01/25/13

Another day on the job in Paradise… chapter one


Mayor QuimbyMayor Ralph “Bosco” Hearne, whistling softly “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” under his breath, gazed at the wood-and-polished-brass, 19th-century front doors of town hall and nodded slightly in approval. He stopped whistling, paused, and breathed out a gentle sigh of satisfaction. The gleam of the brass was unobstructed; his view extended through the big glass window clear into the atrium and to the back with its veined marble wall without a single thing to distract it. A few short minutes and the doors would open; town hall would be bustling with staff; residents would come and go, doing their municipal business, checking tax records, buying dog tags. Yet at almost 8:30, with the sun already peering onto the main street, there was no one waiting to be let in; no one tapping impatiently at the glass trying to attract staff’s attention; no one pacing nervously in front of the doors and muttering darkly at the inability of staff to tell time.

Any morning that began with an empty entranceway promised to be a good day for Mayor Hearne, because any day that began without an early morning encounter with Caroline Rune was a morning to enjoy. Meeting her always involved a tirade led into a slew of accusations about how he and council were trying to destroy not only the town, but the region and even democracy in general. Not seeing her waiting for him gave him hope he would not develop one of those nail-in-the-temple headaches before noon. He could keep the whiskey locked up in his desk drawer until at least mid-afternoon. It could, just maybe, be a normal day in town hall, maybe even in all of Neuville.

He looked up and down the street, a little nervously, expecting any moment to see a harridan in full flight coming towards him, but the sidewalk was empty, except for old Nick Charnley slowly sweeping in front of his bookstore; his daily exercise, after which he would retreat behind a desk and remain there until closing, nose deep in a book.  And down further a young couple were emerging from the doughnut shop with hands full of coffee and sugary delights, laughing. A few pigeons pecked at the curb, undisturbed by the noise and bustle of pedestrians that would soon develop. Another day in paradise. Mayor Hearne smiled and stepped towards the door, fumbling a bit for his keys.

Before he could retrieve them, inside, a dark figure coalesced from the shadows and waved in his direction. He saw only the silhouette, but he knew who it was. Janet Sparling, the mayor’s executive assistant. She opened the door, smiled, and took his briefcase from him, then glanced hurriedly up and down the street before closing the door with a satisfying snick of the lock.

Hearne and his assistant exchanged sly smiles at the empty streetscape. No one said the name; no one wanted to invoke the demons of bad luck and thus draw down on them the fury of Caroline.There was, after all, a hurricane once named Caroline and it caused only a fraction of the havoc the local one had wreaked upon the town staff.

“Morning, Janet,” Hearne said, and headed to his corner office with his assistant tailing behind. His Blackberry buzzed at his waist, but he ignored it. “Anything up today?”

“Nothing much this morning. A meeting with Tony from the developers’ association at 10, something about east end servicing. Andy wants to speak to you about the waste water plant and I’ve got him in at 10:45. I think he wants money for an upgrade. I told him he should wait until for budget before bringing it up, but he insisted. Kelly is coming at 11:30 to discuss a library issue, something about personnel, probably wants more front desk staff because Judy is retiring this year. And then you have a ribbon cutting at noon for the new hair salon on Barricade Street. But nothing booked until 10, so I pulled out the county report for you to go over. They want it reviewed by council before the end of the month.”

Janet’s idea of “nothing much” was usually a day where meetings were scheduled to allow bathroom breaks between them, but little else. For her a busy day meant overlapping appointments, a slate of crucial decisions that had to be made within minutes, and photo-op commitments until at least 8 p.m. All without the breaks. Lunch, if he was lucky enough to grab it, would be a toasted bagel, usually received cold, then shovelled into his mouth between meetings or in his car, rinsed down by enough coffee to keep half the town jittery and awake for a week. Janet lived to fill his schedule. For her an hour without a scheduled event was a personal failure to fulfill her job requirements.

“But this afternoon is a bit busy,” she continued, following him into the office and putting his briefcase on his desk as the mayor looked at the full inbox with a frown. The county report was bulging over the sides. “You’ve got the police services board about the upcoming police contract talks at one, at 1:45 the mall owners are coming in. They want to you to lower their taxes so they can attract more businesses. At 2:30 the downtown merchants have a petition about pigeon control they want to present at the next council meeting. And the animal shelter wants the town to pay for more dog runs. They’ll be here at 2:45. Then at three, you have to present a certificate for 25 years in business to the Smalleys at their clothing store. Not the secondhand one on Wine Street, the one on Carson. And then the paper wants Sean to interview you about the condition of the bridge over the Beau River. I have that scheduled for 3:30. But I’ll bet he wants to sneak in some questions about your brother’s trip to Florida last winter. Betty overheard him saying something at the coffee shop last week and she thinks he plans to phone the condo office to find out who paid for it. After that the planning department wants…”

“Don’t you ever stop to take a breath?” Hearne interrupted, and then laughed when she looked hurt. “Sorry. I sometimes wonder what a day without a crisis, a crucial meeting that couldn’t be postponed, or a ribbon cutting would be like. Have I got time to call the flower shop and order something for my anniversary this week?”

“Already done. A nice arrangement. I asked them for something tropical, maybe some ginger blossoms and a bird of paradise or two. Tasteful but not too expensive. I used your credit card. The personal one, of course, not the town’s. Don’t want to upset you-know-who. I’ve also booked you and the missus at the steak house for dinner at seven, but you’ll have to leave by 8:30 because the Presbyterian church has a service to pray for peace in Somalia and they expect you to be there. So that means just one glass of wine and no liqueur afterwards.”

“You always amaze me, Janet. You’re so efficient that one day the dictionary will have your picture instead of a definition of the word. Thanks. Let me get started on this report before the masses start to line up. Are there any staff comments to go along with it, or am I on my own?”

“The rec department report is attached, and planning sent an e-mail…”

She never got to finish. The words got caught in her throat by a screeching, “A ha!” from the hallway that made the mayor’s teeth hurt and dogs within a quarter mile perk up their ears ready to bark. Caroline Rune had arrived, unseen and late, but certainly not unheard. “There you are! Mayor Hearne, I know what you and council are planning for the old Brown property and if you go ahead, I promise you there will be hellfury and damnation.”

“Morning, Caroline,” said Hearne, trying not to roll his eyes and shake his head. Janet put a hand to her mouth, and debated within herself whether to step between them or flee to her own office. The choice was between ignoble flight and putting her hands, at least metaphorically, into a raging blender. She chose flight, and, nodding apologetically at Hearne, scuttled past the woman in the doorway to the safety of the hallway beyond.

“Won’t you have a seat?” Hearne asked, resignedly, feeling the edge of that headache creeping up and pressing on his temples. He pointed at a chair across from his desk, then rubbed his temples with small circular motions. “Perhaps you could tell me what you think we’ve done so I can set the record straight and get on with my day’s work.”

“I don’t think,” the woman replied as she stepped towards the chair, then sat down heavily. “I know.”

Hearne gave her a tired smile, refusing himself the opportunity to make a wisecrack at her statement. Once upon a time he had had a crush on Caroline Rune, back when she was Caroline Crumby. Back in the school days, those hormone-filled teen years, so long ago. When he still played football, and he didn’t pack the oversize midriff he sported these days. Back then Caroline, to his testosterone-laced jock brain, was a hottie. Back then Caroline didn’t dabble in crystals, astrology, UFOs, or politics. Back then Caroline didn’t build conspiracy theories out of every council motion or bylaw.

She was still a slim, attractive woman, with shoulder-length brown hair and a shapely figure for her age. As long as you didn’t look at her eyes, didn’t look into the slightly wild and whirling pupils, you might still be attracted to her. Until, of course, she opened her mouth. Once that happened, you entered a world that belonged in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Or the X-Files. Something not quite connected with reality. A fantasy of lies, conspiracies and accusations in which Mayor Hearne played a leading role.

For Caroline, everything was a conspiracy. From changing the parking rates to zoning amendments, she saw the dark hand of evil forces at work, saw the local branch of the Illuminati pulling the strings from the shadows. In an age of vampire pop, Hearne was her Nosferatu.

As he lowered himself into his leather chair, Caroline was busy digging into her purse. She pulled out a sheaf of papers and waved them at the mayor, the rustle of the sheets loud in the room.

“I mean to file these today. I will find out what you’re doing. And once I do, I will tell everyone about your plans. I will tell the press. I will post it on Facebook. I don’t care what it costs. People have to know.”

Freedom of Information requests. A dozen, maybe more from the look of it. She filed at least that many almost every week, so many that the clerk’s office kept a supply of them with her name and address pre-printed, just for Caroline’s unceasing demands. But this week she looked like she would outdo herself in filing. She tucked the papers back into her bag and settled back with a satisfied smile, waiting for the mayor to respond.

“Okay, Caroline, I give up,” he said. “What have we done now? Last I recall, we were entertaining a request to re-zone the property so a developer could build a strip mall out on the east end of town. It’s all been done in public meetings. The Brown family sold the land after the old house fell down, and the new owner wants to change it from residential to commercial zoning. What’s wrong with that? Residents in the east end want something nearby so they didn’t have to drive into town just to get a bag of milk.”

“You can’t pawn me off with some lame excuse, Ralph Hearne. I know what’s going on. You and that cabal you call a council have been offered a lot of money to turn the east end into a resort and casino development. Once you get this foothold, you plan to expropriate all the homes along the waterfront and sell the land to developers. Of course you’ll get a kickback. Then you will take your wages of sin and buy properties in Bermuda or Barbados so you can live in luxury while the rest of us have to deal while the effects of crime, social degradation and gambling addiction decimate our community.”

“Come on, Caroline. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for you. We’ve got an application for a convenience store, an oil change shop, and a fishing tackle place. That’s a pretty long way from a casino and resort. You couldn’t fit a motel on that property, let alone a resort.”

“It’s just a smokescreen,” she replied. “I know you’ve been meeting with people from the government about building a secret casino. Lobbyists, too. There are rumours of big commissions being paid. Hush money to local real estate agents. I know what you’re planning. You’re going to make your brother manager, too. Keep the money in the family.”

“Caroline,” Hearne said, trying to smile but feeling it rise to a grimace. “Peter isn’t going to be manager of anything. He already has a job and he’s looking at retirement soon, not changing careers. No one’s proposing a casino or resort for the east end. I wish they would because we could use the taxes and jobs. But this is just a small strip mall, nothing more sinister than that.”

Nothing more? It’s a foot in the door for organized crime. The next thing you’ll be privatizing the road and turning the whole area into a gated community for crime lords and millionaires. Private facilities. Private clinics. I know what happens when they get a foothold. You want to make us into Las Vegas north. I will fight you to the bitter end, Ralph. I will file my Freedom of Information requests today so I can make it public and warn people about you.”

“It’s your money,” Hearne said, resignedly. “But you might want to save it for at least a week. We haven’t even approved the zoning change. Until then, there’s nothing much we can give you.”

“Wait?” Caroline snorted. “So you can direct staff to hide the records and falsify the reports like you always do? Not on your life, Ralph Hearne. You can fool others, but not me. I can file now and later. That way you won’t be able to hide anything.”

“I’m not trying to fool you, Caroline. I’m just trying to save you some money. But it’s yours and you can spend it anyway you wish. Did you get anything from the last requests you filed, the ones about the ice rink?”

Caroline glared at the mayor, then glowered at the doorway where Janet was seen fleetingly peering into the office. “You know I didn’t. You’ve got everything too well hidden.”

“I could have told you we weren’t planning to buy a fleet of helicopters for council’s personal use. It’s not something we could hide in the budget. Besides, where would we put  a dozen choppers?”

“Don’t patronize me, Ralph. I still believe you plan to put them in that tent you’re building over the ice rink. Why else would you want to cover it?”

“It’s not a tent, Caroline. It’s a high-tech architectural membrane structure. A tent is something you go camping in. And we wanted to cover it so kids could skate year-round.”

She sniffed. “Call it what you like. Might as well call it a bubble. We know it’s just another boondoggle. You’re building a hanger for your helicopters and your jets. No child in this town will ever skate inside it.”

Jets? Where’s the runway? Don’t we need a runway for jets?”

“Oh, you’ll build one, I know you. You’ve got plans to bulldoze all those houses on Lane Street so you can fly to your mansion in the Caribbean. You think we don’t know about this? That’s why you prevented Doctor Basildon from opening his clinic there. You need the space for your runway.”

“Caroline, Caroline,” Hearne muttered. “Where do you get these ideas? Basildon started building his clinic without permits, in an area zoned residential. We had to stop him from breaking the law. It was a minor delay for his own sake. We don’t want to have to charge him. We went out of our way to make it easy for him to get his paperwork in order and finish the construction.”

“You have not. You forced him to pay usurious charges for the privilege of creating jobs and paying taxes. You want to bankrupt him before he even opens his doors.”

“No, we don’t. He has to pay the same development charges and permit fees every other developer has to pay for a commercial property as per our bylaws and the county’s rules. They’re not secret. If he had applied for a permit before he started building, he would have known about them.”

“You could have given him an exemption as a medical clinic. It’s a necessary service. After all, you said we need the jobs, and the community desperately needs his medical services.”

“No we couldn’t. The province doesn’t allow us to bonus any private business. Even if we could, half of the charges are the county’s and we have no control over them. Besides, he’s a chiropractor and we already have more of them than we have doughnut shops in this town. A few extra weeks won’t make a lot of difference to our general well-being.”

“You are such an ignorant man, Ralph Hearne,” she snuffed. “It’s a wonder you ever got elected by anyone who can read. But we’ll change that, next election. For your information, Dr. Basildon is bringing the latest in proven alternative health services here. We will be the centre of a health care revolution in this province. The healing energy radiating from his site will cure everyone within miles, even if they’re not his patients. Think of the money everyone will save from not having to go to the doctor or hospital once he opens. We’ll be able to close the hospital in a few months. Of course that means you won’t be able to get your under-the-counter payback from the Ministry of Health any more.”

“Caroline, the ministry doesn’t give me a dime. You already looked into that, what, two months, three months ago? Basildon is planning to put in a hot tub with big magnets and crystals around it. The only thing that will change is the direction compasses point and a few lighter wallets. I don’t think the hospital will be able to close very soon.”

“Not like you’ll ever know. You’ll be flying to Antigua or Tortuga or some island paradise with the money you get from developers and crime lords long before he ever opens.”

“If I do, I’ll be sure to send you a postcard. Now is there anything else you need from me? I have several meetings today and need to read this…” He gestured at the county report in his inbox. “…sometime very soon. I’d like to get it started before I’m too old to lift it.”

“Your phone records. I want to see your phone records.”

“We’ve gone over this before, Caroline. You filed that request already and got them.”

“But the numbers were blanked out. You’re hiding them.”

“Like the clerk told you, the numbers are private and we need the permission of the caller to show them. We have to respect their privacy.”

“You think you can hide those calls you make to Antigua and your bank in the Bahamas? We’ll find the truth. You won’t get away with it forever. I’ll keep filing requests until the truth comes out.” At this she pulled the sheaf of papers out of her purse and brandished them at the mayor again.

Hearne sighed. “You do that. That’s the wonderful thing about living in a democracy. No one can stop you from spending your money on lost causes.”

But Caroline wasn’t listening. She was already on her feet and halfway out the door by the time he finished speaking. She headed in the direction of the clerk’s office. A few seconds later, Janet stuck her head in the doorway, looking sheepish. “Can I get you a coffee? Maybe a cookie or a doughnut?”

“Thanks, I could use the coffee. But I better pass on the dessert.” He patted his bulging midriff. “If it’s not too late, call the clerk’s office and warn them Caroline is on her way.”

“Already done. They have last week’s requests for her ready to go.”

“The ones about why we chose the heritage paint colours for downtown?”

“That and the correspondence on the shape of the new wayfinding signs.”

“That’ll be rivetting reading. I’m always tempted to drop in some hints about being abducted by aliens into my emails to staff and council. Give Caroline and her circle something to gnaw on for a while, the proof they’re always looking for. Council is controlled by aliens. The truth is out there, so they say.”

“Didn’t she already file for that when she got your automobile mileage reports? Something about travelling to Nevada?”

“Yeah, looking for unexplained trips to Area 51. I can’t keep track of all my secret meetings with the aliens and crime lords. I’m glad you manage my schedule for me. I might end up in Bogota when I’m supposed to be in a spaceship.”

Janet smiled, then vanished, heading briskly towards the front door and the coffee shop a few doors away. Ralph watched her go, briefly thought about going home and getting back into bed, then picked up the heavy county report and started reading.

…to be continued…

01/24/13

Not the expected blog post, I’m afraid


FrazzledSorry to disappoint those readers who expected this to be a blog post on ukuleles, tequila or our beautiful Mexican Sister City, Zihuatanejo (“Zee-hwa” for those in the know). I refer, of course, to comments in the recent parody video, in which my blog was commented upon (as if blogging was something conspiratorial, but it seems pretty much everything is, these days for some folks…).

However, my energies have of late been taken up by several other pressing projects, meetings and local political issues, so those topics have become back-burner projects. Sorry.

Speaking of conspiracies, my main research  – online and through books – these last two weeks has been on the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. This event irrevocably changed the politics of Florence, and of Italy, but how did it play in the development of the young Machiavelli’s political thought? Machiavelli was eight when the assassination attempt took place, and lived through the city’s wars and social unrest that raged for the next decade and a half. But few biographers discuss the event in anything more than passing mention.

The complexity of the Pazzi conspiracy has taken me much more time than I expected, because it involves so many people, states, and families. It has given me new insight into Florentine politics, and the opportunity to reread Machiavelli’s writing on conspiracies (real conspiracies, not the alien-abduction-reptiloid-mushroom-farm kind that saturates the internet). Eventually my research and conclusions will be written up as a post on my Machiavelli site (I’ve already written more than 1,200 words on it – still working on it).

OverworkedI have always believed – and have written in my two recent books – that blogging is important for municipal politicians. In fact, I have encouraged politicians and municipal staff to use all social media. It’s a way to engage with the electorate and to create a political perspective of yourself for residents. It’s a way to let people know the reason behind your vote or stand, to expand on comments made at the council table, and to get comments back from the electorate. But it’s not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart.

However, since blogging is simply a hobby, not a profession, I have to attend to other matters and work on more economically sustainable projects, like my next two books (drafts due at the publisher’s soon…). I am, after all, not retired, but simply a freelance writer who needs to earn an income and I have to prioritize… ;-)

I blog mostly because I love to write and it fulfills a need within me to be creative. I usually blog when something strikes me, rather than planning it in advance (some attempts at fiction being the exception). I kick around many ideas for posts but they don’t always get past the draft or idea mode. I will turn them into posts when I have the time. Perhaps then I will be able to live up to my readers’ expectations, and again write posts on ukuleles, tequila, and Mexico in the near future. I am buoyed by the knowledge that I will have a ready-made audience for them, when I do.

01/23/13

Foolish words that still resonate


FoolFoolosopher. What a wonderful word. Not much in use these days, but it ought to be. It is a portmanteau word, first used in English way back in 1549*, according to my copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It defines foolosopher as, “A foolish pretender to philosophy.” So foolosophy is therefore the “foolish pretence of philosophy.”

Philosophy comes from the Greek (philo and sophia), meaning, literally, “love of knowledge,” but more generally the word means just knowledge or reasoning (Johnson, 1755).

We suffer from a surfeit of foolosophers, these days, methinks. Thanks to the internet, foolosophers have sloughed the necessity of actually having to think about what they write. It’s inconvenient to actually read what they feel compelled to comment upon. Just think of any public issue or debate and there they are. In the past, foolosophers needed to grab a soap box and stand in a public space to express their rambling ideas and wild theories. Today all they need is a Facebook or Twitter account.

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1

Fool is a word that doesn’t get as much traction as it deserves these days. In an invective-dense culture, fool seems almost cutely antiquated, a little prim and schoolmarmy. When 10-year-olds drop the F-bomb with practiced ease, calling someone a fool lacks verbal punch. The word has such a range of meanings: there’s a world of difference between “my foolish heart,” “where fools rush in,” “fooling around,” “April fool’s” and Mr. T’s exclamation, “Fool!”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, fool has a long genealogy:

…late 13c., “silly or stupid person,” from Old French fol “madman, insane person; idiot; rogue; jester,” also “blacksmith’s bellows,” also an adjective meaning “mad, insane” (12c., Modern French fou), from Latin follis “bellows, leather bag” (see follicle); in Vulgar Latin used with a sense of “windbag, empty-headed person.” Cf. also Sanskrit vatula- “insane,” lit. “windy, inflated with wind.”…
Meaning “jester, court clown” first attested late 14c., though it is not always possible to tell whether the reference is to a professional entertainer or an amusing lunatic on the payroll. As the name of a kind of custard dish, it is attested from 1590s (the food also was called trifle, which may be the source of the name).
There is no foole to the olde foole [Heywood, 1546]
Feast of Fools (early 14c.), from Medieval Latin festum stultorum) refers to the burlesque festival celebrated in some churches on New Year’s Day in medieval times. Fool’s gold “iron pyrite” is from 1829. Fool’s paradise “state of illusory happiness” is from mid-15c. Foolosopher, a most useful insult, turns up in a 1549 translation of Erasmus. Fool’s ballocks is described in OED as “an old name” for the green-winged orchid.
fool (v.) mid-14c., “to be foolish, act the fool,” from fool (n.). The meaning “to make a fool of” is recorded from 1590s. Also as a verb 16c.-17c. was foolify. Related: Fooled; fooling. Fool around is 1875 in the sense of “pass time idly,” 1970s in sense of “have sexual adventures.”
fool (adj.)
“foolish, silly,” considered modern U.S. colloquial, but it is attested from early 13c., from fool (n.).

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

Samuel Johnson defined fool as “one whom nature has denied reason.” To play the fool, he wrote, was to, “act like one void of common understanding.” Both come easily to the mind when contemplating how some current issues are portrayed by various commentators.

In Scots, a marvelllous language**, there are several words for fool: bawheid, cuif, gawky, glaik, gumf, ouf, and tawpie. Foolish is daftlike; to act foolishly is dyte, gype, gypit, menseless, taupie, and unwicelike. Daftlike is another word that appeals to me; daft is a word I heard a lot when growing up, sometimes in reference to me, but generally to the contemporary political situation. It still fits today, don’t you think?

Fool has different meanings in the Bible. In the Psalms, it says,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1.

According to this site, the Hebrew word nabal translated here as “fool” suggests a lack of perception of ethical and religious claims. It’s used in a moral sense, not an intellectual one. It would be used to describe people who, for example, lie or deceive – making bad moral choices and deliberately misleading people – rather than people of little wit. But clearly fool has other meanings in the Bible. For example, this line from Ecclesiastes 10:14:

A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?

That’s the King James Version, a poetic reading but one laced with translation problems. The more modern English Standard Version is:

A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?

That’s actually a pretty powerful line; one that can easily be read into many issues, national to local. Foolish words sometimes do multiply, don’t they?

Proverbs has several good lines about fools (ESV):

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Proverbs 18:2

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26:3-12

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.
Proverbs 29:9

Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge. The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Proverbs 14:7-9

Now I’m not a biblical scholar, and my Hebrew is more than a bit rusty, so I can’t say if the same word, nabal, is used in all of these sayings. There were other terms translated as “fool” in the Bible, including ewil (also evil) and kesil meaning thick and stupid, or letz, meaning scoffer (or scorner) and pethi (plural: pethaim) meaning simpleminded. These terms don’t all share the implications of evil or wrongdoing associated with nabal, yet all are frequently translated into English as “fool.”

Ship of fools

In Shakespeare, fools – sometimes referred to as clowns – are often people who play the mythic role of the Trickster, like Loki, Mudhead and Raven. They may provide the springboard for dialogue or action. He also referred to fools in the professional sense: jesters whose job it was to entertain courts, nobles and royalty.

The fool in Shakespeare often acts as an important counterpoint to the drama of the play. Sometimes the fool is the smartest on on the stage, pointing out what the playwright wants the audience to see. Sometimes, he’s just a clown, there to emphasize how much smarter everyone else around him is.

Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp’d out…
-The Fool, King Lear, I.4.640

and then Shakespeare deflates the fool’s pretensions…

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-Touchstone, As You Like It, V.1.2217

Perhaps it’s simply my age and upbringing that retains the potency of the epithet “fool,” and gives weight to the term “foolosopher.” They drip with contempt in a way mere profanity cannot. When I read some of the drivel I encounter online, I can’t help but think of these words and no better description seems to fit.

~~~~~

* Another useful word from that era is “knavigations” (OED 1590), which Samuel Purchase used to describe the false claims of navigators. It could be used equally well today to describe the false claims on some websites and blogs.
** Perhaps it’s from my mother’s Scottish heritage that I like Scots. Our talk at home was peppered with Scots words that I didn’t realize until many years later were not common English – when I used words like ken and ilk and produced blank stares.

01/19/13

What’s this nonsense about mushrooms?


Specialty mushroomsIn the middle of a video parody on YouTube that skewers council on our new rec facilities, there’s a comment about “the mushroom farm debacle.” It then goes on, rather erratically, to rail about “two yanks” and mushrooms growing in manure and “enobe” mushrooms.

What debacle?

Clearly the video’s creator never actually watched the public presentation made to council a year ago about a possible use for the terminals as an indoor mushroom farm. Or read the stories in both newspapers. Or heard the news reports on local radio. Or asked anyone on staff or council about the proposal. Or did any online research. But don’t worry if actually verifying the facts was too much work: I’ll do the hard work for you here.

And as far as I am aware, the two gentlemen who made the presentation are both Canadian, not American. One is a local chiropractor.

The mushrooms in question are not your standard grocery-store button mushrooms (most of which may come from China*, by the way!): what was proposed were specialty (gourmet) mushrooms that grow on substrate: commonly wood chips, sawdust, used coffee grounds and composted or processed vegetable material (such as the corn waste produced by the now-former Amaizeingly Green plant). Manure, the proponents said several times during the presentation, would not be not used. There would be no odour.

The USDA, in one of its brochures on mushroom cultivation, notes that oyster mushrooms,

Although commonly grown on sterile straw from wheat or rice, they will also grow on a wide variety of high-cellulose waste materials. Some of these materials do not require sterilization, only pasteurization, which is less expensive. Another advantage of growing oyster mushrooms is that a high percentage of the substrate converts to fruiting bodies, increasing the potential profitability.

There are no similar, large mushroom farms growing these specialty – and expensive – mushrooms in Ontario (or, I believe, in Canada**). There is potential for considerable profit in a big and growing marketplace, we were told, for a successful farm that grows these mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, enoki (not “enobe”) and so on). The University of Missouri’s Centre for Agroforestry, notes that specialty mushrooms are a growing and sustainable industry:

Not only can specialty mushrooms be grown on a range of acreage allotments, mushroom cultivation is a sustainable and profitable way to recycle low-value forestry by-products, including non-merchantable stems and branch wood. Utilizing shade levels and understory from a forest farming practice, UMCA scientists and collaborators are determining the best suited types of mushrooms for Missouri soils. The goal of this research is to refine established production techniques for a diverse suite of outdoor mushroom species and enable Missouri landowners to capture a growing gourmet market… One of the state’s most significant demonstrations of a successful forest farming practice is Dan Hellmuth and Nicola Macpherson’s Ozark Forest Mushrooms, Timber, Mo. The entrepreneurial couple established the specialty mushroom operation in 1990 on what was then a timber operation, and coordinate every step of the value-added process, from the inoculated log to packaged, consumer-friendly products. Under the guidelines of the Stewardship Incentive Program, administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Hellmuth and Macpherson harvest a renewable supply of mushroom bed logs while simultaneously maintaining their forested acres in a healthy ecological state – and what began 14 years ago with only 100 oak logs in production has grown to include 12,000 shiitake logs in production.

Penn State University has a similar agribusiness program. They note that the market for specialty mushrooms is growing by leaps and bounds:

For the past 8 years, specialty mushroom production has increased an average of 20%. Based on recent and historical trends, it is expected that diversification of the mushroom industry will continue in the United States and many other western countries. The development of improved technology to cultivate each species more efficiently, will allow consumer prices to decline.

These mushrooms are not solely for food: they are an important source of nutraceuticals used in alternative and traditional medical practices (see also here). A gourmet mushroom farm has the potential to spin off a side industry of medical research and product preparation. More jobs.

Then, the video says these “yanks…want to buy our precious grain terminal for one dollar.” Again, someone wasn’t listening. Or reading. Or thinking.

Enoki mushroomsThe proposal – made in front of council, the media and TV cameras – suggested a nominal one-dollar purchase PLUS a percentage of the profits, should the proposal be accepted. The proponents also proposed to cover all costs for remediation of the building.

The “precious” terminals had been publicly declared surplus in fall of 2011 (motion 392). The motion called for “input from the public, developers and respective agencies” on any potential uses for the building. The unsolicited, public presentation to council on January, 16, 2012, from the proponents, was part of that process.

Nothing hidden there. Someone had a creative idea and brought it to council. It was one of those “outside the box” ideas that surprised me because it was so unusual and innovative. Is that what bothers some folks? Or was it the potential to create a sustainable, safe industry that offered well-paying jobs?

The idea was presented in greater detail when the town put forward a “request for proposal” on the terminals, along with the proponents’ financials. However, to date, no decision has been made about selling the “precious” terminals (it’s an abandoned brownfield, a heritage building on the waterfront, resting on wooden piles almost a century old, with asbestos and other pollutants inside, sitting beside a waste dump; adjacent to a publicly-used harbour, within a stone’s throw of protected wetlands; it has inadequate power, water and no waste-water outlet for other uses, and has leases for telecommunications equipment and the yacht club associated – there are MANY legal, procedural and environmental issues that we must resolve before we can move forward with any proponent).

No money ever changed hands, not even the imaginary dollar that seems to haunt some folks. (What’s with that dollar? It’s never explained why $1 matters; it just raises its ectoplasmic head on the Ouija board of this conspiracy.)

The proponents asked council if they could have a biologist examine the building to see if it was suitable for such an idea, and to determine what, if any, work would be required to make it happen. We’d allow any potential buyer’s engineer or building inspector to check it out, why not a biologist?

They also requested permission to run a very small test inside the building to find out if the idea was actually viable – a “proof of concept.” This would involve (as I recall the discussion) putting two small table-top-size trays in the terminals, with spores on a base material (sawdust, I believe), to see if these exotic mushrooms would actually grow. The test would take a few weeks, and would not involve doing anything to the building aside from cleaning the space for the test, then putting the trays inside, and waiting.

Council said yes. We are pro-business, after all, and permitting this non-invasive test simply made sense. If the test proved it was not viable, then the proponents would not invest further money in testing and inspection, and would not give us a proposal when we asked for RFPs.

Staff agreed. A facility report on the proposal, in late January and provided by the former CAO to council, noted,

…the proponents cannot invest substantially without knowing if their process is likely to work. Therefore, they have put forward the following stepwise program as the “Proof of Concept” phase.

  1. Initially, they would bring in a microbiologist to identify if there are existing competing species of life in the facility and whether the environmental conditions prove to be favourable for their process.
  2. Then, they suggest that up to three of the North-South hallways (approx. 8’ X 96’) in the basement would be cleaned and sanitized and set up with trial rooms for various species of mushrooms…

The first two steps, if they have a plan to maintain adequate egress and air quality, are fairly benign. With careful preparation and adequate monitoring, staff do not have serious concerns with them doing this.

The former CAO was directed by council to have the caretaker let them in so their microbiologist could examine the building, and they could conduct this test.

This council wants to overcome an impression of the past that “Collingwood is closed for business.” Had we refused, we would – fairly – have been accused of being closed. But then the conspiracy would have been about why council was putting up roadblocks to local businessmen.

It was all public and very straightforward. The test was done, the building examined, and the proponents made a formal proposal when the town called for an RFP.

But somehow, for some folks, it became a conspiracy.

Last September, the town received an anonymous letter that warned, ominously, “Mushroom plants are known to cause odors (sic) and have the possibility to cause health issues…” and then goes on for four pages railing against mushroom farms and dangerous manure odours in other locales. Obviously the author didn’t watch the presentation or read the stories, either (the spelling suggests an American, so perhaps he or she has no access to local council coverage – in which case, what is the interest in a Collingwood proposal?).

In October, a letter was circulating among a small group that asked, among other things, “Who gave the mushroom people the key to the terminal building when was that decision approved?” (sic)

The letter never explained why knowing who gave the proponents the key was important or even relevant.*** Conspiracy theories are like that: they’re not about logic.

Then, in December, similar questions were asked of staff and council in an email (quoted as sent):

Have you been able to find any member of council or staff that;

  1. Gave permission for the tenants to use the terminals (the original email or note confirming this would be great)
  2. Who physically handed them the keys
  3. Who has collected any money (even as little as the $1 they offered) during their use of the facility.

Again, no explanation was ever made as to why any of this was relevant. It was just part of that dark Machiavellian council doing evil behind closed doors. Of course the fact that this was all done openly and presented publicly and made good business sense doesn’t make the conspiracy play very well.

In response, the current CAO replied:

As I previously mentioned the proponents made an open presentation to Council where they requested an opportunity for a “proof of concept” and offered the “symbolic” dollar for the lease to do so. I was informed that Council were all generally interested in the proposal but realized that the proof of concept was required for the gentlemen to provide an unsolicited proposal to Council. As I understand, the issue was referred to staff whereby permission was given to complete the proof of concept. There has not been any collection of money nor has it been asked for.

But even that didn’t kill the conspiracy. It pops up again in the video (linked above in the first paragraph). No rational explanation seems to satisfy some folks that nothing untoward happened.

So I have to ask: What’s all this nonsense about? It was a public process; it was pro-business; the land was declared surplus openly and approved in the fall of 2011; we had open discussions about the property at the council table in front of the media; we had open discussions with the proponent and about the proposal at council, and we have a staff report on the request that indicates all the issues, and staff support for doing the ‘proof of concept’ test.

Why are some folks treating this like some political zombie they continue to resurrect? Put it to rest!

Surely there are other conspiracies to pursue****. Just because the Mayan Apocalypse didn’t work out for you, doesn’t mean this one will turn out any better. Please, let this be the end of it.

~~~~~
* See plantpath.psu.edu/facilities/mushroom/resources/specialty-mushrooms: “Mainland China is the major producer (3,918,300t-or about 64% of the total) of edible mushrooms (Chang 1999, 2002).” The manure used for button mushrooms here in Canada, at least, is sterilized first. But these aren’t button mushrooms, so it’s moot point.
** There is a small scale one in Markdale, however.
*** As far as I know, they didn’t get one; the caretaker opened the door for them, but even if they did – so what? It’s not the key to Fort Knox. It’s an abandoned building. Never mind that it makes no sense for a member of council to have the keys to the building or the authority to collect as much as $1 from anyone (we don’t).
**** If you must pursue a mushroom conspiracy, look for one with some substance or at least greater entertainment value. For example this, this, this, this or this one.

And as a disclaimer: I speak for myself alone here, not for anyone else or any organization. I have no vested interest in any of the proposals for the terminal use, nor have any conflicts of interest in the process.
Conspiracy theories

01/18/13

It’s snowing, snowing, snowing…


England in the snow
I was looking outside today as the snow fell in Collingwood (-11C when we awoke, -10C when I first walked my dog…) and thinking of my brother-in-law in England, where they are getting walloped by a Canadian-style winter. He must be perplexed by the weather this week. It’s very Canadian. These pictures are from the Daily Mail, sent in by their readers from all over the country.
Daily Mail photo
You don’t normally think of Britain in the snow. Rain, yes, fog, yes, but not often snow. After all, there are places in England where palm trees grow in the warmth provided by the Gulf Stream. Obviously they will be hurting…
Daily Mail
I thought this next one was great. It’s from a different page in the Daily Mail:
Daily Mail
England isn’t the only country having unusual winter weather. CBC did a story on the heavy snows in Jerusalem, with this next photo. It could be Toronto:
CBC News
Here’s another pic from an Israeli blogger. Sure looks like Blue Mountain, but it’s outside Jerusalem:
Snow in Jerusalem
And Japan is getting the same, according to Japan Today. Seems the winter storms even shut down airports:
Japan Today
Strange weather. Not for us, here in Canada along the south shore of Georgian Bay, of course, but elsewhere. Surely not a result of climate change due to greenhouse gases and other human artifacts in the environment? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way: if you don’t believe in climate change you’re either Republican or Steven Harper). Maybe all these countries are just jealous of us and trying to emulate Canada?

Makes me want to book a trip to someplace warm, south, Mexican. Someplace where the sand is hot, the beer is cold and the sun unrelenting. Maybe next year…

01/17/13

Centennial Pool gets covered!


Not sure how much will get done today – it’s a cold, windy winter day. But yesterday, in more clement weather, six frame struts  for the Sprung building were erected at Centennial Pool, and I got these photographs:
Sprung frame Jan. 16, 2013

Here’s the frame going up, on January 16.Six frames have gone up – there are another eight to go.

Sprung frame Jan. 16, 2013

You can get an idea of how big and spacious the building will be inside by comparing the height to that of the workers and equipment.

Sprung frame Jan. 16, 2013

One panel of the Kevlar-coated, high-tech covering was installed before construction stopped, Wednesday, but not both components (inside and outside). Once covered, workers will be able to finish the interior despite the winter weather.

Sprung frame Jan. 16, 2013

Here you can see the remnants of the old pool building – the mechanical room – coming down. More photographs will be posted as the construction continues, and weather permits.

I think most people in town are excited and happy about these structures and the speed with which they will be built. Had we gone with the traditional brick-and-steel buildings, we wouldn’t see completion for at least another year, if not longer. These buildings will be open by this spring – I expect kids will be swimming and skating within them before summer.