Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween: Obesity Versus the Occasional Splurge

This year it seems like Halloween has gone on forever. Today's the day, and I expect not much is getting done in schools all across North America as kids parade around in their costumes and prepare for the candy gorge today. But there have been parties (often only for grownups) since Friday night which means almost four days of festivities.

This morning Radio Can interviewed a cardiologist who compared the menace of obesity to that of smoking 40 years ago. Attitudes towad smoking have changed dramatically, and he said that the same must happen to attitudes toward too much fast food and other empty calorie food. Otherwise, he said, we are going to be faced with immense problems of diabetes and heart disease as overweight childen become overweight adults.

How does Halloween fit into this? Halloween was once a rare moment when children could stuff themselves with candy, but now excess has become part of the daily fare.
Far better to splurge occasionnally. Not only do the moments of sugar high seem more intense because they stand out more from ordinary life, their effects on health have got to be less.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Sunday Music: CBC Two/ Espace Musique Play an All-Day Concert of Serious Music

This is what the two services of the public broadcaster should be playing all the time: the very best in serious music by Canadian performers.

Concert in Canada


Espace Musique

Why wait for the 75th birthday to do this, particularly when the Harper government is out to cut their funding?

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Saturday Photo: Rebuilding the Cemetery Gates

Who would have thought that climbing hydrangeas could do such damage? But given enough time and the cycle of freeze and thaw in this climate, and it probably should not be a surprise that the lovely vine--which covers the gates to the Mount Royal Cemetery--has done considerable damage.

About two years ago, routinue maintenance revealed fissures in the stone structure. Initially, the cemetery posted notices, saying that things would be repaired within months. But obviously the problems are much greater, and will cost about $750,000 to repair.

Here's what the gates looked like this week. After attempts to brace the stone in place, the gate is now strapped together and barricaded so that no one can pass underneath, even on foot.

One small photo shows the gate about four years ago on another lovely fall morning.

The other, from the placard now explaining what's going on, was taken more than 150 years ago, when the cemetery was just opened.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Lessons from Iceland: Paul Krugman on How to Get out of a Crisis by Not Listening (Much) to the Right

For a long time I had a sticker from the Icelandic social democratic party, brought back by a young friend who'd spent some time in that small, rugged country in the 1980s. It's gone now, cleaned of the fridge by zealous post-fire cleaning.

In Iceland itself, the leftish parties have realigned since my friend's trip, but it's clear that social democratic ideas are alive and well, and have served the country well, after that much larger crisis, the 2008 worldwide financial meltdown. The result, Paul Krugman writes this morning, has meant following a path no other country took, with results that have been much better, it seems, that what's happening Europe.

Krugman writes from Rejkavik that:

"Iceland was supposed to be the ultimate economic disaster story: its runaway bankers saddled the country with huge debts and seemed to leave the nation in a hopeless position.

"But a funny thing happened on the way to economic Armageddon: Iceland’s very desperation made conventional behavior impossible, freeing the nation to break the rules. Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net.

"....Iceland hasn’t avoided major economic damage or a significant drop in living standards. But it has managed to limit both the rise in unemployment and the suffering of the most vulnerable... “Things could have been a lot worse” may not be the most stirring of slogans, but when everyone expected utter disaster, it amounts to a policy triumph.

"And there’s a lesson here for the rest of us: The suffering that so many of our citizens are facing is unnecessary..."

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Lighting up the Night: Diwali, Halloween or the Struggle Between Sweet and Salty

Lots of pumpkins yesterday at the Jean Talon Market, all ready to be carved for Halloween next week.

I didn't see anyone preparing lights for Diwali, though, whose beginning was celebrated by South Asians yesterday. It also is a festival of lights, and in Anita Rau Badami's novel The Hero's Walk, almost makes up for the loss of Halloween when one little girl raised in Vancouver is transported back to India.

Here's a link to a Diwali treat, chewda. It's not unlike the nuts and bolts snack mix that was popular at cocktail parties 40 years ago, only chewda is much better and more highly spiced, IMHO.

My decided preference for fat and salty things probably may have contributed to my famous "stinginess" at Halloween. Our treats were always little boxes or raisins or something similar. The kids, of course, craved candy, and were half embarassed at what we handed out, until they had eaten enough of their Halloween loot to have a sugar high. I've mellowed a bit in my old age--I've even been known to buy little packs of M&Ms (definitely superior to Smarties.) But I'll take chewda any day.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Overkill: Stephen Harper's Conservatives and the Long Gun Registry

I'd hoped it was dead, that ill-intentioned attempt to do away with Canada's long gun registry. But it has arisen, like a zombie that turns even uglier at each resurrection. Now not only will the federal registry be abolished, but the records will be destroyed Provinces, like Quebec where the idea for the registry was born after massacre of 12 young women in 1989, would have to start from scratch to make their own.

The Conservatives care not a bit that the RCMP and other police forces have used the registry incessantly since its inception. The Toronto Star quotes Dr. Alan Drummond of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians and an assistant coroner in Perth, " the Conservatives are “conveniently ignoring the clear scientific evidence that rural suicides with long guns are the principal issue in the tragic toll of Canadian firearms deaths. So we will now all be unwilling participants in a social experiment that will undoubtedly place Canadian lives at risk.”

Shame, shame, as Hansard would have it.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Leonard Cohen Has New Meaning: First We Take Manhattan ....or Occupy Wall Street

A bard captures the spirit of his time. This song was written in the 1980s (the first time I heard it was in 1987 when driving across Sasketchewan) but ilt seems even more fitting today, given the movement to occupy the centers of power, and the struggle for Europe to find solutions to its problems.

Suburbs Grow Poorer around US Cities: Hard Times Are Another Argument against Urban Sprawl

Suburbs are different in Europe and North America. In the former, for the last century and a half they have been where the poor lived, chased from the center of cities by development since the days of Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris. In the latter, they became the promised land of the rising middle class. Bigger houses, better schools, greener landscapes all beckoned on the edge of cities, particularly since the advent of the automobile.

But the promised land is growing shabby in many places. This is no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention (for more, see my book The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs' Street and Beyond.) This morning The New York Times recounts how the current Great Recession has hit formerly comfortable suburbs. More than half the poor in the US's metropolitan areas now live in suburbs. As a result, the story says, suburban municipalities "are confronting a new set of issues, namely how to help poor residents without the array of social programs that cities have, and how to get those residents to services without public transportation. Many suburbs are facing these challenges with the tightest budgets in years."

Canadian cities have not suffered as much from economic bads times, nor did the center cities become the home of the poor, but talking with young people around here, it's clear that the suburban option has many attractions. Housing prices are about half what they are in the center of Montreal for example, and if you're a man with good DIY skills you may think you'll be getting more for your money buying an older place in St. Bruno or Terrebonne or St. Eustache than if you take on a six room flat in Mile End or Villeray.

But the cost of transportation is often not considered in the equation, nor is the social isolation of living in a neighborhood where distances are too great to walk. Nor is the future cost of the infrastructure needed for growing suburbs--roads, sewers, water, schools.

Monday, 24 October 2011

My Song: Belafonte's Memoir: Entertainment, Workers, and Social Justice

One of the best books I've read in recent years is Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes (Somebody Knows My Name in the US) It is the story of a woman born free in what is now Mali and who after crossing Atlantic three times dies in England in 1803 as the slave trade is being abolished. One of the latest chapters in the continuing story of what happened next is Harry Belafonte's memoir, My Song, which sounds like a worthy complement to Hill's novel.

Belafonte is a real star--in 1964 a month after the Beatles got 13 minutes on the Ed Sullivan show, Bela­fonte got 22 minutes--but he also was always involved in the struggle for justice, civil rights and economic fair play. The review (by Garrison Keilor in The New York Times on the weekend) makes the book (written with Michael Schnayerson) sound like an illuminating view of what it was like growing up in Jamaica and New York, always an outsider, always labelled black.

Keilor quotes him: “About my own life, I have no complaints. Yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago. And as I write this, our president has yet to acknowledge that this fact is of any concern to him. . . . For all of his smoothness and intellect, Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or black.”

His hit songs from the beginning had that concern behind them. Here's one of his first hits from the 1950s which is a work song. Listen to the words closely and you'll feel the sweat of the workers who hauled bananas all night long.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Saturday Photo: From Zen to Wild Victorian on the Plateau

Sometimes the whole is different from the sum of its parts. In this case, the occupants of the first floor of this triplex from the end of the 19th century have turned their tiny front garden into a Zen-inspired oasis in the city.

But step back a bit and you see how the garden is only one part of a stylish reworking of the building. And step across the street and you'll see how wild the owners really are.

The colours aren't as anachronistic as you might think, however. One of the things that give the impression that the 19th century was restrained is the fact that photographs were all black and white. Not only were clothes bright with newly created dyes, but flower beds tended toward the garish as gardeners experimented with newly available varieties of dahlias, zinias and marigolds. That's a topic for another day, though.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Down with Twitters, Or the Fracturing of Time and Culture

These days I don't seem to have enough time to do everything I want or need to do. Short cuts look quite attractive, in fact. But there is one that I wouldn't recommend to anybody--the twitterization of culture.

Last week we discussed Jane Eyre at one of the libraries where I lead discussions. It was a great evening, full of lively debate and sharp observations. And then I read the group part of the twitter version, taken from a rather funny book, Twitterature by Alexander Aciman and Emmet Rensin. The young authors promise the world's greatest book in 20 tweets or less. In the case of Jane Eyre, they've got the plot line down, but certainly there is nothing vaguely resembling the tone or the weight of the book.

The discussion participants laughed, but afterwards several of them commented about the injustice this kind of parody does to a work of substance.

Twittering--that is, reducing life to 150 characters or whatever--can only increase the splintering of our attention. Most things that are worth anything, from making good wine to raising competent human beings, take time. Jane Eyre is more than 400 pages in the edition I read. The story covers 10 years, and gives the reader both things to consider and an exciting story. Try to reduce that to something you can write with your thumbs.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Jane Jacobs, Jeanne and Sesame Street

One of the pleasures of having Jeanne here a lot, is that I've been revisiting scenes (literally) of our kids' childhood. Today it was great version of Sunny Day. the Sesame Street theme song that is, I was delighted to discover, an implicit tribute to Jane Jacobs, the urban planner.

Jeanne was charmed by the video of this archetypal "eyes on the street," densely populated neighborhood. Just as Jacobs advocated, Sesame Street sidewalks are places to play, there's corner store and people of different backgrounds look out for one another. It is, in fact, very much like the East Village neighborhod that inspired Jane Jacobs observations on what works in cities.

Walking around our neighborhood with Jeanne, I've been reminded of how wonderful urban life can be. People stop to talk to her, I've been amazed at the help I've been offered with the stroller from people of all ages, and she is delighted by what Jacobs called "the urban dance," the steady stream of people that invigorate both our residential street and the nearby shopping streets.

My observations are not original: urban planning articles have been written on the similarities. As one says:

"To date, Sesame Street is perhaps the most concrete and accessible model of a U.S. urban community." Forty-two years after the show began in the fall of 1969, it ought to be required watching for anybody interested in cities and urban planning.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Business Interests and Transit Gurus Agree: Quebec Needs to Concentrate on Public Transit, Not New Autoroutes

The federation of Quebec chambers of commerce (FCCQ) and Transit, a new alliance of several dozen groups and experts advocating public transit, came out strongly on Monday in favour of concentrating on public transit in Quebec and infrastructure repairs for a while rather than building new autoroutes.

In a letter addressed to the Quebec Minister of Transport, they point out that over the next five years the ministry plans on investing $16.9 billion in road construction, of which $5.4 billion will go for new road projects or the extension of existing ones. In comparison, only $2.9 billion are earmarked for public transit projects.

The latter figure falls far short of the $10.3 billion need between now and 2020 for maintaining the public transit infrastructe, to say nothing of expanding it, the two groups said in press release.

What good sense! It would be nice to think that the common front they're presenting will have some impact

Making the City Green: Ecoquartier and the Neighbors on Rouen Plant their Ruelle Verte

Jack Ruttan made this great video of the planting day on the lane project next to his apartment. A great project that is only one of many, greening Montreal.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Chimney Repairs, but No Chimney Sweeps

The three young men who came to rebuild our chimney look nothing like Dick Van Dyck and the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins, but we were very glad to see them when they came this morning.

When the roof was redone this summer after the fire, we discoverd that the base of the chimney was rotten. So after much sturm und drang we got masons to come and do the repair work. Nice to think that the chimney won't fall over this winter.

But we won't have any need for chimney sweeps this year, I guess, as the young men cleaned out the chimney lining. The wind changed in the night too,, so perhaps we might see Mary Poppins coming by.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Saturday Photo: The Wilds of the Plateau

Tiny front ylard gardens are a feature of Montreal's densely settled neighborhoods. People spend a great deal of time and effort claiming the little bit of green they offer for themselves. But sometimes, the efforts are pure whimsy.

The bathtub says "smile" and the sign in the window says "Forbidden to collect snails and mushrooms." Not what you'd expect in a center city, I imagine.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Suburban Ponzi Scheme: Mayors North of Montreal Want More Development in Order to Provide Sevrices

So you build houses in the far suburbs and don't have proper infrastructure for them, so you ask to dezone agricultural land in order to build more to have the tax base to provides services? Doesn't make any sense, but that's what mayors of the second tief of suburbs north of Montreal want. They've been appearing before hearings a new plan for development in the greater Montreal area.

The time frame is 20 years, we're told, and there is much talk of densifying, building around transportation nodes and all that good urban planning talk. But it's about time that the chutzpah of pleading poor when you've deliberately set out to cut corners so your tax rates are low is breathtaking.

Agricultural interests as well as muncipal governments from the island of Montreal and already-established suburbs are arguing that urban sprawl must be tamed. They should be listened to, it seems to me.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Wonder What's Happening Here? A Great Explanation

A great explanation of Occupy Wall Street--should go viral.

Fighting Back: What Unions Do Well, Or Why Stephen Harper Would Like to Defang Them

A somewhat conservative American friend was musing the other day about why it has taken so long for protest too build about the way big corporations and the right wing are blocking nearly every remotely progressive measure in the US. My answer was that corporations, including banks, have been spending millions and millions to convince us they are our friends. That they aren't takes a while to realize.

But there's also the fact that unions--one of the few sectors of society to have political savvy and (sometimes) funds needed to fight corporate interests and the guts to point the finger of blame when govenments and buiness do stupid, right wing things--have come under attack from the forces of darkness over the last decades.

So it probably should not be surprising that Stephen Harper's Conservatives are trying to erode unions' influence further. The most recent incident is the threat to change the labour code in response to strikes by Air Canada personnel. Most observers agree that the changes would make it much harder to go on strike.

But just as maybe the tide may be changing in the US, unions here are beginnning to fight back. Postal workers will be taking the government to court as a prostests of the settlement imposed on them last June which actually offered less than the two bargaining parties had previuosly agreed. Good on them!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Orange Wave Rolls on, a Bit More Gently Than in May, But Nevertheless There

This is Democracy Festival month in Canada, and Canadians dissatisfacation with conservative policy continues to make it mark. The NDP won a smashing majority in Manitoba, it now holds the balance of power in Ontario, became the official opposiiont in Yukon and almost won that status in Newfoundland and Labrador. As it was, the party made historic gains on The Rock, seeing one of theirs defeat a Tory cabinet minister in the capitol, St. John's.

As the NDP works to consolidate the amazing support voters gave it in Quebec last May, the election results are great news. The people are speaking--thank goodness.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Love on the Moors; New films from the Bronte Sisters

Can't say that I remember ever finishing anything by the Brontes until now, but this fall I put Jane Eyre on the reading lists for two of my book groups. Part of my reason was so I could make a comparison with The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys which I've always thought was a great book.

As it turns out there is a new version of Jane Eyre out this year, as well as one of her sister's epic Wuthering Heights. So if you're into film trailers, here are two for the Bronte's novels, followed by one from a 1994 version of the Rhys book. They're a feast for those who love period drama and grandiose emotions.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Canadian Thanksgiving: Marvelous Weather, Lots of Food, Much to be Grateful for

I must say straight up that I'm not at all a believer, but I do think it is instructive and good for ones spirits to now and then take stock of what one has. This has not been an easy year for us, but our experiences have been so much better than that of 95 per cent of the world, that we shouldn't complain.

And when we can welcome three generations of friends and family (35 adults and 13 kids) into our newly restored house as we did yesterday for a copious and delicious Thanksgiving buffet, we should be pretty happy--and we are.

Photo: Tomatoes at the Jean Talon Market.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Saturday Photo: My Two Favourite Little Girls

If you think there's a resemblance between these lovely little girls, you're right. The black and white photo is of Elin at about 10 months, and the colour one is of Jeanne at a bit more than a year.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street: The Left Advances, at Long Last?

Maybe the Tea Party is meeting its match, maybe the tide is turning toward a more enlightened way of looking at the mess we're in. As Paul Krugman said today:

"There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people."

A Novel to Read This Long Weekend as the Last Roses of Summer Bloom

The flowers of fall are much on my mind. Yesterday I went around taking pictures in gardens, including several of the last roses of summer which I will post soon.

And my evening was filled with another sort of rose, Rosa Candida by the Icelandic novelist Auður A. Ólafsdóttir. It's a deceptively simple tale of a young man who leaves home to restore a rose garden in a monastery somewhere (probably) in Italy.

Along the way he encounters a number of lovely young women who want to sleep with him, just as a bright graduate student back home did about 18 months previously. The result of that one-night stand was a little girl Flora Sól. The book mixes motifs and themes from mythology and litterature with the struggles of young people who must somehow negotiate a world of changing gender roles. One of the young women is learning a part in Ibsen's The Doll House as she strives to make her way in the world, others are competent professionals, and the mother of his child wants to continue her studies.

The book is a delightful read, perfect for a long weekend evening as the sun sets earlier and earlier.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

New Bridge across the St. Lawrence Must Have Public Transit As Well as Tolls

Federal, provincial and municipal authorities announced yesterday that one of the most heavily used links between the island of Montreal and the rest of the world, the Champlain Bridge, will be replaced by a toll bridge.

The reaction was generally favourable: the bridge, opened in the 1960s, has suffered considerable erosion and repairs don't seem to be keeping up with damage. Three aspects of the proposal have raised questions though: its reliance on a public-private partnership for financing, the proposed use of tolls, and the absence, so far, of provision for public transport in the plans.

The use of PPPs for hospital and other projects is increasingly coming under fire: governments can borrow at lower rates than private enterprise and its supposed "efficiency " is frequently outweighed by the profit motive. But if any sector of PPP construction has worked, it is road construction.

As for tolls, they are being promoted as a brake on urban sprawl, and a way of reducing traffic in city centers. However, since this bridge will link an area already well-developed to the city, how much tolls would reduce the attraction of the South Shore is not clear.

But what is clear is that any project must promote public transport. According to Transit Alliance, quoted in today's Montreal Gazette. the single lane reserved for commuter buses carry 19,000 passengers each morning rush hour. That's as many as carried by the three other lanes of private vehicle traffic combined, as well as commuters using the Metro from the South Shore Longueuil state.

Transit Alliance advocates a light rail link, while another group, Transit 2000, wants suggests splitting the number of lanes equally between cars and public transit, with two lanes for cars, two lanes for light-rail, buses and carpooling.

Construction of the bridge is still several years away, but now's the time for all the governments concerned to insist on more public transit.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Le Devoir on How to Fill That Growing Hole in the Ozone Layer

This morning Le Devoir's cartoonist took a swing aat both Stephen Harper's disdain for the facts pointing to the effects of human activity on the atmosphere and his passion for the monarchy. So there is much bigger hole in the Ozone layer above the Arctic than expected? Well, cover it up with a picture of the Queen

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Red Hair: A Drug on the Market or Sign of Fertility?

Vivaldi was a red head, so were Napoleon , Galileo, Eric the Red and Thomas Jefferson. A rather distinguished group, don't you think? But apparently, the sperm from red heads is not moving at an international sperm bank, and they have announced they're not accepting any any more red-haired donors. Seems they have a glut because unless there are redheads in the family on one side or the other, those in search of sperm are unlikely to request redhair. Brown hair and brown eyes are what are in highest demand, except in Ireland.

Well, of course, the ethnic make-up of a region would influence the "look" that parents might want. But redheads have a way of turning up in the strangest way. My mother had a redhaired sister who had a blonde baby. She, whose hair was chestnut, had me, born with a shock of red hair, with my dark-brown haired father. (My sister, their other child, was a blonde.) Then I had Lukas with Lee, who has a couple of strawberry blonde cousins, but whose own hair was brown before it turned white. Just goes to show that you can carry genes for red hair around silently.

But there's another possible reason for the lack of demand for red haired donors: perhaps red-head men are more fertile than the rest of the guys!

Photo: That's what my hair looked like two weeks ago--not as bright a red as when I was 20, but still reddish despite the white interspersed.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Question about the Tone of Future Novels: Will the Current Mess Have and Effect on What People Will Write 40 Years from Now

Interesting conversation between Colm Toibín and Jeffrey Eugenides in The New York Times yesterday. Both of them have new books out, hence the public chit chat about writing. But perhaps the most striking thing about their thoughts is the way they end up talking about the emotion that underlies their writing.

Toibin says: Something of the tone of the inner novelist comes out as he fills the blank page or computer "our dreams and lies and inventions...I know what happens to me: I go all sad. You, however, have a way of creating undertones and overtones of comedy, as though you are always about to burst out laughing, when you write a scene, even if the scene includes suicide, war, riots or lost love. I have tried to copy this and failed."

To which Eugenides says: "I think it comes down to our childhoods. Mine was happy. I think your childhood was less happy, which is why memory “haunts” you. Maybe that’s what you’re hearing in the undertones of my writing: my happy American childhood."

Eugenides, please note, grew up in Detroit when it was the center of the automobile universe, while Toibin is from Ireland which for a long, long period was economically depressed. I can't imagine that current aspiring writers in Motor City are having the same kind of experience as Eugenides did. As for the young Irish, after a boom, things are bust: what kind of repercussions will that have on the fledgling writers there?

Stay tuned for several decades to find out.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Saturday Photo: Sid Ingerman Wins Gold for Canada!

I've mentioned before our good friend Sid Ingerman who was part of the Canadian team in the recent Triathlon competition in Beijing.

Sid, who will turn 83 Nov. 8, placed first in his age group for the triathlon sprint (a half triathlon), being one of 13 medal winners on the Canadian team. He always adds modestly that he was the only entrant in his category, but that doesn't detract from his accomplishment. (When was the last time you swam 750 meters, biked 20 k and ran 5 k?)

The pictures have just been released: that's him crossing the finish line, rather the worse for wear because of near-hypothermia.

What a guy!