Sunday, February 17, 2019



(This article was written in 2002.  The fish market has modernized somewhat since then and isn’t nearly as interesting).

The creek divides the city of Dubai into two parts – Bur Dubai and Deira. The creek, which is actually an estuary – the Arabian Desert being noticeably deficient in fresh water courses – extends inland for approximately six kilometers, ending in a Mangrove swamp that is also home to several thousand Greater and Lesser Flamingos. Ocean-going dhows and yachts and fishing boats can navigate the creek to the Garhoud Bridge, about four kilometers.  From the mouth of the creek to this bridge exists a busy world of traditional Arab trading, tourist attractions and towering office buildings.   

Traffic on the creek is busy, led by the ubiquitous abra, a small wooden dory with a flat canvas roof stretched over poles set five or six feet in from the front and back.  Many of the abras are powered by three-cylinder Wankel engines, engines far older than their operators who, for the most part, are young Pakistanis.  The abras are older yet than the engines, their masts of long ago removed to accommodate a new market, ferrying tourists up and down the creek. They were constructed originally as fishing boats, the weathered oak and pine speaking of an earlier time.

Near the mouth of the creek is the Dubai fish market.  This most ancient of Arab merchant facilities lies incongruously next to the massive Hyatt Regency Hotel, the quintessential resort hotel and apartment complex.  The fish market consists of a series of long stalls, perhaps one hundred feet long, each line of stalls covered a low rounded roof.  At one end of the market the fruit and vegetable vendors ply their trade, a wall separating this ‘clean-smelling' business from the ‘not-so-clean-smelling’ business of selling fish.   In total the building must occupy the greater part of an acre.    
There is a ritual to be followed when buying fish.  At the market entrance shoppers first pass a line of shalmar-kameez-clad porters and their wheelbarrows.  Unless the shopper happens to speak Farsi, he’s forced to select a porter simply by pointing at him.  The porter and his wheelbarrow will fall into step and the adventure begins.  You’re thinking, “A wheelbarrow? How many fish does he think I want?  Couldn’t he have simply used a hand basket?”   The answer, of course, is “What would you do if you’re livelihood depended upon tips?”    

And you soon realize, he’s not only with you to schlep your fish.  With creative hand gestures, head-shaking and a small but useful vocabulary of English words (“No”, “yes”, “too old”, “too much”, all of which sound at first like he’s just clearing his throat), he will offer advice on the quality, freshness, and price of the fish you are considering.  Whether you trust him or not is up to you.  If he says “too much”, you’re expected to haggle until he stops saying it.  If the fish vendor resents this kibitzing, he doesn’t show it.

The variety of fish is fairly extensive.   The big sellers are hammour , klngfish (much like halibut), sherry (maybe red snapper?), tuna, yellowtail, pomfret, and sardines.  Shrimp are prominent and come in a variety of sizes. A kilo of good-sized prawns will cost around 70 dirhams (about $ 18.00).  Needless to say, at that price, western expats tend to eat a lot of prawns.  

The noise level in this cavernous room is high.  The fishmongers, eager to sell rapidly deteriorating product, are clamorous and persistent.  Some will thrust a fish under your nose, jabbering about its freshness, showing you the redness of the gills.  It helps the shopper immensely to have a firm idea about what he or she is there to buy.  Distraction comes easily.

When you are finished buying the porter leads you to the fish cleaning room.  Our first experience with this cleaning room was breathtaking, a walk into a medieval abattoir.  Perhaps 20 metres square, the cleaning room has an aisle down one side where customers wait while having their fish gutted and cleaned.   The rest of the room consisted of about 5 columns and 5 rows of stone tables, each about 3 feet square and rising some 8 to 10 inches off the floor.  Upon each of these tables squatted an Asian worker dressed also clad in a shalwar kameesh.  Given the nature of the work, the clothing is filthy and Western sensibilities are slightly rocked.  How badly do I want this fish?   A few of the fish-cleaners wielded knives, but most were using a sharpened slab of steel, roughly 10 inches wide, leftover “tools” from the beginning of the Iron Age.  

Sitting on their haunches, the cleaners work quickly and efficiently, scattering the fish guts and prawn shells onto the concrete floor where another worker hoses the waste into a gutter.  It is a scene out of Dante.   Like the porters, the cleaners work for tips.  The western mind cannot fathom the experience of sitting for 10-12 hours a day, every day, on those concrete tables, squatting amid the viscera and fish extremities, and wielding a tool forged in a long-forgotten epoch of history – for tips.   Who said we were civilized?

‘How much?’ I ask my porter when the cleaner hands back my purchases, a small hammour and a half-kilo of shelled prawns  (You’re on your own for deveining).  He holds up his hand and spreads his fingers.  5 Dirhams (about  $1.50).   Back at my car I hand my porter 10 dirhams.  Tipping in Dubai is a tricky business. Most service personnel live solely on tips (we’re told waiters are paid a salary, but most waiters will tell you this is in theory only – there’s no law that says the restaurant owner has to pay.  So they don’t. And don’t think of quitting and going elsewhere – the owner has the “employee’s” passport and he or she can do nothing without his say-so).  

My man smiles and nods his head.  I have no idea if the amount is sufficient but the guilt comes easily.  We know it’s a pittance but we’re also constantly barraged with the ex-pats conventional wisdom, “It’s what they expect.  We don’t want to upset the economy now do we?” We know that this drivel is a hangover from the “Sun Never Sets” glory days but too often cravenly comply. I’m going to upset the economy by over-tipping? In a land where extremes of wealth and poverty both flourish, this can’t be a bad thing. 

Anyway, my porter didn‘t glare at me.  At least, I think so. He didn’t, did he?  No, I’m sure.  But, just in case, I don’t look back.

The hammour and prawns were delicious.  

Robert Alan Davidson
Dubai, 2002

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Great Southern Prairie

Back in the 1990's, two friends and I undertook a short hunting trip to Milk River in Southern Alberta just north of the US border.  Officially, we were hunting the wily pheasant but, unofficially - now being in our fifties - the real goal was simply trekking the prairie, enjoying the crisp, clean air and marvelling at the wonders that water and wind and time had created in the sandstone and clay of the countryside.   

We  had never hunted this area before and had no idea where any good hunting spots might exist.  So the plan was to  simply head east toward the vast mostly-treeless expanse of prairie between Milk River and the Cypress Hills.  Maybe we would surprise ourselves with what we found.  Good company and interesting country were the main ingredients for a rewarding day.  A rooster or two would be a bonus.

The first day's walk brought some surprises.  We were east of the Milk River townsite and north of the Milk River ridge, a nearly 2,000 square-kilometer height of land that extends through much of the southern border region. 

We noticed the farms tended toward the very large, multiple thousand-acre spreads with huge swaths of cultivation next to large grazing tracts, most of which were home to Aberdeen Angus cattle, the beef industry's flavor of the month in the 1990's. 

Many of these immense spreads were Hutterite colonies, many were owned by Mormons.  Their vast agri-business operations had all the latest in farm gadgetry and looked for all the world like sizeable industrial complexes.   Both might have invited criticism for their insularity but they were exceptionally efficient farmers and ranchers

One thing they both did was to eagerly acquire more land and as the small operator had to sell there were ready buyers. Whatever the quality of the land, whatever lax stewardship may have abused it, the land had a buyer. It's difficult to witness the loss of any small farm but if you are that farmer drowning in debt, the Hutterites amd Mormons might be considered saviours. I guess it's all in the perspective.

Anyway, in one afternoon, we saw or visited a dozen deserted farmsteads, some vacated very recently.  We found it difficult to witness these deserted sites, some with elaborate and beautiful windbreaks, arboreal beauty and utility that took as long as 40 years to create. Now they lay abandoned to await the bulldozer as the new owners prepared to put the site under cultivation.

We wondered what was to become of Alberta's long history of family farms and ranches when economies of scale turned so many of them into liabilities that could not be endured.

Two farmsteads were particularly hard to accept.  One featured a small 4-room house heated by steam.  Imagine a small house heated by steam, the water coming from a large cistern buried in a shed outside the kitchen. The northeast corner of the house even boasted a small patio.  A workshop behind the house was superbly outfitted with a furnace, a forge, a mechanics wall and hoists.  This was one very resourceful and capable farmer.   He was obviously a consummate craftsman and we liked to think a neighbour any community would welcome. Surely, he did all he could to make a success of this farm.  That he could not was a particularly discouraging message. 

Yet, this visit left us with two positive takeaways.  One, scaring up a good-sized rooster kept us from being shutout on the bird hunting front.  Two, we could not help being awed by the skill and determination of our early settlers.  This place, for all its evocation of hope and failure, was one we were glad to have had a chance to visit.

The second farmstead was home to an original cabin, a tiny ramshackle affair that remained barely erect.  It's interior was strewn with garbage, rusted tin cans, dusty bottles and a large 2.5 gallon jug of oil. For whatever reason, the owners did not destroy this simple crude abode when they moved to a larger home.  Close by lay the remains of the foundation to this new house.  We could only assume the new house had been towed away or torn down.  Given the damage to the foundation, it was likely moved.  Inside the foundation lay the detritus of a once-functioning home, a stove, several household effects, and a rusting birdcage.  Thoughts of a hard-working beleaguered housewife being soothed by a canary or other songbird had us shaking our heads.  Mixed in with all  the effects were pieces of concrete, too many to just be broken off the foundation.  Where would they come from? 

It was an angry site, visions of a frustrated family ridding itself of so much that made their hard lives more manageable.  The home quarter also boasted beautiful topiary, a prairie emulation of the grand estates of Europe - willows, spruce, poplar, and carigana laid out with geometric precision and grown to maturity, a pleasing oasis in a land of wind, dust, heat, bitter cold, and, always, more wind.  Silos and outbuildings were set in logical fashion leading away into a willow thicket that must have, at one time, been home to a slough.  Drought may have robbed it of its water or maybe the farmer simply got tired of living cheek-by jowl to a mosquito-breeding factory.

We marvelled at the thought and work that went into creating this homestead.  And for what?  In the end the house was placed onto a flatbed and hauled away.  Small wonder the air of rage lingers in the air.  We know all farmers live with the vagaries of the weather but the feeling was this was not weather-related.  Rather, it reeked of skewed economics, of values that undercut the nobility and perspiration and perseverance of a farm family's work.

It's likely the three of us had some idea as to how the prairie economy evolved the way it did just as we may have had some understanding of the ecology of this distinctive prairie. But the real surprise of that first day was just how varied and visceral both of them were.   The deserted farms told a very vivid and sad story of hope and resolve and predatory economics.  The land was simply bigger than we could imagine.

Whenever we entered an area where no farms or power lines appeared  and we were left to scan pure prairie, my thoughts conjured up visions of the historic aboriginal life.  For  centuries, the many plains aboriginal communities roved through this area, following the buffalo or attending some celebration that might be hundreds of miles from their homes.  It was near here that Sitting Bull's Lakota tribe found a short-lived sanctuary after Little Big Horn.  The closer we got to the Cypress Hills the more desolate was the short-grass prairie and it was easy to imagine the vast herds of buffalo wandering and roving tribes traversing the immense open spaces. 

We  knew that for centuries the grassland was home to vast herds of bison.  And, while the bison may be gone, wildlife flourished where one may initially think it could not.  Deer, both whitetail and mule, antelope in good-sized herds, coyotes, foxes, badgers, raccoons, weasels, gophers, squirrels, hawks and owls (including the rare burrowing owl) in some variety, waterfowl, songbirds, shore birds, upland birds, and eagles.  An astounding variety for what at first glance seems a lifeless terrain.  Walking, as opposed to driving, helps reveal this abundance of life.

I keep saying the prairie is full of surprises. Maybe it's because we're expecting tedium, like the passenger train fares who cross the prairie at night and think only of the mountains.  They miss much of what makes North America great.  The familiar images of farmhouses, outbuildings, pastures, and cultivated expanses are all well represented, only not as frequently as they were when we grew up used to quarter-section farms.  Some of the cultivated fields are seemingly endless and we joke that a man could spend his entire career swathing one field.  Yet we also encounter many shallow lakes and sudden valleys cut by small streams and the main watercourses of Southern Alberta - the Bow, the Oldman, and the Milk.  Where we were, Willow Creek meandered eastward carving a  beautiful  valley with impressively sharp cliffs. The valley hosted a variety of willows and stubby thickets of rose bushes.  And it is here that the prairie of history, the one sloshing about in our imagination, continues to exist.  We believe we're seeing the country in its unadulterated state.  Alas, it is not so.  Fences still extend into the valleys, rusting farm equipment lies half hidden by the bushes, and decades of grazing cattle have cut durable paths through the rose thickets. Man's pushy nature continues to alter these wonderful sites but it is not without some pushback - the foxes raid the chicken coop, the deer and antelope ignore fences, geese and cranes eat the crops, coyotes lure dogs away from the homestead.  But mostly the animals accommodate and adapt. 

The surprise comes when the visitor realizes the richness of life on this treeless prairie and rejoices, as the native cultures and settlers might have on a summer night, to be part of such a beautiful and endless world.

One lone pheasant after three days of hunting and walking.  And not one complaint.

Robert Alan Davidson
February, 2017


My Life in Politics

 It wasn't much of a life, really.  It mainly deals with the time in the mid-1980's when I volunteered to help a man running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, a position that at that time also guaranteed the man (no women were conspicuously  involved at this time) would also be Premier of Alberta (America equivalency is the Governor), while opposition parties were doomed to permanent obscurity and media snubs.

Anyway, it wasn't my first leap into this sordid arena.  My father ran for MLA (the equivalent of a state representative) in 1955 in Wainwright and I helped him hand out brochures and tack posters to telephone poles.  He was a Liberal candidate running in a province dominated by the Social Credit party.  I'm not biased, of course, but dad was a quantum improvement on the straw-chewing rube incumbent but that cut no ice in rural Alberta. Straw-chewing rubes were popular. My father lost decisively. The Social Credit party could have run a garden slug and not even bothered to endorse him.  It was my first exposure to the intellectual vacuum that was Alberta politics.

In 1965, bright-eyed from four years of college training, I agreed to act as campaign manager for a co-worker running for alderman in Edmonton.  My candidate, a Mr. Basset, was a nice man with no real political ambition beyond fighting for some community issue I've long forgotten, maybe a leash law or a plan to remove the slivers from the park slides.  His problem was twofold - no one knew who he was, even many of his neighbors, and this was in the days before the ward system so every aldermanic candidate was a city-wide candidate. The upshot was that no less than 70 candidates were on the ballot to fill 7 positions.  It was chaos.  Imagine trying to select 7 favorites from a list of 70. Many Edmonton voters couldn't count to 70.  My great achievement in this short campaign was listening to some of the most stultifying brain-dead campaign speeches in the history of representative government.  The incumbent aldermen were overwhelming favorites even if their collective brain-power would hit a wall with 8th grade algebra. Modesty prohibits me from touting my campaign slogan "For a civic asset, vote Basset".  He liked it, finished 35th and said he'd had enough. I agreed.  Given his fundamental anonymity, I credit the slogan for the 35th place finish, although it could have "Basset" being near the front of the ballot.

In 1970, i was asked to be campaign manager for a lupine young lawyer trying to latch onto the Lougheed bandwagon.  We didn't get along.  He was a duplicitous piece of shit and an affront, I thought, to whatever fresh new honesty was emanating from Lougheed's young corral of candidates. The smirking creep was a harbinger of the greasy conservatives we find in North American politics today.  We parted company in short order. Fortunately, the electorate found him as distasteful as I did and he quickly lapsed into anonymity.

So now it's 1985 and I volunteer to help a Calgary MLA who I have never met.  Yet, he was a rare honorable man who as a backbencher had sponsored a lot of worthwhile legislation.  He was someone with a vision of a better Alberta.   Unfortunately, he was running a distant third to an ex-football player who parlayed an easy-going manner into  a durable political career, even if he always seemed a tad distracted by his real love in life, betting on the ponies.  In second place was a hotel owner who parlayed a mop of black hair, a mouthful of perfect teeth and a smile that could endure a thumbscrew into a challenge for party leadership.

One Wednesday night in October, I drove the 25 miles out to Stony Plain at attend a election for party delegates for the leadership convention.  This is politics at its rawest, rural folk gathering to recommend which of their neighbors deserved the trip to Calgary in November. These people were - as Gene Wilder so accurately described in "Blazing Saddles" - the 'common clay, you know, morons.'   It was a prescient description.

My job was a) to hand out brochures for my guy in the vain hope the material would sway stolid minds at the last minute and b) help with the vote count or scrutineering.  I felt I was fulfilling my community obligation.     

The handing out of brochures went badly.  This was a well-attended affair and i was busy trying to accost people as they rushed in the door.  Most of them ignored me.  But in two separate incidents, a man, then a lady, reminded me of something I truly did not know and would not have cared had I known.  "You know he's a fucking Jew, eh?"  they both barked.  I stood gaping after the first one but had the presence of mind on the second to remind the lady that at least he didn't fuck the sheep like some I could name.  This was obviously a sensitive subject in the Stony Plain area as she spent most of the night glaring at me and slapping her husband on the arm. I had forgotten anti-semitism lived in Alberta        

Next came the speeches.  The idea was the crowd would vote to see which six people from their community would be selected to attend the leadership convention and, believe it or not, no less than 45 men and 3 women announced their wish to be one of those six.  48 people for 6 spots!  Holy democratic overkill!  It would be fair of you to ask at this point why such a modest political outcome could generate such a huge interest.  Well, I'm afraid the answer has little to do with democratic town hall enthusiasm and more to do with the possibility that getting close to the Premier could be good for one's bank account.  Surely everyone knew there was a zillion publicly-appointed jobs that paid obscenely high wages, fees, and benefits and are landed due to proximity to the Premier.   The zeal was, in truth, plain old avarice.  Help your boy gain the Premier's office and he'll surely reward you.  What can you say about a political system in which the citizen sees the guy at the top as a dollar sign?

Anyway, tradition dictated that each of these 48 hopeful trough feeders got to make a speech telling the crowd what made them worthy of being selected. The prospect of 48 decidedly untrained public speakers stammering for support was nothing if not daunting and could easily become a brain-killing marathon that lasted until sunup. That would not do.  So each candidate was given one minute to make his or her case.  One minute.  

You haven't lived until you hear 48 one-minute speeches by non-public speakers.   They ranged from "Uh, you know me  . . . Clyde Stool .   . uh"  to "I'mFredFrutzandIcanserveyouallrealgood andyouseknowitsovoteformeyahear."  It was pure agony, a display of mass insanity and I have no idea how the crowd actually decided who to vote for other than they were each introduced as someone representing one of the three premier candidates.  The two men and one woman who stood up for my guy were booed.  So much for my brochures.

They voted - it took a while and the cliche, "herding cats' was front and centre.  Eventually, though, I joined six other people in a second-story windowless room to do our duty as scrutineers.  Keep in mind here, I had never done this before.   How hard could it be?

Well, hard enough.  Seems no one had any idea as to what was to be done.  Three boxes full of voting slips sat ominously on the floor, the six scrutineers eying them as if they were props from an Indiana Jones movie about to release some unspeakable scourge.  No one said anything.  They were waiting to be told what to do.  It occurred to me at this point that unless somebody did something, we'd be stuck in this room until those voting slips turned to dust.

Did I mention this room was a tad on the warm side?  Did I mention that all six of my colleagues smoked - aggressively?   If I was going to survive, I needed to move.  So I took over, acted like I knew what I was doing and let common sense run the show.  I paired them off and gave each pair a box and a letter-sized pad of note paper.  After a long time spent instructing each pair with an exact set of steps to record the vote, handle the voting slip, and deal with possible anomalies, they began to count, stopping only to light up another cigarette.   I stepped out of the room for a minute.  The crowd below milled about like cattle twitching at the sound of a thunder storm, most of them chain-smoking and acting like the Vatican freaks watching for a puff of white smoke to announce a new pope.

After what seemed like days, the count was finished.  A lot of work probably for what was a foregone conclusion - the football player with a love for the thoroughbreds won handily.  My guy and Mr. Hair/Smile both finished well up the track.   In the end the football player became Premier of Alberta and I'm guessing the six duly elected bozos from Stony Plain immediately sat down by their phones to await the reward that would surely come.

In the meantime, it took me two laundries and two showers to get rid of the tobacco smell.  My career in politics was over.  And I still quiver when I hear the political cliche, "a smoke-filled room".

Robert Alan Davidson

March, 2018

Saturday, December 31, 2016


I’m an asshole.   There.  I’ve said it.   Sometimes we just have to come to grips with who we are.   I’m seventy-five years old and have had ample time to practice my asshole-ness. 

You can see people muttering the word when they see me practicing my “special skills”; a) Howling imprecations at anyone caught crying in a television interview (I am amazed at the number of people who can cry AND talk at the same time) b) Refusing to bow my head for anything, save, perhaps, a moment to remember the war dead and c) Holding my arms akimbo when encountering a phalanx of joggers on the trail and watching them scatter (they don’t like sharing the trail and expect anyone they meet to step off the path until they pass, rude bastards), d) Laughing at a politician’s patriotism speech and e) Telling sales reps of all types to “take a hike” before they’re halfway through their smarmy spiels.

It gets worse. Quite often – too often, some say – when I am surprised by something, my response is ‘What the fuck?’    Loudly.  It never fails to gain attention in a place like Costco or Safeway (precipitated perhaps by the price of cheese in a country awash in dairy products. But it could be anything really.  I’m dismayed by a great many things).  I tell myself I am so ill-mannered due to the neuropathy in my hands which leads to many unexpected and unhappy mishaps but it’s really because I am an asshole who doesn’t care much about what people think and is very cynical about the state of mankind.  And, I submit, my expletive is no worse to a listener’s ears than hearing “I’m a proud Chamber of Commerce member” or “Can I give you a testament to what Jesus said?” or “What a wonderful reality TV show!” or “Our insurance company really cares.”

I’m particularly aggrieved by government and corporate misbehavior.  I’m no tea partyer but I cannot tolerate any government organization that defaults on its purpose and focuses instead on itself and not the people it was meant to serve.  But government is not the real bad guy when it comes to abusing people. The corporate shitheads that run our lives would have us believe that Big Government is THE problem but Big Corporations are far more insidious when it comes to robbing people of their rights, their wealth, and their opportunities.  The truth (aah, there’s a concept) is that any organization that gets too big, too powerful, and too set in its ways is, by definition, corrupt and deserving of sudden dismantling.  I love free enterprise but mega-corporations no longer have any connection with a healthy business climate – if you don’t believe me, check your local shopping mall and tell me how many local businesses are in there.   If you’re lucky, maybe three.  If I had to choose, I’d take Big Government over Big Corporation. Both lie egregiously and thrive on insane rules but government does it because they think you’re not listening while corporations do it because they think you’re stupid and their lies and rules will help profits. At least with the former I have the illusion I have a role in controlling it.  The Big Corporation, however, is not my friend and never will be.

I wasn’t always a confessed asshole (Although I’m sure there is a small legion of people who found it easy over the years to associate the word with moi).  No, I grew up bending over backwards to accommodate people, always giving them the benefit of the doubt and attributing the best of motives to everyone’s actions. My generosity of spirit made the Dalai Lama look like Archie Bunker.    

However, it eventually dawned on me that this was a thankless and painful way to live, that the vast majority of people simply interpreted my warm understanding as a potentially fatal mental deficiency.  At roughly the same time I realized my Hollywood notions of right and wrong and good and evil were childishly simplistic, if difficult to discard.   I gave all that up to join a discouragingly small number of earthlings who devote their lives to keeping barbarians from the gates, as it were. Those barbarians come from all ends of the economic, social, and political spectra, their ranks filled with the assiduously stupid, the amoral right wing, and the loutish rich (of whom St Aubyn once said ‘too often they are the shrill pea in the whistle of their possessions’).  

One might think that with a mindset like that I would assume a stoical demeanor, practicing forbearance and levelling baleful looks of dismay.   No, I fight back with my asshole-ness. Being an asshole means you are aware other people see you that way but this is set against your perception of the vast majority of them being barbaric, self-absorbed dolts.  From this, you can understand why my behavior is so much more satisfying than forbearance.

But being an asshole goes deeper.  My finely-honed cynicism works deeply, creating clear lines of distinction between positive and negative influences in my life.  It’s just that I can switch from one to the other with startling speed.   The positive, for me, consists of “the small” – as in small pleasures, unassuming people who ask questions, small groups of friends, and small victories.   Oh, I tell myself I still care about people even if I don’t spend much time showing it – no volunteer work, no reaching out, and only rarely moved by the endless emotional drivel that parades shamelessly through every news broadcast.    My family seems to tolerate my profanity and cynicism, undoubtedly inured by so many years of the old man lashing out at real and perceived injustices, tempered always by my love for them.

So you can see I am not without caring.   If an elderly woman drops her cane, do I reach down to retrieve it?   Of course I do.    If someone slips and falls, do I offer a hand to lift them up?   Without question.   If a toddler topples his mommy into a rack of grapefruit after she slaps him in public, do I help her to her feet?  Hah! I play boxing referee and raise the kid’s arm in the air.  If a beleaguered motorist needs to change lanes in busy traffic, do I slow to let him in?    I dare say I am well known for such consideration.    Do I curse the same driver when he blithely ignores my generosity?    Roundly.   Now this particular shithead represents ALL that is wrong with society today – entitlement, self-absorption, poor foresight, and stupidity.   The switch from benign to malign was seamless – and sudden.     

But it is the negative that occupies too much of my thoughts, sad to say.   In my advanced years, I still can’t fathom why we’re unable to achieve any sort of cooperative society (discounting the remote possibility I am one of the reasons).   Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I thought society was making progress – and I think we were.  But then the Reagan years appeared and, since then, we’ve slipped back into a cruel capitalistic world discouragingly similar to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.    The rich, the politicians, the courts, and the banks hold sway in the name of wealth and property and the populace is kept quiet with the numbing bullshit of television and the media.  Public debate is nothing but a shrill exchange of meaningless distinctions having nothing to do with real issues.    Barbarians at the gates?   You betcha.   

So, unless someone can demonstrate to me that they’re not part of this socio-economic-political sewer, chances are they’ll see my asshole persona. It’s obvious I’ve capitulated to the Rude Side and I acknowledge this.  I’ve become what I once deplored.     Still, there’s a modicum of hope lurking in these curmudgeonly bones.   Maybe I’ve just been running into an abnormal glut of people whose batting average of humanity lies somewhere below the Mendoza line.   Unfortunately, every time my Pollyanna soul peeks out to test the winds, a gust of mindless greed sends it scuttling back inside.

One of these days I’m going to be pleasantly surprised when a Walt Disney-ish scenario of some sort comes alive in my community and everyone dances with a collective joy.  But at seventy-five, it had better hurry.  And, either way, I won’t recant.  I may smile and pat everyone on the back, but I’ll be watching.  That’s what assholes do.

Robert Alan Davidson

June, 2016

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Why this is so is, perhaps, an "age-sensitive" reflection.   Motor travel, rural or otherwise, is arguably less interesting today than it was sixty years ago.  The vehicles are more dependable, the roads are wider, smoother and better engineered and the cell phone keeps us moored to a familiar world.   But, there was a time  . . .

Discounting the improvements cited above, the 1950's might have been the golden age for motoring. Major highways were being paved; motels and "auto courts" proliferated, some with swimming pools and vibrating beds; and a middle class was growing with higher paycheques and longer vacations.  Holidays to far away places could be contemplated. It was an exciting time.

But it was a different kind of excitement in rural Alberta.  In this still raw country, the narrow secondary roads were gravel and dirt, well-rutted and notable for yawning mudholes in the summer, treacherous ice in the winter.  Cars, with no AC, were stifling in summer, and, with wonky heaters, freezing in winter.  Gas lines froze quickly and windshield washer was a handful of snow thrown at the window.  Oil needed to be changed to accommodate the lower temperatures but when it turned really cold, as in -30 F or lower, no oil could be coaxed to move. Volatile weather could alter the driving conditions with startling speed. Albertans who traveled these roads to socialize or earn a living were constantly urged to plan for contingencies and, if they were smart, have a passenger with some knowledge of auto mechanics.  Basic knowledge included changing tires, changing fan belts, priming a stalled engine, starting a car with the "push and pop the clutch" method, identifying and remedying electrical shorts, and some experience driving in mud, snow and especially on ice, the latter a high art form.   

All this excitement was magnified for young people driving in winter.  Socializing  with sports or dances involved driving to another community, sometimes a community that was considerable distance.   This was never a deterrent.

As they have since Fred met Wilma, young people will travel great distances to attend a dance.  On the Canadian prairies, country dances were very popular.  I grew up (sort of) in Wainwright in southeastern Alberta and some of the small hamlets and farming districts within a 30 mile radius of town were:  Marsden, Heath, Greenshields, Fabyan, Irma, Kinsella, Gilt Edge, Passchaendale, Ribstone, White Cloud, Ascot, Pelican (Odd, because Pelicans were never seen this area), Rosedale, and Paradise Valley.  They all had their own community hall. A weekend with no dances was rare.

Easily the most popular event was the wedding dance.  How word got out that a couple were to be married was seldom advertised widely, but today's users of social media would be impressed over how fast word got around.  In one's social circle, there need to be only one person with even a nodding acquaintance with either the bride or the groom or their families to warrant a carload dropping in on the festivities.  The newlyweds and their families never knew they had so many friends.  The attraction, of course, was free admittance and free food, often the best food many would eat that entire winter.

The protocol of country dances leaned toward the rigid:  smiles, handhakes, and backslaps upon entry; nervous shuffling as people worked out whether or not they should even be there; three couples on the dance floor for whom dancing was life; covert drinking out in the car; awkward approaches to members of the opposite sex after the alcohol loosened the reserve; a break around ten for lunch, and constant male strutting displays that often ended in a brawl, preferably outside.  But, no brawling at a wedding dance.  Fistfights at such a celebration were considered bad form.  

When midnight arrived, the last waltz was played, and the band began packaging their equipment.  Dreamy couples slowly broke their embraces and dispersed for the long trip home. Everyone agreed, it had been great.

Sometimes the trip home was interrupted. Sometimes, a little bad luck, a nasty change in the weather, a mechanical breakdown, or an act of colossal stupidity prevented a car from making it home directly.

When a car broke down or a ditch was driven into, or a snowstorm halted any movement, or a gas tank coughed to say it was empty,  a carload of young people was suddenly immobilized out on the bald prairie. Cell phones were still 40 years in the future so there was no calling for help or roadside assistance. They were on their own.   In winter, this could be dangerous.

Once the severity of their situation was assessed, the suddenly-sober car inhabitants would start walking.  Staying with the car and hoping another would appear at that hour of the morning was seldom a good idea.  Depending upon how cold it was, the sense of urgency ranged from "Oh, we'll find something" to "There better be a light on over that next hill or we're in trouble."   Too often the clothing was less than adequate for winter trekking. This was the great winter-dance conundrum:  Dress for the worst OR look your best?  The former was such a distant second in this debate that emergency clothes were seldom even considered.  Trust to luck, instead. The boys were likely in oxfords and the girls in mary janes.

Shivering would start immediately and everyone's eyes would strain to discern a light.

By the late 1950's most farmers had a power supply and a party line telephone.  A few of the well off farmers installed yard lights, a brilliantly luminous rebuttal to the long dark winter nights.

But the real, warming beacon was seeing the light on in a farm house.   The stranded youth would quicken their pace and thin smiles might appear.
On the other hand, if no light was on, the shivering walkers had to hope the owners could be rousted.  The prospect of trudging on to the next farm was almost unthinkable.

If a light was on, the sense of relief was substantial.  Boys would then listen for the dog.  All farms had dogs and some were dogs no stranger wanted to meet.  But in the cold of winter, most farmers let the dog sit by the hearth.

One boy would knock on the door. It was never a timid knock.

As a town person who never lived on a farm, I really can't appreciate how shocking that knock on the door must have been.  A loud interruption in the middle of a dark winter's night out where the nearest neighbor is a half mile away?    No sound of a vehicle entering the yard?  Today, they'd make a TV special out of it.

The dog would bark.  After what seemed a very long time, a man would come to the door.  It always took him so long, a boy's imagination could run amok.  "What if he's going to get his shotgun? Taking the leash off his dog  . . .  Planning to lock the door and turn out the light . . . Calling the police  . . "  But, no, the door was opened.

The heat from the house was magnificent.  Initial thoughts ranged from "How can they keep a house this warm? Thank god the light was on. My feet are frozen.  What's that smell?  What could they possibly eat that smelled like that?  Are those haloes over their heads?  Whatever you do, don't curse. They may be religious.  Are we tracking up her nice clean floor? Where are their kids?  I think I love farmhouses. Is that dog really gentle?  What are they doing up at one o'clock in the morning?"    The girls would check out the kitchen, the worn linoleum floor; the oversized kitchen table with the oilcloth covering; the water hand pump next to the sink, the old wood stove, the faded paintings on the wall.

After an awkward silence the man would take over.  He would invite the girls not to worry about their shoes and go sit at the kitchen table. He let the boys tell him what happened..  

If the car had slid into the ditch, he would offer to fire up the Massey-Ferguson and pull the car back onto the road.   If it was a mechanical breakdown, he would be glad to help them in the morning.  After all, it was bitterly cold and one o'clock.  He would suggest using the phone to call for a ride, although, he would note wryly, anyone answering at the other end wouldn't be too thrilled, not to mention that, with the party line, his neighbours would also be irritated. Or, he could drive everyone into town, assuming they didn't live in Lloydminster or some place 70 miles away. 

Sometimes an especially dense boy would urge the farmer to address the mechanical problem, forgetting it was -15 F. outside, a north wind was blowing and the car was a notoriously fickle Studebaker.  At times like these, it was always cheering to watch the farmer silently eye the boy as if he was from another planet.

One way or another, the farm couple had provided sanctuary for a group of young people and perhaps saved them from real harm.   It's no wonder prairie people go through life often looking back to those cold nights when they were helped by two people who didn't know them, were likely to never see them again and who never asked for thanks.   Small wonder that light in the farmhouse window generates such warm thoughts.

I'll end by telling of my own worst experience.  Six of us, four boys and two girls were driving home from somewhere near Ribstone,  a small hamlet roughly 30 miles from Wainwright. I was driving my dad's company car, a gorgeous hot 1958 Pontiac.  I took a railway crossing at 50 miles an hour.  Given that the crossing was a sudden rise three feet or so higher than the road, slowing down might have been advisable.  But what kid wants to hear advice at 1 am?   When the car finally landed, it was still on the road but minus a functioning read end.  We rattled to a stop and assessed the situation.  It was bitterly cold and a vicious north wind kept us from taking more than a quick look at the damage.  Seeing a piece of the axle lying on the road more or less confirmed our predicament.  We weren't going anywhere.

Eventually we found a farmhouse occupied by two warm and wonderful people.  The man offered to drive us into town.  But, we protested, it's 30 miles.  Are you sure?  No matter, he replied.  Let me get the truck.

TRUCK?   Yes, the 2 girls in our group rode with him in the cab and we 4 boys huddled in the back of a half-ton truck as it bumped and slid though the snow and ice for 30 miles. Easily the worst ride of our young lives.  It was -20 and the wind was slicing us to ribbons.  After what seemed like hours, we were dropped off at the railway station. Our savior drove away without a word.     We were very grateful, but our limbs were too stiff to wave.  We could barely move our eyes and, like zombies, retired shakily to the warmth of the station's beanery.
For your information, my father took it well.

Robert Alan Davidson
December 2016.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


Here we are in the middle of 2016.  Ten thousand years or so of recorded history of man, plus thousands more years through which man reputedly evolved, and here we stand today, empty-headed.  Save a discouraging lot of unrepentant troglodytes who see nothing wrong with the world that a humvee and some more greed can’t fix, the rest of us struggle to make sense of a civilization that seems to be unravelling before our eyes.  It gets harder by the hour to find something to pin our hopes to and every day’s newsfront details yet another example of things that don’t work, things that are running out, things that can kill us, and things that, to our detriment,  we abused.

Arguably, the last 100 years has been a relentless exercise to discover just how mysterious and miraculous this thing called life is.   With mixed results. We marvel and scratch our heads and smile ruefully.   How did we get this far and know so little?  Have we asked the wrong questions?  Listened to the wrong answers?

Consider the sum total of human communication and history, written and verbal, proud and profane, that has washed up on the shores of our collective ears and brains over the ten millennia.  If we really are sapient creatures, as we would like to believe, how could so much thought and perceived brilliance produce so little results?  Certainly, we can point with some pride (I guess that’s the appropriate emotion, but I am by no means certain) at our technological advances even if they ring somewhat hollow when placed in the context of how we live with this small planet.  It’s as if we think our production of things can replace our home in this universe. 

The middle of 2016. . . . .    And, we know nothing. 

IF we are the default custodians of this planet (insects, bacteria, and certain marine life might argue this), and IF the time has come for us to begin to take responsibility for living with each other within our means, then a sea change in something/everything? might be something we need to look at.    Maybe we could pin down some absolutes about our existence on this earth?  Or are we doomed to sit forever in this chattering classroom where it’s too often impossible to glean value from opinion, whimsy, and malicious intent?

Is it possible to build a consensus based upon what we do know?  We’re alive.  Life on this little planet is nothing if not precarious.  Species have come and gone with alarming regularity and there is no reason for us to suppose we might be any different.  Recent discoveries tell us we know little about the world of the very small and even less of the world of the very large. We consistently overlook the complex interconnectedness of things.  We’re trapped at present in a very narrow world that we have arrogantly considered the ‘real’ world, only because that’s all our eyes and minds can tell us. 

How do we balance life on this planet?  Get past the idea that bigger is better?  Learn to feed everyone?  Try to figure out if our competitive natures are learned or innate?  Maintain a world succeeding generations can live in?  Realize that war is bad for everyone?  Limit population growth?  Recognize that our respective heritages have little redeeming value but our shared future could be exciting?

Are we doomed to forever ‘nibble’ at these questions?

I have a suggestion.  A long shot, I know but sometimes life moves ahead with long shots.  And we must forge on, mustn’t we?

Without going into the undeniable abuses of wealth, it is also true that many of our most illustrious achievements came as a result of the actions of the rich – from the de Medici’s to the Carnegie’s, great things can happen when those that ‘have’ turn their attention to loftier aims.

One commodity we do have in abundance is the wealthy.  The past thirty years have seen an explosion in the concentrations of great wealth.  There is much to decry about the evils of wealth at the expense of a living standard for the rest, but the sad fact is it’s been a hallmark of every civilization we’ve ever been able to study.    Try as we might, sharing the wealth has never enjoyed anything more than sporadic success.  So if we can’t beat them, maybe we can enjoin them.

The frightening book, “Dark Money”, tells us how the Koch’s, the Coors,  the Mellons and their greedy ilk, successfully lavished hundreds of millions of dollars to influence politics, universities, schools, and the courts.  They dressed up their politics to have it appear as if they were appealing to the need for smaller government and more self-reliance, but the ugly fact was – and is – they craved only that they a) pay little or no taxes and b) operate without any oversight by any government.  If they wanted, say, to let a liquid butane leak fester without dealing with it, well,  that’s just business.  Too bad about those people it blew to bits. What they did was put some lipstick on the pig of greed and America is still buying into it.  As one opponent put it, “their political theory is nothing more than a rationalization for self-interest.”  Their success has been unqualified.  Their efforts to stymie government, influence legislation calling for reduced oversight, and  achieve tax breaks for the rich has paid huge dividends for them.  If you’re wondering how the Republican party could be represented in Congress by so many nitwits who openly thumb their noses at anything designed to benefit the average American, simply remember the Koch’s and the mayhem they sow just to dodge taxes and oversight.

So, if these mentally-deranged billionaires (the vast majority  of whom inherited their money) can influence life on our planet  so easily and so malignly, why couldn’t the sane billionaires (and there are many) achieve even greater results by applying themselves to  saving this planet and our democratic institutions?

For instance, as laudable as Bill and Melissa Gates’ altruistic efforts have been, they could aim higher.  As could their comrades in wealth.  Why not try something REALLY big?  Why not do what the Koch’s are doing, only this time for the good of all?  Instead of buying sports franchises and grotesque toys, why not become a patron of thought?  The super rich are literally beholden to no one (not even the IRS, it seems) and they can/could do what governments cannot/will not.  They could foster yeasty environments in which answers/solutions/new questions could be generated.   Instead of buying a flight on the space shuttle, build a school - next door to Harvard if that’s what is called for - and buy some flights of intellectual fancy that might lead to a safer, more secure future?

Suggestions?   Keeping in mind my bias is perfecting a society in which all can live comfortably and peaceably and recognizing many people don’t buy into that bias, I will nonetheless offer these ideas:  a) Find a way to make democracy work without undue influence from money; b) Reduce bureaucracy and red tape (every additional administrative overlay simply lessens program delivery); c)  Revamp the education system so instead of semi-literate consumers, we graduate independent thinkers who can adapt; d) Reduce the influence of Wall Street in American life (their original role as a source of funds for new ventures has long since disappeared, replaced by a skittish repository for insiders and, alas, pension funds; e) Population control without genocide, nuclear weapons, or plagues; f) Providing enough food, water, and clean air to enable our species (and the others) to survive, and g) Help build a society that cares.    Being rich and successful, I’m sure  my prospective patrons  have their own ideas – keeping in mind we’re talking about spending money for good, not to preserve wealth at all costs.  The Koch’s have cornered that market anyway.

So, all you people who now, through hard work, brains, and luck, truly have more money than you know what to do with, I’m asking you to wake up to new possibilities for your strength and  commitment.  Plan a garden of thought and set up a market for ideas.  Make things better.

Let’s stop wallowing in the dismal realization of how little we have advanced. 
Let’s take our planet back from those greedy shitheads for whom corporate profit trumps EVERYTHING else   Let’s begin the process of becoming what the science fiction writers call an ‘advanced’ civilization.  Go, “Good Moneybags”, go.

And, by the way, when you do come up with some answers, don’t hire a team of spin doctors to pass the news on.  Please.  Too much of that has put us into this mess.  Just tell it to us straight. And, finally, don’t expect an outpouring of gratitude for any good that you do.  My experience has been people are rarely thankful for getting something that benefits them.  Maybe they just see it as their due.  You have to look for those precious few who are thankful and know, from that, that all things are possible.  Maybe we could help out by complaining less about higher taxes and voting responsibly.

Robert Alan Davidson

June 2016