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Road Through Time

by Mary Soderstrom

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Saturday, 31 October 2009

Saturday Photo: A Good Year for Pumpkins and Quotes from Emerson

Happy Halloween!

There is something very satisfying about the shape and colour of pumpkins, it seems to me. Like concentrated sunlight--which, now that I think of it, may be the reason why using them as part of harvest festival is so appropriate.

Certainly the many, many pumpkins I've seen on doorsteps these last 10 days add colour to days which are increasingly short. What a contrast with the rather contradictory messages at large this time of year when a festival that originally commemorated the dead has become a festival for children who parade around in costumes and eat too many sweets!

When the kids were small I obsessed about this more, giving out only boxed raisins and insisting that they eat as much as they liked of whatever they collected that night, but that the rest be thrown away. The fact that I've started buying little candy bars to give out to the relatively few little ones now living on our street (streets have generations, too, I realize) amazes them. But as Emerson said (most appropriately,) "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..."

The quote ends: "... adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines," which is appropriate too, given Montreal's municipal elections tomorrow.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Hitting Greenhouse Gas Targets Won't Kill Economic Growth: Prentice Calls Report "Irresponsible"

Same report, quite different conclusions: yesterday The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir gave front page play to a report on the eonomics of climate change, but from the headlines and the opening paragraphs you’d be forgiven for thinking the stories were about different documents.

A 20 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, compared to 1996, can be attained while experiencing economic growth, the report says, but it would not be as strong as “business as usual,” both newspapers agree.

Yet the Globe trumpets “Canada can meet its climate goals, but the West will write the cheques,” while Le Devoir writes, “Reducing GES by 25 per cent wouldn’t put the economic brakes on.” (Réduire de 25% les GES ne freinerait pas l'économie.)

If you read both stories, you’ll discover that they’re both right: Canada would have economic growth of 2.1 per cent a year over the next 10 years if it takes action, according to the report, which was commissioned by the Toronto Dominion Bank and conducted MK Jaccard for the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation. But growth would be lower than otherwise in Alberta—oil sands country, remember—and Saskatchewan and the Atlantic provinces would also be affected. Growth under the considerably more modest Harper-government objectives would average 2.2 per cent annually across the nation.

This morning both The Globe and Le Devoir carry stories about Federal environment minister Jim Prentice calling the report “irresponsible.” Not surprisingly, his remarks getting bigger play in the paper out of Toronto than the Montreal one.

Here’s the link to the report itself: decide for yourself.

This is another example of "what you see depends upon where you sit."


Thursday, 29 October 2009

It's in the Mail--Or Was

Nothing like an accident to put things in perspective: I seem to have trashed all the folders on my e-mail program, but, amazingly!, I realize that this is not such a terrible loss.

This morning has been spent in trying to figure out what happened--it appears that because I wasn't deleting messages I let the files get so big that the program caterpillared, as my mother would say. The address book is still there, though, and that is what I really need. Any important document I have saved elsewhere or printed out. What appears to be gone are all those bits and pieces that I've sent or received from friends and family. Bits and pieces of a life. Flotsam and jetsam.

So why was I keeping nearly three years of messages? For posterity? Yes, I realize now that's indeed what I was doing. The idea that some day someone might want to reconstitute my correspondance was lying around back there somewhere, like a self-indulgent, bloated ghost. Bad karma. Serves me right.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

WMCs and the Montreal Election: A Danse Macabre for All Saints' Day

As I’ve mentioned, we’re just a few days from municipal elections where some pretty heavy accusations of corruption have come out. Envelopes with large sums of cash being exchanged, contracts for roads, buildings and water meters awarded to buddies, apparent lack of oversight: it is not a pretty sight. As one comic said this morning on Radio Can, it’s a campaign where “weapons of mass construction” are being used.

What an interesting coincidence, too, that the election is being held November 1, the day after Halloween and the day before the Day of the Dead, given all the skeletons that have been let out of the closet! Will there be victors worthy of singing "When the Saints Come Marching in" this All Saints' Day?

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Importance of Books: Why We Need to Tell Ourselves Stories

What role does the book play in the continued health of civilization? The question keeps coming up as I read and re-read books for book discussion groups.

One of the striking things bout Roberto Bolaño’s astounding By Night in Chile is the way the narrator escapes from the evil abroad during the Pinochet regime in Chile by re-reading philosophers.

In Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader—last month’s book at the Atwater Library—the illiterate woman whom the narrator loves is captivated by books, and may be said to find her personal salvation in learning how to read and learning to repent for what she’d done as a Nazi guard.

Tonight and tomorrow I’m talking about Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog in which the concierge Renée soars above her surroundings by reading the classics of Western literature—as well as watching a lot of good films (from Blade Runner to Ozu’s artistic wonders) and listening to good music.

But it is last night’s discussion of Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones which gives me the most food for thought. In it, the one white man left on the island of Bougainville during a time of intense suffering and civil war reads Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to children who have no other book. The story captivates them, and when the book is burnt along wit the village, they attempt to retrieve bits of it, as both an exercise in survival and a way of thinking about other things than the destruction around them. Yet at the end of the book we learn that the version Mr. Watts read was not the real one, but a simplified, maybe even crudely changed one.

At a time when books as objects made from printed paper are becoming increasingly problematic, this concern about stories and books is very interesting. Perhaps all these books—which obviously have touched a deep chord in people all over the world, as reflected in their enormous sales---shine a light on the human need for a narrative to explain life.

If we don’t have one, we’ll invent one.

For an interesting look at the background to Mister Pip, here is part of a documentary made in the 1990s about the troubles on Bougainville. It's up to you to decide which tells the truth better.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Leaves Fly, But Will the Winds of Change Blow on Sunday?

After a weekend of rain followed by high wind, the leaves are flying. This morning in the cemetery, the hillside, which had remained resolutely green as if defying the changing season, was yellow with red accents where it wasn't already denuded. Even the ginkgos, which frequently are a gorgeous butter yellow at the end of October, stood starkly against the blue sky and the rising sun.

If I remember correctly from my English literature courses, it is considered poor writing—or even cheating—to suggest that the weather reflects human emotions. the classic example is creating a “It was a dark and windy night” scene in order to send shivers up and down the readers spine for no good reason. But I can’t help thinking that there’s a nice symbol in wind blowing away leaves at the moment. We have a municipal election on the weekend, and it would be a good idea to shake things up a little.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Saturday Photo: Bridal Veil, for Memories

We were invited last weekend to the 40th anniversary celebration of a couple we've known for 30 years. Their very accomplished children organized an afternoon of good fellowship and good food at a small restaurant in Montreal's Plateau district.

Other friends also celebrated their 40th this summer, and we hit our 45th August 29 (yes, we were both children.) So now before all the leaves are off the trees--the Autumn Leaves Drifting by the Window, as the old song says--it's time to remember beginnings.

I took this picture in June, and used it for a screen saver most of the summer. As it happened, it was a very good summer for bridal veil--it cascaded everywhere--and its memory is as fresh as the smiles on the face of our friends when they reminisced about the way they met, so long ago.

Friday, 23 October 2009

I Pull Pull the Plug before Geocities Does: Welcome to My New Sites

Geocities announced a couple of months ago that October 26 it would be pulling the plug on its system of free websites. I've had one there since early 2001, and learned a little HTML in order to keep it up to date. The idea behind it was to provide basic information about me and my writing, and to showcase some of the things I've done.

But three years ago it became clear that Geocities was losing interest. It began to do things like no longer support accents, which meant that I had to go in a write ascii code each time I used an accented French word. A pain, indeed! That was about the time I started this blog, which (touch wood!) so far has not run into any support problem of this kind.

By the time Geocities' announcement came, I had closed down much of my website, switching things over to various places on Blogger. And now there is nothing there any more. You'll find all the relevant CV information here, along with cross links to my other blogs. These include ones with news about my writing life, the book discussions I lead and about the trip to Africa that lies behind The Violets of Usambara plus more personal things like our son's wedding, and an annual season's greeting letter (see the one for 2008). Come by and take a look.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Quebec Moves away from PPPs--Maybe of Several Sorts

Great announcement today: the Quebec agency which is supposed to oversee the province's Private Public Partnerships--those famous PPPs that were supposed to save us a lot of money--has been given a new name. It will now be called Infrastructure Quebec, and it will also be responsible for projects constructed in the traditional way--that is by the government as lead player.

PPPs, as many people have been pointing out for a long time, are not very efficient, and they put profit, not the public good, at the list of their aims. The current Quebec government began to back away from them about a year ago, but this is a sign that perhaps someone has seen the light. Given the current avalanche of questions about payoffs and kickbacks in municipal construction projects, it's about time that the screws on public spending were tightened. We don't need less money or fewer projects, particularly as we try to relaunch the economy, but we do need to have the money spent well.

Which prompted one commentator on Radio Can to say this morning that the name change was made to get away from that other PPP: politics, power and pilfering. Too bad, but probably too true.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

More Madness from the Harperites, This Time about Stocking Carbon

Jeffrey Simpson set out more arguments for conservation of energy, not continued production in his Globe and Mail column Tuesday. The Prime Minister has been hopping around the country, making announcements of, among other things, projects to stock greenhouse gases in various ways. According to Simpson, the latest plans will cost $1.6 billion in taxpayers’ money, or or "about $220 for a family of four."

“What do we get for that sum?," he continues. "We get, at best, a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions of 2.1 million tonnes.”

This means, he says, a carbon reduction of maybe 2 per cent. “On a cost-benefit basis, these carbon-capture and storage projects are madness...They are wildly expensive for the small amount of carbon they will (might?) prevent from entering the atmosphere. They are most definitely not a substitute for a serious climate-change policy that, however structured, must put a price on carbon emissions by those who produce them – either upstream emitters such as industrial concerns and/or downstream consumers.”

But we all know that these announcements, like those funny cheques Conservative MPs have been handing out, are as much about rewarding the Conservative party’s friends as they are about actually doing something. Harper is not serious about climate change or greenhouse gas emissions or anything else that goes counter to his deeply reactionary, head-in-the-sand ideas.

Sigh.

I’m not sad that Ignatieff has stopped talking about taking down the government, but somehow the forces of light in this country have got to find a way to get rid of Stephen Harper and his crew who do not represent the values of the majority of the country.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

What Is Stephen Harper Reading? A Collection of Yann Martel's Letters--Or Not?

Yann Martel just sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper a new book-- number 66 in Martel’s continuing campaign to provide Harper with bedtime reading—and Martel hopes the PM has already read it. What Is Stephen Harper Reading?: Yann Martel’s Recommended Reading for a Prime Minisiter and Book Lovers of All Stripes is a collection of the letters that have accompanied the books that Martel has sent every two weeks since April 2007 when he set out to provide a little stillness in the PM’s life.

Each book in the very eclectic collection has come with a short essay explaining why Martel chose it. Sometimes—as with Jane Austen’s unfinished The Watsons—there’s an explicit political message. It was sent during a nationwide discussion about Canada’s continued involvement in Afghanistan, and Martel wrote pointedly that Austen let go of this book because of circumstances in her life. "In that, there is something instructive. There is so much we must leave unfinished. How hard it is to let go.” The message was lost on Harper: Canadian troops are still on the ground there.

At other times, the books were ones supposedly for children—most recently Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen—and poetry and plays also made the cut.

Like many others (although apparently not Harper who has never replied personally) I’ve read Martel's letters on his website with great pleasure, and often thought that the list of books would make a great plan for independent reading. Thousands of others have followed the evolving project on the web, but Martel says that he is glad the letters have been published in book form. The internet is ephemeral after all, but “books last.”

He closes this cover letter by mentioning Harper’s appearance a couple of weeks ago at a National Arts Centre benefit, where “ sang poetry to the Canadian people. No one expected With a Little Help from My Friends from you. And look at the effect you had. People were amazed. You made the front page of newspaper after newspaper, and often with a big photo of you at the piano. It goes to show how art can amaze, connect and unify.”

We may know what Stephen Harper has to read, but we don’t know if he is reading it, alas!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Who Do You Want to Lead You: Crooks, Reality TV Wannabes or People with Principles?

The Montreal municipal election campaign has been marked by revelations of contributions from construction companies to highly placed councilors over the last few years. Among them were inflated contracts for water meters, but some of the same practices surfaced over the weekend when the Number Two opposition figure had to step down because it appears he also had dealings with some of the same individuals.

Apparently police investigations are underway, and at the moment it is premature to lay blame right and left—in this society one is innocent until proven guilty after all—but this sort of hanky panky sullies what ought to be a high calling, that of being a leader in a democracy.

One thing puzzles me in all this: what do the politicians implicated in these affairs gain for themselves? In the sponsorship scandal which shook the Liberal Party of Canada a few years ago, and here again, the money given clandestinely was purportedly to finance political campaigns with the understanding that contracts would be thrown in the direction of the donors.

Individual politicians supposedly did not pocket the cash, and in some of the cases the money shows up in party accounts. But surely politicians don’t stick their necks out unless there’s something in it for them. Either the money went to finance a nice life style (like the thousands that Brian Mulroney received from Karlheinz Schreiber which went not to party coffers but to Mulroo’s personal safe), or the politicians in question want to be re-elected so badly they betrayed the public trust.

The first possibility is bad enough, but the second one is also troubling. Is the lust for celebrity and power that much of a reward? We don’t need leaders whose motivations resemble those of Reality TV personalities any more than we need crooks.

PS. If you'd like to read more about politicians torn between the high that comes from political life and doing the right thing, check out my novel The Violets of Usambara.


Saturday, 17 October 2009

Saturday Photo: Why Not a Fall Picnic? Perhaps with Some Apple Jack?

You might need gloves to keep you fingers warm, but a sunny day like today is a good enough excuse to take your sandwiches outside. Bring a long a bottle of wine too, since it still isn't cold enough to freeze alcoholic beverages!

Although, now that I think of it, I'm reminded of my uncle who used to make apple cider in Prohibition days, and then leave it outside in the Eastern Washington winters. The apple juice part froze, but the alcohol stayed liquid longer--distillation, in effect, without the apparatus.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Cigarette Machines in Libraries? Only if They Sell Books, Not Smokes

It’s enough to make a person of a certain age do a double take: a cigarette machine in the library. Wikipedia says that the machines were made illegal in the 1980s in Canada—I can’t confirm that independently, but certainly I have not seen one in ages.

Yet yesterday there one was, near the entrance of my neighborhood library.

Only this Distroboto (that’s what they’re called, apparently) wasn’t selling cigarettes. It was stocked instead with little booklings put out by a couple of avant garde publishers here. The price for each was $2, and had I not been in a hurry I would have emptied my change purse of $2 coins (called a Twoonie, to match the $1 Loonie bearing the image of a loon.)

The organization behind the machines is Archives Montreal, a non profit which says its mandate is to assist in the "promotion, distribution and preservation of local independent culture.” And while the one at Outremont’s Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa is newly-installed, the idea has been around for nearly a decade. Louis Rastelli, the force behind it, was featured in a 2001 New York Times story. At the time there was only one in the back of the Casa del Popolo, a neighborhood bar which is a trendy venue for music and poetry readings. Now it seems Distroboto has eight locations in Montreal, including three in libraries.

Selling books from machines is nothing new--I saw many in public spaces in São Paulo a few years ago--but this idea seems unique. Since Canadian cigarette packages are larger than US ones, the machines which sold them lend themselves better to the selling books. This means that Distroboto may not be directly exportable South of the Border. But pressure is mounting to get rid of soft drink machines: why not convert them to vending culture, too?

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Frosty Morning Photo: Leaves on the Grass, and A Nip in the Air


Too much to do today to post anything more than a photo I took yesterday morning when the sun was out and the temperatures were cold. It's even colder today and much cloudier. Brrr..... I'll just have to get to work to warm up.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Fun Can Make You Change Your Behavior? Well, Maybe for a Little While

Thanks to Penney Kome for passing this one along: she's the source for some marvelous videos. The idea in this one is apparently to test whether having fun--The Fun Theory--is effective in changing behavior.

Well,
I’m not sure this one proves that—and I imagine that the noise could be a nuisance if you worked just off the corridor leading to the escalator. Certainly, once the novelty wears off, people are likely to go back to riding the escalator. And how much energy does a loaded escalator use? Can’t be all that much, although if you consider personal energy budgets, climbing stairs instead of taking escalators does ] make a difference.

But for a moment, it's fun to watch the people having fun taking the stairs. And maybe it will do something positive for music appreciation, too.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Seasonal Weather: Time to Bring the Plants Inside

The temperature was just a little above freezing this morning on the back porch, and the weather lady on Radio Can said there were flurries over high ground. That’s nothing like the cold and snow that’s already hit the Prairies, but certainly the season has changed.

Because we were expecting such a houseful on the weekend, I didn’t want to bring in the big house plants who spend the summer in the garden. One of the hibiscuses—the larger one, at six feet—seemed to be doing all right outside, but the one I’d put in front—the smaller, at five feet—looked remarkably unhappy yesterday morning. But it revived by night fall, once it was ensconced in the sunny front bedroom upstairs. Everything else I brought in also made the transition well. Only the two Christmas cactus plants and the fig remain outside. They can stand lower temperatures than the other things, and there is only so much one can do in a day.

As for me: well, I ate breakfast outside on the back porch as I usually do between mid-April and mid-October, but I didn’t tarry, despite my warm jacket. We turned the heat on too for the first time this season.

And this just in: Environment Canada is forecasting overnight lows below freezing by the end of the week. To everything there is a season, and I guess the one for cozying up inside has come.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Better Late than Never: Happy Thanksgiving!

The dishes are done, and I feel quite thankful for all sorts of reasons. Our American roots show in strange ways, and one of them is a delight in the idea of Thanksgiving. Not that we believe there is a being or whatever to whom we should give thanks, but it is a very humbling idea to take stock of the many things one has to recognize how privileged one is.

That--and the way that so few people in Quebec do anything for this holiday--led us a few years ago to begin inviting friends for a buffet on the Sunday of this weekend: people who are tied up from the middle of December until early January are frequently free this time of year. Yesterday we were somewhat more than 30 (I lose count after a while) ranging in age from about 28 months to 80 years. We ate a turkey and three chickens as well as an astounding array of side dishes. Lots of wine (or apple juice, depending on one's age) and much good conversation and fellowship. Emmanuel carved the turkey with much panache--or rather he started by carving one of the chickens, an indicator, he said, of the tough economic times. But there's still food left, even though I sent home quantities with the kids and assorted friends who stayed around to help clean up.

So best wishes on this holiday that comes just when the temperatures drop and the harvest is in. May you experience a bumper crop!

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Saturday Photo: The Beating Heart of Fall

Well, that sounds a bit extravagant, but the gorgeous display of this creeping vine at the moment deserves superlatives. I'm not sure of the name--it's not Virginia creeper--but it has begun to spread from house to house around central Montreal during the last couple of years. It covers houses in green during the summer and turns brilliant reds and magentas beginning in late September.

I've seen it creeping up trees, too, and that might create problems if it gets too exuberant. But at the moment it is providing lovely colour just before the trees burst into flame, metaphorically speaking.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Living Until the End: Exercise for the High Middle Ages

The year I was 50 Lee bought me a bicycle for my birthday, and I learned to ride it. A series of articles in yesterday’s Globe and Mail reminded me of that. “Fit after Fifty” was the banner, and below a half dozen stories told of people--all members of what the Globe suggests may be “the fittest generation”--and their athletic and fitness activities.

The stories’ subjects are just entering their High Middle Ages, but what they’re discovering is something that became clear to many of the previous generation some time ago. My own land mark birthday is some ways behind me, and I NEVER ride a bike if I can avoid it, but keeping the old body moving proves to be more and more important. So far the best cure for arthritic knees (I ran my last 10 k just before my 60th birthday) seems to be a half hour of exercises suggested by a physio therapist and walking—at least an hour a day--nearly everywhere. My mother could barely go up stairs when she was my age, and I’m sure I was headed that way too, but so far, so good.

The person who takes the cake though, is our friend Sid Ingerman. He’ll turn 81 next month, and, while he’d swum a lot all his life, he took up triathlon when he was 75. He’s still going strong, completing his most recent one just a month ago.

Disease or accidents will bring us all down at some point (and the emails this morning included news of a friend whose chronic condition has just turned acute with very unpleasant prognosis) our aim should be to LIVE up to the end, and exercise will help us do that.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

By Night in Chile: a Brilliant Political Novel--As Well As a Literary Gem

One of the most difficult things in the world is to write a serious political novel that is not a pot boiler. Joe Klein’s Primary Colors is a good example: compulsive reading, but stoked on gossip and innuendo. Not high literature at all.

But there are stories that much be told, things that happen in the world that demand serious consideration and that cry out to be told with artistry. I’ve just finished By Night in Chile by Robert Bolaño which does just that.

The pretext are the death bed thoughts of a dying Chilean priest, who was deeply involved in the Latin American literary scene. There is much about poetry and indeed the teaser to a review in The Guardian says it is a “wonderful and beautifully written analysis of Chilean literary life.” But it is also—and far more importantly to my mind—a meditation on intellectual and spiritual responsibility.

Bolaño died at 50 in 2003, after a short and intense writing career: in the last ten years of his life he turned out more than a half dozen books. He ran afoul of the Pinochet dictatorship when he returned to his native Chile just before the overthrow of Salvador Allende. After a short imprisonment he spent a good part of his life abroad, reading widely and becoming a cult hero in literary circles. But this short novel, elegantly translated by Chris Andrews, is so much bigger than a “literary” work that even those who bristle when critics talk of style will profit from reading it.

The only other writer I can think who has combined political conscience, story telling ability and superb writing is Colm Toíbin in his novel of the Spanish Civil War and the Irish Troubles, The South, and in The Story of the Night, set in the Argentina of the Falklands War and the explosion of the AIDS epidemic. Bolaño had a reputation of reading absolutely everything so it’s probable he read the latter book. Indeed the similarity of Bolaño’s title to Toibin’s suggests this. But Bolaño is an original. 10 on 10, in my book.


Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Pete Seeger and "The Power of Song:" Making Principles a Pleasure

The DVDs came yesterday: three copies of the PBS program. Pete Seeger, The Power of Song. A friend had lent us a copy last Friday, and Lee has watched to it four times while I follow with a paltry one and a half.

Part of the PBS series American Masters, the DVD is a biography, an appreciation and a whole lot of stirring music. It is also a social history of the US during the much of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, during which Seeger held fast to his principles and made millions sing.

So we bought three copies, one for ourselves, and one each for the kids’ ménages. We tried to buy it from PBS directly, but it seems not to be available, but we found it at both Amazon.com and Amazon.ca—with, surprisingly, a lower price in Canada.

It's probably worth noting that Seeger was a featured participant at the terrific pre-Inaugaral concert by the Lincoln Memorial last January. Glad to see his great contribution was recognized by the Obama gang. That reminds me, too, how sad it was to see Yo Yo Ma flimflammed into performing with Stephen Harper last weekend.


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Message to Yo Yo Ma: Harper's Not Barack

There’s been some interesting chitchat about how Stephen Harper played at the National Arts Centre benefit on the weekend. A media coup, some said. A masterstroke designed to show the PM cares about culture.

Well, the video that’s making the rounds doesn’t show just how much skill he showed playing the piano (just some chords to go along with “I’ll Get By with Little Help from My Friends," or something more?) But what is clear, documented by the backgrounder in Monday’s Globe and Mail, is that the appearance was carefully planned by one of Harper’s most skilled advisors, his wife Laureen. She was head of the benefit committee, and she was the one who lined up Yo Yo Ma to go along with the idea.

I really wonder how much the great cellist knows about Harper: Ma was a supporter of Barack Obama, and played at his inauguration which would suggest he’s not a right wing guy. What is clearer from the timing is that Ms. Harper set up a “surprise” that would played pretty good now, but which would have been an election bonanza, had the government fallen.

Since it was Quebec that deprived the Conservatives of their majority, in large part because of the way Harper and his friends showed their contempt for culture in the widest sense, this cameo performance would have (and may still) play extremely well in la belle province.

But playing the piano does not mean you care about music, as the string of Conservative budget cuts shows.

Mr. Harper, what friends are you talking about?

Mr. Ma, I think you were had.


Monday, 5 October 2009

Saving Green Space in the Middle of the St. Lawrence: Why Not Expropriate to Add to Park?

Construction of condos next to the provincial park on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence will probably be put off another two years, but the provincial government won’t expropriate the land. That’s what an exchange between a spokesperson for the provincial ministry involved and a coalition of groups worried about the development produced over the weekend.

According to Le Devoir, when the development freeze expires in November, the government will renew it, but will not expropriate the 22 undeveloped hectares which make up part of a lovely archipelago about 15 minutes drive from Montreal. The Parc des Iles-de-Boucherville is full of walking and bicycling trails, places to canoe and kayak and opportunities to observe nature. The undeveloped land lies between the park itself and the main highway access, and was supposed to include up to 2500 dwelling units in a “New Urbanism” design.

When developer Luc Poirier floated the idea in 2007, it seemed to have some good things going for it, and I said as much. But since then I’ve become much more skeptical of claims that you can create communities that work on the fringes of cities. You can talk the talk (concern about the environment, LEED construction, links to transit) but walking the walk is a lot harder. Better to keep environmental gems on the edges of cities public places where we can go to enjoy nature rather than let them be destroyed for private profit.

As for building green, transit links and all that: well, there are brownfields around the city that could be developed much more easily and with less impact.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Saturday Photo: Joseph Branco's Azulejos on The St. Lawrence Main

Not photos this week, but my favourite azulejos from the lovely series of benches honouring Portuguese literary figures on St. Lawrence Boulevard, the traditional axis of immigrants to Montreal. As I said earlier, Joseph Branco's azulejos seemed to me to capture the particular spirit of both Portuguese cutural heros, and the many immigrants from Portugal who have enriched Montreal, particularly since the 1950s.

Gil Vicente (v.1465-v.1536) was a Portugese playwright and social critic who lived and worked in the time of the great wave of Portuguese exploration. Branco writes that he chose the grape leaf as the motif for this azulejo partly in honour of his father who immigrated from the Azores (settled by the Portuguese 50 years before Columbus "discovered" the New World) and who always had grapes growing in his garden.


Antero de Quental (1842-1892) was born on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, the island where most of the Montreal residents of Portuguese descent have roots. A poet, essayist and philosopher he was part of the Portuguese intellectual ferment of the late 19th century. A recent visit to São Miguel inspired Branco to paint clouds in movement.

Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage (1765-1805) was a poet and satirist descended from a well-connected family who nevertheless spent time in prison for his anti-monarchist and anti-Catholic writings.. Branco says he chose this motif to honour the Portuguese tradition of embroidery, thus also honouring the talent and industry of Portuguese women.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Debt Is Not a Dirty Word, and the Recession is Not Over--Paul Krugman

A warning from Paul Krugman today: deficit is not a dirty word, debt is not necessarily bad, and the recession is not over yet.

He says that now is not the time to switch from worrying about priming the pump (to use that old New Deal metaphor, that I bet very few people can visualize these days: the photo at right is from India but I remember my grandmother having one like it.) He writes:

“You see, spending money now means a stronger economy, both in the short run and in the long run. And a stronger economy means more revenues, which offset a large fraction of the upfront cost. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the offset falls short of 100 percent, so that fiscal stimulus isn’t a complete free lunch. But it costs far less than you’d think from listening to what passes for informed discussion.

Look, I know more stimulus is a hard sell politically. But it’s urgently needed. The question shouldn’t be whether we can afford to do more to promote recovery. It should be whether we can afford not to. And the answer is no. “

This is right in line with Lee’s concern about the success of Margaret Atwood’s book of Massey Lectures, Pay Back . He fumed while he listened to the first three lectures broadcast on the CBC last November, and now says she has done a terrible disservice in not pointing out the economic repercussions of debt. Debt is another name for investment, he says, and the world needs a lot of that. He would agree with Krugman that it’s not the time to obsess about how we’re going to pay back what has been invested while we struggle with the financial crisis, brought on by a bunch of people who were too greedy/ideological to see where we were headed.

If all that has happened isn't enough to put you off conservative ideas for life, here's a delightful sketch from Rick Mercer. The context is Canadian but you can apply it south of the border too. (Thanks to Penney Kome for the link.)

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Sixty Years Later, Starbucks and the Museum of the First Natioinal Congress of the Chinese Communist Party

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Communist rule in China, with big parades and much talk. Things have changed since then, but sometimes it almost seems that history is doubling back.

I am reminded of the visit I took to Shanghai when I was working on my book Green City a couple of years ago. Karl Marx and Mao Zedong were still present in Shanghai then, but in a way that neither would recognize.

For example, on the Sunday afternoon in April when I visited the former girl’s school where the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China met in July 1921, teenagers were brandishing a red banner at least two meters by two and a half meters (6.6 by 8.2 feet). But they were laughing and joking, full of high spirits as they waited for their leader to buy tickets for the museum.

Then they rushed inside, leaving behind them a wake of excitement and hormones. Of course the thirteen delegates to the Congress more than eighty years previously weren’t much older than they were: the youngest was nineteen, most were in their mid-twenties and the future Chairman Mao Zedong was only twenty-eight.

The two-storey building where those historic meetings were held has been refurbished. Its blue-gray brick façade set with four ornamental courses of red brick has been cleaned and the semicircles of bas relief above the doors are carefully painted. Inside, exhibits presented the history of the Chinese people during the century of submission to Western capitalist interests from the 1840s to the Communist Revolution. On display were clubs used by police, paper money issued by foreign banks, the Communist Manifesto in Chinese with a portrait of Marx, and photos of starving peasants. So were the simple but graceful chairs and table around which sat the delegates and two European visitors from the Comintern. To read the captions on all the exhibits (posted in both English and Chinese) could take an hour or so.

But the kids roared through. The only place they paused was before a diorama showing life-size figures of the delegates deliberating. Mao is standing in it, the others listening, as in Michelangelo’s “Last Supper.” Then the youngsters were off to the rest of their Sunday adventure, to their own lives.

Maybe, even, to Starbuck’s for coffee.

Yes, the Seattle chain has an outlet just around the corner. The museum is at the entrance to Xitiandi, a completely reconstructed area which mimics traditional housing for the tourist trade. Starbucks is there, as well as McDonald’s and another half dozen or so restaurants where you can get seven different non-Chinese sorts of cuisine.

What would Mao think about that?