Monday, January 20, 2014

200 Schnorrers

I think I first came across the word "schnorrer" through Groucho Marx. In the famous song "Hurray for Captain Spaulding" from the movie Animal Crackers, he sings: "Hurray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer / Did someone call me Schnorrer? / Hurray, hurray, hurray!"

My own grandmother grew up in the Jewish part of Winnipeg and peppered her language with Yiddish expressions picked up from her friends. I'm not sure if "schnorrer" was one of them, but it came to mind recently with Harper's trip to Israel.

"Schnorrer" is a Yiddish word meaning freeloader, and it seemed appropriate when applied to Harper's massive entourage of guests who accompanied him to Israel - 208 of them according to the official count, by far the largest delegation in living memory.

With typical Harper Government™ openness and transparency, even though the final list of delegates was ready January 8th, it was only released January 18th, and then only to the press on the trip a hour after the plane was in the air. It still hasn't been posted officially anywhere I can see on a government website.

Sun columnist David Akin on the trip hastily scanned a copy of the list during a refuelling stop in Germany and posted it.

Of the 208 people with Harper, there are 21 rabbis in the delegation, presumably because Israel has a rabbi shortage. On the list is Dr. Marvin Levant, father of Ezra Levant, brave Sun TV anti-subsidy champion and inventor of "Ethical Oil". There are six evangelical Christian ministers, including the leader of Harper's own Christian and Missionary Alliance Church as well as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Trinity Bible Church, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada and Crossroad Christian Communications. The evangelicals here as in the US are profoundly obsessed with Israel as it relates to the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ, and for their part the Israelis put up with them with what can only be considered bemusement since they are major contributors and supporters.

Then there appears to be 7 members of the Jewish National Fund along for the ride. You may recall that they had Harper as their guest of honour at their multi-million dollar fundraiser a month or so ago, and in return they created the “Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre” in a nature park in a northern valley bordered by the Golan Heights. Presumably it's a good place for Harper to let his couple of hundred cats roam.

Most of the 208 Schnorrers on the trip (including head scratchers like the CEO of the Keg Steakhouse and Stockwell Day & family) have their way paid by the taxpayer. Accompanying press had to fork over $8000 each for just the flight and hotels for the 4 day trip. From the lack of information forthcoming from the PMO it's impossible to tell if charity cases like the Reichmanns, Aspers or the CEO of Air Canada had the Canadian taxpayer pick up their tabs as well.

Another point I made on Twitter - it used to be that virtually all official visits and trade delegations included as a matter of course a token Opposition MP or two. Of course, any semblance of a lack of partisanship went out the window a long time ago with Harper.

I should point out that not all people on these official trade delegations ask to come. Sure - there are always line-ups of people trying to mooch a free ride on the government's tab. There are also those people the government lobbies to come along because they add an air of respectability and legitimacy to a government trip. I was with a company a few years ago that was repeatedly asked to accompany Harper on a visit to Asia, which we declined in spite of considerable pressure. Looking at the list of people on Harper's Israel trip, it's hard to see who might lend it an air of impartial respectability.

Of course the whole thing is just a pre-election campaign stop for lots of video and photos and a free trip for the freeloaders, as well as cementing support from both the Jewish and evangelical base at home for 2015.

Next year in Canmore!

My Life as a Cartoon

As a bit of fun I recently had my portrait done in the style of a Simpsons character. I'm glad I came out more Lionel Hutz (may he rest in peace), than Sideshow Bob, but this isn't my first incarnation as a cartoon.

When my father published his compilation of columns in "Take My Family Please" (1981), he asked famous Canadian cartoonist Lynn Johnston, author of the iconic "For Better or Worse" comic strip, to illustrate it. Here is one of the cartoons of the whole family. By the way, that's me in the bottom left showing my affection for sister Jane.

Finally, when I was a weekly columnist for the National Post, they created this hand-carved beauty of me. I remember being told it wasn't the product of Photoshop or some mechanical process. Some guy literally hand-carves these woodcuts. In fact, in my case it took so long to produce that by the time it was finished the National Post had gone through another round of freelancer layoffs and they only got to use it a couple of times in the paper. Maybe they keep losing money because they spend it on woodcuts.

Still, I ended up with a nice souvenir, and I didn't have to sit on a rickety chair in front of a starving portrait artist in Times Square to get it.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Boys' Christmas

I know it's a little late, but my friend Rob of some 35 years just managed to get in our annual "Boys' Christmas". This is when we get together and give each other all the fun and stupid stuff no one else will.

This year Rob gave me a British flag vest, and perhaps to offset it, a plastic Kaiser Wilhelm helmet. In his haul he got a pretty cool flashlight and a bottle of "handmade" Texas vodka.

We always go to a local pub to open our loot, because there's nothing like wearing a funny hat around strangers.

So that officially ends the Christmas season for another year, but I dug up a column I wrote about it way back in 1999 (you can see it has become a long-standing tradition).

Rob and I flashing the Secret Santa Gang Sign

A Sharp Gift

I find it difficult to think about Christmas until after the first day of December. Even though the Halloween stuff barely made it off the shelves before being muscled aside by the plastic Santas and rubber reindeers, I refuse to let the department stores dictate the beginning of the holiday season.
If they had their way, we’d have one long holiday season beginning on January 1st and ending New Years’ Eve. Eventually, we’d all spend our entire lives in greeting card stores, and still never find one we liked.
But now that December is finally here, I don’t mind hearing Christmas carols blaring out of store speakers. In fact, I’m starting to feel downright Christmassy.
And in the spirit of Christmas, I want to pass along to the ladies the secret of buying gifts for the men in your life.
It never ceases to amaze me how much soul searching women go through looking for the perfect present for the men in their lives. They try to find an after-shave that is manly yet smells good – like “Pizza” by Ralph Lauren. They worry about whether he’ll wear a green shirt, or if a ratchet set is actually something a man would really use.
I’m here to tell you that there are only two presents you can guarantee a man will like - flashlights and pocket knives.
It must be genetically programmed into us. I’ve never met a man who doesn’t think a flashlight or pocket knife isn’t a great gift.
When I was best man at my friend Rene’s wedding, his present to me to remember the tender feelings of that special day was a great boot knife. That was fifteen years ago and I still throw the knife in my bag when I head to the cottage.
My friend Rob and I exchange presents every year at what has become known as the “Boys' Christmas”. We give each other all the stupid stuff  no one else ever would. So we wrap up miniature bottles of booze, plastic army men and Star Trek tattoos. And every year, we each give the other a pocket knife.
Do we ever look at it and say: “But I already have a pocket knife”? We always say: “Great, another knife!” and proceed to see if it will cut through a beer can.
Dad was one of the most un-knife like people you’d ever meet. Even so,  every Christmas my father always had a tiny Swiss Army knife handy to help cut pesky tape and ribbons.
I don’t know what primitive urge attracts us to knives, but trust me, we never get tired of them. And nothing says love more than giving a man a knife.
For anyone who’s at all squeamish about giving things with sharp edges as presents, you’ll be happy to know that men also love flashlights. The flashlight gene is right next to the pocket knife gene in men.
Maybe it comes from reading under the covers as kids. Or being sure that something in the closet is just waiting for you to nod off.
Whatever it is, most men never grow out of their love affair with flashlights – everything from those tiny key chain beams to the monster 12-battery police torches Most men have at least a half dozen by the side of the bed.
And don’t go all Freudian on me, about how knives and flashlights are just a symbol to compensate for male physical insecurity If you’re using that thing to cut string or light up a room, you have serious problems.

      So if you have a man who’s difficult to buy for, look no further than a store that sells knives and flashlights. That is if you can get past the crowd of men outside with their noses pressed up against the window.

© 1999 Stephen Lautens

Friday, January 10, 2014

Funny Money

I love a good challenge as much as a crazy conspiracy theory.

For a couple of weeks I've heard people on Twitter say how much the portrait of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (my favourite Canadian Prime Minister) looks like Stephen Harper on the new $5 bill. Frankly, I didn't see it. True, it was a crummy portrait of Laurier on the new bill and an odd choice for someone whose looks are iconic and immediately recognizable, but I didn't see any resemblance to our current Panamanian strongman of a prime minister.

So for fun I got out my handy Photoshop and simply plastered Stephen Harper's hair and glasses on Laurier with no other changes. Here are the surprising results...

I'll never doubt the conspiracy nuts again.

For good measure I came up with my own design for the reverse of the $5 bill, just to make sure it was consistent.

I think I preferred the good old days when you could turn Laurier into someone equally emotionless as Spock...

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Jim Coutts

Jim, at the time when I first met him  - Photo credit: CP
This afternoon I attended the memorial service for my old Liberal friend Jim Coutts. Jim died of cancer December 31st.

I met Jim in 1981 when he was Pierre Trudeau's principal secretary and I was working in Ottawa for a cabinet minister as a very green assistant. He had previously been Prime Minister Lester Pearson's appointments secretary. He was the confidante, gatekeeper and strategist to both Prime Ministers and often considered the 2nd most powerful person in Ottawa.

More importantly, he was a bright, generous, funny and nice man. I got to know him through mutual friend Senator Keith Davey, and I was happily lent to Jim in 1981 out of my Ottawa job to help out in the infamous Spadina by-election, where he lost by 193 votes. I returned to help again in his next bid in 1984.

After Jim left public life I kept in touch, visiting his little house behind the Park Plaza Hotel to talk about art, religion and politics. He also liked martinis.

The memorial today was like a gathering of the clan. There's nothing quite like a political memorial service. It's like a cocktail party without the drinks. In the space of 45 minutes I had a chat with former Premier David Peterson, brother Jim, current premier Kathleen Wynne, senators, MPs, candidates (both successful, hopeful, and like me, failed), and a bunch of campaign workers. Prime Minister John Turner had just come and gone. Even though we chatted politics, Jim was never far from our thoughts.

Jim Coutts was the person who convinced Trudeau both to return in 1981 and to put repatriating the Constitution with a Charter of Rights on the agenda as his final achievement.

Jim, you will be missed. Thanks for leaving Canada a better place.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Granny - Hide Your Gold Teeth

A little news article caught my eye last week. The Globe & Mail (Dec 30th) reported "Bank of Canada’s gold coins to be liquidated in federal push to balance books".

It turns out these aren't the modern 1 oz Maple Leaf coins the Mint churns out for high-roller birthday presents or paranoid doomsday survivalists:

"After a century of sitting in cloth bags inside the Bank of Canada vault, they are among a wide range of assets the Conservative government is liquidating – in this case literally – to save taxpayers a few dollars and help balance the books. The plan is to melt down more than 200,000 gold coins from the years 1912 to 1914, when Ottawa suspended the gold standard."

I don't feel much one way or the other about gold itself. As a metal it has limited use and I've held a 400 oz bar in my hand without going all Goldfinger inside. But two things bug me about this announcement.

First, these coins are part of our history, and melting them down ( especially at a time when gold is at a 10-year low in price - nice market timing, Conservative economists) seems like vandalism.

Second, has the Canadian economy been so mismanaged that Harper & Co. have to rummage around in the back of the drawers to find stuff to take to the pawn shop?

Apparently so.

From the article: "The sale is unlikely to make a big difference to Ottawa’s bottom line, but it is among a string of recent moves by the federal government to unload public assets as it moves to balance the books by 2015."

Desperate governments call for desperate measures.

Next: look for a good deal on Library of Parliament books on Kijiji.