Saturday, December 26, 2009

A New Year's Cheer

Another year gone, like a snap of the finger,
If only time passing would slow down and linger.
Some dreams were delivered, but many were dashed,
Wars kept on raging while economies crashed.

There were those who worried about jobs and lost wealth,
While others were pained by the decline of their health.
When we opened the papers to find out the news,
There was always a story to give us the blues.

Some people were grieved when loved ones passed on,
And are clinging to memories from before they were gone.
Life can be hard with its valleys and peaks,
But we must carry on through the days and the weeks.

Now that we face a bold, fresh New Year,
Perhaps we can hope for some goodness and cheer.
May the hard times diminish and the good times rein in,
And we mustn't forget that peace lives within.

It’s not our belongings that give us most pleasure,
Nor our travels, our homes, or even the weather.
It’s the people we love and the times that we share
That give us life’s joys and a reason to care.

We are on this planet for what seems a flicker,
So let’s not enrage or disparage or bicker.
For kindness and justice and humility too,
Are not just nice words, but things we should do.

I wish for you wonderful people out there,
In this world that is grand, but sometimes unfair,
A year filled with peace, love and delight,
Where your hopes and your dreams are well within sight.


Happy New Year and manifold blessings!

Carla  XO

Sunday, December 20, 2009

An Unsuspected Angel

Every now and then, an angel visits our home over the Christmas holidays. His name is Tom. Our boys always ask for a visit from Uncle Tom (my husband’s older brother) for Christmas and when he comes, all the way from Vancouver, he is their favorite gift of all. Standing six-foot-four, wearing rock-band tee-shirts and worn jeans, this mid-life rocker hardly fits the image of an angel. This is a guy who drives a Harley, has a few tattoos and a gruff voice that could make you shudder. He’s the quiet brooding type with a powerful presence; Marlon Brando comes to mind.

Tom is a rebel of sorts, singing to his own tune and steering down his own path. He has worked many jobs over his life, from chef at a remote mining camp, to cab driver, to car salesman, to entrepreneur, to ski lift operator. He works when he needs to and quits when he’s had enough—a shrewd man who knows when to save money and when to spend. For leisure he plays poker with his buddies and goes on motorcycle rallies across the continent. One time, when he was between jobs and taking a road trip on his bike, the customs official at a US border crossing took one look at him and refused him entry.

So what makes Uncle Tom an angel? The signs have been there over the years, but every time I encounter him, they become more and more apparent.

I got my first glimpse when both his parents were suffering from various life-threatening ailments. His father had had several strokes and had become confined to a wheelchair, while his mother had a serious heart condition and was legally blind due to diabetes. Having lived in their home for over thirty years, the thought of moving was inconceivable. But their health’s continuing decline made it necessary to consider an assisted-care residence—a devastating prospect.

Watching his parents struggle for too long, Tom quit his job to become their full-time caregiver. He took them to doctors’ appointments, did their grocery shopping, helped manage their medication, looked after the house, and kept them connected to the outside world. My husband felt helpless as he heard about the trials from afar. Tom never complained, never relented, and never faltered in his mission. For well over a year, he devoted his days to his parents’ comfort and well-being. When they finally succumbed to their illnesses and passed away (within nine months of each other) Tom was devastated.

But there is more to tell about this ‘biker angel.’ When he is in our midst, his goodness presents itself in unexpected places. During one of Tom’s visits we took him skiing for the day, and when we stopped for lunch he noticed a little tot struggling up a long set of snow-covered stairs to get to the chalet entrance. Tom took his small hand and helped him up the rest of the way. I smile when I recall the image of that giant glove reaching out to the tiny mittened hand.

Next came the towing incident. My husband, our two boys, and Tom went shopping downtown for the afternoon to check out some specialty shops. When they came across the latest video game, ROCKBAND, which was difficult to find at the time, the boys tried to figure out if they had enough money saved between them to buy it. To their utter delight, Uncle Tom bought it for them. With the massive box in hand, they all trudged back to the car through blowing snow. But when they got to the spot on the street where my husband had parked, there was no car. The maximum limit had passed and because it was rush hour, the car had been towed.

If you’ve ever been towed, I don’t need to explain the searing anxiety that burns your chest when you realize that your car has vanished. Finding a cab and locating the car pound with two young boys, not to mention carrying a huge, heavy, awkward box to boot, was not my husband’s idea of a fun! Frustrated with himself for losing track of time, for throwing money out the window, and for putting his brother through such aggravation on his first day in town, he tried to keep his cool.

The car pound was not a friendly place. Angry voices dominated the scene as people retrieving their cars yelled at the attendants. When my husband approached the counter, Tom followed. Sensing the tension and eying the clerk’s dour expression, he said something to make her laugh. He ignored my husband's protests and handed over his own credit card; sympathizing  with the woman for her tough line of work, he paid the fine and wished her a Happy New Year. According to my husband, her rigid face quickly transformed into a soft, warm smile.

My favourite side of Tom is revealed through his interaction with his nephews. He can talk to them man-to-man and play with them boy-to-boy; he makes them feel important, treats them with respect, and makes them laugh. One time, our then ten-year-old son asked Tom if he believed in heaven; for a man who’d lost his faith long ago, that should have been an easy question to answer. But he couldn’t bring himself to say no, so he subtly changed the subject. Such an irony to behold—an unbeliever who doesn’t see his own wings!

Whether or not angels come from heaven, I don’t know, but what I do know is that Uncle Tom, with his tough, burly outward appearance, has the inward qualities of an angel. I wish everyone had an Uncle Tom in his/her life; or better yet, I wish we all had a little more ‘Uncle Tom’ in us.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Falling off the Pedestal

I’m not one to pay much attention to the tabloids or think much about the lives and transgressions of celebrities, but with all the recent hoopla regarding Tiger Woods, it’s hard not to weigh in. It appears that he’s been a very, very bad boy. Does he have a right to privacy as he deals with his domestic problems? Absolutely, but unfortunately, he’s the one who put it out there for all to see and hear. If you go to lengths to showcase yourself as a squeaky clean family guy, and you’re having shenanigans on the side, there’s always a chance you’ll get busted.

But as Margaret Wente points out in her Globe article, In a case of lust over brains, a mighty Tiger becomes mortal, alpha males can’t seem to stop themselves from falling away from their well-intentioned morally driven lives. She believes that if the average male had the same opportunities (i.e. beautiful women throwing themselves their way), they too would plunge into the abyss of infidelity. There may be some truth to this but I’d like to believe, perhaps naively, that raging hormones and colossal egos are not the main driving force in human behaviour.

Everything we do, every sentence we speak, involves a choice. And there are always consequences to the decisions we make. So when alpha male decides to sleep with trashy Tammy, sensuous Susan, and lusty Lucy when he is married with two young children, there are going to be repercussions. Big ones. We’re all fallible and we are all capable of doing remarkably irresponsible things, but when you are a big name, whether a politician, a religious leader, a sports figure, or a superstar, and you actively promote yourself as a pedestal-worthy guy, then you’d better work hard to warrant that status.

Some journalists criticize the public for holding leaders and celebrities to impossible standards. But is being faithful and true to one’s wife and family really too much to expect? The press and the public may be complicit in creating heroes out of fallible humans, but are they responsible for the betrayals and indiscretions committed by these men? Hardly.

I can rhyme off about a half dozen men who have thrown their reputations, their hard-earned careers, and their families out the window, only to regret it later. Sometimes they manage to overcome their shame, but they can never regain their glistening image or get anywhere near that pedestal again. That’s the price of hypocrisy.

Tiger may be in our minds today, but there are some politicians and religious leaders who make him look pretty good in the scheme of indiscretions. Here are some examples:

Who can forget Gary Hart, the Colorado state senator who was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 1988? Having denied an extramarital affair and then dared the press to follow him around, he was soon caught red-handed with his mistress, Donna Rice, on a yacht ironically named “Monkey Business.” When an incriminating romantic photo was published in the press, he immediately dropped out of the campaign.

More recently, South Carolina Gov. Mark Stanford, also a potential presidential candidate, disappeared from the public and private radar to visit his Argentinean girlfriend. The married father of four young boys garbled his way through an explanation when he returned. “She’s my soul-mate,” he tearfully said of his mistress. Needless to say, he lost his job.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer may not have been having an extramarital affair in 2008, but patronizing a prostitution service (using government funds) was not the smartest move for the married father of teenage girls. It is believed that Spitzer spent over $80,000 on prostitutes over several years. This is a man who devoted much of his career to “cleaning up” the corruption on Wall Street. A hotshot with great brains and talent, Spitzer was another political superstar with a presidential calling. In his own words:

"From those to whom much has been given, much is expected. I have been given much — the love of my family, the faith and trust of the people of New York, and the chance to lead this state."

"I am deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me."

The cynic in me thinks what he really means, and what his fellow womanizers mean when they make such public apologies is: “I am deeply sorry that I got caught.”

Then there’s Bill Clinton...who can forget Monica Lewinsky and her soiled dress. And Clinton’s infamous words while under oath: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

After months of denying it, 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards finally came clean. Yes, he was having an affair during his campaign, while his wife was battling life-threatening cancer. The clean-cut senator admitted publically that he was narcissistic and egocentric and had made a serious error in judgement.

Do these transgressions mean that such men cannot effectively run the country? Not necessarily, but if their devoted wives can’t trust them, then how can the public?

One of the biggest hypocrites of all was Pastor Ted Haggard, the American Evangelical preacher from Colorado. Devout Christian, husband, and father of five, he was the founder and leader of the 14,000 member New Life Church. He was also the leader of the 30 million–strong National Association of Evangelicals. He had a big role in shaping Christian policy and had a direct line to President George W. Bush. His fall from grace occurred in 2006 when his homosexual relationships and heavy drug use were exposed. I remember watching his emphatic (and pathetic) denials on television.

He feels that the church has betrayed him by not helping him get back on his feet; now he sells insurance.

It’s all very sad, but these men made their own beds. They wanted to stand high and mighty on that pedestal and they publically proclaimed the standard upon which they should be judged. My sympathy goes to their families and to all the others affected by their irresponsible and hypocritical actions.

And sorry to say, Tiger...but for most people, “sorry” doesn’t quite cut it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Decline of Dubai...and other tales of disaster

Thanks to the near collapse of one of the most rapidly growing cities in the world, we are once again reminded of the poison that drives such economic destruction: ego and greed.

Dubai is one of seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, located south of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. Its land mass is tiny by Canadian standards—smaller than Prince Edward Island. The current population is about 1.9 million of which the vast majority are foreigners.

Around two years ago, CBC aired a television documentary (Dubai: Miracle or Mirage) about the amazing Dubai construction ventures spearheaded by its ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. He wanted to showcase this small municipality as the most impressive global city in the world. In the CBC piece, he spoke of his desire to create the biggest, the tallest, the best, and the most decadent landmarks known to man. (Have a look at Lauren Greenfield’s fascinating New York Times photo exhibit, depicting Dubai’s construction boom and subsequent collapse: Showcase: Dubai’s Improbable Tale.)

When developers and architects told the Sheik that it was unfeasible to build the amount of waterfront properties that he had in mind, he told them that nothing was impossible. They must simply take his vision and make it a reality. Since there was limited coastline, and no possibility for further development along the shore, there was only one way to conjure up more property: create it. And so they did.

Islands configured in the shape of a palm tree emerged in the Gulf, sprinkled with commercial and residential real estate.

If you’d like to do some downhill skiing in the desert, you can pack up your gear and head over to the indoor ski hill. Then there's Dubai Land, the world’s most ambitious tourism, leisure, and an entertainment complex, which was to open in 2010. I wouldn’t be booking my holidays there at this time.

We tend to think that Dubai is an oil rich nation. Well it’s not. The economy is built on tourism, property, and financial services. It has friends with oil, like Adu Dhabi next door, but it is not clear how much help will be offered.

There are those who benefited in the short term. Employment was high and big money could be made. Take it while you can, was the underlying message. Because one day, the tide will turn and the money will run out: major construction projects will be abandoned, vegetation will be left to desiccate, and cars will be deserted in empty parking lots. The workers, the most important resource, will flee. That time came too soon.

In Dubai, some foreigners who have bought property are fearful of their fate. If they can’t pay their bills and mortgages they may face a Dickensian reality—debtors prison. If you’ve ever read David Copperfield, one of Charles Dickens’ most popular novels, you’ll know what this means.

Last year’s western global melt-down is an eerie reminder of what can happen to an economy spurred by ego, greed, and too much debt. Building and buying houses with money that doesn’t exist is not much different than building sky-scrapers and waterfront properties on a foundation that cannot be sustained.

In the US, the beautiful sub-prime packages were all wrapped up in glistening prospects, and the true value was exposed only when the package was opened by the end user and the contents were revealed: nothing. After that discovery, the collapse was set in motion and the cards began to fall. Governments scrambled to stop the last card from falling by creating the fanciest packages of all (bailout and stimulus packages). Financial experts call this a "black swan" event, where many triggering factors come together simultaneously once a century or so. Nonetheless, it happened, and there is a universal price to pay.

We are still struggling to put the shattered economy back together so that hope and prosperity can be restored. According to the BBC documentary For the Love of Money we can largely thank CEOs like Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers for the catastrophic damage. Fuld was so driven to “crush his enemies” and become number one in the investment banking industry that he made foolish ego-driven decisions. His employees report that he had a “God like status” and that “you just didn’t argue with him.” Building false confidence amongst employees and investors, Fuld was on a risk-taking rampage.

The result? The biggest bankruptcy in history, followed by a slew of other institutions participating in the NINJA program (offering risky loans to people with NO INCOME, NO JOB OR ASSETS), and those who had bought the empty loan bundles from the banks. When Enron went bankrupt in 2002, it was, at the time, the biggest bankruptcy ever. But when Lehman Brothers went down, the crisis was ten times greater.

Of course, there were numerous other contributing factors such as:

• Deregulation
• Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac low interest home ownership programs
• The lack of state regulation/oversight over fraudulent mortgage brokers
• The Feds keeping interest rates dangerously low
• US and global investors who bought the bundled sub-prime mortgages
• Credit Rating Agencies who didn't do adequate research

When unchecked recklessness occurs in business and politics, there is sure to be trouble. Richard Fuld was not the only culprit here, but he was no doubt a high flyer who exploited the situation, instigating calamitous consequences for the world.

Shockwaves travelled quickly when the global crisis was set in motion. The Feds stepped in with their recovery plans whilst citizens lost their jobs, their houses, and their life savings. Now we have debts and deficits that have never been so massive. And who will pay? Not the CEOs like Dick Fuld, or rulers like Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum; rather, it will be the folks facing retirement and their children who will have to carry the debt load.

In Dubai, a foundation of greed and ego cannot hold the weight of bricks, mortar, glass, and steal. Likewise in the west, packages wrapped in greed and ego (and irresponsible debts) will have nothing inside.

Were no lessons learned from the fall of the Roman Empire? Civilization still has a long way to go, I’m afraid.