Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Write to NDP MPs Who Voted to Abolish the Long Gun Registry, Urging Them to Support It This Time

When the kids were little I spent a great deal of my time involved in community and political affairs. It seemed to me that I ought to do whatever I could to make their world a better place. The political activity has continued, but not with the same passion that it had in the 1980s when I also, it must be said, was not deeply involved in writing projects.

But now with little Jeanne in the picture, my concern burns brighter. I spent several hours last night writing letters to the 12 NDP MPs who voted last spring in favour of a private member's bill to abolish the long gun registry. As a long time NDP supporter, I'm shocked and extremely disappointed at the party's vacillation on this issue which will come to a vote shortly after the House of Commons resumes sitting in September. The system for registering firearms is the one good thing to come out of the horrendous massacre of 14 young women in December 1989 at the Université de Montréal's engineering school.

That night some reason Elin, who was 14, was already in bed when a neighbor called about 10 p.m.with the news that something dreadful had happened. As Lee tried to find more details on the radio and TV, I remember going in Elin's room and taking her in my arms and rocking her as if she were a baby, so glad she was safe at home.

Needless to say, I supported the gun registry from the beginning, and with a new generation arriving, I support it even more. If you would also like to register your support, here are the emails of the 12 NDP MPs:

Ms. Niki Ashton: Ashton.N@parl.gc.ca
Ms. Carol Hughes: Hughes.C@parl.gc.ca

Malcolm Allen: Allen.Ma@parl.gc.ca
Dennis Bevington: Bevington.D@parl.gc.ca
Nathan Cullen: Cullen.N@parl.gc.ca
Claude Gravelle: Gravelle.C@parl.gc.ca
Bruce Hyer: Hyer.B@parl.gc.ca
John Rafferty: Rafferty.J@parl.gc.ca
Peter Stoffer: Stoffer.P@parl.gc.ca
Charlie Angus: Angus.C@parl.gc.ca
Glenn Thibeault: Thibeault.G@parl.gc.ca
Jim Maloway: Maloway.J@parl.gc.ca

Monday, 30 August 2010

Wanting to Own a Corner of the World: People, Housing Dreams and Public Policy

The Globe and Mail on Saturday explored "The Death of an American Dream," that of owning a home and using it as a hedge against retirement. The collapse of the housing market there means that a a sizeable percentage of home "owners" have mortgages larger than the resale value of their houses: in five states, the percentage is running at 25 per cent or higher.

The New York Times has also had wealth of stories on various aspects of what is happening in the housing market there. "At the peak of the bubble, the rate of homeownership approached 70 percent," Joe Nogera wrote on Friday. "Now it is falling toward 65 percent — which is more or less where it was before all the housing madness of the last decade. That means that millions of Americans who were briefly homeowners need to become renters again. "

Wanting to own your own corner of the world is a very strong desire, not just in North America but in places with cultures and economies that are quite different. The informal construction of suburbs around Brazil's cities is testament to this: James Holston's excellent Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil details the lengths that people there go to build their own houses and claim a little land. Singapore constructed a city of highrises in tune with the idea of home ownership: now more than 80 per cent of residents live in government-constructed flats and more than 90 per cent own the place where they live.

In North America, part of the incentive to buy apparently has been the idea that rising housing prices are an investment. Those who bought into that part of the dream have certainly come to grief as prices fall in the US. But the story is not all bleak: at least they have something to show for their money. Had they rented they would not have anything. What this means for public policy is that ways should be found to support the housing dreams of ordinary people to own something, but not to get rich as some were led to believe they could in the halcyon days of the real estate bubble.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Saturday Photo: Time for a Little Rest in the Middle of the City

This has been a very busy, slightly stressful week, so the photos today are of islands of tranquility in the city.

The first is a tiny front garden with a Japanese lantern that rests the eye.

The second is a flourishing grape vine, glimpsed through what was once a porte cochère, the opening that was used to lead horses to stables at the back of the lot. The building has begun to lean a bit with the passage of time, sort of the way I feel today!

Friday, 27 August 2010

First Pictures of the Tiny, Perfect Baby: Jeanne Entertains at 12 Hours

These were taken last night at the hospital when Jeanne was about 12 hours old. Elin looks pleased and Jeanne looks a bit surprised by all the attention. Emmanuel was nearby, but busy telling everyone what a great experience it was.

Lee wanted to take a picture with the milk container to get some idea of how big she is. There will be more pix later, but just to let you know....

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Good Excuse Not to Have a Long Post: Elin and Emmanuel's Daughter Arrives.

Not much of a post today because Jeanne Élisabeth Mary Nivon arrived at 8:45 a.m. after 41 weeks and four days of gestation. She's little and perky, and her parents are doing well. It was a long story that ended well with a normal birth.

I ended up spending the last eight hours with them, and so had the privilege of being there when Jeanne was born. There's something to be said for being an observer and not a participant!

There will be photos soon.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

G-20 Protesters Have Their Day in Court and the Plan to Put Down Dissent Becomes More Visible

Jut a few words on a busy day to note that all the criticisms of over-reaction by security officials during the G-20 meetings in Toronto last June appear to be warranted. Reports from yesterday's trial dates show that most of the 1,100 arrested did nothing very wrong.

Eight hundred were jailed, but never charged. And, notes The Toronto Star, of 304 charged, "the government now acknowledges that nine were fingered mistakenly. Another 58 more had their charges withdrawn or stayed Monday during a mass court appearance" Among them were a uniformed TTC ticket-taker on his way to work and a young woman with eyewash in her backpack, which apparently police called a “weapon of opportunity."

Dissent is targetted again. The Harper government and its friends are out to kill it, and determined to deny--hell no, to not even collect-the facts.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Ta Da! The Cover Arrives!

As I worked on the revisions to the text of Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure yesterday, an e-mail from Simon arrived with a jpeg of the definitive cover. It's a reworked version of a lithograph from the 16th century which I quite like.

Now back to work on the book itself!

Monday, 23 August 2010

So Why Does Someone Born McGowan and Married to a Soderstrom Write a Book about the Portuguese?

That's a question that arises as I finish up Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure. Simon Dardick, Véhicule's head honcho, sent me back revisions on Friday and I've been working hard ever since, trying to respond to the suggestions and clear up questions.

But I may have part of the answer in the suggetion for a "friend" thrown up a couple of weeks ago by Face Book. Perhaps because I've been following several musicians, a couple of weeks ago, I got a notice about the Bagpipes of Portugal group. What a delight!

I always knew that Portugal had a strong Celtic influence early on, particularly in the north, but I didn't know it also has a tradition of bagpipes. Here's an appearance by a group which combines piping with drumming that seems to come from another big influence on Portuuese culture: Africa. Sorry, but I can't tell you what the words are except to say that there's mention of "O pai" or "Father"...or so I think.

Update: I found the lyrics, which contain a lot of colloquialisms. The nearest I can figure is that it's a courting song about the singer's father and mother: the refrain is something like "let's get hitched" or maybe something a little naughtier. Goes with the pounding beat, for sure.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Saturday Photo: The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower Also Is Stronger Than Concrete

Someone--perhaps inspired by Roadsworth, Montreal's legendary street stenciler or maybe even Peter Gibson himself--has been stenciling the word "Resistance" on sidewalks for the last month or so. Each stencil points to a place where plants have pushed up through cracks in the urban hardscape.

The word works in both English and French, so it's appropriate in this officially French city. It's also particularly apt as the summer begins to wind down. There is greenery everywhere, which is a balm to the eyes and the spirit. And it is a delight to see that nature is always working on reclaiming the world.

The line "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower" is from Dylan Thomas, BTW.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Plot, Mystery and Stories: Literary Lessons from Lorrie Moore and Audrey Niffenegger

The pile of books by the side of the bed has been tall all summer. In addition to a number of gift books, there have been a series of what might be called directed reading. These are books I think might be useful for my projects but which are light enough (intellectually as well as physicially) to read at bedtime.

But I've also read two recent novels for no reason other than I saw them on the shelves at the library: Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Both were excellent reads, but very different even though the stories are both centered around young women from the US Midwest and both have death and deceit at their core.

What is different is the role that plot plays. In the former, Moore gives us a mystery with political overtones told against a rather banal landscape of college and dysfunctional family and thwarted young love. The latter is weird tale in which twins whose mother was a twin inherit a London apartment from their mothe's twin. College and dysfunctional family and thwarted young love are important here too, but Niffenegger constructs her story as if it were a jigsaw puzzle with ghostly, cosmic overtones.

Moore takes care to drop her clues along the way, but the book also is full of brilliant observations about race in the United States, adoption, filial love, and war. These are not strictly necessary to advance the plot, but the story's value lies in just these almost-digressions. It is as if Moore, whose last work of fiction was published a decade or so ago, had stored up all her reflections about American life and worked to include them in her novel, which otherwise would be of relatively little interest.

Which is better? Niffenegger is full of delightful shivers that makes death not that terrible, and as such probably has more popular appeal. But in the What's Good sweepstakes, Moore wins because her book, while flawed, has foundations far deeper than its story.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Winning and Not Winning: When Turning out to Demand a Referendum Does Nothing

The folks who live around the former Mont-Jesus-Marie convent on the northern slopes of Mount Royal thought they'd stopped the conversion of the 80 year old building to condos but turning out to sign in favour of a referendum on a zoning change is not going to do that.

The measures in question didn't deal with the right of the developer to convert the building into luxury condos--despite what many citizens apparently believed--but with small aspects of the design. Some of them, like requiring interior parking, actually might make any project better. Faced with the costs of holding a referendum, the city simply decided not to require the changes to the plan, and will let it proceed as previously approved. This will avoid a referendum, but won't stop the controversy.

The Université de Montréal owns the building, having acquired it from a religious order in order to convert it to classroom, office and other university uses. Since then the estimates of conversion costs have increased substantially and, besides, the university has acquired more land in Outremont on former railway switching yards on which to build.

Interestingly, about 10 years ago Outremont citizens turned back an earlier attempt to develop the yards into housing by a demanding referendum on zoning changes. In that case, the city withdrew the zoning bylaw, but since it concerned the right to develop, not mere aspects of already approved development, the project died.

As for this one, well, Lee suggests that the building should be just torn down and the whole area turned into a park....

Photo: Project Montreal

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

More Time Travel: Pictures from the Deep Past and a Month Ago

This arrived in the mail on Monday: a photo taken many years ago when my parents were living in West Seattle and we were visiting. My cousin Cathy Retterer found it among their things recently, and kindly sent it on.

Lukas says he had to "adjust the colour" to see that it was Lee and not himself sitting next to me: they really look a lot alike, even though in the picture Lee was three years younger than Lukas is now. And there's me with the same goofy smile that shows up in all my pictures going back to when I was five. The hair's considerably lighter and whiter now: nobody would ever guess I had flaming red hair once upon a time.

Just in case you'd like to compare, here's a photo taken about a month ago by another cousin, Mary Lynn Thompson, during her family's visit to Montreal. Elin, I see, has a smile not unlike mine, but thank heavens on her it's not goofy, but charming.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Alternate History Department: If Thomas D'Arcy McGee Had Had His Way Canada Would Be English and French ...and Quite Different

Right now I'm in the midst of reading about time in its various configurations. The book in hand is Clark Blaise's excellent contemplative biography of Sir Sanford Fleming, the founder of our system of 24 world-encompassing time zones. Called Time Lord: The Remarkable Canadian Who Missed His Train and Changed the World, it is a model of what an intelligent study for the general reader should be.

The book is leading me to many reflections, and I'll have more about them later. For the moment, note the section about Fleming's involvement in Canadian confederation. Apparently, his close friend Thomas D'Arcy McGee--martyr and Father of Confederation--wanted the unification of the various colonies of British North America under a prince of the English royal house, and daughter of the royal family of France. Of the former there was no dearth: Alfred, Victoria's second son was not yet married to his Russian granduchess, while Arthur and Leopold were teenagers. The latter might have presented some problems, however: Napoléon III, the monarch of the day, had one legitimate child, a son. Whether the daughters of various pretenders might have been considered is an interesting question.

Fleming, Blaise quotes a friend, believed that such a union would "have the happiest influence upon the destinies of the North American Provinces. It would be received by the French portion of the people as a hig compliment to themselves. It would bury, by amalgamation with their present feeling of allegiance to Englang, any still lingering memories of the land from which they have sprung...At least it would appeal in a powerful manner to those sentiments which are so accessible to the French temperament and would increase immensely that feeling of common interest and commmon country which is so desirable to foster and develop."

Hmm. Hardly likely, if you ask me. But the idea invites speculation. Would there have been an official residence here, and what would the language spoken within its walls now, more than 135 years later? Like chez nous, where conversation may start in one official language, and then veer off into the other?

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Saturday Photo: Front Gardens in Saint-Léonard

Elin and Emmanuel live in the Saint Léonard suburb of Montreal. It was built largely in the 1950s and 60s: the duplex where they're renting the top floor was built in 1961, and is owned by a couple who came from Italy as young people. They are avid gardeners, with fruit trees and tomatoes in back, and on the front steps, gorgeous geraniums. Earlier in the summer the bromeliad to the left of the picture was even more spectacular, but I never had my camera when I was visiting and it was in bloom.

Down the street a family of Vietnamese origin have installed a water garden. The flowers around the pond bloom in a well-considered order, and the fish swim happily.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Skittery Minds: Plague of the Internet Age, or Simply Tryng to Avoid Work?

I've always been a lateral thinker, which has its advantages. It's a very good way to ferret out connections and uncover patterns when you're considering a problem. It's also a way of thinking completely compatible with using the Internet.

This quick jumping from idea to idea is coming under increasing criticism these days, though. FaceBook and Twitter only exacerbate the temptation never to linger so you can think something through, read to the end of a paragraph, an article or, heaven forfend, a book. Decrying this tendency is even becoming a small cottage industry, as in Nicolas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

And as I switch gears and look for new projects--two that I've been working on for some time are reaching fruition--I find my mind skittering off frequently when I sit down to read something. Even with a book in my hands, I often can't avoid looking up a reference on the Net, or trying to follow up a thought which my reading has prompted.

Does this mean I've become deformed by the ease with which I can find out just when Le Corbusier died or who is mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, these days? No, I don't think so. I'm just doing what I've always done when I've been not sure of what direction I should go, or, more frequently, when I'm stuck and I don't want to work.

What is necessary is to sit there and keep at it, not to give up, and, certainly, not to blame the equipment.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Summertime and It's Time to Celebrate: Nossa Senhora do Monte in Montreal

A little local colour for another fine summer day. Last weekend was the festival of Nossa Senhora do Monte at Missão Santa Cruz, the Portuguese church in the center of Montreal.

If you were in Funchal on Madeira, where Nosssa Senhora do Monte is the patron saint, you would be getting ready to celebrate this coming weekend. On the island, August 14 and 15 are holidays where good food, dancing and fellowship are mixed with ceremonies of reverence to the saint who, it is said, has come to the aid of residents of Madeira for centuries in time of hardship. The church, shown at the left in a photo courtesy of the tourist bureau, is in the Monte district of Funchal, I discovered after Googling a bit: I had previously thought the "Monte" part was some how related to Mount Royal.

But it isn't, and other things are different here. The people who attend the local festival are not only from Madeira, but other parts of Portugal as well as their Montreal friends. In addition to religious services, there is music and dancing, as well as a barbecue that is to die for. I took the top picture in the middle of Saturday afternoon when the lunch crowd had left, and the supper rush hadn't started. But in early evening when Lee and I strolled by the parking lot in front of the church was full to overflowing with people waiting in line to eat and listening to music by local groups.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Mount Royal Cemetery Gates under Repair: A Life Lesson amid the Graves

You can't drive through the gates at the Mount Royal Cemetery these days. Instead of this welcoming sight, you're stopped by orange cones and directed to enter by the side driveway.

The ornate gates themselves which date from the 1860s, were taken down last fall, and scheduled to be reinstalled last spring. But, according to staff I talked to recently, examination of the stonework before they were put back showed that water had infiltrated and the cracks compromised the whole construction. Whether the damage can be repaired wasn't determined when we spoke, but I was told that even if the gateway had to be dismanteled it would be reconstructed as before.

That's good. The cemetery is one of the jewels of Mount Royal. That the gateway might have to be completely rebuilt points out the facts that time works its ways unceasingly, and that our vigilance and effort are continually required to safeguard what we hold dear.

That could extend that to other aspects of life too--like democracy--n'est-ce pas?

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Richard Stursberg Goes, and Hilter (or Should That Be Somebody Else Whose Name Begins with "H") Is Furious

Update August 13, 2010:

Seems that The Tea Makers is no more: too scalding hot, perhaps? The site wasn't accessible yesterday and here's what's there today:

The Tea Makers


He loved Big Brother.

- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

Update August 11, 2010: There has been some chit chat on The Tea Makers blog about whether this video is in bad taste. I agree, Hitler jokes are offensive.

However, it seems to me that we are slipping slowly into a political situation in Canada where the best things about the country are being chipped away by an intelligent man who has given himself the mandate of remaking our society fundamentally. The current government is not targetting any particular ethnic group, thank goodnesss, but it is important to protest what is going on. The dumbing down of the CBC is part of this.

Original post:

The "removal Friday" of Richard Stursberg from his post as head of English programming at CBC may be a cause for hope among those who believe in public broadcasting and what the CBC/Radio Canada could mean to this country. He's the guy behind the gutting of Radio Two, it seems, as well as a lot more fluff on TV.

Now, I don't watch much TV, but I do know that the changes at Radio Two have done absolutely nothing for that network's ratings in markets where it's possible to make a comparison: see my earlier posts here and here. Radio Canada seems to have recognized that (a somewhat similar change was made there before the one at CBC) and actually has begun to promote classical music broadcasting in the evening. Hubert Lacroix, being a Francophone, ought to be more sensitive to this than Stursberg was, so maybe there's hope that Lacroix will reverse what's happened on Radio Two also

Below you'll find a terrific video made by Alphonse Ouimet of The Tea Makers, which is a great comment on the situation. You won't find it on You Tube: Ouimet says that as soon as he posted it, it as taken down.

One comment: in the video, Ouimet has Hitler talk about a 2.1 million TV audience as being the greatest the CBC has ever gotten for made-in-Canada drama/comedy. Locally produced drama/comedy in French Canada gets that quite often, with a universe of possible viewers that is only about a third the size. Says something about what happens when you work at building local talent and audiences.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Russian Fires Fueled by Deregulation: the Annals of Wrong-Headed Government

Wild fires are never pleasant, and the images from Russia lately have been pretty upsetting. Back in May Montreal was blanketed for a day or so by smoke from fires burning in Northern Quebec, but nothing like Moscow has been experiencing, it seems. The hot weather and dry conditions are the cause, some reports say. A case of climate change, others suggest.

But there's more to it than that: plain old capitalist-inspired deregulation is making a bad situation that much worse, Julia Ioffe wrote in The New Yorker blog yesterday:

"A strong argument could be made for calling this disaster Putin’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, then-President Putin, in consultation with the Russian timber industry, “reformed” forestry regulations, eliminating positions for rangers, making each of the remaining ones responsible for more territory, increasing paperwork so they spent hardly any time outdoors monitoring the forests—and, on the off chance that they did spot a small fire while on patrol, making it a punishable offense (a misuse of state funds) to put it out. The organization charged with extinguishing fires was the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which responded speedily and capably to the Moscow Metro bombings in March, but a 2005 reform instituted by Putin left regional emergency outfits severely underfunded.

"Except for the minority who read news in papers or online, Russians would never know that shoddy, nonsensical, industry-friendly deregulation was responsible for this natural disaster as much as the weather."

Sounds a bit like what happened with offshore drilling in the US and the tar sands in Canada, doesn't it?

Moral: deregulation is not good, no matter who does it.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Saturday Photo: An Electrifying Urban Agriculture Experiment

There's been much talk about urban agriculture this week in Montreal. The Université du Québec à Montréal is sponsoring a series of walks to showcase two neighorhoods where ordinary folk and university types are growing a multitude of vegetables, McGill has its Centre for Urban Agriculture , there's a festival honouring organic farmers this weekend.

This week Elin also showed me the most urban garden I've seen in some time. It's growing under high tension electrical pilons on the edge of a residential neighborhood of duplexes and modest single family houses, not far from a major highway. St. Léonard--the name of the borough where it's located--is home to a large number of Italian immigrants and their offspring who have turned backyards into bountiful gardens, but this small patch takes the prize for hardwork and originality.

The top left photo shows what the garden looks like from the parking lot of the auto dealership next door. The top right one was taken looking down from the picnic tables, and the third, from the gate where the gardener(s) enter.

The day we were there a second crop of beans was coming up, squash of some sort were setting flower, and there were lots of tomatoes just about ripe. Underneath another pilon cheerful sunflowers and a few zuchinni were also growing (bottom left.)

Friday, 6 August 2010

The Real Elephant in the Room: Health Care User Fees

The cost of Canada's supposedly universally accessible health care system is the "elephant in the room," many media quoted Quebec's Premier Jean Charest as saying at the Council of Canada meeting on Thursday. What wasn't reported as much was his proposal that user fees be instituted to defray the cost.

The CBC--reading from a press release from Charest's office, I presume--mentioned them prominently yesterday, but this morning Radio Canada, which hadn't, said that the premiers of British Columbia and Ontario dismissed the idea. They noted that studies show that user fees are counter productive since they discourage people from getting treatment when they need it and end up increasing costs. Canada's health care system is one of our "definiing" institutions, they and others added.

That's exactly the kind of response that Charest got last spring when his government proposed fees in Quebec. Doctors, citizens' groups, individuals: there was a great outpouring of condemnation for the idea. The result seems to be that Charest and friends have removed it from their immediate plans.

But here Charest is again, bringing up what health economist Robert Evans calls a "zombie" idea. It's possible that Charest is brandishing it in hopes that the outcry will be so loud that Stephen Harper won't dare cut health care funding to the provinces. There were those in Quebec, after all, who said that the idea was floated here only as a trial balloon and to make a sort of enrollment fee (not unlike ones in British Columbia and Ontario, as it happens) more easily accepted.

This is playing with fire, though. User fees are no solution to health care's problems, and opening up the Canada Health Act (which allows the feds to reduce payments to provinces who charge them) in order to make them legal would be a giant step toward a health system that is more inefficient, costly and profitable to private medical entrepeneurs.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

With a Little Help from One's (Influential) Friends: Two Tales of Privatization

Having children and changing highway signs are orders of magnitude apart in importance, but Quebec has just demonstrated how having friends in the right places links them.

As of today, couples in Quebec can have in vitro fertilization treatments paid under the Quebec health plan following a public relations campaign led by media star Julie Snyder. Interestingly, she just happens to be the conjointe of media king Pierre Karl Péladeau and mother of two of his children conceived in vitro.

Two days ago the union of public employees (Syndicat de la fonction publique du Québec) pointed out that the province will be replacing all highway signs over the next few years, an undertaking that curiously coincides with the closing of the province's sign-making facility and a switch to private contractors.

Snyder was present when the change in funding measures was announced last week, smiling happily with health minister Yves Bolduc. The program will cost about $70 million, at a time when complaints about health system short-falls in other areas are rampant. And, while many of the treatments will take place in hospitals, perhaps half will be done in private clinics owned by physicians. Ka ching, ka ching, as Snyder used to say when she did Master Card commercials.

The sign replacements will use a different type face which is supposed to be easier to read by aging motorists, and, after the union pointed out how some perfectly good signs had already been replaced, the Ministry of Transports quickly said that in the future the changes will be made only as existing signs age and need replacement.

Both initiatives have their good points--I mean, who can be against motherhood or helping the elderly?--but they also confirm that who you know counts a lot in a governmental culture that thinks privatization is the way to go.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Rainy Day Photo: A Lovely, Naturalized Mystery Flower

We are funny creatures: the weather has been dry for several days, and I'd begun to fret about it. Then we had a day of heavy rain yesterday with more forecast for today, and I find myself looking for bright things. Therefore this photo that I took on Monday as I wandered and wondered in Montreal's Saint-Michel district.

More about that some other day, but today's let's revel in the brilliant colour and general exhuberance of this mass of flowers growing, seemingly unculivated, at the back of someone's garden. What it's called is anybody's guess. It probably is a helianthus, or a member of the sunflower family. But as Patricia Little wrote in Canadian Gardening: even though "armloads of double, yellow pompom flowers spill forward from the sides of barns and the verandahs of older houses...no one knows the proper name of this two-metre-tall perennial: 'Been here as long as I can remember—never do a thing for it. My mother called it ‘Golden Glow,'' says a neighbour—which is as descriptive a name as any."

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Slow Down, and Think: Ruminations about Time

Just as I begin thinking seriously about time and what endures as time passes (roads for one thing, if you're curious) Le Devoir has an interesting profile of French thinker Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber, whose new book Trop Vite! deals with our obsession with the short term. It appears the book hasn't been translated into English, but it looks like it might be worth the effort of reading it in the original.

Time has always been relative, even when considering it in non-theory of relativity terms. Two commonplace examples: How long a nap on a summer afternoon can last when you're a child waiting to do something interesting like going swimming! How short the time a child sleeps when you're a parent with a million things to get done with interruption!

And of course there was that curious business with Y2K. The kids who wrote the code in the mid-1970s when computers were just taking off didn't think that 25 years down the line a change in century might create problems if you didn't include enough spaces in dates. They were in their 20s themselves, and the idea of being 50 was not even considered.

But now our nano-second, instant communication world has been transformed at the speed of light, or the speed of electrical impulses. Perhaps it is time to slow down and think about what all that means.

Hot, humid summer days are perfect for that, or for taking a run at a book in French...

Monday, 2 August 2010

What Kind of Life Would You Settle For? Questions about How to Treat Life-Changing illness

At the moment we have a dear friend who is up against a progressive cancer, and who is being treated more and more agressively. Her hope is to get a few more years of active life, but from the viewpoint of an observer, it seems that she might be chasing an illusive dream. The treatment is devastating and so far the results are not promising. The question is: would she be better off to spend what time she has left receiving supportive care, and not to submit to such drastic stuff.

We can not enter into that discussion, being merely friends, but two articles this week provide a good frame for reflection. The first is in today's Le Devoir, detailing a study at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital which suggests that two out of three cancer patients there receive drug therapy where one or more of the drugs may exacerbate problems.

The second is a thoughtful essay in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande, entitled "Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When It Can't Save Your Life?" One of the chief things he mentions is the need to discuss exactly what one expects from treatment, and to weigh the consequences of treatment. One of the anecdotes he recounts is about a doctor whose father who had become quadriplegic. What kind of minimum life would he settle for: to be able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on television was the reply. Therefore a series of interventions were ordered which resulted in his survival--for ten years, during which he wrote several articles and did much more than his minimum desiderata. But at one point, it all became too much, and he elected to stop treatment in order to die in peace.

Big questions, not necessarily welcome on a lovely summer day, but ones which we all will have to face.