Thursday, 31 July 2008

Something Really Cool: Planting Trees Brings Urban Temperatures Down

It’s hot and sticky in our neighborhood today, but at least we can rest in the shade. That’s because planting and maintaining street trees has been a priority for decades in Outremont, which was separate municipality before 2002 when it merged with Montreal.

The larger city has just announced a program to encourage more green plantings, including trees, green roofs and bushes. Big asphalt expanses in shopping centres and industrial areas will be the main targets: asphalted areas can raise air temperatures by five to ten degrees Celsuis. Le Devoir reported Wednesday that already 30 businesses have signed on to the program, representing the planting of about 2,000 trees.

One of the striking things I found when I was working on Green City was the great impact of plantings on the quality of life in cities. São Paulo was one of the first to use satellite photos to map hotspots in the city. A team of far-sighted bureaucrats showed elected officials just how paving and tall buildings without compensatory plantings were changing the city’s climate. The result was a change in direction in the city's policy toward maintenance of street trees and plantings. Singapore has had aggressive planting programs for four decades, allowing this city of highrises to become a truly green city. (For more on efforts in both, see my posts on “Green in an Unruly Metropolis” and "Clean and Green." )

And it's good to remember what Jane Jacobs did after she and her friends finally stopped the Spadina freeway that threatened to cut through downtown Toronto: she raked up a lot of maple and slippery elm trees and scattered them over the excavation undertaken in preparation for the roadwork which never was done. (See Ideas that Matter, p. 120)

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Singing the Recycling Blues: Oscar the Grouch Love Trash, But Does Anybody Else?

Oscar the Grouch may love trash (see the You Tube video for proof) but he’s about the only being around who does. Monday the agency which reviews environmental impacts in Quebec (Bureaux des audiences publiques sur l’environnement or BAPE) gave the okay to an extension for a big dump on the north shore of the St. Laurence at Lachenaie for Montreal’s waste, but warned that something is going to have to be done to cut back on waste production.

Montreal can continue to use the site until 2012, but BAPE spokesmen warned that strong measures to cut the amount of waste generated in the Montreal area must be found.

When I was working on Green City, I was amazed to learn that in Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, street levels had to be changed twice because trash had collected to such great depth that doors no longer opened onto the street. How can that be, I wondered. Then I realized how much trash we were putting out each week, even though we compost vegetable and fruits waste and try to recycle. What if that weren’t hauled away? What if it just lay around the neighborhood?

In Montreal only about 37 per cent of trash is currently recycled, but in some places it's even less. The New York Times reported Tuesday the rate in New York is only 34 percent while Houston is resisting recycling almost completely with a rate of 2.6 pe cent.

But recycling is only part of the solution. It’s important to change the way products are packaged, and to cut back on the thousands of plastic bags we use every year. To be continued for sure, but, excuse me, it's recycling day and I forgot to put the box out...

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Gas Use Down and So Are Taxes: A Turning Point for the Walkable City?

American drivers continue to use their cars less, The Wall Street Journal reports, and the country’s highways are going to suffer as a consequence. The number of miles driven in May dropped nearly 4 percent compared to a year before, and public transporation use has risen. The WSJ says that “the number of people riding Amtrak has risen 11% this year, and mass-transit systems in many areas, including Seattle and South Florida, are experiencing ridership increases of 30% or more, according to the American Public Transit Association.”

But because most American road construction and repair are financed by taxes on gasoline, the drop in gasoline use means a drop in available funds. The Highway Trust Fund is expected to show a $5 billion deficit this year, and the talk in Washington is how to get around that and stiill repair roads.

Of course crumbling highways are one of the things that James Howard Kunstler predicts in The Long Emergency. Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Our dependency on fossil fuels is going to lead us to disaster sooner rather than later, he writes, and we’re not going to be able to afford the infrastructure that our petroleum-hog vehicles used anyway.

More compact living patterns are the only solution, it seems to me. If you can walk or take public transportation to where you need to go, you don’t need highways nor do you need a car. That’s the message behind The Walkable City, my new book for which I should get final corrections this week. Been doing a lot of walking lately, too, since the weather, while full of showers, has been good for strolls most of the time.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Writing for Posterity or the Delete Button: Letters, E-mail and the Record of the Past

Will e-mails be a substitute for letters? Two programs on the CBC’s Radio One raised the question yesterday. The first was Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company where she interviewed Hermione Lee about Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton, The Fullness of Life. The second was a wide-ranging discussion on Cross Country Check-up, a nationwide call-in show.

Along with many other interesting things, Lee said that the release of a series of fascinating letters between Wharton and her lover Morton Fullerton helped spark re-evaluation of her and work in the 1970s. It is likely Wharton would be reassessed in light of late 20th century efforts to celebrate women writers, but the letters shined a new light on a woman of great intelligence but little luck in love.

John English, the official biographer of Canadian Prime Ministers Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, spoke a short time later about the gaps in the pictures of these two men which would exist, were it not for their correspondence. Trudeau and his mother were particularly good conservers of letters, so that English was able, for example, to read the last letter Trudeau wrote to his father. Fifteen year old Pierre tore the letter up before he sent it because he received the news that the elder Trudeau had died in Florida. Madame Trudeau took the scraps and pasted them back together, however, to preserve it for posterity. Trudeau also kept drafts of the love letters he wrote to his various flames.

For a biographer, these caches of letters are treasure troves, and for us all, they are windows on the past and the thinking of people who profoundly affected history. People certainly communicate today in writing, but it’s an open question whether anyone is properly archiving e-mail. Although, given the way that Trudeau’s mother obviously thought he was headed for greatness, there may be fledgling politicians out there who are printing out everything they write !

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Saturday Photo: Foggy Morning, Mount Royal Cemetery

Where I grew up, not far from the beach in San Diego, we would get a lot of fog in summer. Where Lee is from in the Central Valley of California, the foggy time was winter. Around here we don't get much fog at all, but when we do it tends to be in early spring or late fall. In all these cases the air temperatures are around 45 F/10 C.

This summer, however, when temperatures have been much warmer, there have been mornings when the traffic report cautions about fog along river valleys and in low places. The humidity, it would appear, has been so high that only a small drop in the temperature caused water vapor to condense into fog. Last week, it was even foggy on top of Mount Royal. Walking through it was beautiful and strange: a place I know very well was transformed by the veil of water droplets supended in the air.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Ms. Julie Curls up with a Good Qué-book: Campaign to Promote English-Language Writing from Quebec

Some of the best Canadian writing in English is coming from the heart of Quebec. Sounds like an oxymoron—this is la belle province, after all--but I assure you it’s true. The last winner of the Impac Dublin prize, Rawi Hage, wrote De Niro’s Game in Montreal, and until recently. at least, was driving cab here. Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?—shortlisted for several international prizes—was written in NDG where she spends her summers in her splendid garden. Heather O’Neill, whose Lullabies for Little Criminals won Canada Reads in 2007, lives in Mile End…and the list goes on.

The Quebec Writers’ Federation, the Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec and the English Language Arts Network with financing from Canadian Heritage are trying to get the word out about this wealth of creation. Ms. Julie, a saucy, sexy librarian is helping them out.

The promotional campaign was launched in June at Book Expo Canada, and is now going into high gear. Check out Ms. Julie’s blog to see what she’s recommending and what the book buzz is.

And of course in the interest of full disclosure I should say that my two new books--The Violets of Usambara published by Cormorant Books this spring, and The Walkable City, due from Véhicule Press this fall--are in Ms. Julie's scrapbook of favourites.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Crime Rates Are Falling and Serbia May Be on the Right Track, but Who's Saying, as Gabriel Heater Did, "Ahh, My Friends, There's Good News Tonight."

Two bits of good news: the Serbian government has tracked down and arrested Radovan Karadzic, the psychiatrist and poet who appears to have masterminded genocide during the last Balkan wars, and crime in Canada appears to have dropped to levels not seen in 30 years. Both are surprises in a way, and restore one’s hope about the state of the world.

Last May shortly before parliamentary elections in Serbia we heard Vladimir Jovic comment on a film by David Homel, Is My Story Hurting You? Dr. Jovic is at the center of the film, which focuses on his work with people haunted by the civil war and its aftermath in Belgrade. He was quite pessimistic about what the elections’ outcome would be because he feared that ultranationalists would win and the cycle of hate would revive. But that did not come about, and now the new government has swooped down and captured Karadzic who was hiding in plain site. Commentators are citing this arrest as a clear sign that those in power in Serbia now do not want to slip back into violence.

The news about crime in Canada is not really news to anyone who’s been paying attention: a string of Statistics Canada reports have repeatedly shown that all sorts of crime have been declining for years. To watch the television news, read many newspapers, or listen to Prime Minister Steven Harper, however, you’d think that it was the other way around. Jeffrey Simpson in The Globe and Mail Wednesday had a fine comment on that. “People hate crime, but the media love it,” he writes. “Crime is bad, and bad news sells…Politicians fear crime, not because they'll be victims themselves but because they dare not explain crime sensibly. It's any politician's nightmare to face a victim and utter anything other than a promise to be ‘tough on crime.’

“Why are crime rates falling?” he asks. “Now there's a fit subject for media inquiry, although exploring it would be more difficult (and less sexy) than reporting crimes, covering lurid trials or fulminating against the latest outrage. Can you imagine a local television newscast (the kind that follows the maxim ‘If it bleeds, it leads’) starting the news with a story about why crime rates are falling?”

The real news, as almost always, is hard to uncover since it may lie in quiet, safe streets—or on a streetcar in the middle of a busy city, which is where Karadzic was arrested. It takes determination and, sometimes, courage to find it or make it.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

CBC and Radio Canada Changes: All-Classic Stations Still More Popular, But Elin's on Espace Musique

The latest BBM market ratings are out, and efforts by the CBC and Radio Canada to change programming haven’t resulted in a huge surge in listeners. You’ll remember that both networks have cut the classical music content of their offerings on Radio Two and Espace Musique over the last little while, and added more “diverse” music in an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic.

In Montreal, the new statistics—measuring the period between April 14 and June 8, 2008—show the dedicated, non-public classical music station CJPX holding about steady with 4.3 per cent market share among Francophones. Its share was 4.4 during the last reporting period, and 3.5 the period before that. CBFX, Espace Musique, on the other had, held steady at 3.2.

In Toronto, where all classic CFMZ competes with Radio Two’s CBL-FM, the former still draws a larger audience (with 4 percent), although Radio Two did go up from 1.9 to 3.0 over the last two periods. Just who is listening to the stations isn’t clear from those BBM statistics that are available for free.

We’ll be listening to Espace Musique tonight (July 23, 2008) for sure, though. A concert Elin played in last Friday at the Centre d’arts Orford summer festival will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Called The Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach it features the music Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for his second wife. Soprano Kimy McLaren is accompanied by Martin Robidoux on the harpsichord and Elin on viola da gamba. If you’re interested, you’ll be able to find the concert on the net at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time too.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Green City: When the Best Lawn Blooms Dark Pink Sometimes

Yesterday morning the gardeners were mowing lawns in the cemeteries on Mount Royal. Armed with weed whackers to get around tombstones and sit-down power mowers for the more open areas, they were cutting back the grass which has grown fantastically this summer. Good rains every five or six days, plus much ground moisture from last winter’s heavy snow fall, have meant luxurious green all over the northern and western slopes of the hill that is called a mountain around here.

The lawns are not sterile, grass-only ones, however. Over the decades they’ve become lovely patchworks where clover, daisies, violets, wild strawberries and other flowering plants mixed in with the more traditional grasses. Probably the most spectacular are the stretches of what I think is a hybrid of creeping bush clover (Lespedeza repens) which are in bloom now, turning the greensward into a carpet of dark pink.

Last week’s New Yorker (the one with that awful Obama-as-terrorist cover) has an interesting article by Elizabeth Kolbert, reviewing several books about lawns. The perfectly manicured suburban lawn is a wasteful conceit we can not afford to maintain, she seems to be saying. If she saw the spectacle the clover is providing now, she’d cheer, I imagine.

For more about lawns and how the desire for them has fueled sprawl, check out my Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, by the way.

Note: Originally I thought the patches were of alpine azalea but a closer look suggets that they are of a creeping clover. Lespedeza repens is not supposed to be found in Quebec according to The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildfloers, Eastern Region. The handbook does say that the plant hybridizes widely, though, so perhaps that's what has happened. Or maybe its success on Mount Royal says something about climate change.

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Best Love Stories; Some Suggestions for Good Summer Reading

One of the most interesting things about having a blog is seeing who reads it, and how they find it. Lately my counter suggests that a lot of people are looking for love stories to read this summer: a Google search for “best love story” brings up my post from last spring about The Extraordinary Garden by François Gravel which I still think is one of the best love stories I’ve ever read. Certainly it’s tops in the category: love between adults who realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

But what else is there which might be recommended to people who like a good romantic tale for summer reading? Here are a few suggestions:

Forbidden love: Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things A tale of love between two people who shouldn’t care for each other for many, many reasons of social class and personal history

Love which finally finds its place: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, an epoch story of India, which could have taken place many other places.

Unrequited love: Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright. Small town girl holds a torch for a city man for decades

Comic love: Moo by Jane Smiley A big, sprawling satiric look at a university town and the people who live and love in it. It ends, as all good comedies do, with weddings.

Young love that ends well: Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda Translated from French, this novel shows young people searching for their destiny and finally finding it. Funny and profound.

Love after high school. My own After Surfing Ocean Beach, which started out to be my “high school” book: I went to Point Loma High School in San Diego and spent far too much time hanging out at Ocean Beach. But the more I got involved in the story, the more I realized that what really mattered about the characters was what happened to them afterwards—how they played the hands they were dealt, and how they ended up loving or not loving.

Good reading. The books should all be available at good independent booksellers across North America, or through .

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Saturday Photo: Traces of the Sacred at Chartres and at the Pompidou

Christian Rioux last week had an interesting review of an exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in Paris called Traces of the Sacred. The museum is a fascinating structure in the heart of Paris featuring art of the 20th and 21st century. We spent two afternoons there on our trip, Lee to commune with his favourite mid-20th century works, and I to try to make sense of this exhibit.

It begins in the late 19th century and the end of conventional European understanding of Chrisitianity--"God is dead," as Nietszche said. Then it examines the works of art which grew from a search for new forms of spirituality. Some of what is on display is undeniably wonderful: a lucite block containing bubbles and called "Alternate Universe" for example. But a lot seems forced, diluted or simply incomplete, inspired by misreadings of other belief systems.

Compare that with the spiritual impulse behind Gothic cathedrals and even I, thorough-going unbeliever that I am, stand in awe of what was created in the past.

And what is still believed in by many people, it seems. By the end of the day, hundreds of votive candles were burning in every cathedral we visited.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Holidays for Construction Workers--and a Whole Lot of Other People--in Quebec.

Workers all over Quebec will down tools at noon today—not in protest but for pleasure. The “Construction Holiday” begins then and will run until Monday August 4. The two week period began as a mandated halt for the building trades in 1971, but many other industries also shut down to avoid conflict within families. In all about quarter of the work force will be off.

Anyone who works in Quebec has two per cent of his or her pay deducted every pay period, to be matched by a similar contribution from the employer. This has to be paid out once a year, creating the equivalent of a two week’s pay, but you can collect anytime, including if you quit your job.
This always reminds me of one of my favourite Henri Cartier-Bresson photos. Called "On the Banks of the Marne," it was taken in 1938, two years after the French government mandated a somewhat similar universal holiday period. One of the reasons for the program was to spread work around during the tough economic times of the 1930s, but obviously holidays meet deep needs.

But don’t expect to find all construction work stopped in Quebec. Road construction continues since it has to be done during good weather. Those sites shut down in the dead of winter.

What a climate!

Photo: Afterimage Gallery

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Iran and Lee's Smile: When Seeing Shouldn't Be Believing

A week ago Iran tested some missiles, causing quite a storm of comment. Not the least concerned of it swirled abour the question of how many missiles there were. A video posted last Wednesday, the day of the test, clearly shows four missiles launchers but only three successfully firing. Shortly thereafter Iran released a still picture which apparently had been Photoshopped to show all four firing. Then, while discussion flared in cyberspace, they re-released an un-doctored photo of three missiles which matches the video.

Seeing isn’t believing, in other words, a maxim we should all take to heart, particularly when so many agendas are at play.

But the incident also reminded me of a little judicious cropping I did for our Christmas letter and blog last December.

For some reason Lee rarely smiles in photos, but I wanted one with him looking pleased so I took a picture from Lukas’s and Sophie’s wedding and used only his head and mine. The whole picture shows him making a devil sign behind Lukas’s head in the true Soderstrom horsing-around tradition, but you’d never know it from our Christmas messages.

If you’d like to see what Lee looks like now, here’s the link to the McGill Economics Department website which featured his picture the week after he officially retired. But now, come to think of it, his face isn't as broad as that. Could this shot be doctored a bit too and stretched to fit the shape of their template? Beware what your eyes see!

Note: thanks to Kris Down who took the picture.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Hops or Hay? Are Mortgage Guarantees Worth Only Six Times Beer?

Notes on finances: So the U.S .government is going to support Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the institutions which insure about half the mortgages on housing the country, to the tune of $300 billiion? As Paul Krugman points out, they had nothing to do with the subprime mortgage mess because by definition the mortgages they insure meet very strict requirements. Nevertheless they are caught up in the storm. They “can’t be allowed to fail. With the collapse of subprime lending, they’re now more central than ever to the housing market, and the economy as a whole.”

Three hundred billion dollars ain’t hay, for sure. But its relative size should be measured against another figure tossed around last week: the $52 billion InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian brewer, is going to pay for Anheuser-Busch which controls nearly half the market for beer in the U.S. Does that mean that the health of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—two pillars of the economy—is worth less than six times a major beermaker?

Elin had 60 Budweiser boxes full of stuff when she moved recently, and beer is the classic thing one offers friends who help one move. But good housing should be valued a lot more highly than 33.3 billion six packs (at $9 US a six pack,) I think.

How much hops would that take, BTW? And what's the futures market for them?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Literacy Programs, Building Schools and Omar Khadir: How to Make a Change in the World, and How Not To

Sophie is back from a conference on literacy interventions and reading problems in Halifax. She and her boss gave a presentation on some very effective techniques being used in primary grades in the Lester B. Pearson School Board here. It went well, it seems. Good, because learning to read is about the most important thing a person can learn to do.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Nicolas Kristof expounded along those lines in a column, “It Takes a School, Not Missiles.” In it he shines a spotlight on Greg Mortensen who has been building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the help of locals since 2003. “Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country,” Kristof quotes Mortenson, a U.S. Army veteran.

Kristof goes on: ’“I am convinced that the long-term solution to terrorism in general, and Afghanistan specifically, is education,” Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda, who works on the Afghan front lines, said in an e-mail in which he raved about Mr. Mortenson’s work. “The conflict here will not be won with bombs but with books. ... The thirst for education here is palpable.”’

Compare that with the videos released this morning of child soldier Omar Khadir, a Canadian citizen still in jail in Guantanamo. He has been charged with killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15. It appears that for the last six years he has been held in solitary confinement and subjected to very harsh treatment. Nothing educational has gone on in that time—except make a misled boy in a very troubled young man. What would have happened if he'd dedicated teachers like Sophie, or a chance to help build school?

Monday, 14 July 2008

Windows on the World: More about Books and What Stephen Harper Should Be Reading

Friday the topic was the value of fiction-reading and how it expands your worlds, giving you experiences that you might never have otherwise. I imagine Yann Martel would agree about the importance of that aspect of reading novels and short stories. Almost without exception, the books he has been sending every two weeks to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for more than a year have been fiction. Martel’s stated aim is to provide some “stillness” in the PM’s life, to suggest some reading that will enrich the PM’s understanding and give him some pleasure. In the letters accompanying each book, Martel gives the reasons for his choice, and frequently he cites the windows the books offer into other ways of thinking and living, which is just what the University of Toronto researchers suggest is so valuable about fiction reading.

Martel’s most recent gift is Thomson Highway’s play The Rez Sisters, about which Martel says: “It's a comedy, the kind that makes you laugh while also delivering a fair load of sadness. Stereotypes are typified and then mocked, but it's not an overtly political play, hence its universal resonance.”

Two weeks before, Martel sent Harper the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. “People in Iran are like people anywhere,” Martel wrote. “(T)hey want to be happy and live in peace, with a modicum of material well being. The rules of their society, their values—the means by which they hope to become happy—are different from Canada’s—but what of that? They have their problems, we have ours. Let them muddle through theirs, as we hope to muddle through ours.”

Martel says that in Persepolis he recognized the Iran he found several years when traveling there with a friend. “Such eye-opening travel as I had the luck of doing isn’t a possibility for everyone…Which is where books come in. The armchair traveler can be as well-informed as the backpacker roughing it, so long as he or she reads the right books,”

Ah yes, the right books. There are so many of them. Would that Stephen Harper have time to read some.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Saturday Photo: Daylilies for a Summer Day

Two things arrive in July here marking the beginning of high summer: daylilies and cicadas. When I was out walking this morning I heard the sharp, metallic buzzing of the bugs, and all along my path I saw daylilies in bloom or ready to bloom.

The flowers are among my favourites, and I've come to associate the strange, un-animal sound of the cicadas with good times too.

The first time we heard them was a different matter, however. That was many, many years ago when we drove across the continent for the first time as we moved to Montreal. Within 50 miles in eastern Wyoming and western Iowa we dropped down from the dry Colorado Plateau into the much more humid basin of the Missouri-Mississippi basin. Suddenly we heard a terrible racket and Lee, who was driving our VW Beetle, pulled over on the roadside to see what was wrong with the car. But the noise did not stop when the car's engine stopped. It was at that point that we began to see what differences climate zones make.

Daylilies--which I don't remember blooming in such profusion on the West Coast--were much easier to get used to.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Fiction--Real or Unintended--Can Make Your Life Better: Tales from Cosmo and The New Scientist

My sister always read the magazine Cosmo, even after she had comfortably settled into the wife/mother/career role. “It’s written for people like me, you know,” she said. “It’s what we think about, but would never do.” A sort of fiction, in other words, that you can indulge in guiltlessly.

I was reminded of her yesterday by two stories in The Globe and Mail. The first was about a young woman who has written a book about her very positive experience following Cosmo’s advice for a year. The second—on the same page in the edition we get—had its origin in a much more serious publication, The New Scientist. A group of researchers led by the University of Toronto’s Keith Oatley has been studying the social skills of fiction readers and how reading it affects the way people interact with the world. Their conclusion: fiction readers have exceptionally strong “people skills.”

"Fiction is really about how to get around in the social world, which is not as easy as one might think," the Globe quotes Oatley. "People who read fiction give themselves quite a bit of practice in understanding that. And also, I think reading fiction sort of prompts one to think about these questions - you know, what are these people up to?"

Anyone who loves a good story understands what Oatley is talking about. Think of all those things you might never experience but came across in the pages of a novel or a short story collection. Your world is wider and your appreciation of the trials and tribulations of others is greater. You may learn a lot too, even when you’re reading quasi-fantasy like Cosmo.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Grand Plans for Montreal: Griffintown and le Quartier de Spéctacles Raise Questions about How to Do It and How Not To

Montreal’s mayor Gérald Tremblay appeared jubilant yesterday when he helped unveil plans for the first phase a new entertainment quarter—almost as jubilant as my friend who lives in Griffintown. Their good humour comes from very different things, however.

Tremblay announced that “new symbol of Montreal's role as a great cultural centre" will be kicked off next year in time for the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Jazz Festival. It consists of a big plaza which can be used for outdoor concerts across from Place des Arts, whose five concert halls and art museum are currently the core of the district. Some might say that Tremblay’s joy is an attempt to put a good face on a difficult situation, however. Plans to add a new hall dedicated to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra—talked about since Place des Arts opened in 1963—received a shock last week. A public-private partnership has seen estimated construction costs jump from $105 million to $266 million largely because the parking garage on which the hall will be built must be reinforced, Le Devoir reported.

My friend’s enthusiasm stems from some news which might also make Tremblay frown. He rents a loft in a building that is supposed to be expropriated to make way for massive redevelopment of the former industrial area down the hill and about two kilometers away from Place de Arts. Eviction notices were supposed to be sent out last month, but he and his fellow tenants have received nothing. “The developer is having trouble getting financing together,” he crowed. “Maybe it’s not going to fly after all.”

His take on the situation was partially corroborated by another story in Le Devoir saying that the city will put off sending eviction notices until September: before then Devimco, the developer, must present the city with guarantees for the $65 million needed to pay for the expropriated property. The money is there, Devimco told Le Devoir, although the newspaper notes that architects have not yet been hired either.

The development of the entertainment district—le Quartier de spéctacles—and of Griffintown are both examples of thinking big about how a city should evolve. A great deal can be said for grand plans when it comes to installations that will be used by many. Place des Arts has been a big, popular success: its plaza welcomes crowds of a couple of hundred thousand regularly for outdoor events while its halls are constantly full. Adding to that is an appropriate exercise of city leadership and resources.

Grand plans like the Griffintown one are much more questionable. If Devimco’s plans fall apart and the area is allowed to redevelop at a slower pace as it had begun to do, the city would be a lot better off.

This is a classic Baron Haussmann-Jane Jacobs confrontation, and I’ll write more about that later.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The End of the Automobile Age? Wouldn't That Be Something?

Teenagers are driving less, The New York Times says. La Presse reports that public transit use in the Montreal region is rising considerably. And, let me tell you, after a day spent in the car, I’d think a long time before I moved any place where I was dependent on the automobile only.

Not only is the price of gas skyrocketing--$1.49 a litre yesterday morning or something like $6 US a US gallon—but driving from place to place is such a drag. Yesterday was the day to stock up on all the groceries that are heavy or bulky, there were a dozen books to borrow from the McGill Library, and I’d been promising Lee to get a flat of Quebec strawberries which are at their best right now. It was very hot, traffic was snarled because of road repairs everywhere: in short it was not my best day…

The summer before I turned 16 I got my first driver’s license: because of a quickly-closed loop hole in the regulations if you took a driver’s ed course, you could get your license immediately, which is exactly what I did. Lee didn’t ask me out even though we’d been friends for months until he had a car to take me some place. When we got married he assumed at first that we’d have two cars, as his parents did.

Our kids, however, have grown up in a different world. Lukas, at 28 still doesn’t have a license, and Elin didn’t get hers until she was 26 even though she plays a cello-sized instrument and has to schlep it around all the time. There are times when I think they are a lot smarter than we were.

But we learned so I guess there’s hope for everyone.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

NDP Recruits Great Candidate for Westmount-Ville Marie By Election: CBC's Loss Is Public Policy's Gain

So it’s official: Anne Lagacé Dowson, host of CBC’s Radio Noon show in Montreal, will be running for the NDP in the Westmount-Ville Marie riding by election later this summer. This is very good news. Not only is Dowson an intelligent, charming, hard-working woman, she’s at the right place at the right time. This will be a campaign to watch, and one I’m hoping to be involved with in some small way.

Of course, there’s an irony here.

My novel The Violets of Usambara has its roots in part in my involvement in the NDP in the 1980s. At the time I was sure that the NDP could win my home riding of Outremont, and with Thomas Mulcair it did in a by election last fall. Now with another strong candidate perhaps it will be able to convince voters in a riding which is much more diverse than its name indicates to send a strong message in favour of things like peace-keeping, sensible economic policy, and the importance of strong cities in saving the planet.

But because Ms. Dowson had to take a leave of absence as soon as she told the CBC she was running, an interview she had scheduled with me last week about Violets had to be cancelled. Maybe it will be rescheduled, but maybe not. As I told my husband when Radio Noon told me about the change in plans, here’s some good news and some bad.

On balance, though, in the grand scheme of things, I should remember what Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca: “the problems of (a couple of) little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Here’s looking at you, kid! Lots of luck and bon succès, Anne.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Domestic Interlude: When Some Things Just Have to Be Done

Hot today, but a number of things have to be done. Like wash windows, a job I’ve been putting off for weeks.

One of the nice things about living in a climate with dramatically different seasons is that for a good part of the year some of the tasks that life involves disappear. There is no snow shoveling from April to October around here, and you can’t do much lawn mowing from October to May, for example. You can wash the inside of windows for part of the winter, and I find that I am driven to do so at least a couple of times when it’s warm enough so that cleaning solution won’t freeze on the panes.

The outsides are something different, thank goodness. Professional window washers make the rounds of the shops all winter long: I’m not sure what they use but it doesn’t seem to freeze quickly. At home, though, I take the cold weather as a good reason to forget about the outside. But I have had no excuse for a good long time, so I should go do something domestic before I get back to deciding what my next non-domestic project should be…

The big question is: what do use to wash them? I've always used ammonia and water, wiped off with sheets of newspaper, but the buzz is that ammonia is an environmental no-no. Vinegar and water is supposed to be good, but it clogged up my spray bottle the last time I used it. I found a number of suggestions at an answer pool site. Maybe I ought to do a comparison like the one I keep thinking I ought to do with dishers and washing dishes by hand.

No, it's too hot to think about that. To work! And then to sit under the fan.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Saturday Photo: When Walking Gets Too Much and You Need a Little Help...

The world is on holiday this month--or so it seems--and there are going to be many people over the next few days who might wish to have what this man appears to have--three feet!

Actually of course what we see is two boots and one foot, as in the famous picture by Bruegel, The Peasant Wedding.

My photo was taken in Paris, but the need for a little pedestrian aid can occur anywhere. Or any time: the painting dates from 1568.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Fireworks in San Diego, Quebec City and, perhaps, Iraq

The Fourth of July is the day when my father would be reluctantly persuaded to drive us to the edge of a cliff overlooking Mission Bay in San Diego so we could see the celebatory fireworks in the distance. He hated crowds so he would never take us to the amusement park where the pyrotechnics were set off so we could see them up close. When Montreal began to have a fireworks competition at the old Expo 67 amusement park in the middle of the St. Lawrence, I began to understand his reluctance better. We took the kids once, which meant huge crowds on the Jacques Cartier bridge which overlooks the display. Since then the fireworks have become almost routine, with regular displays in addition to the 10 summer shows.

But last night Quebec City saw the grand-daddy (or perhaps, le grandpapa) of pyrotechnic shows. Some 7500 individual items--supposedly the largest number in Canadian history--were set off from barges in the St. Lawrence while hundreds of thousands watched from the shore and the bridges. Shipping was stopped on the St. Lawrence for the first time in the summer since Quebec City was founded. And the founding of the city is of course what the celebration was all about: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Samuel de Champlain on July 3, 1608.

A lot of water has flowed down the St. Lawrence since then. Empires have risen and fallen, a fact that is good to remember during patriotic celebrations. Quebec City had been existence nearly 170 years when the Declaration of Independence was signed, while there had been great cities on the shores of the Euphrates a good 3,000 years.

What kind of fireworks will there be in Baghdad today?

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Growing Like Weeds: The Answer to Green House Gases?

My neighbor is back in the city for a few days after passing some time at her cottage in the Laurentians. Things are incredibly green, she says, and growing like…well, growing like weeds. The immense amount of snow last winter plus frequent rain in late spring have combined to make this a bumper year for all sorts of plants.

Vigorously growing plants: therein lies a partial solution to the problem of green house gases, two recent articles suggest. The first, by Freeman Dyson in The New York Review of Books, notes that carbon in the atmosphere decreases during the growing season in the northern hemisphere. After discussing two new books dealing with global warming—one which argues that the long turn costs of doing nothing will equal the costs of several possible solutions—Dyson suggests that trees bred or genetically modified to take up carbon rapidly might effectively counteract what we’ve been doing to the atmosphere.

Then Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a fascinating article about weeds by Tom Christopher, “Can Weeds Help Solve the Climate Crisis?” The scenario is pretty gloomy, looked at one way, because it appears that many weeds grow more vigorously as the carbon dioxide content of the air increases. Christopher says that kudzu is moving north and taking over more forests; ailanthus trees next to a major highway grow 20 feet in five years compared to five feet in the mountains; and if you make things tougher, the fittest weeds will thrive.

But this can be worked to our advantage. Specifically Christopher quotes weed expert Lewis Ziska arguing that kudzu roots could be a good source of ethanol, while the vines could be burned. But there are other possibilities. Christopher writes: “If we are to avoid disaster, experts agree, we will need to be tenacious but flexible, ready to identify and exploit any opportunity in what will be a challenging, even hostile situation. In this new world that we have made, weeds, our old adversaries, could be not only tools but mentors.”

One way to look at human history is continual destruction of forests. The Indian epic Rig Veda talks of a great forest which extended from the Indus to the Ganges; the Cedars of Lebanon were chopped down in part to build Babylon; Julius Caesar’s Europe was covered with forest; and the island of Madeira got its name because of its trees, which burned in a forest fire which lasted seven years in the 1420s. The deforestation of North America followed, and we now seem intent of finishing the job in Amazonia, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

So there certainly is room for reforestation. Would doing this mean developing Dyson’s super trees? Or could we rely on weed trees to do the job? I have no idea, but it is time that some serious research was done on the subject.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

African Solutions for African Problems: Good News from Burundi, Bad News from Zimbabwe

Ten days before Robert Mugabe “won” the presidential election in Zimbabwe, the last remaining rebel leader in Burundi announced the end of their struggle against a government of reconciliation. According the United Nations information service IRIN, Agathon Rwasa, marked the formal start of the cantonment of his fighters at a special ceremony.

"Through this pre-cantonment process we want to show the Burundian and international community that we are committed to reaching a lasting peace," Rwasa said as 150 combatants from his Palipehutu-Forces nationales de libération (FNL) assembled at Rugazi.

This is good news: the slow march toward peace in Rwanda’s non-identical twin has been going on for nearly a decade. That was when African nations set in place an embargo against Burundi in an attempt to bring the warring Tutsi and Hutu factions to the negotiation table. Nelson Mandela played a decisive role in those discussions, which led to relatively free elections and the implementation of a government of reconciliation three years ago.

African Union leaders meeting this week have not come down with similar sanctions against Zimbabwe. Unlike Mandela, whose continual efforts to bring democracy and peace to his part of the world were so important in Burundi, South Africa’s current president Thabo Mbeki has dragged his feet. According to the Christian Science Monitor, this is nothing new with Mbeki.

The long, but ultimately successful struggle in Burundi is evidence of how Africans can solve their own problems when they act in concert and when their men of principle are listened to. Mandela, whose 90th birthday was exhuberantly celebrated in London last week too, should serve as an example to his succesors.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Moving Day and Staying Put in Montreal: July 1 in All Its Splendour

Today is Canada Day, and also Moving Day in Montreal. For most of the country it’s the holiday which celebrates the founding of the nation in 1867. There will be some festivities here too, but the biggest activity will be moving.

About 60 per cent of Montreal households are renters, a proportion which is decreasing with the increased availability of condos. Still, the fact that the standard lease expires July 1 means that thousands of people move on or around that day. Our family is touched this year. The reason we took Elin to CAMMAC on Sunday was because Emmanuel is deeply involved in boxing his marvelous stuff in preparation for their move into a large duplex next Sunday. Today Lukas and Sophie are helping a friend move, and for the last week or so Lee has been clearing out his office at McGill.

That last move is involving getting rid of many things. He’s been in the same office for 38 or 39 years, and the wall hanging—an interesting piece of fabric I found for him years ago—has not been washed since Lukas was born, I’m pretty sure. We brought two car-loads of books and papers home last week, but there’s still another load which we’ll pick up sometime in the next few days. His project for today is to do more work on the bookcase extensions required for all the stuff he thinks he’ll still want to have around. Of course, all this is a way of saying that July 1 has another meaning for us this year: after 40 years at McGill, he’s officially retired as of today. For a job that he took on a three year contract back in 1968, it turned out pretty well.