Thursday 31 January 2019

The Secret History of Soldiers - a review

I don’t consider myself an expert on the First World War, but I have always had an interest in the human side of that horrific conflagration. Books exploring the soldiers’ experiences in the trenches, behind the lines, and back home fuel my fascination with the incredible sacrifices made by those men (and a few women) in a war, and at a time, that is quickly fading from our collective consciousness.

Some of the very best books I have read in that genre include William Faulks’ Birdsong, Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. There are many others but those come first to mind. And now I can add to that list The Secret History of Soldiers by Tim Cook.

Tim Cook is an historian at the Canadian War Museum and has written several books about the Great War (many of which I have read) but in terms of hitting my sweet spot, this volume nails it. In it he explores (from the flyleaf) “the daily lives of the combatants, how they endured the unimaginable conditions of industrial warfare: the rain of shells, bullets, and chemical agents.”

While not a fictional rendering like the books previously mentioned, The Secret History of Soldiers draws from thousands of letters home, postcards, trench art, and other sources to provide a brief glimpse into life in, and behind, the trenches. With life expectancy at the front often measured in hours and days, Cook describes the ways in which soldiers found the strength to face horrors beyond imagining and “push[ed] back against the grim war, refusing to be broken in the mincing machine of the Western Front.”

Highly recommended.

Monday 28 January 2019

Get me out of here!

I have a love-hate relationship with winter. On occasion I have been heard to say that I don’t really mind it all that much. Of course that’s when I’m rationalizing to all my snowbird friends why we aren’t spending the next 6 months golfing in Florida or Arizona with them. And usually I don’t mind a normal winter where there are enough ‘nice’ days to offset the frequent miserable days. A day with temperatures about –5C, sunshine, and no wind is kind of magical. Being out in a pristine white landscape marred only by our snowshoe tracks and the meandering trails of nocturnal critters, birds flitting about, the heat of the sun warming our backs, is a fantastic feeling.

But this year the pendulum is definitely over on the 'hate' side of the arc. We’ve had snow on the ground since forever, and January has battered us with well below normal temperatures most days (-25C again this morning), cold north winds have been persistent giving wind chill readings in the –30s and lower, and the sun has made only rare appearances. A sort of cabin fever has set in that makes even disappearing into the shop feel like more effort than it’s worth.

In short, I’m done! So I’m really looking forward to a few days’ escape with a guys trip to Vegas. It won’t be hot, but even 15-16C will seem balmy in comparison. Throw in a round of golf, some time on the strip, (hopefully) a bit of luck at the tables, and I should be ready to face February when I get back. And from there it’s all downhill to spring and (again, hopefully) an early riding season.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday 22 January 2019


Okay kids, gather around the woodstove and let this old man tell you how life used to be. Once upon a time, when we actually wrote letters to each other, we sometimes used typewriters. They looked like this:

To transfer the desired letters to the page the typewriter used a ribbon, a carbon-embedded strip of cloth. Hitting the cloth with the appropriate key transferred a wee bit of the carbon to the paper, leaving an imprint of the letter. Of course, over time, all the carbon in the ribbon was used up and the ribbon was then replaced with a new one in the same old typewriter. The ribbons were generic, and very inexpensive compared to the cost of the typewriter. They were considered ‘consumables’.

Skip forward 50 years.

Now when we want a written document we print it from a computer using either an inkjet or laser printer. Similar to the ribbons of the past, the ink (or toner) gets used up over time and must be replaced. Except now there’s a twist. Thanks to the Chinese a printer can now be had for less than the cost of a decent meal in a good restaurant, while you have to sell your first-born to pay for replacement ink cartridges. (Sorry kiddo, I should have prefaced that with a trigger warning.)

So now, based on comparative values alone, the printer itself has become the ‘consumable’. Cheaply made, it might have a 12-month lifespan before some tiny, critical, molded plastic piece snaps off, rendering the entire device useless. And forget using the expensive, left-over ink in the replacement machine. Manufacturers have figured that one out too, releasing new, non-generic cartridge designs with every model thus ensuring no savings can accrue to the the frugal consumer. In fact, as most printers come with a partial ink load included, there’s even an economic argument that can sometimes be made for simply tossing and replacing the entire printer when the ink runs out. Environment be damned.

And so it was that I recently cleaned out the office cupboard and headed to the recycling depot with this load.

What a waste.

Friday 11 January 2019

Sad news

Going through some papers today I came across these tickets for a ‘69 Pontiac GTO and wondered why the organizers hadn’t reached out to advise me of my win.


A quick check of the website explained the oversight.


Sad news indeed.

Well, there’s always next year.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

2019 – so now what?

It’s officially over. Today the Christmas tree came down and all the decorations were packed away up in the attic for another year. And I’m totally discombobulated. Remembering what day of the week it is is hard enough when retired. Throw in Christmas, New Years, family visits, community celebrations, and neighbourly get-togethers and I’m lucky if I know what planet I’m on, let alone what day it is. Fortunately the spousal unit is much more capable of keeping track of my social calendar and so I just do what I’m told. (Seriously, I do! Usually. Some times.)

But, as they say, all good things must end and so, while my liver begins its recovery process, I can start planning 2019.

Planning, for me, consists of filling a bucket with all the things I planned to do last year (See how that works?), things I hope to do this upcoming year, and all the good works I plan to do when I win the big lottery. The due date for most items in the bucket is “some day”, or perhaps, “whenever”. I find this approach gives me the most flexibility and provides a suitable response to the irritating questions such as, “Why haven’t you done ‘X’ yet?”. It also allows for a sort of soft commitment that avoids crossing the line into New Year’s resolution territory.

There’ll be some travel in the bucket. A 4-day guy’s getaway to Las Vegas in February is already in the books. A European trip is on the drawing board and in the early stages of discussion. And, perhaps, a Canadian road trip or two.

On the motorcycling front there’s nothing I want/need to do on the Harley, but I hope to get a second Kawasaki roadworthy. Who knows, there may be another old bike (or two) added to the stable if I stumble across any too-good-to-ignore deals. And, of course, the perennial favourite – ride more!

It’s also time to resurrect some old hobbies that have been surpassed by newer interests. I have a pile of electronics components and project ideas to work on. I also have a sizeable collection of wood-turning blanks that need to be converted into shavings and sawdust. And, finally, it’s time to get back into making cigar box guitars, canjos, and diddley-bows. All great initiatives and fantastic fun but the overarching issue is, what do I give up so I have time for all this? Perhaps spend less time following politics? We’ll see.

I know myself well enough to know that some of these items will still be undone by year’s end and added to the 2020 bucket, and other new ideas will pop up (“Look, a squirrel!”) to knock everything off plan, but that’s where the fun and flexibility comes in – total predictability is, after all, totally boring. Whatever happens it will be a ride.

So to all my readers, may 2019 be a year of adventure, discovery, joy, and, most of all, flexible plans.