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We Know Who You are

Meditating on Number Six (12 x 16 watercolours and India Ink)

Stepping through the metal detector and into the sun-clad departure lounge at Ben Gurion International Airport it took a few seconds for me to realize that something very weird and unusual had taken place: the alarm didn't go off.

I reached down to feel loose metal in my pocket - some shekels and Egyptian piasters – along with a spent 9mm shell casing I’d claimed as a souvenir from the Via Dolorosa. The casing was left over after soldiers had put down trouble in that famous via, the night before.

And that brought to mind a picture of the Roman soldiers who once were bigshots in the Via Dolorosa. Centuries ago there would have been a few of them in that narrow stone passageway - all bare-legged and sinewy, crouched with sword and shield, making little thorny crowns or gambling with dice made from pig knuckles. Today they've been replaced by more modern soldiers who also get to play bigshot in the VD, festooned in Kevlar vests and armed with iPhone sportsbet apps, riot guns, some live and rubber bullets.

Hasn't worked for weeks

So, back to the fact there was this projectile part, a brass shell casing, languishing there in my pocket, and it had failed to set off the airport detector. How was it possible in the world's most button-down tight-ass airport that no bells, sirens, horns or flashing lights went off to illuminate my forgetfulness? There had been an obvious security meltdown. I calculated my options and, in the end, decided the airport authorities surely needed to know. And so I went over to tell the nearest security man, brandishing the spent shell casing as evidence that there was a problem with their metal scanner.

“Oh, that thing hasn't worked for weeks,” the officer yawned, giving a dismissive handwave in the direction of the metal detector. “It's not a big problem. We don't need it. We know everything about you before you reach the machine. We know who you are.”

I slunk away to ponder the deep absurdity of this news. The thoughts cascaded like a jumble of Kubler-Ross stages: acceptance, denial, anger. “Of course, makes sense. This is where collective security is an artform. They know about all the passengers. Who’s naughty. Who’s nice.  So how much have they dug up about me? What do they know? And, finally, the existential question, how can you say you know me when I barely know myself?”

At one level, and on this point, I agree entirely with the metaphysician Charles Hartshorne.

Mysteries and implications

Hartshorne said he was inclined to give in to the Buddhists who contend that a person, strictly speaking, is numerically distinct in each discreet moment of time. So the question of who you are is equally  immeasurable and irrelevant. How could you be expected to know who you are when each actuality of you is largely gone, surpassed in the next instant by another?

Further, can we decouple the enigma of who we are from the larger theological mysteries and implications?

I am comfortable with the notion that who we are is what we do. I don't mean tinker tailor soldier sailor. Or writer, painter, beggar-man thief. The question of who we are takes on real meaning, not rhetorical meaning, when we say that all that we are is the sum total of our actions. This is where the rubber  surely meets the road. This is living at the centre, not the margins.Appendectomy Girl, 18x24

So, in the context of here in the Middle East, and for that matter elsewhere too, let's everyone set aside these petty historic hatreds. Let’s not be worrying about trying to angle ourselves for, say, a future paradise replete with 72 virgins boasting pear-shaped breasts. There is no "self" to angle.

The consistent advice seems to be to forget about "self" and to just breathe in the fullness of your numerically distinct moment, right here and now.

As Hartshorne said: “Perhaps I have a blind spot in this region, but I see no need for post-terrestrial rewards or punishments — beyond the satisfaction, to be achieved now, of feeling one’s earthly actuality indestructibly, definitively, appropriated in the divine participation.”

The wonder of the present

In other words, focused too furtively on the future we risk missing the wonder of the present, which could be just heavenly. And we possibly blow the chance to become who we are.

A decade or so ago, I was compelled to telephone Hartshorne at his home in Texas. It was a Saturday morning in June when this stranger cold-called the Hartshorne home. His daughter answered and told me they were having a little party since it happened to be Hartshorne’s 102nd birthday. I had a pressing question about something Hartshorne said in A Natural Theology for Our Time, though I confess now to have long forgotten what the question was or why it was seemed so pressing.

That Hartshorne was indisposed to answer seems exquisitely appropriate now as I advance toward another kind of departure lounge simply mindful of each moment extinguishing into the next and where the phrase “We know who you are” still invites me to wonder and reflect.

Let me recommend Charles Hartshorne: A Natural Theology for Our Time, La Salle: Open Court, 1967, reprinted 1992, ISBN 0-87548-239-2

(Top: Meditating on Number Six 16 x 12 watercolours and India ink on Laid paper)


A Dark and Stormy Night

A Winter's Night (16x12 watercolour on board)

It wasn't a Kennedy assassination moment, or a 9/11 moment. But I quite vividly remember a morning 12 years ago when news came on the radio that a body had been found in a car in the city of Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg.

Call it premonition – you wonder where they come from - but I thought: 'Who do I know in Selkirk?' And in that instant Mark Stobbe bounced to mind. We'd bumped into each other a few days earlier and he mentioned he had recently bought a home in St. Andrews, not far from Selkirk.

I met Stobbe in the mid-1990s when he was a political operative in Roy Romanow's Saskatchewan government. As a PR guy he was impressively large and friendly and helpful to an interloping newspaper reporter trying to get a feel for the political imperatives in a neighbouring province. I was a bit surprised in September 2000 to see him on the streets of Winnipeg and to hear he was now working for Manitoba Premier Gary Doer.

Called to commiserate

Later, on that October day more than a decade ago, when I got to my office in the Globe and Mail bureau in downtown Winnipeg, more details trickled out about the body in the car in Selkirk. There had been a slaying. And the victim was Bev Rowbotham, wife of Mark Stobbe, senior communications advisor to the Manitoba government.

It was surreal as I reflexively called Mark's home to commiserate. I told him I could not believe what I had heard on the news. “It's shitty,” he admitted in his understated Stobbe-esque way.

Of course I knew, and he knew that I knew, that suspicion would fall on him for the killing. Nine times in 10 it's the husband, out of anger. Until he was ruled out as a suspect, Stobbe would have to be the RCMP's main man.

Since Bev Rowbotham's body was found some distance from the family home and the story was that Bev had failed to return home after a late evening shop to Selkirk for groceries, we were being asked to believe she was attacked and killed in a random act by an unknown perpetrator. Not very likely, but not 100 percent impossible either, I thought. At that time I did not know Bev was killed in the back yard of the family home. Nor did I know Bev had been bludgeoned repeatedly with a hatchet or hammer – apparently 16 times – an emotional outburst.

Before long Mark Stobbe no longer worked for the government. A dark cloud of suspicion hung over his head as he took to operating a candy route to support himself and two young children. I'll admit to feeling some sympathy: if the guy is innocent, he's tragically lost his wife, his job, his reputation. I tried to buck him up and we had lunch a few times in the months that followed.

Full of food

Several times I asked him if he killed Bev and, just as he repeatedly told jurors at his murder trial last month, he steadfastly denied any involvement in her terrible death.

As police leaked selective details of the case to the media, Mark gave me explanations for things that might cast suspicion. Why did Bev need to go shopping when the family fridge was full of food? The fridge was full of food because family members, friends and neighbours all brought food in the hours and days after the murder.

Months passed and Mark was bitterly frustrated that the focus of the RCMP investigation appeared to be only on himself as a suspect. He mentioned that around the time of Bev's killing a woman driving on a rural road near Selkirk had been attacked by two hammer-wielding women who tried to rob her as they pretended their car had broken down. How coincidental is that? Why weren't the Mounties chasing down that possible lead?

It was only at trial that the public were told DNA and bone fragments pointed to the back yard as the location of the killing. And so the question arose: Who had a motive after the fact to remove Bev Rowbotham's bodyand take it in the family sedan 15 kilometres to Selkirk, where the car and body were some hours later found abandoned?

Sometime in late 2002 Mark moved back to Saskatchewan and we lost contact.

In 2008 he was arrested and charged with second degree murder. Police apparently had shopped around for a prosecutor who would support a charge on the strength of not much more than suspicion. Four prosecutors who were  previously consulted said there was insufficient evidence to lay a criminal charge against Mark Stobbe or anyone else.

A wise conclusion

So then, last month, after a seven week trial, the testimony of 80 some witnesses, several gruelling days on the witness stand and 12 years under a cloud, Mark Stobbe was found not guilty in the death of his wife Beverly Rowbotham.

I'm relieved and impressed that 12 citizen jurors reached this wise conclusion.

From what I could parse from news reports at trial, there wasn't evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mark Stobbe was connected to the killing.

Oh, you may have your  suspicions. But our justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict.

So a finding of not guilty was the correct verdict, in law.

In the end, Mark Stobbe may be the only person to know whether it was correct in fact.

(A version of this was published in The Winnipeg Free Press on April 20, 2012.)

(Top: A Winter's Night 16 x12 Italian watercolour pigments on board)



A Thorn among the Rosies

Red Jacket (15x11 watercolours and India Ink)

A straw poll among my extended family suggests the emergent Wildrose party will win by a landslide when Alberta elects a new government in less than two weeks.

I was in Alberta for a funeral and as a Winnipegger who long ago married an Alberta girl, I thought about how often I've made that westward trek from Manitoba and how Alberta has always seemed a welcoming and perplexing place, at once both strongly kindred and strangely foreign.

Opinion polls suggest Premier Alison Redford's Tories are about to take a whuppin' at the hands of a surging Wildrose party: a political force with serious backers and serious money, led by my former journalistic compatriot Danielle Smith.

Change in the air

The Tories were some 10 to 13 percentage points behind the Rosies in popular support at the Easter break, though that gap appears to have tightened in the time left before the April 23 vote.

And so I asked my salt-of-the-earth Alberta relatives, farmers, entrepreneurs, business-folk all -- those who made up a big chunk of the 420 in the little church in Duchess -- to predict the election outcome.

Unless they change their God-loving minds between now and then, I venture a good 90 per cent of my in-laws in Medicine Hat, Brooks, Calgary and all the way up to Vegreville and Leduc will cast their lot with Wildrose.

The feel of a quite-revolutionary change is in the air.

"The NDP infiltrated the Conservative party, buying up memberships and the like," one of my nephews whispered, implying Redford's Tories have become too socialist-red for their britches and the people's voice is echoed in the neo-conservative, libertarian, freedom-loving Rosies.

Others in my family of election prognosticators said the PCs have simply been in power too long. With that comes the odour of cronyism, wild spending of taxpayers' money and legislation in areas where the government has no place.

Several of my Alberta family said they like the Wildrose idea of being able to recall malfeasant MLAs and have citizen referendums on important issues.

A fart in the perfumery

Proof of the profligacy and arrogance of Alberta's political elite was the pre-election news MLAs collected thousands of dollars for sitting on a legislative committee that had not met since 2008. This transgression came up often, and people's noses curled as they spoke of it, as if they had just sniffed a fart in a perfume factory.

It seemed a bit odd none of my relatives had raised their voice in protest of these things before now. At the same time, no one expressed fear over the future of medicare or threats to the Canada Health Act and whether their arthritic bones would be properly looked after if Wildrose wins.

"I haven't heard that," said the nephew. It seems Albertans don't worry about the same kinds of things we do in deficit-addled Manitoba. They have a deficit, too, but they will deal with it by 2013.

At one level, Alberta is unlike any other province in Canada. When it comes to politics, even Quebec, I dare say, has more in common with the rest of Canada than Alberta.

Because Alberta, at least in modern history, has been a political monolith. One voice, the Progressive Conservative party, has dominated since 1971.

Except from her infant crib, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, born in 1971, has never seen anything other than a PC government in Alberta. Now she has a chance to install something other.

Cool Libertarian

A poverty of vigorous public-policy options in Alberta is something I know Danielle has long lamented. We had many discussions about the events that shape our nation and our world when she and I worked together in Calgary to make the national current-affairs TV program Global Sunday.

Danielle lives and breathes public policy. She is cool under pressure. She is a fiscal hawk but socially progressive. She is interested in good ideas.

She is honest and reliable.

Danielle also leans toward the libertarian view that with personal freedom comes individual responsibility. Everything she has done in her life has led to this moment as the political momentum tilts toward change. Alberta politics suddenly resonates with potential impact for all of us, even here in Manitoba.

Public discourse in Alberta is no longer boring and predictable. It is unpredictable and fascinating.

(A version of this was published in The Winnipeg Free Press on April 12, 2012). 5CAH63JZR7XE

(Top: Red Jacket: 16 x12 watercolours and India ink on Cold Press paper)

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