Monday 31 August 2009

When Fiction Tells the Truth: Robert Capa's Photo and a Priest in Franco's Spain

Controversy is swirling around the authenticity of Robert Capa’s 1936 photo of a soldier dying in the Spanish Civil. The war saw right wing, royalist, and religious forces challenge a republican government, and became a battle field on which many of the conflicts of the 20th century were rehearsed. Francisco Franco took the reins of power during it, and didn’t relinquish them until his death in 1975 nearly 40 years later.

Capa’s photo became a symbol of the horror of war and of the sacrifice of men and women who believed in democratic values. But it seems that it may have been staged: recent close study of Capa's movements during the period when the picture must have been taken shows little or no fighting. Other iconic photos—like the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima—have long been known to have been either re-enactments of events, or outright fakes. To question this one, though, raises more questions about the narratives we tell about past events, and the role of photographs in maintaining them.

We were talking about this last night as we walked to the see La Buena Nueva at Montreal’s World Film Festival. The film tells the story of an idealistic young priest who is sent into village in the north of Spain in 1936 to counter the left wing feeling rampant there. He is witness to the vicious attacks of Fascists, and slowly comes to realize that the true “Good News,” la Buena Nueva, the teachings of Jesus, are diametrically opposite to the them.

Director Helena Taberna, who was present at the screening, said the film was inspired by a story her own family’s history, although she didn’t say how much was invented. Spain is still coming to terms with its four decades of dictatorship, and the film appears to be a way of dealing with truths that were hidden for years. Sometimes fiction can tell a story straighter and more effectively than supposedly objective narration. And sometimes frankly faked photos (and cinematography) show us difficult truths we need to know.

Saturday 29 August 2009

Saturday Photo: The End of the Kitsch Garden

In several Montreal neighborhoods, people have begun to plant flowers around the street trees. Looks very nice, and probably is good for the tree, since a wilting flower is often more successful in crying out for water than a tree is.

But as far as I know, this kitschy little plot near Jean Talon Market is unique. It grew over the last couple of years, nurtured by the people who were featured in last week's post, I think, as it is just outside their doorstep. I'd also guess that passerbys added contributions frequently. It always made me laugh.

You'll notice that I use the past tense. When I went by on Wednesday everything except some tattered plastic flowers and the day lily leaves had been torn up. I'd love to know the story. Did some city official decide it was unseemly? Did the folks who started it get tired of it? Or did the people with the nice little pocket garden have nothing to do with it, and pulled it up as an afront to their own carefully cared for space?

Friday 28 August 2009

Bah Humbug: Gary Doer Joins Stephen Harper's Team

Damn, damn, damn. Gary Doer is going to be the Canadian ambassador to the US. That is terrible news, first because he has agreed to to an appointment from Stephen Harper, and second because that removes him from the debate about health care in Canada and the enforcement of the Canada Health Act.

NDP personalities have accepted appointments from Conservative governments in the past: Stephen Lewis was Brian Mulroney's ambassador to the UN. But to me that smacks of sleeping with the enemy. How can you represent the foreign policiy of such a government as Stephen Harper's?

Secondly, as I said in my last post, I had hoped he would take a leadership role in defending the Canadian health system. Who is going to do that now? The Canada Health Act is under attack and few are the voices raised to defend it.

Do What Doer Did: the Canada Health Act Needs a Champion in the Federal NDP

I know what I hope Gary Doer does now that he’s resigned as head of Manitoba’s NDP and premier of the province: see that the federal NDP takes on defence of the Canada Health Act as a major campaign.

After 10 years as premier of majority NDP governments, Doer says it’s time to step down. "I thought, if you ever get a chance in this job to go out on your own timing, you better take advantage of it,” he said.

But he didn't say he was getting out of public life, and I take that as a good sign.

Two weeks ago at the federal NDP convention in Halifax I heard him talk about how important health had been to successful NDP campaigns in Manitoba. His government has also recently eliminated “tray fees” paid by patients: physicians will be able to bill the province for them, just as they bill for the medical acts they perform. Tray fees are extra charges for disposable equipment and material that are being levied more and more frequently by medical providers, particularly in clinics owned privately. In a report last fall the Canadian Health Coalition said requiring patients to pay such fees directly is likely a violation of the Canada Health Act since they limit access to medically necessary services. The federal government could withhold federal financing as a penalty for allowing such fees, but it has done so very infrequently.

Manitoba also stepped in ten days ago when the Feds were dithering about providing flu kits to First Nation reserves in the province. The federal government is responsible for health care to First Nation people but the province charges that the Feds have not responded in a timely manner to provide the kits, containing masks, gloves, tissue, hand sanitizer, headache tablets, thermometers and information on flu symptoms, to homes on the reserves.

Doer’s government understood just how important it is to stop erosion of our universally accessible health care system. The federal New Democrats ought to take up the fight just as vigorously as Doer and his Manitoba team has. I’d like to think that Doer’s resignation in Manitoba will mean more action by the NDP on the federal level. By resigning effective sometime this fall, he's going to have time to run federally whenever the next election is called, and that sounds to me like a very good idea.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Lion-hearted Music: Elin Gets a New Viol

Elin and Lee are back from their journey to Belgium and The Netherlands to pick up the tenor viola da gamba that Elin’s friend Dutch luthier and gambist Gesina Liedmeir made for her. That’s the sculptured head of the viol: it’s called Lyon, as you might imagine. Since Emmanuel is from Lyon, I think there’s a concept there!

Lee was charmed that his daughter asked him to travel with her (Emmanuel had to work) although he accused her of only wanting him along for the extra baggage allowance! They had a grand time, saw a lot of wonderful things, and heard some beautiful music.

Elin played the new viol for me briefly yesterday afternoon after I picked them up at the airport. It will be great to hear a real concert on it.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Let's Take Back Canada! Khadr Appeal Shows Once Again That the Harper Government Does Not Represent the Canada I Love

This post is going to be short because I am so disgusted. That the Harper government has decided to appeal the Superior Court decision ordering it to repatriate the boy soldier Omar Khadr is a disgrace. The Globe and Mail headline says it all: “Ottawa's Khadr appeal stains Canada's rights reputation.”

A major theme in Jack Layton’s speech at the end of the NDP convention a week ago was “Taking the Country Back.” Let’s do just that! The Harper Canada is not the Canada I chose when I became a Canadian citizen, nor is the Canada of the majority of other Canadians.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Take the Cabbie's Word: Taxi Business Down As Bixis Take up More and More of the Road in Montreal

When a taxi driver complains about Bixis cutting back on clients you’ve got something that is more than just a gadget.

The big question for me when the Bixi, Montreal’s bike share program, was rolled out last spring was: who would use them? Bike riding has grown around here in the last few years, as more bike paths have been constructed on busy streets. Bike traffic is even approaching a critical mass on some side streets. Everybody who might want to ride a bike already has one, right?

No. The locals have figured out how to use the bikes for short strips across town which is what was intended. “It’s real competition for the short trips,” a cabbie told me last week.

They cost $5 a day or $78 a season. Then you can ride for 30 minutes without cost. Fees increase rapidly if you don’t return the bike too one of the stands: the second half hour costs $1.50, the third, $3, and $6 for subsequent half hours. The idea, of course, is not to compete with standard tourist bike rentals, but to provide bikes for short trips, the way Vélib does in Paris.

The latest figures show 8,419 subscribers, 77,070 occasional users, 278 installed stations for a total of 3,612,799 kilometers travelled. Initially there were complaints about vandalism to the Bixi stations and a certain amount of lack of coordination in transferring the bikes around (a key element is making sure the bikes are where the people wanting them are which means some trucking the around town.) But I haven’t heard complaints the last few weeks, and certainly it’s clear that the bikes at the station in the next block are being used.

The Bixi folks are hoping to sell the bike system around the world: London and Boston have just signed on, while Bixis got a try-out in Manhattan and Los Angeles a few days ago. That the system, developed where sane folks don’t ride bikes from mid-November until the end of March, is getting such a welcome in more temperate climes seems to me quite remarkable.

Mid-November, by the way, is what the cabbie is waiting for. “Then business will pick up, “ he said.

Monday 24 August 2009

Shedding a Little Light on the Subject: Hydro Québec Gifts to Private Schools Reopens Financing Debate

Teachers here are going back to school today, and the kids will be coming in for half days beginning next Thursday. The temperature is always hot for the rentrée, and this year it’s a bit hotter than usual because of renewed debate over private school financing.

The public school system was greatly expanded here in the 1960s: previously in the French sector, the only instruction offered after 15 was in private institutions run usually by teaching orders of the Catholic church which led to a baccalaureate in the French tradition, followed by university. Nominally Protestant Anglophones had their own publicly-funded system which had a university- preparatory stream, but both systems were badly in need of an overhaul. The result was a complicated compromise—six years of primary school, five years of secondary school, two or three years of what might be called college and is in French (collèges d’enseignement général et professionel or cègep) and then three years of university for a bachelor’s degree.

The revamp left much room for private schools, and gives them public funding of up to 60 per cent of the average public contribution to public schools. The result is two-tier education system that I’ve been fighting ever since my kids were born. They both went to public schools, and have done well in life, but most of our friends (Anglophone and francophone) sent their kids to private secondary school.

The latest furor concerning this system is the disclosure over the last two weeks of three large gifts—all about $200,000—by the public utility Hydro Québec to elite private high schools. They’ve been forced to give back the money, but the question is raised again: how can you build a good society when the rich can opt out of a public system, and send their (presumably easier-to-educate kids) to private, but partially public supported schools?

Time to debate the question again, time to opt for excellent public schools.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Saturday Photo: Little Italy Garden is the Smallest Yet

How to squeeze a fountain, bird cages, ferns, azalea, and luxuriant tropical plants into a very small space? With great love and care, obviously.

This garden in what otherwise would be lost space between two buildings astonishes me every time I pass. There is small water feature where a maiden pours a stream into a basin, plus wind chimes, figs and bougainvillea. The whole thing is protected by a grill work, but it gives pleasure to everyone in the neighborhood.

Because it's located on the "east" side of the street (really the north east, given the way Montreal's street grid runs) it gets some direct sunshine in the afternoon, although street trees do cut down a bit on the light. Nevertheless, the gardener seems to have found the right balance of plants for the conditions. Where there's a will there's a way...

Friday 21 August 2009

The Canada Health Act at 25: Time to Come to Its Defence

It’s an event I missed, but I wished I’d been there: the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Canada Health Act. André Picard in The Globe and Mail didn’t forget though, and on Thursday wrote about a celebration in Saskatoon sponsored by Canadian Doctors for Medicare.

While Medicare has its roots in the Depression when Tommy Douglas led the way with a provincial hospitalization plan, the whole Canada-wide program was firmly anchored when the CHA was passed in 1984. It sets out criteria for provincial programs, and allows for penalties when they’re not followed: the Feds can deduct money from the funds the federal government gives to the provinces to support health care. The hitch is, as Picard points out, that federal governments of whatever stripe have not been very keen on applying the sanctions. Between 1984 and 2004, a total of $8.7 million was deducted although during that same period, public spending exceeded $1.1 trillion, Picard writes.

This is not because provinces haven’t breeched the act. Recently, in fact, they’ve been nibbling at the “free” part of the plans by allowing the charging of extra fees, particularly in private clinics. A report by the Canadian Health Coalition last October showed 89 possible violations in five provinces, yet nothing has been done to investigate the problems.

“The federal government - under the Conservatives as well as the Liberals - has abdicated its responsibilities under the CHA,” Picard says.

The only good thing in the picture, to my mind, is the talk at the recent NDP convention about the importance of expanding and strengthening Canada’s health system and to keep it public. Indeed, that pledge was Jack Layton’s culminating point in his closing speech last Sunday. Resolutions from riding associations calling for action to defend the health system were approved in preliminary sessions but didn’t make it to the floor for debate because of time limitations. They are supposed to go to the NDP National Council for consideration. Let’s hope they do and that the NDP takes up the cause vigorously. As Picard says, no other political party is doing that.

For the record, here are the five basic standards mandated by the CHA:

Public administration: The provincial health insurance plan must be administered on a non-profit basis, and audited;

Comprehensiveness: The provincial health-insurance plan "must insure all insured health services" provided by hospitals or physicians;

Universality: All insured health services must be provided on "uniform terms and conditions;"

Portability: Insured health services must be paid (at a rate set by the province) even if a patient is treated in another jurisdiction;

Accessibility: The provincial health-insurance plan must provide "reasonable access" to services and provide "reasonable compensation" to medical practitioners.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Go to Mount Royal to Find Pure Air in Montreal, Study Shows: Or Pollution Knows No Boundaries

The health of Montrealers depends on Mount Royal: if there were any doubt about it, new research to be published shortly in Social Science and Medicine shows that the mountain and neighborhoods next to it are much less polluted.

Dan Crouse, a doctoral candidate at McGill University in geography and epidemiology, has been keeping track of nitrogen dioxide--a good indicator of overall pollution-- at 129 points around the island of Montreal for the last couple of years, checking each device in spring, summer and winter. He’s plotted NO2 levels against socio-emographic data, and his results have been a bit of surprise, he admitted to Le Devoir.

Some of the highest levels occur in rather well-off neighborhoods—St. Laurent, Westmount and the Plateau—while the best levels were found in Montreal North, where income levels are much lower and where charges of racial profiling have been big news since a young Latino was killed by police last summer. It seems that the neighborhood is protected by being bounded by a river on one side and not having highways run through it.

And it’s proximity to heavily travelled highways that causes the largest problems, Crouse said. St. Laurent has three major highways crossing it, while Westmount despite its green and toney sections, is bounded on two sides by even busier highways. The Plateau, currently enjoying a gentrification boom which accounts for its relative high income levels, is extremely dense with much car traffic.

Nevertheless, the overall average of 12 ppb in winter , and 8 in summer, is better than that of Toronto, Los Angeles or New York: 22 ppb is the level when respiratory problems develops, according to World Health Organization studies.

But take a look at the map of his data and one thing jumps out at you: the mountain is an island in the middle of pollution. “What they say about it being the lungs of the city is indeed true,” Crouse emphasizes. Getting cars out of the city is a solution to the larger problem, he adds. “Vive the bicycle!”

As someone who walks regularly on the mountain, I'd add: "Long live getting around on your own two feet, too!"

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Memo to Print Media: Monocle's Success Suggests that Maybe Quality and Creative Ideas Are What Is Needed

Just as Reader’s Digest announces that its US operations will be filing for bankruptcy, the British newspaper The Independent has a fascinating story about one magazine owner who seems to be getting it right in this cyber-crazy world.

The venerable magazine—which I loved to read when I was about 10 or 11—insists that employees and its various media products won’t be badly affected by the plan aimed at restructuring its debt. But it is just the latest in a series of print media to run into very stormy seas lately, so the success of Monocle and Wallpaper* is that much more surprising—and encouraging.

Winnipeg-born Tyler Brûlé is the man behind the two magazines. A journalist for the BBC and print publications, he lost the use of his left hand after being shot by a sniper in Afghanistan in 1994. During his convalescence he dreamed up Wallpaper*, a high end life style magazine that became a big success and was snapped up a few years later by Time-Warner. After staying on for a while, Brûlé left it and three years ago launched Monocle.

The magazine, based in London, sells 150,000 copies worldwide at £5 a pop. It has spun off a line of exclusive shops (one is due to open in Toronto soon) and is experimenting with a wide variety of both audio and artistic features.

Brûlé explained the magazine’s success to The Independent: “Media owners around the world are scratching their heads, asking why magazines and newspapers aren’t selling anymore. Why? Because you’ve downgraded the experience. When you are competing against digital, which can zoom in and animate? then your print experience needs to be tactile and exciting and, for magazines, a bit collectable.”

Hey, what a revolutionary thought: concentrate on quality and give your readers good material. Sure, Monocle is at the de luxe end of the publishing world, but there must be ways to translate that message down the ladder.

If print media don’t do that, they’re headed toward the fate of Reader’s Digest. (I did mention that I liked the magazine when I was just old enough to read well? It doesn't hurt to mention that again since seems to me there’s a message there, too.)

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Halifax's Lovely Public Gardens: Times Change, But the Pleasure Goes on

In the cool of the evening Sunday after the NDP convention wrapped up in Halifax, I spent a pleasant hour in the Public Gardens. We’d walked through them in the spring of 2003, back when I was beginning work on Green City, and I had pleasant memories of formal beds full of tulips and daffodils just about to burst into bloom. Since then the Gardens, founded in 1867, have been gone through devastation—Hurricane Juan hit the summer following our visit—and been reborn.

The picture here was taken sometime in the Victorian Age, but obviously people today enjoy it just as much as people did then. Sunday evening strollers admired the fountains and little streams, the band stand, the green lawns, the many tall trees that had survived the hurricane. Others sat on the benches, reading or chatting or simply enjoying the twilight.

There is a difference between then and now, which says a lot about our times, however. Mixed in with the couples of all ages wearing shorts and sandals, the teenagers with bleached and spiked hair, the pretty girls in strappy little sundresses and high heels, and the elderly proceeding from bench to bench with the aid of cane or walker--in short a cross section of mainstream Haligonians--I spied several families visibly rather recently arrived in Canada, with women wearing hidjab or salwar kameez. Even in Halifax, Nova Scotia, so strongly identified with Celtic tradition, the public has changed as Canada has opened its doors.

Beside this fact should be placed another: the young woman (police officer or park guard, I wasn’t sure) who was charged with making sure the gardens closed at night fall. She made a pass through in an electrified cart shortly after sunset, checking under bushes and in a shady glade. Then just before it was well and truly dark, she drove through again, calling out “We’re closing in five minutes.” At the gates when I left, male park employees were wishing people a pleasant evening as they departed, but, significantly, she was the person in authority.

Monday 17 August 2009

What NDP Convention Did Reporters Go To? Not the One That I Did

It's always strange to be away from your usual media sources for a few days, and then to come home and catch up. It's even stranger to find that what has been reported corresponds very little to what you've been experiencing. That's what I feel this morning, having just arrived back home from the New Democratic Party convention in Halifax.

The headlines in The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir today both suggest that some how delegates were robbed of the chance to discuss a name change for the party, specifically dropping the "New." An oxymoron, supposedly. Not in keeping with the idea that party ought togo right in order to win votes.

"Names change debate fizzles," says the Globe. Le Devoir's headline says about the same, and the lead paragraph talks about the name change as "one of the most controversial issues" on the convention docket. There also is much hand wringing about the way the party reaffirmed many of its lefty policies.

But that's what the people there wanted--and it is also, I'm sure, what the people of Canada want.

I was there from 9:30 a.m on Friday until the closing, and I heard practically no one talk about the name change. The two motions didn't even get forwarded from the preliminary sessions where they were considered with a recommendation that they be debated on the floor of the convention. There were far more important things to talk about like child care, and defending health care, and sustainable development, and the crisis in the salmon fishery and... Well, the list goes on and on. I haven't counted but a good 350 resolutions had been submitted from across Canada, perhaps 75 were forwarded from the preliminary sessions with recommendations for further consideration, and maybe 30 were approved on the floor. The rest of the resolutions that made the first cut may be further considered by the National Council.

The convention ended with Leader Jack Layton talking rousingly about "taking Canada back" from the Conservatives. That would make a great campaign slogan. And what about this for a campaign song?

"Don't throw the past away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When ev'ry thing old is new again"

Note: Hugh Jackman lyrics, of course.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Saturday Photo: The Beauty of Invasive Plants

It's a little early for the Saturday photo, but I'm away this weekend and I hope you won't mind.

The blue flowers of chicory are everywhere these days along with overgrown red clover, a grass which my mother called wild oats but which surely isn't, and tall, yellow-flowered plants whose name I haven't discovered.

The flowers have transformed vacant lots and the unused land along the railroad tracks into wild gardens. They aren't wild flowers, as such, though. In almost all cases they are escapes from gardens, plants native to somewhere else which have successfully found a niche for themselves here. In some cases they are so successful they crowd out the local flora.

I have conflicting feelings about these escapes. Certainly the way purple loosestrife doesn't let anything else grow is dangerous for a varied ecosystem. But I give chicory and clover high points for gumption--and charm.

P.S. Just discovered that the grass is wild barley--wild oats is something quite different.

Has That Other Steven Got Some Good Reading for You! 31 Days of Short Stories

I don’t know how he does it but Steven W. Beattie, book review editor at Quill and Quire, has begun an amazing series on his blog That Shakespearean Rag: Notes from a Literary Lad. You’d think his day job would keep him busy enough, but he seems to be set on posting excerpts from and essays on 31 short stories over the 31 days of August.

The selections so far are a treat, and have introduced me to several writers I haven’t read before . So far, in fact, only a few names are really familiar: John Barth, Angela Carter, Barbara Gowdy and Lisa Moore. You could make a summer reading list from the books he’s suggesting, which may be just what he’s intending to do.

The others so far are: “Reference #388475848-5″ by Amy Hempel, “Headhunter” by Ann Cummins, “Pardon Our Monsters” by Andrew Hood, “The Quantity Theory of Insanity” by Will Self, “Out on Bail” by Denis Johnson and “CommComm” by George Saunders.

Check out the blog before heading for your favourite bookstore or library to get something good to read. This Steven is made of different stuff from the Prime Minister.

The Naming of Parts II: When Classification Becomes Poetry

This poem seems to me to be the perfect follow-up to Carol Kaesuk Yoon's essay on classification. In it naming things becomes a comment on life and war and nature. Henry Reed (1914-1986) wrote it while he was training in the British Army in World War II. Born in Birmingham, England, he earned a B.A. from the University of Birmingham (1937), and worked as a teacher and free-lance writer (1937-1941.) His wartime experience led to a series of poems, The Lessons of War. After the war, he worked as a playwright and broadcaster.

The Naming of Parts

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens likecoral in all the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have the naming of parts.

Note: the work seems to no longer be in copyrigh

Wednesday 12 August 2009

The Naming of Parts I: To Classify Nature Is Human, If Not Divine

Carol Kaesuk Yoon in Tuesday’s New York Times Science section gives us a little meditation on taxonomy, or the naming and classifying of plants and animals. It sounds dry and as stuffy as a store room of museum specimens, but she makes it fascinating.

People all over the world name and classify, and in many respects are remarkably consistent in how they do it, she writes. “Cecil Brown, an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University who has studied folk taxonomies in 188 languages, has found that people recognize the same basic categories repeatedly, including fish, birds, snakes, mammals, “wugs” (meaning worms and insects, or what we might call creepy-crawlies), trees, vines, herbs and bushes.”

The ability to do this seems hard-wired into our brains, Yoon says, citing a case where a young man with a brain injury could not identify inanimate objects, but could still remember the names of living ones.

To study and classify is a way to make contact with nature, she says. “We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction... entirely unaware that anything is happening.” But to meditate on an organism’s “ beetle-ness, its daffodility” and then name it is to change everything, including yourself because then “you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.”

Yes indeed. Makes you think of the second chapter of Genesis (verses 19 and 20):

“ And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

“ And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field...”

Old unbelievers like me will argue against divine inspiration, but sometimes we have to recognize a psychological truth.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

A Year out It Looks Like Big Government Saved the Day, Or Why Stephen Hawking Lives in the UK

What a difference a year makes! At this point in 2008, the writing was there for those who knew to read it, but few did. We were tooling along toward an economic meltdown in the middle of a US presidential campaign, with the dog days of summer filled with John McCain’s rants, and Sarah Palin was still in Alaska.

A year later Palin is back in Alaska, and McCain is still ranting, but such a cautious observer as Nobel laureat Paul Krugman is saying that we have averted “the worst,” that is Great Depression II. The reason is Big Government which acted as the federal government did not in 1929. This time it stimulated the economy and provided a counterweight to private sector job slashing through Social Security and other transfer payments, continued federal programs which employ many people, and bail outs for a staggering financial system.

“Just to be clear: the economic situation remains terrible,” Krugman writes. “But in the 1930s the trend lines just kept heading down. This time, the plunge appears to be ending after just one terrible year....And aren’t you glad that right now the government is being run by people who don’t hate government?

I wish that were the same in Canada. It seems we actually are doing a bit better than the US, but we still have Stephen Harper in power, and a bunch of Conservatives who only acted last winter when pushed to the brink by the ill-fated coalition threat raised by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc. Something is going to have to be done about that.

BTW, Krugman's blog today quotes part of the campaign of disinformation going on against the Obama health reform package: "People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless." Er, sorry but I think Hawking spent most of his life in the UK, and it wasn't the US he was talking about moving to a while back, but Canada. Can you imagine what he health care costs would be South of the Border.

Monday 10 August 2009

A Little Quiet, if You Please! Noise in the Urban Setting

When you find out that you’re not the only ones who find something troubling, it’s often very comforting. What’s more, it may also be the beginning of doing something about it.

This time it’s noise, which I’m beginning to think is the next big urban problem. While the sound of heating and ventilating machines are a continuous problems and shoddy construction makes sound transmission within buildings worse, the latest complaints around here are related to outdoor concerts. The Stevie Wonder concert during the Montreal Jazz Festival was a great success, but we could hear it chez nous four kilometers away. And we’re not the only ones: residents of a suburb on Montreal’s south shore say they are being disturbed three nights a week by concerts at a park on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence, at least four or five kilometers from them.

There’s no excuse for this. Sound systems can be fine-tuned (pun intended,) better aimed, or even simply turned down. In fact, this seems to have happened at the Jazz Fest: although there were several other massive concerts, we didn't hear them.

Complaining about noise is not just crankiness. The dangers of high levels of sound are many, particularly for those close by. Just ask those rock musicians who have discovered at 30 that they’re deaf, or the construction workers for whom a whole range of sounds have disappeared because they've worked too long next to noisy machines. For those who are further away, well, there are a number of studies under way which aim answer the question of just effect noise has on our health, mental and physical. A Quebec one, commissioned three years ago, is due next fall.

To be continued...

Saturday 8 August 2009

Saturday Photo: The Fruits of the Summertime

Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries...

The Kingston Trio didn't have the last item in their song from the 1950s, but I kept thinking of it and them the last couple of weeks as I've been buying fruit at the Jean Talon Market. This public market is a fixture in Montreal, and unlike other urban markets (Pike Place Market in Seattle comes to mind) it is a market for locals, not a tourist institution.

You'll find people from all around the world there, sure, but that's where they're from. not where they live now. This means that you were able to find mangos there long before they came widely available, as well as halal meat and Italian sausages. But the backbone of the market is local producers who this time of year have stalls bursting with good produce from nearby.

The spring strawberries are over, the raspberries are at their height, and the blueberries are just coming in. Great eating.

And for a little nostalgic listening, check out my favourite group from my high school days when I had no idea that I'd be speaking French every day, or get to know Paris pretty well.

I always sang along:
"Raspberries, strawberries, the good wines we brew.
Here's to the boys of the countryside, the ones we drink 'em to."

Friday 7 August 2009

A Quiet Spot in the Middle of the City: The Pleasures of Mount Royal Cemetery

If it weren’t for the Mount Royal Cemetery I don’t know if I’d be alive in Montreal today. Or not really alive, anyway. For decades I’ve walked there several times a week, with kids, with a dog, with Lee, but most frequently alone in the early morning. It is a wonderful spot in all seasons. I arrive with my thoughts—a problem in whatever I’m writing, some strategy to think out, an action to plan—and I leave more often than not with a solution, or the beginning of one, or at least with the idea that the world will continue and I with it.

The green space on the north side of Mount Royal was set aside more than 150 years ago as “rural” cemetery like those designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to combine a place of rest for the dead and a bucolic setting for the living. Olmsted made the first plan for Mount Royal Park, and the cemetery which adjoins it is a perfect companion for Montreal’s signature open space.

Yesterday morning, however, Le Devoir vaunted the cemetery’s slopes as great places for cyclists to train, and I’m afraid that some of the peace I’ve grown accustomed to will be spoiled. True, the winding, well-kept asphalt roads must be great to cycle down, after climbing the steep slope that leads up the mountain from the east side, but I hope the place won’t be over-run by pumped-up bikers.

The story has already elicited comments from people who walk or bird-watch there, while cemetery officials are quoted in it as saying that cyclists who “exaggerate” are asked to go elsewhere. Let us hope that cyclists get the message so that the many people (and there must be hundreds) who quietly enjoy the grass, trees, birds and lovely views can continue to do so.

Photo: a summer morning when the cloud cover is so low it's fog.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Fighting Fire with Fire: Green Apple Books on the Web

Time for some silliness. I first saw this on Bookninja, I think, but I’ve discovered where they live on YouTube. The store is a new and used book store in San Francisco, and it sounds like a terrific place. (Just checked the new book listings there, and they’ve got The Walkable City, too. Yay!)

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Mowing a Lawn with a Power Mower Equals Riding a Bike to Work? Stats Can's Spin Is Wrong--and Dangerous

So suburbanites and urban dwellers spend about the same time being physically active? That’s what a new Statistics Canada study would have us believe, that’s what their press release on the study says. But if you look more closely at the whole report some really important differences show up. It’s almost as if Stats Can were trying to provide an apology for automobile-based living.

The study was a large one of people living in several kinds of neighborhoods in Canada’s biggest cities, among them Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary. The participants were asked to keep a time-use diary of what they did. The data were collected from 19,597 respondents, who are said to represent nearly 26.1 million people.

The results indicated that people in suburbs are much less likely to walk or bike in their daily lives, but get exercise working outside on their property. On this basis, the Stats Can press release says that “people living in low-density residential areas are as likely to be physically active over the course of a day as those in high-density areas.”

Very few news stories reporting on the study pointed out that the kind of lawn-mowing and snow shoveling this entailed probably was assisted by machines. None of the stories that I saw featured the next finding: “However, people living in the central neighbourhoods of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas are the most likely of all to be physically active.”

The study report adds that for persons who spent at least nine hours of their day at work or at school and "do not necessarily have time to engage in physical recreation activities, area of residence—urban or suburban—made a huge difference in physical activity. Of those who lived in urban neighbourhoods, 26% made at least one physically active trip. The same was true for only 9%, or about three times fewer proportionally, of the ones living in typically suburban neighbourhoods....The difference is so large (in the group aged 25 to 34) that it affects the overall level of physical activity in the age group: 59% of urban dwellers in the group had at least 20 minutes of physical activity during the day, compared with 49% for those living in the suburbs.

"In short, living in a typically suburban neighbourhood discourages physically active travel in general, with even stronger effects on some groups. That information may be important in campaigns to promote physical activity, particularly those aimed at getting sedentary people to do more.”

The problem is larger than advertising campaigns though. Dense, public transit-friendly, walkable neighborhoods are not only vital to reduce our dependence on petroleum, but for our health as well. Now to get the message across to those who make the decisions about what is built where. Unfortunately the spin given on this study isn't going to help much.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Gates, Hill and Rich: Musings on Race Relations, Beer and Doughnuts

Frank Rich mused most interestingly in Sunday’s New York Times about the problems Henry Louis Gates, Jr. found himself in recently. Viewed by a neighbor trying to get into his home, Gates was arrested by Cambridge MA police. The details of the incident are a little vague, and any ill feelings have been patched over by the public beer Gates hared with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Mass. police drank together last week. But the reaction to the incident in some quarters shows just how far the US has not come.

“The one lesson that everyone took away from the latest 'national conversation about race' is the same one we’ve taken away from every other 'national conversation' in the past couple of years. America has not transcended race. America is not post racial," Rich wrote.

The US may have elected a man of mixed-race as president, but the desire to categorize people because of their skin colour has not gone away. Gates himself very discovered while doing research for PBS series that he is almost without doubt descended from an Irish warlord of the Fifth century. Yet under the categories we operate today, he is not considered to be White. He is African American, or Black or whatever term you want to use. We have not changed that much from the old Civil War category in which a Negro was anyone who had any known African blood.

Compare this with the following excerpt by the novel by Canadian writer Lawrence Hill, the child of two Americans, one White and one who, Hill says, called himself proudly a Negro. The couple came to Canada to raise their children because racial tensions are less here, but nevertheless they still exist. Hill's novel is called Any Known Blood, in fact.

"I have the rare distinction — a distinction that weighs like a wet life jacket, but that I sometimes float to great advantage — of not appearing to belong to any particular race, but of seeming like a contender for many.

In Spain, people have wondered if I was French. In France, hotel managers asked if I was Moroccan. In Canada, I've been asked — always tentatively — if I was perhaps Peruvian, American, or Jamaican. But I have rarely given a truthful rendering of my origins.

Once, someone asked, "Are you from Madagascar? I know a man from Madagascar who looks like you..."

Another time, when a man sitting next to me in a donut shop complained about Sikh refugees arriving by boat in Gander, Newfoundland, I said: "I was born in Canada and I don't wear a turban, but I'm a Sikh. My mother is white, but my father is a Sikh and that makes me one, too." The man's mouth fell open. I paid the waitress to bring him twelve chocolate donuts. "I've gotta go," I told him. "But the next time you want to run down Sikhs, just remember that one of them bought you a box of donuts!"

One of the things Rich adds in his Sunday column is that "by 2042 in the latest Census Bureau estimate" the population of the US will be majority non-White and/or Hispanic. This is "causing serious jitters, if not panic, in some white establishments," he adds.

Guess we'll need some more doughnuts, some more beer if we're ever going to work this one out.

Pictures: Henry Louis Gates, Jr, on the left from PBS. Lawrence Hill on the right from CBC.

Monday 3 August 2009

When Thinking "Nothing's the Matter" Is Necessary to Live

“Milk in the Batter! Milk in the Batter! We Bake Cake! And Nothing’s the Matter!" That’s the refrain of In the Night Kitchen, one of two children’s books that Yann Martel is sending today to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The other one is Where the Wild Things Are, also by Maurice Sendak.

The occasion is the 61st in Martel’s continuing campaign to provide Harper with some good bedtime reading, and, not incidentally, the birth of the first child of Martel and his partner Alice Kuipers.

Both books are children’s classics, and I’d be surprised if the Harper household didn’t have them at one time, if they don’t still. Nevertheless, the books are an opportunity for Martel to muse about the importance of books to children. An adult whose imagination has not been stimulated in childhood is “less useful to society because incapable of coming up with the new ideas and new solutions that society needs. A skill is a narrow focus of knowledge, a single card in a deck. Creativity is the hand that plays the cards. Hence, once again, the importance of children’s literature.”

Very true. There’s also an important message in the silliness of the “Milk in the Batter” refrain. Small children also need to think that no matter how scary the moment is, everything will turn out all right.

That is clearly not true, of course. Horrible things happen, cement blocks fall from tall buildings, wars break out, crops fail. Children will learn that soon enough, but like all of us, they need to believe on one level that “nothing’s the matter” in order to go to sleep, to try new things, to love, to live.

Welcome to the world, little Theo, by the way. You’ll find it an interesting place. Your parents, I'm sure, will do their best to make see that you grow up confident that it will all turn out all right.

Saturday 1 August 2009

Saturday Photo: Urban Lions

It takes all kinds, they say. That goes for lions too. The one on the left is carved from granite or some interesting stone and is part of a pair guarding the stairs leading to an imposing house on Côte Sainte Catherine Road.

The picture on the top right is of a lion in concrete in front of a much more modest dwelling in Montreal's Plateau district. It probably has a more devoted group of fans than the other one, I imagine. As I passed it one morning recently, a man and his little boy in a stroller--probably on the way to day care--were talking about it. Obviously it is a landmark on their daily round.

The other one is much less approachable. Not only is it in a considerably more chic neighborhood, but it is on a street which doesn't get nearly as much pedestrian traffic. I'd gone past it hundreds of times on the bus or in a car before I walked in front of it and discovered the lovely workmanship. Art for the masses, or art for the elite?