the federal budget is for bird brains

No sooner had federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty sat down than opposition critics began to ooze from the woodwork; and my phone and e-mail screen…

No sooner had federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty sat down than opposition critics began to ooze from the woodwork; and my phone and e-mail screen lit up.

“Hi Gregory, did ya hear it? What’s up with this? ttyl buddy.”

“Dear Gregory, Will transfer payments increase for the Yukon — looks like it’s payback time — big time. Give us your thoughts.”

“Gregory, Cheryl here. You got time to chat? I just heard Dion and he was struggling to separate the Liberal agenda from the Conservative budget. Are they really that close on this one?”

“Gregory — How are you doing? It’s cool here in Washington today. If you get time send me a one-liner, will you? How would you describe the rhetorical swirl going on up there around Flaherty’s numbers? Always, Roger.”

Capture all of this in one line. Could he be serious?

I have to think about this.

I whistle for the puppy and we are out the door like a shot. Immediately I begin to feel the warmth of the spring sun on my back.

As soon as I get outside, things begin to make sense. Poet Wallace Stevens sums it up for me perfectly:

“In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; but when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.”

As I watch the puppy roll in the snow, rubbing off the long winter I suppose, I delight in seeing my first Plectrophenax nivalis of the year.

The circumpolar snow bunting — aptly named the ‘snowflake’ — breeds farther north than almost any other land bird. They are usually the first of the migrating songbirds to move through the Yukon.

In masse they cut across the blue sky and quickly dissolve.

I continue working my way up the ridge feeling the full heat of the sun now.

Then all at once — with a little meditative help from the snow bunting I have to admit — it comes to me, the one-liner.

Without hesitation I am down the hill and back in front of my computer. I dash off a one-liner:

“Flaherty’s budget speech — and the reaction to it — is like the sound of one hand clapping.”

I hit send.

Ah, all in a day’s work. Presto. The wealth of literary journalism.

In brief celebration I grind up some dark French roast, boil water and stare down at the screen.


Ten minutes later, still nothing.

That’s strange.

Then the bell; I have a message waiting.

“Gregory, not sure I get it. Try two lines. Always, Roger.”

I immediately dash off a two-liner:

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?

“It’s a Zen koan, Roger. Work with me on this. Politics here is pure Zen and koans are the way to get in the door.

“Cheers, Gregory.

“PS: I just saw my first Plectrophenax nivalis. Cool huh?”

That was yesterday.

I think Roger’s still chewing on it.

Zen koans — which literally translate as “public documents” — have no other purpose but to open the mind and one’s perception as a way of getting at the truth.

They are questions or riddles that are intended to help us find deep truth lurking behind everyday reality. They are not rational in the ordinary sense and they are not linear in the way they flow.

If one reflects on a koan long enough it is possible to break the habitual responses we have to ordinary events. They can help move us toward a wider truth than we normally have available to us.

One Zen master told his student that koans are meant to dislocate his mind.”

I am right back on the computer this morning.

“Roger, Gregory here. Didn’t hear back from you yesterday — probable got lost in cyber space, huh? Here are a few other koans I came across. Thought they might help. They are not from old Zen masters but real Canadian politicians. Good stuff:

“‘I’ve never seen a government do so little with so much.” — Stéphane Dion.

“‘It looks like the kitchen table got a few crumbs and the boardroom table got big corporate tax cuts.’ — Jack Layton.

“‘It’s an unfocused, directionless, shotgun.’ — Liberal finance critic John McCallum.

“And in Flaherty’s own words: ‘We have restored fiscal balance and it is on a principled basis that we’ll do this.’

“Roger, I hope these will do the trick. Just ponder each one carefully and voila — enlightenment for sure. Just now, as I sent these to you, I began to see how they can help dislocate one’s mind. I am sure you can agree they are not rational statements in any sense of the word. They have certainly thrown me for a loop, broke up my habitual thought processes for sure.

“And by the way, I think I saw a Calcarius lapponicus this morning. They are usually right on the tails of the snow buntings. Yes, sir, spring is here for sure. What you got flapping around your place? Cheers, Gregory.”