Saturday, 30 August 2008

Saturday Photo: Walking to Work in the Walkable City

Thursday 'round midnight Simon Dardick at Véhicule Press sent off the final files to the printer for my new book The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs' Streets and Beyond.

The days before had been pretty crazy as we sent corrections back and forth. One of the things that we debated to the last was the picture for the frontispiece. Simon said he wanted something that reflected the spirit of the book, which looks at Paris, New York, Toronto and several other places to discover how cities are walkable or not and what that means for the future of the planet.

The photo on the right is what he decided was the best, and the more I think about it, the better I like it. I took it a week ago on a lovely morning when Montreal and Montrealers were beginning to come back from summer vacation. The young couple were headed downtown from Mile End, walking hand and hand in the future. A good image for a book that hopes to have some small impact on how we live in and develop our cities.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Snap! The Sound of Radio Two Being Turned Off All over the Country

Snap! That will be the sound of radios turning off all over Canada on Tuesday when Radio Two hits new lows with its new programming. The Globe and Mail had an interview yesterday with the dude who will be host in the going home slot on Tuesday. It sounds like nothing I want--or ever wanted even when I was much younger--to hear at that time of day.

Today we'll all get a chance to hear Jorgen Gothe's last show. I'll listen with considerable sadness. It's hard to think that when he started he took the service in a new direction with a wacky mix of the best of classical music, jazz and eclectic Canadian stuff. He did it with a certain buffoonery, to be sure, but he never underestimated the intelligence of his listeners. The new guy told the Globe that his play list will reflect what is likely to be on the CD racks of the 30- and 40-somethings. In other words, the show will offer this group their same-old same-old without giving them or other sorts of listeners music that expands horizons.

What a bloody shame!

Wine, Local Fruit, and Mangos: Carbon Footprint News

Shipping a bottle of wine from Bordeaux to New York results in l.8 kilograms of CO2 emissions, while shipping the same size bottle from Napa, California, produces 2.6 kilograms, according to a The Globe and Mail story last week. It had a nifty little map showing a “green line” snaking from the eastern edge of the Texas-Mexico border through the states of the Old Confederacy to Chicago: on one side the American wine trucked from California was “greener” while on the other, the French wine, shipped by sea, was.

The story went on to detail how winemakers are experimenting with lighter bottles in order to cut down on shipping costs and carbon emissions. Fine initiatives, I’m sure, and fuel for Lee’s infatuation with French and Italian wines. It also is welcome news for me. Mangos are something I’ve discovered in recent years, but I’ve been feeling guilty about eating them. They must be harvested when nearly ripe which I thought meant they had to be air freighted long distances. But Mangos from Mexico can be trucked here, while it seems that the thicker skinned varieties can be shipped by sea.

Even those, of course, have a bigger carbon footprint than Quebec strawberries and Ontario peaches, and there is no reason not to enjoy them now when they are so good. The pears in the back yard—I picked another lot this morning, and ended up putting a lot of windfall in the trash because the compost heap can’t handle what I have—are even more ecologically sound. But I guess I can permit myself a mango now and then when there is little local fruit.

As for Quebec wines--well, so far they aren't as good as ones from the Niagara peninsula (where the peaches come from) but the Orpailleur white is nice and refreshing.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Forrest Gump, the Holy Fool and the 2008 Presidential Race

The movie Forrest Gump was an immense success when it was released in 1994. At the time I thought that success was very troubling. The hero is a latter-day Holy Fool, a stupid but good man whose choices are always right. The message was: a sub-ordinary person is a whole lot better than anyone else.

Now, I believe in democracy and the equality of citizens and I have great respect for the wisdom of ordinary folk. But the idea that being extraordinary some how is suspect is an anathema to me, and a great danger to society. At the time that Forrest Gump came out, Bill Clinton was playing the Good Old Boy which we now know was all smoke and mirrors. What was good about the man was his extraordinary qualities--his intelligence, his understanding of what the country and the world needed, and his skill in convincing others that a civil society was not only possible but essential.

At the moment two extraordinary men are confronting each other in the race for the White House. John McCain, the son of an admiral who grew up in the sheltered and privileged atmosphere of the officer class, was a war hero. No one should pretend that there is anything ordinary about him, particularly not after he let it be known he doesn't know how many houses he has.

Barack Obama, whom McCain recently tried to humble by claiming he was a "celebrity," is even more extraordinary. The very fact that he is a person of colour sets him apart, and his success should make him a model for others who come from humble backgrounds. The idea that this record should disqualify him from the presidency is appalling and plays to the worst, know-nothing strain of American politics. It is almost as if McCain's campaign managers were intending a sub-text: Obama is "uppity" with all that connotates. But what the US needs now--what the world needs now--is a man of quality, and Barack Obama is the one.

When it comes to good instincts, no one could fault Forrest Gump, to be sure. And I don't think you can do that to Obama either. Perhaps I should be encouraged by the interesting resemblance between Tom Hanks as Gump and the younger Obama: if there's anything in an honest, principled face, they both have it.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

An Audio Book for the Campaign Trail and Superb Short Stories: What Stephen Harper Has to Read

Yann Martel’s latest gifts to Prime Minister Stephen Harper are particularly appropriate, it seems to me. The two books he’s sent so far in August—Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor and Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas—are not only good reads, Martel has packed a political message with each.

The Thomas work was sent first, and Martel—who’s been sending a book every two weeks for more than a year in order to provide some good bedtime reading for the PM—apologizes for it being a little late. He’d ordered an audio book version because he thought that Harper would enjoy that more, since it seems he’ll soon be on the campaign trail. Unfortunately, though, it took longer than anticipated to arrive so Martel’s self-imposed two week rhythm was delayed. But the work is worth waiting for, Martel writes in the accompanying letter:

“The lyricism of the language rests solidly on Dylan Thomas’s gut knowledge that life is good, however bad it may be at times. It is said that Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood in reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I doubt that’s factually true. It sounds too conveniently perfect. But opposing a radiant symphonic poem against the darkness of a mass killing of civilians does hark to a spiritual truth: that beauty can be a road back to goodness.”

Words to remember when considering foreign policy, certainly.

The second August book is a used paperback book, still sturdy, although held together by tape along the spine. “if you take good care of this book, in a few years, because it is a first paperback printing, it will go up in value,” Martel writes. “That undiminishing richness is of course due to a paperback’s inner wealth, all those little black markings. They inhabit a book the way a soul inhabits a body. Books, like people, can’t be reduced to the cost of the materials with which they were made. Books, like people, become unique and precious once you get to know them.”

And that leads him to a very polite protest about the recent cuts in arts funding which Harper’s government brought down this summer, particularly the $4.7 million PromArt program which helped Canadian artists and writers take their work abroad. “(T)o cut an international arts promotion program is to vow our country to cultural anonymity. It means foreigners will have no impressions of Canada, and so no affection. The PromArt program is a vital part of our foreign policy…The value-added worth of this modest program is akin to, well, to the value-added worth of a paperback.”

Martel’s received no response from the PM, which is not a surprise. Only his first offering got a form letter thank you from the PM’s office. What a shame! œ

Monday, 25 August 2008

Breast Cancer: Fear Campaigns Can Be Counter-productive

The Gazette story on Saturday was “heart warming.” It chronicled the struggle of a 40 year old woman against breast cancer. The message was: she was brave, and a fighter but the disease her killed so we should all go out and raise money for cancer research.

The story was a lead up to a fundraising march last Saturday, which apparently came up with $6 million. The march went by our house, and I had distinctly mixed emotions about it. First of all, while marchers are fine on a residential street, it is no place for honking support vehicles. The organizers showed a disregard for the neighborhoods they sent their walkers through which I find very annoying.

More seriously, however, are objections to the whole approach the cancer lobby uses. They insist: one in nine Canadian women will get breast cancer, and breast cancer kills. That is frightening and unfortunately dissuades many women from getting mammograms.

But the truth is that cancer survival rates are rising and early diagnosis leads to almost complete recovery. I know: just two years ago I was completing five weeks of radiation following excision of suspect tissue, a ductal carcinoma in situ. When I campaigned among my friends and acquaintances for all women over 50 to get mammograms regularly I was appalled at the magical thinking many expressed. What I don’t know won’t hurt me, was the attitude of far too many otherwise intelligent women. They were in effect paralyzed by fear of cancer.

More research into breast cancer is necessary, but campaigns which emphasize the importance of mammograms and the curability of breast cancer are more pressing. They don't have the bling of ladies marching along together decked out in pink, but they'll save more lives.

And please don’t honk your horn in front of my house. I've already paid my dues.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Saturday Photo: A Little Peace from Chartres

It's been a very busy week and I have need for a little peace. So here's picture that I took at Chartres this spring.


Friday, 22 August 2008

Banning Plastic Bottles and the Chinese Solution: Cleaner Water to Drink and Cleaner Oceans in the End

When I was in Shanghai in 2005 one of the things that most impressed me was the way everyone walked or biked round with a steel vacuum bottle filled with boiling hot water. In my hotel room there was a much larger one, filled in the morning and in which the water remained scalding for 24 hours, and a smaller one which I finally figured you were supposed to pour water that you wanted to cool off. The principle was simple: in a place where water supplies are not completely secure, making sure the water people drink is hot enough to kill microbes is basic public health.

I traveled to India that year too, but there carrying one's own boiling water supply was rare. Instead anyone with the money bought bottled water when away from a source they knew secure. I remember two beautiful, blonde Swedish girls who were working hard at learning Malayalam in Kerala State but who resorted to shouts of "Aquafina" when buying water through open train windows.

London, Ontario has just banned the sale of bottled water on public premises, Toronto is talking about doing the same, and this morning's Le Devoir has a story about how only 44 per cent of Quebec's billion plastic bottles will be recycled this year. The cordillera of "disposable" water containers is a tremendous problem, indeed.

Putting aside the question of why North Americans need to have a bottle of water with them constantly--Adrienne asks if we weren't weaned properly--it is clear there's a great need to switch to other ways to carry around our water. Reusable plastic containers have been around for a long time: we've got some we still use which we bought in the 1970s when we were camping a lot. The Chinese option of containers to carry boiling water makes a lot of sense where the quality of water is uneven.

But as I write that I ask myself: what's it like in China now? Have Pepsico (Acquafina's parent company) and other beverage manufacturers worked a sea change there too?

A sea change. Unfortunately as we know billions and billions of plastic bottles and bags end up in the oceans every year, and they are not biodegraded, but will continue to float around for centuries. That's the kind of sea change we've wrought over the last three decades which will have terrible consequences for other forms of life on this planet.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Home Stretch: Taking the Final Pictures for The Walkable City

Late post today: Simon Dardick at Véhicule sent me the proofs for The Walkable City last night along with some suggestions for a couple of photos that would complement the text. So I set out this morning to catch Montrealers walking to work, as in the photo to the right. What a pleasure to walk down Park Avenue, enjoying the sun and the scenery! Much better than being stuck in a car.

Of course, it's a bit hard to get back to work after Adrienne and John's departure. They joined us in Paris two years ago, and many of the walks we took then show up in The Walkable City as it stands now. Needless to say while they were Montreal we did a lot of walking too. Great fun!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Ugly Women to Beauty Disadvantaged Ones: Is This Progress or Human Nature?

Australian--and other--women are up in arms because the mayor of a small Outback town has invited "beauty disadvantaged women" to come to his town to find happiness because men there far outnumber women.

"May I suggest if there are five blokes to every girl, we should find out where there are (such) women and ask them to proceed to Mount Isa," John Molony was quoted in the Townsville Bulletin as saying.

Makes me think of the old song from the 1960s by Jimmy Soul:

"If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life
Never make a pretty woman your wife
So for my personal point of view
Get an ugly girl to marry you,"
At the time the song didn't stir as much controversy, but the message was quite clear. Don't know if the outcry is progress, although I suspect there is still some truth to it, alas!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Sad Day in Quebec Health Care: Former Minister Joins Private Health Investment Fund

Former Quebec Health Ministe Philippe Couillard has just announced he will join a private investment fund where he will advise on where to invest in health care. He resigned a couple of months ago, and at the time it was said a major reason was to provide money for the further education of his young family.

Couillard, a brilliant surgeon who left the active practice of medecine to enter politics specially so he could improve public health care, was, in the main, a defender of universal, free public health care. That political life doesn't make you any money if you're honest is a well known fact. How sad, though, that he seems poised to take part in the further privatization of the health system. And how ironic that the education system is already such a two tiered affair that man with aspirations for his kids feels he can't put them in public school or send them to a Canadian university.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Fermenting Pears, Not Poire William, Unfortunately.

Short post today because our friends John and Adrienne from San Francisco are visiting. But last night as we were sitting outside, enjoying the best evening of the summer, the down side of a bumper crop of pears became apparent. The breeze gently wafted the smell of fermenting pears from the compost heap. Would much rather the windfall or squirrel-nibbled pears turn into Poire William than compost-liquor!

Now we're off to play with our friends.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Saturday Photo: More Pears Than the Squirrels Can Eat

For whatever reason--lots of rain, good pollination, sheer luck--the pear crop on our two center-city pear trees this year is stupendous. Usually the squirrels get all, but there are too many for them even. Unfortunately the quality isn't all that great, but I've made pear chutney and last night we put them in a big fruit salad where they went well with the other fruits.

And just to show how much things can change in a few months: here's the backyard with the pear trees in January.

Friday, 15 August 2008

The First and the Last: An Art Show and Doris Lessing's Novels

One of the things we did last weekend was take in a fascinating exhibition of engravings done by artists associated with Atelier Circulaire. Called La première et la dernière, it features early and recent work by about 35 artists. Some of the pairs show a great difference in theme or technique but other demonstrate a continued interest in ideas that have evolved over time.

I've thought of the contrasts that the exhibit presented a lot these last few days as I try to make headway in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. It is the first book scheduled for two of the book groups I lead (September 8 in English at the Pierrefonds Library and September 9 in French at the Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa in Outremont) Although I read it years ago, I have found re-reading it quite a new experience. Not only had I forgotten much of it, I have been struck by how much it resembles Lessing’s most recent novel, The Sweetest Dream,(published in 2001) which I read last winter. Fifty years ago she was concerned about the same things—the fate of Africa, the betrayal of idealism in the Communist Party, the difficulty faced by women trying to raise children on their own, in particular. Much of the more recent book I found annoying, and I’m afraid I’m losing patience with the characters in the older book. I’m just about to declare that her best work was the stories from her youth in Africa, The Grass Is Singing (1949) and the Martha Quest books (1952-59.) What a dismal thought that would be!

But it may also say something about early success. For a writer or composer to be wildly acclaimed in his or her 30s (and Lessing was just 30 when The Grass Is Singing became a best seller) usually means being cut off from ordinary life, and a narrowing rather than a widening of experience. The quasi-science fiction that Lessing wrote in the 1970s and 1980s can be seen as an attempt to escape that constraint. Her last novel--as well as her memoirs--show that first and last she has the same preoccuptions, however.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Telling It Like It Is: A Call for Truth in the US Presidential Campaign--and a Little Unity among the Democrats

An interesting pair of columns in The New York Times on Wednesday: Maureen Dowd on how Hillary and Bill Clinton are getting ready to sabotage the Democratic convention and Barack Obama’s campaign, and Thomas Friedman on how John McCain has now voted eight times, in effect, against alternate energy tax credits. Add the cover story about a book which is aimed squarely at taking down Obama (whose name I won’t mention so as not to give it any more promotion than necessary,) and the political situation in the US looks worse and worse.

We are now slightly less than three months before the US presidential election, and the world is threatening to veer even more crazily out of control. Supposedly this is the time when men and women come together to celebrate healthy competition through sport, but what are we getting? The US and the Russians sparring now in a way that sends chills down my spine, child of the Cold War that I am.

Barack Obama must be elected with a large majority in the House and the Senate, for the sake of the world, not to mention the health of Americans. If Bill Clinton were a real statesman and Hillary Clinton, the kind of role model every mother hopes for her daughters, they would swallow their pride and rally round Obama enthusiastically. Obama’s team must not let McCain and company get away with the kind of smear tactics they have already begun. His camp must parry and thrust like the best fencers now strutting their stuff in Beijing. And the American people should show the same disgust at McCain’s chicanery that they seem to feel for the tweaking of the Olympic opening ceremony.

Friedman was talking about the need for straight talk and clear action on renewable energy in his column, but what he says is equally applicable to the campaign in general:

“That is what this election should be focusing on. Everything else is just bogus rhetoric designed by cynical candidates who think Americans are so stupid — so bloody stupid — that if you just show them wind turbines in your Olympics ad they’ll actually think you showed up and voted for such renewable power — when you didn’t.”

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Are the Conservatives Afraid of Culture? Cuts to International Promotional Programs Cause Outcry

When we were in Paris in May, the Métro was full of big ads for Les Grands ballets canadiens who were scheduled to perform between July 19 and August 9 as part of Les étés de la danse festival there. It would seem the visit was a grand success with the company from Montreal playing to sold out crowds and laudatory articles in France and elsewhere.

The tour was sponsored in part by the Canadian Federal government through its programs to promote Canadian culture abroad—programs which have just been cut. Cancelled were both the $4.7 million PromArt program which helped writers, artists, musicians and other members of Canada’s cultural industry, and the $9 million Trade Routes, which partially financed trips by publishers, agents and others involved in cultural promotion.

The out cry from the arts community has been vocal. As a press release from the Writers’ Union of Canada says: “these cuts are not simply fiscal in nature, as the Foreign Affairs department would have us believe, since studies have shown that every dollar invested in Canadian culture brings $10 into the Canadian economy; taxes alone replenish DFAIT's original investment... (The programs are) an investment that realizes huge returns to federal and provincial coffers.”

Quebec’s Minister of Culture and Communications Christine St-Pierre returned early from her vacation, shocked by the cuts. She told Le Devoir that she would requests a meeting with the federal minister invovled, Joséee Verner, and will contact the culture ministes of other provinces. “Our artists are our best ambassadors,” she said.

The Writers’ Union is encouraging its members and arts’ supporters to protest by writing letters. Here are the addresses of the federal officials concerned.

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada

The Honourable David Emerson, Minister of Foreign Affairs:

The Honourable Josée Verner, Minister of Heritage, Status of Women and Official Languages

Hon. James Flaherty, Minster of Finance

Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Kevin Sorenson, Chair, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International

Bob Ray, Foreign Affairs Critic, Liberal Party

Francine Lalonde, Foreign Affairs Critic, Bloc Quebecois

Alexa McDonough, Foreign Affairs Critic, NDP

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Layton and Lagacé-Dowson Call for $591 Million over Four Years for Public Transport in Montreal

The by-election campaign in Westmount Ville Marie is heating up, with NDP leader Jack Layton calling for the federal government to invest $591 million over the next four years in public transport in the Montreal region. The equivalent of almost 1400 new buses or 267 new subway cars, the investment, Layton argued, would go further toward solving problems of green house gas emissions and petroleum dependence than the recent carbon tax plan announced by Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. .

The transit investment is great good sense, and the kind of thing that Anne Lagacé Dowson , the NDP candidate in Westmount Ville Marie, is championing vigorously as she campaigns. I’ve begun telephone for her—a pleasure, she is the sort of principled intelligent person we need as members of parliament—and I was delighted at the response. One woman, whom I know slightly, told me that she usually votes Liberal but will make the switch this time.

Terrific! It is time to send an unequivocal message that things he got to change, and that the Liberals, who may think that Westmount Ville Marie is a safe riding, have got to be more aggressive on environmental and other issues.

If not, the government should fall, the sooner the better.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Fun and Games in Montreal: Festivals and walks along the Lachine Canal

Great weekend: our friend Betty Lou from Berkeley was visiting which was a great excuse to do some site seeing. We took in the festival of Nossa Senhora do monte, at the Portgueuse church, Santa Cruz Saturday night. Then on Sunday we walked the Lachine canal. Great weekend! No time or energy for more than a short post, however

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Saturday Photo: Two Faces of China, Shanghai View

The media are full of images from Beijing and the rest of China right now, so it's time for me to trot out two pictures I took in Shanghai when I was there working on Green City. The peaceful piper is a sculpture in Jing'an Park just off West Nanjng Road in the center of the city. Early in the morning it was full of people exercising, and during the day many others used it for resting, reading and other sorts of recreation. This appreciation of what nature is available was both touching and encouraging.

But not far away was another feature of China today: constructions sites where traiditonal low rise housing was being razed to make way for sky scrapers. Who knows that this massive rebuilding of Chinese cities is going to do to the peple?

Friday, 8 August 2008

Warning from Krugman: Republican Message Is "Real Men Don't Think Things Through"

Take time from the Olympic hype to read Paul Krugman today:

To give you a taste:

"...the debate on energy policy has helped me find the words for something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Republicans, once hailed as the “party of ideas,” have become the party of stupid.

Now, I don’t mean that G.O.P. politicians are, on average, any dumber than their Democratic counterparts. And I certainly don’t mean to question the often frightening smarts of Republican political operatives.

What I mean, instead, is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”'

Playing Memory Games as the Olympics Begin: China Isn't the First Host Country with a Spotty Record

Things to remember as the Olympics begin in Beijing and the Western world protests human rights violations:

Hundreds of people—mostly student protesters—were killed in Mexico City shortly before the 1968 games began. The city had been scene to massive anti-government demonstrations and the regime in power wanted to show a less-troubled face to the world.

The week before the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Mayor Jean Drapeau ordered the demolition of a big open air art show, Corridart: Dans la rue Sherbrooke. The 5.5 kilometer display of cutting edge Canadian art apparently offended the mayor’s sensibilities.

China is the most populous country in the world, with enormous economic potential. There is little doubt that it has a long history of despotic governments of one sort or another. But come on, who has clean hands? The fact that China is becoming the number one economic rival of the US and the EU should not be forgotten when listening to the rhetoric surrounding China's (quite real, and not to be condoned) human rights violations.

Don't forget Tibet , but who was raising a ruckus about Spain's attitude toward the Basque country during the Barcelona games--or about the uneasy relation between Spain and Catalonia itself?

And just for the record, during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the British equestrian team brought gas masks for their horses because of the Los Angeles smog.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Permeable Pavement and Proliferating Plants: Fighting Floods, City Heat and Mitigating Climate Change All at Once

Much talk here these days about soil absorption, drainage and run off from pavement. The rain keeps falling, and flooding continues in many areas. Part of this is due to unusually high rainfall this summer, following a winter of heavy snow which means that the soil is saturated. But part of the problem comes from increased building and paving over of areas which formerly slowly absorbed rainwater.

Just last week the city of Montreal announced plans to encourage the greening of asphalted areas in order to cut down on creating heat islands in the city. This same sort of effort can reduce excessive run-off, it seems. Trees and shrubs not only soak up rain water, their leaves slow the speed with which rain reaches the soil, decreasing the chance of flash flooding. Similarly green roofs can use and/or retain rainwater, reducing run off.

My mother always said that building a house on a swamp didn’t make the swamp any less a swamp, and I agree that people and developers who knowingly build in floodable and landslide-prone areas don’t deserve much sympathy. Similarly, we should recognize that what we’ve been doing to the planet will have effects on the climate and weather patterns. Straightening this out will take society-wide, world-embracing action. But there are also many smaller things that we ought to do to counter act what we’ve done.

Replacing asphalt paving with interlocked bricks is one since water can seep between the blocks to be absorbed slowly. (Click here for more information.) More planting everywhere is also surely on the agenda. Maintaining trees and other greener is not a frill but something that all citizens and governments should do. It all is just another example of the need to think globally and act locally.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Bel Canto and The Soloist: Good Novels about Music and Its Power--and a Ray of Hope for Writers Everywhere

I’m trying to get started on another work of fiction, now The Violets of Usambara is safely published. It’s likely to include some musicians as characters and so I’ve been combining work and pleasure this summer by reading novels where music is a major element. Two of the best so far are Mark Salzman’s The Soloist and Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto

The latter I particularly liked, because it evokes just how music can move people with an adventure story which gives a most interesting look at an unnamed South American country that bears a startling resemblance to Peru.

Bel Canto was a resounding critical and popular success, but Patchett makes clear that finding an audience for her work was not something that she did overnight. In a fascinating article in The Atlantic, she writes about selling her books through appearances in books stores, sometimes when the only people listening to her read were the store’s employees.

I know what she means: there have been many times when, as Canadian writer Merilyn Simonds puts it, I knew the middle name of everyone at the reading. How encouraging it is to read about Patchett”s long--but ultimately successful--struggle to connect with readers.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Climate Change Report Delayed, While the Rain Continues to Fall

Late afternoon Thursday, July 24, and the Canadian government releases a troubling report on what climate change will do to the health of Canadians. There is some coverage on Friday—The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail have stories, so do the television networks—but there are no questions about it in the House of Commons, of course, because the Parliament is not sitting. Nor, is there much comment or action from environmental groups or editorial writers. It is, after, all the middle of the summer, during the construction holiday in Quebec, and running up to the week before a long weekend in the rest of Canada when many people take time off.

Sataurday, August 2 torrential rains fall all across Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Elin and Emmanuel's street on the east end of Montreal island is flooded when 33 mm (more than two inches) fall in ten minutes--it's only the second time in 27 years that there's been a problem, says their landlord. Inondations sweep across Gaspé, New Brunswick, and up to the North Shore of the St. Lawrence.

This morning Le Devoir reports that climate change and health experts charge that the report was ready last spring, and say that it was deliberately withheld until the summer doldrums to avoid comment. This is nothing new with the current Conservative government: holding off until the worst possible moment to release news it doesn’t want out has become the way it operates. The tactic is a corollary to the way it has spent much of the summer trotting its MPs around the country to rural fairs and urban festivals in order to make announcements of every little bit of money that has been allotted—no matter that frequently the announcement was already made months before.

It would be nice to think Stephen Harper and his gang won’t get away with it, that people will connect the dots and see just how disastrous this government is. That would be the silver lining to the rain clouds which have covered this part of the world so much this summer, and which several meterologist attribute to changes in weather patterns.

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Walkable City: Corrections to Do As the Pub Date Approaches

Got the editorial corrections for The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond on the weekend. Rather nice to see that the editor hasn’t proposed any major changes—at least so far. I’m into the fourth chapter, however, and even though Simon Dardick, the publisher, has said both he and the editor like the book a lot, it’s possible that I may find some contentious suggestions ahead. You never know…

We’re shooting for a mid-September publication date which means that things have got to proceed quickly. So today is going to be devoted to working on the manuscript. Don’t even think I’ll have time to pick the pears which should be ripe momentarily. The squirrels are munching them off the trees but the five I picked yesterday still were not quite at the point they should be picked.

But it’s time to get to work on something intellectual!

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Saturday Photo: Flowers and Music Make a Perfect Match

Not far from St. Lawrence Boulevard, the street along which immigrants settled for half a century, I came across this flowering piano. It sits next to Montréal Piano, where Louis Lovsin and his family have been tuning and restoring pianos since 1969. (See its website for great archival photos and more of its history.)

The Lovsins also obviously have a good sense of humour, as this original flower arrangement attests. The sapling growing underneath the keyboard also shows just how determined to grow plants are. (See yesterday's post for more on the force through which the green fuse drives the flower.)

Friday, 1 August 2008

Cormac McCarthy's The Road II: What Is Missing Is the Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower

In this summer of luxuriant growth, I find myself thinking again of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is not clear in the story how long has passed since the grand cataclysm which has swept away civilization and normal life. We are told that it occurred before the boy at the center of the story was born, and he is clearly 8 or 9 as he and his father trudge across a moonlike landscape, past smoldering forest fires to the lifeless sea. The sole rays of hope in the story are the tender way his father guards him, and the family which welcomes him at the end.

McCarthy apparently lives in the America Southwest now, and I suspect that dry landscape has strongly influenced his vision of what would lie beyond the end of the world. Nothing grows in The Road except for a few mushrooms, and evil in the heart of the cataclysm’s survivors. Despite rain and snow, the man and the boy encounter no signs of new greenery, no sprigs of grass, not even a blasted, genetically damaged lichen. Yet if anything is clear from a study of disaster sites around the world, it is that life will continue, although it may not be life as we know it or desire it.

Plants are thriving this summer here, pushing up through cracks in pavement, taking root on roofs that haven’t been regularly maintained, growing tall in any unused lot. Given enough water and a period of warmth, plants of some kind or another are unstoppable.. The fields and forests around Chernobyl bear witness to this force that through the green fuse drives the flower, as Dylan Thomas put it. So does the volcanic landscape of Mt. St. Helens in Oregon. Within five years the scree and ash had been colonized by the first plant invaders on the mountain sides scorched by a great eruption in 1980.

In the dry Southwest reconstruction of landscape after disaster takes longer, but it still takes place. McCarthy makes no nod toward that fact. Instead his story is a black and white version of what may happen in the hearts of men. The “happy” ending is contrived, tacked on the way the rescue scene at the end of The Lord of the Flies is. If McCarthy had intended to leave us with a glimmer of hope, he would have done better to show us the power of green growth.