Ruminations

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

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Day Before: 2008

The new snow that had fallen yet again has still not filled in all the bumps of the narrow trail leading into the ravine, and it's inconveniently difficult to manoeuvre, but we manage. The landscape is once again entrancing, entirely snow-covered. The trunks of trees beautifully stippled with snow, and branches etched in a snowy outline.

We've just dipped into the ravine when a dog we've never before seen insinuates himself silently between us and our two little dogs. It's a middling-size Husky-Malamute mix, a really lovely looking dog, and from a quick sizing up not at all a threat to ours, as so many of those breeds, mixed or otherwise often are, quick to dominate.

Good conformation, nice colouring, obviously a pleasant disposition. He's curious, that's all. No evidence of his owner in sight anywhere; he's been let off his leash, free to wander in this landscape that poses no threat to a dog. And he demonstrates no inclination to leave us any time soon, presenting somewhat of a dilemma. His presence is no obvious nuisance to other dogs.

Unless that dog happens to be our smaller one, a male toy poodle who feels himself to be equal in size and belligerence to any dog around, including this one. Riley's reaction is to immediately demonstrate to this large, grey dog that it is he, a minuscule apricot doglet that is king of the ravine, and not this newcomer.

We swoop him up, both to protect the Malamute from Riley's obvious intention to charge, and to protect Riley from a potentially disastrous response.

The dog allows me to stroke his neck, tussle his ears, then he's off, retracing his steps, to rejoin his master, wherever he happens to be. And Riley is set back onto his own four feet still growling and snarling, and looking back from time to time, as we continue on our way. Soon the all-enveloping silence resumes and we plod along.

Button, resolutely, the new-fallen snow creating no obstacles for her, with her long-legged and confident gait. She looks askance at Riley's impetuous stupidity, preferring to remain detached, uncensorious, happy to be ignored in the presence of strange dogs. All the commotion that Riley's behaviour unleashes makes her nervous, and she's glad to leave it all behind.

For his part, ridiculously ill-mannered Riley now begins to resemble nothing less than a rabbit, as he begins his fresh-snow gait halfway between the motion of a rocking horse and a steadily hopping rabbit. His long floppy ears complete the illusion, flipping up and then down with every rocking hop he takes, anxious to maintain his place with the rest of us.

The long shrill staccato of a Pileated woodpecker calls from somewhere off in the woods, trailing after us. Wind has started to pick up curtains of fine snow from laden branches and wisps it all about us. The sun manages somehow to part the skies for a moment, and lights up the snow.

This is nature's poem to us.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Day After

So there it is, I'm seventy-one years old. Don't feel any different, feel just me. A kid, actually. Kidding, can't you tell? No, really, I don't feel as though I'm any older than, say, thirty, thirty-five? I feel great. And then I grab a quick look in the mirror. Hmm. And so what? Sometimes I look fine, sometimes I look, well, kind of long in the tooth.

But guess what, that's how I looked to myself when I was still thirty, thirty-five. Nothing much has changed in the intervening years.

Another busy day. Hauled out the waffle-maker - not much used - and did banana-buttermilk waffles for breakfast. Because my beloved suggested that. And we really did enjoy them. Also had sausages, with one cut up in tiny bits, placed in very little porcelain bowls for our very spoiled little dogs; a week-end breakfast treat.

We do eat well at breakfast time - and then there's a long gap before the next meal - our evening meal.

While I did an extra-deep kitchen clean-up, then moved on to the bathrooms, he went out to buy another shower fitting for the bathtub in the guest bathroom. This one was leaking, and our son wouldn't tolerate that waste of water. When the shower-pull is activated, as much water still gushes from the tap as from the shower head.

An easy job to do, thank heavens. The unit with faucet was made by Moen. Guaranteed for life. Except that when he took it in to two purveyors of plumbing supplies neither had a replacement in stock. They offered to order. He opted to buy another, better quality model.

And then we had our ravine walk, the snow nicely tamped down on the trails. Mild enough still so the dogs need only their coats, no boots. Chickadees about and their companion nuthatches, and crows as well. The creek is in full run, with the ice having melted and the milder weather also melting the ambient snow. Good grief, it even smells like spring.

When we got back home, he set about changing the oil in the car - he does this religiously every three months, keeping the car in good working order. I had decided to produce a pasta dish for tomorrow's dinner, put it in the oven after we pick our son up at the airport. I'd do it today and refrigerate it because I'll be busy tomorrow, cleaning the house, and it's a big house to clean.

First I had to make the tomato sauce and I put it on to cook before we'd gone out. Then I had to make the pasta itself; rolled the pasta dough into large squares, then briefly cooked them in boiling water. And then the task of preparing the filling, consisting of garlic, onion, mashed sardines, ricotta cheese, grated cheddar, grated lemon peel and juice, parsley, breadcrumbs.

Filled the cooked pasta squares, rolled them and fit them into a casserole. Sprinkled with grated cheese, poured the tomato sauce over. Then prepared a small beef roast for today's dinner, with new white potatoes, and carrots.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Getting Older

He awoke before me, but nothing unusual in that. Whispered to me "happy birthday", then got dressed, said he was going to shovel the overnight snow. More snow again, last night, laid upon the snow we'd received the day before. Which hadn't been shovelled. He would do the deck at the patio doors, the deck stairs and the interlocking trails we keep clear for our little dogs.

And, despite it was still dark out, not yet seven, he'd also do the porch, the walkway and finally the driveway.

At breakfast we luxuriated, as always, enjoying our meal alongside the morning newspapers.

Later, a walk in the ravine, truly snow-bedecked. The wind high, rushing imperiously through the trees, denuding them of their heretofore-generous layer of snow. There are nuthatches and chickadees flying about - entertaining us - and a murder of crows. It had been Bohemian waxwings we'd seen last week, larger than the cedar waxwings we'd thought them to be.

He's still uncomfortable about not having something in hand to give to me, as a gesture, for my birthday. But he hugs me every day, offers kisses, tells me, after all these years how he loves me. What more can he give me than this that would have any meaning to me? Because he had insisted, I had agreed to going with him to select a ring, another ring to add to my collection. Because it had to be sized to my narrow fingers, not available 'till a week hence.

He'd agitated, wanting to go out to look for a special book for me. Books! We love them, and we have them galore, lining shelves in our little library. We aspire eventually to read them all, and this forms part of our future plans because to do so represents an immense enjoyment, a treat for our brains and our souls. No thanks, I said.

There was an alternative, to go along to the Winners/HomeSense store and go wild. So we did. I bought socks and underwear for our son, coming to visit on Monday from Vancouver. Against his father's judgement, but this is my birthday, not his. And our son's underwear is a tragic affair. I bought a small frypan with the intention of tossing out the old one we'd used far too long.

And bath towels; the best are from Turkey. And hand towels, and washcloths. I'd looked for a hooded winter jacket for our granddaughter, but saw nothing enticing. We looked at other things and both locked eyes on a glass piggy bank. Heavily weighted by its own density. Dark green, inset with milleflore, a sure way to attract our attention.

Once home, he hauled out the snow thrower to clear the end of the driveway from the accumulation shoved in by the municipal plough. Then did the drive of our neighbour across the street; their hand-shovelling clears only a portion of their drive, and this wet snow is certain to turn to season-long ice when the temperature plummets, as it most surely will.

And I turned my attention to baking cookies. First thing our son does when he comes home is make a bee-line directly for the cookie jars. The first recipe I did was an intriguingly improbable one; four eggs, quarter cup butter in which was to be melted a pound of semi-sweet chocolate. Chop up four Skor bars, add a cup of chocolate chips. And to all this, a mere half-cup of flour.

Predictably, the outcome was a messy mass of spread-out chocolate cookie dough baked to a crisp. And to remove the mass from the baking sheets proved a task beyond my endurance. More suited to his talent and patience, but still a mess. Tastes good, but oh what a mess. The next batch, ordinary chocolate chip cookies a far more reasonable and rewarding addiction.

An adventure, nonetheless. One which, in the telling, I was able to entertain and amuse our granddaughter greatly. For she wanted to hear all the details, eliciting giggles and the advice that I would be well advised never to use that recipe again. But if I liked, I could bring along some samples when we next visit, to give her a better idea....

Oh, forgot: I'm 71.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Another Tryst With Nature

The Winter Equinox has suddenly turned the season from a daily raging beast to a welcome friend. Gone the icy temperatures, the gusting winds, the frigid atmosphere making the season seem unreasonably hostile. We're now enjoying the tail end of a December we're very much pleased with.

Snow continues unabated, falling, if not quite every day, then every-other day. The snowpack continues to mount.

But with ambient temperatures reaching kindly highs just hovering above the freezing mark, we're enjoying winter so much more, thank you so very much. All the more so that we no longer have to burden our little dogs with boots when we venture into the ravine for a day's jaunt.

Coats yes, but boots, forget it. Their tender tiny paws are able to withstand this kind of cold.

Today as we ascended, the rubber-ducky calls of a close-by nuthatch greeted us.

And soon enough, two middling-sized dogs of our acquaintance ran up to greet us, to be followed by a familiar figure, a neighbour who lives down our street. Suzanne was well bundled for her walk. No longer having a dog of her own, she walks a neighbour's regularly. And on this occasion also had another, staying with her for a week in the absence of its owners.

Good soul, she. Her husband, she responds, is recovering well, starting to get about, but not exactly full of energy. As indeed he hasn't been for the last 7 years or so. He's undergone some seriously invasive surgery. First for prostate cancer, after which he no longer ventured out into the ravine. Then triple bypass heart surgery, after which he no longer responds to emails.

We proceed on our way, the snow nicely sticking now, no longer as slick as it had been. And tamped down nicely once again, after yesterday's additional 7 cm of snow. With double that expected overnight, turning to freezing rain through the morning hours. Crows are in flight overhead and their distant cawing breaks the silence.

We stride over the new-packed trail, from time to time, ducking and dodging low sweeping conifer branches heavily laden with this fresh layer of snow.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Blowout!

What - a tire, a hurricane, an explosive fire? Evidently not; the much-belaboured word describes shopping excess verging on a serious social malaise. Its power to attract the acquisition hungry, the mobs starving for the opportunity to purchase ever more useless junk is enormous.

As witness to that phenomenon, there is nothing quite like the experience of eager shoppers whose appetite for purchasing gifts for people who don't need them and don't want them, but are as trapped in the Christmas-gift syndrome as they are, launching themselves once again into the fray on the day following Christmas.

At a time in Victorian history when there was an upstairs-downstairs, December 25 was set aside as the holy day of Christian remembrance and celebration when the aristocracy and monied set enjoyed the anniversary of Christ's birth while their household servants attended to their every wish.

In the spirit of the season, employers granted their servants some relief from servitude on the day following Christmas, named Boxing Day for that was when the servants received their boxed gifts; a fanciful tip of the hat to a marginalized community.

Industrious mercantile interests have long since embraced that day, offering what can only be described as yet another opportunity to indulge in a shopping orgy in the belief that valuable goods can be acquired at bargain-basement prices for that day - if the sturdily-dedicated consumer was willing to line up out the door and down the street and around the corner for the shopping establishment to finally open.

And then, it's no holds barred, as shoppers sharpen their elbows and plough their way through the other frantic shoppers to obtain their Golden Fleece.

Merchants are themselves delirious at yet another opportunity at this most signal time of the year to unload their seasonal and outdated merchandise on gluttonous shoppers anxiously giddy with the belief that their lives simply won't be complete without yet another opportunity to acquire - at bargain basement prices - shoddy materials with their own very special built-in obsolescence; stale-dated before they're even brought home.

Parking lots in front of big-box stores are jammed. Long line-ups of jolly-tempered eager buyers begin their patient wait in the wee hours of the morning, willing to remain there for comradely hours in the cold of winter until opening time.

But just consider the opportunities: all those remarkable sales specials, the rare opportunity to scoop up an item long coveted and now available for a remarkable off-percentage. These howling bargains are simply not to be resisted.

And just think of all the money saved, hauling home priceless goods that replicate what one already possesses, but of poorer quality in the production of the latest editions as manufacturers steadily seek out new methods of cheaper manufacture with scarcer warranty options.

But the shoppers are jubilant; this is no extravagance of herd mentality. It is a day to remember, one of triumphal acquisition.

And on the other side of the ledger there are all those generously gifted loved ones who opened thoughtful treasures on Christmas morning with effusive enthusiasm and genuine thanks. Then spent frustrating hours in line-ups at exchange desks turning in the items they don't really care for, that don't fit properly, and will just litter up the place.

Oh yes, there are other avenues, where plush gifts are hawked online because they are deemed unsuitable for the giftee. Bottles of hard liquor, of costly wines, small appliances and electronics, clothing, sports gear and countless children's toys. There for the bidding, at a fraction of the price paid.

Yes, there's always re-gifting, setting the gift aside for an opportunity when it can be given to someone else, who might, possibly, appreciate it; there are no guarantees. Optionally, there is always the possibility of saving all of it and conducting a great big yard sale at the very earliest opportunity, come spring.

Last, and little considered, hauling it over to the Salvation Army.

Commerce conducted in every conceivable way, saving us all from mind-numbing boredom.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day, 2007

All the bustle and hustle culminating in the frantic celebration of a day of peace.

In sacred memory of a miracle, a child born of a virgin in whose tender womb God planted a divine seed; that of His own son. Sent to give hope, to offer salvation to humankind. Who, heaven knows, are collectively in dire need of some kind of salvation. As we're such an incorrigibly intransigent collection.

One supposes that God got kind of fed up observing us over the aeons pre-Christ, never learning from our mistakes. Finally determining to send down to us, through great personal sacrifice, an emissary equipped to show us the errors of our ways. Truly, a noble intent. The sentiment was right; who could find fault with it?

A doting Father, looking down on His unworthy flock. Had more than His fill of contumacious creatures obdurately ignoring His dictums and dictates. The rampaging wars, the continuing bloodshed, the misunderstandings, the conquests, the misery were none of His making.

He created man in His likeness and woman in the likeness of man, and if they chose not to inhabit the Paradise He created for them and instead to install themselves in chaos it would ultimately spell their end. He had pity and devised a method by which His only begotten son would descend in great humility to teach and instruct and spread the word of His Father.

Why does this evoke memory? Ah yes, as a child I was an enraptured reader of Greek fable. And there one reads of so many gods looking down from Mount Olympus at the creatures below whom they dominate. Seeing on occasion human females that struck their fancy. Upon which they would descend to attend to the purpose of frolicking with those of great attraction to them.

Oh, sometimes they would also present themselves as bulls, or as swans the better to have their way with these attractive humans. And the children so begotten would then be demi-gods; generally presenting as Giants or as dryads or nymphs with especial powers endowed them by their powerful fathers. But these, of course, were pagan myths.

On this day we entered the quiet, white fastness of the ravine, to amble on this most perfect of Christmas days at our leisure, the solemn joyfulness of the day expressed in the sound of singing birds, sparkling running water of the creek newly released from its frozen state. The sun shone bright, it glanced crisply off the snow, fresh fallen yesterday.

In celebration of His son's birth day, God created He this perfect day. Nothing escapes His notice. Such details as the crafting of a mild winter day outstanding in its lovely perfection is His alone to produce. Despite His notice having wavered sufficiently to escape note of the situation in Darfur, He has done well by us.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Man Of The Hour

A historical figure, a beloved figure, a hopeful figure in a troubled world. Sinter Klaus! Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus - or, to use the dearly familiar; good ol' Santa. The man - or the elf, take your pick - is truly a marvel. He has enjoyed a long tradition of pleasing just about everyone. Holding out hope to millions of children during the darkest days of the year when the Winter Equinox falls into place and we're left bereft of daylight.

Out comes the Christmas tree, bedecked with tinsel and coloured lights to bright up the gloom of a winter's night. And with it, holly and garlands of green looped here and there. And dancing lights strewn along rooflines, atop garden trees and bushes. Inflatable replicas of Santa, of his elfs, of Rudolf, Santa's red-nosed reindeer. Dark descends and the environment is lit in all the colours most rainbows could only dream of.

And there he is, that rolly polly, red-cheeked, white-whiskered, barrel-belly elf of a man, promising much, delivering the goods. His serial careers, as toy maker, shop-keeper, good-cheer ambassador, child behaviourist is an enviable one. He admonishes children to be good, and they listen. They write to this beacon of happiness at his North Pole address and he somehow manages to find the time - between supervising his countless manufacturing elfs and planning his Christmas Eve route - to respond.

The fact is, his twinkling blue eyes peering through those steel-rimmed eyeglasses recognize all children's need to be rewarded - just for being children. To him it doesn't really matter whether they're "naughty or nice" they're just children, after all. But he's an agreeable man-elf and in trying to please the parents who continue to insist that their children be nice, not naughty, else they forfeit gifts, he plays their game too.

As well he might, since it would appear from a recently-revealed poll that it is not only children who believe in the actual, real-life presence of Santa, but their conspiring parents as well. We've read from time to time that it an expressed belief among reasoning, intelligent adults that they believe in Lucifer just as they do in the presence of angels. Well, it would seem, a sizeable proportion of adults admit to a similar belief in Santa.

Doesn't the mind boggle? On the other hand, given that canny public relations types and advertisers repeat his visage and ample frame repeatedly to sell Christmas-season products and goods, it makes sense, more or less. Santa is called upon to rivet potential customers' attention to all manner of gifts and goods, the better to express the purpose of the season - the cash-register ballet.

Coca-Cola knows all about enticing people to a lifestyle of happiness and satisfaction through consumption, and they started the whole thing, more or less. No, not Santa himself; his tradition was more spiritual than commercial, brought to the world by the fourth-century Christian bishop St. Nicholas, since traduced by modern corporate interests to commerce and in the process make everyone happy.

The sanctification of Christ's purported birth in Bethlehem transposed to the Santafication of Christmas in Bountyland.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Winter

This is the arrival day. Winter is here. Well, winter has long been here; this is the calendar day that normally heralds the official arrival of winter. Winter has arrived to be greeted by winter. A vast landscape of lofty white snow covering everything, everywhere. Roof lines are obscured, as are windows where the layers of snow on lower roofs deny the entry of interior light. Trees remain burdened by layers of snow, too frozen to remit their perch.

But while we've continued to experience sub-normal temperatures throughout this less-than nominal winter that preceded winter's calendar arrival, this very day of arrival has dawned benignly mild. No boots for our little dogs today. And when we enter the ravine it is to discover a well tamped trail system, the narrow pathways clearly defined and no longer a misery for their boot-clad paws.

As a result we're able to proceed at something approximating a normal pace. There is a cross-work of trails in evidence; some are animal trails, some are ski trails, and others are snowshoe trails, besides those which we normally amble upon. This time we have other choices. We don't have to cut short our trek because our little dogs are exhausted from their efforts.

Enabling us to venture far further today, something more akin to our usual ravine circuit. We hear a woodpecker somewhere near, as we descend the long hill into the ravine proper. Doing a little slipping and sliding act on the smoothed-down snow pack. But they, their claws unobstructed by boots, can now find purchase and they're jaunty with relief as we proceed.

The milder temperature has freed some of the snow covering the creek and the creek itself runs free, the water clear and quite obviously cold. A flock of cedar waxwings waffle themselves over the tree tops. Chickadees practise their calls, as accepting of the milder temperature as they are of the frigid; those sweet, tough little boreal creatures.

The snow pack that has so stubbornly clung to trees and bushes has begun to relent, encouraged by the ambient warmth, and a succession of snowfalls unleash themselves from the trees upon the trail as we proceed. I've caught a good dose of fallen snow on my head, my shoulders and pay no mind; it's surpassingly lovely.

The wind has come up, and that helps the trees in the release of their snow burden. We hear the long, mournful, prolonged wail of a train whistle in the distance. It's a wonderfully evocative sound, one we don't hear often enough and when we do hear it, we treasure the sound. All the more to hear it through the ravine, tamed by the presence of all that sound-muffling snow. It has taken on a new, eerie, plaintive quality.

The huge willow sitting down in the hollow close by one of the creek's even narrower tributaries is completely clad in a thick layer of snow. As though some giant's mechanical snow-thrower scooped snow off the ground and thundered it down upon the huge tree's trunk and branches. As indeed did happen.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Snow Puzzles

Most certainly snow puzzles us. In its various manifestations, dependent upon ambient temperature, as well as the various levels of atmospheric conditions, including wind and level of moisture, to produce heavy snow or light snow, wet snow or dry, and all the multifarious types too numerous for the ordinary person to recognize let alone identify correctly. It's not that kind of snow puzzle I mean, however.

Rather, it's the tracks we see so often while rambling through our winter-white ravine. We can guess at many; anyone can recognize the track a cat makes, with one foot before another in a straight line, and occasionally a neighbourhood cat will venture down into the ravine. A squirrel track is distinctive, and so is that of a rabbit. Raccoons and porcupines, that's something else again. Birds who drag their tail feathers can be identifiable, and so can the delicate tracery left by mice.

When we were in the ravine this morning for our walk, a bit of a riddle was solved when we scrutinized a track under one of the footbridges that was not that of a bird, yet there was the drag. Aha! the track went on a little way, and then disappeared - where a hole in the snow appeared, over the creek. The drag, that of a muskrat's tail. Mystery solved. A beaver track is similar, the tail broader, the footsteps more widespread. More than enough dog tracks abound; large splayed ones and more tenderly neat specimens.

It's at this time of year, when the deciduous trees are bare of their leaves and their trunks fully on display that we can best appreciate their differences; the elms, maples, apple, oaks, birch, beech, ash, hemlock, willows, hawthornes and ironwood . Some, like the various birches and apple trees, with their exfoliating trunks are their own attraction; others with bark striations and snow background-enhanced colours enliven the scene.

The conifers - pines, firs, spruce and cedar own their own specific colours as well, made all the more intense by the snow bearing down laden branches.

And some trees like the beech and the ironwood, which enjoy holding on to their paper-thin, copper-coloured leaves create an additional blast of colour in an otherwise grey-and-white world that has overtaken the shades of brown and green normal in other seasons in the ravine. The seasonal routine, the chameleon-like response to changing temperatures bring us the options of changing landscapes to chase the monotony of sameness.

The bird population too has changed; in this season we notice crows lofting high over the treetops, cawing mightily, resounding on the stillness of the snow below. Cedar waxwings appear in a flock abundance to flutter in a mass of ruffled wings through a copse of maples. Never is there boredom in this place of nature. Being here has a renewing effect on our place in her scheme.

Concerns drop away like an unneeded mantle, we find comfort and peace.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Approaching New Heights

We stand a lot taller now on the ravine trails. The layer upon layer of snow has lifted us to new heights. We can actually see the difference, the disparity in where we once stood in respect to the opposing heights of easily identifiable landmarks. Branches low on trees which we once handily walked under with no space competition now threaten to lop our heads off, at these new heights. Or, at the very least, catch our wool toques.

This is a balmy winter day, albeit deeply overcast. The stroll down our street now to reach the trail into the ravine is almost as difficult to negotiate as the ravine trails themselves. Some people in clearing out their driveways see the utility of simply shovelling snow onto the street; clearing their drives, littering the road. A road already insufficiently plowed by the municipality. And in those areas the snow is deep, loose and dirtily inconvenient to navigate.

In the ravine, the snow cradles the landscape, utterly transforming it, transfixing us in wonder. We we have a tendency to somehow forget its transcendent, luminescent beauty from one winter to the next. We do have a dim recollection of its effect on our gaze, but the reality of the snow-covered ravine, its laden trees and frozen, covered creek doesn't come truly alive until we face it once again.

Everything is deep in snow's embrace. It softens, muffles ambient sound. All is still, but for our own heavy breathing, slowly surging uphill in single file on the narrowly defined path. then, the sound of a nuthatch nearby. Must also be chickadees along with it, but we see none at all flitting through the trees.

It's a kindly minus-6 degrees, no wind to speak of. We have the ravine to ourselves. Not entirely, however. We see rabbit tracks, and the minute trail made by mice, so light they leave their delicately patterned evidence on the fresh face of new snow. Despite the lack of wind, occasionally heavily-laden branches release their burden and an avalanche of snow descends in slow motion from the spire to the bottom boughs of firs.

Sound breaks the barrier of silence as a plane passes high above the dense clouds, in the chill, upper atmosphere.

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Amazing Correlation

Here's a real mind-bender of a conclusion. A health economics professor has reached the startling conclusion that obesity is linked to fast-food accessibility. Now we know, and we can surely get a handle on the problem of obesity in the general population. Simple and easy: shut down all the fast-food parlours. They're an eyesore anyway.

Sean Cash, the brilliant scientist who has revealed this pithy fact tells us that for every "extra" fast-food restaurant per ten thousand people, a city's obesity rate rises 3%. No kidding. One can only wonder who funded his research. Most certainly not the fast-food industry. They're likely quaking in their friendly basement-located guest washrooms.

Or not. Since, after all, any casual onlooker might have made the very same observation. Fast food equates with fat-laden comestibles. They give pleasure to human taste-buds. And fast itself, production-wise, is a real plus in today's world where everyone is so inordinately busy and cannot find time, imagination, let alone the inclination to prepare nutritional meals for themselves at home.

Hordes of people either make quick stops at fast-food restaurants to take home the swill, or they stop and consume there, at their leisure. It's a life-style choice. Tastes good, it's filling and satisfying to the quality-uninitiated appetite, and generally it's affordable as well. "The strong relationship really suggests that access to fast food may indeed be one of the issues that may explain increasing obesity rates", said Mr. Cash.

Genius, pure genius.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Weather Outside Is Frightful

Making it all the cozier to remain indoors, in our warm and hospitable interiors. We are grateful for what we have, the comfort and the quality of our lives. Selecting menus for the day, appropriate to the weather situation; leafing through a new cookbook for ideas and inspiration is more than a little gratifying.

And as I methodically do all those little things in the house in daily clean-up maintenance, the inclemency of the out-of-doors makes everything, our comfort, our privileged lifestyles all that much more meaningful.

The snow is laid down deeply here. As is its wont; for usually - but for the occasional interruption in the norm, when cold is kept at bay and seasonal snowfall disappoints the skiers and children wanting to make snow tunnels - we manage, by the end of the winter season to have accumulated at least a four-foot deep garden of trillions of ice crystals where once was our lawn.

Often, on the arrival of spring and the promise of warmth, I feverishly begin to shovel in reverse. Which is to say, I begin attacking the accumulation of snow gathered in heavy layers on the lawns, to throw it onto the driveway where the sun kindly melts it in much shorter order. That did not happen last year. For there was a relatively scant snowpack, and it melted quite quickly without my intervention.

We did go off for a ravine ramble late this morning, all four of us garbed against the cold and the deep snow. The initial trailhead hasn't been tramped down adequately and it's tough going at first, until we finally reach that point where incoming trails intersect and enough boots have tamped down the snow to make the effort more easeful. It hasn't much changed from yesterday.

For one thing, it hasn't really stopped snowing. Not in great heavy blankets as occurred on Sunday aided by huge gusts of rambunctious wind. But respectably, the snow gently sifting down through the atmosphere, shifted about now and again by a persistent but low-grade wind. It's minus-8 degrees, not all that bad. Button lopes along, sliding now and again in her boots, through the snow-dimpled path.

Riley does his best, his short little legs pumping valiantly away. Fact is, we're not capable of proceeding at much of a faster pace than he is able to, in any event. We're in no hurry. It's not all that cold, and it's quite wonderful to look about and take advantage of the luxury of viewing the snow-treed ravine rather than having to struggle on clogged highways. Retirement has many benefits.

The trees are still burdened with thick layers of snow, although from the upper branches some relaxation of burden has occurred, with high winds whipping the snow onto lower elevations. It's quite amazing to see the contortions that snow layers can take on, as the depth of their layers begin to sag and resemble graceful arabesques while still clinging stubbornly to extended branches.

We struggle through the snow-laden trail, glad that we're not the only faithful ravine ramblers, that there are more boots than ours to trample the snow. As it is, the narrow trail, with its deep sides of untrammelled drifts presents a challenge to our physical endurance, let alone that of our little dogs. We stop often to wait for little Riley to catch up to us, and to rest ourselves. When it's obvious that he's really tired, he gets picked up for temporary relief.

Meanwhile, snow keeps falling all about us. As indeed it continues to do all day. When, later, we drive over to the nearby Home Depot store to pick up a few small bolts, screws and other convenient items needed for repairs, we encounter streets inadequately plowed; plenty of greasy slush requiring care in negotiating the drive.

More snow to come tomorrow, as well. And the day following it. Ad infinitum. Some winter, this.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Will No One Rid Me Of This Nuisance?

He, he, just kidding. We love snow. We're Canadian, after all. And it's winter isn't it? No, no it is not yet winter. Now you're kidding. Nope.

Well, you've got to admit it's pretty squirrelly when you begin having conversations with yourself. But then this is rather an odd situation, when we've been visited by winter before the season even begins. No, not odd; this is, after all Ottawa, Canada, the second coldest world capital next to Ulan Bator. So we're told. Secretly, I think we're the iciest, snowiest, most weather-vulnerable capital in the world. so there.

We've just come off a big one, a 37-centimetre dump. Well so, other areas have had it worse than us, with 50 centimetres. And we're doing all right, shovelling ourselves out from under. And there is a definable plus in all of this - the exquisite beauty of the dark and harsh cold weather landscape transformed into a wonderland of utter white. The arras cushioned and undulating in wintry white.

And the trees, bushes, any defining natural features deeply laden with snow. Errant gusts of wind lifting those wonderful crystals high into the air, crisply radiant and flushed with wonder. Makes your heart soar, just as your heart drops recalling that another 4 centimetres fell throughout the day, and it needs to be shovelled anew. And that tomorrow morning will greet us with an additional 4 centimetres. Ah well, we're Canadians, after all.

And as intrepid ravine ramblers we ventured out there today, two days after the big snowfall. Our down-filled jackets securely in place, and great big chunky-warm boots. Our little dogs similarly garbed, including boots. We waited until half-past eleven, but the temperature was reluctant to rise any higher than -14 degrees, so off we set regardless.

And it was fine, just fine. We had to struggle to get over to where the trailhead starts, but managed nicely enough. And discovered, to our great delight, that others, many other resourcefully determined boots had already tread that light fluff into a manageable semblance of a winter trail. Still tough for the dogs, but we spread our boots aggressively and flattened the snow even more for them.

And wasn't it a scene to behold! Kind of sorry I had decided not to take along a camera. True, I'd already taken similar photos a week previously when we'd had the 20-centimetre fall, but there's more, far more accumulated now, and the creek, now completely frozen, is not to be seen under its smooth white blanket; it never looked so good.

Even the uphill struggles didn't seem so bad. We barely had to lift little Riley, striving mightily to chug his chubby little legs up the gradients; Button doing far better with her long slender, strong legs, despite she's twice his age. Still, we knew better than to attempt our usual hour-long loop and felt satisfied doing less than half. Still a respectable loop, and due to the constraints, taking us almost as long.

Later, off we went to the Sally Ann, there to pick up some really excellent reading material. For excellent reading material is what any sane person - Canadian or otherwise - requires on these cold wintry days. A copy of Maev Binchy's Quentins, V.S. Naipaul's India, Sebastian Junger's Fire, and Robert Fulford's Best Seat in the House. What a perfect metaphor for the cold: India, fire, restaurant, best fireside seat in the house.

While there, I looked through the winter clothing offerings. Coming across a very comfortable looking, down-filled pink hooded winter coat for a teen. Never worn. Still hosting its original tags. One of which, rather large, hung suspended from a sleeve. And written on that tag was the tenderly loving note: "from Grandpa and Grandma".

Among the racks of everything one might hope to find in any well-stocked shop, people take their time, running their fingers through their options. Women wearing hijabs, black, yellow and white faces, elderly people, both men and women, some truly elegantly-garbed middle-class women looking for stylish bargains, and finding them. As we entered, we saw a thin, winter-dressed old woman with white, white hair, sitting immobile on a stuffed chair.

Among the racks hang clothing of every description - and this day there is a 40% off sale on women's dresses (boutique excluded). Racks of towels, bedding. Huge cages of ornamental pillows. Shelves full of shoes, slippers, boots for children and for adults. And housewares, shelf after shelf of various types of kitchen accouterments, porcelain, glassware, pots and pans. And furniture as well; sofas, bookshelves, small appliances and large.

Close by me a telephone sounds and I watch while a darkly hirsute 50ish man digs into a pocket and extracts his cell phone. A conversation ensues, finally a mumbled reply to an obvious question: "I'm just picking up my welfare cheque". Values, the perceptions of requirement certainly vary from one idiosyncratic mind to another. If an item of questionable convenience and utility is also a status symbol it becomes a vital necessity.

The very old, shrunken woman we espied on our entry is still ensconced on the chair. Her eyes dull with disinterest in the present, mind obviously back somewhere in the past. She was there when we entered, still there, in the very same place when we left. My smile left unanswered.

Everyone has a right to privacy, in public or anywhere else.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Protesting In Bad Faith

Every country in the West has huge problems of illegal immigrants at large. And when the opportunity exists to expel these people those countries take full advantage of their prevailing laws enabling them to return would-be immigrants to their countries of origin. There to take legal and time-proven steps to register as potential emigrants to their country of choice. Joining the legitimate queue like everyone else.

Even when legal procedures are undertaken, some would-be immigrants produce false identify papers. Which, if and when discovered, completely disqualifies them for entry into the country. It often enough happens that individuals of unsavoury character, with a history of violence or other criminal offences taking place in their countries of origin attempt to pass themselves off with false papers denying their criminal past.

A current such case is before the Canadian Immigration Board. In its own way it represents a personal tragedy. For a man who misrepresented his identity by proffering a false passport on entry into Canada in 2003, had suffered a critical aneurysm while in the country, leaving him a quadriplegic. This refugee claimant, Laibar Singh, is slated for deportation. There are many within the Sikh community in Vancouver who have responded to his plight, demanding he be allowed to stay in the country.

Obviously, the man would become a weight on an already over-extended health care system. With no legal status in the country, he is not entitled to free health care. And with no visible means of support, he would become a burden on the country for his costly, ongoing care. At the 11th hour, vociferous supporters claimed they would be responsible to care for all his needs, as they rallied to physically prevent his deportation at Vancouver International Airport.

Trouble is, they are not putting their mouths where their money should be in their declarations of support. The group who pledged their support have recanted after a six-day period, by now claiming they are unable to care for this severely disabled man. The New Westminster temple which had, up to now, sheltered him, now also declares they can no longer do so.

At the airport protest which forced the Canada Border Services Agency to put the deportation proceedings on hold, Sikh community leaders pledged they were prepared to cover medical expenses for Mr. Singh in perpetuity. In the meanwhile, another Sikh temple in Surrey has attempted to accommodate his needs, and its president has promised not to launch protests seen to be illegal in support of prevailing against deportation.

The new temple, Guru Nanak Sikh temple, is on its own in its humanitarian concern for Mr. Singh: "I am disappointed that all the guys who went to the airport to make big speeches have completely backed off", said the temple president. "They didn't give any money to us to help him." The Guru Nanak Sikh temple is now prepared to launch a legal challenge for permission to keep Mr. Singh in Canada.

Which is a refreshing approach attesting to their earnest wish to help as opposed to the stridently illegal demands put forward by this man's original supporters. Mr. Singh requires 24-hour-a-day care. His condition requires that he be established within a long-term care facility at a huge cost to the Canadian taxpayer.

If this issue is as it is purported to be, one of humanitarian concern for an unfortunate man, irregardless of the way he entered the country, it does seem a reasonable expectation that the very community of which he is an integral part should step forward and commit to providing the means by which his expensive nursing care will prolong his life here.

His impending deportation, and his physical vulnerability was taken up by a group called the South Asian Human Rights Group who have seen fit to champion Mr. Singh. They seem since to have abandoned him, backing away from his case. It seems now that the goodwill and concern of the Sikh community for one of their number must be consolidated in a promise to pay for his health needs.

As a Canadian citizen, Mr. Singh's needs would be looked after by the Canadian taxpayer. As matters stand, Mr. Singh is an unwanted visitor to the country, regardless of humanitarian concerns. His plight is truly unfortunate, but there are many would-be refugees who face life-threatening difficulties. If the Sikh community is sincerely concerned, they have the option of stepping forward to assure funding.

That's an expression of good faith, and an indication they take this issue seriously.

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Substance Abuse

Society's accepted, valued and much appreciated relaxant, alcohol. What social occasion would be complete without alcohol freely available and pressed upon those present to enjoy the company of others?

Alcohol consumption is considered great good fun, an innocently enjoyable past-time for people who appreciate the finer things that life has to offer. Alcohol, a socially-imbibed spirit-raising substance that makes it so much more pleasurable to be out and about in the company of friends.

Whoa, here's another take on alcohol consumption: group therapy sessions, rehabilitation, individuals caught in the trap of alcohol dependency, temporary loss of mental capacity, loss of employment, their friends, their occasional sobriety, their self-respect, their families, their matrimonial homes, their future.

Women entrapped by their need to consume alcohol turning to the sex trade for a living. Men incapable of facing the realities of life without the support that alcohol provides for them. Children observing the behaviour of their parents, and eager to partake of this treasured relaxant and social disinhibitor, learning a life-time of grief.

Alcohol-induced illness, hospital stays, domestic violence, highway accidents resulting in great harm to other innocent people, suicide attempts, cirrhosis of the liver, cancers in places where alcohol manages to ingratiate itself into the body's vulnerable areas. The incidence of injuries, illnesses and accidents related to the use and abuse of alcohol far outstrips those attributable to the use and misuse of recreational and illicit drug use.

Identify alcohol-dependence? Responses to three vital questions tell the story.
  1. Do you drink alone?
  2. Do you drink to attain a modicum of self-confidence?
  3. Do you drink as a way of eluding reality?
Immoderate alcohol consumption not only has the potential to destroy an individual's life, with sufficient fall-out to do the same to that individual's family members, but it has its considerable costs to society in lost productivity, health-care costs, policing and monitoring costs. Then there's the issue of premature deaths.

How difficult is it, really, to accommodate oneself to the sanity of "the golden mean". Moderation in all things is a dictum brought down through the ages, as a way in which individuals can accustom themselves to living a reasonable lifestyle. Try it. It works.

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It Came, It Raged, It Departed

It most certainly did. The winds were raging, the snowstorm fulsomely determined and we mere mortals represent no puny match for nature. As we were well forewarned, we knew enough to remain inside our abodes, looking out from the inside, marvelling at the ferocity of nature's lesson to us that she is in control and has complete command. And don't we know it.

This storm taught its lesson in a very large geographic area, from southern to eastern Ontario, on through Quebec and into New Brunswick and the Maritime Provinces. Visiting headaches and havoc wherever it thrashed its way through the atmosphere, littering the landscape. Roadway ditches became unexpected havens for vehicles whose drivers exhibited the arrogance to travel despite warnings.

The New England States, New York and Ohio were also recipients of close-up and terrifying theatrics of nature gone temporarily amok. Traffic at a standstill, highways shut down, airports in abeyance, cancelling hundreds of scheduled flights. Municipalities sending out their road crews in a plethora of winter-battling vehicles and ploughs.

As for us, we waited out the storm. Not all that hard to do on a Sunday, when there are so many delightful things to occupy oneself with around one's home. Finally, the wind abated just after dinnertime, and finally, the municipal snow plough made its way up the street, down the street, liberating the throughway, and in the process littering the ends of driveways with six-foot snow and ice accumulations.

Time to fire up the snow thrower and get out there to clear everything away. Else, how would the newspaper delivery guy be able to get through and provide us with our morning newspapers? Our trusty old machine, bought second-hand fifteen years ago, and still capable of huffing and tossing with the best of them, did its thing, throwing a steady stream of snow over already well-blanketed lawns.

An hour and a half later, it was done. And that's when my husband glanced across the street, to see our neighbour's older boy Tariq, out there by himself, frantically trying to shovel the mass of snow by hand. Why aren't you using your snow thrower? asked my husband. A new, huge, very expensive machine - out of commission. It happens, doesn't it ever. So, our machine gets fired up again, and over he goes.

We just hadn't taken note of the fact that their driveway, almost directly opposite ours, hadn't been cleaned off properly for the last two weeks; with hand shovelling, only half of their drive had been cleared previously, and with this fresh new fall of 37 centimetres, and the added burden of the municipal plough plugging up the end of the driveway, hard work for a young man doing it alone.

We wondered where Mustafa was; likely out of town. As happened to me years before when we'd had an earlier typical Ottawa snowstorm and I'd had to wade up the driveway in snow up to the top of my knee-height boots, when my husband was away in China for several weeks. Another hour and our neighbour's driveway too was cleared. Next day Tariq's mother brought over a bottle of Australian wine.

Malfunctioning snow throwers; the hefty model we'd bought for our daughter a year ago is still out of commission; she hasn't succeeded in making contact with the small-motors repairman in the area where she lives, looking after the still-good warranty for the manufacturer. Fortunately, this time her friend Jeff was over, and she had help doing the shovelling by hand.

And fortunately, Jeeb and Allison from across the street brought their snow thrower over and between them they managed nicely to clear out our daughter's huge driveway. And the weather forecast for the coming week? day-time temperatures ranging from minus 7 to minus 14 centigrade, with snow events or flurries each and every day. Sigh.

Our great frozen north.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

We Took Note

It did not enter quietly, on gentle tippy-toes as would a guest, entering one's home for the first time, bringing with it the assurance of respect. Instead, it roared through all the interstices of the houses in a great wide swath of North America, inexorably shifting icy molecules of exquisite shapes everywhere it blew in its fury.

Rooftops, already well cushioned with previous weeks' snowfall, welcomed more of the same, and the landscape was visually obliterated by the ferocity of the winds whipping the billowing snow and ice pellets in every direction. As it introduced itself, and as we fully understood the helplessness of our position as reluctant hosts, an awestruck respect was extended from us to the storm.

Although this particular guest had not been invited, we were advised well in advance of the arrival and steeled our resolve to meet it with as politely reserved an attitude as we could muster. This storm moved swiftly but stealthily, as a ghostly presence, throughout the early morning hours well before daylight could reveal its arrival.

That fierce energy prevailed throughout the day, obliterating the far reaches of a blue sky, and the sun that shines there. We lived, albeit temporarily, in a world run amok with ice crystals of marvellous formation. People thought better of throwing caution to this particular wind, and instead opted to refrain from further littering up the roads and highways, leaving their vehicles in their resting position.

That soft white surround whirling in its dervish dance everywhere one looked, softly muffled ambient sound and the eerie landscape dominated everyone's thoughts, content for the moment to remain well sheltered each in their warm domiciles, avoiding the urgency of the approaching Christmas holiday when everyone obeys an inner command to go forth and engage in an age-old ritual leading to multiple gift-giving. None dared to venture outside the comfort of their homes.

The ornamental urns, the birdbaths, the light standards, the hexagonal garden shed glimpsed from front and back windows on occasion through brief lapses in the wind's fury, presented as confections, each with a deep cone of flawless white snow. As though a demented pastry chef devoted to excesses of whipped cream had worked tirelessly to create a landscape punctuated here and there with irresistibly-beckoning works of edible art.

Where our driveway should have been, and our walkway to the front door must still be, there exists only gently undulating hills and graceful valleys. Those letters and cards prepared for mailing will not see themselves deposited this day in the mailbox up the street. It seems pointless to exert energy engaging in the task of shovelling and ploughing the snow steadily accumulating everywhere we look. Great gusts of wind drive excess snow off rooftops in sweeping exhalations of snowdust, adding further to the accumulations down below.

We do exert ourselves at signal times throughout the day to pile on over-sized winter coats, headgear and gloves to shovel the snow off the back deck, off the stairs, away from the various walkways we maintain for the convenience of our two little dogs, at such times when they inform us they can no longer wait. They wander disconsolately in the fresh snow burdening the walkways immediately we have completed our shovelling, do their duty and hasten to return to the warmth of the house.

When this storm eventually works its way out of our atmosphere it will have left a burden of frozen precipitation that may yet mark a record high for this date. A reminder of another such storm which struck this area in the winter of 1970-71; different from the great ice storm of 1998, not quite as environmentally catastrophic in its aftereffects, but certainly notable in its overall effects.

Overnight, we hope the storm will have a lesser impact, gradually making its way in an easterly direction to wreak havoc elsewhere. In the meantime, we have a fresh-baked bread, groaning with the inclusion of whole grains of every variety, and a large pot of soup bubbling on the back burner, replete with beans, barley, lentils, okra, celery, yam, zucchini, tomato, bay leaf and oregano.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

2007 - A December To Remember

I feel I must apologize for the errant tone I took latterly in describing winter's feeble entry. I was, to say the least, precipitate, perilously so. For no one should take nature, the environment and the elements of weather lightly. What we see and face today will not necessarily reflect what tomorrow will bring. My silly attempts at seasonal levity have, it would appear, offended Old Man Winter. And the result is what we see before us, peering out our frosted windows onto a pillowed landscape of snow.

And it isn't even yet winter officially; we've yet another week to go. So woe is me, and I once again offer my apologies.


Winter: I hardly meant what I said; it was in jest. Your message has been received, amply. No one could claim that there is anything meek and mild about your presence; it was only late fall that lulled us into thinking you would roar in far more gently than you in actual fact did. Who could have foreseen that that balmy early- to mid-fall would suddenly become ferocious winter?

Well, we could, we should have, and I, most particularly, with all those years of experiencing winters behind me most certainly should have. Please accept my humble, and most sincere apologies. I shall attempt, in future, to better regulate my feeble attempts at humour; I shall restrain myself in the full knowledge that to do otherwise is to tempt your wrath.

And truly, Winter, we have faced your intemperate, but wholly understandable anger already more than sufficiently. Message received, lesson learned.

This capital city of Canada has already received almost two-thirds of its average annual snowfall - and it's not yet winter! I once again comment; forgive me for I knew not what I did. Yes, I know you're a difficult temperament to placate, but please believe my sincerity. True, I know you've already ordered up yet another big-time winter storm. Starting this very evening, continuing on into the night, throughout the day.

Another 30 centimetres of snow, Environment Canada has forewarned. Where will we put it all? Along with the snow you've brought in much colder-than-normal temperatures for the season. Is this fair, I ask you? The creek in the ravine never even completely froze over last winter until the season was almost over; now, it's already frozen tight. We've shovelled and shovelled and ploughed continuously, trying to move all that frozen stuff out of the way.

We're getting a little, well, not exactly fed up, just kind of tired. It's a passing phase, I know; we'll get used to it. But so much of it, really!

I hate to seem like a cry-baby about it, but it's too soon; if we've already received 106 centimetres and anticipating another 30 in the next 24 hours, that's a lot of snow, right? What's the rest of your seasonal output going to leave us with? We had to put sweaters on our little dogs under their winter coats for today's ramble, and their boots as well.

We're not the only ones; we saw some poor little pooch's lost red boot left dangling on a bush close to where, presumably, it was lost on an earlier ramble. We've had that happen in the past, and keep a sharp eye out lest a boot fall off and leave a trembling little foot unshod in these frigid temperatures. Have you no pity for your creatures? We see tracks of rabbits, mice, squirrels and who knows what else, on that fresh snow; how are they to cope?

I'm not whining, no; just trying to suggest you might think about accepting my apologies, and tamp down the cold and the frozen precipitation a bit. Oops! No freezing rain instead, please; if it's a choice, we'll take the snow.

Thank you very much for your patience and kindly understanding.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Nuclear Kerfuffle

Seems to me we've known for months that the world appeared to be facing a distinct threat in the shortage of medical isotypes, used for diagnostic purposes. And just recently we've really been reminded of how critical these isotypes are to the medical community and to the patients they serve, since the spectre of the looming shortage became an actual fact.

Canada, it would appear, is a leading exporter of these isotypes, through the Chalk River nuclear reactor which supplies the high grade raw material that MDS Nordion of Kanata (Ottawa, Ontario) produces. Problem was, it would appear, there erupted a hissy-battle between AECL and the country's nuclear safety regulator.

Each dug in their heels and refused to budge, and the result was a panic-in-the-making at the looming shortage, since medical isotopes have a defined life, and cannot be stored for long periods. When the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission inspected Atomic Energy of Canada's NRU reactor it discovered that a safety redundancy it had been assured had been put in place, hadn't been, after all.

The CNSC castigated AECL, and the result was a temporary shut-down of the plant. A shut-down meant to be brief, but which was extended for the purpose of upgrading safety concerns. Which resulted in the impending shortage of medical isotopes. AECL had been instructed in 2006 to proceed with the upgrades, permitting the facility to operate while the changes were being put in place. But the changes just weren't done. And the regulatory agency was livid when it discovered it had been misled.

Because of the emergency to peoples' health inherent in the inability of medical professionals to use this irreplaceable diagnostic tool, the federal government became concerned and looked to itself to make a correction. Legislation was passed in the House of Commons and then in the Senate to allow for immediate resumption of reactor operations. And in so doing, the government took it upon itself to override the concerns of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

In the process infuriating Canadians who are already more than a little leery about outcomes with nuclear plants. The memory of previous nuclear disasters - at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, as distant as they are in the past - more than adequately reminds people just exactly how serious an impact a nuclear misadventure can have on a country. People are, understandably, upset and nervous.

But, we're told by an expert, a nuclear engineering professor who has great familiarity with the plant in question that even without the safety upgrades, the reactor is extremely safe. In fact the decision to shut it down to begin with owed more to pique between AECL and the regulator than a perceived need to shut it down.

In the words of Professor Richard Holt of Queen's University: "It's very safe, as safe as it's ever been. These redundant backup systems are something that modern power reactors are required to have. It's safe now, and it will be super-safe when the work has been completed."
Nice. Thank you ever so much, Professor Holt.

A whole lot of people have become near-hysterical over the consequences of the work not yet done and the reactor firing up again. On the other hand, it would appear that most people living in close proximity to Chalk River, which facility employs a good many people in the area, have no qualms whatever about the safety of the plant.

"I'm not concerned and I have full confidence in the people who run the reactor", said the mayor of Laurentian Hills, nearby Chalk River. "It is the livelihood of our whole community." Well yes, that would be a compelling reason.

As for the president of the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine, he feels the federal government made the correct decision in opting for a re-start of the reactor. "We're quite pleased that they are taking the strong and balanced approach and assessing the risk of operating the Chalk River facility versus the risk of Canadians not having access to an essential medicine service."

Still there are many excited voices on the other side, bemoaning the choice between the safety of Canadians living in a wide radius of the plant, should anything go awry. Weighing their safety against those of other Canadians requiring diagnostic tests for cancer and heart disease in support of their chances to continue living. Sometimes it's difficult to really get a handle on these things.

We worry, and we should be concerned. "You can say yes, it's not as safe as we want it to be. But in the grand scheme of things, I don't believe for a minute that it's unsafe", says Mr. Holt. We can only hope he's right.

He's the seasoned expert, after all. We're the unschooled worry-warts.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Enough, Enough! Merry Christmas...!

Sigh. Another self-entitled malcontent heard from. Just never stops. There is just so much that can be done to satisfy the needs - or the perceived needs - of minority groups residing within a historical cultural-religious majority. The very fact that the majority have become, over time, sensitive to the need to address in some part, the cultural-religious presence of minority groups within their midst speaks volumes to the good-faith attempts on their part to relieve situations of such grievance.

It has been quite some time since majority Christian populations in Europe and North America have confined themselves to the single-minded celebration of their holiday of great rejoicing known as Christmas. At one of the darkest times of the year when winter has descended and snow has fallen, leaving us infrequent sunny days and much shorter daylight hours, the celebration of Christmas delights children and enlivens the expectations of people who celebrate. The happy fellowship and twinkling lights should lift everyone's spirits.

There remains, though, grumps who begrudge the majority their season of light. Yet, sensitive to the minority populations within their midst, social and political authorities at every level make a concerted effort for inclusion by recognizing other ethnic or religious groups' similar holidays of celebrations, whether simultaneous to the Christmas season or not. In an attempt to make others feel respected and honoured.

The result has been too often that minorities express even greater grievances. To the point where the majority begins to step on eggshells and commercial and public interests make a considerable effort to play down the religious aspects of that celebratory season. The Christmas celebrations become "holiday" celebrations; physical manifestations of Christmas too easily-identifiable for what they are, become muted and carefully displayed to ensure others are not offended.

And that's downright absurd. Why should any minority feel justified in making the majority feel guilty about enjoying a holiday that has great meaning to them, as a holiday for families to enjoy a long cultural-religious tradition of warmth and togetherness? As a Jewish child, I admit resentment during that season, mostly because I was excluded from its entertainment. But yet not entirely, since I also enjoyed the beauty and light of the season. And the kindness of strangers.

During school hours when children were taught Christmas songs, and when such songs were repeated during school assemblies, I had the option of singing - or not; merely mouthing the words, skipping any portions that had the word "Jesus" or "Christ" included. (As a child I had been called "Christ-killer" by neighbourhood kids; hence my rebellion.) Those songs did me no harm, they were in fact quite beautiful, the melodies old and transcendentally inspiring to a young child's growing music appreciation.

Yet here we are, edging toward 2008, and a woman in Victoria, B.C. has seen fit to take her five-year-old child out of his kindergarten class at Ecole Mill Bay, a French immersion elementary school, because she has deemed in her great wisdom, that too much attention is being given to Christmas. The mind boggles. Mary Anne Watson considers that the acknowledgement of Hanukkah at the school's Christmas concert doesn't quite rate.

As a member of a minority group with a brick on her shoulder she feels equal billing would do nicely. Enough to give a sane person a headache.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Disgracing The Office

As though taxpayers and voters - one and the same generally - don't have a low enough opinion of politicians generally. Now it seems, we have even more ammunition in our quiver of distrust. The arrow was pointed at Mayor Larry O'Brien and hit him full on. Mind, it had been aimed at him for neigh unto a year - ever since his one-time mayoral opponent Terry Kilrea confessed that Mr. O'Brien had attempted to coerce him, tempt him and buy him out of the running.

Manoeuvres that might be allowable in the corporate world, but clearly identified as illegal, in fact a decided crime against the democratic electoral system. Do we excuse Larry O'Brien by reminding ourselves that he was, first and foremost, an entrepreneur, a millionaire businessman? Hardly; he was obviously dissatisfied with his business enterprise and looking for another challenge, and the distraction he chose was public office.

Municipally, at the highest level; mayor of the capital city of Canada. A late entrant, a dark horse candidate, he managed to shove aside his competitors for the position, all of whom were seasoned politicians who had already proved their estimable value, any of whom could have done a reliable job in the office of managing the City of Ottawa. Alone among the candidates Larry O'Brien promised he would see to it that taxes weren't raised.

That promise and that alone brought him triumphantly into office. Yesterday the Ontario Provincial Police finally concluded they had gathered sufficient evidence to charge Mr. O'Brien with two criminal offences; pretending to have influence with the (federal) government, and negotiating a federal appointment. For the purpose of buying off a competitor to allow himself a better chance of being elected.

That Mr. Kilrea thought better of grasping this popsicle, but took himself out of the race anyway, throwing his support to a competitor of Mr. O'Brien's is quite beside the point. Mr. O'Brien's purpose was to suborn the electoral system to his advantage. Still, this stout-hearted mayor declares himself to be dedicated to the task at hand - running the city. Therefore, he has no intention of stepping down, even temporarily until justice has run its course.

He has the support of the electorate, he avers, as well as the almost universal support of city council. Both statements are as accurate as his contention that he had done nothing wrong, and is innocent of the charges brought against him under two sections of the Criminal Code. Thus far, under his mandate, he has managed to make a right royal balls-up of running city affairs, in the process alienating the municipal civil servants he most relies upon by his officiousness.

The electorate has little reason to hold out great hopes that this man, "learning on the job" and stumbling everywhere in the process, will make a success of his desire to lead this city. There is no magic formula he can produce through which there can be no property tax increase, and still maintain services at a level required and desired by residents. He is directly responsible for creating a situation where public transit, for example, is in a transitional state of going nowhere.

Mr. O'Brien has made some very unfortunately questionable decisions; in naming a company to lead the city's "corporate visioning" process he has given a prime contract to former employees of the company he founded and remains a director of, Calian Technologies. Moreover, where before Mr. O'Brien took office Calian had no city contracts, the company has since been awarded eight contracts for a sum total of $1.16-million.

Mr. Kilrea is adamant that he is telling the truth and nothing but; he has signed an affidavit swearing that he had been offered up to $30,000 to drop out of the mayoralty race, and he had further been promised, through Mr. O'Brien's purported political connections, a sinecure with a federal entity, the National Parole Board. Sufficient witnesses have come forward to implicate Mr. O'Brien.

Yet he claims innocence, and indeed is presumed to be innocent under Canadian jurisprudence, until and if found guilty. In the meantime, he should forget bombast and ego, and simply step aside.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Suspense Relieved

This is the day that everyone, most particularly Conrad Black has been anticipating. For the public, an event of passing interest. For Mr. Black a cause of great trepidation, hardly negated by his bravado, his continuing to express confidence in himself as an individual of great moral and ethical stance.

He continued to project himself as an upright, intrepid and trustworthy member of society, lauding himself for his business acumen, his scholarly authorial achievements, his social contacts, his deserved wealth.

Pitiful, really. Were we to be moved to view him differently with testimonials to his upright, sensitive and kindly character by his wife, by celebrities like Elton John? Not that it mattered, really. For it was not public opinion that put him on trial, but his own unmitigated sense of entitlement to money that was not his, although he felt it was his to gather, to the detriment of the shareholders whose interests he represented.

It was his surreptitious, illegal, criminal in-gathering of special payments in the form of 'non-compete' business bribes that brought him down. It was his self-perceived entitlement to avail himself of his own collected and self-incriminating files classified by an impending legal wrangle by the Ontario Securities Commission as future evidence to be used in a court of law.

His brazenly off-hand attempts to spirit them away to the safety of his possession elsewhere than at his office at the headquarters of the very company whose assets he was sacking, were also what finally spelled out his guilt to the jury at his trial.

Yet, when all is said and done, it's truly sad. That an individual with so much potential as an intelligent and creative person could fall so low. And yet in falling be incapable of recognizing what he has done. That being said, the fact that he now faces a term in jail will be most dreadfully difficult for this imperious man.

I, for one, don't feel like crowing it is his just due.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Our Mistresses' Voice

How very peculiar; the more hard of hearing she becomes, the more vocal also. This is a riff on that little old "his master's voice" dictum alluding to authority and response. Given that our black miniature poodle Button, now fourteen years old, is alert only to sharp sounds, she cannot respond to her master's voice, a very nice baritone, but one whose resonance in authority has been lost.

He tucks her tenderly into bed every night and carefully covers her with her own little blanket, to ensure she is entirely comfortable before heading off into doggy nightscape. She's an odd little beast; since she was a puppy she has suffered from what can only be described as recurring nightmares. Why that should be so is quite beyond us. But when that happens we know; she utters plaintive whines and we hasten to comfort her.

She has always, as far as we're concerned, led a privileged life, other than for the first five years when we were both working out of the house and then it was a day-time lonely life while we were out of the house. Since then it is she who has literally ruled this roost; we hasten to obey her every command, evident in the canine utterances we have come to understand.

In turn she too understands our command/demands for she has acquired a sizeable vocabulary of understanding; the tone of our voices, the measure of our actions, a reasonable deciphering of events around her necessarily impacting on her in some manner. She may be aged in terms of the length of time she has spent on this earth, but she remains a puppy at heart.

She is nimble, agile, possessed of a superb memory, given to lending herself to certain enterprises from which she extracts pleasure. She is also in fact, physically indefatigable, certainly far more so than we three-score-and-ten elders - giving us a true run for our money despite that her age quite equals ours. But then we are not quadrupeds.

She has taken to waking us in the morning, quite unlike the quiescent patience of her history with us up until now, when she would ensure we were already wide awake before demanding attention. Now, every morning, at miserably early hours anywhere from 6:00 a.m. and beyond - generally commensurate with daylight - she pads restlessly about the bedroom, and begins to whine.

We can always whine back at her, imploring her to go back to sleep, or to be quiet, but then there's the little trifle of her failing hearing abilities, along with her general disinclination, so the efforts are for naught. One of us, usually her purported "master" rises, to let her out into the backyard to relieve her bladder; I swear she does this in mocking emulation of her "master".

After which she generally consents to return to bed for another snooze. Which may last anywhere from a half-hour to an hour, and then it is back to the restless padding-about and relentless whining. We very well know what it is she wants; she is insisting on being fed. At this juncture we realize the game of sleeping in is over.

Sigh.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Last Resorts - Almost

We were really reluctant to put booties on Button and Riley. Let's face it, it's a pain in the arse; for them and for us. Hard enough on them, they whine, that we dress them up in winter coats on these frigid days, but boots too? Fact is, we had no choice.

Taking them out into the ravine the last few days, post-too-ample-snowfall, has been a true misery. Simply much too cold for their tiny feet. Evidenced amply by the fact that they freeze up, seemingly incapable of proceeding further, lift their feet in place helplessly, conveying to us the unmistakable signs of hike-incompatibility with the prevailing conditions.

Which cuts our outing short, of necessity. We end up carrying them a while, clearing the accumulated snow and ice out of their pads, then setting them back down again, to lump along in the still-loose and high snow trails. It's hard on us too, since our gait is awkward as a result of the snow still not trodden adequately to a level and packed surface.

These conditions of high, loose snow are perfect for snowshoes. Skis too, for that matter, but snowshoes have always been our preferred choice in these wooded areas. Trouble is, when we're herding two little dogs and never quite know when we'll have to scoop them up, we feel snowshoes become more of a hindrance to our stewardship of their needs than an assistance to our perambulations.

Clambering uphill is even worse, since the quality of the snow is loose and silken, and dreadfully slippery. We're left breathless with the effort. And of course when we have to carry them along as well, it's a prodigious effort that we find exceedingly arduous. What a difference the doggy boots make.

Awkward for them at first, but then they recover themselves, adjust their gait, and gamely go along, feet nice and toasty. We're able to take our time, enjoy our surroundings and make the most of the walk. The trees are still heavy with snow. Every now and again a gust of wind will pick the snow off laden branches and scatter it in a veil of white down below.

Riley, with his short stubby little legs, more or less matching his short stubby little body, befitting a toy poodle, experiences far more difficulty than Button, with her more elegant profile and long slender legs. She is more than capable of prancing along, while he brings up the rear, slowly and with great deliberation. Occasionally slipping, sprawling flat, face down.

Yesterday we were surprised, on turning a corner on a downward spiral of the trail, to come literally face to face with a pileated woodpecker. A mere ten feet from where we stood, at eye level, busy with a tree trunk that we had noted on previous occasions had been well and deeply pocked by its insistent hammering; large raw slivers of the trunk - including heartwood - littering the snow. This woodpecker more resembles a primeval-appearing bird than any other we've seen, with its red-capped hammerhead and peculiar silhouette.

We cannot recall the creek freezing over this early in the season, at any previous time. This is destined to be a winter to remember, just as the winter of the ice storm was. The boots are a godsend, and we're glad we succumbed to their utility. The current boots represent the best design I've yet sewn. They're neat, relatively easy to put on, and for the most part stay on.

I used a medium-to-heavy-weight fleece fabric for the boot itself, sewed a circle of leather on the bottom, and the Velcro fastenings work far better than the laces we used to draw tightly on previous designs. They will occasionally work their way loose on one foot or another, necessitating that we stop, retrieve the wayward boot and re-install it on the now-exposed foot, in the most awkward of conditions.

But they certainly beat exposing their bare paws to the snow and ice.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Adrift in Snow and More Snow

Here we were not so long ago gloating that winter was reluctant to show its face. And here we are, in December certainly, but not yet anywhere near winter on the calendar. The relatively warmish October and the first two-thirds of November lulled us into believing that when winter finally arrived it would do so gently, just kind of slide into a kind of sweet wintry presence - eventually becoming cold and snowy, as is its wont.

Now we know otherwise. Winter decided to make an early entrance, belying the previous two months’ weather complacency. Before November even slid into December we were already the surprised recipients of more snow than we’ve experienced in all of December in the last several years. And then, when December turned the corner it was to wallop us with what we can only hope will be characterized as the snowstorm of the season.

Although Environment Canada warns otherwise, with its latest long-range prediction for the winter of ‘07/’08, thanks to La Ninya. We enjoy snow, and lots of it, as much as any winter-loving Canadians, but this took on the aspects of a relentless vendetta, with high winds whipping the snow all over the place, creating chilling white-outs. As fast as we shovelled it, the winds whipped it back in again.

And it began to pile up higher and higher. School buses were cancelled; the second time in a week and a half. Traffic was hopelessly backed up and accidents cropped up all over the place. Tractor-trailers slipping into ditches, buses shoved into snowbanks. Everyone was incredulous that what was normally a half-hour drive to work turned out to be a two-hour tribulation.

By Tuesday city work crews were still working overtime, full steam ahead to try to cope with the snow burden. Traffic was still slow, and Tuesday’s accident levels surpassed those of Monday, the day of the storm. Actually, the storm raged all Sunday night, on into Monday, only levelling off some time during the early morning hours of Tuesday. We even saw some sun on Tuesday, and the temperature rose to a balmy minus-6.

With some wind, mind, but we thought we’d take the chance and go off with Button and Riley into the ravine for a walk. The last three days of inclement weather, with daytime highs not nudging above -14, and stiff winds making it seem more like minus 26 with the wind chill factored in, and the burden of snow convincing us we’d be better off not going in for our usual walk.

We know how difficult it is for Button and Riley to trudge through thick snowfalls; they are, after all, very small dogs. And we were spending a lot of time outdoors anyway, between us, shovelling out the backyard to give them a bit of roaming space, during those times when they did venture out. And doing the same in the front, clearing away the mountains of snow in the driveway and the front walk - because we have to.

When we did venture out into the ravine on Tuesday it was tough, slow going. Picture the trails with roughly a foot of snow dumped on them. Well, it makes for a wonderfully brilliant picture, absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, but it’s also difficult to maintain any kind of gait, and trying to plod along just takes all the stuffing out of us.

Button manages pretty well, with her long legs, and good attitude trailing in our wake, but it’s truly tough on Riley with his short stubby legs. We knew if we put their boots on it would be even more difficult for them, but took the gamble that at -6 they could manage without. And they did, brave little souls. Although we did manage to do barely half our usual circuit, puffing all the way.

That big tough 10-1/2 horsepower snow thrower we bought for our daughter three years back, when she moved into her rural log house is giving her problems. Somehow I believe that it’s easier for men to use these contraptions than it is for women. Women aren’t quite as mechanically gifted as men, and much of that owes to the fact that it is men who gravitate to the use of these things, either through social convention or the utility of handing off gender-specific roles.

In any event, although she used it on a number of occasions previously, the thing refused to work for her this time around. She had filled it with gas, turned it on, and set to with it, but it kept sputtering and balking. Naturally, when things like this happen she telephones us immediately, and her father tries to think of what she could do. Check that it hadn’t flooded. Make sure there wasn’t something stuck in the auger.

And of course if it’s the spark plug, her father can’t do anything long distance. It is guaranteed for four years; the thing of it is, hauling it in to the nearest store, about 15 miles distant. She kept trying, with no success, until later in the afternoon, when a neighbour, a farmer-friend drove by in his tractor on his way to the house down the road of one of his (estranged) wife’s colleagues, another young woman who lives nearby.

He stopped to find out what was happening with our daughter - seeing her trying to shovel all that massive snow load by hand. It took him a few minutes to clear it all away with the huge auger he had on his tractor. He scolded her for not calling him, and told her he’d be by any time there was another snowfall of that magnitude.

She did have a seasonal contract with another of her neighbours the year she moved in, because the previous owners had paid for the service. But it’s over $300 and she didn’t want to commit that kind of money, preferring to do the work herself. Anyway, perhaps her auto mechanic friend can have a look at it on the week-end when he comes over, to try to determine what might be wrong with it; might even be water in the gas line.

Here's hoping the ravine trails will have been tamped down a bit by tomorrow, presenting us with far less of an energy-sapping experience.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Wildlife Arras

The sky was a deep blue canvass uninterrupted by the merest wisp of cloud. The sun streamed into the car warming the interior and us. The road ahead was rimmed with yesterday's snow, the centre portion dark, dusted white with calcified salt. Despite wind warnings none materialized and the drive - 100 km from our house - was uneventful save for a period while vehicles slowly nudged their way forward finally to pass the scene of an accident. First responders present: police, ambulance, tow-trucks.

We noted the many fields whose dry stalks of corn still stood. Might it be possible this early frigid winter onset caught farmers off guard, given the last decade of slower, milder, less snowy winters? Particularly given the fact that October dawdled like late summer, and most of November resembled September. And then the reality of winter hit, and Environment Canada has soberly advised us in their three-month forecast to prepare for the coldest, snowiest winter in 15 years.

Our daughter's house is on the edge of the Canadian shield and is also in a snowbelt, so the snow accumulated there is roughly double our snowpack, and this is just the first day of December. But the roads were mercifully passable, given yesterday's snow storm and the previous two whose snowfall still lingers. The many bird feeders dangling from the first-floor windows are host to downy and hairy woodpeckers, chickadees, grosbeaks, bluejays and pine siskins, red-capped sparrows.

Gone are the hordes of warblers and hummingbirds that so entertain us throughout the summer months. Yet, this morning, in a frigid minus-18 degrees centigrade and a stiff wind when we glanced out our own front door there sat two puffed-up robins in one of our Sargentii crabs, miserable with cold, eating the bright red crabapples to sustain themselves. Why the tardiness in fleeing this winter landscape, we wondered?

At our daughter's place, woodpeckers frustrate her with their insistence - despite that she hangs out fat and feed for them - that her century-and-a-half log house is there for their convenience as they peck away at the logs. There are many deer trails on her property, clearly now seen in the snow. She and our grandchild had watched a month ago, as two does and a fawn stood on hind legs to reap the large ripe apples festooned on her apple tree in front of the house.

Today, however, there is much animal activity inside the house, as all her dogs - nine in number, including the one she is fostering - her cat and her rabbits are joined by our two little dogs. Our two never quite seem to overcome some measure of confusion at being in the presence of all these other animals in the confines of anyone's home. Today two of the rabbits are roaming unconcernedly about the great room, released from their commodious cage.

No one takes notice of them, as they hop about everywhere, busy landscaping the interior in their memories. Even our two little dogs, unaccustomed as they are to the continual presence of furry blobs popping about pay them no mind. As our granddaughter takes her lunch plate into the great room and seats herself before the roaring propane fireplace/stove, she is surrounded by great imploring eyes.

When we leave later in the afternoon, the sky is no longer uninterrupted. Great puffy lines of white cloud array themselves across the sky in a pattern as disciplined and beautiful as any artist could conceive of.

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