for safe keeping.

I want to point out that my boss signed it using his real name. And he wrote it using my real name. It just a simple thing, quite proper, but to me, it’s quite the thing. God bless you, Brian Hyland, or whoever you were.

This third installment first appeared in the Grace & Steel podcast, Episode 14, November 23, 2015.

Itsy Bitsy Part 2

First order of business; my title, Ma valise mal a l’aise, passed the French test of someone who knows the language much better than I. I was told it’s an unusual pairing, forcing the adverb—mal a l’aise—to be an adjective and modifying an inanimate object, putting the “ill at ease” beside the suitcase, but I’m okay with that. I like the title because it captures many things, not the least of which is my awful high school French. As well, it sounds to me like a pretentious title, and I was, despite my lack of formal education, a very pretentious young man. Since these essays are about my youth, the title is fitting.

In last week’s installment I told of a journey I undertook more than 30 years ago. The story ended with me in Alaska. I was working for a small construction company and I had discovered that my boss went by the name of Brian Hyland in his youth. He was the singer of such radio hits as “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Sealed With A Kiss.” I had seen the gold record awards in his home. But, lo these many years later, seeking to verify my memory, I could find no evidence that Brian Hyland was ever in Alaska. I wrote to the singer via his website, but that went unanswered.

I’ll now begin to fill in some of my personal back story. At the end of last week’s installment I said this week I would offer a possible explanation for my Brian Hyland mystery. I doubt if I will get to that this week. At any rate, in order to understand it, background is needed.

As I described previously, the trip began as a hitchhiking adventure from my hometown of Edmonton to California and back. I never made it to California. There were two reasons for this. First, I started running out of money. By the time I had made it to Portland it became obvious to me there was no way I could keep going and make it back with cash on hand. I would have had to either beg for money from home, not really an option, or I would have had to work somewhere, illegally. Since I wasn’t much of a lawbreaker back then, this wasn’t an option either.

I had crossed into the US at Osoyoos and there my plans had been altered. But first let me describe my drive up to border. I was taken there by a generous fruit farmer who had decided to go ten miles out of his way. As we bombed along in his old pickup truck, he had spent the previous 45 minutes describing to me in too graphic detail why he absolutely hated, detested, the young Quebecois who would drift through the Okanagan during the fruit picking season. I suspected this guy had driven the extra ten miles to the border because he really wanted to get this off his chest. According to this farmer, these ‘Frenchies’ as he called them were the most arrogant, the most ungrateful AND the filthiest creatures ever to walk upright on two legs. He described in great detail a set of outhouses that had been deliberately defaced and nearly destroyed, supposedly by these eastern demons. Just before the ride ended he calmed down, and as I got out of the truck, he looked at me rather sheepishly and said something like, “Hey, sorry about that. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no bigot. I love Mexicans. They’re great people.”

And so, with this fresh perspective on a new North American realignment, I walked up to the border station. The American border official seemed unfazed by seeing me on foot. I was expecting more of a reaction. As I answered his questions, he seemed pretty skeptical about my holiday plans.

Now, this official was quite memorable, which I suppose befits a gatekeeper to another world. An older fellow perhaps in his mid to late forties, he was the first person I had met in my life with a bona-fide flat-top crew cut. I had of course seen these haircuts on cartoon characters, and on astronauts and in pictures of football heroes from the 1950s. Up until that point I guess I had assumed that people didn’t get flat-top crew cuts anymore; after the groovy sixties and the shaggy seventies, I thought this style was just a cliche, scriptwriter shorthand for redneck hard-ass drill sergeant. But here was Flat-Top Crew Cut in the flesh… Mr. Flat-Top Crew Cut to you, sonny. And he was wearing sunglasses. And he was being a hard-ass.

He made me show him my travelers cheques. He asked me for the address of someone that I would visit in the States. This is all pretty standard, but it was all new to me and I was feeling a bit intimidated and unjustly picked on. And then, because I couldn’t give him the address of anyone I was visiting, he told me I could only stay in the US for two weeks. Two weeks? But California dot dot dot “Two weeks.” As it turned out, this border official was a lot more realistic than I was. I had a few hundred bucks in my pocket and felt like I could anywhere, anytime; pick a spot, point to it and I’d go. I was all youthful swagger and jaunty optimism. Mr. Flat-Top Crew Cut guy lived in The Real World. Screw that! But, a week and a half later, running out of cash, at the Oregon/Washington border, I had to turn around and head back to Canada.

Reason number two for my retreat is a bit nasty. Recall, from my first instrumental I had mentioned I had purchased rugged army surplus gear and cut my hair short. I did this, I adopted this look, for entirely practical reasons. I was sleeping rough, camping out by the side of the road, hobo-ing, so to speak. I needed tough clothing, tough gear. I wanted my hair cut short because it was easier to keep clean.

However, what I discovered almost immediately upon entering the United States is that there appeared to be some kind of unspoken assumption, at that period in history, in that part of the world, that if you were young and looked like you were either in the army or just out of the army, and you were hitchhiking, well then you were probably the kind of guy who was always on the lookout for some spontaneous roadside homosexual sex.

I hadn’t anticipated this. Why should I have? I’m not gay, so I don’t think about sex with men. I’m not sure why this didn’t become an issue in Canada as I made my way toward the U.S., but there it is.

I won’t go into this now. It’s probably a whole other chapter; men who tried to pick me up. I will say this. Recall, the time frame here, 1982: Aids was not in the news. Coincidentally, just around that time, end of June, 1982, there were reports just starting to come out about a new type of cancer affecting homosexual men. But the disease was here, there and everywhere in the gay population, though I would only realize this later when I remembered the ghastly pallor of some of these men I met while traveling.

So I was getting too many rides with too many weirdos. This was not fun. And if things were weird in Washington, well, who knows what kind of horrors awaited me further down the road closer to crazy California.

After a brief visit to picturesque Portland, I retraced my route back north, but then diverted west to the ferry at Port Angeles. There I would cross the water to Vancouver Island, Canada. It was while waiting for this boat, sitting on bench wondering if the grey sky that had been following me for the last few days was every going to start raining, that a young woman approached me. She noticed I was reading a book–I wasn’t really, I was just holding it. She was reading a book. What a coincidence! She was polite, well-spoken, confident. She seemed to be looking for a little idle chit-chat. What are you reading? Where you from? Where you going? Blah blah blah.

She was from Israel. Just finished her army service and was now on a vacation. That was interesting. After about 15 minutes of this idle back and forth, she suddenly asked me if I ever considered going to Alaska. She explained she was traveling with three other people in a van in that direction. A fifth person could really help out with the expenses. Besides herself, there was the driver and owner of the van from Chicago, a young woman from Texas, and a guy from New Zealand. Before this trip they were all unknown to each other, having assembled enroute. The driver of the van had put up notices in youth hostels as he drove to California, looking for anyone wanting to visit Alaska.

She explained the three other group members had decided to kill time waiting for the ferry by going to a movie. The Israeli girl couldn’t be bothered. She wasn’t interested in that particular film. Oh, what did they go see? E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

I told this Israeli girl that I would consider joining their troupe; I would at least meet the rest of the group on the ferry ride. In truth, I had already made up my mind to go along. They were probably a pretty safe bunch. I mean, E.T.? C’mon. And I kinda liked this girl. To a young man of my limited world experience, she seemed exotic. And yet we had so much in common. For instance, I had no interest in seeing E.T. either.

And that is how I ended up traveling to Alaska from Edmonton by way of California.

This installment appeared in the podcast Grace & Steel Episode 9, October 19, 2015.

Itsy Bitsy Part 1

At this point I would like to introduce a new feature to the podcast, as yet to be titled. My working title is Ma valise mal à l’aiseMy Uncomfortable Suitcase–but I haven’t had a chance to check the French.

A couple of podcasts back, my co-host said to me, “Look, you’re going to have do some kind of feature or monologue because there’s just too much of me in this thing.” My reply was, “But I’m okay with that.”

As is described on the website, the idea for podcast came about because of the conversations Grace and I have had over the phone over the last ten years. Once a week, we’d have a long chat about recent political and cultural events. Grace would generally dominate these conversations for a number of reasons, but mainly because he likes to talk. That’s not quite right. He likes to think about things and talk about them. And more  often than not, I would listen to this process. Since it would sometimes result in original thinking and conclusions, I enjoyed listening. And I enjoy talking to him because he is one of these people who actually listens to you and responds thoughtfully, as opposed to a person who politely waits for you finish and then continues talking as if you’ve said nothing.

But now we’ve gone public and my co-host is saying there’s too much of him on the show  and I have to step up to the plate. Okay then. Of course the problem is what to talk about. I could do book reviews, but then I’d have to read a lot of books, and I’m actually a slow reader. I could just flat out copy Grace and come up with a list, vary it a little bit so it wasn’t so obvious; something like A Half a Year of Half-Assed Hits; My 26 Favorite Songs that never made the Top 100; Week 10, from 1965 Jody Miller singing “Sea of Heartbreak,” arranged by Billy Strange… But no, no.

I’m not much of an opinion monger; that’s never been my strong suit. So I’m NOT going to craft a give-’em-hell editorial for the show. As a professional journalist I was more of a present-the-facts-and-let-them reveal-a-new-angle kind of reporter. I was fairly good at finding overlooked but important details, quite often finding them hiding in plain sight. But this work can take up a lot of time and it actually requires the help of a network of sources which, now, as an official washed-up journalist, I no longer have.

And so, with the deadline here, and actually passed as I record this, I am at the point where I have to find an easy topic, and the easiest topic to talk about is myself. Yes, big let down. But there it is. Okay, so this is how I’m going to frame it.

On the 2kevins website, on the page describing The Hosts, I reference a couple of hitchhiking journeys I took as a young man and I mention how this influenced me politically. Truth be told, politics played a very minor part in the whole business at that time. Most of the political stuff came about afterward, on reflection, looking back and going “OH! I see…” I traveled through communist countries in eastern Europe and most of the time I was just in shock, and most of my observations were pretty shallow; like “wow, well, that place was a real dump” or “whoa! these cigarettes are crappy!” or “what gives? What’s with all the cement? You people never hear of PAINT?” or “(cough cough) they can actually drink this stuff? GAG!” That sort of thing. Not a lot of context.

These journeys in the mid-1980s will give me the framework for my feature, or at least the starting point. The timeline will vary widely. The inspiration will come from two boxes of memorabilia from that era that have traveled with me over the years.

Rarely have I had the inclination to examine the contents of these boxes. They’re filled with typical pre-digital memorabilia stuff; letters, postcards, photographs and negatives, half-filled diaries, addresses scribbled on torn matchbook covers, a frayed map or two, strange looking coins, a few plain looking small rocks of tremendous personal significance, that kind of thing. The reason I have avoided looking at this junk is that there is some pain in there. The reason I’ve kept it? Well, this is my life. This is my late-in-life show and tell. These are my exhibits. Perhaps I’ll have to prepare some sort of defense in purgatory and need to brush up on the evidence.

So here is the framework for the first journey. In 1982, at age twenty, after having worked for a year and then completed only a year of college, I decided that I wanted to take off from my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, and see a little bit of the world. I went down to the local army surplus, bought a bunch of rugged gear, and then to a camping store and bought some less rugged gear, cut my hair really short (short for the time and place) and headed for the highway south of town. I had a vague plan of going away for two months, traveling to California and back along the coastal highway. I never made it to California. Instead, a year later I ended up in Israel pining after a dark-haired Israeli woman, by way of Alaska, and then a year after that back in Alberta, but this time up in Fort McMurray, home of the oil sands; I, managing a small business in a shopping mall, married to a pretty young blonde Australian woman who was carrying my child. To quote a popular song of that era, “Same as it ever was…” These are the key points of that journey.

I met many interesting people along the way. I will be describing many of these folks as I recount this period. And there were many of them. I’m not sure if it’s a hard and fast rule, but you tend to meet more people when you travel alone for the simple reason that, to strangers, you are more approachable when you are not constantly yakking with a constant companion. At least that’s the way it was back then. And by the way, I will force myself not to use that phrase “that’s the way it was back then,” or something similar, too often. At times it will be unavoidable because many things have changed and these things will require some footnoting for younger listeners to make any sense of them. For instance, there were no cell phones back then, no email. Calling home while on a hitchhiking journey in Europe required a special trip to a special place, usually the main post office of whatever city you were in, from which one could place a collect call. A big hassle. Letters and postcards took a minimum of two weeks to be delivered. And being a young man footloose in Old World, the priority was wine, women and song–I mean literally wine women song–and not on keeping the old folks of fond memory up on where you were. I think the longest my long suffering parents went without having a word from me or any idea whether I was alive or dead was about three months. I lived to regret this though it took many years of living and many more mistakes before I did.

So what’s my first exhibit? Exhibit one is a bit of a mystery. It is a letter of recommendation from my employer in Alaska, a small construction company that I worked for for about six months. It was while working there that I was able to save the money to make the next leg of the journey across continental Europe to Israel. The letter is signed by the owner of the company Brian and I’ll omit his last name for the time being. I will say this, it is an Italian name. That fact is important to my story.

The fact that my employer even wrote this letter is amazing. I had lied to him at the beginning of the job. You see, I was an illegal alien. That’s not the strange part of the story. The strange part is that in the time that I had worked with him I had been to his house twice. On his walls he had a few gold record awards. One of the gold records was for a song called “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.” The guy, my boss, I was told first by my co-workers, and then by his wife, was none other than Brian Hyland, one of these Italian stallion heart-throb boy singers from the late-1950s. My boss seemed pretty shy about this. He never actually told me about it. I did have occasion to ask him about it and all he said was something about the music business being full of crooks, or something like that. He made it pretty clear he was much happier out here in the clear air, with the tool belt on, marking out the floor plan of the bungalow we were about to frame. One time at his house, his wife–2nd wife I seem to recall being told–grabbed me by the arm to drag me to the hall and show me the gold records, and him blushing red over his graying beard, and looking at me with a “Yeah, sorry about this, but just go with it because it’s kind of her thing” kind of look.

So that was neat. But here comes the mystery. It’s many years later and the internet has been created, making research a breeze. I look up Bryan Hyland and I can find no evidence the guy was ever in Alaska. My co-host did his own research and independently verified my finding. The pictures of Hyland look something like the guy I knew, but the guy in the pictures is thinner and without a beard. I wrote to Hyland via a website I found, describing my experience, the letter of recommendation, my gratitude and asked for confirmation or denial that he was the man I knew. I wrote that I would never reveal part of the story that I had been told as to why he was kind to me, without checking with him first. I never got a reply.

Next week, I fill in few details that might shed some more light on the mystery. They offer at least one possible explanation. But then again these details could be all bogus. It was stuff I was told at the time. Who knows? Maybe Hyland will hear this and that might prompt a reply. I mean, why would anyone impersonate Brian Hyland in Alaska? And impersonate him while working as a construction contractor under another name?

This is the first podcast script of my feature Ma valise mal à l’aise (My Uncomfortable Suitcase) that I wrote and recorded for Episode 12 of Grace & Steel.

“I’ll be okay”

(This is the second of two posts following the same idea, which is; wow, I can’t believe the guy who wrote this song also wrote that song which is so different from this song. The first post is just below)

In 1959, a trio of high schoolers calling themselves The Fleetwoods managed to get two songs into the Billboard’s Top 100. The first of these, “Come Softly To Me,” they wrote themselves (recorded part of it themselves as well and btw that thing in the song that sounds like a tambourine is actually a set of keys Gary Troxel is shaking to keep time in what the singers thought was only to be a home recorded demo, but in fact became part of the released song). Their other charting song, “Mr. Blue,” was written by a guy named Dewayne L. Blackwell.

Thirty-one years later, in 1990, Blackwell wrote another hit, this one quite different and not for a bunch of teenagers, but for a major country music star;

So yes, wow, I can’t believe the guy who wrote this song also wrote blah blah blah.

Here’s a nice article about Blackwell. I didn’t realize until I read it that his younger brother Ron wrote “Little Red Riding Hood” (recorded by Sam the Sham and The Pharoahs) and was killed just as it started to chart.