Saturday 28 February 2009

Saturday Photo: Getting Two for One in Montreal's Jardin botanique

Last week's Saturday Photo was Brother Marie-Victorin, the founder of Montreal's Jardin botanique, under the snow. This week two features of the garden are featured, which shows what you can get when you plan well.

The construction of the garden proceeded quickly once men with shovels were hired through make-work programs in the mid-1930s. One of the features that had long been planned was a large pond, and rather than haul away the dirt and stones they were moved a few hundred meters to the south to make a hill. The result is a most natural-looking mini-lake and a miniature mountain garden that is like a trip to the high country in the middle of the city.

The garden is a pleasure in all seasons, and an example of what can be accomplished when clever minds are put to work.

Note: These photos were taken several summers ago when I was working on my book Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens which has a chapter about the Jardin botanique.

Friday 27 February 2009

Ian McEwan and Story-Telling: When Holding Back Informaion Leads You on

The New Yorker this week has a fascinating—if a little long—profile of British writer Ian McEwan. We learn he’s a great walker, a man who has become increasingly fascinated by science as he has grown older, a person with lower middle class roots who rose in a meritocracy.

We also learn a great writing lesson from this master story teller: “Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information.”

Yes: so simply stated, but so very true. As I struggle with my next fiction project, that aperçu seems extremely helpful. It is not what happens in a story, after all, but how you tell it. The difference between one-damn-thing-after-another and a work of art is the way the writer first makes us care what happens and then leads us along so we discover the story.

At the moment I don’t know how I’m going to tell River Music, which has as main characters three generations of women—a pianist, an engineer and a harpsichordist. The current tactic is to write three story lines and then figure out how to interweave them later. I've written quite a bit about the pianist, who is the mother and grandmother of the other two and who was born in 1928. I've also blocked out a meeting between her and her grandaughter in December 2009. Aside from that I don't know where all this is going. But apparently neither does McEwan when he starts out.

And that's a bit of helpful--and encouraging--information too.

Thursday 26 February 2009

Song from Burundi, But No Bilateral Aid to Rwanda

Something to make you sing from Burundi, while Canada cuts its aid to the country’s non-identical twin, Rwanda.

On Monday the Harper government announced that it will be “retargetting” foreign aid to 20 instead of 25 countries or regions. Under a system set in place by the last Liberal government, 14 African countries received bilateral aid, but now only seven will. Malawi, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Zambia, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin are off the list as well as Rwanda.

Government spokespersons say the total amount of bilateral aid won’t decrease, but it will just be focused more on countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Yup, and weren’t Canadians so proud when the one person who came out of the horrible Rwandan genocide with his head held high was a Canadian, Roméo Dallaire? I thought we were here for the long term.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

ERDC a Year Later: Still Waiting While Watching CanWest Wrestle With Debt

A year ago this week friends of the Electronic Rights Defence Committee—myself included--were having our day(s) in court. At issue was whether the group, which claims that The Gazette stole work done by freelance writers for use in data bases and on websites, will be able to undertake a class action in order to be compensated for unauthorized electronic use of our work.

We had hoped we’d hear after six months or so whether we could proceed to the next step, but 12 months later there still is no news. Apparently it isn’t good form to nudge the judge, either, so we’re sitting here, biting our nails, waiting for a verdict.

But even if the judge does give us permission to proceed, the news is not looking rosy. CanWest is one of the defendants in the ERDC case, and as anybody who reads the financial pages knows, there’s talk of the media giant going bankrupt. The culprit, analysts say, in part is the recession which is cutting revenues for the corporation since much less advertising is being sold. But CanWest also is carrying a huge debt load at the moment, the result of some expensive acquisitions in the last few years. 1

While there is much speculation that if CanWest does have to restructure it will be able to sell off assets, the question looms in my mind: will there be any money to pay us if our class action is successful? Stay tuned.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Who's That Guy Waving? Harper in New York

The cartoonists are having a field day: Stephen Harper went to New York and nobody noticed. Or hardly anybody outside Fox News and the Canadian media: the newspapers this morning are full of cartoons showing just what a nonentity the Canadian prime minister is.

That probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Even President Obama’s visit to Ottawa didn’t get much coverage south of the border. Oh, The New York Times had a story, but my cousin Cathy in Reno says his visit received little notice because the financial crisis is taking all the space. Nevada is suffering because people aren’t gaming, and California had to lock up its legislators in order to get a budget passed. No wonder the comings and goings of the leader of a minority government who, no matter how you cut it, is a conservative in a time when people need change, doesn't make waves.

Or headlines.

Monday 23 February 2009

Morning after a Dream Wins Oscars: Real Life Fairy Tales in The New York Times

So a fairy tale wins big at the Oscars? If you really want an abundance of happy endings, I’ve just discovered the place to go: The New York Times' Wedding and Celebrations section.

It used to be that wedding and engagement announcements were pretty dry stuff. Only the socially prominent got anything more than a couple of lines in local newspapers. For anything bigger, ordinary folk would (and still do in some cities) pay for a small ad with picture and text giving who, what, when and where.

But in recent years the NYT has burst that bubble. While there still may be small wedding notices in specific editions (I don’t know since I read the Sunday Times on line), each Sunday paper carries at least a half dozen mini-novels about couples getting together. This week the lead couple was a pair in their 60s who had had a fling as college students on a trip to Europe, but who had gone their separate ways afterwards. Until, that is, the woman wrote a short article about the European travel program, and they found themselves both free...and the rest is history including a wedding which their 10 grandchildren attended.

There also is a video of a high power couple—he, white psychotherapist; she, African American style consultant—who swept each other off their feet in their 40s, as well as a pair of rowers who met at the Olympics. Just to make sure we don't come away with the impression that marriage is always all roses, there's a feature "State of the Unions" which recounts how some long-married couple has met and/or is meeting the challenges of life to together.

They're all lovely stories, all enough to fuel your day dreams for a week. Or maybe to make a couple of movies. Comedies to be sure, because, remember, the classic definition of a comedy is a play which ends with a wedding.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Saturday Photo: Marie-Victorin, Montreal's Jardin botanique and Shovel-Ready Projects

Another botanical garden photo this morning: Brother Marie-Victorin, the Quebec botanist and cleric who championed a botanical garden for years. So convinced was he of the need for a garden for teaching, study and pleasure, that in the early 1930s he convinced Henry Teuscher, then working at the New York Botanical Garden, to start planning one for Montreal even though financing seemed a wistful dream.

But when several million dollars were advanced for make-work projects in the mid-1930s, the plans were ready to go, and, Teuscher later said, work started at the beginning, the middle and the end of the project. Today Montreal's Jardin botanique is one of the largest in the world and a delight in any season.

What is now the San Francisco Botanical Garden got a similar start in hard times: plans for such a garden in Golden Gate Park had been on the drawing boards for years when the Works Project Administration put men to work, digging, levelling and planting.

Today we're hearing a lot about the need for "shovel-ready" projects as the world struggles with another horrific economic downturn. There is a lesson to be learned from both botanical garden projects:

It pays to dream in detail,


The positive effects of stimulus packages will be with us for a long time.

Let us hope there are a lot of similar projects out there.

For more about Marie-Victorin and the Jardin botanique see my book Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens.

Friday 20 February 2009

Book Clubs: More Than Just a Book Discussion, A Circle of Friends Too

The Globe and Mail has begun a weekly feature about book clubs across the country: this week Clubland features a group in Port Credit, ON. Most of its 17 members live in the same housing development and have been getting together monthly for about six years. The members of the English language book club I’ve belonged to more 40 years read their story, and decided we should submit ours too.

Can’t say that we have a name, although the group began as an activity of the McGill Women Associates--an organization which at the time was made up mostly of faculty wives--more than 40 years ago. At least one of our members was involved back then, but the group has changed over the years to include women whose connection with McGill is tenuous. The constant has been a willingness to get together every two weeks from September through early June to discuss books. One person leads the discussion, presenting reviews, biographical information about the author and providing background information about the situation in which the book was written or is about. The level of discussion has always been very high, although a great deal of gossip gets exchanged as we have dessert before hand.

For years when I returned from the first meeting in the fall my husband would ask: “Okay, who’s pregnant and who’s gone back to library school.” Now, as you might imagine, his question is more along the lines: “Okay, who’s retiring?” Eventually I suppose it will become: “And who’s passed on?”

That is, I suppose, the mark of a dynamic group, which has provided friendship and an intellectual stimulus for decades. The group has in fact produced off spring. Les Durochères, about whom I wrote yesterday, is a direct outgrowth. More than 25 years ago I brought as a guest a Francophone neighbor whose husband was briefly connected with McGill to a meeting, and she came away with the idea that we should organize a group of Francophone neighbors. The result for me has been encouragement to read a wide variety of books (mostly fiction) in both French and English, and a marvelous circle of friends.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Giving Prizes and Gracious Acceptance: Lloyd Jones and Mr. Pip

Les Durochères, a group of neighborhood women who’ve been getting together from more than 25 years to talk about books, will meet tonight, and I’ve got some good news for them. Each December we meet over supper to discuss the year’s reading and vote for our favourite. Lloyd Jones’s Mr. Pip won in 2008, and I spent some time in January tracking him down so we could send him a letter notifying him of the Prix des Durochère. Finally I found an editor at his New Zealand publisher who forwarded our letter by e-mail attachment.

I’d written : “While it carries none of the cachet of the many prizes you have been awarded—and certainly none of the money--I hope it will amuse you to know that Mr. Pip was the best book” we’d read last year. "It joins such other laureates of the prize as A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Soie by Alessandro Barrico and L’Aveuglement by José Saramago.”

Not 48 hours later I got this e-mail in return: “The best awards are always the ones least expected. How very flattering to receive the Prix des Durochères. I see by the previous winners I am in very good company. All the very best. A bientôt, LLoyd."

That makes five Prix winners who've responded to our "award." Rohinton Mistry, Yann Martel, and Robertson Davies (the first writer we wrote to) all sent us short notes, while one of our number, Élisabeth Humblot-Lapointe was able to present the award in person to José Saramago at a book fair. Such graciousness!

P.S. For tonight, we’ve given ourselves a choice of anything by Nobel prize winner Le Clezio. Should be an interesting discussion.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Griffintown Down-sized and Jane Jacobs Would Likely Approve

Sometimes bad times lead to good things. Yesterday Devimco, the development company which wants to completely rebuilt Montreal’s historic Griffintown district, announced that it is radically down-sizing the project. It says it need only 30 per cent as much land as it originally proposed developing to the tune of $1.3 billion. The thrust will now be on residential development with some shops and offices. Gone—for the foreseeable future, at least—are hotel, entertainment and vast shopping features. The villain, Devimco says, is the economic crisis.

Montreal city council is set to vote today to lift the controversial expropriation orders it passed a year ago that were designed to pave the way for the redevelopment project. Since then it also has frozen permits for renovation in the district, but it was expected to lift that freeze today, too.

Critics of the project aren’t at all unhappy about the turn of events. The redevelopment would radically change the face of the old district, first laid on a grid pattern at the turn of the 19th century in a mix of industrial, residential and commercial uses. Not only does the district have great historic value, its layout should be preserved because it is a great way to organize cities, critics said. The introduction of so much commercial space was also closely questioned. A far better course would be to allow the kind of slow, parcel by parcel redevelopment that had already started in the district and which has worked very well in other parts of Montreal, they said.

Jane Jacobs, who was no friend of either economic hard times (she lived through the Depression, after all) or big developments, would likely be pleased. She'd probably say, though, that people who care about urban life should not let their guard down because redevelopment--like highway projects--frequently have to be cut down several times before they finally disappear

Photo: The narrow streets of Griffintown were designed for foot and horse traffic, and should not be modified, but incorporated in the walkable city.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Does Stephen Harper Have a Recycling Project to Tell Obama about ? (It's Better Than Burning Them)

As Ottawa and Canada as a whole anticipate the whirlwind visit of President Barack Obama on Thursday, much thought has gone to imagining what the encounter between him and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be like. Humourist Pierre Verville who impersonates figures in the news had Harper wondering Monday how to find common ground with Obama. “I could tell him how much I care about the environment,” Verville has Harper musing. “Take recycling: I’ve recycled all those books that Yann Martel has sent me.”

Of course, that might be part of the problem since author Martel has been sending Harper books every two weeks for nearly two years in an attempt to offer the PM some bedtime reading to give him some “stillness” because Martel found Harper apparently too preoccupied at a ceremony to care about culture. There was a short note of acknowledgment for the first book, but nothing since then, and who knows where they’d ended up.

But actually if Harper really wants to know what to talk about with Obama, he could do worse than to mention the book Martel sent him in early February, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The book apparently is one of Obama’s favorites. Martel writes in his accompanying letter: “If there’s a novel that should give you a sense of stillness, it is this one....I hope you like it. And if you don’t, remember nonetheless that it is one of keys that will let you into the mind of the current President of the United States.”

This week, Martel’s selection is one he acknowledges is not political: Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. “In politics, victory comes through victory and defeat only brings defeat,” Martel writes. “The message of Hemingway’s poor Cuban fisherman is purely personal, addressing the individual in each one of us and not the roles we might take on. Despite its vast exterior setting, The Old Man and the Sea is an intimate work of the soul.”

I bet Obama likes that one too.

Monday 16 February 2009

So What's Happening in Ottawa? After the Budget and Toward the Future: A Meeting with Thomas Mulcair

Thomas Mulcair, the deputy leader of the NPD and MP for Outremont, will meet people interested in what’s happening in Ottawa at an informal get-together:

5 to 7 p.m.
Tuesday February 17,
Café Em, 5718 Park Avenue
Mile End district, Montreal.
Cash bar, but free nibbles.

I’m involved in the planning of the event, which should be the first of several sponsored by the NDP Outremont riding association. Others will feature discussions about the concerns of the creative community, what’s called here the “cultural communities” (ethnic groups, including new and not—so new immigrants) and students.

Stay tuned.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Saturday Photo: The Clusius Garden at Leiden

This week it's not a green house in a botanical garden that's featured, but the charming reproduction of one of the first modern botanical gardens, the Clusius Garden in the Hortus Botanicus at the University of Leiden in Holland.

Carolus Clusius was engaged in 1590 by the directors of the then-new university to set up a garden where plants could be studied in a systematic fashion. At the time only two others existed, in Padua and Pisa in Italy. The garden eventually outgrew its walls, as the Hortus became a well-respected centre for botanical study. But in 1931 the original garden was reconstructed following Clusius's plans. It was renovated in the 1990s for its 400th anniversary, and now is a true delight to visit.

We went there when we visited Elin when she was studying at the Royal Conservatory at The Hague, and I was researching Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens. At the time I hadn't intended to include the garden in the book, but seeing it convinced me any book about the history of botanical gardens wouldn't be complete without a chapter on it. The memories of the time we spent there remain very fresh--and extremely pleasant.

Friday 13 February 2009

Getting the Trains to Run on Time, and Gas Price Gauging: When the Market Doesn't Work, Maybe Legal Action Will

Talk of class action in the transportation domain this week. First a group of dissatisfied users of commuter trains want compensation for bad service on two lines where schedule changes and faulty equipment have wreaked havoc since the fall. Then a campaign by Radio-Canada’s morning man René Homier-Roy to do something about apparent price-gauging at the gas pump seems to be picking up steam.

Ridership has been increasing on suburban trains, and in an attempt to improve service, it seems that the Agence de transport de Montréal (a public agency) juggled schedules without thinking through the problem. In addition, there have been equipment breakdowns, in part due to very cold weather. The ATM admits there has been problems and is offering discounts on monthly passes for the next couple of months in recompense. But some commuters are not satisfied and are going to ask for some big bucks: $65 million.

With gas prices, the situation is more complicated. The CAA-Quebec has been keeping track of gas prices daily, noting the cost to the retailer and the price at the pump. In 2007 the difference was 3.3 cents a litre, but in 2008 it jumped to 5.7 cents in the Montreal area. “It’s very difficult to understand this,” the CAA-Quebec’s spokesperson Sophie Gagnon said Thursday, because gas retailers in smaller centers haven’t resorted to the same increase. One would think that in the much larger Montreal market, competition would bring down the difference, she noted. CAA-Quebec figures that a 4 cent profit margin would be fair.

Homier-Roy has been joking about a class action over gas prices for some time, but Radio Can/CBC rules about non-involvement in politics may mean that he can’t start one himself. Yet I can’t imagine that one of his many listeners won’t take up the fight.

Moral: the market doesn’t work, but maybe threats of legal action will.

Thursday 12 February 2009

The Birthday Boys Abe and Chas: Men and Ideas That Made a Difference

What comment would you like to make on the occasion of Charles Darwin’s birthday? Le Devoir’s Hélène Buzetti asked many members of Parliament that question over the last few days and the results are very interesting. They range from “Happy Birthday, Charles!” from Stockwell Day, currently minister of international trade but an avowed to Creationist, to some who see no contradiction between Creationism and Evolution (Finance mimnister Jim Flaherty) and others who celebrate Darwin’s great contribution to scientific thought and method (Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and Conservative Whip Gordon O’Connor.)

The most amusing response Buzetti cites comes from my own favourite MP, Thomas Mulcair. Darwin was one of the greatest thinkers of the last 200 years, Mulcair is quoted as saying. But, he adds that faced with Conservative back-benchers every day in the House, he wonders if some humans have evolved from apes more quickly than others. (My free translation.)

No one asked Canadian parliamentarians what they think about today’s other birthday boy, Abraham Lincoln, but we know very well what the current administration in Washington thinks. To be sure, Lincoln made some retrograde remarks about race in his time, but the fact remains that he was commander in chief during the Civil War and he freed the slaves. He also appealed successfully to the better side of human nature. Let us hope that Barack Obama succeeds in doing this as well.

Here are two reading suggestions for today, by the way.

The Voyage of the Beagle by Darwin, the journals of the young botanist (and fervent abolitionist) written during the around-the-world voyage that formed his ideas. A delightful look at the evolution (yes, that word!) if a man’s thinking, great for reading when one is travelling and discovering too.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The story of four girls growing up in Boston during the Civil War. Much moral talk, but characters that are convincing. It was the first chapter book I read, and I think it marked me more than any other reading.

And finally, a non-scientific note: how strange that these two great men were born the same day in the same year! I’m sure astrologers have had a field day with that coincidence, but perhaps a convincing explanation for it can be found in the luck of being in the right place at the right time that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in The Outliers. More about that book later.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Telling It Like It Is: Appropriation of Voice and Fiction vs. Non-Fiction

Another interesting discussion of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, this time Monday at the Pierrefonds library, has set me thinking about “appropriation of voice.” The practice of a writer putting him- or herself in the skin of a person of different sex, religion or ethnic or racial group was a hot button topic in the 1990s. How could a man understand what a woman felt? some particularly enraged feminists argued. How could a white person understand the feelings of a person of colour? some advocates for minority group asked just as loudly.

The debate seems to have died down, not the least because excellent writers have proved that imagining the ideas and emotions of others is what literature is all about. Bad writers can’t do it, and so their stories may often be insulting, intentionally or unintentionally. Certainly two of the books we’ve discussed in Pierrefonds this year—Hill’s novel, as well as Lewis DeSoto’s Blade of Grass—give us sensitive and moving portraits of women told from the point of view of women although the authors are men.

By coincidence, though, I was gobbling up Samaritan by Richard Price at the same time that I was preparing for the book discussion. A friend suggested it because I am very interested in the motivation of people who try to help others, and the enormous question of how to help in a way that works. The book opens with a conversation between a white man in his 40s and his 13 year old daughter as they visit the housing project in New Jersey where he grew up. The story he tells about his youth and the verve of their dialogue were so captivating that I rode past my stop on the Metro reading it. The fact that the other main character is an African-American woman police officer, who grew up in the project too, also was interesting, and for a good part of the book, I was ready to give Price full marks for doing a brilliant job of appropriating voices.

But having finished the book, I’m not so sure. The man, who is something of an innocent despite having passed a good five years as a coke addict, tries very hard to do the right thing, yet the woman appears to be a much more admirable character. The book, however, is padded with long descriptions and dialogues thrown in to “authenticate” the book, to show that Price has spent time around people like his characters. In short, the voice appropriated doesn't ring true even though it is well-intentioned.

I’d like to know what Ophrah Winfrey thought of it. The Yale Review of Books says:
"as a piece of inner-city atmospherics, it falls far short of good journalism — like William Finnegan's blemished, brilliant portrait of New Haven in Cold New World."

Now, that raises another perennial question: which is the better form for telling a story and/or telling the truth, fiction or non-fiction.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Two Laughs for Tuesday, Apropos of Growing Older

Comment apropos of the 60 year old woman who just had twins:
If this goes on, a growth market may be walkers combined with strollers.


Two retirement age couples who are having supper together. The women are in the kitchen and the men begin to talk about movies they've seen.

"We saw a great one on the weekend," one says.

"Yeah? What's it called?" says the other.

"Just a sec, it's on the tip of my tongue. You know that flower that's red or pink and has thorns?"

"A rose?"

"Right," the guy says. "Hey, Rose. What's the name of the movie we saw..."

Monday 9 February 2009

Greenhouse Effect in Quebec: Local Produce Even in Winter?

A guest from France for dinner on Saturday night, so I wanted to serve a Quebec meal--tourtière de Madame Gravel de Chicoutimi, green tomato relish, some of Quebec’s excellent artisan-made cheese and as much local produce as possible. Despite the fact that it is February, the last criterion is becoming easier to meet than it used to be. Beside carrots, potatoes and onions from last summer’s harvest, before dinner we had hors d’oeuvres of Matane shrimp in hollowed-out halves of cocktail tomatoes grown in green houses by Savoura up river from Montreal. The salad was Boston lettuce, green-house grown north of the Métropole.

What I didn’t realize until this morning was how much this largesse is due to another Quebec business, Industries Harnois, which has been pioneering green house construction for three generations. Using temporary shelters to start plants early had long been a practice where the risk of frost doesn’t pass until late May, but in the last 25 years light weight, energy efficient green houses have been developed by the firm, a story in Le Devoir recounts. They’re sold not only in cold climates, but also in places like Mexico and Brazil where wind and heat are factors. Irrigation is more effective in a controlled space, for example, while the firm contends that yields are much greater and reliance on chemical fertilizers less in greenhouses. The firm has cooperated with the Université de Laval in developing one which is not heated, relies on natural ventilation and is basically a large plastic tunnel. Organic agriculture is the wave of the future, says one of the current partners, Patrice Harnois.

A different kind of greenhouse effect, for sure.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Saturday Photo: Inspired by Kew

Last Saturday's photo was the first in a series featuring green houses in botanical gardens--a good way to think positive thoughts in the middle of winter. This week's picture is of one inspired by the great glass houses at Kew: the Enid A. Haupt Conservtory at the New York Botanical Garden. The picture was taken in summer from the courtyard outside, but it gives a sense of the lovely ironwork and detail of the great glass houses of the 19th century.

The New York garden owes more than the design of its conservatory to Kew, though. It began in 1888 as a project of Nathaniel Lord Britton and his wife Elizabeth, a well-heeled couple of New Yorkers who also were passionate botanists. On a belated honeymoon trip to England, she is reported to have exclaimed, "Oh, why can't we have a garden just like that!" after a visit to Kew. While many young women have made the same wish, no other was able to make it come true.

The Haupt Conservatory--named in honour of the philanthropist who paid for a complete makeover near the end of the 20th century--was opened in June 1900 a few years after the botanical garden came into existence.

To read more about this garden and others, check out my Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens.

Friday 6 February 2009

Really Elderly Primipara Gives Birth to Twin Boys: Who's Going to Wait up for Them When They're in High School?

A 60 year old woman in Calgary gave birth to twins this week after--of course!—undergoing fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization. The reports say that the babies, delivered by C section prematurely, are doing well. The mother is quoted as being ecstatic.

When I was pregnant for the first time at 32, I was called an “elderly primapara.” The term is probably not used these days for women beginning their childbearing career in their 30s. Advances in reproductive medicine have pushed the limit for bearing a first child by ten years for women with access to good health care: we know many 40 year olds who are enjoying first babies right now. But the Calgary woman is pushing the limit of what is feasible technically and wise socially. How are she and her husband going to cope as the children grow up? Will they still be around to see them through adolescence?

My friends who have grandchildren already say that while they love the little (not so little) ones, they are often very glad when the parents arrive to take them home. To everything there is a season, and childbearing past menopause is way past the proper time.

Oof, let me lie down. Just thinking about it makes me tired.

Thursday 5 February 2009

An Uncommon Case about Common Law Relationships: Words of Love on the Snow

Ti amo, je t’aime, yes! I found these words written in the snow this morning across the street from the huge house of a family involved in a complicated separation dispute where the stakes are extremely high. He is a billionaire; she, a woman he met on the beach her native Brazil when she was 17 and he was 32. They have three children together, but never married (a court order prohibits publication of the names, but who they are is pretty widely known.) Now that the relationship is over she is asking for $50 million for herself: currently he provides $35,000 a month for the staff and upkeep on the house (which is not in her name,) and the children’s education and activities.

Under Quebec law, as a common-law spouse she has no claim on the wealth he acquired during the time they were together. And while the amounts involved in the case make it seem beyond the realm of ordinary life, problems for unmarried partners after breakup are all too common here. Thirty-five percent of Quebec couples are not married, according to the 2006 census, and more than half of births occur to couples who are not married.

The woman’s lawyer in this case says it is an occasion to review and change Quebec’s laws. "If madam weren't in a situation where she could finance the case - because it's a case involving big money - the million or so women across Quebec who have no rights would continue silent, without a voice," Anne-France Goldwater said in interviews outside the courtroom last week.

This morning the words on the snow could be seen easily from the windows of the big house. I’d like to know who wrote them. and to whom they were addressed. Lover, child, friend? Perhaps. But maybe they should be seen as a thank you from all those who found themselves cut out when a relationship went sour.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Newspaper Subscriptions for Every 18 Year Old: The French to Increase Aid to Print Media

Tonight the executive of the Electronic Rights Defence Committee will meet to take stock of where its long-running class action against The Gazette and various other media interests is going. Nearly a year ago Madame Justice Eva Petras heard our request for authorization to proceed to the next step in the case which demands payment for electronic reproduction of freelance work. We have no news on that front, but we've gathered some interesting information about other cases and settlements.

The meeting comes just as the French government is proposing massive aid to newspapers in that country. I was astonished to discover that newspapers there already get 1.5 billion euros. The new aid package would put into the pot another 200 million euros a year for three years, which raises the spectre of more government control of media, but which also could save some very shaky print operations.

This kind of aid is so foreign to North American custom (governments aid newspapers here mainly by buying advertising, sometimes for campaigns that seem to make little sense) that it probably doesn’t merit consideration as a solution to print media problems.

But one thing proposed is interesting: a plan to give an 18th birthday present of a year’s subscription to the newspaper of his or her choice to all French young people. I don’t know quite how that might work here, but the idea of getting young people in the habit of reading print papers is worth thinking about.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Time for the Scales to Fall from Our Eyes: Private Cataract Surgery is Much More Expensive Than Public

Perhaps the message is finally getting out: the public sector has a lot going for it. Last week Le Devoir had a fascinating story about how cataract operations cost far more when done in private clinics than they do in publicly owned settings like hospitals. The difference is substantial: in some cases the clinics charge twice as much.

The reason is basically that private clinics have to turn a profit, whereas public ones don’t. Seems a no-brainer, but for far too long the ideologues argued that the private sector provided competition that cut fat from budgets.

That same kind of thinking lay behind the deregulation of banks and financial institutions, too, and we’re all getting hurt because of it.

As Barack Obama said in his inaugural address, The question ..."is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” The answer is that it works a whole lot better than the private sector does when it comes to providing health services--or regulating financial institutions.

Monday 2 February 2009

Squirrels Are Out, But No Groundhogs in Sunny, Snow-covered Montreal

The fresh snow was crisscrossed by squirrel tracks this morning as I walked through Parc Joyce. The temperature is approaching freezing for the first time since mid-January, and obviously after weeks of deep freeze the beasties have awakened briefly to go looking for food.

But I suspect the groundhog who foraged in our bumper crop of pears last summer won’t make it out of whatever hole he hides in: there's too much snow. If he did manage to dig his way out, however, he’d see his shadow and that is supposed to mean six more weeks of winter.

Hah! In this climate, that’s a given!

So far this winter has been far more snowy than usual, and nearly as snowy as last year which everyone complained about. I did some rummaging in Environment Canada records to find that 198.4 cm (78.1 inches or 6.5 feet) of snow fell between October 2007 and the end of January 2008, while between October 2008 and the end of January 2009, 183.3 (slightly more than 6 feet) fell. That should be compared with the 72.4 cm (28 inches) which usually falls in the same period, and the 217.5 cm (about 7 feet) we get an average winter.

No wonder I saw some little kids cross country skiing to school last week!