Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Are Cell Phone Books the Way Fiction Is Going? Oh, No! I Prefer Turning Pages to Scrolling Any Day

When I started to read Dana Goodyear’s article in the current double issue of The New Yorker , “I (heart) Novels” I wasn’t sure if I was reading reporting or fiction. It is, after all, one of the magazine’s two fiction issues, and maybe, I thought, this is a slightly futuristic short story. But Goodyear's piece about novels written on cell phones was serious, and I obviously had missed an article earlier in The New York Times about the literary phenomenon that is sweeping Japan. Millions of copies have been sold of cell phone stories---usually thumbed in by young women—both on line and in print. Even elderly Buddhist nuns are getting in on the act: an 86 year old published one this fall which has been an instant success.

Is this the wave of the future? Is it possible we should forget about Kindle and other e-book formats because this is the real direction books are heading? Or maybe we've found the ultimate way to have a story at your fingertips?

Don’t know, but I imagine the novels—and they run to 50,000 or 80,000 words, it seems—are better read if you have the good eyesight of the young. Much is made about the dexterity of thumb-texting kids, but it’s not my digits that give me pause in situations like that, but my vision. For a taste of what one is like in easier-to-read typeface, try a sample from an English translation of the biggest seller to date.

And here’s an Young Adult novel written originally in English

But I think I prefer sitting down in a comfortable chair and not having to constantly scroll, but being able to rest except for moving a page every minute or so. That's the agenda for this New Year's Eve in fact.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Food, Food, Glorious Food: The Two Best Meals of 2008

It seems we have been doing nothing but eat these last few days. This is something I like to do a lot, and each good meal has summoned up thoughts of our good fortune in not facing the prospect of hunger—and in fact enjoying some truly memorable culinary events this year.

The first was our Christmas present last year from Elin and Emmanuel: a festive meal as it would have been served in the home of upper middle class folk in Montreal or Quebec City in 1750. I wrote about it at length back in February, so suffice it to say for now that it lasted five and a half hours, and included things that would have been imported at the time like salt and macaroons, as well as locally produced pork and boudin noir. (That's the menu on the right.)

The second also was French, but of an entirely different sort. This was the dinner at Les Papilles that my cousin Cathy Retterer treated us to when we were in Paris in May. Lukas’s friend Éric Monteléon, a chef, prepared a list of restaurants for us to try, and this one not only turned out to be just around the corner from where we were staying in the Fifth District, but it was absolutely wonderful.

The place originally was a wine shop, but has evolved into a small restaurant where one menu is in force each night, but you can pick your wine from a marvelous selection. The night we were there we began with a green pea potage, accompanied by lardons and mint and several other things, followed by a rack of lamb cooked with Indian accents. Then came a cheese course featuring a lovely bleu. The meal was capped by an exotic pudding that combined tropical fruits with a sort of crème brulée.

Both meals merit five stars and are to remembered for a long time. Many thanks to Elin, Emmanuel and Cathy.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Beware: Black Ice, or A Thought for the End of Very Difficult Year

As I made my way carefully around the neighborhood this morning, I began to think of black ice as a metaphor for the challenges we are facing now. Black ice, for those of you who do not live in this climate, is not an oxymoron, but a condition where a thin layer of ice has formed on pavement. The asphalt or concrete shows through, so you don’t know the slippery surface is there until you slip on it. It is one of the joys of driving in winter here, and the cause of hundreds, if not thousands, of broken bones every year.

We had rain and temperatures well over freezing over the weekend, followed by high winds and a plunge in the temperature. The result is pavement that appears clear but certainly isn’t.

Beware: is the message. What’s underneath the surface may be strong and reliable, but what’s you can’t see on top may be very dangerous. The irony is that ice that is roughed up, that has hard bits embedded in it, is a lot safer than the transparent stuff.

So is there a moral there, I asked myself. Maybe only that to proceed we may need to dig in harder—to strap on the crampons, as it were—so that we can get through this bad patch to the other side.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Saturday Photo: Winter Wonderland

This was taken 10 days ago when we had freezing rain, followed by snow. It was most beautiful. Now, having gone through at least three more storms and one episode of thaw and freeze, the snow is still relatively deep, but not nearly as beautiful. The sidewalks are terribly icy too. It's a good day to stay inside and read....

Friday, 26 December 2008

Boxing Day or St. Stephen's Day: When the Snow Lies Round about Smooth and Deep and Even

Canada has a holiday the day after Christmas, Boxing Day, whose origins apparently go back to the time when the working folk received gifts from the better off . Taking an extra day after the great feasting of Christmas seems to me to be great good sense. We'll lie around the house, read our gift books, listen to our gift CDs and eat left-overs. It will be fun without the pressure of Christmas or New Year's,

It also is St. Stephen's Day, I see as I google around, which brings to mind a carol I thought of frequently as I've been walking around the neighborhood these last couple of weeks.

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blow stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Season's Greetings from the Soderstroms

No computer stuff today for me--lots of good fellowship and good food in prospect though. If you have a minute or two and would like to see what the family has been up to this year, check out our holiday blog.

Best wishes for a very pleasant day.


Sausage is Better Than Lutfisk: How Holiday Traditions Change

Lutfisk is what Lee's family always had for Christmas Eve dinner. It's a form of dried and lyed and otherwise tortured cod which is soaked and boiled and served with white sauce. Dreadful stuff, if you ask me: one source prefaces a recipe by saying that is "also served in Norway but the Danes have more sense." When we discovered that we couldn't find it the Christmas after we arrived in Montreal decades ago I cheered, and went looking for something to substitute for it.

What we have now is a real Swedish dish, but one that Lee's family sometimes had for Christmas dinner, not Christmas Eve: potato sausage. It's terrific and not hard to make, even though stuffing the meat into the sausage casings is daunting the first time you try it. So here's our contribution to a holiday feast.

Soderstrom Potato Sausage

2 1/2 pounds lean ground pork
1/2 pound ground beef
6 medium raw potatoes, ground in grinder or grated, then cut into small pieces with scissors
l large onion, ground or grated (don't include large pieces)
3 tsp pepper
4-6 tsp salt
2 tsp ground allspice
3 tsp ground ginger
4 meters of sausage casings (available in specialty butcher shops: we have a neighborhood Italian one where the staff is much amused that I make Swedish sausage once a year.)

Mix together thoroughly and stuff into casings either using a cookie press (use a tipwith an opening about a half inch in diameter) or a two litre soda bottle with the bottom cut off:. In both cases you must hold the casing over the opening and push the sausage mixture through the opening. The amount fills about 4 meters of casings; if there's any of the misture left over it can be cooked as patties or formed into sausage shapes.

When ready to cook the sausages, prick them all over with a coarse needle. Bake in a covered pan for 1/2 hour at 350 F, then uncover and cook until brown, 15 - 20 minutes. Or steam for an hour.

Serve with pickled herring as a first course, and accompanied by mashed potatoes, a couple of good winter vegetables (I think we'll have beets and broccoli this year,) a green salad and a favourite holiday dessert. This year Sophie's making her Grandmaman Mercier's mocha cake which is fast becoming another Soderstrom tradition.

Monday, 22 December 2008

A Few Good Books to End the Year

Just want to mention a couple of good books that you may not have thought of as the perfect gifts. Both are by my friend Ann Charney (just to let you know where I stand) and one should be considered as much a classic as The Diary of Anne Frank. Dobryd begins with "By the time I was five years old I had spent half my life hidden away in a barn loft." But rather than being a dismal story, it is full of joy and the triumph of the human spirit.

The second book is Distantly Related to Freud, a novel published this fall by Cormorant Books, which could be considered a story of what happened next to the girl in the first book. Only it is much more: a coming of age story in the best tradition.
Both are definitely worth seeking out.

And while we're suggesting good books, check out Canadian historian Christopher Moore's blog this month. He has asked a number of his friends and colleagues to suggest books for the history buff on you list. You'll be surprised at the number and variety of the suggestions.

Martel Sends Fictions to Harper: When Its Good to Read (Or Hear) What You Don't Want to Read (Or Hear)

Yann Martel just sent Stephen Harper a collection of short stories by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions, as the end-of-year offering in his campaign to provide the PM with some good bedtime reading. It’s the 45th in the series, and it’s not even a book that Martel likes. Doesn’t sound like a present sent with much holiday good feeling to me.

But, as those who’ve been keeping track know, Martel accompanies his fortnightly gifts with a letter of introduction. This time he explains the book was chosen “because one should read widely, including books that one does not like. By so doing one avoids the possible pitfall of autodidacts, who risk shaping their reading to suit their limitations, thereby increasing those limitations. The advantage of structured learning, at the various schools available at all ages of one’s life, is that one must measure one’s intellect against systems of ideas that have been developed over centuries. One’s mind is thus confronted with unsuspected new ideas.”

Hmmh. That’s interesting, particularly when you take a look at the list of the names of Harper’s economic panel who have, we’re told, agreed to spend two days this pre-holiday week for the token sum of a $1 a year. There’s only one economist in the lot, the rest are all business types, and certainly Harper is not likely hear anything from them he hasn't heard before, and wouldn't be happy to hear. No Canadian equivalent of Paul Krugman among them, for sure.

So Martel’s point is probably very pertinent. As was the letter he sent with his last offering, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck sent December 8, the day the Lib/NDP coalition was supposed to bring down the Harper government. Martel pointed out that while Buck’s story is still found in bookstores everywhere because it remains an “excellent introduction to old China and a vivid parable on the fragility of fortune." He goes on: "This lesson will not be lost on you considering the political turmoil you are now going through. The fate of a politician is so terribly uncertain.”

To be continued at the end of January.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Saturday Photo: Snow Sports for School Holiday

Early yesterday afternoon as I walked through Parc Beaubien a gaggle of boys aged 13 to 15 were hustling down the hill toward the outdoor hockey rink, hockey sticks, skates and other equipment slung over their shoulders. School was out at noon most places, and two weeks of holiday were in prospect.

You can ski, skate and sled in most public parks this time of year around Montreal, with outdoor rinks maintained by most municipalities. Lots of fun, particularly if you get some sunny days.

Today playing outside is going to be a little chilly, though. Currently it's -17 C and with the wind, it feels like -28 C (that's near 0F or -15 or so F.) Don't know that the boys are out on the rink this morning.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Score Two for Humanity: Rwandan Genocide Decisions Handed Down and Health Care Strike Ends in Burundi

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda handed down verdicts yesterday in the cases of four senior officers of the Rwandan army during the 1994 genocide, while in neighboring Burundi health workers went back to work after a month long strike.

Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, director of cabinet in the Rwandan Ministry of Defence—he’s the “devil” Canadian General Roméo Dallaire described shaking hands with—and two others will receive life imprisonment for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. A fourth officer was acquitted

Conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in the Great Lake Region of Africa has not gone away in the 14 years since Bagosora gave the order to slaugher Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Many aspects of the continuing turmoil in the (ironically named, I think) Democratic Republic of Congo hinge of this ethnic conflict and the desire for revenge which flourishes after massacres.

Within Rwanda itself things seem calmer today, and in neighboring Burundi, which has about the same proportion of Tutsis, Hutus and Twa that Rwanda had, work toward peaceful accommodation seems near fruition. Only a few obstacles remain before complete legitmatization of a government of reconciliation, it seems. And business appears to progressing in many respects as it would in any other “normal’ country. The labour conflict in the health sector is a case in point.

Strikes by health workers, particularly lengthy ones, are never trivial, but the fact that this one appears to be settled by negotiation and not by fiat seems to me to be a good sign. Unions are allowed, bargaining can go on, the importance of health is recognized: Burundi in its own tortuous way is making progress.

Sometimes things do get better.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fighting Economic Bad Times: Give a Ticket, Buy a Book, Promote Infrastructure Projects

"Recession? What recession?" was the headline on a story in Quill and Quire’s online edition Tuesday. Canada’s publishing industry magazine reports that independent book stores seem to be doing pretty well so far, thank you very much, despite the terrible economic news. That could be because bad news has led to poor expectations or because last year—when the Canadian dollar was near par with the US dollar but book prices hadn’t caught up—was quite a bad year and any up tick looks good, Q&Q says.

The last couple of days I’ve spent some time in bookstores, shopping for friends and family. At the excellent children’s book store Babar en ville, staff said that things going well, more or less to their surprise. Chapters in downtown Montreal was packed when I was through in mid-afternoon yesterday as was nearby Paragraphe books. And at Drawn and Quarterly, the eclectic store run by the even more eclectic publishing house, there was a line of young people at the cash, waiting to be served.

Books make great gifts. They last a long time, they can be found in all price-ranges, and are suitable for all tastes and age groups. Tickets to events are more transitory as gifts, but the memories of good dance, music or theatre performances can last forever

And books written and published close to home, as well as tickets to local performances are just what the doctor ordered when it comes to economic stimulus. The money goes into the pockets of nearby producers and creators, rather than into coffers of companies far away. Money that goes around near you comes around near you too.

That’s part of the reason why any governmental stimulus package should include projects close to home, particularly infrastructure undertakings. A tax cut won’t help much, as The Globe and Mail eloquently argued on Monday. “People Can’t Be Bribed into Spending.”

Further note on the problems of depending too much on corporate and private sector sponsors: the Montreal International Jazz Festival is bracing for tougher times as GM announces it will pull out of sponsorship after next June’s 30th anniversary celebration. Who’s going to step up to the bat on this one?

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Giving When Times Are Bad: The Private Sector Fumbles While Ordinary Folk Remain Generous

A crisis in philanthropy appears to be following the world wide financial crisis—except when it comes to ordinary folk. In recent years as conservative governments have slashed programs, charities of all sorts, educational institutions, and arts organizations have been encouraged to turn to private sources to finance their activities. But when big corporations run into hard times, among the first things they cut are their sponsorships while the crazy financial crisis of recent months has seen the value of invested funds tumble. The last week's headlines have included the news that Yale’s endowment has dropped 13.4 per cent, Nascar sponsors are pulling out, and the Vancouver International Children’s Festival is facing lean times, to name only a few. In addition, the massive Madoff fraud case is affecting hundreds of charities who entrusted their funds to the slippery Ponzi scheme.

I’ve always been troubled by the idea that private charity should take the place of publicly financed programs. Our societies have a collective responsibility to encourage arts, healthy sport, education and decent standards of living for all: governments shouldn't foist that task off on the private sector. Now the danger in relying on the whims or resources of the wealthy is becoming increasing apparent.

There is one encouraging thing, though, and that is the way that ordinary folk are stepping up when asked. Seasonal charity campaigns are reporting little drop off in contributions, and some like the big charity drive in Quebec—La grande guilgnolée des médias—actually have seen gifts go up. Ordinary folk understand that it is important to be generous: would that our governments in both the US and Canada understood their responsibilities in the past.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Green Christmas Trees: Real Is the Real Thing, at Least In Canada

We're off to get our Christmas tree this morning at Jean Talon Market. One of the nice things about Lee not teaching, is that we can undertake such endeavors any time we feel like it, and today promises to be about the only one this week without extreme weather. The tree we’ll get will probably be about 9 feet tall (our old house has high ceilings) and what is called her démi-cultivé, that is planted on a farmer’s woodlot but not pruned and cosseted as it grew.

This is the kind of tree we’ve had every year since we had enough money to buy a full-size tree. But even when Lee was in graduate school and I was a humble reporter on a suburban daily we’ve bought “real.” Now I’m pleased to see that our choices have been ecological sound, at least as long as we’ve been in Montreal. Geeta Nadkarni, CBC Montreal’s green specialist recently gave the run down.

Fake trees, she says, “are made of toxic, non-biodegradable materials and are often shipped over from China.” But real trees are carbon sinks and thus help to reduce greenhouse gases. As well they are replanted upon harvest, grown in soil that isn't usually used for cultivation, and they create local jobs that wouldn't other wise exist, Furthermore, in recent years many cities have been picking them after the holidays to chip and compost.

Many of the several million trees produced in Quebec are sold as far away as California and Mexico: La Presse Affaires reports that prices in US dollars are down this year, but given the exchange rate producers here should see an increase in profits as measured in Canadian dollars It’s possible that transportation might increase the carbon footprint of trees hauled all the way across the continent, but still, I think there’s nothing nicer than the smell of a tree.

Now to chip the car out of the garage and brave the ice in the lane ...

Monday, 15 December 2008

And Now for a Musical Interlude: The Kind of Thing Radio Two Should Be Playing Much More

A marvelous concert last night: The Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal performed some polyphonic music from 16th and 17th century Rome. Its 16 singers, supported by organ, cello, harp and bass (all period instruments, I think) sounded as heavenly as the angels they were singing about. A real treat.

The concert was being recorded, although there was no mention in the program that it would be broadcast at some future date. It definitely should. This is the kind of music that appeals to a wide public, from the dedicated early music aficionado to New Age mystics who are into hypnotic sound. Let’s hear more of it on Radio Two and Espace Musique.:

But as we know, talking about the appeal of serious music to CBC/Radio Canada brass is like talking to the wind. In the meantime, some of the music from last night can be heard on SMAM’s most recent CD, Roma Triumphans from ATMA. Definitely something to think when you’re making your Christmas list.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Saturday Photo: Icy Branches and St. Lucia Day

The full moon was setting when I went for my walk this morning, the perfect complement to the rising moon I saw last evening as I walked home through a couple of parks. The snow stopped about noon yesterday, so it was still breath-taking. Ice from Tuesday's storm clung to the trees, too: this week has been tough but truly beautiful.

Right now I have the dough for Safronsbrod rising in the kitchen. This is St. Lucia's Day, the shortest day of the year in Scandanavia before the adoption of our current calendar, and the sweet, saffron-laced buns are traditional there, it seems, as well as at our house. You'll find below good recipe. I discovered it the year Lee and I were married in a pamphlet put out by Fleischman yeast. His mother never made them, so it's not an old Soderstrom heirloom, but we've been enjoying them long enough that it's fair to say they're a Soderstrom tradition.

Safransbrod, Lucia buns, Nisse buns, Luciakitti

3 tsp. dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup scalded milk
good pinch saffron
1/4 cup butter
l tablespoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
4-5 cups flour
l/3 cup mixed, diced candied fruit
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup chopped almonds

Put yeast in warm water to dissolve. Heat milk with saffron and butter. Let cool after butter melts. Mix with yeast, sugar, salt, eggs and lemon rind. Add about half of flour and mix until stiff dough is formed add fruit, raisins and nuts. Turn out on floured surface and knead, adding flour as necessary until a smooth, elastic dough is formed (about 10 minutes.) Let rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Punch down, then divide into l6 equal pieces. Roll each out until long and skinny, Form an S bun. Let rise until double again (about an hour.) Bake at 375 F for about 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Note: The photo was taken on Thursday, on a day of brilliant sunshine. My skill as a photographer was not enough to capture the sparkle of the ice, unfortunately.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Shock Resistance, Naomi Klein and the Big Three Automakers

The news this morning is that the US Senate has not passed the bailout program for the US automobile industry, and now all three of the Big Three are talking bankruptcy. Woe is me, cry many, while other observers gleefully chant "Serves them right."

I’ve been wondering what Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine, makes about all this, so I was delighted to find an interview with her on her website, originally from In it, she talks about “shock resistance” and how it seems to be developing. Her first example is the reaction to the draconian measures included in Stephen Harper’s arrogant budget update 10 days ago. But it also applies to the ground swell of protest against big bucks for the Big Three: “You didn’t buy our shitty cars,” one mock ad reads, “so we’ll be taking your money anyway.”

Klein is featured in a New Yorker profile this month: check it out. Like Paul Krugman winning the Nobel prize for economics, the article suggests that maybe the message that free markets don’t work has gotten through.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Winter Interlude: Kamouraska and Sun on Ice-Encased Trees

Not much of a post today. The sun has come out, illuminating a wonderland of trees encased in ice and powdered by snow, so I must go take some pictures.

Last night’s discussion at the Atwater Library has put me in mood for a little winter wandering. The book was Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska, a Quebec novel set in 1838 and a few years later which was made into a brilliant movie by Claude Jutra and starring Genevieve Buold at her most beautiful. At the heart of the story (based a real case) is a murder that takes place in the dead of winter on the shores of the St. Lawrence. The book is full of extremely evocative descriptions of a 200 mile-long trip by sleigh, which in the movie was transformed into terrific cinema. The book is available in both English and French and is well worth reading, but, unfortunately, the movie seems not to be have been re-released in DVD and the VHS has been pulled from the shelves of most video stores.

And if you can wait there will be an opera opening in Toronto next Spring. But that is a long time away. Now, to get my camera out…

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Brrr! Winter Is Here, But It's Not Keeping Us Warm That Is Increasing Green House Gas Emissions

It’s not because Canada is such a cold place that our production of greenhouse gases has increased, according to a new study released Monday by Statistics Canada. Between 1990 and 2004 consumption of fuel to heat our homes rose by about 10 per cent, but green house gas emissions generating as we attempt to keep us warm actually decreased by 1 per cent due to more efficient heating systems and increasing use of cleaner natural gas.

Our reliance on automobiles and trucks, though, resulted in an increase of 29 per cent of the green house gas emissions coming from transport of people and goods. This far outstrips population growth, which rose by 16 per cent, Stats Can notes, attributing the increase in GES production to “the increased popularity of larger motor vehicles that require more fuel per kilometre driven.”

The moral on this wintry day (20 cm of snow when only 5 had been forecast) is that in order to solve our energy and green house gas problems we must act on two fronts. More efficient equipment is necessary, but we also must think seriously about how we organize our lives. Sales of new trucks rose 79 per cent in the study period, and without a doubt some of them were necessary for moving goods and people. But how many were used simply by individuals in non-work situations? And what about improving public transportation so we don't need to use cars as much too?

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Bad News for Newspapers, Good News for Québec Solidaire

These are parlous times for newspapers, and that is bad news for democracy. Monday that the Tribune Company which publishes The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. The same day The New York Times announced that is going to borrow $225 million against its new building in Manhattan “to ease a potential cash flow squeeze as the company grapples with tighter credit and shrinking profits.”

All the stories I’ve read about these financial difficulties list a long series of staff cuts that these newspapers and others have already put into effect. Advertising revenue is down, competition from Internet sources is great, newsprint cost is up: the media giants have now choice.

Or so we’re told. Actually, given the low Canadian dollar Canadian newsprint is costing newspapers in the US much, much less than it did a year ago, so that argument shouldn’t be trotted out. As for advertising revenue: hard times mean tighter advertising budgets for lots of companies—and yet aren’t the automakers still running big ads?

The Internet presence of big papers is growing, and I just don’t understand why advertising revenues from it can’t grow substantially too. There is no reason why a newspaper can’t use cookies to track the hits it gets and guarantee advertisers coverage in target audiences. Political parties are doing that: this fall when I visited to post my blog entries on their wikizines, I’ve been getting ads for the Bloc Québécois (during the Canadian federal election campaign) or the Parti Québécois (the provincial election which ended yesterday.) Surely a bright advertising department could bundle up a bunch of local ads and do the same for newspaper sites.

But newspaper are not about advertising really. They’re about information, and when newsrooms shrink so does the ability to track important debates, do in-depth reporting, uncover the corruption, give voice to vices that would otherwise not be heard. Without newspapers of quality, we’ll all be losers.

And the one good thing that’s in the news of my world today stems directly from hard work in the field and not being dissuaded by impossible odds: the victory of Amir Khadir for Québec Solidaire in Mercier. A little party on the left has elected a really top notch guy. Bravo to all who were involved.

And While We’re Talking about the CBC: Bad Scheduling Choices by the Nation's Broadcaster

Tell me, why is Shelagh Rogers’ new program The Next Chapter scheduled right in the middle of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera? I’d like to listen to both, as I’m sure many others would, but at the moment one must choose. At least with Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company which now competes with Sunday Afternoon in Concert, the show is rebroadcast late Thursday evening so the listener who likes literature AND serious music can catch them both.

The terrible suspicioun that is lurking in the back of mind is that the brass really don't want any of these programs to have good listener scores so they can cancel them. Or am I just being paranoid?

Monday, 8 December 2008

Classical Music is "Steady Performer?" Tell That to the CBC

Even the CBC admits it: the new programming on Radio Two hasn'’t worked miracles in increasing its listenership according to the most recent BBM ratings. Of course, in a press release the CBC puts a good face on it. The formerly mostly serious music service had about the same number of listeners overall as in the last round of ratings sweeps, “Its share of 2.9 per cent is down slightly as expected.” the release said. It quoted Denise Dorion: "When you change a radio station as we did with Radio 2, you have to expect a dip in listening patterns before you gain new listeners."

That's not going to happen, I think. Certainly in the Toronto market the all-classical station CFMZ went up frm 4.1 per cent to 5 per cent: CBL FM remained steady at 1.9. Figures for Montreal—where all-classical CJPX competes with both Radio Two and Radio Canada’s Espace Musique--appear unavailable to the public. A new listenership survey system has just been put in place here. Listener-kept diaries are gone, replaced by electronic measurement of what households are listening too. Some figures are available free for stations which sell advertising—to sell advertising is the raison d’être of listenership surveys—but that means that there is no easily available way to see how many people are listening to non-commercial stations.

Maybe like Kremlinologists in the bad old days, we’ll be able to read between the lines if the CBC keeps us posted on what its ratings are. Certainly it is interesting that the Mother Corp is boasting of improvement in ratings for certain programs across the country: The Current 12 per cent (10.9 a year ago) , The World at Six 15.9 per cent (13.9), DNTO 8.1 per cent (7.3), Vinyl Tap 12.1 per cent (9.5), Cross Country Check-up 15.2 per cent (12.7). You’ll notice that with the exception of Vinyl Tap, these are hard news and opinion shows, and that Jian Gomeshi and Q are not among them.

And here’s an interesting bit of market analysis from Bohn and Associates, media analysts. Earlier this fall, they noted: "The Classical format continues to be a steady performer while flying under the radar of most mainstream broadcasters. Ranked fourth in the S1-2008 format sweepstakes, Classical garners more tuning than Classic Rock, Country, Gold, AOR and Modern Rock. The 15 stations programming Classical, which included the roster of CBC stations, is more than the amount programming Classic Rock, AOR or Modern Rock. Classical’s share of hours tuned continues to rise and is now up to a 6.7% share from a 6.2% in S1-2007, an increase of just over 8%. In addition to the CBC, there are privately owned Classical stations in Toronto (CFMZ) and Montreal (CJPX). With a 5.2% and 4.2% share 12+ respectively, both stations rank in the top 10 in their markets."

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Saturday Photo: Kicking Up My Heels!

Ron Diamond, the Electronic Rights Defence Committee's treasurer and terrific professional photographer, just sent me this photo of Ms. Julie and me at the Quebec Writers' Federation's gala a couple of weeks ago. Ms. Julie, the saucy librarian who is promoting writing by Quebec English language writers these days, and I were comparing our marvelous shoes. It was great fun to be more than a little silly that night.

And last night was the annual holiday supper of Les Durochères, a group of friends and neighbors who have been meeting monthly to discuss books for more than two decades. Over the years we've evolved a great format for the evening--a sort of tasting menu, where everyone brings little portions of something savoury and something sweet, with all of us sharing the cost of a few bottles of good wine. Among the things we talk about is which was the best book we've read in the last year, and we pick up winner by secret ballot. This time it was Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones with Kiran Desei's The Inheritance of Loss running a close second. Most of us read the books in translation, as nine of the eleven Durochères are Francophones, Desei's book was published as La perte en heritage, while Mister Pip carries the same title in translation. So taken were several with the latter who hadn't been forced to read Great Expectations in high school that they were inspired to read, Grandes Espérances. Their reactions were far more positive than I remember my own: that's one of the delights of reading classics of another literature as an adult.

By the way, in case you're wondering, the name of the reading group comes from the street that most of us lived on with it started meeting, avenue Durocher.

Friday, 5 December 2008

What Is to Be Done? Grassroots and Google-age Gimmicks

I spent a couple of hours yesterday at the campaign office of Amir Khadir, the Quebec Solidaire candidate in the neighboring riding of Mercier. The team was pretty impressive--they put me to work on the phones as soon as I arrived but by the middle of the afternoon, they had more people willing to telephone than than telephones free. Then this morning Le Devoir reports that Claude Béland, the former head of the credit union giant Caisses Desjardins, has thrown his support to Khadir and his co-leader Françoise David. That's also good news for people who are concerned about social and economic issues.

The detour by the office lifted my spirits a bit: whatever was Michaëlle Jean thinking when she agreed to the prorogation of Parliament until late January? I am afraid the only thing that can happen is that Harper and his gang will spend a bundle trying to convince us of their take of the world. That view was certainly not that of the 63 per cent of Canadian voters who voted for another party October 14: a Liberal/NDP coalition with support from the back on budget matters for 18 months (the content of the famous agreement, remember) is far more in tune with what the great majority was thinking then.

What will be required is a vast grassroots effort on the part of those who care about progressive issues to counteract the Harper propaganda deluge. That, and some creative thinking on web messages and other tactics. We must do it. The future of democracy in Canada requires it.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Who's Walking to School These Days? Less Than a Third of Quebec Youngsters, Study Suggests

Only 30 percent of Quebec elementary school children walk to school, and of those who do, eighty per cent live less that 600 meter (less than half a mile,) a new Quebec study suggests. Paul Lewis, professor of urbanism at the University of Montreal's school of urban studies, led the research group, which interview parents of 1495 children attending 67 schools in central areas and suburbs of Montreal and Trois-Rivières.

The difference with the results of a similar study done in 1971 are striking. Then 80 per cent of kids aged 7 and 8 walked to school. Among the reasons for the big change, Lewis and his group name increased urban sprawl, greater numbers of parents who drop their kids off on their own way to work, and the increasing practice of choosing a school outside the neighborhood.

The figures aren’t a big surprise to anyone who has passed an elementary school just before the bell rings. The line of cars stopped to let kids out is frequently long. Even in a neighborhood like ours where public transportation is good, many people bicycle well into winter, and walking to work isn’t hard for many, Fairmount Avenue is snarled for a good half hour every morning as the parade of SUVs wait to discharge the next generation attending the two schools on the street.

The effect on the physical fitness of children is great, the group says. It suggests making school zones safer, as well as campaigns to convince parents of the importance of walking as exercise. Parents should set the example, the researchers insist. “Mothers and fathers should set an example for their children by having at least one parent walk or use public transit to commute,” insists. the press release announcing the study’s results .

That’s a good idea which may work in intrinsically walkable neighborhoods, but in suburbs the impact is bound to be much less. Densifying sprawl is part of the answer there, but more about that later.

Photo: On the next street in our walkable neighborhood, a steady stream of parents and children walk to school--but even here a lot of parents drive their SUVs to drop their kids off before they continue to work.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Coalition Countdown II: Here's Some Bedtime Reading for Stephen Harper on How to Believe What You Want to Believe Despite the Facts

Watching Stephen Harper and his guys carrying on yesterday I was reminded of how easy it is to start believing what you want to believe. Harper was absolutely enraged about something that he was quite willing to consider four years ago: an accommodation with the Bloc Québécois in order to make some parliamentary changes. Whether this went so far as an actual letter to the Governor General as some claim, I don’t know, but even Heritage Minister James Moore, talking on As It Happens, conceded that Harper was quite glad to work with Gilles Duceppe then.

How can Harper forget that? Why are he and his troops preparing, it seems, to storm the country by shifting the debate about a disastrous budget update into a “coup d’état,” a power grab, or an attempt to split the country apart? To stay in power so they can advance a pernicious conservative agenda, I would answer. But the mechanism that transforms that into the appearance of principled outrage is even more devious—but more human--than that.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that believing one’s falsehoods is a really good survival strategy: if you think you really have to lie, it’s best to give the appearance of telling the truth and the only way to that is to begin to believe what you’re saying. Beneffectance is what some social scientists call our drive to delude ourselves about how benevolent and how effective we are. But it’s much more widespread than the strangeness of the term might indicate. Two psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson have recently published Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. It supposedly is “supported by years of research on how the brain works, what extraordinary steps we take to deal with dissonance, and the happy world of self-deception,” according to one review.

It sounds fascinating. I haven’t read it, but I’ll seek it out. And it might be a book for Yann Martel to send to Stephen Harper as part of continuing (but for how long?) campaign to give the current PM some good bed time reading.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Nestlé, Babies (Mine and Other People's,) Bottled Water, and Long Running Battles

When Elin was in high school one of the classes she had to take was a consumer economics course. Along with practical stuff like how to read a lease and balance a cheque book, there was a unit on business to which was invited a retired executive from Nestlé. When I heard I was very surprised—not that somebody from business would be in the class because that might be interesting particularly if balanced with a visit from a union militant, but because the man was from Nestlé.

She was still a toddler when the international campaign to boycott Nestlé for its aggressive marketing of baby formula in developing countries began. I enthusiastically jumped on board—no Quick for us!—but by the time she was in her mid-teens I’d thought that battle against the Swiss multinational’s doubtful practices was won. It wasn’t, obviously, and I gave her some of the literature from the anti-formula campaign and a couple of questions to ask Nestlé’s man. Luckily, at that moment she was more anti-establishment than anti-parent, and so she agreed to innocently ask the man why Nestlé could do such awful stuff.

She came home very pleased with herself. He’d been embarrassed, she reported. He promised he’d look into it, if anything had been done that was questionable in the past it certainly would have been corrected by then, he assured her. The kids in her class learned a lot from the way he had to paddle very fast in order to stay afloat, she concluded.

But Nestlé continues its doubtful campaigns. The most recent incident is its marketing which claims that "bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world". “ Not so says a group including the Council of Canadians, Ecojustice, Friends of the Earth Canada, the Polaris Institute and Wellington Water Watcher. It filed a complaint Dec. 1 under Canadian Code of Advertising Standards against Nestlé Waters North America arguing that Nestlé is attempting to mislead the public on the true impacts of bottled water.

Toronto City Council is set today to vote on a ban on sales of water in plastic bottles. Will be interesting to see how that plays out, particularly since it seems it’s part of a larger cut-down-waste program.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Coalition Count Down: Quebeckers are for a Coalition While the Village of Ottawa Refuses to Accept the Second Coming of Keynes

La Presse reports this morning that 76 per cent of Quebeckers are in favour of a coalition government if the Harper government falls next Monday. That’s really not surprising, given the way Quebeckers voted—Stephen Harper had hoped for a break-through here but certainly did not get it.

At the same time Le Devoir columnist François Brousseau points out how social democrat the world has suddenly become. You’d think that everyone had been a closet Keynesian all those years. Many political leaders are using this rapid turn to the left their own advantage--Brousseau mentions that when France’s Nicolas Sarkozy talks left, he’s undermining his enemies the Socialists--but finally the stupidity of blind free market orthodoxy has become clear to leaders around the world.

Except in one little village, Brousseau notes: Ottawa, where the present Prime Minister is the man who said in October that it was a good time to buy stocks, and where a stimulus plan is supposed to be a sales tax cut that went into effect nearly a year ago.

Come on, guys, we can't afford to keep this government in office.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Saturday Photo: Snow and Stones

To give the front garden a little more interest in early spring and in winter when not much is growing, I built a couple of inukshuit from the rocks which apparently were the riprap from when the house was constructed in 1912. I've never been able to make the elegant human forms Inuit do, but I've always liked the idea that the cairns are intended to show the way or to welcome people.

By mid-December in normal years the little constructions are covered by snow, but with the small snow of this week, they look quite lovely.

Stephen's Spin Is Wrong: We Didn't Vote for Him

The news yesterday evening was full of Stephen Harper saying that the idea of a coalition government was anti-democratice, and that the Canadian electorate had not voted for Stéphane Dion as Prime Minister. The facts are that 62.4 per cent of Canadians voted cast their ballot for a party other than Stephen Harper's A Liberal/NDP coalition (which together received 44.4 per cent of the vote) with support on major issues from the Bloc Québécois would be far nearer to the preferences we expressed October 14.

Friday, 28 November 2008

A One Word Message to Michaëlle Jean: Coalition!

Stephen Harper is playing chicken again, and this time the other guys might not blink.

Most Canadian voters did not vote for the Conservatives six weeks ago in the federal general election. so there is no reason for Stephen Harper to govern as if they had a majority. The budget update that Jim Flaherty delivered yesterday was appalling on many counts, not least because it assumes that since nobody wants another election at this point, they have a free hand to follow their economic ideology--an ideology which is completely out of step with reality and with what other countries are doing.

If the government loses a vote on a confidence motion Monday night and Harper goes to Governor General Michaëlle Jean to ask for a dissolution of Parliament, she has every right, it seems, to ask the leader of the opposition to form a coalition. This is what should be done. Back in October when I was phoning for the NDP, many people already were talking favourablyl about the idea of a coalition. It is an idea whose time as come. Let’s hope that the Liberals don’t cave in as they did 43 times in the last Parliament and allow the budget message to be approved.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

An Afternoon among Montreal's Rats de bibliothèque, Or the Pleasure of Libraries

The Grande bibliothèque du Québec—Quebec’s bibliothèque nationale in downtown Montreal--was full of people of all ages at 3 p.m. yesterday afternoon. The elderly and the well-dressed mixed amiably with the young and the scruffy in the reading rooms and the document check-outs. It had been a long time since I’d visited—I usually use libraries which are nearer to where I live or the one at McGill—but I was looking for the English translation of Ensemble, C’est tout by Anna Gavalda for the next round of book discussions the week after next. Oddly all copies of Hunting and Gathering, as it’s called in English, were out on loan everywhere, except for one at Quebec’s flagship library.

I couldn’t help thinking two things as I checked out my books (of course I found a couple of other things I couldn't resist: that's the great joy and the great danger of libraries.) The first was just how user-friendly it is, and the second—a corollary--was how different it is from the François-Mitterrand complex of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris even though both are official depositories for everything published in their jurisdictions. Quebec’s "national" library has suffered problems—a number of the frosted glass panels on the outside which allow floods of diffused light to enter the building without harming books have disintegrated and fallen, for example. But it has been adopted enthusiastically by Montrealers who obviously were thirsting for such a public place.

Paris’s Grande bibliothèque is something else again, a place for research and serious scholars. It may be the center piece for a revitalization of former industrial sites along the Seine, but it is almost forbidding. The difference reflects many things, among them France’s longer intellectual tradition: the BNF has an enormous collection of priceless things that must be carefully preserved. But the crowds in the Quebec’s Grande bibliothèque also are a response to a long penury of public libraries in most of the province. Montreal has had to play catch=up, and decided to collaborate with the GBQ project in order to fill a great need. Better late than never, I guess.

Note: On the left, a photo of Montreal's Grande bibliothèque from Virtual Tourist. On the right, my photo of the François Mitterand complex.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Closing the Barn Door Before It's Too Late: Can Suburban Development Be Environmentally Friendly, Or Even Sustainable?

Sainte Martine, Quebec

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Yesterday I had a conversation with Elling Lien of The Scope, the alternative weekly in St. John’s, Newfoundland, about making cities walkable. Seems his newspaper is doing some in-depth musing about sustainability, and making cities walkable has come up.

The core of St. John’s is very walkable, since it was founded several centuries ago when walking was the way nearly everyone got around. But as the city expanded in the 20th century with classic car-dependent suburbs sprawling around, the city’s compactness disappeared. What to do in a situation like that? Lien asked.

The question echoed one asked the day before when I did a talk at John Abbott College in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue on the extreme west end of Montreal island: What kind of place can John Abbott students expect to live in, ten years down the line? The original village of Ste-Anne which dates from the late 1700s was as walkable as the original St. John's, but Montreal has sprawled around it. The students at John Abbott grew up largely in car dependent suburbs and obviously these kids were wondering if they could count on the same kind of life

Unfortunately, I can't give a short, clear answer to either question. For many, many reasons we are going to have to make our cities denser, to have to live closer together, to depend more on public transportation and our own muscles to get around. Making existing suburbs denser by encouraging more compact housing development around transportation hubs seems clear, but beyond that, not much more is clear besides the need to be upfront about what real environmentally friendly development is.

That’s why I have such mixed reactions to a story in this morning’s Le Devoir. Sainte Martine, a small town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence near Montreal, has just announced it will give a one year municipal property tax holiday for developers who build houses that meet LEED gold or platinum standards for water use. Cutting down on the amount of treated water used and sewage produced will mean far more savings to the little town of time than will the one-time tax loss of about $2,000, according to the mayor.

Certainly water conservation is a big issue, even here where we get a lot of rain. But there’s a basic dishonesty in saying that classic suburban development—individual house and garden where car commuting is necessary—is environmentally sound, no matter how water- or energy-efficient the design.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Gas Prices Drop, and So, Alas, Does Our Perception of the Need for Fuel Economy and Public Transport

Le Devoir’s lead story this morning tells how no electric car has been licensed to run on Quebec’s roads so far despite promises last spring that they would be tooling around the province by July 17. Unfortunately the foot-dragging is symptomatic of problems that have beset the slow process of weaning us from our petroleum addiction, problems which may seem less acute as petroleum prices plunge

Petroleum and electric companies have an extremely spotted record when it comes to developing alternate kinds of vehicles. The Quebec film comedy "Congorama" plays with the problem, even, suggesting that a state-owned company strangely like Hydro-Quebec killed a project for a hybrid car for strategic reasons.

Yesterday the price at the gas pump in Montreal hovered around 80 cents a litre, down signficiantly from the high of $1.51 during the summer. The price drop, unfortunately, may lead us all to draw a huge collective sigh of relief and go back to our wasteful ways. The temptation will be to forget about switching to public transportation, and to soft-pedal the need for gas economy and alternate energies in the vehicles we drive. That is exactly what happened after the gas crunch of the 1970s. Manufacturers were required to make engines more efficient, but once the crisis was over that efficiency went to make more powerful cars.

More crucially, we must not let this temporary reprieve lead to a carte blanche for North American auto manufacturers as they face bankruptcy. Any aid package must contain incentives for vehicles less wasteful of petroleum. It must not be business as usual for the Big Three, just as it certainly is not business as usual for the rest of the world these days.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Cold Winds, Warm Welcome to Québec Solidaire: An Afternoon on the Hustings

Despite the wicked temperature—about -6 C or 20 F with a brisk wind—I had an experience yesterday afternoon which warmed the cockles of my heart. May Chiu is the Québec Solidaire candidate in this riding for the provincial elections and I said I’d hand out pamphlets for her in front of the Théâtre Outremont where a children’s show was being given. I got there about 15 minutes before show time to meet the young man who had the pamphlets. He’d already handed out some: “It’s good,” he said in surprise when I asked how it was going.

He was right. In 20 minutes we placed between 50 and 75 in friendly hands. A few people brushed by without saying a word, and one told us “Mon idée est faite” or my mind's already made up, which really means, I’ve discovered, that you’ve stumbled upon a partisan from another camp. But the rest were polite and many were even enthusiastic.

This is provincial Liberal territory, although the Parti Québécois has always made a good showing. I certainly did not expect such favourable response for a third party candidate in this neck of the woods.

May Chiu is not an ordinary candidate though. The immigration lawyer showed up just as we were giving out the last flyers. She was pushing a stroller where her toddler daughter was asleep: she’d taken her son to a class at the nearby YMCA which began at 4 p.m. and she couldn’t make it any early. A modest, well-spoken woman, she ran for the Bloc Québécois in the federal elections two years ago and did very well against the then-Prime Minister Paul Martin, getting 28.7 per cent against Martin’s 48.4 per cent (the Conservative candidate received 12.7 per cent.) It would seem that she could do as well if not better in Outremont.

Another political note: Earlier in the afternoon a number of Quebec personalities turned out to show their support for Québec Solidaire in a variety show. Among them was rock singer Dan Bigras, who had been a PQ supporter since before he was old enough to vote.

And a note from the other side of the border: last night I read until midnight in order to finish Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife. It gives careful consideration to the reasons why a woman who stand by her man when he is a terrible philanderer, as well as a glimpse at what it’s like to be a political wife. I’m tempted to package up The Violets of Usambara and send it to Miller, since some of our preoccupations are the same.

Note from Valentine's Day 2009: There's a new reading guide available for The Violets: Click here to find it.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Saturday Photo: Winter Flowers, Bis

One of the amazing things about this time of year is the way that indoor plants start growing again now that the leaves are off the trees and the sun comes flooding in windows unimpeded.

One of my Christmas cactuses is in bloom, while the second is busy setting buds. A fuschia looks like it might try to flower again, and even my African violets suddenly look extremely healthy.

The latter are the subject of some mockery around here. Since Louis Brossard, the princpal female character in my novel, The Violets of Usambara, is wild about saintpaulia, people who've read the book sometimes expect me to know a lot about them. Twice in the last 10 days I've had people ask advice, but I have to explain that I imagine Louise knowing a lot, but that I don't. Such is the difference between life and art, I guess.

Note from Valentine's Day 2009: There's a new reading guide available for The Violets: Click here to find it.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Times Change Department: The Sexism of Harold Pinter

How things have changed! Despite a fascinating production, I left the Théâtre du nouveau monde’s version of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming last night wondering that nobody has denounced it for the sexist document that it is.

The play (Le Retour, in René Gingra's translation) begins with two aging brothers, Max, a retired butcher, and Sam, a chauffeur, arguing over nothing. The action steps up when Max’s oldest son, Teddy, arrives home after several years in the US with his wife Ruth. There’s a lot of rivalry between Teddy and his brothers, Joey, who is a would-be boxer, and Lenny, who seems to be a pimp. Ruth is at the center of all this and the play ends with her staying behind to become, it appears, both the sex slave of the men and their means of support as a whore.

Ruth is little more than a cipher in the play, just a female body to bear sons and lovers. As far as I can tell, no one has commented on her from a feminist—or even female—perspective , although Oedipal readings abound in the comments I found in a quick Google search. She is just there to do the bidding of the men, to tease them into jealousy, to clean and cook and submit.

The set of this production is so captivating—it makes the East London sitting room look like an Edward Hopper painting—that I didn’t question the premise until we’d left. Then on the bus ride home I began to get angrier and angrier. There is value in reviving plays from earlier periods, but surely someone involved should have twigged to how much times have changed. Any intelligent comment on Pinter should take into account the way he is writing from a point of view which dismisses the personhood (to coin a phrase) of women.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Notes from the Political Front: Three Elections and I'm Almost Out

Like a lot of other people around here, I’m suffering from election fatigue. Yet I got an e-mail yesterday from the campaign for May Chiu, who is the candidate for Québec solidaire, a left wing part that is trying to elect its first member to the provincial legislature the Assemblée nationale. One of the co-leaders (yes, it’s a very egalitarian party) Amir Khadr is running in the riding just to the east, and he deserves help. But this new message says that May’s campaign is going so well that they’re thinking of setting up phone banks to canvass.

That’s what I’ve been doing during elections most recently—real, on-the-ground work which can make the difference in a close election. This one isn’t likely to be close—the polls show the center right Liberals heading toward a majority government. But maybe I should hit the phones anyway even though after a by election a Canadian federal election and the Obama triumph, I’m heartily sick of phoning people I don’t know.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Fancy Shoes and Community Awards: Something Old and Something New Tonight at the Quebec Writers' Federation Gala

I’m hoping to meet Ms. Julie tonight, the saucy librarian who has been trumpeting the wonders of English writing from Quebec for the last several months. In a way I feel I’m her godmother, since this promotion campaign is an outgrowth of a long running project I helped get off the ground, Raising the Profile. We’re told that she may make an appearance at tonight’s Quebec Writers’ Federation gala, and it would be a real pleasure to tell her what a kick I get out of her—and how I appreciate the way she likes shoes.

Tonight I’ll be wearing my best shoes too, the ones my mother insisted I buy when I finished my B.A. at Berkeley and was going out in the world to work and get married. They are avocado green sling back pumps, which I had retooled a couple of times, but put away for many years. Then when Lukas and Sophie got married they turned out to be the perfect thing to wear with the jacket dress that Elin help me pick out. Haven’t worn either the dress or the shoes since then, but it seems to me that the gala is the proper occasion.

That’s because I’m going to receive the QWF Community Award this year, a nice recognition of many hours of work put in for the writing—and reading—community here. That I also got the Batisseur d’Outremont award from the suburb I live in last spring, makes it doubly good. All the years I’ve lived in Montreal I’ve tried to participate fully in both Anglophone and Francophone communities, and it is a great pleasure to see that others think I’ve contributed to both.

P.S. The Writers Out Loud event in Sutton was great fun. If you’re in the neighborhood do check out the book store which sponsored it Librairie Livre d’or, 12-B rue Principale. It has a good selection of English and French books, and a truly charming and knowledgeable staff.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

To the Eastern Townships, les Cantons de l'Est or L'Estrie, Take Your Pick: Talking to Mark Abley Tonight about Language and Other Things

Today I’m off to Sutton in the Eastern Townships to do a Writers Out Loud event with journalist, poet, and non-fiction writer Mark Abley. He’s supposed to interview me, but I imagine we’ll end up talking about his work as well. (For those of you in hailing distance, it starts at 7 p.m. at 4-C Chemin Maple, is free, and is co-sponsored by the Librairie Livre d’or and the Quebec Writers’ Federation.)

Over the last 10 days I’ve been dipping in and out of Mark’s two most recent books, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages and The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches From the Future of English. Both of them are fascinating, and great reading either straight up or a chapter at a time. Mark’s love of poetry comes through clearly, not only in his use of many poems to illustrate his points but also in the way he holds words up to the light to examine them closely. This preoccupation is nothing new: in 1994 he wrote a critically acclaimed poetry collection Glasburyon, about vanishing languages. Parts of it have been translated into many languages, some of them spoken by only a few people. Check out this rendition in Jèrrais, the language of Jèrri, one of the islands of the English Channel which I had always called Jersey until I learned better this morning.

Mark is of Welsh descent and I intend to ask him if that has affected his attitude toward language. And, of course, there's that other big question which always sits like the elephant in the drawing room around here: which is the endangered language in Quebc, English or French? As someone who sees my children attached to Francophones, but whose conversation seems always filled with English words, I don't think it's English.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Running Again, But I'll Let Others Run for Election

Six years ago I quit running. My right hip hurt so I decided to be prudent and not aggravate what might be a sign of creeping decrepitude. Since then I’ve been walking long distances regularly while doing exercises which are supposed to cut down on knee, hip and back aches and pains.

But two weeks ago Lee’s doctor told him to try running and bike riding again, even thought he’d had a painful episode of disk displacement early in the summer which appeared to be due to the posture he was using bike riding. So with considerable pleasure he brought the bike up from the basement and has started taking it out for his usual run up to the top of Mont Royal. He’s also back running a bit, after not doing any for about four years. And so far it’s a go: he hasn’t had any problem.

Which led me to ask myself: well, why not see what the old body can do? If I start to hurt, I’ll stop, and if I don’t, I’ll be able to cut my exercise time back considerably. This morning I did about a third of my usual walk at a mild jog, I’m pleased to report, with so far no ill effects. Maybe I’ll be able to hold off real decrepitude a while longer.

And what am I going to use the time saved by running? Why, helping some Quebec Solidaire candidates run for office in the December 8 provincial election, of course.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Saturday Photo: A Door Closing on the Green Season

Just before we completely batten down the hatches and prepare for winter, I want to share a photo for mid-summer. It's the entrance to Mount Royal Cemetery, which was founded in 1852 and developed over the next 20 years as an Olmstead-inspired "rural" cemetery. Of course, it's surrounded by the city now, but its green paths and mature trees make it a wonderful escape from urbanity.

When I walked there on Wednesday, the leaves were off the climbing hydrangea which covers the entrance gate. Only the bracts of last summer's flowers were left while few orange-brown leaves clung to the trees you can see in the distance. This morning it is raining, with heavy rain forecast for the whole weekend, so by Monday the last of the leaves should be littering the ground. To each thing there is a season...

Friday, 14 November 2008

Hy Minsky Was Right and George W. Bush Isn't: The Market Doesn't Work

So George W. Bush says it’s not time to do away with capitalism, eh?

"History has shown that the greater threat to economic prosperity is not too little government involvement in the market, it is too much government involvement in the market," Bush said to a crowd of financial types in New York yesterday. "Our aim should not be more government," he added later, "it should be smarter government."

What poppycock! This morning as an antidote I offer links to articles on the thought of economist Hyman Minsky who held that unregulated markets will always produce instability and crises. Sure, the market will “correct” itself, but the cost, as we are seeing, is absolutely horrendous. Far better to regulate in order to ride herd on excess.

As The Nation headlines its recent article about him: “We’re all Minskyites Now.” All, that is, except for George W. Bush and his friends.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Congo, Rwanda, Burundi: Finding Accommodation for Ethnic Differences in a Region Wracked by Conflict

The newspapers and news broadcasts are full these days of pictures of sad-faced women and terrified children fleeing violence in the ironically-named Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The continuing blood fued between Hutus and Tutsi in the Great Lake Region of Africa has boiled over again. At stake is—besides the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions—a wealth of minerals in the eastern Congo.

Two other countries are divided on Hutu-Tutsi lines: Rwanda and Burundi. The former seems to be a major player in the Congo violence, while the latter has been slowly inching toward an accommodation of power between the groups. Indeed, over the last year it has seemed that peace and a workable power-sharing agreement was at hand. But over the weekend the hold-out rebel group refused to drop "Palipehutu" from its name, which means “for the Hutu alone.” What happens next remains to be seen since mediation attempts involving delegates from other African countries, notably Uganda and South Africa, are due to end December 31. Over the weekend delegates urged both sides to put into place the settlement agreed to more than a year ago, which would involve rebels surrendering their arms.

Let us hope this will happen, and that Burundi's relative success in power-sharing will become an example for Rwanda and the DRC. The key to the future, it seems, is what the government of Rwanda does now. Just a year ago, Jan van Eck wrote in South Africa's Sunday Times: “Until Rwanda extends full political rights to its Hutus, their fight will continue to play out in its western neighbour, ... and destabilise the region… If 13 years after the (1994) genocide Rwandans still cannot be trusted to not use ethnicity to repeat the genocide, the country is surely in serious trouble. Invading the DRC to root out these Hutus is neither justified nor a solution.”

We shall be watching, holding our breath in hopes that this lovely, potentially-productive region can find peace.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

It’s an Ill Wind That Blows Nobody Good Department: Financial Meltdown Means Griffintown Project Now on Hold

The massive redevelopment of Griffintown, an old industrial sector of Montreal’s central core will not begin next year because the developer Devimco has decided it’s “prudent” not to proceed, it was announced Tuesday.

According to André Bouthillier, a spokesperson for the developer, the current financial turmoil means that it would be wise to delay efforts to raise the first $400 million of the proposed $1.3-billion project. The money would have financed the first phase of the construction, scheduled to start next fall. The start up will now be late spring 2010, he told The Gazette.

Opponents to the project greeted the news warmly. Rethink the project, said say André Poulin, spokesperson for Destination Centre Ville, a group of downtown merchants. "We do not think it is a good idea to create a new commercial centre less than two kilometers from downtown."

And Ugo on the urbanism blog Spacing Montreal was blunter “Seriously the Griff doesn’t need no devimcrap. See for your self the area is now becoming the new plateau. Give it 10 years and this area will be the sweetest place simply because people like you and I will have decided that the place is cool. Many young professionals are buying there, the place is blooming. Who needs a premade hub when you can get the real thing.”

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Remembering in Order Not to Make the Same Mistakes: a Message for November 11

Today is Remembrance Day, and as I passed the memorial to Outremont’s fallen in the wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 (as the monument puts it) the borough’s crews were out blowing away the leaves in preparation for a ceremony at 11:11 a.m. This concern in Canada about marking the end of that so-called First World War is something that surprised me when we came here during the US’s Vietnam War. At the time in the States, no one who opposed the war wore poppies, but here everyone, including the young on the McGill campus, did. It took me a while to realize that Canada’s nationhood was forged in that conflict during which 68,000 men were killed from a country of 7 million. The red poppy meant a tribute, not belligerence.

Last night at one of my book discussions, the book was The Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, a singularly appropriate choice we decided. In it, two young Native Canadians go to fight in Belgium and France, and the talk turned to the participants’ own stories. Grandfathers who had never spoken of their time in the trenches, but who in their last illnesses relived the danger and fear. Fathers who declined to go camping with their grandchildren because “I spent seven years living in a tent, and that was enough.” Women who refuse to read about war, but who delight in Boyden’s heroine who saves her nephew from the demons of war.

Story telling is a form of remembering, and as time passes, the stories change too as our perspective alters. The trick is drawing the truth from the stories and applying it to our world in order to avoid the mistakes of the past while trying to decipher the present.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Larches and the Last Leaves: Winter Is Ready to Settle in

A couple of weeks ago Lionel Lévac, the agricultural specialist on Radio Canada in Quebec City, gave a long ramble about how larch trees always turn yellow the week before the first snow. Seems they had already in his bailiwick, and so he was forecasting a storm.

The trees' predictive ability was pretty good for Lévac's region, but not for elsewhere since it snowed a few days later all over the province although the larches around Montreal were still as green as any other conifer. It was only last weekend that the larches turned yellow here.

That early storm brought numerous power outages in rural and mountainous areas which lasted several days in some cases. The early snow caught many deciduous trees with the leaves still on branches, and the snow which clung to them was too heavy for the branches to bear so many broke, bringing down power lines too. The same amount of snow after all the leaves had fallen would have had little or no effect. That’s one of the interesting adaptations of trees in this climate: no leaves means less burden on branches.

Most conifers have different adaptations to deal with winter, among them branches which can bend downward, allowing snow to slide off more easily. Larches go the whole hog, though, and shed their needles too.

This morning I collected a handful of larch (also known as tamarack) needles when I was out walking. The ground was also littered with the last of the maple leaves. There’s snow in the forecast over higher ground, and tomorrow is the last day the borough will collect dead leaves for recycling in our neighborhood.

Time to get to work outside before the snow flies.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Saturday Photo: Forty-Five Years after the March on Washington

After much searching last Wednesday, I found the button I bought in Washington August 28, 1963. It was in the bottom of the drawer where I'd put it for safe-keeping, and I took it out and wore it with pleasure--a little chagrin-- the day after Barack Obama was elected president of the USA.

"There's a story behind it," several people commented, and indeed there is. In August 1963 I was at the National Student Association convention in Bloomington, Indiana. As the editor-elect of the student newspaper at Berkeley, my way was paid that far, and when a friend and I discovered we could hitch a ride to Washington and the march on a bus leaving from an African American church in Indianapolis, we jumped at the chance.

It was an eye-opening trip and an amazing day whose story has been told many times before--hundreds of thousands of people of all races and ethnic background gathered together to demand long overdue change. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech capped it all.

But it was also an extremely hot afternoon, and the sound system wasn't terrific. About 3 p.m. my friend and I decided to call another friend who was interning for our Congressman. "Come on by," Mike said, so we went over to the Capital buildings where he gave us a guided tour through the corridors of power and into the galleries of the House and Senate where business was continuing as if nothing was happening outside. I'll never forget the sight of the nearly empty Senate chamber, where one long-forgotten Senator was droning on while history was being elsewhere.

What I won't remember, however, was how electrifying Rev. King's speech was and how the crowd reacted. That's because we missed it...

This week part of King's dream was realized, and it was with great pride that I did my little bit. Maybe I've learned something over all those years: stick around and work, if you want to make a difference.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Smog Alert, Still Air and Selfish Pleasures: Using a Car on a Day of Much Pollution

This is supposed to be the fourth day of a smog alert in Montreal. We went the summer without a smog day because of cool temperatures and a lot of rain and wind: the air was so pure that a suburban transit agency which had promised free rides on smog days to cut down on automobile travel didn't have to cough up any. This week, though, a very calm air mass accompanied by a temperature inversion layer has settled over Greater Montreal. Temperatures are above normal—as high as 18 C (about 70 F) on Wednesday—which doesn’t help matters. The real culprit, Environment Canada says, is the absence of winds.

Perhaps the still air contributes, but I’d say that our reliance on cars is a more important factor in producing smog. For the first time in more than a week we took the car out yesterday to run some errands that couldn’t be done on foot, like go to the lumber yard and the Jean Talon Market. But I felt guilty coming home across the mountain because as I started down the air smelt exactly like it did frequently when I was a kid on Southern California.

Air quality, I’m told, improved in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A sudden drop in production at smoke-spewing factories was the reason. There may be an echo of that in the next little while as the world economy struggles along. That should not be an excuse to let up in our concern about pollution, however. In fact, putting money into public transit projects may be just what Dr. Keynes ordered. More about that another day...

And there may come a time when we’ll figure out a way to go to Langevin et Forest (THE place for good wood around here) and back with a load of lumber without polluting!

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Five More Books for After-Election Reading--US This Time

The circumstances are different, but I’ve been reflecting on what would be good after-election reading, the way I did after the Canadian Federal election. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Some novels to help us understand how far the United States has come:

Sally Hemmings: a Novel by Barbara Case Riboud. The life of Thomas Jefferson’s black mistress.

The Book of Negroes/ Someone Knows my Name
by Lawrence Hill. Based on a ittle known historical document called the Book of Negroes, dating from the US Revolution.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Set in the Louisiana of the first decades of the 20th century, it tells the story of a white (and they all were white then) politician, and how he changed from being a decent populist to becoming a demagogue.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan. A feel-good chick lit novel by an African American writer who’s got considerable groove herself. Her world is a universe away from the people—whatever race—in All the King’s Men, thank goodness.

The Poisonwood Bible: by Barbara Kingsolver. A Fundamentalist family in Africa and what happened afterwards. Kingsolver’s master work.

And as a bonus, a book of non-fiction that shows the way to what we, and the new president, should do next.

The Conscience of a Liberal
by Paul Krugman. This year’s Nobel Prize winner for economics outlines how a relatively equitable society was forged during the Depression of the 1930s and World War II, how free market and fundamentalist ideologues worked to destroy that after the mid-1970s, and what we might do to recover lost ground today. Published more than a year ago, it does presages the Obama and shows the way out the current financial crisis.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Now the Real Work Begins: Following the Obama Wave of Change toward the Future

In early June 1988 I traded a poster with the picture of NDP leader Ed Broadbent for a Jesse Jackson for President one in the Los Angeles airport. The young woman with whom I traded was disappointed that Jackson had just lost the California primary, but we both were pleased that he had done as well as he did.

The poster is one of my prized possessions, up there with my button from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. What a wonder, then, to see Americans embrace and vote for Barack Obama yesterday, and watch Jesse Jackson watch Obama's impressive acceptance speech with tears running down his face.

Yes, Obama's victory is something that we could only dream about in 1963, or in 1988. But it is not just a victory for African Americans and other people of colour. It is a victory of the good side of humankind, a beacon of what we can do when we work together. Now, the real job begins...