Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stone Washed

Yesterday, I went canoeing for the second time in my life. Our group followed the same course that I blogged about the last time around; a twenty kilometer run from Cambridge to Paris, Ontario.

My wife and daughter did not accompany me this time as the bad taste from our last expedition still lingered in their mouths, and neither was much in the mood for a swim, if you get my drift. Instead, my rowing partner this time around was my good friend, Michael Feeney; an avid outdoorsman with previous canoeing experience. He even brought his own wooden paddle, with which he would whack me every time I mistakenly referred to it as an "oar".

Having Michael in the canoe with me was a refreshing change from my previous company. It was nice to row with someone who worked with me, rather than having to constantly struggle to counteract what the other person was doing, or having to periodically exclaim "Okay, stop rowing for a moment ... no, just stop. Stop! Just stop I say! STOP!!!"

Michael and I worked well together and made very good time. By the halfway point, we were far ahead of the rest of the group. We enjoyed the peaceful, natural surroundings and caught many a glimpse of nature's wonders, including two cranes, a muskrat, and a young fawn.

The fawn was a special treat. It stood there on the riverbank, watching us curiously, apparently content that the water people seemed comfortably distant enough to be unable to harm it. Then Shawn, my cousin's eighteen-year-old son, who followed a short ways behind us in another boat, spied it. Shawn is ... how shall I put this? Not exactly the sharpest knife in the proverbial drawer. The moment he noticed the fawn he crowed "HEY DAD! DEER! LOOK DAD! IT'S A DEER! DAD LOOK! HURRY DAD, IT'S RUNNING AWAY!" And thus was our admiration of the young fawn sadly curtailed.

Our canoe trip was a spur-of-the-moment idea, agreed upon because it looked like a splendid day for one. The morning was brilliant and warm, with nary a cloud in the azure sky. Naturally, while we were on the water, huge gray clouds sprang up literally from out of nowhere and rained down upon us; not just a gentle, pattering rain, mind you, but a full-blown thunderstorm with sheets of water cascading down on us! As if nature were rubbing it in, my wife reported later, when I returned home, that she had seen no rain at all. No, apparently, it only rained where our group decided to go canoeing. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that it did not, in fact, rain anywhere other than along the length of the Grand River. The clouds probably went out of their way to follow our boats and relieve themselves upon us, not that I suffer from any sort of persecution complex. Perhaps the Great Rainmaker reads my blog and remembered my earlier post romanticizing rainy days. "So you like rain, do you?" I imagine Him chortling to Himself, as he began conjuring up a collection of thunderheads.

In spite of Michael's superior canoeing skill and the improvements to my own skills from the lessons learned on my previous trip, our journey down the Grand River was not completely without mishap. Our canoe did get upset just one time, as we tried to negotiate a fast-moving current over some particularly jagged rocks. Our boat came up against one of the rocks and listed seriously to port (he said, in his most convincing "Old Sea Dog" voice). We managed to counter-balance and avoid tipping, but the incline had been enough to allow a large quantity of water to rush into the boat. By the time we were righted, the boat was low and heavy, and water was still sloshing in over the sides, not to mention the fact that we were still being jostled about by the rocks. I just had time to shout "We're not gonna make it!" before we listed again and capsized.

Here's where I made my mistake. I instinctively tried to stay with the boat. Before we disembarked on our trip, our guide had cautioned us never to position ourselves downstream from the canoe should it tip, as a water-logged canoe can weigh as much as two thousand pounds, and getting pinned against a rock by that kind of weight can totally ruin one's day.

I quickly learned the truth of this as I did, indeed, find myself on the downstream side of our overturned craft. I tried to stand up and hold the canoe in position with my torso, only to be unceremoniously pushed back as my legs splayed out underneath the canoe. Remembering the guide's warning about getting pinned against a rock, I wisely moved aside and allowed the boat to float past me, so that I was now upstream of it.

This is where I made my second mistake, deciding that, if I couldn't brace myself in front of the canoe, I would grab onto its stern and stay with it as it floated downstream. Well, stay with it I did (for a few brief moments), with the boat dragging me along behind it, over many a large, jagged rock.

After a few painful bounces, I wisely let go and tried to plant my feet on the riverbed and stand up, but the water was high and the current was strong from the rainfall. I couldn't find a level footing because of the many jagged rocks, and the currently simply buckled my knees and pulled me down. I flailed around among the rocks for several frightening moments, swallowing large mouthfuls of water, coming up just long enough for a desperate gasp of air before tumbling under again. Now I know how laundry must feel in a front-load washer, except that the walls of a front-load washer drum are at least relatively smooth! Stone washing may be cool for jeans, but not so good for shins and kneecaps. Somehow, I managed to hang onto my paddle throughout the ordeal, which is a very good thing. It did escape me a time or two, but I always managed to grab it again before it got out of my reach.

As the current tossed me helplessly about, I had the presence of mind to worry about dashing my head against one of those jagged boulders. Had that happened, things might have gotten seriously ugly. Equally worrisome was the realization that my strength was failing me from the exertions of trying to steady myself. The longer I tumbled about, the more powerless I became to regain control. Fortunately, I cleared the rocks just then and floated into a river trough that was so deep that I could no longer touch bottom with my feet at all, but at least it was calm and, thankfully, I was wearing my life preserver. I bobbed there, limp in the water, allowing myself to slowly float downstream while I caught my breath and collected my wits.

Not long afterward, my feet touched ground again. In the meantime, Michael had caught up with our canoe and one of the guides helped him to right it, after which we pulled it to shore and collapsed in the tall grass. My knees and shins looked like something out of Mel Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ".

Now here I sit, bruised, scabby and sore, but happy to be here to tell the tale. Here are a few tips for anyone who may someday decide to go canoeing, especially in a fast-flowing river, from one who's learned from his mistakes:

Try to place any belongings that you bring along in water-tight bags, preferably something that can be clipped, tied or otherwise attached to the canoe in some fashion.

If you capsize, don't panic. It will happen from time to time, just as skiers or snowboarders will wipe out from time to time, but it needn't be traumatic unless you lose control of the situation. Keep your head about you. DO hang onto your paddle, DO NOT worry about the canoe. The canoe may float downstream a ways but it likely won't go very far, especially if it's water-logged. You can catch up with it later. If you've attached your belongings to it as I suggested, you'll catch up with them too. Your paddle, on the other hand may quickly disappear downstream and you'll need it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Financial Cognitive Dissonance

One of the nice things about this blog is knowing that my readers (or my regular readers, anyway) are intelligent people who don't need me to explain that cognitive dissonance refers to the stating of a given belief but acting in a manner contrary to that stated belief. That's probably why my readership is so small.

The G-20's call for austerity, the burgeoning global debt and Greece's recent financial crisis have got me thinking about money, lately. I wonder how many of us recall that paper money has no intrinsic value in and of itself. Paper money is nothing more than a fancy I.O.U.

In medieval times, people would trade goods and services for other goods and services; "you give me that ox, and I'll give you twenty chickens" or "you give me a room and a bed for the night and I'll plow ten furrows for you tomorrow".

Trading literal goods in this way was somewhat cumbersome and arbitrary. Precious metals, such as gold and silver, were far easier to carry and exchange than oxen, and their value was more easily standardized; easier yet if those precious metals were stamped into light-weight, standardized coins.

One of the earliest examples of this originated in the Bohemian city of Joachimsthal in 1518, where a silver coin known as the "Joachimsthaler" or "Thaler" (pronounced "Tahler") for short was minted in large numbers thanks to the rich silver deposits to be found near that town. In fact, the "Thaler" is the origin of the North American "Dollar's" etymology.

Eventually, the world came up with something even lighter and easier to exchange than gold and silver coins; paper money. The idea, originally, was that each dollar (for those of us living in North America) was really nothing more than a government-issued voucher for an equal value in gold; in other words, each paper dollar represented one dollar's worth of gold stored in Fort Knox or some other such place of safekeeping. Rather than lugging around heavy gold coins or bars, people simply exchanged these paper vouchers instead.

In the early seventies, then President Richard Nixon stirred the financial porridge, so to speak, when he decided to kill the gold standard; in other words, he decreed that the U.S. dollar need no longer be directly convertible to gold. Why? Well, because the United States' ill-considered conflict in Vietnam plus increased domestic spending had created these pesky fiscal and trade deficits. Nixon's solution - no problem; we'll just start printing lots more paper money and do away with that inconvenient rule that it be backed up by something of real value.

You'd think that the rest of the global financial community would cry "foul" or something but, oddly enough, they did the opposite. Gradually, country after country began to follow the United States' lead and started printing currency willy-nilly, beginning with West Germany and followed by Switzerland and, eventually, the rest of Europe and, of course, Canada. Because of all this, today international currencies are valued based on their projected future value rather than the amount of gold that they can buy; in other words, currencies today have no real intrinsic value, other than that assigned by speculators.

In an earlier post, I wondered aloud whether the amount of money that is owed by Canada alone, to say nothing of the rest of the world, actually even exists. I suggest this answers that question.

I wonder what would happen if the majority of the world's financial institutions realized that simple fact tomorrow? More interestingly, if we assume that the world's financial institutions are governed and operated by basically intelligent people who already understand this fact, then we can only conclude that they conveniently choose to disregard that knowledge, and carry on as though money were still backed up by something of value. Now wouldn't that be a fascinating example of financial cognitive dissonance?