Ruminations

Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Scuppered Again!

Cripes! What is it with this weather anyway? We're supposed to be in the early grip of winter, which is what we've been long and well accustomed to. So why this inordinately mild weather, when we cannot even enjoy it to begin with? Can't get out into it because the rain is heavy and incessant. So we stew indoors. Oops, ravine walk called off.

Didn't think we would make it out for a ravine walk yesterday either. The rain was so unremitting. No leafy canopy in the woods to help keep us dry at this time of year. We're all right, we can don rain gear and wouldn't mind the rain, but it's the little dogs who, even with their coats will become soaked and then, likely ill from the exposure. It isn't summer, after all.

We were fortunate yesterday, given a window of opportunity when the rain finally ceased and we were able to feverishly garb ourselves and the dogs and set off. The crows don't seem to mind the rain; they're gathering in the ravine, high up in the treetops, likely mostly juveniles of the year. They're raucous, and we love their sounds.

Lots of chickadees, our favourites, flitting around all over the place, and woodpeckers as well. The squirrels can hardly believe their good fortune; another relatively mild day, albeit wet-wet. The trails are slick with sodden clay, even those areas where pine needles or leaves have gathered have gained a slick of muck over them.

It's a grey day, a sopping day, but despite that, I realize that there are warm colours about everywhere. Those leaves still on the many immature hornbeam are a nice ivory-beige; those on the oaks slightly darker brown and crinkled; those of the smooth grey-barked beech a mid-beige transparency. And the glowing greens of the pines and spruce and firs!

Ah, the bright, ivory-green of all those poplar trunks, the glaring white peeling birches, the bright red Sumach candles. There is colour there, after all. I've been moaning the loss of the lush greens of summer for nothing. They've simply been replaced with yet another season's palette.

As we ascend another hill my husband stops, stoops and picks up a rather unseasonal woolly-bear caterpillar, takes him over the underbrush beside the trail to deposit him safe from treading boots into the security of mounds of fallen leaves.

Today we hadn't the opportunity to stand and watch a hairy woodpecker taking its time along the trunk of an old half-peeled tree, looking for insects, unperturbed at our attentive proximity.

Hey, Help Yourself!

Ah, human nature - nothing quite like it. Comfort and security are such strange modifiers when it comes to the ethical balance we strain to attain as decent people. When public acclaim or recognition of an individual's particular success or talents strain the ego tolerance of already entitled-feeling individuals there's a recipe for moral decline.

What've we got here? A one-time sport figure whose gamesmanship and exploits in the field garnered him a hugely appreciative sports audience of supporters and admirers. Toss in the admiration and respect of his own team peers and that's a heady mixture indeed for anyone to deal with and come out well balanced.

Still, fame has a way of steering one toward rewards not always deserved nor earned and here we have a now-retired bureaucrat, Ron Stewart, formerly Canada's ombudsman for federal prisoners (former football star) being singled out by Canada's indomitable bulldog Sheila Fraser, as a fraud and a crook. Interesting how one's wrong-doing has a way of catching up; retirement is but a respite and then the poop hits the fan.

On Tuesday, Auditor General Sheila Fraser pointed out to the news media that the 72-year-old Mr. Stewart who had held the office of ombudsman for federal prisoners for the past 26 years - having been re-appointed by successive governments on five different occasions - had over only the last six years of his tenure committed fraud to the tune of a third of a million dollars.

Evidently Mr. Stewart was much given to ease and relaxation, rather loathe to apply himself to the rigours of work life, showing up regularly at the office and actually putting in time and energy to producing work related to his job. Doesn't everyone love a sinecure, after all? This little personal adventure brings being on the public dole to new heights.

His personal interpretation of work time was to absent himself from the office for the entire swath of delectable summer months to his nice little island-cottage getaway where he would be unreachable. Aw, the office could get along without him anyway, and did. And no one really minded, it seemed, because he was so generous with bonuses to staff.

Yes, he billed the government and taxpayers for time not actually worked, along with personal goods, travel and entertainment. Oh yes, the good man saw no reason to take vacations and cashed them out handsomely. Well, a man has to live, after all. And let's be frank, if he could get away with these kinds of shenanigans for 26 years - well, who wouldn't appreciate those opportunities?

His friends feel badly for him, for the unwanted attention. After all, consider the public shame, consider that this man is retired, for heaven's sake! Doesn't a hard working individual deserve some consideration, some privacy and respect in his older years after having worked himself to skin and bones? Some of his friends have characterized him as shy and retiring.

Too shy to place himself in public view right in his office for any length of time; and now he's retired. Give a guy a break!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Memoirs? Payback Time!

Life is tough. We get through it through sheer grit and determination. Sometimes with grace and ability, as well sometimes not. Some of us, while gritting teeth against perceived enmity and personal roadblocks spend the eternity of their dreary days writing little memory-notes to themselves, to ensure they will not forget. As though they would. Some of us nurse grievances, wait for the day to come when all hell can be unleashed and then perhaps the dark mantel of their soul-destroying resentment and anger will dissipate.

Um, not likely. That person likely thrives on the adversity of perceived enmity, polishes it in his mind like a gem, turns it over to observe it from every possible angle, burnishes it a bit here, a bit there, embellishes its meaning, gloats over the eventual, inevitable pay-back. That poor, dark, shrivelled soul. So what? There are plenty of people like that around and about. They're bullies at heart themselves, and they embrace all others whose take on life reflects theirs. An old-boy network of misanthropes.

Hey, did you hear? Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States, and big-wig with the Department of Foreign Affairs (called External Affairs with this glad lad began his career), Allan Gotlieb, has penned and published his very own, very special, very personal diary! It's titled, surprise, surprise, "The Washington Diaries, 1981 - 89". Run right out and get your copy. He's dishing dirt.

Isn't that so very professional? Isn't that the epitome of honourable? Mr. Gotlieb rubbed shoulders with the wise and unwise, the political and social luminaries of his day, and he has opinions. Rub this man the wrong way and you'll regret it. He seeths long and hard, hasn't hesitated at all to tarnish reputations in the telling of his charming little tale of suffrance and diplomatic duty.

We learn of the high contempt in which he held those who held political power over him. The gentle regard he felt for those whose presence on the world stage and more particularly the North American stage presented no hardship or difficulties to him personally. Ah, the measure of the man is not that complex; make nice or you're my enemy.

He reveals nothing particularly new about Canada-U.S. relations, but is obviously relishing the freedom to divulge his great distaste for a department he once served and which once served him so very well. He does, however, reveal himself to be a fusty, dusty, nasty little man.

Somehow that's no big surprise. We have had glimpses of this personality from time to time through the loving prism of his wife Sondra, his helpmeet and partner in the grand world of political society and monied ease. Two of a kind, too bad.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Shopping Shall We Go!

Yes, we most certainly shall, will and did. But not before going out for our daily ravine hike. We just made it out there yesterday morning before the day's rain set in; good timing. We try for that. Today, was a "free" day, not too much to be done around the house, hurrah! So, soon as breakfast was done, off we went to the ravine. Just a tad above freezing. So Button and Riley wore their little coats, and we wore our big coats; not yet winter-grade, but getting there. They wore their collars, we wore gloves.

In fine fettle did we set off. Crows cawing high above in the ravine. The trails just haven't been able to dry out, not after the weeks of uninterrupted rain, despite almost a full week of sunshine, before this day. So it's mucky and muddy and slippery, necessitating that one place one's feet carefully yet with alacrity. I kind of missed a few days earlier and my boot felt as though it had grown two inches and I slogged along lop-sided for a while.

It's kind of grey in the ravine now. Good thing we've a good share of evergreens (conifers are always green!) in there, because there's such a bare look around the deciduous trees now. Although to be sure, some of the young oaks, the beech and the hornbeam tend to hold on to their leaves. Little offshoots of the main creek are still running where normally at this time of year they'd be dry.

When we get back home after an hour of the ravine, and wash the two little dogs' feet in the laundry room sink, the water speedily becomes grey, then black, the bottom of the sink full of sand and grit. This is a daily ritual. Event though we wash their feet, the towel upon which we place them afterward becomes grimy with dirt. Better there than on the rugs, the sofa, wot?

We drive off to the thrift store, our choice today, because, just because. And besides, it's Tuesday, 20% off for seniors. And boy are we ever seniors. No kidding, right up there, three score and ten. Actually I don't believe it myself. And then I accidently see myself in a mirror. Very convincing. Button is slung over his shoulder in her bag, and Riley over mine in his smaller bag.

Wouldn't you know it, no shopping carts to be had. The staff are using them again to stock up the racks. So we trudge about the shop half-heartedly, bearing the weight of our little dears, instead of beng able to deposit them in the child seat of a shopping cart. Oh hey, there's one sitting over there, grab it! No wonder it's sitting there, it's the wonkiest of carts, and no one wants it. But it'll do, any port in a storm.

Lots of people shopping in there, fingering the wares, judging their utility. Plenty of grey-haired biddies and geezers - seniors' day, remember? Button is an instant celebrity, and everyone drops by to coo over her, pet her, stop and talk. She's patient and biddable, doesn't bark, doesn't bite, suffers the attention she doesn't seek. Not Riley, he feels he's owed attention, that singular little brat of a dog.

I eyeball sizes of garments that look as though they'll keep me nice and warm this winter, to augment my collection of nice-warm stuff to wear; always on the lookout for something different; sometimes amply rewarded. Try something on? Forget it, just forget it. Anything doesn't happen to fit, which rarely happens, it gets turned right back in; not returned.

I inherit another decrepit shopping cart and I'm set to really look around. And off we go. That's a nice cardigan, cute buttons, excellent shape, I like the colour. The label is cut off. Why do people do that? Cut off labels. It's downright uncivil. I can tell most fabrics by touch and look, but this one has me stumped; it looks like wool but could be acrylic. When I wash it much later in hot water in the washing machine, the mystery is solved: wool.

Yes, they enjoy shopping. Yes, they're well behaved. Yes, they're napping at the moment. Yes, they don't bark in the store. Yes, they are cute, aren't they? Stock responses to stock queries.

You Betcha!

If there's something Canadians know how to do, it's how to complain about the weather. It's too cold, it's too hot, it's too windy, it's not. We hate freezing rain, and who wouldn't? We enjoy and appreciate winter snow, but it's a right royal pain in the arse when it forgets to stop and we become snowbound, traffic comes to a standstill and no one can make it home for dinner from the office.

We most especially hate unusual weather that slams through once in a too-often while, like an unforgettable ice storm that downs trees and electrical wires, plugs highways with smashed vehicles, makes our lives utterly miserable. Well, what can you expect? This is Canada, after all. A wide swath of geography second to one, encompassing varying climates and ecologies, replete with mountains at either end, prairies in between and embraced by three oceans. We are a geography and an weather-environment of deep contrasts.

How about that? British Columbia heavy with snow and cold, unusual for this time of year, when we haven't yet entered true Canadian winter. They're out there, shovelling themselves out of tunnels of snow, schools and universities closed temporarily, workers unable to make it to the office, public works tractoring the snow into large heavy piles freeing up the streets before more snow falls and plugs them up again.

Bet they don't see their municipal public works come breezing along every fall to install tall metal rods brightly painted onto fire hydrants? Ah, the better to see you with, dear hydrant, when the snowpack becomes so tall one cannot determine where those fire extinguishers happen to be. Bet every second household doesn't own at least several pairs of snowshoes, enough ice grippers to go around, and just incidentally cross-country skies.

Bet they don't have an assortment of snow and ice shovels, several for each of many different kinds of snow and ice conditions, ready at hand for immediate use without prior notice. Bet every third household there doesn't have a great hulking monster of a snow machine, commonly termed a snow thrower in the garage, gassed up and ready to be ear-splittingly unleashed soon as the current storm subsides.

Bet they don't have to wait a full month once winter has slunk out of view (only to return time and again, mindlessly, determinedly, maddeningly) before the sun gains sufficient heat, and day-time temperatures become sufficiently elevated to eventually melt all that mess and muck of snow layer upon snow layer interspersed with gravel, sand and salt over hidden lawns.

Bet they can't grow tulips like we can.

Cabinet Inclusiveness?

Well, that's rather disappointing news. Prime Minister Stephen Harper does know what it is like to be overlooked, to have one's opinion set aside; worse yet, not to be consulted, to be included in the decision-making process. The thing is, isn't it, if you determine which elected Member of Parliament fits into the scheme of your cabinet, and you confer on them the responsibilities of a certain post, then you most certainly have an obligation to confer with them before uttering publicly decisions which impact on that post, on the dignity of the office, on the trust of the individual with whom you have entrusted that office.

It's one thing, although not a very good decision either, to ignore the press. It doesn't entirely reflect well on a public official to ignore the press in a society such as ours. We have a free press, our news-gathering agents have an obligation in our society, to report news, all the news fit to print. And certainly most intelligent news readers are interested in reading first-hand interviews or responses from our Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister Harper has gone out of his way to express his distaste for the enquiring press, and to deny them opportunities which should be granted them for access to news gathering. That's his decision, but it isn't a good one.

Mr. Harper is behaving in general in a forthright, honourable and decisive manner and that is all to the good. He is surprising a good many people with the manner in which he is handling a very sensitive, critically important position in this country. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, despite that his relations with Canada's news media is extremely testy, is getting good press, and he's earning it. But he has yet much to learn about governing and today's report that one of his cabinet ministers has resigned is not good news.

Not good news in that while Mr. Harper cleverly co-opted a Bloc motion to reflect a more suitable view of Quebecers of French descent, placing them squarely where they belong: a distinctive founding ethnic group with a shared tradition, language, history and culture, within an integral and inviolable part of Canada - his decision to make that announcement reflecting his high office should have been reviewed beforehand with his cabinet, and better yet, with his Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Michael Chong.

Yes, it’s undeniably to Mr. Harper’s credit that he consulted with Stephane Dion in recognition of that good man’s experience and special insight into the problems inherent in this recognition of Quebecois’ very particular history/culture/tradition/language singling them out as an ethnic-nation, within an indissoluble country, Canada. Our current Prime Minister has demonstrated his political adeptness in consulting with the leaders of Canada’s other political parties, when required. He simply needs to acquire a little more sensitivity toward others - but not, one hopes, at the expense of his incisive decision-making.

Mr. Chong delivered himself of a heartfelt and poignant point of view as a staunch Canadian federalist. The dignity of his office was belittled by the fact that he had not been informed by the prime minister of his decision beforehand, nor had he been invited to voice his point of view or possible exceptions to the prime minister's stance. This was an error in judgement on the part of Prime Minister Harper, one that should give him pause for thought and cause him to be a trifle more alert and responsive in future.

While it is quite true that many issues are more important than the view of just one person, the context of the issue under discussion and the position of the individual makes this the crux of the matter.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What The Hell!?

How the bloody hell did that happen? Guess I've got to be a whole lot more careful. I've bloody well imported an advertisement into my blog. Gag me with an octopus! I've tried to erase the damn blog, to no avail. I've deleted it, much to my great distress, because I wanted that blog entry in there, it said something I wanted to say and thought should be said.

But because I copied a news entry into the blog to assist my memory a bit in the writing of it, then deleted the news bit, as I often do once my blog is completed I've also brought into it, entirely innocently, but by the looks of it, something that refuses to vanish into thin air where it belongs, a belligerent and determined advertisement - or, as it happens, series of advertisements.

I've repeated the delete manoeuvre over and over again, gone back to check and it's still there. Gawk! I have no intention of shilling for any service provider or manufacturer or anything resembling same. Yet here I am, a hapless victim of my own making. How to rescue my blog from that invader? Don't tell me it's there for good - or for bad, as the case may be.

What a dilemma. What a miserable thing to happen. Some damn advertisement piggy-backing on my personal blog. Without permission, to be sure. But on the other hand, mine was the very hand, accident or no, that permitted this to happen.

Damn!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Our Place, This Time

After weeks and weeks of cold weather and too much unending rain, we're finally in a spate of fine weather. Still cold, since it's late November, but milder than it might be at this time of year, and clear skies warming our atmosphere. It's good to wake again to sun streaming through the house, to the warmth of the afternoon sun gleaming through our back windows, mellowing the house, making us comfortable, perking us up.

Our ravine walk is a trifle longer than usual of late. Since part of the creek bank collapsed, taking with it some of the trail we normally traverse at the start of our daily hike, we must take alternate routes, thus lengthening our walk. We don't mind, especially not when it's so lovely out, despite the partially-frozen pathways turning to muck as they defrost. We saw so many squirrels - red, grey, black - out yesterday, scrambling about we'd decided to bring unshelled peanuts along this day.

And then judiciously distributed them, under large trees here and there, alongside the places where we so often see those tiny red pugnacious squirrels tongue-lashing our intrusion into their private spaces. All the black squirrels racing about singly and in pairs, forgetting for a brief time what frigid-weather difficulties lie ahead for them, disporting themselves in this brief reprieve, will have an additional treat.

Later, we drive up the Eastern Parkway, pass all those lovely specimen trees, the bicyclists out in force, the walkers and their leashed dogs, the Ottawa River alongside. It's always a lively scene here, a coming-together outdoor space for people to revel in nature and enjoy clement weather. Finally, we pass the old City Hall, Foreign Affairs, the Governor-General's grounds, the residence of the Prime Minister.

Then we're passing "Maman", the huge sculpted spider with its marble "eggs" standing before the National Gallery; to the left the Peacekeeping Monument, onward to Parliament Hill, where special-destination buses disgorge tourists and sight-seers, masses of people converging before the Parliament Buildings, the Parliamentary Library, the West and East Blocks, the centennial flame.

Our destination takes us forward and onto the Western Parkway, where we see hundreds of Canada geese assembled on grassy knolls and pastures alongside the Ottawa River, and gulls bobbing in the vast waters of the river itself. Past the bridges linking Ontario and Quebec, past the storied, now relatively-tamed rapids churning up whitewater. Pedestrians, bicyclists out enjoying the priceless ambiance.

We reach the little shop whose selection of coloured glass and stable prices bring us back time and again. Each time, that is, that another stained-glass window or series of windows, or door inserts, has been planned, designed and its full-size cartoon at the ready stage. The selection takes time, there is so much to look at, the opaque, transparent, streaked, pebbled or smooth glass holding out its promise of aesthetic fulfilment.

Then the long drive back again to where we began. As we drive past the newly-opened War Museum we trust its interior is more architecturally pleasant than the exterior. We haven't been longer than an hour, but by then it is of course, an hour later; some of the crowds have thinned out, but more come to take their place; people wander from Parliament Hill to the Museum of Photography, the Chateau Laurier, down to Byward Market for a stroll among designer shops, outdoor market stalls selling maple syrup, root vegetables, Christmas wreaths and boughs.

We pass the Mint, the old War Museum, now to be converted by a world-famed Muslim philanthropist, a champion of Muslim architecture, a believer in world harmony, to a centre for universal understanding - to promote good will among peoples. Across from it, the embassy of Kuwait, a low-slung white building reminiscent of its missions's desert heritage; quite beautiful. Then a much larger set of buildings, that of the Saudi Arabian embassy, taking up prime real estate in this nation's capital.

Beautifully designed, its Middle-East architectural influence even more pronounced than that of the Kuwait mission, its grounds immaculately manicured and planted. To reflect the immaculate conception of Islamic doctrine? A matter of interpretation to be sure. And to be quite sure, the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia has spent countless millions of its oil dollars on funding madrassas, mosques all over the world, including many in Canada.

It has sent its emissaries, imams whose strict fundamentalist interpretation of divine Koranic scriptures informs the everyday lives of its faithful adherents. Laudable on the surface, who can find fault with that? Oh well, perhaps another somewhat deeper look may provide a few clues as to the genesis of the problems facing society today. Wahhabist Islam has proven to be fundamental to the ideas and ideals of Islamic jihadists.

On we drive, past Rockcliffe Park where so many other of the world's countries have their embassies, where wealthy Canadians live in their mansions, where private schools that produce a clarified education for the young of the socially and materially privileged among us exist; once a private little enclave set apart from the rest of the city, but now incorporated into the greater city.

It's a long drive, a pleasant and relaxing drive. No one is in any great hurry, not the bicyclists, nor the walkers, nor yet the drivers. Past the Aeronautical Museum, the airport for small aircraft, the new addition to the museum. A few small aircraft take off into the still, bright sunshine. No sign of deer or racoons, or even groundhogs, but there are a few of the graceful shining black-muscled horses belonging to the RCMP in their paddocks.

What's this? Already!? We pass bright orange wood barricades. We'd forgotten. It seems so soon. But yes, it appears that the Santa Claus Parade will be taking place this very evening. It's now called the Parade of Lights. How quaint. We pass tractor-pulled floats decorated for the season with dark green evergreen branches, bright ribbons, large block signage.

There is an atmosphere of waiting there. There are small groups here and there of grey-jacketed men, volunteers for the parade representing the city's fire departments. This is their parade. Onlookers -and there will be tens of thousands of cheering, happy onlookers, young and old alike - are encouraged to bring along new or reconditioned toys.

For the Salvation Army annual Christmas toy drive, to give to needy children.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Surprise, Surprise!

Who would've thought it? Not me, not by a long shot. It's still early days, I've still to be completely convinced, but it looks as though we've got another winner. The second in a series of Governors-General, both female, both formerly media stars, both from immigrant (visible at that!) stock. Governor General Michaelle Jean, it's taken me a long time, but I'm coming around.

Your trip to Africa which at first I took to be another round of window-dressing is turning out to be rather more than a little interesting. I do have a quibble with you, about the white man's burden in his unspeakable part in slavery, since while that abominable practise hasn't been condoned here in a very long time, (and to which you allude often) it is, unfortunately, flourishing in parts of Africa. But that's another story, and nothing ever is quite crystal clear when you're dealing with the worst excesses of human nature.

But there you were, in Mali. That very country of recent Democratic vintage, still struggling to become part of the developed world, and a long way to go. A country with a high infant mortality rate and a low life expectancy. A male-dominated Islamic country whose women are still denied the freedoms any democracy should share with both genders.

Addressing yourself to Mali's parliament you had the moral clarity and courage to bring attention to the proposed Family Code not yet enacted into legal practise which would give women the right to own property, seek divorce and share inheritance rights alongside males. You told Malians "The voice of women counts", and you were absolutely right to press the issue.
"Give women the means to participate fully in civic life and you will see a drop in illiteracy, you will see a drop in poverty, and in hunger.
"How can there be good governance without the belief in equality between men and women? I know that a few years ago, Malians developed a Family Code that calls for the full recognition of the rights of women.
"A society cannot be built on exclusion, and I congratulate you on having chosen openness and equality."
Good on you, Madam Governor General, good on you. For under two presidents thus far, the Family Code has been nothing but an unrealized promise, still not formally introduced in parliament, in fear of a backlash from traditional religion. The current administration has tried to persuade traditional Islamic groups but has been unsuccessful.

It can only help when a distinguished woman from another country, a very visible minority guest representing the highest honour a country can bestow on one of its citizens, represents the case for all women, everywhere. Thank you, Michaelle Jean.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Chicken or the Egg?

A recently-held conference in Montreal, titled "Muslim Women at a Crossroads: from Integration to Segregation" brought forward some interesting insights into the misunderstandings and reactions to outward events that impact on peoples' lives in Canada, likely a fairly good reflection of life outside the Muslim world in general for Muslim women.

Interesting data was presented, which indicated that Muslim women are professional to a greater degree than their Canadian-born counterparts, resulting in a greater number of Muslim women accomplishing a higher level of academic professionalism. Yet these same women, academic and professional high achievers, have a comparatively higher unemployment rate than other women, and they tend not to become politically involved, even to the extent that they exhibit a lower voter turn-out than their average counterpart in society not of a Muslim background.

Muslim women feel hard pressed in Canadian society, because of suspicion and a lack of regard experienced in the last few years, it was also pointed out. And because of suspicion from among the general population and the types of discrimination they face they have begun to withdraw from social inclusiveness. There is a dangerous trend to disengagement with the society at large, and that is troubling for everyone.

The fact is the more Muslim women withdraw and hold themselves apart, the less opportunity for all others with whom they share this society to become better acquainted with them personally. Personal contact is still the only and best means by which individuals begin to understand and accept one another; there is no adequate substitute.

When Muslim women, as part of the withdrawal process begin to take on visible baggage of the hajib and other cover-ups they begin to make themselves truly invisible and ripe for social backlash. This attitude to shut oneself away from the mainstream has a truly deleterious effect since hiding oneself in public with the use of the niqab, for example, demonstrates an unwillingness to openness, to discourse, to social acceptance.

Muslim women feel targeted, they are offended by the suspicion they've been exposed to as a result of the truly civilization-shattering effects of militantly fanatic Islam and their tenuous relation to it as bystanders. Little wonder they feel like withdrawing from a society suddenly become hostile to their obvious differences. On the other hand, there weren't always such obvious differences.

Muslim women have lived in Canada for an awfully long time. It's true there has always been the potential for discrimination and native-born Canadians of less visible ethnic and cultural roots have a tendency to mistrust what they don't know. I'm Jewish, and I've always been irritated by people who would approach me and insist on knowing where I was "really" from; my response that I am a Canadian, born and bred, simply failed to satisfy my interlocutors.

I've even had the most unpleasant experience as an adult, living in a new community, being shouted at on my new street by a teen-ager who kept repeating: "Paki, go home!". It isn't at all difficult for me in particular to feel compassion and the pull of sisterhood at the unfairness, stupidity and mind-numbingly alienating effect of it all.

But here is an educated Muslim woman, Alicia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council on Muslim Women, and during the course of a CBC radio interview I heard today she explained that as a long-time resident of Canada (50 years, she emphasized) she has seen an obvious and puzzling change in Muslim women and their position here. Fifty years ago, she said, there was integration and acceptance of diversity.

Then, she said, about three decades ago, things began to change, Muslim women began to look inward, take up a greater interest in Islam, begin to accept a more conservative view of Islam and Koranic interpretations. A gradual withdrawal began, and continues to this day. Well, that being said, this movement to separatedness most certainly predates the current crisis in Muslim-West relations.

Saudi Arabia has long been busy doing its best to influence the Muslim diaspora by using its great oil wealth to fund mosques and community centres abroad. It has also long embarked on a very active programme of sending its Wahhabist-conservative version of Islam abroad, embedding extremely conservative religious leaders in those funded mosques.

The end result of this is obvious, has been so for quite a long time, and certainly pre-dates the advent of the Western world's impasse with fundamental Islam, and jihadist Islamists.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Last Crack at the Garden


Who would've thought? The Garden was long ago put to bed, the vulnerable shrubs and trees, roses and hibiscus, rhododendrons and tree peonies lovingly covered for winter protection, the grass mowed for the last time, the spring bulbs planted with hope for the coming spring, the garden pots assembled, cleaned and stored, winter-crack-potential immovable-urns covered and garden beds and borders overlaid with compost, awaiting their further blanket of snow for winter's duration.

But today we had full sun after weeks and weeks of overcast skies and too-abundant rain. Although we barely reached temperatures above freezing, there was no wind and upon venturing out into the back gardens I could hardly believe how warm and wonderful it was. On impulse I broke the inch-thick ice in the birdbath and then emptied it of its water with the intention of letting the sun dry the black slime that loves to gather in the bowl of the birdbath when water hasn't been exchanged.

Then I trod on the garden bed itself: hard, frozen, with bits of ice embedded in it from all the rain. Opportunity knocked, I was able to walk on the garden soil without disturbing any of the sleeping plants, and I had room to move about without the interference of lush green growing things, giving me the space to pull unwanted weeds I was never able to reach, and grasses growing through the fence from the backyard beyond into my garden border.

The frozen soil refused to yield at first to the importuning of my steel spade, but it relented, eventually, and gave up hosting the grasses, the weeds, the red clover, the wild conquefoil, and yellow loosestrife I no longer wished to give place in my garden, along with some evening primrose and violets that were infringing on the spaces devoted to more elevated plant species.

Ah, the glory of it! The joy of being out there once more. The cold around me barely penetrated, I felt fulfilled and happy, preparing the garden beds and borders, including the rock garden for the coming season in full style, sans sneaky grasses, well-rooted clovers. And look here! Lots of mature hens-'n-chicks to spread about in areas bereft of growth where the clover had taken possession.

Oops, where did that chickadee come from, and why is the little thing settling into the bowl of the birdbath, now when there is nothing for it to drink? It wouldn't, in any event, have been able to penetrate the now-absent ice to the water below, and has only to spread its wings again into the nearby ravine and the creek below to satisfy its need. Why do I feel so badly for it? It is, after all, a creature of the boreal forest and it knows its way around winter.

Satisfaction to last me through the winter months.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fair is Fair

Yes, but it seems one can never scream it loudly enough to be heard over the clamour of blame. Louise Arbour, representing a truly discredited United Nations group is going out of her way to assure Palestinians that the world has not forgotten their plight. Good grief, their neighbours have also not forgotten their plight.

Since it impinges so directly on their own well-being. Pluck any Israeli off the street and ask them if they would not rather live in peace with their neighbours than in constant fear of attack. With rare exceptions everyone, man, woman and child will respond fervently that they dream in technicolour of peace, suffer black-and-white nightmares of war.

Yes, they believe the Palestinians deserve their own state alongside that of Israel. Yes, unfortunately, a Palestinian majority has voted in as their parliamentary representation a militant Islamist group that refuses to recognize the legitimacy and presence in the Middle East of the State of Israel. In other words, no side-by-side statehood for Hamas; rather the embrace of the entire region as a Palestinian state and goodbye Israel.

Ms. Arbour, so nice of you to drop by. When you were in Beit Hanoun giving warm support to the beleaguered villagers there, did you remember to ask them why they support the terrorists who dwell among them, who use their convenient presence as shields among whom they feel comfortable in launching deadly rocket attacks against Israel? Oh dear, you forgot.

Ms. Arbour, could you kindly see your way clear to ask the children of Sderot how they feel about daily bombardments? It might be an eye-opener. Oops, it might not be. Your interests don't lie there? Pity, such a shame. I'll take the liberty of informing you myself.

When Kassam rockets hit areas within Israel and successfully injure Israelis, Hamas and Islamic Jihad fall all over themselves competing for recognition as the source of the attack, and they each promise, along with militant Fatah to continue attacking the settlement of Sderot. Alas, the Palestinian Authority cannot see its way clear to challenging these attacks. That all right with you?

On Sunday shrapnel from one of the rockets hit one man causing injuries; on Thursday a 17-year-old was seriously wounded by rocket shrapnel to his stomach; the day before a Muslim woman was killed by a Kassam rocket; a young man had his legs amputated by the same rocket.

In Sderot only half of the city's children attend school; they suffer from anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms while struggling with their classwork. Children who begin the day at school are picked up by their parents when the Kassam rocket attacks begin; others kept at home if rockets have hit that morning.

Madam, if you are as interested in human rights violations as you claim to be, be fair, look at all the evidence, view the entire situation, make your observations on the basis of neutrality and fairness.

We're waiting with bated breath.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Right to Drive

No kidding, it's downright scary. People have been behind the wheel of a car all of their adult life. Then, when they become really "adult", in the very senior sense, when their responses, attention span, eyesight become truly compromised they pay no mind, and simply go on doing what they've always been accustomed to. They may have been fairly good drivers at one time, but as their health lapsed, so did their skills. They may have been abysmal drivers, but got along anyway, and their skills deteriorated even further.

Why the hell can't people police themselves, why cannot they understand they have an obligation to do so, not only for their own well-being but for the safety of the rest of us? Myopia of the self-entitled. They'd be the first to deny the privilege of driving to anyone whose skill levels had deteriorated to the point where they feel threatened, but seem unable to recognize the impact of their own inability to perform in road safety when others are concerned.

I had my own little taste of this conundrum. We'd parked in a lot adjacent to where I regularly do my food shopping, remarking as we parked at the seldom-experienced fact that the parking lot was fairly empty. So empty in fact, that we parked beside the sole car on that particular parking lane - all other parking spaces were free of cars. We each opened a car door - front and back - on the free side to extricate our little dogs from the car interior.

As I picked up one of our little dogs and then backed out of the car with it, I felt a sudden shock as my body came up hard against a large immovable object. Frightened and startled I turned to see a car sliding into the parking spot directly beside ours; its driver, unperturbed, continued to park his car. An elderly couple disembarked and I asked the driver whether he was blind or merely stupid. He barked right back at me that it was my fault: I had backed into his car.

Incredulous, I pointed out that a soft body is no competition for the destructive potential of a vehicle, especially one driven by an idiot. My husband was angry and told the man, revealed to be grey, wrinkled and infirm that he shouldn't be driving, he was a threat to everyone else behind the wheel of a car. In response the man yelled that if my husband had half a brain he would see that his wife was blind.

Blind? My husband retorted, you were behind the wheel, not your wife. Yet, looking at the man, my husband felt a pang of sympathy for the old dolt. Not I. I turned to his wife and told her that it is her choice to drive with someone whose driving habits could imperil her life, but she should not be a party to unleashing his obvious incapacity to operate a vehicle on the rest of society.

Had the man apologized I'd never have felt so outraged. Then I heard on the evening news about the elderly man who drove his vehicle into a crowd of shoppers at a market in California, killing a number of people, injuring many. When he emerged from his car he berated the crowd, asking why they hadn't got out of the way. He's 81 years old now, three years post-accident, was sentenced to six months of house probation, too old, too ill to be sent to prison where, the judge lamented, he would most surely die.

Big loss. Anyone who cannot take ownership of their responsibility to others is no credit to himself, no loss to society.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What You Don't Know

Sometimes it really is better to leave well enough alone. Sometimes one shouldn't submit to one's curiosity. Even when it's well meaning, even when you care about the person. What you don't know cannot hurt you. Isn't that ever so true? Of course sometimes events conspire to inform you about things you'd rather not know, and then you have no true control; you sit there, you listen, you emote, you regret, you have compassion.

The table linens, the bed linens, the towels have all been laundered. The physical remnants of her visit have been expunged so to speak. But the deep black hollow within our psyches yet remains. There is nothing, it seems, we can possibly do to alleviate the dire condition this old friend finds herself in. She is no longer to be thought of as being among the walking wounded; she now resembles the rambling dead.

How could we know? And if we did, there would have been no avoiding it. But now knowing it's hard to accept. We grieve for her, and we are helpless. She is helpless against her need. She simply cannot see, is now incapable of examining the facts, the evidence, reaching conclusions. She exists to exist. Occasionally there is a gleam of her inner self that once was, then she submits to the truth that now is.

Her body is failing her. She still has an appetite and she eats what is placed before her. It is an automatic response. Her body functions in its mechanical way. But it is doing its utmost to communicate with her, to inform her, to tell her that it is reaching the end of its ability to help her survive. Her mind, her memory, her intelligence have been too severely compromised. Mind/body, the person we now see is a bare reflection of that whom we knew.

Two-week comas preceded by stroke-like symptoms have a genesis. Doctors, neurologists have no knowledge of a life's stressors and the sensitive nature of a sensible, caring, proficient, aware and good natured human being. They treat symptoms, hoping to be able to identify a causative, render a diagnosis. In this instance there were several diagnoses, neither of which were fully explicable.

The daily ingestion of drugs are meant to forestall too-frequent further seizures. They have a habit of causing other problems. Sleep is elusive, back and neck pain constant. The face is haggard, drawn, yet bloated. Eyes are slit and they receive images, but it's obvious nothing quite registers.

The cellphone blackberry rings incessantly. The response is clipped and clear, the professional swings into automatic function. Problem-solving is swift and deliberate, then the body slumps back and with it the poor head.

We know what it is that is killing you inexorably, and now swiftly. You know it too. You speak about it in all its critical details, describe the pain it gives you, your inability to understand the nature of other human beings whose shortsightedness, greed and egotism compels them to behaviours unacceptable to any thinking person.

If you weren't so well compensated in salary and benefits, if you were not so reliant upon the health care insurance, the years of retirement investment in your position you would consider saving your life.

There is still the potential for choice. Soon there won't be.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Friend to Friend

When we first met her she was young and fresh-faced, enthusiastic and friendly, capable and all fired up about her job. We were a little taken aback that such a young woman would be entrusted with the operation of such a complex enterprise. We were old enough to be her parents; fifty to her twenty. She had attended University of Georgia on a basketball scholarship and had graduated with a business administration certification. She was confident in her abilities and her studies had obviously prepared her for any position of management and administration. We had our doubts, initially.

She informed us soon after we met that she had survived cancer. Hardly; at her age? Yes, she'd had Hodgkins lymphoma, had just completed undergoing post-operative therapy, and this was her first job post-graduation. Her older brother, she confided in us, had died the year before at age 32; heart attack. What a family medical history, right? We learned over the course of the next few years just how capable she was, how her confidence in her abilities was not misplaced.

A born people-person, she went out of her way to befriend people, to offer her empathy to those who needed it. But she was also a firm and knowledgeable administrator, and friendship had nothing at all to do with the manner in which she performed her work. Principled and honest to the core, she had no patience with the acceptance of the little tricks people resort to in their ambitious search to enrich themselves or better themselves using ethically questionable methods.

You had to admire her, and many did. But she came to logger-heads with those who did not, who resented her competence her dedication to her job through which she was capable of making end runs around their seedy little machinations of paperwork to claim benefits unearned. Since she was a locally engaged worker and they were their country's ostensible delegation in a diplomatic core, they resented her ability to discern their little tricks and forestall manipulation of the system to personal avail.

The nearly two decades she has performed in her position as manager/administrator of the post has gained her great respect in some quarters, enmity in others. She has had to work alongside domineering and implacable diplomatic representatives of the country whom the post represents who resent her presence and the powers residing in her position. Those times when the assigned head of post was a reasonable, knowledgeable and credible ambassador of his country gave her temporary relief from the inexorable and more-frequent presence of those whose major concern was their hollow reputations and preoccupation with personal enrichment.

Her personal life was impacted by the lapsed management skills of those to whom she answered to in the administration of her job, by their demands and sulks, by their wives' social ambitions and feelings of self-entitlement. She trod a fine line between acquiescence and job satisfaction, between work accomplished and the need to intervene when tempers flared as a dictatorial superior verbally whipped a subordinate.

We last saw her fourteen years ago when she stayed with us briefly during a trip to our home city. This was after a return of the cancer, and following a last-gap effort to save her life through a successful bone marrow transplant. She was still the young, energetic, optimistic and bubbling woman we had known the decade previous. Still a pleasure be with, to share conversations and memories with. No one had a more generous heart, was more giving to the needs of people around her.

This was our most recent re-union, this week-end, when we picked her up at her downtown hotel and drove her back to our home. The fine facial features were almost hidden behind a pasty bloat. Her muscular frame had descended into a wide but firm configuration. But she smiled happily, was glad to see us as we were to see her. And we talked and we talked; like the rain, non-stop. It was easy to see how tired she was. She didn't sit, she reclined heavily into the welcoming sofa.

The stresses and strains of her job have taken their toll. A toll her many friends' concern and love for her could not possibly ameliorate. She had experienced what was first thought to be a series of small strokes. Later, neurosurgeons had felt perhaps not strokes, more likely, they thought, a form of migraine headaches, but manifesting themselves through exhaustion and memory loss.

A two-week coma could be construed as a type of memory loss, perhaps. She's on pain killers; suffering constant neck/back pain. She takes drugs to offset the threat of seizures. She has neuropathy in her digits. She feels perhaps some of her symptoms can be attributed to the extensive chemotherapy she had undergone in her two bouts of surviving cancer. She faithfully attends a weekly session for cancer survivors.

She's a motivational speaker at these sessions, speaking to and with newly-diagnozed cancer patients, as well as recuperating cancer survivors. There are people in the group who consider her intervention at a critical time in their lives as signal events in their survival, their acceptance, their recouperation. I've seen the testimonials to her dedication to the well being of others.

Our friend is a shadow of her former self, although, thanks to the side-effects of some of her medications, there is more of her. Forty pounds, no less. Her mental and physical resources have been tapped out. She is entirely, utterly exhausted. She is reaching the zenith in reverse of her ability to cope. She is operating on overdrive.

How can we tell her, in language that she will understand, that she is in dire straits, that her body and her mind are conspiring together to persuade her that they can no longer serve her? She has countless friends, people who have known her for much of her life, people who love her, people whose own well being owes much to her good spirits and optimism in life. They see what has become of her, and they try to reach her.

She was born an optimist, always has been an optimist, always will be an optimist. I suppose that in and of itself is a fitting enough epitaph.

Washout

Rain, rain and more rain. No end to this rain. The ground is already well soaked through, cannot possibly accept any more water. There are flood conditions, people are desperate for some sign that the sun still exists up there in the heavens. We were skunked last Thursday. The rain was so heavy, so unforgivingly constant we didn't venture out into the ravine. We took advantage of a brief window of opportunity on Friday morning and off we went.

Down the steep first hill into the ravine; turn left on the trail leading toward the first of the bridges. Then stop half-way there, because there is a great yawning chasm, and where the trail had formerly commenced on its way to the bridge there was nothing. The bank of the creek had collapsed at its highest point, directly into the creek. A large tree overlooking the creek at that juncture had agreed with the exodus and lay in the creek, alongside all the other detritus that had made the journey.

That's what happens when you've got clay, too much clay, and when it's layered with sand as so often happens here in the Ottawa Valley that's a recipe for ecological disaster when the requisite ingredients are combined; in this instance; clay/sand/excess water. That rather stopped us in our tracks. Gap-mouthed in astonishment. On the other hand, in reflection, not all that surprised. The bank had collapsed at the very point where I was always a trifle uneasy treading.

The bank had already succumbed, throughout a period of years, to a gradual crumbling process. When work crews were in there several years back, for the purpose of reconstructing the various bridges that filled the various gaps to enable trekkers to access varied points in the ravine, they had brought in an odd-looking treaded vehicle with a shovel in front, and with it had managed to increase the width of the trail by digging into the upper bank where trees strode up the hillside keeping erosion at bay.

With the widened trail at that juncture I breathed a little easier for a few years. Until this fall, when the unrelenting rainfall stressed our little ecosphere beyond redemption. Our walks, in any event, will not be washouts, since there are always alternate trails which will inevitably bring us to many of the same old haunts, travelling their circuitous routes through this ravine.

The rains continue.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Pieface Unleashed

A label once conferred in teasing love and adolescent humour has a way of clinging to the mind of the giftee. Over a half-century of time can pass, the label long sublimated; other more timely labels appended to last their time and then disappear. At some time or other thoughts suddenly drift upward from soul to mind and one recalls. What was sweet and quaint becomes peculiarly apt to a situation and the label becomes an identifier.

Call me and I shall respond. I am what you make of me. I am here.

We were children together. We came together, we met one another's needs, we matured and became together what we now are.

Here it is! The very last poem in the book. How would I know, I haven't looked at it for decades, wrote it so very long ago in memory of what we were back then when time began for us. Here I am:

Nomenclator

When we were young
you called me pieface
and mooncow. Later
my name was dear and honey
although I was still
myself.

After
I was Lilith
fecund Gaia. Soon
I became fondly mumsie
until our children
became old enough to name

me themselves. Before
I know it another
metamorphosis will take
place as our
children's children

lisp me Gran'ma.
Somehow it seems I've
only been
what others in their
need have named.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Strange Genes

I hadn't looked at that little collection of poetry for decades. I had a vague remembrance of the poems, what they were about, but not all of them. I'd given a copy of the book to our grandchild, and darned if I really know why, since she's far too young to understand the complexity and nuances in many of the poems. I know why I gave this to her, to hope that she would understand eventually that the emotional conflict she experiences with her mother reflects that same condition which her grandmother experienced with her mother.

The poem was titled "My Daughter My Stranger". She had taken her copy to school and it sits in her desk, perhaps occasionally consulted during reading time. We were visiting on the week-end and she asked if her mother had been an adopted child. Why on earth, I asked her, would she imagine such a thing? What gave her that impression? Your poem, Bubbe, the poem about my mother. I wracked my brain, trying to recall the words of the poem I'd written thirty years earlier.

No, I said to her, I can't recall the inclusion of anything referring to adoption, but I'd get out a copy at home and have a look at it, then discuss it with her. And be assured, I told her, her mother was not at all adopted. And then I hastened to assure her further that it wouldn't matter whether a child was natural or adopted any mother would love her child - no doubt further confusing the issue.

Then, today, I remembered and went down to the basement to look on the bookshelves there for a copy to haul upstairs. I sat down with the slim volume and read first that poem, then others. Yes, there had been a reference to adoption, but it referred not to my daughter, but rather to the child of a neighbour. And I understood that it had been folly to expose a ten-year-old to such emotion-laden poetry, ripe for misunderstanding.

There will come a time, but that time is not quite yet.

The poem?

There was a time not long ago
(only a year in fact)
when she hated everyone else's
poison wafting her way. She used
to say cigarettes are dangerous,
even tried to persuade her friends.

We always had a good understanding
me and my daughter. She has a
talent for the flute
and this summer I bought her
a piccolo. Her favourite record

was Cimerosa's double-flute
concerto. Her needle-adept fingers
sewed embroideries far finer than
my young fingers ever did.
This year she's a senior.

She's embroidered a joint
its smoke spiralling up the
leg of her faded jeans. Our
house rocks with Alice Cooper's
ghastly lyrics. Every evening now

she's out back in the park
behind our house, here in this
middle-class hamlet. A crowd of
boys and girls. Music blares the
autumn air. Matches flare the dark

to light the weeds. She's high,
(She gets high on crowds
and popularity.)
'Everyone thinks I'm a stoner'
she tells me laughing. 'It's
my clothes my fuzzy hair

and the way I talk.' My
daughter has learned. She knows
how to disarm my wary thoughts. Now
my neighbour with the sniffing nose
tells her neighbours that my daughter

is a bad influence on theirs. I
remember her own daughter. Her way
was tight-lipped with the girl
and high-voiced.
She always said the reason her girl

ran wild was because the girl was
adopted. Never can trust strange genes.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Poor Little Tyke

Time for the regular annual physical at the veterinarian hospital for little Riley, our awfully spoiled, dreadfully loved apricot toy poodle. He's not the brightest of lights, especially compared to Button, older and infinitely wiser, a female miniature poodle. They each have their strengths, their adorable and sometimes irritating qualities and we love them equally.

Mind, we didn't feel very lovably-inclined toward Button last night as she had us up every other hour, having to go out to the backyard to relieve herself. Seems, despite our vigilance, that she somehow managed to get into the compost that we spread over the gardens. The compost represents kitchen waste that has decomposed, but it was kept too damp and wasn't dry and crumbly as it should have been. Instead, it was rank and foul smelling, an odour made in heaven for little black poodles.

She must have got into the guck - despite our best intentions to keep her as far away from it as possible - and eaten some of the surely bacteria-laden compost. It took her four trips to the out-of-doors, at 11:00 p.m., 2:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m. and finally 6:30 a.m., before she returned to her normal sleepy self and permitted us to sleep in until eight. Each time she ventured out we'd had to rub her down to dry her, since it was pouring rain all night.

Well, that's another story. Early this afternoon Riley and Button both went to the vet's, and as soon as we drove into the parking lot, they knew. This is not their favourite place. It doesn't come close to being their favourite place. They shudder and draw closer to us for protection. Sitting in the waiting room, Button is alert and frightened, Riley frightened and aggressive when he espies other dogs sitting with their owners.

We know what's coming. I'd put them both on a diet throughout the summer months and they both lost a little weight and looked really good. Now, with the onset of winter I began to beef up their food portions and it shows; not on Button but on Riley, since he's smaller. They'd performed incredibly well this past September when we took them mountain climbing, but I wouldn't want to expose them to that kind of vigorous exercise at this point.

So, Dr. Strieb checked Riley out, said everything seems to be in order, and we discussed replacing the daily drops of olive oil I give them both with fish oil. And a definite and gradual decrease in their food intake. Not the vegetable salads, he stressed, just the add-ons, the treats, the cookies, and we agreed. Riley put on over a pound and a half in a year.

His incisors, Dr. Strieb said, should come out. They're loose, the roots can be seen, and they're infected; he has a case of gum disease that cannot be good for him and will affect his organs. This, despite their lifetime of daily tooth-brushing. We discuss what our insurance plan will pay for, and it won't be a whole lot. Of the eventual $500 cost, we'll be relieved of perhaps $80 of the total, because of the yearly deductible and cost-sharing.

And another thing: that benign cyst that is growing under his back left leg really is growing. It was established last year that it is composed entirely of fat, having nothing whatever to do with diet, and having everything to do with genetic inheritance, and the propensity of poodles (as with the incisors), to grow these things. It causes him no pain and no discernible discomfort, but if it continues to grow (and at present it's about 2-1/2 inches in circumference) it will prove to be an impediment to his gait, and he'll need to have it removed.

Grim news, but one supposes it could be worse. This is also the first time both of them will be innoculated for leptospirosis. Poor Button, we had told her this was Riley's examination, she would be exempt, but it was not to be. And what a day it's been - all-day rain - we hadn't even had the opportunity to take them out for their usual hour's romp in the ravine.

Tomorrow's another day.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Man of Unparalleled Genius

The story of Leonardo da Vinci is a sad one of a luminous life of brilliant achievement, yet also the story of a genius who recognized his incredible abilities and who anticipated acknowledgement through an accepted social pattern of the day of royal patronage of outstanding artistic talents. For him, never to be fully realized. This unbelievably brilliant man was born in 1452 of an illegitimate union of the eldest son of a wealthy and established family of lawyers in the village of Vinci in the Florentine republic, with a young peasant woman.

His father's family recognized the illegitimate child and brought him into their home, away from his mother, raised with the other children of the family. His father, Ser Piero, was emotionally distant, his mother absent, but he lived among an extended family of aunts, uncles and other children, accepted as family. At a time when Leonardo was a young boy who loved to wander in the countryside on his own making natural discoveries, he eschewed a formal education available to young men of his social ranking. For the rest of his life he regretted that boyish decline of a formal education, especially not having learned Latin, the lack of which actually impaired his future intellectual advancement as well as his social acceptance.

To someone looking back through documented history at what is known about this truly extraordinary human being, it's hard to believe that he was frustrated at every turn in his life by lack of recognition, that he was forced by material need to exercise self-abnegation to a humbling degree in ongoing attempts to ingratiate himself with wealthy patrons whose practise it was to sustain the arts not necessarily for the love of art, but for the reflected glory monumental or famed art would reflect upon them personally.

When Leonardo's artistic abilities proved inadequate to gain him patronage he turned to the design of weapons of war in the always-unrealized hopes that his mechanical and creative genius realized through inventions surpassing any that had hitherto been devised such as assault and siege machines, submersible ships, armoured vehicles would gain him employment and recompense. When that failed he turned to architecture, accomplishing a high degree of expertise that still denied him recognition.

Leonardo turned to music, was able to visualize different ways of producing musical sounds and created musical instruments unlike others of the day, capable of producing unique and beautiful sounds. In the process he became himself a master of the lute and a brilliant lutenist. One of his peculiar and beautiful musical instruments served as an introduction to the court of Lodovico Sforza by Lorenzo de' Medici who himself evinced little interest in Leonardo's brilliance. Even there his work was held to be of little value.

The constant wars between Italy, France and Spain and the ongoing intrigues, not the least of which emanated from the various popes of the time within the Vatican (whose own sons were elevated to stations of high dignity both secular and divine) meant an ever-evolving social and political landscape, all of which Leonardo, along with other artists of the time had to adjust their aspirations and allegiances to. Toward the end of his life, the recognition long denied him came not from Florentine nobles, the place of his birth, but France, under a young and impulsive Francis I, who gave Leonardo the grand commissions so long denied him (and which, at his advanced age, he could no longer produce) and granted him a princely stipend, along with a chateau in which to live out his waning years.

In the intervening years, Leonarda da Vinci's compelling cerebral search brought him to master algebra, geometry history, anatomy, mechanics, and to produce all manner of inventions. The extent of the man's unappreciated genius is beyond belief. Apart from his mastery of oil painting and sculpture he was an accomplished architect and civil engineer, a philosopher, mathmetician, inventor, musician. His curiosity knew no bounds. He studied ancient texts for clues to answers about questions which vexed him and often based his own research and discoveries on these; often enough found them wanting and went on from there. Nothing escaped his curious mind.

His life was a difficult one. Despite his many and obvious talents he had few commissions and struggled to make ends meet; something he contended with for most of his life, even once he became famous in his later years. He seemed always to be overlooked when commissions were being handed out while others less worthy were rewarded. He made every effort to curry favour with those who could help him through their largesse, but nothing quite seemed to work in his favour. His experiences led him to bitterness and while still a relatively young man he became a budding misanthrope, expecting little of his fellow man.

Despite which, even with those low expectations he was always let down when events proved his undoing. His is an elevating story of a genius, but that also of a sad life in many ways. Elevating if only because it points out how one individual could be so amazingly creative and cerebrally brilliant. He was especially bitter about the success and renown granted to others, of singular mediocrity. All of which sounds rather familiar, proving that nothing much seems to change about human behaviour.

He was admired during his lifetime by other artists of genius, such as Giorgio Vasari, Raffaello Sanzio, Benvenuto Cellini, Andrea del Verrocchio, but they too were often in the position of being commissioned to produce great works of art, yet suffered privation and want as their patrons seldom saw fit to relax their purse strings. Some of Leonardo's works of art were never completed, others have not survived the ages, some were lauded yet the materials required to bring them to fruition were never provided, sidelined - like the bronze for his monumental horse - to conduct the war of the moment.

His enthusiasm to achieve a life of artistic and scientific distinction was forever denied him by such opportunities lost through the intervention of social upheavals of war and conquest. Yet he continued to strive to accommodate his genius to an ever-changing political, social and religious elite. He endeavoured, by attempts at ingratiation, to entice wealthy sponsors throughout his unrewarded life.

His entreaties, his plans, his talents and his genius were always overlooked. Small commissions and even smaller payments for services rendered enabled him to barely endure while he bitterly witnessed lesser talents than his own feted and honoured and riches lavished upon them. Michaelangelo, himself a master sculptor of genius, and at the same time a rival for important commissions, succeeded where Leonardo did not, and while Leonardo harboured no ill will toward the younger artist, Michaelangelo heaped scorn and derision upon the older man.

Leonardo's despair, his constant disappointments, led him to view humankind and human behaviour in the darkest of lights. He became, finally, a fully-fledged misanthrope. Yet his immense curiosity about every field of science, anatomy, geometry, philosphy, mechanics led him to devote himself to study. He abandoned art for long periods of his life in favour of study which became so much a passion in his life. His universal embrace of learning and the production of learned treatises set him apart in a world already blessed with a surfeit of outstanding artists, philosophers and scientists of astonishing genius and ability.

Finally, old, frail and ill, no longer able to trust his once-strong body, his all-encompassing mind to reflect his undying devotion to educating himself and the world, to producing art of unspeakably divine beauty, he sought more and more to isolate himself from the outside world.

"His masterpieces destroyed or decaying, his vast knowledge unutilized, the immense mass of scientific material he had been collecting all his life preserved only in chests and boxes, in incomplete records written in a secret script and, in their existing form, quite inaccessible o mankind - "if they come to light," wrote de Beatis, and Leonardo began to ask himself whether they ever would come to light. He no longer nursed the illusion that he could complete his many works for publication in his lifetime. He began to admit that he had attempted a superhuman task, to realize that he was defeated. He knew the forces that had defeated him - the wearing struggle for existence, the maze of chance influences and events that pull a man this way and that, the arbitrariness of fate." -- Leonardo da Vinci - The Tragic Pursuit of Perfection by Antonina Vallentin, c.1938




Saturday, November 04, 2006

Beginnings

My mother and her family resided in the Pale of Settlement, which is the area that Jews were sent to in the hinterland of Russia to keep them as separate and apart from contaminating Russian society at large as possible. My mother always denied the existence of the Pale of Settlement. She was a committed socialist and always flew to the defence of Russia.

Her father was a schoolteacher in the town they lived in. There were three girls in the family and one son. The son was active politically. At the time there was a White Russian group and a Red Russian group; the whites defended imperialist Russia; the reds were communists. My mother's brother was a communist. Both sides were equally fervent, equally convinced of their invulnerability and correct reading of history and course of action; equally violent.

One day a bomb was thrown into my mother's parents' home - by white Russians because of course it was general knowledge that her brother was a red. The bomb killed her brother; shrapnel hit one of my mother's eyes, one of her sister's legs. Their parents were injured, but survived. Both women suffered all their lives as a result of their injuries, but not badly.

Suffice it to say, although neither spoke about their experiences, one would imagine the psychic damage to have been far greater, but they didn't dwell on it. My aunt, unlike my mother, never became political, and their sister, the third girl of the family had no interests either in politics. The three girls, in fact, couldn't have been more different one to the other.

Theirs had been a secular household, but my mother's older sister became an observant Jew, while my mother remained staunchly secular, and the third sister married a Ukrainian peasant - how much further removed can one get? Eventually, all three girls came to Canada; the oldest with her then-husband, as a young wife, followed by the other two; wealthy uncles who lived in Atlanta helped to finance their emigration.

My mother was very careful to pay back every penny of that expense; even when I was a young girl approaching my teens I can recall hearing my mother talk about sending on monies owed - in small increments, until the debt was paid.

My father lived in another little town, a shtetel in Poland, called Mezrich. He came from a very poor family, although I had the impression his father had been a learned man. But my father's parents died when he was quite young, likely before he was ten years of age. He had a brother who had long ago gone to Warsaw to find a life for himself there; my father scarcely knew his brother.

On the death of his parents, an orphan and alone, he was placed by the town council in the town's poorhouse. He was a rebellious young boy and fled the poorhouse and eventually made his way, walking and hitch-hiking to Warsaw, where he planned to look for his brother. He never did find his brother, and like many other orphaned children at the time he lived on the streets of the city, begging.

A Jewish philanthropical society gathered the intent and the funds to pluck these children off the streets and send them to Canada, through an arrangement with the Canadian immigration authorities (this would have been during the early 1920s). My father and a few other orphans whom he knew from his old home town, along with other homeless children came to Canada and worked as indentured farm hands.

My father ended up working on a farm just outside Toronto, near a small town called Georgetown. We had an old photograph of him as a thirteen-year-old standing among some other young boys, taken at the farm.
Both my parents adjusted well to life in Canada. My mother spoke Yiddish, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian. My father felt an urgent need to educate himself and devoured books.

They made a life for themselves together. They had the good fortune to remain friends with other children who had come over with my father and these grown people were my father's family, while my mother had the comfort of knowing her two sisters had also settled nearby, one in Toronto the other in Hamilton, an hour's drive from Toronto.

People do manage. There is always hope.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

This Compost Reeks!

It's a long time we've been composting. Several decades in fact. And, in fact, it was our younger son who suggested it, convinced us it would be a good idea and even built our first compost-enclosure. I'd fed it faithfully until winter came, then forgot about it. The next summer when I was out in the garden I remembered and wondered what had become of everything I'd tossed into it. And that's when I discovered that wonderfully friable black gold, and used it happily in the garden. That was a different house, another time long gone.

We've got three composters on the go in the backyard of the house we've been living in for fifteen years. We fill one, let it work itself out, begin on another. And it's absolutely amazing how much compost each of these containers can receive. I have a two-gallon-sized covered pail under the sink cabinet, and it gets filled and released to the compost bin twice a week. I don't take it out, my husband, hardly soul, does; from summer to winter and beyond. The composter swallows up those parts of the vegetables and fruits that are inedible; egg shells, tea and coffee grounds, stale bread, and other innocuous comestibles.

In the gardening months some gardening detritus also goes into the composters. And once a year, usually in the late fall, one of the composters is emptied and its melted-down contents sprinkled, lavished upon the garden beds and borders. The compost that is withdrawn should be dry and crumbly and resemble dark soil, enriched composting material, with evidence here and there of the vegetables and fruits from which it has come.

Amazingly (but perhaps not) each year we find surprises in our gardens. Sometimes vines upon which grow eventually honeydews, or tomato vines coming up in the various gardens. It's always a bit of a surprise to discover what kind of tomatoes they are; sometimes cherry tomatoes, sometimes large plump field tomatoes. Special gifts from our composter.

Lately, however, it's become obvious we're doing something wrong. The finished product is not as it should be. We know that before we even withdraw that black gold from its holding space. We can see liquid compost leaking constantly from under the composter over to the trunk of the apple tree that sits closest to it. That should give the tree a great boost, we imagine.

And there are worms everywhere, even discovered when we removed fallen leaves that had clumped on top of the composter and revealed a little nest of happily-squirming worms among them. It's a very nice environment for worms, for bacteria, for all manner of fibre-loving creatures breaking down the offerings to their bare nutritional constituents.

All very well and good. But the compost! It's wet and slimy even though we can see the raw fruits and vegetables, the breads and grounds and shells have been well broken down. And the smell, it truly is disgusting. It's sharp and noxious. But Button, our little black poodle is ecstatic over the odour, she seeks it out, would roll in it if we let her. She also sneakily attempts to casually stroll past our gaze to nibble on any accessible bits and pieces.

We know, from the experience of the past three wet-compost garden sprinkles that this disgusting odour will be around for a while, before the exposure to the air will finally dissipate it. Meanwhile, over winter, the compost we're using as garden mulch will slowly break down even more and eventually make its way down into the soil to enrich the garden and all growing things.

We're keeping our compost too moist, I know. It could be better aerated, I know. This compost reeks!
Oh dear.

To Bed With Them!


Ah, roses, those wonderful roses. Climbers, bushes, ramblers, tea roses, floribundas, heritage, we love them all. Many consider they're more trouble than they're worth, but their timeless beauty surpasses that of all other garden plants. They have a rich heritage; gardeners have loved them for thousands upon thousands of years, and treasured their timed and timely flowering.

They certainly can be a lot of trouble to maintain. To know how and when to cut them back to ensure good health. To check them constantly for mildew, for rust, to remove countless tiny caterpillars that love to feast on their leaves and tender flower buds. To overlook the tender work of rose-loving aphids is to invite disaster, is yet another threat to the beauty of the unfolding buds to the glory of the flower revealed.

I remember a small house in Tokyo, and seeing the work of an elderly devoted gardener in his small enclosure around his home. He grew nothing but roses in his garden, and permitted them to be visible to passersby as he used a wire-type fence, not often seen there, rather than the traditional garden walls meant to hide one's personal Eden from the public eye. In early summer, all of his climbers, his shrubs, bushes, floribundas would somehow, as though by the magic of his sure thumb, bloom together in a blaze of colour, blessing the air with their fragrance.

Then, all too soon, this wonderful display would be no more. The shrubs, bushes, climbers, would all have been neatly trimmed, but brutally, by a gardener who so obviously knew the habits and needs of his roses. They would bloom again, months later, in a pale imitation of their former glory, but catching one's throat in the full appreciation of their spectacular display - for an all too brief, but unforgettable display. I still recall them, decades later.

My own garden is but a pale imitation of his - and for that matter, of any dedicated, knowledgeable gardener's. I will always be an apprentice gardener, but I was not born with the knowledge and the sureness that some, few people, appear to be blessed with. I had an uncle who was a "natural" gardener; of peasant stock he seemed to know exactly what to do and did so with ease. When I was a young wife and we bought our first modest home, he gave us a peach tree he had grown from a pit. In a very few years we had so many peaches I was hard put to bottle them all for winter preserves.

And then there's our daughter. She, like her paternal grandmother, turned out miraculously to be another natural gardener. It's as though the mantle of gardener descends from the heavens and settles gently upon the shoulders of such people blessed with this secret inner knowledge. A knowledge which they themselves do not claim to possess but which is abundantly clear to anyone like myself who strives mightily to duplicate that which they manage so effortlessly.

So, our roses have been put to bed for the winter. Nothing too special had to be done for the Explorer and rugosa series climbers and bushes, for they're hardy enough to make it through our chill frozen Canadian winters. Just a bit of cut-back here and there; removal of old branches to make way for the new, a bit of mounding, and that's it. But the floribundas, the tea roses, the miniatures, those beautiful and tender roses must be cared for far more carefully. Trimmed, mounded and rose cones placed carefully over them until early spring when they can be removed as the roses welcome the spring sun and begin their process of coming to life again.

We can wait. We have no other choice.
 
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