Saturday, 27 February 2010

Saturday Photo: Sticky Snow Is the Up Side of Slushy Days

We've had steady precipitation for the last few days--some rain, some snow with temperatures considerably warmer than usual for this time of year.

The result has been slushy sidewalks, but also snow that sticks to branches. The effect is quite lovely, if you can stop in your jumping across the slush patches to enjoy the sight.

Since most schools in the Montreal area are off for the semaine de rélâche next week, kids are likely to have a lot of fun making snowpeople and otherwise frolicking. In the mountains less rain and more snow fell, so conditions should be even better for winter sports.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Lucien Bouchard and Friends Call for the End of the Quiet Revolution

Lise Payette, a Révolution tranquille warrior, has a great column in Le Devoir today where she takes to task a number of Quebec notables who are trying to undue more than 40 years of progress. A study group, hand-picked by Premier Jean Charest who one must never forget was once leader of the Federal Conservative party, has just come down with a list of things that ought to be done to "improve" the economy. These include the usual mantra of "balance the budget, cut spending, levy user fees." Tuition fees for higher education are right near the top of this list, of course.

Perhaps this is par for the course, but former Parti Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard Lucien has gotten into the fray too, and Payette takes particular umbrage at his recent cries for tuition increases. He and his cronies have "lost sight of the fact that what we wanted, as a society wishing to leave ignorance behind, was to make university studies accessible for the poorest in our society. But now that the door is finally open, we are being asked to shut it again."

She goes on: "For someone like me, who was deprived of a university education because of poverty, " this is the end of a dream. (My translation.)

Bouchard's sorties probably shouldn't be a surprise: remember he was a Conservative MP when he crossed the floor to become a charter member of the Bloc Québécois in 1990. And that his kids, who are slightly younger than mine and who once lived in the neighborhood, went to private elementary and high schools. In fact, when he retired from politics one of the reasons given was that he had to make some money so they could go to university in the U.S.

Figures, doesn't it?

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Just Beat Them: Norwegian Down Hill Skiiers Show Winning Form

The Canadians beat the Russians last night, which makes everyone around here pleased. Can't say that there has been much Olympic-watching chez nous, but I stumbled upon this, which makes a proper statement about the kind of craziness necessary to hurtle down hills on long pieces of metal with sharpened edges.

Also liked this take from Salon about why people like the Olympics: "We don’t just watch the Olympics -- we gossip about the Olympians."

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

May-December Relationships: It's Better to Pick on People Your Own Age

Pierre Trudeau and Margaret Sinclair

Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow

André Previn and Anna-Sophie Mutter

Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn

J.D. Salinger and Joyce Maynard

What do these couples have in common? In each case the man was least 25 years older than the woman.

The Trudeau-Sinclair pairing probably turned out better than most relationships between men and women young enough to be their daughters. At least Maggie and Pierre had three children together, and remained on relatively good terms until his death although they separated after six years. But the others....

The line of thought arises because a friend to whom I hadn't spoken to for a while told me yesterday that her lover/boy friend has dropped her for one of his students. He's 55, the girl's 23, and when my friend protested that what he was doing was unfair for all sorts of reasons, he said: "But think of me. I may never get a chance like this again."

And as for the girl involved: I've never understood the appeal of much older men. When it comes to men my own age, I've noticed that nobody born much before World War II got the message that women are just as smart as men are. When it comes to younger men like the afore-mentioned cad, he may think she's smart, but it's not her mind he's after.

Photo: Pierre and Margaret just after their marriage on March 4, 1971 in Vancouver. Pierre Caplan for The Globe and Mail.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Singing the Blues about Encroachments on Mount Royal: The Convent Project Seems Headed for Reality

Update, Wednesday, February 24.

Actually, the council didn't approve the plan because 10 members of the party in power weren't there to vote. They'll try again next time, but it shows that when you're in the habit of power, you frequentlyl forget about the basics, in all sense of the term.

Tuesday's post: A bit ironically, as I trudged up the Université de Montréal's music school yesterday, the Montreal City Council was charging toward turning the building just below into 130 luxury condos. Both the music school and the old Mont-Jésus-Marie convent have marvelous views north and east of Mount Royal, and indeed the former butts right up to one of the few places still rather wild on the island.

The university bought the convent a few years ago for $15 million, but either discovered it would be too expensive to convert to academic space(seems there might be asbestos in it) or, through some sleight of hand among friends, was willing to make a little money by easing the way for developers. As I paused at the top of the hill, I could see why some might think the old convent would be perfect for luxury development. There are few finer views around, and what is more the Edouard Montpetit Metro station is just steps away.

Monday the city council to all intents and purposes approved the much-criticized plan. Formal approval by the university is the last step, it seems, and that is a given since yesterday the university announced the appointment of Guy Breton, a proponent of the plan, as the new rector.

There have been rumours that the university would also like to get rid of the music school. It houses the Salle Claude-Champagne, the concert hall with the best acoustics in the city, and the center of a vibrant music scene. Indeed the reason why I was headed there was to get tickets for Le Baron Tzigane by Johann Strauss fils: the hall will be filled for each of four performances. To turn the building over to developers would be very sad, as well as another attack on the mountain.

Monday, 22 February 2010

More High Speed Trains in the Future? Sure Hope So, But Don't Hold Your Breath (Say Is That A Way to Cut Down on CO2?)

So maybe there will, one day in the sweet by and by, a high speed train from Montreal to New York and/or Boston. Le Devoir reports today that one of the things that was agreed on at the meeting of Canadian premiers and US governors was the establishment of a group to study the possiblity.

Of course, there have been groups studying a high speed train in the Windsor-Quebec corridor for a long time: the Harper government trotted out the idea couple of years ago, but nothing much has happened since.

At the same time, Le Devoir reports that the permafrost limit has retreated 130 km north in Quebec since 1957. Is there a connection? Is it maybe time to get started on providing alternate, long-distance transportation. From a passenger's point of view, anyone who has traveled on the high speed trains in Europe would say YESSS!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Saturday Photo: Maintenance Needed to Preserve Beauty

I noticed this week that the two main sections of the ornate, wrought iron gates leading into Mount Royal Cemetery have been removed. Originally installed in 1862, they are being restored and will be back by the end of spring, a large sign announces.

Lee says that the side gates were also taken down in the fall, but I didn't notice that. They're back though, so visitors can still see some of the magical iron work.

The removal underscores the need to safeguard what we have. The last time we were at Chartres Cathedral in France, the peace was disturbed for a good part of the afteroon by the diesel engine workers were using to power the equipment necessary for the restoration work they were doing around the western rose window. But not to do the work would be worse. Like the eternal vigilance which is essential for democracy, so the grubby work of cleaning and repairing is necessary to preserve beauty and our heritage.

Photos: A detail from the gates, and what they looked like open on one lovely day early last fall.

Friday, 19 February 2010

University Budget Woes Mean Less Protest over Ideas, More Strikes over Funding: The View from UC Berkeley and UdeMontréal

Part time faculty at the Université de Montréal are in heated bargaining for a new contract, and have struck twice for half days in the last week. My Portuguese prof Alice Taveres Mascarhenas explained to us what she thinks is at stake, and I must say I find it not unreasonable.

In part to save money, the UdM relies heavily on part-timers, paying them considerably less than regular staffers. According to the contract which expired last summer, they're paid $166 an hour, which works out to about $6,500 for a session-long, three credit course: if they teach two courses both fall and winter sessions, they'll get something in the neighborhood of $26,000. The scale for profs, however, begins at somewhere near $60,000 with many more benefits and, frequently, a lighter teaching load.

It was with this in the background that I stumbled upon a clip from a documentary on one of the formative events of my youth: the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley. One of the striking things about the video is the way that participants recall just how much the debate was about ideas. Problems continue at Berkeley, but now they seem to be even more money-related than the ones at the UdM. That freedom of expression and inquiry has taken a back seat to budget worries is a sad feature of societies who don't recognize that taxes are what we pay for civilized society.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Kamouraska: A Tragic Love Story for the Week after Valentine's Day

This week is book club week, and I've had great fun talking about Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (Pierrefonds, Lloyd Jones's Mr. Pip (Atwater) and Anne Hébert's Kamouraska (Outremont). Tonight Champagne by Monique Proulx is on the agenda in Kirkland.

The hit so far is Kamouraska, a story of love and passion in the Quebec of the 1830s. Claude Jutras made a marvelous film of it with Geneviève Bujold, which apparently has been remastered for DVD but which hasn't been yet been re-released. It is bound to be something worth seeing again.

The picture is from the film: I scanned it from the jacket of the paperback I bought shortly after it was published in 1970. The fact that I couldn't find a more interesting still photo on the Internet, while the only video clip on YouTube is a 39 second one, reflects on the way someone (Quebecor perhaps which apparently is behind the DVD release) is controlling the film. It should be made available more widely.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

How about Some Left Wing Populism to Fight the Tea Party--and Stephen Harper Too.

The New York Times had a disturbing story on Tuesday about the rise of Tea Party radicals in what the French would call l'Amérique profonde. It focuses on groups forming in Eastern Washington state and Idaho--Sarah Palin's original stomping grounds--where concern over real problems like unemployment is driving people to a kind of anarchic, mystic Right.

The story is scary for two reasons. The first is that it seems that none of the Tea Partiers see any solutions for their problems on the left. The Obama Democrats are viewed as the establishment that got the US into the current economic mess, and all government is considered suspect. All of the interesting suggestions that liberals like Paul Krugman have put foward are discounted, but few in the Democratic party are raising their voices to champion them, anyway. This bodes very ill for the country.

The second is the tone of the story. It ends with this nice, retired woman talking about stock piling food and ammunition for a possible civil war. But the story does not succeed in giving any objective measure of the size of this movement. To be sure the Tea Party did well in the Massachusetts senatorial race, but was that because the Democrats didn't work hard enough, or because they didn't offer a clear enough, left wing solution to problems? And how much of this is disguised racism and mistrust of financiers who are all supposed to be Jewish? Is the Tea Party tapping into the Right Wing fantacism that has long been rampant in places like Eastern Washington? (And in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit my extended family living in that part of the world includes several people who I'm sure have never been convinced that the Protocols of Zion are a fraud.)

If anything, it seems to me time for people who care about civil society in the US to stand up and organize themselves, by offering a left wing brand of populism. There were elements of that in the campaign Obama so successfully ran for the presidency. Why abandon the methods and the causes now?

And, memo to progressives in Canada: don't go right to fight Stephen Harper. Stand up and be counted for what's great about this country, which is basically small L liberal and social democratic values.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Few More Cars, But Fewer Car Commuters: New Transit Montreal Area Transit Study

Some good news in this world of woe: public transportion use in Montreal increased by 15 per cent over the last five years, trips by foot and bike went up by 11 per cent, and for the first time in 40 years car commuting actually declined, by 1 per cent. In fact, 25 per cent of commuter trips are done by public transport now.

Monday transit and provincial government officials announced the result of a survey of 66,000 households. Part of an ongoing survey of transportation practices undertaken every five years since 1970, the most recent version was done in 2008. Among the highest increases in public transport use came in Laval and Longueuil, the suburban cities north and south of Montreal island. Three new Metro stations were opened in Laval 2007 with striking results: a 30 per cent jump in bus, métro and train use while automobile trips by Laval residents actually dropped by 1 per cent.

Bravo, I say. There are some caveats to note, though. One is that there are 10 percent more cars that before, even if people aren't using cars as much. The other is that all this transit use has meant more crowded buses, Metros and trains. What must be done now make sure the rolling stock necessary to serve the demand is bought and maintained, so that people don't switch back to using those cars they've got parked outside.

The Serious Music Files: Find Us "New" Music, Give It the Support It Merits, and We'll Listen

t's always fun when somebody comes up to you and says he or she enjoys your blog. That happened on Saturday at a concert the Arion Baroque Orchestra gave of Henry Purcell's "Incidental Musicke." Apparently one young couple--she, a violinist, he, a harpsichordist--follow what I write. I'm not sure how they came across it--probably through Elin--but as I thought about them and the difficult career they have chosen, I found myself thinking of Alex Ross's column last week in The New Yorker.

In it, he talks about the declining audiences for classical music documented in a report done recently by the Audience Demographic Research Review. Audiences for classical music are going to shrink, he says. "You can see clearly how various generations experienced a bump in participation as they got older. The so-called Generation X, however, has yet to exhibit an upward spike as it moves into middle age."

What is the solution? He mentions Le Poisson rouge, a club in New York which now features classical music, the way jazz clubs feature jazz, as a way to broaden the audience. What he doesn't mention is that jazz also is running into listenership problems or that what a musician takes home from club performances is nothing like the income he or she would get regular gigs with orchestras. But when you're paying down student loans undertaken for your musical education and/or trying to finance an instrument of the calibre that serious music requires, you need serious income or you're going to have to change occupation pretty quickly.

The "growth" areas in serious music over the last 20 years have been ones where musicians have led listeners into new areas. Early music is one of them. What is needed to expand audiences now is the same kind of support which encouraged Arion (CBC-recorded concerts, grants, teaching gigs to supplement income from performances) as well as a spirit of adventure on the part of musicians themselves. Find us "new" music to listen to, from the past, the present or the future, or give us "old" music, re-imagined the way Arion treated Purcell's greatest hits on the weekend, or Les Voix humaines did in their recent CD.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Saturday Photo: Heart-Shaped Leaves and Valentine Wishes

I posted about these lovely heart-shaped leaves last fall, and now that Valentine's Day is just a few hours away, I thought I'd share greetings with you which feature them.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Deep Integration Files: Some Exemptions for Education, Culture and Health in Cross-Border Bidding

Hydro Quebec, and health, education and cultural industries will be protected from US companies attempting to force their way into Quebec under the draft accord, Le Devoir reported this morning. Presumably, similar exemptions have been negotiated for other provinces.

This is some comfort to Canadian observers who have been fighting against the idea of "deep integration," that is the near-merging of the the two countries for trade purposes. The changes this could mean for what we have been accustomed to think of Canadian values has been clear. Already under existing trade agreements, Dow has been able to contest Quebec's ban on pesticides. The case, begun in 2008, is apparently before an arbitration panel, but the amount of trouble, money and energy needed to defend a progressive environmental policy is enoughtto make other governments think twice before embarking on similar plans--and for Quebec to waffle about standards under the pressure.

To be followed closely.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Cheap Housing in Cities and Small Communities: Home for Artists, It Seems

Want to know just where Canada's artists live? A new study by Hill Strategies for a clutch of governmental culture organizations gives a fascinating look at the country's artistic geography.

It's one of the Rorschach documents where everyone sees what he or she wants to see. Le Devoir had the story on Wednesday which focused on the number of artists in Montreal, especially in the Plateau District, and the Globe and Mail has followed today with a story that emphasizes where artists live in Toronto. A couple of weeks ago a similar report on artists in small communities prompted a story on the CBC which reported that West Bolton in Quebec, Cape Dorset and Denman and Horny Islands in BC are hotbeds of talent. The data used were from the 2006 census compared with Canada Post postal code maps.

One thing is clear: artists don't make much money, compared to the general population, and cheap housing appears to be a determining factor for where they settle. That works out to concentrations in aging or formerly rundown neighborhoods in cities and small clusters in places outside cities where housing is priced low.

But see for yourself: here are the links to maps of artists in cities , and to the artists in small communities summary. I see that I live in one of the greater concentrations--H2V--but that's really no surprise! There are pockets of expensive housing here, but also a lot of artists who moved in when the housing was cheap and who have remained.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Interesting, Thought-Provoking Art from Nikol Drouin, the Voyeuse

My friend Nikol Drouin will open an exhibit of her work next week at a galley on St. Lawrence. I had the opportunity to see a sample of it a few months ago and was bowled over.

As she explains on her website:

"This series of images began in December of 2007 when a friend lent me his brand new, professional-quality digital camera . My first experience with the camera produced a series of images representing full-figured women inspired by the works of Renoir and Degas at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris as well as a fascinating visit to Pigalle's Musée de l'érotisme. Hence, the "Elle" series began, addressing modern-day expectations with regards to female body image, eroticism and identity. "

That the nudes she presents are not perfect is all the more provocative, since bodies age and suffer but remain passionate. Like the photo of Chico Buarque I posted recently, beauty should be courageous enough to contemplate the passage of time and fortune.

A must see:

Nikol Drouin


17-24 February 2010,
Vernissage, 5-8 p.m. Thursday, February 18

la galerie-espace
4544, boulevard St. Laurent

Monday, 8 February 2010

Walla Walla, Wine and Walking: Thanks, Mrs. Long

My mother's best friend who is now well into her 90s just sent me a copy of Sunset Magazine with a story about Walla Walla, Wa.

Mrs. Long--and all these years later I can't bring myself to call her anything but that--frequently subscribed to Sunset and she always shared with my mother. My father grumbled that each time she came over with a pile of the magazines, he knew he was in for work, because my mother always was inspired by some article to undertake a new project.

Walla Walla was my Dad's home town, and where my mother moved when she was about 18. My sister and I were born there, but the family took off for California in the 1950s, because the city of about 25,000 seemed to hold no future. How amused my parents would be that Sunset rates it now as one of the 20 Best (Small) Towns.

The region's wine production has made Walla Walla a mecca for those who like fine things, and the way it has somehow avoided becoming another sprawling center is laudable. The last time I was there--nearly three years ago--I was able to walk around it easily in an hour or so down tree-lined streets. It appears to be an example of a walkable city planned in the days before massive dependence on the automobile, that still shows its pedigree. And now with wine bars and good restaurants!

Photos: Grapes from Amanda Ewoniuk's My Walla Walla, and street scene from Sunset.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Saturday Photo: Dancing Trees from São Paulo as Carnaval Begins

This picture was taken on a hazy day in Jardim da Luz, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the Western Hemisphere in the heart of São Paulo Brazil. Well, actually it isn't a botanical garden any more, but a lovely center city park that had been allowed to decline for a several decades. When I was there in 2005, it was considerably more respectable with the Pinocateca art gallery flourishing and the nearby train station Estação da Luz being refurbished as a commuter train-Metrô hub.

That work is finished, and I imagine there will be dancing in the streets this weekend as Carnaval begins in Brazil. The samba schools are unlikely to be any more lovely than this chorus line of trees, though.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Blast from the Past: Pixinguinha and Carinhosa

Busy day--wrote three pages in Portuguese believe it or not!--so not much time for blogging. How about this, though: Pixinguinha and his group Os Oito Batutas hit Paris even before North American jazz did in the 1920s.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Good Short Stories: Three Boxes of First Collections and One Volume Whose Editor I Disagree with

Another box of books arrived today! That makes three of them, all containing short story collections up for the Danuta Gleed Award which is administered by the Writers' Union of Canada. Last December I agreed to be one of the three judges for this year's competition (the other two are Ivan E. Coyote and David Bezmozgi) and the books began arriving shortly thereafter. Since the competition closed February 1, I imagine that this box will be the last.

Because of my own projects, I haven't had a chance to start reading the submissions. Indeed, I probably won't get around to it until late March when the deadline for Making Waves comes up. But one of the carrots I am holding out to myself as I struggle with the project is the prospect of spending a couple of weeks doing nothing but reading short stories. What a pleasure that will be!

I'm afraid I can't say the same for the Best American Short Stories of 2009, edited by Alice Sebald. It is the one book I hope that someone gives me for Christmas, and usually I ration the stories out, one a night, for the post-holiday period. But this time I found myself quite unengaged in most of them: too much information and not enough heart, I think. There is no accounting for taste, which is why it's good to make sure that prize juries are rotated frequently.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Quebec, California and Cars: Emission Standards and the Real Way to Protect the Environment

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice put his foot in it this week when he criticized Quebec's new auto emission standards as being an “absolutely counter-productive and utterly pointless” way to cut greenhouse-gas emissions that will supposedly put Canada at a competitive disadvantage in the North American marketplace. "The(y) ensure consumers will basically have to leave that province to buy vehicles, to avoid levies of up to $5,000, because 75 per cent of the latest car and truck models don't conform to the new rules," he said

This is nonsense, of course. The Quebec regulations say that between now and 2016 the province will require light vehicles sold in the province to progressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions until on average they produce no more than 127 grams of greenhouse gas per kilometre. The emission caps apply to a manufacturer's total vehicle fleet, which means companies that manage to come under the limit can either bank their credits, or sell them to others. And, as a spokesman for Quebec Environment Minister Line Beauchamp, pointed out, to meet the targets, all manufacturers have to do is sell more small vehicles.

Quebec and opposition politicians were quick to note, too, that Quebec is going along a path already pioneered by California, which has more vehicles than Canada as a whole anyway.

But what is forgotten in all this is that Canada's vehicles, on average, already do better when it comes to fuel efficiency than what's proposed for California. A study done in 2008 showed that automobiles in Canada had an average fuel efficiency of 30 miles per US gallon (mpg), compared with an average of 25 mpg in the US and 23 mpg in California. But according to a voluntary agreement worked out by the Paul Martin government and the auto industry, the average was supposed to drop to 34 mpg by 2010, while the much-acclaimed California norms would only hit 33 mpg in 2016.

While fuel efficiency and cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions are not the same thing, they are linked. So what we have here is a lot of smoke (coming from car exhausts?) and mirrors (hooked to cars?) obscuring two points:

1) The current Stephen Harper government doesn't care about the enviroment, but does care about the petroleum industry. Their tactic is to attack with half truths to divert attention from what they're doing, which is moving away from any committment to environmental reform

2) Selling fewer motor vehicles, particularly fewer trucks and SUVs, will change the balance enormously. This means better public transport and more walkable, bikeable cities, but few people are talking about this side of the equation.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Fat Men Make More Honest Politicians Than Fat Women?

More to the appearance factor in politics: The Daily Telegraph reports that a study shows people preferring fat male politicans, but wanting women politicians to be thin.

"Voters believed that overweight male candidates were more reliable, honest, dependable and inspiring than their thinner counterparts...They also thought they would be better able to cope with the stresses and the strains of public office. The direct opposite was true for female politicians," the study, directed from the University of Missouri, found.

Seems unfair, doesn't it?

Monday, 1 February 2010

When Looking Good Won't Win Them, Will Looking Ill Prevail? Yes, When Showing Your Age Means Showing Your Experience

One of the things I like about the pictures I posted of Chico Buarque a few days ago, I realized later, is that he obviously has not undergone a lot of cosmetic surgery, while a number of political figures seem to be doing this more and more often. I won't name any names, but several major women figures have lost the wrinkles around their eyes and mouths recently, which raises questions about the role of appearance in our choices of leaders.

Colouring hair? Well, who doesn't do that? (Not me, actually, because I'm far too lazy.) But the time and money spent in trying to appear younger through cosmetic surgery seems to me to be counter productive. Too bad people don't feel more at home with their bodies that they can't let them convey their age and experience.