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...

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Another Election Day, Another Election in Prospect: Democracy Can Be Tiring

Election day in the US, so there won't be much of a post. Being dual citizens, we've already voted absentee. Now I'll make some more phone calls for Obama.

And tomorrow Jean Charest is supposed to call a provincial election! That makes non-step campaigns for me since mid-August when Anne Lagacé Dowson became the NDP candidate in a by election. Seems like a long time ago.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Azores: Islands in the Atlantic Discovered Long Before Columbus

I spent much of the weekend reading about 15th century Portugal, as I begin work on the next non-fiction project which will be about Portugal and its legacy around the world. One of the things I was looking for was information about when the Azores were first discovered by Europeans. It seems they show up on an Italian portalan or map fragment in the 14th century, and certainly it’s clear the uninhabitated islands were colonized in the 1430s under the grand exploration promoted by Henry the Navigator. Santa Maria was the place where Christopher Columbus stopped on his way back in 1493 because he’d vowed he’d have a mass said at the first church he came to.

When I was working on The Violets of Usambara I had the chance to visit São Miguel and Santa Maria: two of the main characters in the book are immigrants from São Miguel and I wanted to see what the island was like. A beautiful place! Here are a couple of pictures from that trip.

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

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Saturday Photo: Grasses in Fall

One of the nice things about using various ornamental grasses in planting is the way they withstand the first cold. I took this picture 10 days ago, and even though frost had touched the begonias growing around the bed in which the grass was growing, the tall fronds looked beautiful. Since then the city's gardeners have dug up the plants, but elsewhere grasses are still standing tall.

Having said that, I'm preparing to go out and cut back the tall native plants I have growing in my Darwinian front garden (you know, what is fittest survives.) The maple leaves must be raked up to cut down on tar spot contagion for next year, and to do that I have to get down to the ground. Too bad the tall stocks of asters and Joe Pye weed must go, but that's the way the seasons pass, I guess.