Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Halloween: Candy, Hand-outs and Tax Policy

Elin and Lukas are going to mock me, but I have miniature chocolate bars to give out to the neighborhood kids tonight. When they were growing up, we gave out small boxes of raisins, and the rule was that the two of them could eat as much as they wanted on Halloween night, but the rest was trashed. My idea was that an occasional splurge doesn’t hurt but that weeks of eating candy was bad for teeth and bad for concentration.

But, as Emerson said, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and I decided to be inconsistent a couple of years ago. There will be candy for the little ones who come by, although I’ll turn off the front porch light and bring the jack o’lantern in about 7:30 p.m. when the big kids start roaming. Magic is one thing, gluttony is another.

Reading that back, I see that Lukas and Elin will laugh even harder if they read it, since in my indulgent inconsistency I still sound preachy. Fine thing to be on a pagan holiday!

I am, however, no more doctrine-driven than Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. To have huge surpluses and to put the lion’s share of that money into niggling little consumer tax cuts and paying down the debt is to ignore the real problems of Canada’s cities and Canada’s people. Better to provide more help for our aging infrastructure and for public transportation.

Note: Pumpkins at the Jean Talon market.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Moral Disorder and Margaret Atwood: Beneath the Brilliance, a Real Person

The publicity blurb for Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder on the US Random House website is a little coy: the short story collection is “fiction, not autobiography; it prefers emotional truths to chronological facts. Nevertheless, not since Cat’s Eye has Margaret Atwood come so close to giving us a glimpse into her own life.”

Well, there are those who say that it’s Life Before Man that one should read if one wants to see between the lines into Atwood’s life, particularly as it concerns her relationship to her partner Graeme Gibson and to Shirley Gibson, his late ex-wife. But, no matter: the stories of Moral Disorder are not only good reading, they are fuel for reflection on the ways that writers use their own lives in their fiction. There is a triangle at the heart of Moral Disorder--a man, his talented but erratic wife, and the younger woman who comes to share his bed and help raise his children—that resembles the Atwood-Gibson ménage. The resemblance is not important to judging the book though: almost all the stories are strong, satisfyingly well-imagined and would stand on their own even if you knew nothing about Atwood's own life.

As it happens, I came to them only a month or so after I read Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock. Munro’s short stories at their best have absolutely no equal, but in Castle Rock it seems to me she found herself too fettered by the facts of her life and family to allow herself to soar as she does so often elsewhere.

Much of Moral Disorder takes place in Munro territory—WASPish, intellectually worthy, properly modest Ontario society. Atwood, whose imagination has wandered through time and space increasingly in recent years, allows herself to focus on childhood, early womanhood and maturity as they have been lived in recent years in central Canada. This return to experiences closer to her own allows her, it seems, to write more affectingly than she has in a long time. The reader can see through cracks in Atwood’s wise-cracking, science-fiction-loving, dazzlingly brilliant persona to a real person--loving, and maybe even loveable--underneath.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for writers and critics, but I'm not sure yet what it is.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The Ginkgos of Autumn: Living Fossils, Urban Harvest

The ginkgo harvest has begun. When I was out for my walk this morning I saw one 60-ish couple of Asian origin heading home, carrying a plastic sack bulging with ginkgo nuts.

The ginkgos haven’t yet turned the gorgeous yellow they usually do in October, but, sure enough, when I crossed the park where I’ve seen people carefully looking for gingko nuts in that past, I crunched under foot the small fruit of the tree. Before I could look down to make sure what I was stepping on, the disgusting smell of the fruit rose up. Rotten garbage, vomit, durian: some places have torn out all the female ginkgos in order to avoid the smell.

The trees, however, are splendid from spring through late fall, and do very well in city pollution. Where the fruit ripens just as frost arrives—or where ginkgo lovers harvest it—the smell is not a problem. The survival of the species also is an eloquent testimony to what good can be done by humans, if they try.

The ginkgos we see today are the only representatives of a botanical order which fossil records show having about 19 members in the time of the dinosaurs. The order became extinct in North American and Europe millions of years ago, but one species survived in China and Japan. Legend has it that the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who supposedly catalogued thousands of medicinal plants about 3,000 years ago, appreciated it and cultivated in his garden. What is certain is that it was cared for carefully in palace and monastery gardens for centuries before the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer found it in Japan. He brought seeds back to Europe in 1691, and within 100 years it had been widely planted in botanical and royal gardens around the world.

The two ginkgos in my neighborhood park were planted around the turn of the 20th century when it was part of a private garden. Since then they’ve grown tall and beautiful—and bountiful too, if you know enough to look. Thanks are due to those who so long ago recognized the tree’s qualities and safe-guarded it.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Saturday Photo: A Sunday on the Canal

Before I left St. Catherines, Ontario, last Sunday (I’d been there for the Greenscapes conference at Brock University) Jean Duncan who runs McKenzie House, the B&B I stayed in, suggested I should check out Port Dalhousie, the historic district on the Welland Canal. It was a gorgeous morning—the temperature got into the high 20s C that afternoon (near 80 F)—and obviously the locals were enjoying this strange autumn.

Loony Classics and the Current CanLit Scene

Stephen Marche started a bit of a fire storm last week when he blasted the Giller prize list and the current CanLit scene as being stuffy and unoriginal in an article in The Toronto Star. In essence, he says that this is no country for young men (or women.) Brooklyn, where he’s been based until recently, has a much more exciting literary scene than Toronto.

George Murray posted a link to the story on his website, which prompted 65 comments as of this morning, some of them quite thoughtful and some of them plain funny. My own contribution centered on the relatively generous support writers get in Canada from the Canada Council for the Arts and provincial arts councils. Herman Melville, who spent part of his life in Brooklyn, might receive a grant or two if he were writing here and now, but not if he were south of the border, I wrote.

But perhaps Marche is on to something. If he’s arguing that emerging writers sometimes see and say things differently, he may be right.

As it happens, Adam Gopnik, one of those Canadian writers who’ve got elsewhere to seek fame and fortune, (well, actually he was born in the States but grew up in Montreal) has an interesting reflection on writing and creation in the October 22 New Yorker which talks quite a bit about Melville and Moby Dick. The British publisher Orion has just started a series of abridged version of classics, among them Melville’s magnum opus. Gopnik reports that the revised novel reads like a grand adventure. Cut from it, however, are most of the bits about whaling as well as the whole chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” in which Melville contends that white, “the natural symbol of Good,” is also, “somehow, the natural symbol of Evil.” All the cuts could be justified as moving the story along, making a tighter, more thematically unified work, Gopnik says. But the cuts remove the complexity—perhaps even the genius—from the novel. The “Whiteness” chapter, for example, I remember reading as a meditation on the United States in the decade before the start of the Civil War.

Gopnik goes on: “The real lesson of the campact editions is not that vandals shouldn’t be let loose on masterpieces but that masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses and self-indulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something that we already know about and approve. What makes writing matter is not a story, cleanly told, but a voice, however odd or ordinary, and a point of view, however strange or sentimental.”

A little loony, eh? I like that.

It remains to be seen, however, who among our writers—young or old—will be read 100 years from now. Will it be Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals (whose heroine—no pun intended—has much in common with the hero of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)? She’s 32 and up for the GG and the Hugh MacLennan prizes this fall. Or the many-sided, richly wrought short stories of the formerly young Alice Munro who won her first GG at 37?

It might be worth noting that Melville also was 32 when Moby Dick was published and that the book did not receive good reviews.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Rabaska Gets Go-Ahead, While California Burns

Quebec’s provincial government yesterday gave the green light to development of the Rabaska liquid natural gas port, the second such project to get official approval in six months. Rabaska will be built on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, downstream from Quebec City on prime agricultural land. Last spring the Liberal government approved the Gros Cacouna project, only a little further down river from Rabaska.

Whether Quebec needs two LNG ports is unlikely, even if much of the production is sold to the North East US. Certainly environmental groups are up in arms, and will continue their protest on Sunday with a demonstration in front of the National Assembly in Quebec City.

There is no direct link between Rabaska and the fires which have been burning in Southern California: long before talk of global warming fall was the fire season there. I remember the sky turning dark as twilight when I was a kid in San Diego as ash fell from the sky. We lived on Point Loma, at least 50 to 75 miles away from a huge fire which was scorching the country in Cleveland National Forest, but the Santa Ana winds swept the smoke to the coast, Since then the back country has been burnt many times, but people do not seem to learn. You can’t build houses in canyons and expect help when the brush catches fire. No, more than that: you can’t build cities in dry country—importing water from hundreds and hundreds of miles away—and expect to live an untroubled life. In short, you can’t mess with nature with impunity.

Quebec means “where the river narrows.” As Thomas Mulcair, former Quebec environment minister and now a federal NDP member of Parliament, points out, Rabaska is going to be built at one of the narrowest points on the St. Lawrence. Nothing, it appears, is going to stop Rabaska (and maybe Gros Cacouna,) but we can't say we haven't been warned.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Rabaska and Energy Requirements, Past and Present

The sun rose at 7:27 this morning, and I think the cereal I ate on the back porch will probably be my last breakfast outside this season: I was shivering so much I could barely hold the spoon. Despite near-record high temperatures on the weekend, the season seems to have changed definitively.

It’s about time, which brings up two points. The first is the recurrent one of climate change: this is the latest I’ve been able to breakfast while looking at my garden, and north of Montreal no killing frost has yet arrived even though it’s 18 days past the average date.

The second is the question of how we’re going to get out of this climate change mess. This morning’s
Le Devoir has an interesting story about a study done by Patrick Déry, a consultant for two environmental groups in the Saguenay region. He says that past experience in Canada, Quebec, Germany and elsewhere suggests that increasing the supply of natural gas will not, in itself, bring about a greenhouse gas-fighting shift to it from the more-polluting heating oil. There may be a relative change on a short term basis, but if the supply increases the only result will be an overall increase in fuel consumption. Better to regulate what fuel is used, to provide incentives—as the Germans have done —to shift toward green energy sources, and to cut back consumption tout court.

This of course is not what the current Quebec provincial government wants to hear as it prepares to give the final green light to a liquid natural gas port at Lévis, down river from Quebec City. The Rabaska project has friends in very high places, notes L
e Devoir’s Louis-Gilles Francoeur, even though to build it may require abrogating Quebec’s laws protecting agricultural lands from acquisition by foreigners: the Rabaska consortium includes Gaz de France.

The irony, of course, is that Rabaska originally was a large canoe used by First Nations around here, and later by the voyageurs when the energy expended all came from muscle power. Those guys didn't eat Cheerios for breakfast...

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Fighting Sprawl: Good Urban Public Schools Mean Good Cities

It’s the season when parents start signing their children up for school next year. For the next week or two families will be attending open houses, often with much anxiety over whether the moppets will get in a "good" private school. Le Devoir last weekend had a series of stories on private schools—“One in three high school students is in the private system” read the Page One headline—and The Globe and Mail just ran a series of articles on choosing a private school which is featured on their website.

The two-tiered education system which has developed in Canada’s major cities and in many US cities in the last decades is a serious problem for social cohesiveness, for our collective economic success, and for the future of our cities. If private schools are able to skim off the most motivated and brightest kids, public schools must deal with everyone else.

Better schools is a reason often given by people choosing to live in the suburbs. While part of that may be code for “schools with people who are neither poor nor from different ethnic groups,” standardized test results frequently show better results for suburban public schools than for urban ones with private schools leading the pack. (An example can be seen in the results which current events magazine L’Actualité publishes every year: the first 35 of 485 schools in a recent year were private schools while the first public school was a “magnet” school in Montréal with stiff entrance requirements. The next public school—one from the Quebec City suburb of Lévis—was 89.)

What would happen if we could change that? If sufficient resources were given to public schools so that excellence could be rewarded while support given to those who need it? My own kids went to center city public schools, which required a lot of campaigning on the part of parents for the funds, flexibility and attention needed to produce good education. One of the reasons why houses in our corner of Montreal fetch such good prices is because the public schools continue to have good reputations. There’s indication, though, that the political climate is doing little to maintain the quality. (See Josée Boileau’s letter about the death of the public school: she’s writing, I’m sure, about the high school my son went to.)

The importance of good public schools to the future of our cities must be considered in discussion about where we are going as urbanized societies. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be talking about it.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society Department: Collapsing Bridges and Other Woes of Getting around Urban Areas

The report on the collapse of the de la Concorde boulevard overpass in Laval north of Montreal is damning. Released last Thursday, it cites shoddy workmanship, lack of direct responsibility and probably poor maintenance for the sudden disintegration of a part of the bridge, which fell killing five persons in cars passing underneath it.

The commission was headed by a former premier of the province, Pierre-Marc Johnson, and heard hours and hours of testimony from experts and those involved. The response of the provincial government was immediate: a pledge of $3o billion over five years to rebuild and maintain the province’s highway infrastructure and the establishment of a new agency with a mandate to do just that.

All of which is probably good, because of two historical facts. First, highway infrastructure all over North America is getting old, having been built during the great construction boom of the 1960s and early 1970s. Second, this grand period of expansion was followed by budget compressions which meant that not only were funds for maintenance cut, but governments frequently slashed the departments which were supposed to make sure that maintenance work was done properly.

The conclusion is unavoidable: we don’t save money in the long run by being niggardly. Just as individuals must make sure the roof on their houses don’t leak and that surfaces are painted if they want to keep their dwellings liveable, so as societies we have to invest in maintenance. This is not waste, this is stewardship.

As it happens I was in Southern Ontario last week, in Toronto and at a conference at Brock University in St. Catherines. Driving through the area, several things struck me. Most annoying was the time it took to get around driving. The distance from Etibicoke on the western edge of Toronto where I stayed Thursday night to the center of St. Catherines is about 65 miles according to Mapquest, and should take about an hour and a quarter. On Friday afternoon, however, it took me more than three hours. Part of the snarl was due to general going-home traffic particularly around Hamilton, I suppose, but my colleagues in St. Catherines said there also had been a great deal of construction work on the Queen Elizabeth Way and the bridges over the mouth of Hamilton Harbour.

Bravo if the latter is the case: once we build roads, we must keep them safe. But once again I was struck by what a soul-killer commuting by car must be for those who do it regularly, and how urban sprawl destroys not only the landscape but also good agricultural land. The Niagara Peninsula is one of the most productive areas in the country, yet it’s clear that subdivisions are eating into it rapidly.

By the way, the reason I stayed out in Etibicoke was because I didn’t want to drive into the center of Toronto for a meeting with my publisher. Instead I took the subway (10 minutes walk from the B&B) and street car, and arrived at my appointment in less than 25 minutes for $2.75 each way. Couldn’t park for more than half an hour for that, and it probably would have taken more travel time.

There is much to think about in that comparison, it seems to me.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Saturday Photo: Home Depot's Park-and-Ride?

You’re going to have to trust me on this one: I tried every angle I could think of and this is the best I could come up with.

What you’ve have here is 7:15 a.m. on a Thursday in the parking lot at the Home Depot on the border between the Mile End and the La Petite Italie districts in Montreal. There’s a railroad line off to the left, and at one time this was a light industrial area. Home Depot came in a few years ago and built a good sized store on land which once had an old factory on it. The thing is, though, the store designers must have used plans standard on stores on the edges of urban areas because they bought too much land and put in a parking lot much bigger than necessary. Even on Saturdays when the store is crowded the parking lot is never full, since in this densely populated area, lots of people don’t have cars. They’ll walk to the hardware store and take the near-by bus or hail a cab to get home with their purchases.

There are two areas of the lot that fill up early week day mornings though—the corner nearest the railroad and the one on the opposite side which is nearest the bus lines and some light industry which lingers in the neighborhood. People who work there park in the lot for free, while others who live further out use it as a park and ride, catching the 545 bus to downtown Montreal.

Toronto: Jane Jacobs's City of Choice

I’m in Toronto at the moment, Jane Jacobs’s other city. There are several reasons: I’m going to meet with Marc Côté of Cormorant Books to talk about what needs to be done to my novel The Violets of Usambara before it’s published next spring; there are city planning folks in a suburb north of Toronto who have agreed to talk to me about how they are trying to adapt new urbanism ideas to development in their city; and I’m going to be giving a presentation at a conference at Brock Univeristy in St. Catherines called Greenscapes: Sense and Meaning.

The panel I’m on is called The Big Picture. My presentation is called “Green Cities and the Green Paradox”, and takes off where my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places left off. The other panelists are Ann Milovsoroff (FASLA/Horsford Gardens) who will speak on "Emerald Cities and Complexity Theory,” Nina Gerlach (Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg), on "Cinematic City Gardens;" and
Matt Feagan (Ryerson University), on "Meanings of Nature and Urban Greenspace: History, Policy and Grassroots Perspectives"

This trip should give me many chances to learn and think about cities and how we organize them, which is what I'm wrestling with for my next non-fiction book, Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs Streets (due from Véhicule a year from now if all goes well.) It should also be fun to return to the novel, which has been set aside for some time in favour of other projects.

Jane Jacobs Would Have Loved It: "A Civic Activist Boot Camp: Working Within and Without the System."

Places I would have liked to have been: "A Civic Activist Boot Camp: Working Within and Without the System." It was held Tuesday night (October 16) at the Municipal Art Society of New York, and “different ways to open up urban planning processes and help individuals acquire the tools necessary to make their voices heard” were supposed to be discussed. The participants included Marshall Brown of Atlantic Yards Development Workshop, Alexie Torres-Fleming of the Southern Bronx Watershed River Alliance, Joshua David of Friends of the High Line, Reverend Billy and Savitri D of the Church of Stop Shopping, and moderator Richard Kahan of Urban Assembly.

The panel is just one of many activities surrounding the exhibition Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, which opened September 26. If you’re in New York over the next few months, you must see it. If not, check out the website and/or order the catalogue, Block by Block

Canadians Really Care about the Environment, but Stephen Harper Doesn't Seem to Notice

Prime Minister Stephen Harper buried Kyoto yesterday in his Speech from the Throne, read by Governor General Michaëlle Jean at the opening of a new session of the Canadian Parliament. That was no surprise, but what was a surprise was the news from Statistics Canada’s third annual report on environmental sustainability indicators that, despite growing concern about the environment among Canadians, green house gas emissions, ozone (a component of smog) exposure, and presence of phosphorous in watercourses, aren’t getting much better.

Last month an Environmental Monitor poll said that 70 per cent of Canadians believe the country’s environmental rules are not strong enough, up from 41 per cent eleven years ago. Our governments, however, seem to be very slow in getting the message. Until they do, it appears it’s up environmental groups to translate that well-documented concern into action. One encouraging initiative: Equiterre, a Quebec-based group, has just announced teaming up nine schools and hospitals in the Montreal area with six farms in order to furnish their cafeterias and meal programs with local produce. The fruits and vegetables will only be available during the growing season—although root crops like potatoes and onions may be in stock for part of the winter—but the move is a step in the right direction.

This kind of contractual arrangement should be a win-win situation for farmers and for the institutions. Food produced locally doesn’t require big expenditures of energy for transportation, and it usually tastes better.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Pro Publica, Pasha Malla, and the Future of the Press

The New York Times Monday had a story about a group—bankrolled by two wealthy Californians and run by the former editor of the Wall Street Journal—which will set up a group of investigative journalists to provide stories to newspapers who are finding their reportorial resources reduced these days as owners cut back newsroom staffs.

The Times says Pro Publica, as the initiative is called, will “pitch each project to a newspaper or magazine (and occasionally to other media) where the group hopes the work will make the strongest impression. The plan is to do long-term projects, uncovering misdeeds in government, business and organizations.”

By concidence, shortly before I read this story, I went looking for work by Pasha Malla: I’d been impressed by an essay he’d written in a book, GreenTOpia, I was reviewing for Quill & Quire, the Canadian publishing industry magazine.

I found that he is is a contributing editor of The Morning News, a bright, well-written Internet publication that I learned to my surprise has been around since 2002. It’s a publication I’ll check regularly from now on—but written, I’m very sorry to say, by a bunch of volunteers. “We cannot pay for writing at this time.” it says on its contact information.

This is a terrible state of affairs. Reporting is being out-sourced by newspapers and magazines and some of the best writing around is being done for free.

Yet the need for many voices reporting on the world has never been more acute. We had an example here in the Outremont borough of Montreal recently, when the local weekly Le Point d’Outremont and a couple of pesky bloggers uncovered excessive (and in some cases illegal) expenses by borough officials and the borough mayor. All have resigned, but confidence in the borough council has been damaged. What happened demonstrates the importance of local journalism, the weekly’s editor Tristran Roy wrote in last week’s edition (see page 5.)

I’m sure Roy isn’t making a fortune at his job, and I know that the bloggers are doing it for reasons other than lucrative ones. How are we going to get the news reported and analyzed when big newspapers are cutting reporting staff so deeply that Pro Publica is thought necessary? How long will the attention of the citizen-commentators of the blogsphere keep active when they get nothing but glory?

And what are the Pasha Mallas of this world--young, articulate, engaged--going to do when they hit their 30s and the world comes around the corner to hit them in the face? I fear we will lose important voices.

Monday, 15 October 2007

It's about Time Department: Via Rail to Get More Money

Last week the Canadian federal govenrment announced increased funding for Via Rail, Canada’s passenger train service. The Crown corporation is supposed to get $691.9 million over the next five years, most of which will go to rebuilding Via Rail’s fleet of locomotives and rolling stock. Via Rail’s budget has been more or less frozen since 1998, but even with these troubles the train service has actually been picking up customers: last year its ridership went from 3.8 million to 4.1 million.

The heavily-traveled Windsor to Quebec City route sees most of the passenger travel, with six trains daily between Toronto and Montreal. The 504 kilometer (313 mile) trip takes between slightly more than four hours to five and a half hours. If you’re going centre-city to centre-city the fast trains take just about as much time as travel to and from the airports and flight time. As it happens, I’m going to Toronto this Thursday on the train that leaves at 6:55 a.m. from Central Station here and is scheduled to get into Union Station in downtown Toronto at 11:23 a.m. That means I can take a five minute taxi ride from home about 6:30 a.m., have several uninterrupted hours on the train to catch up on some reading I’ve got to do, and then arrive in TO with plenty of time for meetings in the afternoon. Much more civilized—and slightly cheaper—than taking the plane which would require expensive and lengthy taxi rides at either end plus the hassle of airport security. Not to mention the issue of energy conservation and reduction of green house gas emissions: intercity diesel-powered train travel takes only a third the energy that domestic airplane travel does. (See the excellent Hydro-Quebec publication Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation Options.)

Of course, this is nothing like train travel in Europe where. for example, the 409 kilometer trip by TGV from Paris to Lyon, takes under two hours--hardly enough time for a good nap--with six departures a day.

But the funding promise is good news. As The Toronto Star quoted David Jeanes, president of Transport 2000, on Thursday: "VIA has been on a starvation diet. ... There is an urgent need for funding for state-of-good repair alone." He added: "We're hoping to see sufficient funds announced by the government (today) to really deal with some of these issues.”

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Saturday Photo: Harvest Home and Plants inside

The forecast last night wasn't for frost, but this morning the thermometer on our back porch showed two degrees above freezing, and there was frost on the grass for the first time when I walked on Mont-Royal. That meant bringing the plants in quickly as soon as I got back, even though I'd hoped to do a little more pre-plant work inside. They're all installed in windows now, and even though one of the hisbiscus is looking a little sad, I'm hoping that's only temporary.

But fall weather means harvest and the Jean Talon market is full of the fruit of the summer's labours right now. Where would we be without peppers and garlic! It is a grand pleasure to shop there.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Al Gore, Persistence and Bringing Plants inside for the Winter

It is raining this morning, and we have great need of rain. The temperatures are dropping too, which means I should begin to bring the plants in. All of them can stand a few nights around 8-10 C (in the high 40s F, I guess) and I want to keep them outside in the wet as long as possible. Last year my three big hibiscus (all over 5 feet high) came down with aphids around March, and I lost one. My hopes this year are that if they are well washed by rain before they come in, they won’t have as many insect eggs on them to hatch out when the days grow longer.

Of course, bringing plants in means getting ready the space in windows where they will pass the winter—washing the panes and the woodwork, making sure the floor has a good coat of wax on it, all that dumb housecleaning stuff. Since I really don’t like housework, I’ve been giving myself a task to do a day. How can I complain about 30-45 minutes of work, I ask myself.

I can’t. But if I am tempted to slack off, I am going to try to remember the lesson brought home this morning about the value of persistence when the Nobel Prize for Peace was announced—Al Gore and the UN working group on climate change. Gore has been on the case for nearly 30 years, and despite many setbacks, has continued to question and uncover and, yes, preach.

You can hardly compare cleaning house with the decades of work that Gore has undertaken, but I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to use him as an example when I’m down on my hands and knees cleaning. And certainly the fact that this year I'm bringing the plants in a week later than last year underscores just what he's been talking about for so long

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Out of Africa: Good News and Bad News

Stephen Lewis was in town on Tuesday, talking about what is going on in the eastern part of what is called currently the Democratic Republic of Congo, a name which appears to be ironic to say the least. Lewis charges that sexual aggression against women is being used as a tool of genocide there, and gave the figure of four million as the number of people who have been killed there in the last ten years. What he recounted was so horrific that Radio Canada news said it wouldn’t include details on the morning news round up. This is a speech that Lewis apparently has been giving frequently lately: I found reference to it on a couple of other blogs, but nothing in the newspapers. As it happens a conference on genocide is opening in Montreal this morning: once again we are faced with the huge problem of how to stop massive inhumanity to people because of their ethnicity or religion.

But there is a bit of good news: the New York Times on Tuesday has a lengthy report about the use of pesticide-treated mosquito nets in Africa, while on Saturday Stephanie Nolen reported in The Globe and Mail on success in bringing down infant mortality through use of the nets and other low cost measures.

Sometimes small things make an enormous difference.

NB: as I was checking on the URLs for the New York Times and Globe stories I found the interesting news that Doris Lessing has won this year's Nobel prize. Her Martha Quested books--about coming of age in Africa--are particularly good, I think, although they have been somewhat forgotten in her more recent feminist and speculative fiction.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Blue Green Algae, the Need for Energy, and Other Facts of Life

When you get George W. Bush and the National Geographic conceding that we might have to do something about global warming and our dependence on oil, you’ve got the beginning of momentum that might actually get things done.

This month's Geographic has an interesting article by Bill McKibben about the kind of changes that will be needed to bring down carbon emissions. It covers the same material that Elizabeth Kolbert did in her New Yorker series two years ago, but, hey, thousands more will read the McKibben story than read the Kolbert one, which is probably all to the good.

The National Geographic also does some analysis of the energy and emission equivalents of petroleum and other kinds of fuel—biodiesel, ethanol. cellulose and algae The most surprising one is the based on the most simple organism—blue green algae, or “pond scum.” That’s the same stuff that is poisoning a lot of lakes and water ways in Quebec and elsewhere. Of course, as the story says, there’s a long way to go before a commercially viable product is available, and there’s no way the blooms that blight our water can be successfully switched to fuel-making. Nevertheless, the idea that it might be harnessed to make fuel made me smile.

And keeping one's spirits up is the only way to keep up the battle to make things, if not better, then at least no worse than they are now.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Terrorism, Martyrdom and Books

The reasons why anyone would choose the martyrdom of a terrorist have always been hard for me to understand. The Japanese kamikaze pilots of the Second World War seemed to me to be completely ununderstandable when I first learned about them. Patriotism, valour and all that were things we were being brought up to believe in. But suicide for the cause?

Suicidal terrorism is no more easy to understand now that it considered glorious in so many corners of the world. That is why I’ve been on the look-out for explanations in my reading. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa El Aswany contains the best I’ve come across to date. The book is about the people who live in a once-elegant apartment house in central Cairo. At the centre are two young people: Taha who wants to be a police officer and Boussaina, who wants to marry him and live a happy life raising his children. But Taha comes up against the inherent corruption of modern Egypt and slips into fundamentalist Islam which offers hope for both personal salvation and revenge against an unjust society. Boussaina goes the other way toward a fairy tale ending, which in some respects is far harder to believe in than Taha’s destiny.

The novel (made into a recently released film) is a good companion to two other recent and excellent books about politics and terrorism, Have You Heard the Night Bird Cry? (Knopf) by Anita Rau Badami and The Unyielding Clamour of the Night by Neil Bissonndath (Cormorant Books).

We’ll be discussing The Yacoubian Building in French at the Outremont Library tonight. (Tomorrow night it’s Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine at the Atwater Library).

Monday, 8 October 2007

Happy Thanksgiving etc.

Things are a little slow getting started here this morning. Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and for the last several years we've had an informal buffet for friends and family. There were about 40 here last night, ranging in age from 2 to 82. Great fun for us and much good food, since everybody brings something. We do a turkey, a couple of chickens and some vegies, and the rest depends on the whims of whomever happens to be cooking.

We are not believers in anything except the necessity to treat others with respect, but it is not a bad idea once a year to pause and reflect on how much we have. That puts everything in proper perspective: we have been--and continue to be--truly fortunate.

Both Lee and I grew up in the US where Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday for family get-togethers in the year. Part of that is because it crosses religious and ethnic lines so everyone participates, and part is due to the way the holiday is talked about in schools. The first Thanksgiving is part of the American myth, and--if you read Charles C. Mann's 1491--completely false. Nevertheless I have always like the good fellowship surrounding this holiday: we stopped celebrating in November after the first year or so we were here, but we've always tried to do something around the idea of a harvest feast to share with others.

The Canadian version of Thanksgiving--
Action de grâce in Québec--comes earlier in the year (the second Monday in October) and the historical precedents are a meal of Thanksgiving which Martin Frobisher had in 1578. For various reasons, Thanksgiving has never been as big a holiday here, which is why we have found it a great time to have invite friends: people don't have special plans and they seem to be charmed by the idea of breaking bread together.

But maybe that ought to change. At the moment there is much talk in Quebec about integration of ethnic and religious groups in the larger Québécois society--"reasonable accommodation" is the buzz phrase. It might be time to put more emphasis here on a secular fête which can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter what they believe or where they come from.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Saturday Photo: Prize Winning Tiny Gardens

The city of Montreal has a competition each summer for various categories of gardens. One of them is "carrés des arbres" or those square cut from pavement in which trees are planted. The prize-winners are always marvelous to see: at left is la rue Labadie which won the grand prize for this sort of vest-pocket garden in the Plateau Mont Royal-Mile End borough.

And to the right is another little garden in the Rosemont-La Petite Patrie district which didn't win a prize, but maybe ought to for originality. Not much nature here, but a lot of humour.

Friday, 5 October 2007

This Just In: Rabaska LNG Project Moves Along

The Quebec provincial government has jumped into the controversy over the Rabaska liquid natural gas project in order to push the LNG port closer to construction. It has taken the file out of the hands of the commission charged with protecting agricultural land, the Commission de protection du territoire agricole (CPTAQ.) The commission was charged with studying the re-zoning of protected farm land necessary before building the port.

Natural resources minister Claude Béchard said in a press conference that time is pressing, and competition mounting, so the Rabaska project--to be constructed across the St. Lawrence river from Quebec City--must be speeded along, given the province's strategic plan for energy. Béchard's announcement comes a week after the consortium behind the nearby Gros Cacouna LNG project announced that development will take two years longer than expected, pushing back completion to 2012.

No one's talking about energy conservation, though.

Note: more recent information at:

No "Greatest Generation" Here: Blackwater in Iraq

So it costs the US $40-50,000 to have an Army sergeant in Iraq, but someone who is doing similar military work for Blackwater costs $400,000? Those were figures bandied about this week during Congressional hearings on the role of the mercenary force which seems to be taking up so much space in the US war effort.

This a shocking discrepancy. Worse, the lack of oversight and responsibility behind such a gun-for-hire force is enough to blow you out of the water. But American hawks learned one thing in Vietnam: you don’t want conscript army because that means when the fighting gets tough all levels of society will be affected and the public's ire will be awakened.

To avoid that, from the beginning of the Iraq adventure the US relied heavily on military reservists as way to get around the penury of volunteer soldiers. The reserves were full of guys and gals who thought they would get their college bills paid by being weekend warriors, many of whom were surprised and not at all pleased to be called upon to fight a real war. But there were never enough of them, and, worse, they have families who can write letters and protest when they see their loved ones killed.

This is where Blackwater comes in. As Paul Krugman pointed in The New York Times a week ago, the private military industry has suffered more losses in Iraq than the rest of the coalition of allied nations combined. These losses, however, don’t carry the same political consequences, and so an effective brake on foreign adventuring has been removed. The Blackwater guys appear to be a law unto themselves too: it certainly isn’t clear from the testimony before Congress if their actions are even coordinated with the rest of US military strategy.

How ironic that the hearings on Blackwater began as Ken Burns' documentary The War was being aired and talked about. Memories of Iraq war are going to be quite different from those of World War II even though, as Krugman noted, American forces have been in Iraq for four and a half years, longer than they were engaged in the Second World War.

After that war was over the U.S (and Canada too) quite rightly rewarded veterans with a number of benefits. Chief among them were cheap loans to buy houses and support for further education. A good argument can be made that these measures both helped fulfill the American dream of opportunity for all and fueled the prosperity of the mid-20th century. See Taylor Branch's thoughtful essay in April 12, 2007 New York Review of Books, for more on this.

We won't have that kind of peace bonus when this mess is over. Whenever that will be.

Local note: It seems "selected Canadian troops" bound for Afghanistan are being trained by Blackwater at their installation in North Carolina in "shooting and bodyguarding skills." Which means what?

(Thanks to Carol Green for the Canadian reference.)

Thursday, 4 October 2007

If Depression Is Not a Disease, Is Despair One of the Seven Deadly Sins?

Quebec’s health minister Philippe Couillard has just announced $1.2 million for a publicity campaign to de-stigmatize depression. It’s a real disease, with important consequences for individuals and society, he insisted, adding that the World Health Organization projects that depression will be the second most frequent cause of incapacity (after cardiovascular problems) by 2020. We must understand and accept that some people some of the time will be brought low by depression which they can not control, but which may be managed by proper medical treatment.

Anyone who has watched a friend or family member suffer with depression knows just how damaging it can be. Life is not easy and there is only one way out: that truism is something most of us can bear, but when one can’t, it is devastating. It does no good to say “snap out of it,” because one can’t easily.

But the equation is even more complicated than that. Depression’s cousin, despair, was once considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The reasoning was, apparently, that if one put one’s faith in god one had no reason to despair, so to despair meant that one was rejecting the deity’s power and glory.

How unfair! There are moments when it seems that despair is the only proper response to the state of the world. As the bumper stickers says: “if you aren’t concerned, you haven’t been paying attention.” Its corollary may be: if you’re not depressed, you aren’t being realistic.

The trick, of course, is to go on living as if what one does will make a difference, as if those random acts of kindness, that honesty and courage will actually help. If it takes medication to reach the emotional plateau where that is possible, so be it.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Walking to School: Saving Energy and Expending It

Today kids are supposed to walk to school—it’s International Walk to School Day. It's a good idea, the way that the carless-in-the-city day a couple of weeks ago was. Publicity seems to be the only way things ever get done.

But the problem with today, as with the carless day, is that probably tomorrow far too many kids will be back in the minivan or SUV. According to relatively recent statistics (2001 survey of households in the US,) only 16 per cent of Americans five to 18 years of age walk or bike any distance to school, down from 42 per cent in 1969. The statistics in Canada may be somewhat better because our big cities are denser which makes walking easier. Walk past an elementary school any morning, though, and you’ll see a cavalcade of kids being driven to school.

Growing up, we weren't driven. Mapquest says the distance from our house in San Diego to the elementary school was 1.02 miles, and we all walked it. Our houses were set on 60 by 100 foot lots, so the neighborhood wasn’t particularly dense, but given the demographics of the time, we had company on our walks. That undoubtedly made it both more fun and safer.

Things are different today—schools may gather their students from a much wider area because of the lower number of children of school age, kids may be bused for any number of reasons, television’s “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality gives the impression that our streets are much less safe than they once were. There probably is merit in not expecting kids who live more than a couple of miles from school to get there either on foot or by bike, but they don't account for less than half of kids in school. The others should walk or bike, at least some of the time. A child who walks to school is going to be a child who is more physically fit—and probably less high-strung in class because he or she will have walked off some of the energy kids seem sometimes to have in excess.

Ah, yes, energy. It always comes back to that, doesn't it?

Photo of kids on their way to École Nouvelle Querbes and École Buissonière. My kids walked to the former. Distance: .6 kilometeer or .4 mile. Close proximity to schools was one of the reasons we bought our house.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Quick Reads, Stephen Harper and Literacy

Time to catch up on what Stephen Harper is reading—or what Yann Martel has been sending him to read. The two most recent books are Maus by Art Spiegelman (sent on Sept. 17 from Oswiecim. which Martel notes, “is better known by the name the Germans gave it: Auschwitz,”) and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (sent yesterday.) So far Martel’s campaign to provide the Canadian Prime Minister with good bedtime reading has received no response other than a simple acknowledgement of the first book, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych.

Harper is not a stupid man. To give credit where credit is due requires recognizing that some of his strategic moves over the last couple of years have been brilliant, even if totally wrong-headed. But what a contrast between him and Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister! Two years ago Blair launched Quick Reads, a campaign to promote a series of short, but compelling books to encourage reading among the general adult public. Ten new books have just been announced for 2008, and will be formally launched March 6. But they’re available already—along with eight from 2007 and eight from 2006—in big box retailers and books stores all over the British Isles.

Slightly more than a year ago, Harper’s government cut $17.7 million from literacy programs in Canada. It will be interesting to see how programs to encourage literacy and reading fare later this month when we have a new speech from the throne.

And I'd still like to know what Stephen Harper is reading.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Scandal in Outremont: Bottles of Scotch or Molotov Cocktails?

Troubling news in our little bailiwick: Outremont borough officials have admited paying more than $6,000 out of the public coffers between January and June for booze. Some of it was served at a couple of receptions—including one for writers in April—but most of it appears to have been drunk by the borough council and friends in a small anteroom off the council chambers. The political aide to the borough mayor resigned, the borough’s books are being examined by outside auditors, and the news this morning is that the borough manager has just resigned.

For more than 125 years Outremont (population about 23,000) was a separate municipality, but when the provincial government mandated the merger of all the municipalities on the island of Montreal (there were 26 of them plus Montreal, by far the largest with a population of more than a million) it disappeared into the larger city in 2002. Not much changed after the merger: the city council was replaced by a small borough council, but services continued to be generally good. Satisfaction seemed to be so great, in fact, that when the provincial government bowed to public pressure and allowed citizens to ask for de-mergers, very few in Outremont did.

I’ve crossed swords with the council many times. For 14 years I was part of Les amis de la bibliothèque, who fought to get a new library building. This meant regular attendance at council meetings—over that time I probably missed a half dozen meetings, and the various councilors got tired of me quoting Olivier Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” In the end, we succeeded, though. The new library was opened in 1998, and it gives me immense pleasure to go there on a Sunday afternoon and see it full of people.

And now I am annoyed that the council appears to have been so stupid as to allow petty graft. We need government—we probably need a lot more government--and this incident only gives ammunition to those who don’t understand its importance. Those bottles of scotch and other high-price drinkables paid for by the taxpayers could become Molotov cocktails in the fight over how we govern ourselves.