Ruminations

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Inconvenient Parenthood

Can parents truly be that oblivious to their responsibilities? So utterly heedless of the needs of their young children, that they willingly hand them over to the day-care handling of individuals whom they know nothing about, secure in the knowledge that these strangers will more than adequately fill their infants' needs - where they, the busy, otherwise-engaged parents, can not?

As casually as these parents appear to regard their protective responsibility to their young, perhaps they don't spend too much time searching for a reliably dependable care-giver. It's entirely possible that they sign on to the care of their vulnerable children, grateful to be accepted by people who declare their fitness to look to their child's welfare, unwilling to delve too deeply into suitability, anxious to secure a place for the child, to enable them to get on with more important things; their own paid employment.

As a young mother I can vividly recall my husband and me trying to stretch one inadequate paycheque to ensure that our little family was able to afford all the fundamental things required to ensure a decent and healthy lifestyle. The mortgage of the modest house we bought before our children were born was, like the house itself, modest, but a burden to us anyway. Our expenses were kept to a minimum.

We purchased items that were required. There were no vacations, no gifts, no luxury items, no preoccupation with having the latest gadgetry, electronic components without which no one can seem to be truly living in the modern world. Paying the milkman, buying fruits and vegetables and the staples out of which healthful meals could be produced was the order of our day. And maintaining a very small vehicle for a family of two adults, three children.

Whereas in today's world of parenthood children seem to be add-ons, not the premier reason for the family to occupy itself. It is required that households have the latest technology in flat-screen television sets, several family vehicles, and a house to match the parents' ambitions. Family vacations are often taken twice in a year; in March and again during the summer. The children are signed up for after-school recreational opportunities and ferried to and fro.

And to pay for these seeming necessities to a satisfying lifestyle, children are farmed out to day-care givers. Does the caregiver smoke, have clean and well-behaved domestic pets - have her own children to attend to, beyond offering her energies and attention to fulfil the needs of other peoples' children? Is the environment a safe one, does it offer stimulation to children for learning experiences? How many children in total does the caregiver commit herself to?

Under Ontario's Day Nurseries Act facilities committed to the care of more than five children under the age of ten, unrelated to the caregivers, must be licensed by the province. But there are more than enough caregivers looking after other peoples' children in their own homes who fly under the radar of provincial regulation, operating as unregistered caregivers.

Wouldn't the parents of young children want to know this vital thing, whether the province has certified the operation before handing their child over to the care of those who don't commit to register their operations legally? In Ottawa yesterday Ottawa police and emergency personnel investigated one such enterprise.

The result being that investigators with the Children's Aid Society, along with the police, shut down this unlicensed day care operation in a private residence, and arrested the caregiver. Suddenly-anxious parents arrived throughout the day to pick up their toddlers, eager to advance the notion that they had no idea that eleven children, all under the age of five, were being tended to by one single solitary caregiver.

A mother whose young child under the care of this caregiver had suffered a black eye and cuts and bruises had initiated the investigation. The mother subsequently had reported the caregiver to police. "We went to investigate allegations of neglect and made an arrest", according to a police spokesperson. And they did, accompanied by paramedics.

"I knew there were four or five. I never knew there were that many", according to one mother picking up her child at the site. Since there were eleven children necessitating a regular morning succession of vehicles arriving to deliver the children, it's hard to imagine any parent being ignorant of the facts, other than not wishing to know, to imperil their prized arrangements. Did they have no interest whatever in viewing their child and the activities in the environment they had arranged for the child?

As is usual when neighbourhoods become aware of some malfeasance on the part of one of their neighbours, people profess to being shocked at the events. They had no idea. These were really nice people. The day care had been operated out of the residence for the past decade; the homeowners having lived on the property for two decades, with their own grown children now out on their own.

The signals were there to be identified; seven to ten vehicles arriving daily, to drop off and pick up children. One of the neighbours recalled she had enquired years ago how many children her neighbour looked after, and she had accepted the response: "lots". But then, who wants to point a finger of accusation at a nice neighbour?

The caregiver has been charged with neglect of children's needs. Although why she should be the only one is beyond me. For the parents were the enablers here, not sufficiently interested in their own young infants' well-being to ensure they were adequately cared for.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Fascination That Is Japan

It's quite the culture. Organized, self-aware, and extremely self-possessed. The sultry southern tip, (Kyushu) the main island of Honshu and the winter-bound northern island of Hokkaido. In a very small geographic area in the Pacific one can experience, in three tight little island-groups that make up Japan, exoticism, moderation and excess. Which, in a way, encapsulates the living formative society itself in its absorption with its colourful past, its passive presence and its passion for all things natural.

The prevailing religions are low on the horizon, but everywhere one looks shrines and temples are commonly part of both the heritage and the architecture, permeating everyday life as a key to the value of life and life's values. Within a small geographic area of which only a middling portion is truly habitable, with its forests and mountains, a large population of proudly monocultural ethnic Japanese mingle in crowded conditions, with perfect courtesy toward others. The kind of casual crime prevalent in most other societies, absent here.

Unnumbered and narrow abodes jostle comfortably against one another on unnamed streets, some so narrow that vehicles cannot pass one another. Necessitating, with their sometimes narrow laneways, that fire vehicles in no way resembling those of the West, are pulled by quaintly garbed firemen to the action at hand. Commercial and industrial and domestic buildings sit comfortably next to each other, with no interfering zoning by-laws. Construction workers in their body-covering white garb, white fabric boots, camel-hoofed.

Temple grounds become the quiet and green refuge of strollers, as much as city parks. It is within the temple grounds that one sees the fabled Japanese gardens, the koi ponds with the huge silver-gold-orange flashing bodies twisting energetically to the surface of the water to catch the daily tossed offerings. It is in the parks, and sometimes the downtown cemeteries with their own plum and cherry trees that one strolls in spring under a confetti of falling blossoms. The public museums offering tribute to the arts, religious and archaeological artifacts housed in bone-numbing exposure.

Feral cats and kittens roam the streets, the alleyways, the ubiquitous garbage-day repositories for specific neighbourhoods, to exact their due before collection. Above, clattering on the water-towers, the metal-clad roofs, the jungle crows abound. And occasionally the two meet; the denizens of the sewers and those of the air as the latter sweep down on occasion to make a dinner of the former - or, alternately, the city pigeons.

But this too is part of nature and it is as should be, with no interference as nature plays out her role, the hunter and the hunted. On the main thoroughfares, named and named again, in both Chinese/Japanese script, and phonetic English, the night-time sky is kaleidoscopically lit with neon. For a crowded city there is not that much ambient sound, as car drivers habitually do not use their horns. Occasionally the low-sound-barrier is abruptly shattered in daytime from electronic loudspeakers perched on buses with political message writ large and "right".

Even the urban landscape is beautified with camellia bushes in ravishing bloom, and azaleas and rhododendrons in the spring; with ornamental cabbage planted along city streets in late fall. There are archaic-looking pine trees and beautiful large ginkgo trees planted on city avenues. People living in cramped apartments all air their futons, hanging them out their apartment windows through the day, festooning an apartment facade with thousands of 'white ribbons'.

There is public respect in abundance. It is rare to see a small plot of grass, since room to grow anything within the confines of Tokyo is rare. But people will place, in utter confidence for their safety, their familiar treasures; twisted bonsai of wonderful grace and elderly provenance alongside the street, beside their front doors. And too, koi pots, treasured pets allowed to be placed out in public where no one would think of interfering with them.

A multitude of cars - mostly white - which is to say a variety of colours emulating white; pearl, ivory, cream, chalk, latte. Black is reserved for the Yakuzi, and perhaps also on occasion for the diplomatic corps who know no better or don't care. By their cars thee shall know them. Taxi drivers are courteous, their vehicles immaculate, interiors carefully dusted countless times throughout the day. When drivers stop at a red light, many still shut off their engines; consigned to unthinking memory war-time conservation of energy.

You may respond to a telephone call by answering with an enquiring, "Hello?", but the Japanese enquire "Mushi-mushi?" and don't quite know why. Social customs are as ingrained in Japan as they are anywhere else. The Japanese appear to be particularly enamoured of the English language; will practise their language skills on strangers walking by, but only if they're obviously Gaijun, capable of responding or correcting.

This was a culture of birth-to-death security in lifetime employment, now hobbling into another reality. Of respectful adherence to uniformity where social rebels tended to be brought into line through, other measures lacking, relative economic deprivation. Opportunities for advancement, through the education system, employment opportunities advanced to those who conform, albeit brightly.

A culture respectful of their heritage, culture, antecedents; elders. Where the elders are themselves respectful of the promise inherent in their spoiled little grandchildren, where bent and wrinkled grandmothers will hoist a fat little, adored boy-child on their backs and trundle along. In this population of porcelain-skinned women with raven tresses and elegant carriage, style is abundant and beauty beyond the eyes of the observer.

Yet it is the foreign observer who looks mouth agape in appreciation at the loveliness of Japanese women, not their Japanese male counterparts, who appear to feel that Western women, blond and blue-eyed represent the fount of feminine beauty. In this country women are designated as second-to-men and their prospects for the future lie in housewifely duties and raising children. While their salarymen husbands work late, and drink hard and vomit in late-night alleyways before trending home.

Pachinko parlours, karaoke bars, night life, television interactive game-shows, manga, haut couture, elegantly marbled hotel interiors, royal palaces and gardens, No and Kabuki theatres, and pre-teen uniformed schoolchildren crowding afternoon streets, along with 'notice-me' teens garbed in amusingly outre outfits in Harajuku. Sumo wrestling, katydids, grasshopper cages - this is Japan.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Seriously Fall

No doubting our senses now. This is Fall ascendant. Not yet the kind of weather that has us putting on the fireplace to dispel the cool damp in the house. Because this is a kindly Fall, one that has gifted us with a goodly amount of sunshine - in between the odd gloomily wet day.

And when the sun shines uninterruptedly, brightly, the large windows in this house take full advantage as sunshine sweeps through the rooms of our home and warms our inner environment.

Our garden clean-up has commenced apace. Slowly but surely the perennials have been cut back. Wire cages have been pulled out of the ground, surrounding and supporting roses, delphiniums, baby's breath, Canterbury bells, mallow, peonies, Jacob's ladder, and many more.

And all those garden stakes employed throughout the garden to ensure that proud flowers on tall stalks don't hit the dirt, like carnations and dahlias, have also been pulled out of the weary earth, assembled in tall pails by the dozens.

Sword-shaped lily and iris leaves have been cut back to neat vees, and the newly-limp leaves of our innumerable hostas have been sheared. Roses have been cut back and mounded, not yet ready to place those protective cones on them to shield them from winter's excesses.

Today I transplanted the wonderfully productive passion vine into a more permanent home, ready to give it shelter in our basement over-winter. Loathe to treat that wonderful pink trumpet flower-bearer as an expendable exotic.

The still-blooming annuals have all been plucked from out of our varied and many garden pots. Long experience has taught that one does not wait until permanent frost wreaks its fury on such defenceless blooms.

Most of the soil has been emptied out of the pots and the classical urns into the new garden, newly-dug under one of our blue spruces. And into that garden has gone the division of hostas and heucheras, bulbs of tulip and narcissi.

When we walk now in the ravine the landscape is changed completely. The canopy is now almost bare of leaves but for a handful still hanging in there, defiant to the end. Like those of the oak, the beech, the hornbeam.

On some pathways the newly fallen leaves still retain their brilliant colours; red, orange, yellow. Elsewhere the colour has receded to a monochromatic yellow, on its way to muddy grey, crunching underfoot.

The sweet-sour fragrance of the poplars, the biting acrid odour of the decomposing leaves envelop us in the languid memory of so many years gone by at this most thoughtfully evocative of seasons.

Were it not for his little green sweater protecting him from the coolness of the atmosphere, Riley would seem to dissolve entirely into the yellow-leafed trails, with the apricot of his haircoat reflecting their fading glory.

The songbirds are gone now. Still, pileated and hairy woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickdadees remind us of their steadfast presence.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Unthinkable

You read, from time to time, of a father or a mother under great stress caused by personal illness or tribulation, murdering their child. Or their children. Or the father murdering his wife, and just incidentally his children as well. Or the mother, unable to cope with her nightmare life any longer, feeling that she will kill herself and her children as well, incapable of imagining them being able to live without her ministering presence.

It's beyond normal imagination to think of what might motivate these lost souls. To destroy a human life, moreover a human life that they have themselves brought into existence. Lovingly nurtured, carefully raised, proudly countenanced. Then something we cannot even imagine stretches them beyond endurance and they murder their own. We shudder inwardly and do our best to lose the memory, however brief.

And then there are other types of betrayals. Equally difficult to counter, much less believe it's possible. That a mother, or a father, or both, fail their children in other ways. They don't murder them, they kill the child's belief in the protection and love of their parents. Some parents manage this by not managing to love their children more than themselves. Some do it by over-control, by exerting psychic damage, by physical abuse.

And some, in more subtle, but almost equally-damaging ways. Like total disinterest in the welfare and happiness of their children. Ignoring their needs for emotional support, for the basic needs of a growing child. By withholding approval when approval is required, by delivering censure when none is ever needed. By failing to provide a clean and safe environment. By not ensuring the child has enough food to eat.

Not encouraging a child to be a social and friendly individual. Not inviting a child to become a responsive and responsible member of society. These are mere social failures, but important nonetheless. Not taking care that a child's medical health is well attended to. Having no care to a child's emerging personality and needs. Let alone encouraging that child to attain a sound education.

This week I was introduced to another element of abuse I am scarcely able to visualize. That a young couple, a man and his wife, have abdicated all responsibility for their five children. Five children, ranging in age from a vulnerable 4 all the way to a puzzled 11. Living in assisted housing, more concerned with having enough money to purchase cigarettes than food. And finding themselves incapable of "looking after" their children.

Finally giving them up to the Children's Aid Society. The grandparents, attempting to forestall the inevitable, tried for four months to look after their five grandchildren on their own. And found themselves incapable of doing so. They have, despite this, forgiven their son and their daughter-in-law. They are kindly toward them and disposed to support them.

How is this nightmare, this misadventure in parenthood and grandparent hood even possible in a society like ours?

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Paying Homage Where It's Due

That great good man of peaceful intent, an inspiration to the rest of the spirit-impoverished world, the Dalai Lama, is on a bit of a roll of late. Despite being the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, heads of state hesitated to officially welcome him until fairly lately. Certainly our previously-unesteemed Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, refused to meet with him at all, fearful of incurring China's wrath.

And wise that was, since Mr. Chretien had the ability to think ahead. To his future, post-prime ministership, where he would hire himself out as a high-priced legal mind and lobbyist for the oil industry, flying off to China to work on behalf of corporate oil interests. And welcomed as a conspiratorially familiar figure. China recognizes scruples and personalities with whom they can do business.

His successor, Prime Minister Paul Martin, was made of sterner ethic, and agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama, but privately. So as not to incur the pique of a great country with whom Canada's business enterprise is so closely aligned. True, Canada was aware, always has been, of the sensitive issue of China's poor human-rights record, but as even earlier Canadian administrations averred it was better to keep channels open.

Why? Obviously, because trade could commence unobstructed by the inconvenience of our getting on our high horse of indignation. And also because it is politically expedient to state that an open business relationship would not entirely relieve Canada's obligation to gently remind China from time to time that people would like her more if she treated her subjects more humanely.

The thing of it is, a country which espouses mild left-of-centre values cannot come down too dreadfully hard on another country whose political and social mandate is built upon the (extreme) left-of-centre, even if it is that of a dictatorship with a well-earned reputation for brutality toward its own. Something about diplomatic relations. Something about relativism.

Still, with the responsibility to govern such an unwieldy population on such an incredibly huge geographic base representing a wide diversity of ethnics, tribes, languages and customs, it's not the easiest job in the world. Sometimes a little bit of knuckle-dusting is required to keep everyone in line. Right? Yup.

Question here: How is it that the right-of-centre goes out of its way to embrace the Dalai Lama, not fearing the anticipated back-lash of the leaders of a powerful country whose economic clout is now so fearsome that other countries spring to attention when she roars? Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had Canada confer citizenship upon the spiritual leader of Tibet.

And now Mr. Harper plans also to meet and greet publicly. In the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush's public display of unity with the Dalai Lama, and the conferring of the Congressional Medal of Honour upon him. China fairly trembled with incoherent rage, terming the Dalai Lama a secessionist and the U.S. an enabler who would pay the price of assisting treason.

And of course German Chancellor Angela Merkel also met with the Dalai Lama. And just to grind China's nose further into the hell's fire of its deep dudgeon, another anathema-laden meet-and-greet was arranged with Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, just itching to declare independence from an "indivisible" China.

China is unequivocal in its denunciation of these encouragements extended toward the titular and spiritual head of a country it has invaded and terrorized and swamped with Chinese settlers: "We are against the provision of venues by foreign countries to the Dalai Lama's secessionist activities and also against the foreign dignitaries meeting with him."

At the risk of insulting and enraging China's leaders, world leaders are recognizing it's past time to do the right thing. At least by Tibet. Perhaps Sudan will be next in line. Then Burma?

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Sigh. Poor Lord Black

He has his stable of reasons for the many opportunities he took as a high-flying businessman, and all of them look reasonable and perfectly valid to him. Somehow, as luck would have it others thought otherwise, and unfortunately those "others" are society's watchdogs, sniffing out corporate and business misadventures verging and quite often crossing the line on licit practise.

For which suspicions the great news magnate and scintillating social magnet was hauled before a court of justice and given the opportunity - through the intervention of high-priced lawyers - to explain himself and most particularly the reason why his sharp business practises were just that - and not illegally rapacious economic crimes punishable by prison time and considerable fines.

In the end, found guilty as charged with respect to a handful of the charges launched against his regal self. Which, however, changes nothing for Conrad Black, staunchly upholding his personal virtues, verities and impeccable sense of ethics - all contributing to his truth that he did nothing wrong; let's make that illegal.

The man faults to a tee the "prolonged effort to impoverish me and imprison me for life", as the malevolently wicked machinations of a twisted system of justice. "I still hope for a complete acquittal" he avows, with his usual air of confident superiority. He may even forgive them for the evil done him, on the basis that they knew not whom they did in.

"After the opening assault that I had pillaged the company for hundreds of millions of dollars, and the prolonged effort to impoverish me and imprison me for life, I feel I have steadily gained ground, and have an excellent basis for appeal", saith he. The contention he mouthed sounds quite in character, actually, based on previous acquisition-loot-and-sack scenarios.

"Being a historian, I am fairly familiar with the ups and downs of peoples' careers and may be able to assimilate a cataract of horrors better than some people." Humble is the man to the nth degree.

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Fit, Not Fat

Too bad, though. It would appear from recent studies (hell, anyone can reach similar conclusions through a casual observation of passers-by in any local urban street or shopping mall) that Canadians are anything but fit. We are, unfortunately, in a sad and sorry physical state. We're statistically overweight, and verging on toppling over into morbid obesity. And why on earth is that?

We cannot understand the most basic requirements of a balanced diet and the good implicit in moderate exercise. We've been warned repeatedly, but we're a real bunch of slow learners. It'll happen to someone else, not to us. Eating has taken the place of recreational opportunities like getting out and enjoying nature. Instead, Canadians are a whole lot happier with their obsession with stuffing food into their maws as their version of recreational fun.

We appear to be besotted with the good life, mistaking awareness of moderation and some degree of self-discipline with the hard life. Mind, the statistics were taken with co-operation of family doctors, so all those self-incriminating measurements pointing the guilt-finger of lack of physical health care were derived from patients visiting their doctors.

Maybe there's hope for us after all. In that people who look after themselves, eat selectively and wisely, exercise their rights to walk, hike, bike, engage in sports and other outdoor activities are in such good health that they rarely see the need to seek the diagnostic help of their family doctors when symptoms kick in that more often visit those who risk poor health.

Hopeful thinking. In any event, Canadian adult men and women appear to have raised the bar in unhealthful living in comparison to the populations of 63 other countries in this survey. Fully 36% of Canadian men and women visiting their doctors' offices have been appraised as obese. In east Asia that number is a piddling 7% by way of wincing comparison.

Lest we overlook another group itself still at risk for health complications, a further 40% of Canadian men and 30% of women were placed in the overweight, not-yet-obese classification. Largest waistlines from among the 63 nations? Canadian men. Canadian women scored a tad better. Shame on us. Really.

Health Canada's statistics reflect a trifle more kindly on this nation's population of fatties, putting us at a relatively modest 23%. Which means that about one in every four of us is determined to slowly kill ourselves. And picking up speed as we age. We're putting ourselves at risk for stroke, heart attacks, diabetes and cancer. Not a pretty picture.

Abdominal fat has been implicated in the greater risk factors leading to all of the above. Heavy hips and thighs, albeit not particularly attractive, and raising their own risks to movable body parts, appear somewhat less problematical. Fat pots is what really does us in. Yet, lest we despair as standing out disproportionately in the world community as dumpy, obese and singularly unattractive people, we may take heart - a little bit.

Obesity has become a problem throughout the world. We're gluttons. Slugs that simply cannot see the value in moving about energetically. This may yet become the health pandemic that health professionals have previously identified as some kind of incipient, potential and incurable disease, slow to materialize. Fatties of the world unit in a common determination to beat this malevolent, creeping fat-ism!

Drop that donut! Get moving! Cripes, you'd think we'd know better. Want better for ourselves. Be ashamed to be role models for our children. Waste our opportunities for lack of more intelligent values and choices.

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Valuing What Counts

Front page news today - the dire necessity for the U.S. Congress to approve a money bill that will provide emergency funding for "bullets and body armour". Implicit in that appeal is the need for patriotic Americans not to forget their brave soldiers fighting abroad. Without the 'bullets and body armour' they will be incapable of prosecuting a war their president charged them into launching.

The bullets required to offset the retaliatory offensives launched by those representing the forces they invaded to bring to unequivocal and utter defeat. The armour required to ensure that this numberless and many-sectarianed enemy - equally determined to defend its own - might not succeed in imperilling American lives. Well, this is, after all, a very complicated world we inhabit.

"I often hear that war critics oppose my decisions, but still support the troops. Well, I'll take them at their word. And this is a chance for them to show it, that they support the troops", challenged George W. Bush while warning lawmakers against delays at this time of urgent need. The sum of $196.4-billion is what is being sought.

Lest the message of $=American lives protected be lost on his detractors, President Bush surrounded himself at a White House ceremony with war veterans and family members of soldiers killed in battle. It wasn't reported whether he had draped an American flag across the left side of his chest. But that wholesale sum was required to cover military operations for 2008 in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The cost has crept up from earlier estimates by a piddling $45.9-billion. This current U.S. administration has mired the country in a double quagmire; of hoping against hope they will yet gain control of a rapidly disintegrating Iraq, of gritting their teeth in sustaining the high-impact-and-growing cost to the nation which has already committed to $560-billion on post-9-11 wars. The national debt is monumental.

Here's the rub: this same month the U.S. president found himself unable to support a bipartisan piece of legislation for the addition of $45-billion over a five-year period in support of a health insurance programme for underprivileged children. All those tens of millions of American families with no health insurance do have children, and those children do have pressing health needs.

The poorer the family situation, the less likely the children will have their health needs met through the availability of a nutritional diet, through regular doctor visits, through a healthy lifestyle including physical recreational and educational opportunities, and above all, affordable housing. All of which are requisites to ensure that children prosper into a sound personal future.

But Mr. Bush saw fit to oppose that particular bill for the betterment of his population because he felt it might provide coverage for too many children from the middle class. As though they too are often as not victims of their parents' inability to secure affordable private medical insurance. He saw the bill as having the unfortunate potential of encouraging Americans to drop usurious private insurance in the hopes of attaining government coverage.

"The bill provides for basic needs, like bullets and body armour", said this president.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Argh! The Pain Of It All!

How fareth this world in which we live? At least the little corner of the world that we inhabit in this most fortunate of countries, of continents, where most of the residents can live in peace alongside one another, never having known war within living memory, in the confines of their boundaries. Where the rule of law ensures public and personal safety. Where people generally are cognizant of the need to accept others' differences. Where egalitarianism rules.

Where a signal amount of inclusiveness indicates the order of society at large, where immigrants are welcomed, women and other-gendered citizens are as entitled as old white males, where children have available quality education, and most people are gainfully employed. Where society sees fit to help those less fortunate, and where, at least within Canada, a universal health care system is alive and well, despite our simmering below-surface discontent.

So, what do we engage with, in our society of material surfeit and consumer-fed frenzies of having it all? Quality of life, North-American style. Which is to say style as in Style. Which is to translate as fruitcake priorities and values. To gain a perspective on the Things That Matter, here is a passing glance at Q & A in the social advice columns:
Here's a question that rounds out nicely the things that matter from a writer who identified (him/her/it?)self as president of an association that signed on a guest speaker for their annual convention. He/she explained that, seated next to the guest - a female medical doctor - it was horrifying beyond description to witness the woman's disgusting table manners. Holding her bread in her hand to butter it...placing elbows on the table while eating...slurping soup and speaking with full mouth. What to do in such a situation? Answer: Report this unwholesome conduct to the speakers' bureau; optionally do not re-invite her. Such behaviour is not to be countenanced nor condoned in a civil society.
What is our world being reduced to? I'll warrant the offended writer, male or female, will never be faced with a situation where an emergency operation, skilfully executed, saves someone's life. There is obviously no honour in attending to the health needs of a community, but much shame in committing social gaffes.
Puzzling: was she buttering the bread or her hand? Was this paragon of witless discernment complaining that the elbows would have been put to better use juggling knife and fork? Did the soup-slurp cause a gag reaction? Was the complainer monopolizing the doctor's attention beyond endurance through constant personal medical queries which finally caused the doctor to protest and ask for peace, mouth full of distaste?
Another weekly column that never fails to raise one's value-hackles is one concentrating on dress styles of the in-crowd. On this occasion a young woman labeled as the CEO of "Creative Class Group" (whatever that is), photographed smilingly posed within a soulless interior wearing a large-print abstract, thigh-high dress with short sleeves and plunging neckline. The outfit is complemented with a clunky necklace and stiletto-heeled calf-tall black boots.

The dress was purchased from Saks Fifth Avenue, and it and the other elements of the poseur's "style" are all expensive labels: "I was thrilled when I found this dress...getting ready to go my brother's wedding in Laguna Beach. I needed something worthy of L.A. style. I would also feel comfortable - if I added a pair of tights - wearing this to a corporate event." Certainly not down-market, but most certainly a result of overweening pride passing as style-savvy.

Shopping at any local Salvation Army Thrift Shop would reveal any number of more suitable dress outfits, and perhaps the sales staff there would even be happy to give free advice to this fashion-challenged woman being touted as a leader of fashion. Her mother was the biggest fashion influence in her life, a woman with six children who "would get dressed up and be in full makeup - even if just to go to the grocery store".

Flawless values to pass on to one's offspring. This woman reminisced about how she and her siblings were so particular about their outfits they would each lock their clothes closets against one another's predations. Woe betide the sister who would ever be seen in public clothed in an outfit another of the sisters had earlier worn. Vapid, vacuous minds, quite beyond redemption.

(It's pointless to go into a moral tirade about starving children elsewhere on the globe, with mothers suffering the worst kind of indignities begging for the wherewithal to feed their young.) Another column speaks of red embossed toilet paper: "all the rage in nightclubs and hotels. Ordering these coloured and embossed loo rolls is the ultimate in luxury shopping...($10.40 for three rolls).

Wait! We're not done here... Here's another timely article putting some perspective on self-involvement and hedonistically mind-boggling pursuits and personal detachment. Sex toys. "The ladies are focused on physical pleasure, favouring disembodied phalloi that have all the romance of a belt sander. An increasing number of men, meanwhile, are buying realistic dolls whom they name and give tender bubble baths, then sit together on the sofa watching television."

Is this an element of society worth a second's notice?

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Big Time Garden Clean Up

No help for it. Our glorious garden has to be put to bed. Not only must we destroy all the lovely and thriving annuals, still glorying in whatever sun we get and mustering sufficient energy to surmount the occasional surprise of overnight frosts, but also the perennials have to be cut back neatly in preparation for winter.

Destruction of so much beauty is painful. Either we do the necessary, or wait for winter to arrive and wreak its anticipated destruction throughout the garden.

Better, we have discovered, to take the flowers out ourselves and instill a sense of confidence in the preparation for another season. Come spring, we can sit back with ease in the knowledge that all has been done that had to be done. From scattering compost over the newly-naked beds, to storing wire cages and garden ornaments, the movable seating arrangements and the many stakes no longer required to prop up blossom-heavy stems.

We are enjoying unusual fall weather, much milder throughout this blessed week than should be normal for this time of year. And the mornings! Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky in the morning, sailor taking warning...despite which the morning glory has revealed tenderly mild days where in truth the lingering garden could yet be permitted to glory.

But our memories of past falls remind us that weather here can turn in a matter of hours into bitter cold, when frost-bitten fingers are taxed miserably to conduct the preparations we do now in leisure.

Yesterday the sweeping bottom branches of one of our blue spruces were removed, leaving bare all that ground underneath the tree. The tree itself, bottom branches taken away has assumed the aspect of a Japanese specimen tree. Unseen through the branches tattered by age now removed was a double, twisted trunk whose revelation strikes us as beautiful.

And today, dividing hostas and heucheras, after preparing the soil, we have built a new garden.

Adding to the many delights that await us come spring of 2008.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dissolving, Accelerating....

What a man, what an image, what a forceful personality: integrity and intelligence personified. Only...where is the substance? Where are the hidden treasures of political skill and keen intellect that we've been assured are there. Yet to be uncovered. They dwell deep and dark in the pallid persona of Stephane Dion, he who was selected to lead the Liberal Party of Canada out of its well-earned dungeon of disgrace and dishonour.

Former (unlamented) Prime Minister Jean Chretien has written in his latest pulp fiction account of his life in the high seat of Parliament that he thought of Stephane as one would a son, he groomed him as his successor, as the best and the brightest, as one worthy to ascend the throne Mr. Chretien had finally absented himself from. As much as Canadians could rely on the good judgement and excellent character of one - can they the other.

At each and every step along the way to solidly assuming the mantle of head of the Liberal Party, as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, Mr. Dion's shrill accusations and denouncing pyrotechnics have resounded hollowly, mirroring his past record and past associations. From Kyoto to Quebec sovereignty, from Canadian troops in Afghanistan, to Canada's anti-terrorism legislation, his chittering arousal to meet and defeat have garnered him little support.

In fact, his hysterical hyperbole in demanding of the current, Conservative-led government that it live up to the standards imposed upon Canada by the previous, Liberal-led government ring tinny and flaccid. Much like Mr. Dion's own aspirational plans for his future as prime minister of this country. He has succeeded in alienating an already-doubting public, and has been dropping support left and centre in his own inner circle of confreres.

Mr. Dion's resurgent Liberal Party of Canada is, according to the former vice-president of the party's Quebec wing, "imploding". Three important by-election losses in Quebec for starters. And more resignations than anyone might concede a sanctimoniously naive academic could muster in his own defeat. Where Jean Chretien's arrogantly scandal-ridden government was the architect of its own defeat, Stephane Dion's abrupt fall from grace has gone one better.

Where, now, is the shining new Liberal Party? In deep dudgeon, that's where. Rather than rebuild the climate of trust so wasted by his predecessor, he has ably engendered a climate of disdain, for his pathetic attempts to re-shape Canadian policy to better reflect his own ineptitude on the national and the world stage. And in record time, too.

When, despite the poor showing in Quebec and the promise inherent in his election as party leader, he simply accelerated the disenchantment with the Liberal Party among Quebecers, he ably demonstrated he could even widen the fault line by abandoning loyal and charismatic Quebec Liberal electoral candidates by neglect and disdain, resulting in their withdrawal and bitter criticism of this pretense of a leader.

Then came the national party's executive director's resignation; all the bitter in-fighting, the ultra sensitivities of Quebec members seeking to augment control of direction, and tarnishing any semblance of working together in harmony; an absurd sham. The latest step-down in support for this seriously-decision-challenged leader is the loss of his Quebec lieutenant.

Looks as though voters in Quebec are regarding the current government far more favourably than self-immolating Liberal wannabes. Now there's the challenge of the Throne Speech setting out the new Conservative-led agenda. There's a hard place for the embattled and obviously confused Liberal leader. Lead the charge to contest the agenda and he topples the minority government.

As though Prime Minister Stephen Harper isn't already enjoying himself more than anyone might have predicted a mere year ago. How much crow is Mr. Dion prepared to stuff down his craw to prevent an election that promises to bring in a majority Conservative government?

This man of letters, of great integrity and promise for the future. Tch!

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Stirring The Pot

Nothing shy and retiring about this man. Fact is, he is retired... from the office of this country's premier seat of power, but he would have the public see his time in the prime ministership as he would have it, not as events unfolded demonstrating him to be a self-righteous wielder of the public weal - as he would have it.

When, around 1985 the Liberal party selected John Turner to head the party into a new election - post his mentor, Pierre Trudeau's retirement - rather than Jean Chretien, he had everyone's heartfelt sympathy.

His earlier memoir, "Straight From The Heart" gained him much public acclaim as "the little man from Shawinigan" who had been so hard done by, and the Canadian public in turn done out of the services of a man of folk wisdom who could guide the country to our faultless destiny, a world-respected middle power whose population was heterogeneously and comfortably Canadian to the core.

How kind of fate to offer us a second chance, and how meet it was for Jean Chretien to finally take the helm of governance on our behalf. The street fighter with the long history of public office who had, in the interregnum, joined corporate Canada and polished all the right contacts came out swinging. Out with the old, in with the decrepit (vision, that is). A mediocre leader for an unsuspecting country.

His contacts, through business and familial outreach, brought him into comforting (to him) proximity to the other movers-and-shakers within the country. The influential law firms, the bankers and investment houses, the corporate heads of international conglomerates. We thought because we wanted to, that he was one of us.

Canadians learned to love his America-bashing, his unabashed flirtation with the press, his teasing malapropisms that simply rendered him more folksily, foxily close to the population; he was one of us. A modest man with a large vision, but with the smarts to govern wisely. A decent and compassionate man, an honest man.

And then he proceeded to invest in his future, not ours, by all manner of neat little tricks. Sending costly government projects to his home riding of Shawinigan, even setting up an expensive museum display for the locals there, to the detriment of the need in the National Capital. Fobbing off his local investments at inflated prices and blackmailing bankers to do his will.

Waylaying the needs of the underprivileged in this country by short-changing us all on needed social spending, all the while intoning the sacred obligation of the government - particularly his government - to uphold our most basic social values. Down-sizing government payroll, then inflating it as public servants were dismissed, then re-hired under new countracting-out rules.

Slicing transfer payments to the provinces so that universal health care, education, subsidized housing would all feel the nasty pinch and begin to falter, leaving people in desperate straits. His aggressive verbal pyrotechnics, amusing on the surface, revealing the core meanness of the man. Accosting a relatively frail representative of the poor and the homeless, revealing the street fighter in the prime minister, by throttling the man.

Taking the public pulse on whether to join the United States in its grand sweep of allies, then opting out of the "coalition of the willing", as though the decision was his, unfettered by public opinion averse to having Canada invade a foreign country on a pallid excuse by a cerebrally challenged, ethically questionable leader of our neighbouring country.

Entitled to all things at all times, breezily sloughing off any and all criticisms, he took great umbrage at the time-inclement demonstration of impatience on the agenda of Liberal leader-inheritance, viscerally calling up the street fighter to claim another electoral victory when a leader more interested in the country's furtherance than his own agenda would have stepped down.

Finally, playing the sad little game of not being treated any differently than any other Canadian with an urgent health need for corrective surgery, being admitted instanter for heart bypass surgery when older, more frail, just as seriously afflicted seniors must wait weary months for same, and then be shunted off pre-surgery to wait again, for lack of operating-room space and hospital beds.

Did I say finally, up there? Wrong. Finally, the final insult, the publication of yet another memoir, this one to really stir the pot at a time when his beleaguered party can ill afford it, to cast slings and arrows at one and all, renewing animosities, relieving himself of bile, exonerating himself from the ultimate responsibility of his prime ministerial actions.

Worse yet, it's the most inauthentic of books, self-serving and vitriolic, cast in language he is utterly incapable of mustering, the narrative not his voice, but the intent and purpose, most certainly.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Autumn Leaves

Autumn leaves us nostalgic on the one hand and downright pensive on the other. It's like saying goodbye to all the lazy hazy days of relaxed living and anticipating the oncoming days of winter-challenged cares.

Still, it's also a time of appreciation for the four seasons that so resonate in our northern climate. One season grinding inexorably into the other. It's a seamless blend when spring slides into summer, but when summer looses its grip into fall, then fall into winter the ride seems a whole lot rougher.

Autumn is a time of memories renascent, a time of recalling other years of summer receding and fall ascendant, then finally the onslaught of winter. It's a bitter-sweet time.

Autumn is a splendid season redolent of both memories anchored in childhood and adulthood, with their disparate apprehensions of change, brought forward by the fragrant reminders of acrid leaves tumbling kaleidoscopically onto the receiving earth, so recently warmed by the summer sun, now slicked by constant rain.

The warmth of the sun is becoming the stuff of memories, too. This season translates into a dearth of sun, an abundance of rain and wind, and cooler, much cooler temperatures. There is no mistaking the season. It smells like Autumn, it sounds like Autumn, it looks like Autumn.

There's a different patter to the Autumn rain than rain in summer; different odours are evoked and enhanced, and the overall pattern of the colour palette is definitely that of Autumn.

The trees whisper excitedly to one another conspiratorially, the fall wind urging them to draw their heads together conspiratorially; winter is on the way, loose those leaves! The leaves, rustling in the wind, complain bitterly that they're not quite prepared yet to depart.

Even little Riley reacts to the absence of sun and warmth. He shivers uncontrollably, constantly, and needs to be protected against the rawness of the season. Hence he too wears a coat when we venture out, unlike Button, with her thicker, tougher haircoat.

To him the protective covering over his small body is a necessity; to her it is a threat to her dignity; unneeded and dreaded until that time when the cold becomes sufficiently insistent that she too must be clothed against its dreaded stealth.

We venture into the ravine, after yet another overnight and through-to-the-morning rain. The sun, in concert with the clouds, plays games with us, taunting us, occasionally permitting us to catch a glimpse of its brilliance, then quickly hides again.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Reflections of Fall






Mid-October rain has been plentiful. Ensuring that, despite low levels of ground frost tender plants have not yet succumbed to the finality of the season. Unbelievable, how quickly summer has faded into a gentle early Autumn. A beautifully and much-appreciated, prolonged season for all of that, with more than our anticipated share of balmy days and nights, despite the calendar.

The better to appreciate just for a little longer what we are about to lose, however temporarily. In the icy-white days of winter the memory of these last still-mild days will be obliterated by the reality of a monochromatic landscape. Although we'll enjoy the winter season as we always do, it is with a palpable sense of melancholy that we witness the dying of summer, the slide into Fall, the advent of another year's growing season slipped by.

But it's difficult at this stage to feel mournful about our impending loss. The air is bracing and the senses reel at the brilliance of transcendent beauty above our heads, the leaves on their arc of departure, first turning warm and mellow shades of tan, orange, yellow, lime green, and scarlet. Ambling through the woods on a windy day the leaves pelt our bare heads.

Although it's another overcast day, with just a brief hiatus in the day's rainfall, the colours appear somehow more intense than they do under a clear sky. Perhaps it's the combination of the rain having drenched everything so thoroughly and whatever light there is bouncing off the slick wet foliage. Wind picks up and detaches even more leaves, falling like confetti around us. The wind also encourages rain-laden foliage to release droplets upon us.

The acid-sweet fragrance of tannin surrenders to us as our boots crush the scattered leaves of maple, oak, ash and poplar. The under-layer of leaves now turned a uniform muddy compost-in-transition, the upper layer still reflecting the bright insouciance of those still clinging tenaciously to their branches. Nudging to memory the many similar wanderings through this season of Autumns past.

We're confronted by a resplendent arras of brilliant foliage, and we revel in the tapestry re-visited. The bees are gone, the butterflies, the beetles and the dragonflies. Squirrels roust about everywhere in the underbrush, zipping up tree trunks, securing their winter caches. Squadrons of geese spread through the sky on their southern journey just as robins are gathering for their own departure.

The warblers, the hummingbirds have long departed. We can be assured that the chickadees and the woodpeckers will remain steadfast to the oncoming winter landscape. We'll still hear and glimpse the bright foliage of cardinals through this sere season, but the others that so gladdened our sight and our souls are soaring past this time and this place.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Solomonic Wisdom Deferred

Truly a heart-rending story. That of two young families in the Czech Republic facing the unfortunate reality that ten months earlier each of them had been handed the newborn baby girl brought into the world by the other. A rare exchange to be sure, but heartbreaking in the grief, regret, uncertainty and longing that it plunges birth parents into. For, what to do?

One would think that exposure trumps everything. That having lived with, cared for and loved a child would stamp that child indelibly as one's own. This, whether or not the child represents one's actual physical, genetic progeny, or someone else's. Can a child taken home by another, carefully tended by that other, encouraged and emotionally bonded with that other possibly take precedence in one's heart by a child raised by oneself?

Is blood really thicker than other bodily elements? Do the emotions poured into the raising of the child, the delight in seeing the child prosper, its early sentience bloom into character and personality count for so little? Do the silken cords of love bind so loosely, after all? Wouldn't a heart break to be faced with that deliberation: to accept what is, or to alter forever the course of the lives represented by the error?

The parents of the two exchanged children live a mere 20 miles apart. Taking into full emotional account the bonding, the nursing activities, the nurturing, the love given and taken so lavishly might it not be feasible to let what is, remain? And then maintain close contact; a half-hour's motor drive from one home to the other.

In the best of all possible alternatives, the parents learn about and accept one another as kin, good friends perhaps, while the children may become accustomed to viewing one another as siblings. But then, perhaps not; the birth parents' longing for that which they feel is theirs, a child of their mixed genetic pattern might prevail and jealousy and bitterness at separation set in.

So the parents, both sets, have agreed that their adored and beloved little girls will undergo yet another exchange in their tender lives. "It was just impossible to believe that this could happen. We have raised Nikola for the past ten months. She's a beautiful little girl who's always smiling, and it's impossible to imagine her now living apart from us. But at the same time, just 20 miles away lives our real daughter."

Real? What is real? Not the exquisite parental love felt for the child one has nurtured and jubilantly witnessed emerging into her own awareness, intelligence and personality?

But the parents, having thought long and hard have agreed to meet and spend time together. While becoming acquainted with one another, they would also have ample opportunity to spend time, each set, with their own biological child. Before the ultimate exchange takes place. Before puzzled infants are passed from one set of parents to another.

Will there be something lost in transition?

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Referendum Failure

The Province of Ontario has just undertaken an experimental referendum to test the public's will to change our electoral system from "first past the post" to one that comes a close second to proportional representation. A citizens' panel appointed to study various types of electoral voting systems achieved a result in synthesizing a type of system that would be a variant of each.

Named mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, a variant has already been put to a vote in British Columbia and there too, failed to enthuse voters who preferred to stick with the tried-and-true.

The old familiar system, inadequate in representing the true values ascribed in population-voter percentages used for several centuries in the election of politicians to represent the public interest through the voting public's stated will. Legislation to alter the current system isn't on the horizon any time soon, since the public voted overwhelmingly to retain the system we've been long familiar with.

Ensuring that the same tired old establishment, entitled and familiar parties and their hackneyed representatives will be able to continue to count on majority governments, the occasional minority government appearing less frequently.

Despite that a minority of the voting public will have voted them into office. Rather than a system that would recognize the power of the popular vote, enabling smaller or emerging parties to retain their fair share of the vote, translated into proper recognition and seats in the parliamentary tradition. Casting one vote for an elected representative and another for a party of choice might have given the people of the province more of a vested interest in the voting process itself.

Retaining the old system of 'first-past-the-post' is the easy, lazy way out of this ongoing dilemma of unfair distribution and representation, not truly reflective of the popular vote. To augment the sense of failure in this promising initiative is the realization that increasingly fewer eligible voters are troubling themselves to go out and visit the ballot box to do their civic duty. In some ways it's easy enough to understand why this lassitude of opinion and laxity in civil duty should arise.

Why bother, after all. When one's vote for any candidate other than the leading two parties results in nothing significant. It's a wasted vote. While the vote has not gone to either of the two contending leaders, used instead to indicate a desire for an alternative, or at the very least an alternative, contestable presence, reality of the current system is that the vote has vanished into the ether, the result being that fringe parties, emerging parties of conscience, have no opportunity to lift themselves out of their unknown and unappreciated status.

While there has been a vigorous debate in the print news media about the controversial MMP alternative system, with many columnists taking sides and urging greater understanding of the issues, there has been scant information propagated by the government body whose responsibility it is to communicate with voters to inform them adequately pre-referendum. The only advertisement/explanation I saw was a full-page production that appeared on the very day of the election and referendum.

Leading one to wonder whether political shenanigans were involved, with interference in place to mitigate against substantially adequate information sharing for the purpose of maintaining the status quo.

Still, there appears to be a general level of interest in the process of eventual change in voting systems. It would appear that the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm, Sweden and the political science department of Harvard University are tuning in to the provincial experiment, curious about this emerging experience in direct democracy. In general recognition that it's about time the system currently in use in North America reflect the temper of the times.

While the current system reflected the ease by which voting results could be tabulated, in contrast to a more involved system of tabulation creating an atmosphere of greater effort in counting votes and keeping tabs, we're now in an age of computerized tabulation, enhancing the potential of a more democratically representative system. Rather than the current system that rewards partisan politics in a dominant-party environment.

It's an issue that will be re-visited. It won't go away. There's a real need for change, and although this particular referendum didn't seize the public interest because it was little understood and the public ill prepared to attend to it, the time will come.

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The Heros Among Us

We give them little thought, but they exist, heroes among us ordinary people. Those for whom extraordinary events and their proximity to those events, bring out character, determination and a willingness to become involved. And invariably these distinct individuals who rise to the occasion are modest, claiming to be just like you and me. We wish.

We inhabit a busy world with constant distractions and even more distinctly imperative demands upon us. So that when we're exposed to situations visiting disaster upon others we're not that inclined to respond, particularly when to do so would expose ourselves to danger at the same time. We have a tendency to stand around helplessly, nodding our heads, twisting our hands compulsively, inadequately.

Yet there are outstanding individuals who, when confronted by the frantic need of others will respond, courageously, without thought of the dangers they expose themselves to. They will exhibit the kind of determination that, if incapable of moving mountains by sheer will, does prove capable of moving tons of dead weight to ensure the potential of living to see another day on behalf of a total stranger in obvious need of rescue.

And so it was with a 37-year-old Ottawa man, an off-duty OC Transpo driver who made of himself a hero. Certainly not by design, but most certainly purposefully and with full intent to assist where no one else was coming to the fore, and in so doing proving his mettle. Gord Kritsch, on his way home, heard a loud commotion close by, persuading him to canter off to the nearby downtown corner of Somerset and Lyon Streets.

Where, a scant few moments earlier, bicyclist Peter Marcotte was run over by a motorist driving a vehicle which veered to make a sudden turn into his lane. Mr. Marcotte's frantic attempt to save himself by braking resulted in his being thrown directly into the car's trajectory. The front wheels of the car ran over him, and pinned him under the car.

The trauma of immediate pain had him pass out, and when he came to slightly, he was aware that the undercarriage of the vehicle was burning him horribly.

Mr. Kritsch, who had entered the scene at this point heard the moans of pain and the victim repeating "It's burning me, I'm burning". At which point he called out to anyone nearby: "Lift the car, we have to lift the car". And so they did; Mr. Kritsch and perhaps two other men lifted a Nissan which had pinned the suffering Mr. Marcotte, shifting it sufficiently to clear the man.

"When we got him out, he was just covered in blood and dirt and grease", recalled Mr. Kritsch. "I'm not a paramedic and I'm not used to seeing things like that and to see someone in such obvious pain, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since." Multiple fractures to all Mr. Marcotte's ribs, a broken collarbone and burns from the undercarriage of the car will keep him in hospital for a while yet.

This hero's instant response, his having taken charge of the scene resulted in saving a man's life. Now he lives through the trauma of having witnessed someone in extreme pain as the critical aftermath of a serious accident. Flashbacks of how that will have affected his psyche will trouble him in days to come.

In the physical response so aided by adrenalin that the actual lifting of the car seemed to be no more physically burdensome that lifting a small table, reality has reared its implacable head, leaving Mr. Kritsch with a back sufficiently injured to require time off work.

There's a cost to be borne for every action one undertakes in life. For this man the cost was never on his mental horizon, only the urge to see if he could "help" someone.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Capital Capers

Here we are, the national capital of Canada, a progressive society of fundamentally decent and intelligent people, known for its large demographic of university graduates, high-earning bureaucrats and successful entrepreneurs. Along with the city's share of middle- and low-income families and large numbers of immigrants, making us a truly international city clothed in the accouterments of a small-town mentality.

We're also a stolid, incurious and rather smug community of communities, many of which don't subscribe to stolidity, incuriousness and smugness. Still, the unenviable reputation of the city of Ottawa (Ontario), while wearing the mantle of the national capital of this great country is that of a backwater. Which, in a way, is all right, since we also boast far more green space for clean breathing and recreational opportunities than most cities. Along with two great rivers passing through the city.

We've a thriving arts community, and a goodly proportion of the city's dwellers who adore music and theatre and do their part in supporting these cultural icons of any decent civilization. We have excellent hospitals, one of which is dedicated to the health of children in and around the national capital. There is wealth aplenty here, but unfortunately, poverty as well. Ottawans are generous both by nature and through submission to that old tenet that neighbours help one another.

What we lack is a good and decently principled mayor. We certainly had ample opportunity to elect one, but we really muffed that one. Opting for a flashy high-roller whose successful entrepreneurship is undeniable, but whose aptitude and suitability for the post of mayor of Ottawa should have been clear to all those bleeding idiots who voted him in, but quite obviously, was not.

There is currently a police investigation into Mayor Larry O'Brien's activities stemming from that very same election which brought him to the helm of the city's administration. An investigation that has been fairly successful in revealing his blatant attempts at bribery, to ensure that his closest rival to success in obtaining top vote for the mayor's chair would opt out of the running. Which, indeed did happen.

Mayor O'Brien has alienated not only many of the elected councillors who sit on city council with him, but also, by his high-handed attitude, many of the hard-working municipal civil servants who make this city of close on one million people work as well as it does. He makes decisions which on close examination are utterly lunatic, then back-pedals, asserting it wasn't really what he had in mind.

We are assured he does have a mind and a working brain, but on too many occasions it's been difficult to detect and affirm that for a fact.

Now, it would seem, the high-tech company that he founded and of which he remains a director has been inordinately successful in attracting city contracts. While the city supply manager claims the contracts were awarded once Calian Technologies had undergone the city's standard procurement process, there is something to the demand that Caesar's wife be above reproach.

The city's legal department has cleared Mr. Mayor to an extent; that he resigned as chairman of the board of directors while running for office, retaining a position on the board of directors - under the city's ethics guidelines and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. However, before Mayor O'Brien had been elected to the mayor's office his company, despite seeking city contracts, had been awarded none at all.

Head of the Ottawa and District Labour Council renders his opinion of the unorthodoxy of the affair by stating the situation "looks absolutely horrible"; that the mayor has a choice - quit his position as director of the company or leave the mayor's office. Simple as that. "No matter what the mayor says, the fact is Calian has now received more contracts this year with the City of Ottawa than it ever has in the past."

So something is definitely fishy in Ottawa's procurement process. In the mayor's case conflict of interest is blatant and real. He can recuse himself when decisions-in-the-making reach his level, but he cannot absent himself from his responsibility to avoid the merest suspicion of self-enrichment allied with his position as mayor of the city.

That Calian Technologies has seen a substantial increase in business since its founder took public office is undeniable, and deplorable. Additionally, that Mayor Larry O'Brien feels entitled to having his feet firmly planted in both public and private interests bodes ill for his continued tenure in guiding this city. As though we really needed additional instances of malfeasance to bring us to this conclusion.

There's an interesting old saying that erupts when people become sufficiently irritated by the stupidity of the politicians they elect. Unfortunately, unless this man is found guilty by a court of law on the charges that may yet be brought against him on the conclusion of the current investigation, our option will have to await the ballot opportunity - to throw the bum out.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Another Shrine to Princess Nonenity

How tedious, how tiresome, how utterly frustrating. Why is it that public opinion tends toward celebrating fiction over fact. Why are we so given to idolizing a figure whose true life persona was that of a sadly dysfunctional human being - transforming her in the collective memory into the "Princess of the People". A celebrity beyond celebrity, sent into the stratosphere of the most rare of human beings: a shining example of all that others might aspire to.

This bespeaks popular values. It also reflects the inability of so great a proportion of any population to exercise their cerebellum. There was nothing profound, nor notable in the life of personal angst and public agony Diana Windsor displayed for the world in her desperate need to be noticed, admired and adored. She was a thespian born and she exited the stage of life in a manner worthy of the style of life she so exuberantly made her own.

Now there is a new shrine to mediocrity passing itself off as superior, with the heartfelt complicity of all those great unwashed whose empty lives require an idol to enrapture their spirits and capture their desires.

The jurors selected to sit at the inquest into the untimely - but quite explicable - deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and her lover Dodi Fayed stood in silent rapture at a Paris underpass in front of Pillar 13 where the driver of their limousine - under the influence of alcohol and driving much too fast for the tricky turn; outracing the paparazzi whom Diana encouraged to pursue her august presence - crashed, consigning his passengers to eternity.

Pillar 13, it was noted, has a large chunk of concrete missing, ostensibly a result of the crash. Other pillars in that same underpass also have missing pieces, but their unhappy histories of other human tragedies are personal affairs of misfortune, not to be confused with this singular instance of a luminous presence on earth extinguished by the tragedy that awaited her in a final summation of a life lived in the fast lane.

They never reached their destination - Mr. Fayed's apartment near the Arc de Triomphe. A result of disregard for safety, arrogance and heedlessness, not that of a Royal intrigue as Fayed pere would have it. This sad charade of justice seeking truth represents yet another page in the public's desire to prolong their mass ululation of grief at their Princess's passing into the pages of history.

Common history, at that.

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As Luck Would Have It

How else define such an incredible success story, but sheer, blind luck? Here was a child, barely out of infancy, at a time of grave vulnerability, a time of social and political upheaval, a time marked by the personal horror of a mother imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, hoping to save her child's life by giving him over to the care of a peasant family in Italy, only to have him released to the wartime streets, surviving on his own from the age of four to nine.

Yet, this child did survive. His mother, a political prisoner, taken to Dachau. The peasant family, once the funds to tend to the child evaporated, left him on the streets. At times in the company of other homeless children. Occasionally taken to orphanages. But always desolate, destitute, and ravenously hungry. Placed in a hospital for malnutrition care. Then, miraculously, his desperate mother who survived Dachau somehow tracked him down after a year's frantic search.

Taking him to the United States once the war ended, where her brother lived, and practised his profession as a physicist, inspiring his young nephew to surmount all the difficulties inherent in a learning environment without the language, with the traumatic memory of his early years struggling to maintain himself, a child exposed to the bitter elements of homelessness, no one to care for him, starvation on the near horizon.

Yet here is that same child within the man now 70, who along with two other researchers has been named as the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Science. Mario Capecchi, that amazing survivor who went on to make a life for himself as a scientist of world renown despite the horrendous obstacles placed in the path of an abandoned child on the war torn streets of Italy. He, along with Oliver Smithies and Martin Evans, were honoured for their groundbreaking scientific work.

Work which the Nobel committee explained "has revolutionized life science and plays a key role in the development of medical therapy". And as further detailed by the head of the Mammalian Genetics Unit of the Medical Research Council: "Most of our profound understanding of how genes cause disease in humans has come by identifying particular genes in (a specific laboratory) mouse and how it develops. Without this toolkit, we would be considerably hampered."

The human spirit is compelling, amazing in its tenacity, its hold on life, its vision of the future, its hope and determination toward survival.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

The Disappearing Garden







Little by little the garden is being cut back. The spent perennials, their flowering long past, have been cut back, their sad remains tucked into the compost pile. The compost grows, it thrives. It's that time of year. Again. And Holy Cow! Who can believe the time has gone by so awfully fast. Seems such a short time ago we were frantically planting, celebrating when it rained, anxiously filling up watering pails to ensure things didn't shrivel too badly in dry weather.

Then everything began to come into their own season, and the gardens teemed with new life, with colour, texture, bravura. And we loved every minute of it. Despite that there never seemed sufficient time to relax and really enjoy it, not just on the fly. Because the picking off of weeds is never-ending. And there is always something that has to be done to help plants look their best. And such pride when one day's activities, then another and another leads to an overall look that satisfies the creative compulsion.

Can't complain, though, not really. It seemed, from one succession of perennial bloom to another, that something was always coming up and calling attention to its brassy display, its verdant presence. We loved watching, hearing songbirds belting it out in our fruit trees, the goldfinches and robins bathing in the birdbath, the hummingbirds flitting among the flowers, and chickadees landing here and there on the deck.

And lots of butterflies, this year, all of them welcome and appreciated for that special anchoring accent here and there. Now, it's well and truly autumn, although we've still got lots of flowering going on, very impressive indeed. Plants have been tricked into thinking we're just approaching summer, not fall. It's the unseasonably warm weather. Enough so that the bergenia are sending up their springtime stalks of bright pink flowers.

Carnations are still blooming, and the huge dahlia has more blooms and buds waiting to burst into bloom than we've ever seen before. The tall zinnias, heavy with tight-petalled, brilliant flowers vie with the dahlia for presence; hard to choose one over the other for perfection. We've seen some truly great spiders making their presence in the gardens this year. I've tried time and again to get a photo of one spider in particular, success eludes.

The roses are still heartily blooming, especially Big Ben, one of our oldest and most reliable performers. Although our two brilliantly pink-petalled Faery Queens are, as always, unstoppable. And the morning glories, although late this year, have wound their tendrils in, up and around everything they could reach. The black-eyed Susan vines have outreached expectations. And the begonias, those amazing ever-blooming specimens are beyond reproach.

We're entering the no-going-back zone of weather, however. And from then on in, it'll be relentless cutting back and clearing away in preparation for the long frigid sleep of winter. Too sad.

And then there's next spring!

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

You Wouldn't Think....



Egad, you wouldn't think this is October. Mind, the trees think so, and are shedding their leaves and needles as they are wont to do in October. Particularly after yesterday's rip-roaring winds. The trails in the ravine are entirely covered deep in honey-coloured pine needles and varicoloured leaves, from maples, beeches, ash, oak and birch. Fact is, in some places there's more colour on the ground than bristling from the overhead canopy.

Reason why it doesn't yet seem like October? The weather is most un-fall-like. It's warm, unseasonably, inordinately warm. So much sun, almost constant, and when clouds make their presence in that blue-blue sky, they're puffy-white and quite adorable to gaze upon. There was some threat/promise of rain yesterday afternoon when the sky was causally sullied with exciting dark clouds, but the promise fizzled into a brief shower, then dispersed.

You wouldn't think at this time of year that our gardens would remain so resplendent with colour and even promise of more, as the turtleheads, roses, black-eyed Susans, toad lilies, ligularia, tickseed, mallow, asters, hollyhocks and daisies are still hanging in there, still producing, turning our heads with glad appreciation of their beauty. And today I plucked the last ripe tomato off the vine that has produced so generously this summer.

You wouldn't think that one of the bridges built to strict Ontario code standards in the ravine last fall would already have shifted, over the creekbed. But it has, slowly and inexorably, as slowly and inexorably as the clay banks of the creek slice off, cave in under the brutal thrusts of heavier-than-normal summer storms, shifting the supports of the bridge which had been cemented into place to ensure longevity.

And already remedial work has had to be ordered to ensure that the bridge doesn't, like its less well-built but longer-lasting predecessors begin to pose a potential threat to the safety of its daily users, like ourselves. So the crews are down there, doing their level best to level the bridge. To remove the wood supports that have disappointed, to replace them with steel girders this time around.

To fill up those huge galvanized steel "nets" with stone dumped for that purpose, and set them into place under the bridge.

And since we're unable to use that bridge for the near future, at least until work has been completed, we've had to lengthen our daily walk to well over an hour to use alternate routes to complete our circuit. Yesterday we decided to exit the ravine at a different place, necessitating that we walk our little dogs on the leash, back up the street, rather than take our usual route.

In so doing, we came across one of our long-time neighbours, scheduled to undergo heart bypass surgery week after next. He's also got Parkinson's, which has become a little more severe as he ages, so his head bobbles constantly. But he's his usual perky, inquisitive self, and a spirited conversation ensues during which time we learn more than we need to about others of our neighbours.

You wouldn't think that with anticipation of his surgery hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles that he would compliment me on the look of the sunglasses I was wearing. Usually I chirp 'got them at the Dollar store', but I didn't indulge in that particular pleasure this time around. It's a pleasure because our old friend tends to shop for just about all his accoutrements at places like Buktasha or Mountain Equipment.

You wouldn't think I care.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Arthritis Society Canvass

As usual, I procrastinated until the very last week. The entire month of September has been designated "Arthritis month", so when the canvass kit arrived, I just set it aside, knowing I had the luxury of a month before having to launch myself into action. At the end of August, September seemed a long way off, yet. But doesn't time have its habit of fugit-ting? By the time I realized there was a mere week left, I finally grudged myself into action.

Nice that the weather has been so wonderfully clement. Meaning not too cool, not too warm, no rain; just right for an amble down the street, knocking on doors, stumbling when night lights have not been turned on and the houses located too far from street lamp illumination to be of any good to me in my nocturnal pursuit. Easy does it, wouldn't want to flop either forward or backward, nor entertain thoughts of castigating a neighbour for not wanting to be disturbed.

One wonders, what do they do at Hallowe'en? Keep it nice and dark and unfriendly so that hesitant children hauling their goodies bags and trudging up dark driveways trying to keep their costumes intact will feel intimidated and not make it all the way to those darkly forbidding doors? My neighbours? Naw... Yet that's just what does happen at some houses.

Don't know why I'm so loath to make those rounds, in any event. Since once I embark on the mission to extract funds from neighbours for the goodly worthwhile charitable cause I've undertaken to represent at that particular juncture, I find so many of our neighbours who have become familiar with my beseeching face over the years, tend to welcome my presence. Unaccountably.

Other than those, that is, who refuse to acknowledge my presence as a neighbour and prefer to cling to the wicked conceit that I'm some pestiferous street interloper whose purpose is to swell my personal coffers with the proceeds of illegally, immorally wrested hard-earned cash from their unwilling hands in the pretense that I'm really representing a reputable charity.

For its from those regular excursions that I am enabled to take the pulse of the street we live on. To re-familiarize myself with friendly faces and engaging, albeit busy personalities, and they me. All is forgiven, and all is revealed. The business of exchanging pleasantries and introducing the purpose at hand is quickly accomplished. It's the other business, that of re-establishing our human bond of neighbourliness that takes time.

And thus it is that I learn that the lovely woman whom I've known for so many years living at the foot of the street and whom I fondly remember as a young pregnant mother pushing a stroller containing two infants some 16 years ago, is now separated from her husband, their father. But she's managing. They've divided the children between them. She's bought his half of the house. The hurt is now diminished, the confusion cleared away, and they're on speaking terms. She now has a puppy.

That so-friendly man halfway down the street who also greets me with warmth and engages me in conversation of a political/historical bent, and whom I know is an oncologist, in fact the chief of oncology at our largest hospital, has self-diagnosed with prostate cancer. Down the street, second house from the corner, another prostate cancer case, but this one without hope, the disease too long undiscovered and the prognosis is one of severe morbidity.

Next door, the young girl turned young woman who, four years earlier was adamant she wanted to be a pop singer, is now attending university. When her parents are both at work, she entertains a young man who drives a bright red car. Woe betide that emerging nubility should her mother return early from work. Her aspirations are bright with promise; medical school, specializing in paediatrics.

Our old friend down the street whom we too seldom see of late, still recovering from his own bout with prostate cancer, although surgery took place three years ago, and with whom contact is mostly via the Internet, plus the occasional drop-by. He's scheduled now for heart bypass surgery. Good thing too, for when it's done, he'll be able to resume something resembling his former level of physical activity.

The family up the street, both lawyers and cold as ice, whose children will have nothing to do, like their parents, with anyone on the street. They're in ownership of two Shelties. My husband calls them "the neurotics". The Shelties, that is. No one can pass by that house on the street without the dogs hurling themselves insanely at the living room window. When we pass by, four houses past theirs, to enter the ravine for our daily walk, the Shelties hurl themselves passionately at the fence, slavering, trying to impose themselves on our landscape.

When I knock at that door, the paterfamilias responds, holding a beautiful, tiny Yorkie. Obviously, a new puppy. Newly acquired? Just puppy-sitting for someone? I'd ask, but he curtly disavows my purpose, and slams shut the door, neatly catching the two Shelties swarming purposefully toward the entrance with the obvious intention of pushing past it. And I wonder at the fate of that tiny animal in the midst of those sadly disturbed psyches.

At my next-door neighbour's I spend an inordinate amount of time. We prattle. We see one another fairly frequently, giving occasion to pass information of interest relating to families, friends and acquaintances, and street occurrences. This represents yet another opportunity. Her husband enters the front door, their pre-pubescent son in tow, wearing his clothing inside out. A requirement for some peculiar reason, at this meeting of the hockey club he's just attended.

At two houses frantic fathers left in charge for the night are busy putting their very young children to bed for the night. I am asked to return another night. At another house newly granted parenthood I interrupt the man of the house assiduously vacuuming, as his wife has not had the opportunity to attend to such mundane needs, glued as she is to the demands of their new-but-growing baby. Their sad-eyed beagle is as eager for attention as always.

There's our neighbours who spent so much time and energy, let alone savings, in presenting their daughter with a traditionally ostentatious Sikh wedding. They're still recovering. But their attention now is diverted to their son. He's grown from the adorable tiny black-eyed cherub we first knew to a young man with a changing voice. Wedded to hockey. Trouble is he's been fainting lately, and doctors have been unable to diagnose the problem, since all tests come back normal.

His father complains about how thin the boy is, and he most certainly is. He has no appetite, his mother says. He will not eat meat, does not like fish, nor does he eat dairy products. Nothing seems to appeal to the boy. He looks anorexic. Might that be possible? I keep that thought to myself; after all, they have consulted with medical experts. Perhaps another time, if the condition persists. His parents dote on him, worry about him. So what else is new?

I'm glad to get home for the evening. Will end up venturing out, to complete the canvass, on two more occasions before I'm finished. Our two little dogs wait anxiously at the front door for my return.

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