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If you are reading this in Australia, you may not be glued to the big screen TV and all those colourful events of  the winter Olympics.  Although the opening ceremonies were put together by an Australian, the land down under isn’t exactly lapping up the medals.  It may not be the lack of snow, but a dearth of mountains that is to blame.  There is skiing in Australia, but most serious downhill racers head to New Zealand, South Korea or Japan in July and August.

Even though the USA is cleaning up the medals this year, I have been disappointed by NBC’s version of the winter Olympics.  I like watching winter sports, and the coverage has been inundated with advertising and talking heads, leaving what seems like ten per cent of air time for the intense, gorgeous and exciting sports themselves. The ads are good, I must admit, but once you have seen them one time the wit and charm begin to pale.

According to today’s Wall Street Journal, my ten percent guess is a gross exaggeration.  A full quarter of each hour is actually devoted to the events of the Olympic games. Only 27 of each sixty minutes is given over to commercials.  The rest is eaten up by the NBC commentators, replays, video segments, medal ceremonies and athlete interviews.  How generous of the sponsors and the network!

When an opportunity arose for my wife and I to visit Windsor, Ontario for a day, I leapt at the chance to see the Games on the home court.  Getting to Windsor from Durham is not difficult, since it happens to be located directly across from America’s motor city– Detroit.  Oddly enough, Windsor is situated on the south side of the Detroit River, making it Canada’s southernmost city. We had unusually chatty Canadian cab drivers both directions, taking us through the tunnel into Canada and over the bridge back to the USA.

Windsor was settled in 1749 as a French agricultural settlement, making it the oldest continually inhabited settlement in Canada west of Montreal.  Aside from its significance as a tiny sister  to Detroit, Windsor was an important point of entry into Canada for refugees from slavery and a major source of liquor for Americans during Prohibition.  It remains the home of Hiram Walker distillery, even though that company has been taken over by Pernod Ricard. It is the car capital of Canada, but that isn’t saying much anymore.  There is a very large Ceasars casino, which may help make up for the boom and bust cycle of the American automotive industry.

Although the city center is not much to look at, a lovely 5 km (3 mile) park lines Windsor’s river front, offering views of the Detroit skyline across the water . The western portion of the park contains the Odette Sculpture Park, which features over 30 large-scale contemporary sculptures.  From our perch in hotel, we could watch the joggers far below, and see a silent Canadian ice cutter as it pulled up to dock nearby.

Then we turned on the television.  The Olympics came at us in all their glory, spilling forth on the very night Alexandre Bilodeau of Quebec won Canada’s first gold medal in the winter games on home turf.  Beside him on the podium was a former Canadian who now represents Australia, Dale Begg-Smith.  The “Iceman” looked unhappy to  be there, rolling his eyes at the injustice of coming in second to the upstart Canadian in the Moguls.  An American won the bronze.

I was in a position to root for all three athletes.  Sometimes it pays to be a nomad.  The Canadian commercials were pathetic but they didn’t overwhelm the action, the way they do here on NBC.   I settled back in the big bed and smiled. What a treat for an armchair athlete.  We were warm and cosy, in on the action and excitement of a homegrown victory. The ice from Lake St. Clair was drifting by on the river far below.


As Washington Duke told the story, years later, when he was old and rich: “When the war was over, I found myself at Newbern, after being released from Libby prison with only a five dollar Confederate note, sold that to a Federal soldier for fifty cents, and walked home…. I said to my boys, when I got back home, ‘The war is over.  For people who will do their duty and stick to their business, there never was a better opportunity in the world to make their fortunes.'”

When Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman at Durham Station in 1865, it was the end of the Civil War in the Carolinas.  The restless soldiers had little to do during the nine days of negotiations, so they broke into a local tobacco “factory” owned by John Green and made off with the best weed any of them had ever smoked.  It wasn’t long before orders started pouring in from the ex soldiers up North.

Green cranked up production, adopting the name “Bull Durham” after a picture of a jar of the popular Coleman’s mustard, manufactured in Durham, England.  The demand for Durham tobacco prompted Washington Duke and his sons to get into the business.  In addition to the addictive nature of nicotine, two significant events favored the phenomenal growth of the business– the accidental discovery of a new method of tobacco curing in 1839, and the invention of the cigarette rolling machine in 1881.

The story goes that in the summer of 1839, an eighteen year-old slave, a blacksmith by the name of Stephen fell asleep while he was tending the fire in a tobacco curing barn. When he woke up and realized the fire was nearly out, he dashed to his smithy and got a supply of charcoal which he dumped on the fire.  The burst of heat turned the tobacco leaves yellow instead of brown, and seemed to improve the flavor. Bright leaf tobacco was born.

Experiments with flue-curing the leaves compounded the significance of Stephen’s  discovery, altering the chemistry of the tobacco from alkaline to slightly acidic.  This subtle change made the tobacco milder, allowing smokers to inhale for the first time.  Nicotine takes seven seconds to hit the brain once it reaches the bloodstream.

Tobacco farming was a laborious, risky business, and Washington Duke realized that the profits would be in the end product. In the early years, the business was snuff, plug tobacco, pipe tobacco.  The patriarch spent much of his life at the old homestead, processing chewing tobacco and labeling it “Pro Bono Publico,” for the Public Good.  He finally moved to Durham when his eldest son, Brodie, started his own factory in town, taking advantage of the train station and the tobacco market.

The youngest son was the entrepreneurial genius of the family. By 1900, cigarettes were only 2 % of the tobacco market.  They were deemed a curiosity for the urban poor, who could not afford more appropriate forms of the leaf.  James Buchanan (Buck) Duke, led a radical transformation of the business that would turn his family’s modest beginnings into an immense fortune, changing Durham and the rest of the world in the process.

The cigarette business was limited by the time-consuming nature of hand rolling the product.  When James Bonsack, a Virginia inventor, introduced a rolling machine, Buck Duke immediately saw its potential.  It would churn out 200 cigarettes a minute, as many as a skilled roller could do in an hour.  Although it was not a reliable machine, Duke saw its potential and locked in long-term, favorable contracts with its inventor.

The mechanization led to overcapacity, and “Buck” Duke saw that the solution involved aggressive solicitation of new smokers.  He committed his company to efficient production lines, massive marketing and modern advertising.  Promotion would drive consumption.

His marketing campaigns centered on premiums, coupons and collecting cards at first, but he soon branched into nationwide advertising campaigns that stamped his brands into the impressionable brains of his target audience– young men and women.

He single-handedly turned the tobacco traditions on their head, using consolidation to gain control over markets and production, eventually forcing his competitors to join him in the consortium named the American Tobacco Company.

In 1924, James Buchanan Duke decided to cement the family legacy by endowing a local divinity school called Trinity College with an endowment of $40 million dollars.  Trinity was promptly renamed Duke University.  Its Medical School opened in 1930.  Ironically, perhaps, given the business of its benefactor, Duke Medical Center is world-renowned, a major employer in the City of Durham.  The weed that nobody needed had spread from the little backwater of Durham all over the world.


If there were such a thing as a national shoe in Australia, it would have to be the ubiquitous flip-flop. I have not actually seen a celebrity in a tux and thongs, but I have no doubt that it has occurred in my absence.  My ignorance of the occasion simply reflects the fact that I don’t get invited to such events.  Aussies love their thongs.

According to Wikipedia, thongs were inspired by the traditional woven soled zōri or “Jonge sandals”, (hence “jandals”). Woven Japanese zōri were used as beach wear in New Zealand in the 1930s. In the post war period in New Zealand and America, versions were briefly popularized by servicemen returning from occupied Japan. The idea of making sandals from plastics did not occur for another decade.

The modern design was supposedly invented in Auckland, New Zealand by Morris Yock in the 50s and patented in 1957.  This claim has recently been contested by the children of John Cowie, an English-born businessman who started a plastics manufacturing business in Hong Kong after the war. John Cowie and his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1959. Despite ‘jandal’ being commonly used in New Zealand to describe any manufacturer’s brand, the word Jandal has been a trademark since 1957, for a long time owned by the Skellerup company. In countries other than New Zealand, jandals are known by many other names.

In Australia they are known as thongs. The first pair were manufactured there by Skellerup rival Dunlop in 1960. Thongs took off in popularity after being worn by the Australian Olympic swimming team at the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956. Thongs now come in a variety of shoe styles other than the traditional flat sandal, such as women’s heels, slides, and wedges.The shoes gained popularity as celebrities started wearing them and high end designers started producing them. Kari Sigerson and Miranda Morrison, founders of Sigerson Morrison, added a kitten heel to flip-flops.

Havaianas is a Brazilian brand of flip-flop that gained world recognition in 1998 after the company developed a style of the sandals for the World Cup that featured the Brazilian flag. Although Havaianas flip-flops have only become wildy popular in the United States in the last five years after many celebrities were seen wearing them, the brand has been around since 1962. The brand’s famous slogan “Havaianas. The Real Ones.” originated in the 1970s as a response to other companies making knock-off versions of the flip-flops. The shoes are known for their comfortable soles and straps. The name Havaianas means Hawaiians in Portuguese.

Sharing a bus trip with ten Australians for eight days taught me the importance of thongs to citizens down under. Unless we were in for a difficult hike over treacherous terrain, everyone wore flip-flops almost all the time.  The swimwear that shares the name was not popular among our group, but then, we were an older crowd. The younger members of our group may have been more demure than the norm, embarrassed into covering up for their elders.

As for the titillating undergarment made infamous by Monica Lewinsky?  I’m not even going to hazard a guess.  You’ll have to find that out yourself.


My father grew up poor, hitting his formative years during the great depression.  Most of his energy went into getting away from that poor place and staying there.  He did it by working his way through college and applying himself diligently to things he had trouble with, like scientific German.  Most of his choices were dictated by circumstance.

The only narrative he subscribed to was the one at the heart of the American dream– achieving success through good fortune and hard work.  He regarded all fiction as frivolous, from airport and beach books to Shakespeare and Tolstoy.  I suspect many men of his generation felt the same.

Naturally, I became an English major, taking up with every literary floozy that came along, from “Catcher in the Rye” to “Atlas Shrugged.”  It wasn’t long before I went hard core, attending poetry readings and filling notebooks with everything that came into my head. It was infatuation, not real dedication, that led me down the literary path.  I was the young man Garrison Keillor mocks so gently on “The Prairie Home Companion,” the one he sees in himself.

I have come to see that books are my escape and my refuge in unsettled times. I remain omnivorous, devouring books of all kinds, shapes and sizes, hardcovers, paperbacks and audio files.  I have yet to purchase an electronic reader, but I can see one in my future. It is the perfect format for expensive, expendable travel guides as well as a great device for airplane reading.

The books I read and the ones I download from Audible take me into different worlds and different times.  I love mysteries, and Donna Leon has escorted me back to Venice several times in the fine company of Commissario Guido Brunetti. Louise Penny has immersed me in the surprisingly complex life of a small village in the Eastern Townships of Quebec with charming Inspector Gamache. With Charles Todd I have travelled all over England at the end of World War I inside the troubled mind of a Scotland Yard inspector plagued with guilt, having had his best soldier shot for insubordination. Stieg Larsson has me hooked by the sexy and sexist, over-caffeinated and nicotine-addicted Swedes.  I can’t wait for the third book in the series.

During the past week, the fine voice of Simon Vance reading Kate Grenville’s “The Secret River” has transported me back to Australia while I’ve been walking the circuit of East Campus of Duke University.  Set during the days of the first settlers, it conjures up a simple man whose desires lead him to the darkest places. He is one of the victims of the British impulse to banish the petty thieves of London to “terra nullus,” the continent of Australia.  The injustice affects him for life, of course.  But the aboriginals bear the brunt of the settlers’ fear, ignorance and firepower.  It is a brilliant book.

“The Wayfinders”, by Wade Davis, is a fascinating tour through a handful of aboriginal cultures around the world. Davis suggests that the extinction of cultures is as risky to the future of our species as the precipitous decline of plants and animals. The San people of the Kalahari have found extraordinary ways to survive without water; the Polynesians sail 10,000 kilometers without a sextant or compass and manage to find a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific ocean; the peoples of the Amazon rain forest harvest plants for medicine that we have yet to name.  The subtitle says it all:  Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

You can cosy up to a good book or take a bumpy ride, but it’s a great way to see and hear the world. And you don’t have to be an English major.

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