Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Mark Your Date Books: Jane's Walks Coming Up May 2 and 3 to Honour Jane Jacobs

Write it down: there's just a little more than a month left before Jane’s Walks, that continent-wide (or so it seems) hommage to the great urban critic Jane Jacobs. The idea of individuals organizing walks in their neighborhoods was begun in 2007 in Toronto, the year after Jacobs’ death. Since then it has taken off, and this year there will be walks in more than 20 cities on May 2 and 3. So far the list in Canada includes Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Sudbury, Thornbury, Hamilton, Waterloo, Guelph, Burlington, Brant County, Mississauga, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Charlottetown and Halifax. As well, Jane’s Walks are in the works in Chicago, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Washington and New York.

Last night the group in Montreal got together for a second planning session. Called Les Promenades de Jane in French, the offering here will include ones in the Petite Patrie, Mile-End, Villeray, Village gai, Milton-Park, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, St-Henri, and Outremont neighborhoods.

I’ll be leading the ones in Outremont, in French on Saturday, May 2 and in English and French on Sunday, May 3. The tentative title is: From Pierre Beaubien’s Farm to Bernard Avenue Bling. We’ll start out in Beaubien Park, which until the 1970s still was the site of a farmhouse built in the mid-1860s, go down an old Native Canadian trail (Côte-Ste-Catherine Road), swing past some houses for the extremely well-heeled, check out model housing for workers built in the 1920s, admire the restos and boutiques on Bernard Avenue, find a portion of the eruv which surrounds part of Outremont, and end up in St. Viateur Park for a picnic.

Or so it looks now. I’ll post an update later. Should be a lot of fun. Let’s hope the weather is good.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Won't They Ever Learn Department? Radio Two Shoots Itself in Its Foot with Juno Nominees in Sunday Slot

There was a two hour concert of Juno nominees on Radio Two Sunday afternoon. Good lord, aren’t they ever going to learn? One of the two good slots for serious music—Saturday and Sunday afternoon—seems under attack. It almost literally makes me weep.

One of my nearest and dearest won’t sign a Save the CBC petition because he’s furious about the wasted resources. If there were a conspiracy to destroy the public broadcaster it couldn’t be any more successful than what is going on now.

But here’s the link to the petition, in case you haven’t completely given up.
Click here:

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Saturday Photo: A Fountain on São Miguel

This has been a week of intensive work as I prepare to meet next week in Toronto with editors and academics concerning my two next projects.

One of them is a book on the legacy of the Portuguese around the world. Not only were they the first Westerners to visit many parts of the world, their political and social history illustrates problems that we face today. Sometimes they came up with solutions that no one else did, and where they erred they can teach us much too.

A few years ago I had the great pleasure of spending a week in the Azores, visiting Santa Maria, the first island in the mid-Atlantic archipelago to be discovered, and São Miguel, the most populous one. In Faial de Terra, a picture book village on the latter, I found this fountain, a relic of former times that still functions--as does so much of the Portuguese legacy.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Signs of Spring to Brighten a Season of Discontent

Last night was our night for the Théâtre du nouveau monde's production of La Charge de l'orignal épormyable, a play by Quebec poet Claude Gauvreau which caused a sensation when it was first mounted in the 1970s. The stage set featured a forest of leafless trees and the emotional level was near hysterics. Not my kind of theatre, but I found people-watching the audience interesting anyway.

Particularly notable were two young women in skirts, pale stockings and high-heeled shoes. Not boots with dark tights, but pretty shoes and nylons that provided no protection from the cold, and skirts cut on the diagonal that flipped around their knees as they walked. A sure sign of spring in these parts even if what happened on stage was as fraught with evil as economic news over the last few months.

There were more good portents yesterday, too:

Several flights of geese in the early morning

One robin sitting on a bare tree branch

The call of a white throated sparrow somewhere on the hillside.

People sitting at tables outside cafés with books or newspapers in front of them, relaxed, turning their faces to the sun.

The snowdrops in our front yard, of course.

I know that a swallow does not a summer make, but in this season of our discontent we must look for solace everywhere.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Is There a Groundswell of Protest over CBC/RadioCan Cuts, Or Is That Just the Sound of Minds Turning Off?

Let us hope that Jeffrey Simpson was wrong when he wrote in The Globe and Mail a couple of weeks ago that the CBC had alienated its audience so much that few would come to its defence: "Beleaguered CBC should ask itself: Who cares?" The budget cuts announced yesterday by the public broadcaster's head honcho Hubert Lacroix are going to gut it even more than it has been by the recent effort to dumb it down. Restoring some of that funding is going to take a major ground swell of public opinion, which is unlikely to develop.

The only good thing is that it looks like radio (which for so long was a shining star) is not going to be hit as hard at television.

As Lenin asked: What is to be done?

For a near-verbatim account of what happened when Lacroix told CBC/Radio Can staffers what was going happen, check out The Teamaker's Blog. (I thought they'd been chased out of the park, but bravo! if they're still in there fighting.)


800 jobs cut overall

$171-million needed in 2009/10

393 jobs cut at CBC English

($85-million reduction for English services budget)

336 jobs cut at Radio-Canada

70 jobs cut at corporate services

Asset sale to raise $125-million,

but needs federal approval

Salary freezes

Slowing recruitment or cancelling positions

Attrition in some areas

Voluntary retirement buyouts will be offered April 6 and will be open for four weeks

Radio makes up 17 per cent of English budget, TV 83 per cent; cuts will be weighted toward TV

Twenty per cent of cuts will take place in regions and 80 per cent at network level

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Memo to Twitterers: Socrates Has Some Advice for You

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates famously said. I’ve always thought that was taking navel-gazing a bit far, but I’m ready to state a corollary: the unexamined life is not worth writing about.

Somehow I find myself being “friends” with a number of people who can’t stop posting what they’re doing on FaceBook. Eating breakfast, putting out the trash, listing their five favourite movies: they seem to have unlimited time to tell everyone their most inconsequential thoughts or actions.

And people tell me Twitter is even worse.

When we were children we used to snicker when someone was said to have diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the brain. What is this new phenomenon? Hyperactivity of the fingers? Paralysis of the mind? Far better to take the long view, and think before communicating...anything.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

When Control of Food Means Better Lives for Children: Former African Correspondant Stephanie Nolen Looks at India

Why do media rotate their journalists from one place to another? I used to think it had something to do with equalizing hardship, but the shift of The Globe and Mail’s Stephanie Nolen from a sub-Saharan base in Africa to India shows just what a new pair of eyes can bring to a different assignment.

She worked out of Johannesburg for five years until she was reassigned a few months ago to India. Last Saturday she had a long and fascinating article about hunger among children in supposedly-booming India. Most of the cases she talked about were taken from the poorer Northern part of the country, but the statistics she quoted were shocking.

“A staggering 40 per cent of undernourished children in the world are Indian; the rate here is twice as high as it is in all of Sub-Saharan Africa and five times higher than in China,” she wrote. “The land of the economic boom finishes third-last on Unicef's global list of child nourishment, worse than either Sudan or Ethiopia.”

I can’t remember having read any comparisons between the India and Africa, but what is even more interesting is her analysis. One of the reasons for better health among children in Africa is because women have more control over food there. Nolen quotes a public health worker: “On purchasing food, on feeding herself, on health care – the critical question is how does the gender inequality play out...Women in Africa can be out in society at the market, or generating income, buying food for her family. In India women often cannot make those decisions...”

Very interesting observations, perfectly consistent with the fact that India’s best literacy, infant mortality and female life expectancy rates are found Kerala state on the south west coast where traditional society has been called matriarchal by some.

Nolen recently began a blog on The Globe and Mail site which is bound to be worth following, just as opening doors to women benefits the whole of society.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Malls R Us, The Walkable City, and What to Do Now

When I was working on The Walkable City, my neighbor up the street Helene Klodawsky was traveling around the world as she prepared her film Malls R Us. We’d compare notes when we met on the street (one of the advantages of living in a walkable neighborhood) and I’ve been looking forward with relish to the film’s release.

It is showing twice this week as one of the films in competition at the Festival international du film sur l’art (FIFA) after having an initial screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series Canadian Front. It definitely should be worth checking out: Thursday, March 26 at 6:30 p.m. and Friday, March 28, also at 6:30 p.m. at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The Walkable City has a chapter on malls and what they—and suburban development in general—did to cities in the second half of the 20th century. One of the 21st century's major concerns is going to be what to do now that it’s clear we can’t continue driving everywhere. On the weekend, The Globe and Mail’s architecture critic Lisa Rochon noted that the vast monument projects of the last 20 years are not going to be repeated, if only because the financial resources to build them have disappeared.

“In North America, the biggest challenge will come in reinventing a suburban landscape marred by boarded-up houses, old-style shopping malls and big-box retailers,” Rochon wrote. “The stars obsessed over one-off, showy works of architectural sculpture. A new generation is required to consider new questions: How to negotiate the future of the bloated suburban house in light of changing demographics and a desire for intimate communities? “

Shopping mall or shopping street, in other words. More on this after we see Helene’s film at the end of the week.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Saturday Photo: Snowdrops on the Sunny Side of the Street

The snow is practically gone in front, which is the sunny side of the street. As soon as it receded, the green tips of snowdrops appeared. By yesterday, the first day of spring, a few white flowers were shyly hanging their heads as if overcome by the bright sunlight.

Reminds me of one of the first records my parents bought when they acquired a long-playing phonograph sometime in the late 1940s. On it Nat King Cole sang:

"Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street."

I tried to find a link to Cole singing the song, or at least a place where one could buy it, but couldn't. What a shame! This morning's Le Devoir has a big story about the crisis the recording industry is going through, which makes me wonder how much of the musical past is disappearing because of problems in archiving it.

As for the failure of the current model to provide compensation for all but a few artists, that's just as tragic. But more about that some other, less lovely day.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Smart Dogs, Dumb Sheep and a Smile in Hard Times

This week, I’ve railed about dumbing down news and other things on the CBC. However, it’s also true that faced with heavy subjects one must occasionally take a breather, step back in order to get a better perspective, and laugh, if only to expel all that bad air that builds up inside.

So here’s a video that I picked up from Bookninja yesterday. It’s a delight, and is perfectly appropriate right after Barack Obama tells Jay Leno that he can’t wait until the First Family gets a First Dog. "They say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” he told Leno.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

When One Person Makes a Difference: The Death of Father Fernand Lindsay and the Need for Classical Music on the Radio

Father Fernand Lindsay died on Tuesday, aged 79. Founder of a music camp where dozens of world-class musicians and thousands of enthusiastic music-lovers passed summers in their youth, he also was the motor behind a world class music festival based in a small town down river from Montreal. What he created is an inspiration to anyone who wonders what one person can do.

The idea came to him in 1963 when he finished off a year of study in Europe by attending 30 concerts in 25 days. Some of them were at festivals held in relatively small towns, and he wondered if something similar might be organized in Joliette, pop. 30,000, where he was teaching, The Festival de Lanaudière officially began in 1968, and now is one of largest and most successful musical festivals in Canada.

As the tributes roll in to Father Lindsay, it is instructive to remember a story he told La Scena Musicale a few years ago. He grew up in Trois-Pistoles, a village much smaller than Joliette, but when his uncle Georges visited, the family listened to concerts broadcast live from New York on WQXR. "That's where I discovered Beethoven's Seventh Symphony," the magazine quoted him as saying. "It was the first important work I ever heard."

Hear that, you programmers at the CBC and Radio-Canada? There is an audience for serious music in even the most remote corners of the country that deserves to be served.

P.S. on a personal note: Elin went to Lindsay’s music camp a couple of summers, and loved it. She also had a life-changing experience at the festival when she attended a concert given by viola da gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall in the early 1990s. It was a coup de foudre, as they say in French, and she decided put aside the violin even though she was two years into a B.Mus at McGill in that instrument. Since then she’s been making a career with the gamba: her second doctoral recital is scheduled for May 19 at the Université de Montréal and a CD that she recorded with Les voix humaines of music by Henry Purcell should be out soon.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Is Judy Maddren's Retirement More Evidence of the CBC's Demise: Why Bus Crashes in Mexico Shouldn't Lead The World at Six

Yesterday CBC Radio One news at 6 p.m.—The World at Six, the major news program on radio—led with a story about three Canadians killed in a bus crash in Mexico, recapped the court appearance of a child molester in Austria, mentioned an actress injured in a skiing accident north of Montreal, and spent a good three or four minutes on a “backgrounder” about a gristly murder trial that will start later this week. At the half way mark I was ready to turn off the radio and pick up the newspapers that I was saving until after dinner. What happened that really mattered? The "top stories" certainly did not reflect whatever it was.

Good news coverage seems to be the latest thing to go in the CBC’s race to make itself irrelevant. The maxim in US television news used to be “if it bleeds, it leads,” which greatly increased the paranoia in the country about such things as crime and illegal immigrants. North of the border we seemed insulated from that trend, at least on the radio. That no longer seems the case.

It takes no brains to cover a funeral, no talent to pick up a report from a wire service, little cost to have someone recap previous coverage of a crime: this is cheap and easy reporting and the CBC should provide us with much more. The Stephen Harper government is making life difficult for the Corp these days with talk of more budget slashing, but dumbing down the radio coverage is no way to respond. As Jeffrey Simpson noted in The Globe and Mail on the weekend, “CBC is not nearly distinctive enough, so that increasingly people ask: Who cares?”

Simpson has gone to bat for the CBC several times in the past (in 2000 and 2006, notably) and his concern is evident this time: "As long...as CBC pursues this strategic direction, it will have the worst of all worlds in the search for public money. It will have alienated core audiences who might have cared enough to fight, and exchanged them for audiences for whom CBC is just one choice among many, and therefore not worth getting excited about.”

It may well be no coincidence that Judy Maddren, long time voice of the hourly news, has just announced her retirement effective March 27. And it also is extremely interesting that the official line up of CBC radio show no longer lists The World at Six. Are they never going to learn?

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Honourable Men: When Yann Martel "Praises" Stephen Harper in Shakespearian Style

Yann Martel has another take on the value of the “liberal arts” in the cover letter he included this week in his latest gift to Stephen Harper. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is the choice this time, and the occasion for Martel to protest several funding cuts Harper’s government has made to “culture” spending.

First Martel argues that Harper's plan to jack up the funding available for graduate study in business is a big mistake. “The world would be a better place if rather than having business-types infiltrating universities, we had Shakespeare-types infiltrating businesses,” he writes. “I imagine this line of argument is falling on your deaf ear. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood. To paraphrase Antony speaking of Brutus, you are an honourable man and you must know what you’re doing.

Then Martel points out the effects of limiting funding available through the new Canadian Periodical Fund to magazines with a circulation greater than five thousand. “That will pretty well kill off every single arts and literary magazine in Canada,” Martel correctly points out. Some might think that’s a good thing since “. “Elitist little rags, who needs them?” but “good things start small.” If the little magazines go, “so does the next generation of writers and poets. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood. You are an honourable man and you must know what you’re doing.”

Ah yes, honourable men.

This two person (Harper and Martel) book club has been going on for nearly two years, when Martel decided that Harper needed some good bedtime reading to provide “stillness” in his life after seeing how harried he was at ceremony. Two weeks ago Martel sent his 50th book: Jane Austen, A Life, by Carol Shields. It’s [ a much less troubling read than Julius Caesar with Martel’s glosses, but one should note that Shields’ career was started in little magazines and encouraged by the Canada Council too. Were she alive, I imagine she'd be protesting too.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Looting, Quants and Fairness: Why 'Liberal Arts' Education Isn't a Waste

So the big guys at AIG will get their bonuses but the workers in the auto industry will get cut backs? Come on, that simply isn’t fair!

The New York Times has had some very illuminating stories in the last few days about the greed which was the evil genius behind this mess we’re in. One is a review of an interesting paper published 16 years ago called Looting by economists George Akerlof, who would later win a Nobel Prize, and Paul Romer. In it they detail, the way corporate pirates competely ripped companies apart during the 1980s, banking (quite literally) on the fact that they couldn’t be allowed to go broke because they were so big. The other, "They Tried to Outsmart Wall Street" is a long story on the mathematical wizards that invented the exotic financial “products”and “models” whose manipulation fueled the markets.

The first case is an example of willful ignorance on the part of regulators, who should have been watching what was going on. The second is one of people being far too smart for their own good. A lot of the guys in the second group switched over from theoretical physics or arcane mathematical theory. As one commented anonymously, there are a thousand physicists on Wall Street: “They sold their souls to the devil.”

The story notes that the move from academe to Wall Street began when research funds were drying up. What will be the effect down the line of cuts in universities this time around? Certainly worrying about string theory would seem to be less harmful that quantifying finance.

And the sorry situation also brings up the possible results of cutting back on support for what used to be called a "liberal arts education" in the US, and in other countries provided the backbone for what might be called basic higher education. Where else are people to get a broad view of what civilization is and what our responsibilities are to each other? Specialization, be it for business or deep science, should be accompanied by exposure to ethics, history and the many deeply engaging stories people have been telling each other for years. Dr. Faustus, any one?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Saturday Photo: Sense and Sustainability

This is the frontispiece to my book The Walkable City, taken late last summer. It seems to me appropriate today as the days grow longer and the seasons of green, growing things draw closer.

But also I'm taking part in a conference this morning organized by the English Graduate Students' Society at the Université de Montréal on the theme of Sense and Sustainability. About 30 academics, future academics, and writers of various stripes will be taking part. I'm going to be reading from The Walkable City--or at least an excerpt taken from the first couple of chapters. This photo will be the first of several I'll show to illustrate the talk: a walkable city is by definition immensely more sustainable than one where the automobile is the default means of transportation.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Radio Two Loses More Listeners in Montreal, While All-Classical Station Gains

More evidence of the sad state of CBC and Radio Canada “cultural” services: the latest BBM Top-line Radio Report figures are out for listenership in Montreal, and the big winner is—surprise!—the all classical station.

The results are the first ones where two periods (September 10 to November 30, 2008 and December 1, 2008 to March 1, 2009) can be compared using a new metering system. No longer are selected listeners asked to keep diaries about what they listen to. Rather, the measurements are taken from devices which record what is playing nearby.

Radio Two’s share among Anglophone listeners dropped from 2.3 % to 2.2 % while the all classical Francophone station CJPX FM’s share rose from 3 % to 3.9%. The first period, you’ll remember, was that when Radio Two changed its programming substantially, gutting the classical content. Where are the new listerners? It looks like many of the old ones have switched over to the private classical station, Among Francophones, Espace Musique’s share rose slightly from 1.2 to 1.5 % while CJPX climbed from 4.3 to 5 %.

New statistics for Toronto, the other market where an all classical station competes with Radio Two, aren’t available yet. They will be tabulated by the diary method.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

More Weather, Emotional, Financial and Otherwise

Wind followed rain yesterday, and to judge from the reactions to yesterday's post about Robert Louis Stevenson, it elicits stronger reactions.

Here's another poem from Stevenson that seems to fit right into set of emotions that strong winds raise.

The wind blew shrill and smart

THE wind blew shrill and smart,
And the wind awoke my heart
Again to go a-sailing o'er the sea,
To hear the cordage moan
And the straining timbers groan,
And to see the flying pennon lie a-lee.

O sailor of the fleet,
It is time to stir the feet!
It's time to man the dingy and to row!
It's lay your hand in mine
And it's empty down the wine,
And it's drain a health to death before we go!

To death, my lads, we sail;
And it's death that blows the gale
And death that holds the tiller as we ride.
For he's the king of all
In the tempest and the squall,
And the ruler of the Ocean wild and wide!

Certainly if you're at sea, a high wind can be pretty tricky to ride out. But it seems that on land we definitely respond to wind too. One study in Alberta, for example, linked increased incidence of migraines with Chinook winds. And certainly anecdotal evidence suggests that people feel on edge during periods of strong winds. One of the things I found extraordinary as a parent volunteering in my kids' classes was the general belief among teachers that an approaching storm provoked restlessness among the children. It wasn't a belief current in Southern California when I was small, but then the climate there is a whole different from that here.

This morning the winds have dropped, and the sun is out. Perhaps we're headed for better weather. Let us hope that the last few days of good economic news means that the financial "perfect storm" (given as an excuse by Quebec's pension fund manager this week for a loss of 26 per cent last year) is abating too.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Rainy Day Complaint, Perhaps in the Literary Sense As Well as the Meteorological

Rain today.

This is not weather I like. It reminds me of winter days in my California childhood when we came home from school chilled to the bone to stand in front of the space heater (no central heating of course) and shiver. Winter in Montreal is far better, I think: there is more sunshine, the houses are warmer, and snow brushes off while rain just soaks in.

That said I am always reminded on days like today of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem Rain. His Child’s Garden of Verses was one of the first books read to me and even though I do not like most poetry his rhymes remain in my head—and my heart:


The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

For someone growing up in a port town, who loved the idea of running away to sea, this poem was extremely evocative. Perhaps my life-long attempt to connect disparate parts of the world even began with the image of the universality of rain.

And for those who wonder about such things: in literary terms a complaint is a poem in which the speaker expresses sorrow about his or her condition.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Mount Royal under Attack: Don't We Ever Learn?

There are times when the short-sightedness of people with a bit of power is breath-taking. I’m not talking here about the idea that letting the market work—a point of view widely held by a whole generation of government officials, business people and, sadly, economists until just recently—is anything but a path to disaster. That’s over and done for, perhaps. No, rather I’m talking about current decisions which are going to have long-lasting effects on the rest of us.

On the local level, this includes two projects that are going to affect the very heart of the city, Mount Royal. The Alouettes football team, has just announced that it will enlarge Molson Stadium on the edge of the mountain at a cost of $30 million, of which $4 million will come from the city, and $19 million from the province. Not only is this an extremely questionable use of public funds (the city’s contribution is 10 per cent of what it wants the transit commission to cut from its budget next year) but the change will increase traffic on the mountain and nibble away some more at it.

On the other side of the mountain, the Université de Montréal has just sold an old convent it bought a few years ago and is talking about selling its music school building. Both of these are set high on the mountain side with a glorious view north toward the Laurentians and the setting sun. No plans have been approved for what might take their place, but its clear that developers are going to want to put in condos. And that means the mountain will be under threat from this side too.

Montreal is special in part because of Mount Royal. It should be preserved for all of us to enjoy, not sold off a couple of acres at a time for the pleasure of football fans or people rich enough to afford luxury housing.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Boredom is Counter Revolutionary, and Other Words to Live By

Looks like we missed a great evening on Saturday.

When Lee and I were out walking early Sunday we noticed the posters for Boredom is Counter Revolutionary which took place the night before. Obviously it was aimed at a crowd considerably younger than we are—several bands with edgy names were listed as talent--but I loved the name. When I got home I did some roaming on the net and came up with the information that the evening was the launch of the tenth issue of an avant garde arts magazine, Four Minutes to Midnight.

The new issue, the website says, “explores the idea of radical beauty (a theme inspired from this year’s Memefest) interpreted through the words and images of over 30 artists. Our ‘anniversary’ issue is the thickest (and prettiest) one yet, clocking in at a tidy 180 pages.’

Well, good for them for sticking it out that long in the tempestuous world of small magazine publishing.

And bravo! for putting into words a sentiment I’ve held most of my life. Boredom in large part can be overcome by looking for something to do. Doing nothing is, almost by definition, counter-revolutionary. Doing nothing is no way to live at all.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Saturday Photo: Spring Sun at Parc Saint-Viateur

Tonight we lose an hour as we change to daylight saving time. A little early in the year, if you ask me, but it is true that the days are getting much longer, and the sun is higher in the sky.

One of the down sides of warmer weather is the gray piles of dirty snow that emerge as the winter's snow melts, but this picture, taken at the edge of a park looking into it, shows only the lovely, smooth snow that remains in places.

Earlier the borough regularly cleared the snow from the pond for skating, and in the summer, the fountain in the middle will make a lovely noise on hot days. Now is an inbetween time with hints of what is to come, and reminders of what we've just been through.

Friday, 6 March 2009

What Every Woman Should Have: Some Ideas for International Women's Day

Perhaps as lead-up to International Women’s Day on the weekend, a friend recently sent around a long list of things that a woman should have. Some of them were funny and a couple were wise. Here are a few that caught my fancy:

money within her control to move out
and rent a place of her own,
even if she never wants to or needs to...

a youth she's content to leave behind....

a past
juicy enough that she's looking forward
to retelling it in her old age....

a set of screwdrivers, a cordless drill, and...
a black lace bra...

I think I like the last one the best, although I must admit I’m never had any of the three. Perhaps I should go shopping for them this week. A way to stimulate the economy?

Thanks to Élisabeth Humbolt-Lapointe pour the list.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Playing Chicken with Transit: Tremblay Wants Cuts, But Is He Hoping to Get the Feds and Quebec to Climb Aboard?

The Société de transport de Montréal was told to find $40 million to cut from its budget the next fiscal year by Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay yesterday. In all, Tremblay says that $155 million in cuts will have to be found to balance the cityi's books, since revenue from fees and taxes are falling. The borough administrations are going to have to find places to save, which may mean fewer services.

That would be too bad, but the proposed cuts to public transit budgets are the ones that are the most upsetting. Public transport is the way we have to go, both to solve our urban and climate problems and to relaunch the economy. Investing in public transit is an excellent way to provide more jobs as well as to get something that will last for our stimulus dollars. As I wrote yesterday, even a place like Tampa is hoping to use money freed up by the crisis to redress problems which come from our dependence on the automobile to get us around.

But it could be that Tremblay is hoping that the proposed cuts will raise enough concern for the federal and provincial governments to kick in more money for public transit. In that case, where’s the petition? I want to sign.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Tired of Holding Your Breath? Maybe It's Time to Whistle While We Work

Happy days are here again
The skies above are clear again
So let's sing a song of cheer again
Happy days are here again

Copyright 1929 by Milton Ager (music) and Jack Yellen (lyrics)

Today is the day that things are going to look up. I’ve decided that. The rest of you may or may not agree with me, but I am getting tired of holding my breath. The Bank of Canada dropped its overnight lending rate to .5 per cent yesterday, an historic low. The move didn’t stop economic uncertainty and nervous markets, but, heck, let’s take it as sign that things will eventually improve.

The only questions are when? and in what form?

The song “Happy Days” was written in 1929 and we all know how long recovery took back then. Yet I think we should draw lessons from Naomi Klein and the mayor of Tampa, Pam Iorio. The former’s book The Shock Doctrine argued that we must guard against ideologues and monsters of corporate greed who would use disaster to make money and societal changes. Her message may be getting through: as Rahm Emmanuel says “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” and the Obama government seems ready to use this one to do away with several decades of movement conservative doctrine.

Pam Iorio told The New Yorker that the Tampa region should use the opportunity that federal anti-recession money offers to build a light rail system. Not only would such a project provide jobs it would help move away from automobile-centered development. It looks like the project is still a long way from realization—a referendum will probably be held next year--but that’s the kind of thinking we need.

Don’t get me wrong. Undoing the mess we’re in s going to take a lot of work and some fundamental changes in attitudes toward government. But not much is going to be done if we adopt a defeatist attitude. Singing (or whistling, as the Seven Dwarfs did in the Disney film) while we work may raise our spirits enough to get task done.

Note, by the way, the year that Snow White came out: 1937, just as North American governments began to follow what would later be called Keynesian economic policy.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

This Is the Day That Spring Begins Chez Nous

The sun shone in the bedroom of our guest room this morning. The sunbeam entered for only a minute or so, and was just a sliver wide, but it is a true sign of the change of seasons even if the temperature was -17 C (about 2 F) outside.

Streets in Montreal run north and south or east and west—or are supposed to. Actually the basic grid is oriented not along compass lines but in relation to the St. Lawrence as it flows past what now is Old Montreal. This means that the windows on the back of our house—set on the “east” side of a “north-south” street—actually points considerably north of east. March 3 or 4 is the first day that the sun is far enough north in its annual progression toward summer that its rays can enter our house.

The ancients of most cultures had similar bench marks for the seasons—Stonehenge is an example—although usually the solar guides mark the equinoxes or the solstices. In this, as in so many other things, Montreal in general and we in particular are set up to respond to cosmic events in a very individualistic way.

Take for example the fact that this week is a holiday for most schools in Quebec and the Université de Montréal. Last week many schools in Europe had a holiday for Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, while the week after next schools in Ontario and much of the rest of Canada take a week off for March Break. Spring Break is what it’s called elsewhere. Here, however, nobody’s talking about spring yet. Instead this is the time to enjoy the good things about winter—skating, sledding, skiing, snow shoeing and sipping hot chocolate. Spring—which is a soggy, gray couple of weeks here just before the blast of summer begins—will come soon enough.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Three Good Books for a Lazy Sunday

I don’t know when the last Sunday was that I didn’t set foot outside, but yesterday I stayed inside all day. It was cold—near -18 C or 0 F when we got up—but the sun was shining and usually I relish getting out on brilliant winter days. But for whatever reason, once the usual Sunday laundry and chores were done I sat and read.

My excuse was the four book discussions I’m leading this week. While I read the books on the agenda long ago, I wanted to look them over again and to prepare some background information and leading questions. But the books are so good—Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder, Lise Tremblay’s La soeur de Judith and Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino—that I found myself reading large sections of them all over again. A great way to spend a Sunday. I’m looking forward to hearing what the book discussions groups think about them.

The Pierrefond public library and the Atwater Library groups will be discussing the Atwood short story collection, Outremont is reading the Tremblay coming-of-age story (alas! not translated into English yet) while the Kirkland library group has the enigmatic story of love and life in early 20th century Abjerbaijan on its plate. All three, I see now, contain interesting reflections on young love, education and the role of women. I hadn't realized that when I made up the schedules late last summer: sometimes serendipity gives you food for thought.