Ruminations

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

Sunday, March 30, 2008

All On Board For Earth Hour

All right, not exactly everyone. Australia, most certainly, since that's where this theatre began, and Canada too has responded, both officially and casually from within the general population.

Us, we're party-poopers, we chose not to go with the flow. Yes, I know; everyone loves a party and that feel-good blush that accompanies being one of the crowd of righteous believers. Well, you can believe, and do what you feel you can, and not wish to join parties, if you're not the type.

That's us. "Not the type." So, although the lights went off at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night at some rather notable sites in Ottawa, the country's capital, and where we happen to live, we happen also not to have felt it to be such a terrific idea. The clock on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill was dimmed. All municipal buildings and Hydro Ottawa offices reduced their lighting.

And talk about sensitive corporate citizens ... ! ... the World Wildlife Fund-generated initiative took the imagination of the public relations types at Wal-Mart and McDonald's as well. Off went the road signs and roof beams. This will most certainly serve to endear these corporate giants of mass marketing to the hordes of people whom they serve on a daily basis. I'm not one of them, though I'm all for warm glows.

Hotels and shopping centres around the city bought into the collective lights-off; they dimmed their lights. Restaurants went soppily romantic; serving customers at candle-lit tables - and they just loved it. It's a start, say the organizers, to teaching people that using less energy is possible. Moreover it's good for dear old Mother Earth, and saves money, as well.

What's not to like? Well, this once-a-year event that's catching on so quickly world-wide, does draw people together for a one-hour period of time, true. The event's critics say, though, that people who take part in this eight-to-nine annual event will feel pretty good about themselves and what they've managed to accomplish. Ta-da! That's all folks...!

Done our bit. Time to go home, now. I've experienced a similar syndrome, when out canvassing door-to-door during the month of April for charitable donations to benefit the Canadian Cancer Society. The Cancer Society, in an effort to alert people to the need to support their services, and to fund research, coincidentally also puts on their Daffodil cancer awareness campaign.

People offer a Loony, a Toonie, a Fiver, get a daffodil, bright yellow and shouting Spring!, feel good about themselves, and go home thinking they've done their bit. And it is a "bit" a teeny, weeny bit. So later, when the volunteer canvasser comes around, they can claim straight-faced, they've already donated.

And having shut off the electricity for an hour each year, there's an impression left that the deed has been done; collective collaboration has succeeded in altering the environmental problems we face for the better. Low-flow shower heads, low-flush toilets, energy-saving appliances, lowering thermostats, using composters year 'round, buying local produce when possible, eating more meatless meals are just incidentals.

Energy conservation is an ongoing responsibility, it's not a party. Taking small steps on a daily basis to reduce waste, to re-use and value resource-abstemious practises is not a party, it's a lifetime commitment.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Covet Not Thy Neighbours' Goods

Who would believe that people could be so petty, so grievously greedy, so utterly without ethical standards that they would behave in such underhanded ways to advance their self-interests? Hands up, everyone. We're all believers! How's that for coincidence? Seems we've heard enough stories, read sufficiently about mean-minded people and even, on occasion, experienced misfortune ourselves at the hands of unprincipled people out to benefit themselves, to engage as believers.

One incident after another appearing in the news, or relayed by personal conversation, leads us on occasion to despair about the general situation where people behave with no regard whatever for their responsibility to others. For morally contumacious behaviour, how about this latest story out of Oregon. The popular on-line website, Craigslist, is used by many people, who want to act on the community level to alert others about acquisition opportunities.

Items that are no longer needed, ready to be taken away by anyone who might find use for them. And that's entirely reasonable; a way to recycle material goods that still have intrinsic value, and may be desirable for others to own and to use. Of course there are other ways to hand off items no longer useful, places like the Salvation Army whose thrift shops sell these things for small profit to those who see value in them.

But Craigslist fills a vacuum in communities where people want to advertise on line, to give others an opportunity to acquire things. Like all well-meant ventures, this too can be misused by people whose warped sense of humour, or just downright nasty connivance to do ill to others, take advantage of the site, visited by many in any community.

Imagine, if you will, harbouring a grudge against someone, of so severe a nature that you really do intend great harm to them. And you do this by posting a classified advertisement on Craigslist, alerting interested would-be acquirers that the contents of a specific home have been seized for non-payment, or that a home has been abandoned and the goods contained in it are there to be collected by anyone interested.

A stampede of interested people ensues, swiftly cleaning out the identified home. The homeowner, unaware of what has been occurring, either away on vacation, or simply away for the day at work, returns to his or her home to find it emptied of all their belongings. Which is just what happened to a man in Jacksonville. He was away at work when a concerned neighbour, seeing all the activity outside his home, telephoned to alert him that something appeared to be amiss.

He hurried home to discover his property crowded with vehicles and people busily loading his belongings onto their trucks, in their cars, and speeding away with their triumphant acquisitions. Others - roughly 30 other foragers - were busy in his almost emptied home, prepared to haul away items of interest to them. He asked them to cease and desist, said everything belonged to him, and no one was interested in listening.

Those who would stop to talk with him said it was their right to take these things into their possession, they were invited to do so by the advertisement posted on Craigslist. Some even held up the printed copy of the Craigslist advertisement before they sped off. His home was liberated of everything in it; appliances, electronics, gardening equipment, including the swing on his front porch.

Police were called, but too late to halt the ransacking. They let it be known that anyone found with this man's belongings would be charged with theft. Some people did shamefacedly return what they had taken, leaving items piled on the man's driveway. Police are in the process of attempting to identify the malicious individual who posted the false advertisement.

One supposes the devastation of losing your worldly goods to this kind of nasty misadventure would be matched by the very real pain of the thought that someone you know finds you so detestable for whatever reason that they would ransack their mind for a cute little trick of this kind. Mere spite? Revenge for some imagined slight? An estranged former intimate?

Evidently it's happened before, in Tacoma, Washington, where the phony advertisement read "Moving out ... House being demolished. Come and take whatever you want, nothing is off limits." That human ingenuity could stoop so low, become so utterly morally degraded as to engineer a miserable event like this on anyone bespeaks the casual evil people can visit on one another.

In the second case that occurred in Tacoma, the woman was identified, apprehended, charged with second-degree burglary and criminal impersonation. Here's hoping she warms a jail cell for a little while, allowing her ample opportunity to re-think her brilliant scheme.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Tale of Two Economies

So near, yet so far. The United States and Canada, dividing the top half of North America; friendly neighbours, sharing trade and social traits, language and tourism. Both are possessed of amazingly diverse geographies, each endowed with plentiful natural resources. And each enjoys an enviable, many would claim, wasteful style of life.

We have clean air, potable water, ample food, outstanding shelter, great medical and educational facilities, powerful economies, and nice international reputations.

Our political systems are dissimilar to a good degree. Our justice system and varied civil infrastructures like enough in their similarities. Canada is the vast country with a relatively sparse population, while the United States enjoys roughly analogous space, but with a hugely greater population.

Our conventions, traditions and values are recognized as being similar but dissimilar. And, it has been famously said, when the U.S. sneezes, Canada gets a cold.

The employment rate has always been more robust in the U.S. than in Canada, but we're seeing a bit of a reversal. The quality of life in both countries reflect one another, with the U.S. given a slight edge in voluptuous excess. And here we are, in 2008, with the long-anticipated recessionary blues hitting the U.S. economy; that free-market economy that went a little too far in extending sub-prime rates for real estate, and is now suffering the fall-out.

It's not alone in its agony; the risk of offering unreasonable debt to those whose credit ratings and earnings would never qualify them for acquiring properties under normal circumstances, was recognized, to a degree; the money markets realizing the safety valve inherent in distributing the risk, diluting it by combining with conventional bonds in the global market; everyone happy to haul in the rewards in good times, unwilling to heed the doomsayers.

So here's Canada now seeing its economy still in boom cycle, thanks to consumer confidence. The rise in Canadian retail sales exceeded expectations, in stark contrast to ongoing, worrying weakness in the U.S. system. And this, despite the fall-out from the too-healthy Canadian dollar, resulting in a downturn in Canadian exports to its biggest trading partner, the United States.

The increase in spending in Canada is based broadly across the spectrum of consumer spending; homes and vehicles included; big-ticket and pedestrian spending, both. And that, in the face of gradually rising price increases; still the volume of sales is rocketing ahead. Whereas, in the United States, consumer confidence has plunged to a five-year low. Inflation, job losses, the real estate market collapse; less spending, more worry.

Of course Canada isn't immune to succumbing to a reflection of the economic situation in the U.S. We still might begin that sad and sorry plummet, even if short-lived, before recovery. But for the time being, new jobs are still being opened up in Canada; employment rates are robust, opposed to American anxieties over eroding job prospects, and a fairly bleak, short-range future.

Thanks to the collapse of the sub-prime-rate mortgage market starting that downward spiral, investors are nervous across all debt markets. Asset mark-downs makes no one exuberant about the future. Value slips away, leaving empty hands, nervous tics. It's said that about $200-billion world wide (we're a global economy, remember) has evaporated.

Although the true figure may be even higher; an estimated credit loss of $460-billion closer to the mark, according to disclosure of figures from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. It's not just residential mortgage losses, but commercial as well, hitting the skids. Credit-card loans, auto loans, commercial and industrial lending, the pain is widespread.

Wow, isn't Canada fortunate. Really fortunate. For the time being, in any event.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Winter Day

Yes, I know, the calendar insists we've passed the Spring Equinox, which makes it nominally, a spring day. But believe me, in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, it is still a winter day. An exquisitely beautiful winter day, but winter nonetheless.

The temperature unable to nudge close enough to the freezing mark to real comfort, but the clear sky and the resurgent warmth of an early spring sun helps immeasurably. Slightly offset by a persistent wind.

Our 6' and 8'-ft-high banks of snow are undiminished. The rooftops are still loftily crusted with snow; how can any of it melt when night-time temperatures descend to an average of minus-15, before edging up again at mid-day toward freezing?

The days not yet sufficiently warm to encourage sap running in the trees. So it'll be a late, later-than-normal run for maple sugar. The orchards are still waist-deep in snow; the depth of the snow, and its early initiation, we're informed, have combined to ensure that the ground hasn't frozen this winter, as would normally be the case.

When milder temperatures do arise, as they most surely will, the melt will be fast, feeding the roots of the trees, and making a good year for maple sugar production.

Just after seven this morning, wandering downstairs to let our miniature poodle out for the first pee of the day, my husband peered through the glass of the front door and there espied a pair of robins. Poor things, they're precipitate. Must be the same pair that has returned three years in a row of springs, perched beside the Sargentii crabs, settling for sparse sustenance.

Later, meandering through the ravine we heard the loud rough caw of a raven, annoyed crows after the larger bird. Too cold, it appears, for any of the resident squirrels, black, grey or red, to be out of their nests, running about. The trails are narrowly defined, icy and awkward to negotiate.

Although the creek in the ravine is now running freely, when we drive, a few hours afterward, on the Eastern Parkway alongside the Ottawa River, it became clear milder temperatures would be required to melt the thick ice encasing the river, although winter fishers have removed their ice huts in expectation of an earlier melt.

On our way, we pass all those landmarks: the property of the Governor General at Rideau Hall, the French Embassy, the British High Commission official residence, the residence of the Prime Minister, the Japanese, the Kuwaiti embassies, the Peace Memorial, the National Gallery. Close by Byward Market we park the car, load up our two little dogs into their shoulder bags and prepare to embark on our shopping expedition.

Directly beside the car sit two homeless men. They are hunkered down on a low-level window sill. Just down from where we've parked is the Mission, whose grounds are full of homeless men, standing about, sitting, talking together listlessly. These two are grim looking as unsheltered people look; unkempt, bearded, unhappy. Spare change? they ask.

My husband puts the requisite coins in the parking meter, then walks over to the men and places a $5 bill in the overturned wool cap. They thank him effusively. One offers to shake his hand. That courtesy done with, the other smiles up at my husband, pacifically. Have a Happy Easter, they tell us. We're Jews, we say, not yet moving on.

At which the younger one, about 40ish, to the other's 60ish, brightens and asks if we'd like to hear a joke. Sure, we say, laughter is good, everyone should be prepared to laugh, even at themselves. So, he leads, how was copper wire invented? Beats me, I say, how? Use your imagination, he says: think of two Jews pulling at a copper coin.

We laugh. Who wouldn't?

Or, I offer, two Scots. The older one beams, and adds helpfully: or two Irish. He's Irish, he tells us. We all laugh together. Have a happy holiday, the younger one calls after us, whatever your god is.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Reading Pleasures

What a sublime pleasure it is to read a good book. I simply cannot imagine a life without reading materials. There are people who will read just about anything, just for the sheer pleasure of reading. And it's true there is so much outstandingly good reading material to be had. Through a public library, through personal acquisition. A lifetime of reading has equipped me in many ways to understand the world better, appreciate it more, and in the process to be a better person.

For the fact is, a skilled writer can introduce a reader to worlds unknown, taking us to exotic places we can only imagine, not quite understood. Reading about far-off places brings us close to understanding what motivates people in surroundings unlike our own, what brings them satisfaction and pleasure, and it also teaches the reader that simple satisfactions and pleasures will suffice in a world where the excesses of opportunities that North Americans and Europeans are accustomed to, are not present.

With so many possibilities in reading materials by accomplished, sensitive and skilled writers available to us, we should never be in a position to lack reading material. Material from the classics to the present, in every category imaginable, although it is to novels that most people seem to gravitate. They bring drama into our lives; we're able to view the lives of others, feel compassion for them, and regret, and hope, because we're invested in them through the reading medium.

One can only wonder at the phenomenon of "best sellers", publications that receive wild acclaim from the reading public, titles that demand talk time on radio and television interviews; publicists and other "best selling" authors endorsing them as must-reads, incomparable adventures in literature. Which invariably turn out to be false leads, advertised trash, execrable writing in a soup of unrealized plot and value.

They are literature's failures; pop-culture writers, mediocre and miserable. These authors are incapable of that profound insight into human nature, the world that surrounds us. They are unable to devise the magic of a story well told, in settings pedestrian or unusual. Not for them is it possible to explain through insightful dialogue and descriptive settings insights into intimate relations between people.

Those runaway best sellers such as "The Da Vinci Code", and "The Celestine Prophecy", books that so captured the paltry and pathetic imagination of the public at large that copies flew off booksellers' shelves as fast as they could be stocked are exemplars of these failures. Publishers' advertising, talk show word-of-mouth endorsements, and cocktail party chit-chat to prove that one was au currant with the latest and the best "literature" that came on the market made their authors wealthy.

How to compare that transitory trash reliant not on excellence of imaginative drawing in of the reader, or exquisite prose and graceful plots with outstanding metaphors all drawn upon in the interests of sketching for readers' imaginations the drama that is life outlined by a skillful and talented writer. Books by acclaimed writers of outstanding creative ability whose prose withstands the test of time, whose realization of characters deftly drawn and situations in which their principals find themselves touching the wellspring of compassion in all of us.

Outstandingly enchanting novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, whose writing demands the reader's rapt attention, as he deftly fleshes out character and circumstance, history, drama, peoples' quirks, pettiness and self-absorption, their need for approbation and affection. Or Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, again a historical time piece of tender realization of our human foibles and failures, hopes and outcomes.

And then there is always Umberto Eco; his book The Island of the Day Before, a fantasist's dream, an introduction to life on so many planes of experience and growth of personality as the figures he introduces introduce themselves in turn and educate and entrance the reader, bringing us wholly into the legend of a time and place not here nor there.

This is literature of the highest order. Not the trash that passes off as good writing, that deflates the reader's expectations and disappoints in its empty premise and disappointed promise.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Made In Mainland China

Say what you will about goods and merchandise manufactured in China. When the manufacturer has high enough standards the resulting product is sturdy, robust, well made in accordance with its design specifications. I have, sitting before me, a bright little object that is responsible for many hours of entertainment. It's a little fount of pleasure, used on occasion to brighten a few moments when one has an urge to while away a few idle bits of time.

Its name is Q20. Translated as '20 questions'. That's the number of questions this intelligent little device will sling at you before drawing an informed conclusion, and guessing exactly what you had in mind when tasking it with guessing what you had chosen for it to draw on its artificial intelligence resources to respond to. Each of your responses, urged by the succeeding questions lobbed by the Q20, helps it to draw its correct conclusion.

And invariably, the answer concluding the little ritual of challenge-and-response, does turn out to be amazingly correct. If, on the rare occasion, this little gem offers a wrong answer, it will attempt again to ponder, asking another five questions to re-orient its thinking cap and proffer another response - invariably correct. It's a wondrous little toy, Canadian-invented, honed further by allowing Internet-practise-use at its web site, before the toy was ready for market.

The initial production run was a success, and yet a failure. The reason being that the little Q20 was so accurate, there were no wrong answers, causing its users some disgruntlement. The inventors had to resort to dumbing it down a bit, so users might occasionally have the triumph of receiving a wrong response. Even so, the cocky little thing would dare you to have another go.

When, after you've responded to the correct answer that yes, it was right, it virtually leaps with joy, poking fun at you, trilling, "was that the best you could do?" in challenging its intelligence. Throughout the 20-question course before arriving at the solution, it will fling little taunts across its slender screen: "think you're so smart, don't you?".

Even occasionally, admitting "You win!", only to immediately retort "Just Kidding!" and cheekily dance the letters up and down in a working parody of a child in glee. When you initiate the process, you're first asked the category: animal, vegetable, mineral or other. After that first selection, the game is set to go and a series of rapid-fire but thoughtful questions ensue. With a slight pause between each response, as though your little pet-mind is carefully weighing the import of the answer.

Your answers to these keen series of questions fall into the categories of "no", "yes", "unknown" or "sometimes". Even when, on occasion, you might let an inaccurate response slip by in your haste to answer, clever little Q20 will come up with the correct answer. It is deliberately confounding, mischievous, clever, challenging, a treat for anyone's restless mind; an almost-companion.

I've had this little piece of entertainment for a few years. We originally bought one for our granddaughter, to help entertain her, just incidentally improve her reading speed, and increase her knowledge base. She's been through several of them by now, after about four years of use. And I have my own, that she can use when she visits. I hadn't used mine for over a year, but this afternoon picked it up and gave it a bit of a run.

I'd been reading the newspapers, and selected a few random words out of various news items. Most of the topics I'd selected in the past fell under the categories of "animal" or "vegetable". I had a series of four objects this time that all fell under "mineral". And, one after the other, my witty little Q20 guessed them all with stunning accuracy: "hand grenade", "tank", helicopter", and "shovel".

It's encased in a thick, slick plastic exterior, in bright colours of either red or purple. It's the size of a flattened baseball, round but not deep. Fitting comfortably into your palm, resting on the hell of your hand. The sound can be controlled - it beeps and hums along in short little bursts of tonal activity - and its response rate can be accelerated or decelerated. Little buttons of response-to-queries are set in a row just below the text screen.

It demands respect for its resourceful management of intelligence, its ability to sort data and synthesize toward an awesomely accurate conclusion. This is a thinking toy, an impudent little source of fun.

Developed in Canada. Manufactured in China. Priced relatively modestly at roughly $25(Cdn)

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Confusing Happiness With Satisfaction

Or, on the other hand, confusing the term "happiness" with the consequences of responding to a sense of social obligation. In the final analysis, perhaps happiness and personal satisfaction are one and the same thing. Still, I'd go for a broader interpretation, in that happiness is inclusive of and responds to personal satisfaction. And one's adherence to a sense of social obligation is part and parcel of that larger emotional state.

You must, after all, respect yourself. And being an individual with no sense of social responsibility, no sense of obligation toward others, bespeaks an absence of character. It's not that we have to be preoccupied with the constant thought of the needs of others, and our need to respond to those of others. But somewhere in there, in our comprehension of what it means to be a social animal, there must be a realization that as goes the world, so go we.

We should, as fully-rounded human beings be responsive to the plight and the needs of others. As much as is humanly possible. Not everyone is material to completely undertake a personal sacrifice to a higher calling of looking after others' needs. But each and every one of us does have a inner need to respond at least minimally, as much as we can, toward a contribution benefiting everyone.

So when appeals become public, to give aid and support to the needy, or to an improvement for society, we respond. Because we would like to respect ourselves, to view ourselves in kind regard. Ignoring such appeals relates to an innate lack of social conscience. And that is the purview of that element of society which is regarded as incapable of caring for others; sociopaths.

Little wonder then, that a study undertaken by a Canadian psychologist reveals that people who spend money on others are happier with themselves. Whether it's becoming involved as a volunteer to help others, or giving part of one's disposable income to charities, or simply spending money to buy gifts for other people, generosity of spirit is exhibited.

We're all the better for it. Money can't buy happiness, although it can pay for decisions that lead to satisfaction with one's life. Generosity is a nice antidote to greed.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Sense of Community

Isn't it quite wonderful to live in a community where you feel accepted, feel an integral part of that community? We like to think, in Canada, that we represent a large community of immigrant populations, absorbed into the whole, welcoming the opportunity to be a part of the Canadian social experience. Canada has, after all, so much to offer, in its freedoms, its assurances of equality, its egalitarian social enterprise.

True, the two founding populations are often suspicious of one another, often on tenterhooks about perceived grudges which should have long ago been laid to rest. With one community grumbling over the entitlements of the other taking away from their own. In a sense it's like a family with two siblings in the stages of emerging adulthood, competing for their parents' attention, struggling to achieve parental approval for their singular ambitions.

That's on the macro level, where there is also a humanly-natural challenge between the provinces for attention and approval and larger slices of the national economic advantage. But at the micro level, where we live, in our cities with their own very particular and nuanced characteristics, we develop a deep sense of belonging and satisfaction. We develop a sense of allegiance to what is most familiar and dear to us.

This is our city, we belong here. This is the street we live on, the neighbourhood in which our street is located; it has a certain flair, a characteristic personality unique to it, comprised of a particular demographic, reflective of background, culture, ethnicity. And all those differences merge and converge and become a large accepting whole. Except, sometimes that isn't exactly what happens.

Sometimes something else emerges; social alienation between solitudes. Between ethnic, cultural, religious traditions and backgrounds, and then those who adhere to those particularities prefer to maintain an aloofness, an apartness, to preserve what they hold dear, eschewing contact with others whose backgrounds don't quite relate, and an uneasy truce results.

Imagine walking down the street you live on and not greeting with some degree of familiarity neighbours who have lived on that same street as long as you have, and whose faces have become as familiar to you as those of your friends and family. Cities develop certain traits reflective of their inhabitants. There are 'friendly' places and there are detached places, where indeed one passes others deliberately avoiding contact.

An amazing incident occurred in Toronto last week. A man, on a public transit conveyance, sat beside another, younger man. Making eye contact, the man seating himself thought it a civil act to greet the other. Which took the younger man aback, and causing him to feel insulted that a complete stranger, someone he had never seen before, had the unmitigated temerity to greet him as though he knew him.

Expressing his annoyance, his simmering anger to the stranger, an apology was elicited, and repeated. Imagine, apologizing for being friendly. What kind of social alienation could explain this? That it exists quite beggars belief in social civility. It staggers the civil imagination. Each and every day in encountering a stranger as I move about the place I live in, I offer a greeting to complete strangers. Most often, but not always, they reciprocate, and we move on.

In the incident in Toronto, when the offending stranger exited the bus at his stop, the offended stranger followed him. At some point he stood before the innocent stranger and demanded to know why he had greeted him, at which point the man apologized yet again. And to emphasize his point, his aggravation at the insult of familiarity, he pulled out a knife and stabbed the friendly stranger, thrice.

Then swiftly exited the scene. What kind of emotional monster is that?

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Intolerable Suffering

How dreadfully vulnerable people are. We know of the critical conditions under which people live and suffer in undeveloped countries, in countries where security and safety is absent, where food and shelter are inadequate, where health care is absent, where people - including orphaned or abandoned children - live on the streets in squalid conditions contradicting the least requirements of survival.

Somehow, people endure, they struggle, they hope for the best.

So how to explain the contrast between those dreadful living conditions and those that such privileged people as we are - living without fear of exposure to deadly tropical diseases, without fear of arbitrary arrest, or the danger inherent in living where law and order is unknown, living without adequate shelter, potable water, nutritious food - succumbing to anomalous phobias severely detracting from the quality of our lives.

Or is it rather that people recognize opportunities to enrich themselves at the expense of others and seek litigation in the hopes that the court system will award them untold riches as a result of truly absurd claims. Take, for example, the case of a man living in Windsor, Ontario. A hair salon owner by trade, Waddah Mustapha has appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada to hear his case.

He had originally been awarded the princely sum of $341,775 in 2005 by a Superior Court Justice who found that Mr. Mustapha had suffered "recognizable psychological injury". For Mr. Mustapha, poor man, had discovered the presence of a dead fly in an unopened bottle of water, in 2001. The bottle remained unopened, Mr. Mustapha did not partake of the water, but, he said, he did throw up at the disgusting spectacle.

And that life-altering experience which so adversely affected this poor man that he lost interest in life, lost his sex drive, compelled him to sue the bottler, Culligan of Canada, for mental distress. Alas, Culligan appealed. Consequently, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the decision in Mr. Mustapha's favour, in 2006. Adding insult to injury the Appeal Court awarded Culligan $30,000 in appeal court costs.

Life is so dauntingly unfair. For Mr. Mustapha had, in his original appeal to the court, testified that he had, upon seeing that dastardly fly, vomited he could not sleep or shower, and experienced great difficulty carrying on his business. Might it be possible that Mr. Mustapha somewhere along the road in life developed a phobia for working at his livelihood to economically sustain himself?

It defies logic that the Supreme Court of Canada would entertain a law suit of such egregious frivolity, eating up precious court time to satisfy the warped sense of entitlement of a pathetic case such as this lunacy represents.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Act In Haste, Repent At Leisure

The rather costly entitlements endowed to Heather Mills through her brief but productive marriage to Sir Paul McCartney demonstrate quite a number of truths. Not the least of which is that lonely men accustomed to having a loving woman around to comfort them are more than a little susceptible to the sweet blandishments of conniving women who can recognize opportunity when they meet it.

Mr. McCartney was like Muhammad meeting the mountain, but in his instance, it was a volcano he encountered, without recognizing its propensity to blow inordinate steam from its over-heated interior from time to time. There are nice men and there are nice, even-tempered women who may deserve each other's company, and then there are trustingly nice men incapable of peering beneath the veneer of some women whose temperaments may be quite unsuitable for long-term marital prospects.

They met, courted, married, and a child ensued. That same trite old story of coupledom throughout the ages. Along with the many failures that trip along so casually to break solemn vows. There are some women so consumed with their sense of entitlement that no placatory, emotion-filled promises and behaviours will suffice to still the tiger in them. These are also the women whose rage, when sufficiently irked, conspires to satisfy the beast within by shrill abuse and sharp violence. That's the distaff side.

On the spear side, there are those super-charged males so enamoured of their sexual prowess in the endless chase of bedding as many prey as possible that they're incapable of monogamy even though they may agree to live within the bonds of matrimony while prowling on the side. Which isn't quite as grievous as those men whose jealous streak of what they believe they own, entitles them to feel they're only doing what the situation requires when they batter their partner.

This pair was a clear mismatch. And now Ms. Mills can return to her original passion; defence of the defenceless, as a spokesperson for animal rights. They, at least, won't turn on her, and she won't mind that they remain ignorant of her work on their behalf, sliding about on ice floes, clutching baby seals to her bosom, them scurrying away in horror as a mother seal does its animal excoriation of human encroachment.

Sir Paul was a famed member of a world-renowned entertainment unit. He was handsomely recompensed for his talented performances, reaped adoration as a world-class celebrity, and was knighted in recognition of his part in adding lustre to British pride. A wealthy individual, a talented performer, purportedly a very nice person. A woman younger than he, caught on the rebound of mourning for his longtime wife and partner shared a brief few years with him, and bore a child.

And when their differences were identified as irreconcilable, she refused his gently generous offer of a $36-million settlement, opting instead for a more munificent $250-million. Final court adjudication resulted in a settlement of some $50-million, a sizeable fortune which will enable her to pick up where she left off, and in a style to which she has accustomed herself. Yet this ignobly greedy individual with an abusive temperament decries the fact that her ex-husband will pay a mere $70-thousand yearly to the upkeep of their daughter.

This is a sum beyond which most families can only hope to live with. Yet, Ms. Mills sneers that Mr. McCartney will travel in first-class style on his wealth, while feeling that it's good enough for their daughter to travel second-class on a mere $70-thousand a year. As though the $50-million settlement she has received is insufficient to spare a little toward the luxurious upkeep she imagines their child is entitled to.

All is well, however; she speaks of their parting as having been 'amicable'. Despite that Mr. McCartney had, inconceivably, locked her out of "every home" and had refused her access to joint bank accounts.

One can only hope he fully comprehends how fortunate he is to have been released from her constant close and malevolent presence in his life.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

She Enthuses

Can there be anyone more enthusiastic than an eleven-year-old girl who has discovered the pleasures of life? Can there be anyone more pleased than a seventy-one-year-old grandmother whom her granddaughter represents as the brightest hope for the future?

We saw her daily, her grandfather and I, for the first nine years of her life, when she lived close by and we represented her workaday home care. Her mother would drive her over to our home early in the morning, and we would take things from there.

Before she could walk we would haul her for hour-long walks in the ravine close to our house, fitting her nicely into a backpack that I would hoist onto my back and we'd explore the wooded ravine. Then we'd come home in time for an eight o'clock breakfast.

When she was nine her mother moved to a location rather more remote from us and that ended our daily togetherness. Now, when we want to see her and her mother we take an hour-long drive to where their home is, on the edge of the Canadian shield, a natural setting beautiful beyond compare.

On special occasions like March break, or during the summer months when school is out, she comes along for three-day mid-week stay-overs. Last summer she brought along a girlfriend who stayed over with her. We all enjoyed our closeness together.

Earlier this month we picked her up at her mother's place of employment in downtown Ottawa, then brought her back with us, had breakfast together, and began a three-day course of grandparent-granddaughter integration. Nothing exciting.

We asked, was she interested in seeing a film at a theatre? No thanks. How about one of the museums, galleries, you name it...? Thanks, but maybe not. She was happy and satisfied to share our normal daytime activities with us.

We'd ordered a set of books for her through Amazon.com, and she was happy with those, and prepared to spend her spare time reading. Not once did the television set get clicked on. We did view a film with her one evening, an old film we'd once bought and seen ourselves about 40 years earlier, "Jason and the Argonauts".

I thought the technical features of the clashing rocks, the giant mechanical monsters, the golden fleece-protected hydra, its skeletal offspring might frighten her. She laughed through the production, thought the sight of the Greek gods looking down on the mortals below Mount Olympus cool stuff.

She helped me to make the yeast dough for doughnuts, took one large knob of fresh dough and played "catch" with it while we finished off the doughnuts by dipping them into melted chocolate. We baked chocolate chip cookies and almond bread slices. She's inordinately concerned with food.

No sooner were we through with breakfast - and for her a hefty one consisting of a sectioned orange or grapefruit, banana, scrambled eggs, (she enjoys doing her own eggs, then slathering them with tomato catsup) toast, Nutella - than she'd brightly ask, what's for lunch.

We had our daily ravine walks, with her and our two little dogs. We took her to Winners to select some clothing, but she managed to find only two tops of interest to her, refusing to look any further. She's not particularly acquisitive. Although she did love the huge pink fluffy rabbit we'd bought to surprise her with, and which she clutched in bed beside her at night.

We went along to a large area bookstore another afternoon, because she was going through the books we'd got for her so quickly we felt she could use some refills. She found two books she wanted, "Holes", and "Indigo Blue", and I made a few additional selections for teen-age girls, for her.

Her grandfather tried to interest her in classic books by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Vern, Charles G.D. Roberts, but she wouldn't bite. We don't really care, as long as she's reading, as long as she has the book bug in her, and she does.

She's back home again with her mother. She usually telephones us after four in the afternoon, when she gets home from school. And we talk, and discuss the plots of the latest books she's reading, and what's happened at school, and her admiration for one of her classmates who adores books and reads much faster than she does herself.

She's only eleven, but already possessed of common sense, a surprising amount of wisdom for a child. She's observant, has an inbred sense of right and wrong, of justice. But then, that was pointed out to us about her many years ago, by one of her teachers. It's what enables her to get along so well with others.

What more could loving grandparents ask for in a grandchild?

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Snowbound

Despite the hugely deep and wonderfully white blanket of daily-renewed snow all about us in this nation's capital - or perhaps because of it - we fully understand and revel in our selves as citizens of that great frozen North - Canada. This is, we're told, an "old-fashioned" winter, the likes of which we haven't seen for many a year. We can recall winters of waist-deep snow on our lawns, and having to carefully make our way through downtown streets too laden with fresh snow for municipal crews to adequately remove.

Of plodding our way down the street to catch the express bus downtown to work, and wondering where we would be able to jump to in safety, off the bus at bus stops that hadn't yet been cleared away. Of attempting to walk along snow-bumpy, and ice-laden streets, trying to make our way home after a long day at work, with the sun setting and sending dark shadows everywhere about us. Our winters of late have been more of a tepid variety; nowhere near as much snow, with tardy spring washing it quickly away.

This winter is something else again. Looking across at our backyard neighbours' back lawns from the height of our raised deck, I see a sea of undulating white, with low-rise decks, swimming pools, bushes and trees completely engulfed, swallowed by that great maw of white. And turning my gaze higher, roofs well mantled in a thick layer of snow, beginning to slump as it curves from the heat of the mid-March sun, toward the edges, over the eaves.

And early mornings, letting our little dogs out to the back for their first release of the day, waiting awhile before sliding the doors shut, happy to hear the nightingale-sweet song of a cardinal perched high in the trees at the corner of the lot. That's one side of this winter. The other being the sheer weight of all that snow bearing down on roofs built to a sloppier code, and those roofs collapsing monumentally upon whatever lies below.

A week ago a young family with father, mother and two infants barely escaped their bungalow, alerted by a strange groaning sound from above. Then watching, mouth agape, as the roof of their home fell into a space it had no business intruding upon; the walls holding it up sliding apart, and the house standing there finally, awry, bewildered at its strange alteration. The young family lives temporarily now in the home of a relative.

In Ottawa also, parking garage roofs have collapsed. Schools have been evacuated while the sturdiness of their snow-compromised roofs are being assessed. Last week the roof of a riding arena outside Smiths Falls collapsed; most of the horses escaped, two died. Several days later in Morin Heights, Quebec, the roof of a food warehouse collapsed, killing three women. Seniors residences, shopping centres, sports arenas, have been emptied temporarily.

Today, in Shawinigan, a woman and child made it to safety as the roof of their house collapsed from the snow-weight. A 52-year-old male resident was less fortunate. There is great uncertainty being expressed about the safety of people in these extreme conditions. Warehouse stores like WalMart with their flat roofs, are taking precautions, sending employees up on to the roofs with shovels, cautioning them to take care in shovelling.

As for us, we stood aside yesterday as a large Caterpillar tractor tussled mightily with a build-up of snow preventing the melt from coursing into catch-basins; the tractor like an enraged beast, clawing the ice and snow from the roadbed, and shoving, shoving it up and over and beyond the road. Finally, we were able to clamber our way over the collected snowbank, into the ravine for our walk, to tread there in a narrow defile, newfallen snow elaborating the branches of trees.

Today we did a similar clamber, under clear skies and an energetic wind. Miraculously, the trail has somehow been widened; we guess snowboarding kids, people on snowshoes, a stray rhinoceros, who knows? We're grateful for the ease with which we are now able to trundle down the long hill into the ravine proper. Yesterday's tender new snowfall is almost gone from the trees; the wind now and again lifts what remains and hurls it to the ground.

The occasional fist-sized snowpuff falls directly upon us from above. And 'above' isn't quite what it used to be; branches that were formerly high above now protrude at eye level and pose a problem as we proceed over the deep layered snow trail. Occasionally, the wind nudges a deep layer of snow off a branch, and it falls luxuriantly, a windfall, a shower of light flakes of snow, dispersing languorously, like ghostly ectoplasm.

Crows gather noisily atop a copse of pine trees. Resting, cawing, rising from the steeples, carried by the air currents, returning to the trees. When we on occasion pass others out with their dogs there is hardly room to pass, coming abreast, taking care to place boots, mindful of the depths to which they'll sink, treading incautiously off the beaten track. There are deep, very deep imprints where others have sunk precipitously, stepping aside too hastily off the trail.

The ravine bridges are so completely engulfed by successive snowfalls, we find ourselves treading across their lengths at an absurd height. Where normally the bridge rails reach to chest or shoulder height, they're now at ankle height. As for the wood-slat benches scattered here and there, they are no longer there; disappeared, sunk deep in snow apathy. No place now for a weary traveller to rest, they must forge on. Not that we ever availed ourselves of them, in any event. Just marvelling at their disappearing act.

Turning a corner, there, at eye level, a thrumming Hairy woodpecker, on an elm. The elms are hard put to survive, so many of them, mature and immature have gradually succumbed to Dutch Elm disease. The Pileated woodpecker has been extraordinarily busy of late. Gaping and raw holes of recent vintage are seen here and there on otherwise-healthy-looking trunks of pine and spruce, the white snow below littered with long splinters of wood.

Roofs on our street are overhung with melting snow. Deeply piled up there, contorted, cantilevered in peculiar shapes, hanging over the eaves. They present as a problem, lest they spontaneously - as they most certainly will, eventually - slide in a heavy goopy drift on unwary passersby, or homeowners, below.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Unsuitable for Public Office

There we go again, allegations laid against Ottawa mayor, Larry O'Brien, already facing legal action for behaviour unbecoming a candidate for public office. This blowhard of a businessman turned politician already faces charges of illegally offering an opponent for the office of mayor a hefty $30,000 bribe to opt out of the electoral race, and portraying himself as having influence at the federal level which would result in a plum job offering.

An Ontario Provincial Police investigation resulted in charges being laid against Mayor Larry O'Brien, and the case is set to go to trial in the spring of 2009.

Mr. O'Brien insists he is innocent of all charges, and has refused to step down from public office. Amazingly, although he ruffled feathers, both among the city's elected councillors and the staff at city hall, there does not appear to be a backlash, with detractors insisting that he take a leave of absence until the trial has established his guilt or innocence.

After a number of stumbling false starts Mr. O'Brien appears to have firmly established himself among his colleagues with some credibility respecting his attention to mayoral duties.

This glad-handing, super-confident, egotistical man does have his supporters, those for whom facade is sufficient to carry the day, but the simple fact remains that this man, despite his protestations to the contrary, has engaged in under-handed tactics which might work in the business world, but have no place in politics, unless we're willing to accept mild corruption, working its way into the system, and becoming systemic and of a more serious nature.

Now another "allegation" of an ethical lapse in conduct has been revealed, with a contractor coming forward with a complaint of having been lobbied by Mayor O'Brien's ex-wife to contribute a donation toward the mayor's legal expenses. The contractor had been successful in obtaining a $1-million contract with the city. Doesn't this coincidence strike generally as being suspect? How would the mayor's ex-wife even know of such contracts?

Why would she undertake to lend herself on her husband's behalf to such a shady manoeuvre?
The underlying and seemingly obvious context is that anyone awarded such a sizeable city contract should be prepared to hand out funds in gratitude (graft) in support of the mayor. Implicit in the technique is a form of economic blackmail: for continued consideration of city contracts, make the right impression, and you're in.

The mayor claims to have spoken with his wife, and having received assurances from her that no such incident ever occurred. Why, then, would a contractor doing business with the city come forward with such a claim? Certainly the Ottawa police chief takes it seriously; he has handed it on for further examination to the Ontario Provincial Police. It's a serious lapse of ethics, even if it can be overlooked as just a slight stink, legally.

It's past time for Ottawa's ethics-challenged City Hall to welcome the appointment of an integrity commissioner, something they've already voted against. As long as municipal politicians feel confident in their ability to refrain from behaving unethically, while at the same time seeing nothing amiss in accepting gifts from influential business interests in the city, taxpayers will not feel comfortable in trusting the choices, commitment and values they represent.

We need a lobbyist register, a clear and concise conflict-of-interest code, and the appointment of an integrity commissioner. Clearly.


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Friday, March 14, 2008

Church and State

In Canada, as elsewhere in countries across the world that have accepted the necessity to govern in a secular democratic style, the importance of religion to many people is a noted given, while the place of government in legislating laws and administering the affairs of the country is placed without the sphere of religion. It's clear that most people adhere to one religion or another to varying degrees, and the course that society takes owes much to the behavioural dictates of religion, but to a degree.

The fabric of society in western democracies comprises an amalgam of society's prevailing values, values which are shaped by our experiences and our growing ability to recognize that changing times require a slight shift, from time to time, in our perceptions of what is permissible - and the great and clear moral and ethical expectations that religion places before us as givens. So while we're informed to a great extent by religious values, our society is not dominated by them.

Consequently there are occasional clashes between what becomes a societal norm of acceptance and what many religions will not permit their adherents to acquiesce to. The acceptability within most western democracies of the legitimacy of women's claims to ownership of their bodies and the need, should they so deem it, to dispose of a pregnancy is one such awkward, but almost universally recognized value that orthodox religion finds repugnant.

All human life has value, and most religions claim that life begins at conception. But most men and women accept that life begins at birth; an incipient human life of undifferentiated cells, coalescing and maturing to produce a viable human life, upon exiting the birth canal. It is upon birth that most secular societies recognize the emerging baby as a human life, in direct contrast to, for example, the position of the Catholic Church. Women fought long and hard for the right within their society to view abortion as a legal medical right.

And within countries such as Canada, there is both a tacit recognition of that right, and a legal one, however vague it seems at times, and however contested by some segments of society it remains. Canada's federal legislators have reached a consensus about the legality under the Constitution of women's rights to seek abortions, and that abortions are seen as a legal medical procedure, available upon request, despite ongoing dispute about the status of the foetus; the procedure seen by some as infanticide.

But while the Parliament of Canada has acceded to the reality of the present day and the equality under the law of women's rights and expectations, the Catholic Church in Canada remains in a state of denial, rigidly maintaining that abortion represents a crime against humanity. A position led by the Vatican and embraced by many of its followers. In Ottawa, the nation's capital, the new Catholic archbishop, like his predecessor, has declared sanctions against any federal members of parliament who support abortion.

Politicians who support access to abortion in Canada will, according to Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, be refused communion. This is not a new situation; it is a repeat of an earlier declaration, uttered years ago, by an earlier archbishop of the Ottawa diocese. That declaration did nothing years ago, to encourage members of parliament - including two Roman Catholic prime ministers - to evade their responsibilities to their constituents, half of them women.

Nor will it prove to be a successful ploy at interference in the affairs of governance this time around. Not that staunch supporters of women's right to obtain abortions haven't suffered repercussions as a result of their determination to support that right. There are some members of parliament who have quietly described horrific experiences with their local parishes. Some have also been denied communion within the Catholic Church for their support of same-sex marriage.

It isn't pleasant to feel ostracized because of an unpopular position, one that elected MPs take in fairness to their social-political obligations to those who cast ballots. Yet Catholic MPs who have responded to Archbishop Prendergast's demands that they respect their commitments to their church dogma, have been divided in opinion; some feeling it is incumbent upon them as practising and believing Catholics to honour the position of the Church; others naming it as a form of religious blackmail.

The church, devoted to millennia-respected and -honoured precepts of their orthodoxy, will do as their most elevated prelate instructs them to. Politicians have an obligation to those whom they serve to reflect their needs and their reasonable wishes, in accordance with the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

After The Storm

Yesterday we assiduously cleared away the 18 cm of snow that had fallen the night before, knowing full well that there was little choice. Truth was, if we didn't, despite that snow kept falling, there simply would be no space in which to throw all the incoming snow. Besides which, the sheer volume of all that new snow falling on top of what we'd already received would simply be too overwhelming.

For us to shovel, for our snow throwing machine to grapple with. Since we were anticipating another 35 cm of snow, perhaps more. Which is why, throughout the day, we ventured out on a number of occasions to try to keep abreast of the growing volumes, to disperse them, as best we could, to make "room" for what kept falling. When I went out at five o'clock to clear the pathways in the back for our little dogs, it wasn't exactly unpleasant; far from it.

The cold air was bracing, the wind whipping the light new snow about was beautiful, and the transformation of what was a familiar landscape into something out of a winter's-fable was exhilarating, beautiful to behold. It felt good to hoist the wide, flat winter shovel, to push the snow off the deck, off the deck stairs, and along the pathways.

And then to grab the shovel and swoosh it high over the piles of snow on either sides of the pathways. Whose height already quite surpassed my own. Our winter garden so thickly embroidered in white has quite submerged our garden statuary, most of our bushes, and the snow has accumulated to rise halfway up our fruit trees, completely absorbing the main trunks.

Our beautiful little octagonal garden shed has a shimmering white cone on its roof that is now equal to the height of the shed itself. When I stand on one of the pathways I'm entirely enclosed on either side by six-foot high white 'fences'. When we came downstairs first thing this morning, we marvelled at the snow canyon that had absorbed the front walk up to our porch.

No one could possibly have struggled through the overnight snow-depth of the driveway, and then to turn on to our path leading to the porch and the front door. It would be like attempting to wade through oatmeal. Ergo: no Sunday morning newspaper. But then, we had anticipated that. Now, that's hard to take; no morning newspaper. It's an extraordinary situation, but then, this latest winter storm was itself extraordinary.

And this morning, after breakfast, when my husband proceeded to clear the snow out of the driveway, it was a struggle to even get beyond the lip of the garage. We'd already noted that the municipal snow plough had been through the street and deposited into the end of each driveway along its route, a formidable amount of crushed snow and ice. Guaranteed to present maximum difficulty in removing it and clearing the drive.

By the time he got out there, our neighbour, Mustapha, from across the street had already managed to clear out his drive, and he insisted on joining his larger, newer snow thrower to our golden oldie, to clear the initial plough-tossed snowbank. An hour or so later, when my husband had finally cleared the drive and the front walkways, making his way toward the back, I was confronted with a bit of a startle.

Making my way upstairs to clean the bathrooms there, I glanced out the glassed front door to see another neighbour, Dave, from down the street, shovelling the snow off our porch, which my husband hadn't yet got around to. Dave said that his neighbour, Andre, had cleared out Dave's driveway with his snow thrower, and Dave thought he'd just do little things like this, for neighbours, with his shovel.

Besides which, he wanted to tell me that his wife died a few days ago at the Kingston farmhouse. The upstairs tenants were there, with her, when she died. She'd been seriously ill for a long time, and had been an alcoholic for an even longer time. They'd been estranged for years, and he was left to raise their four children. Only the youngest is still left at home with him, the others have departed to serve their adulthood elsewhere.

It helped, he said, to keep busy. So he wouldn't have to think about it too much. No big surprise; they all knew it was coming. She died of natural causes; her body too worn, to abused, too compromised to work for her any longer. Good thing, he said, he'd taken their eldest daughter along just a week earlier to speak with her mother for the last time, and sort things out in her mind.

Later, wondering what was keeping my husband so long, I espied him at the front, end of the driveway. I'd earlier watched from our bedroom window as he attempted to push the snow thrower through the backyard, to the end of that pathway that leads to our composters. The snow piled in front of the machine, although we had cleared it time and again yesterday, was waist high, and presented as too much of an obstacle for the snow thrower.

I watched from above, as he dug the snow thrower out from the snowpack, first the sides, then the front, and finally he was able to urge the mechanical beast forward to complete its mission. Now, there he was, ostensibly cleaning the chute of the snow thrower, but in reality having a nice chat with Mohinder and Ineren, discussing the state of the street and its residents, so many of whom go out of their way to be neighbours.

We'll have a bit of a break today. The sun will break through tentatively, then the skies will cloud over again. And we'll be able to enjoy a few light snow flurries for the balance of the day.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Saving Grace of Snow

This has been a winter, in this region, to embark us steadily upon a snowy path to breaking all previous years' record volumes of snowfalls. From November on through to March - and likely into April as well, snow events have been constant, unrelenting. Three out of every four days have covered us with some vestiges of snow, from light flurries to redundantly-fulsome snow dumps. Streets have been narrowed as never quite before, with piled-up snowbanks.

Where lawns and gardens once were, reside huge billowy snow comforters under which our spring bulbs and hardy perennials patiently wait their time of awakening. The refulgent beauty of a fresh snowfall is always fresh, as though our minds and memories are incapable of capturing our wonder at witnessing that vast, blank whiteness, and each year's witness amazes us anew. Children leap with joy into freshly piled snowbanks.

Skiers, snowshoers, tobogganers, all chafe for the opportunity to slide down snow's contours, embankments and steep descents. It's rather less celebrated by those whose childhood has been left far behind, and those for whom daily commutes to a workplace become complicated by dire road conditions left in the wake of these many snowstorms, replete with ice pellets and freezing rain conditions.

But thank heavens for the generous helping of snow we have received this year. It has saved lives. In Montreal, a single mother of seven young children awoke during the night - night before last - to the realization that her home was on fire. All but one of the children were on the second floor with her, sleeping. A four-year-old child slept on the first floor, and that child made her own way out of the home, with serious burns.

The mother managed, with the strength of a mother's desperation to save the lives of her children, to drop all of the other six children, aged ten and under, out of a second-story bedroom window, onto the snow below. They wore only underwear, but were unharmed, and noise-alerted neighbours scooped them up and brought them inside, before firefighters arrived.

The mother, suffering from burns, as well as her four-year-old child, are being treated in hospital. But the age ten-to-two siblings, three boys, four girls, will live to see their futures. And their fiercely determined mother, who herself refused to jump until she was assured that all her children were accounted for, will live to watch over them as they grow into their futures.

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The Storm

It slid silently in on white-webby feet of faint flakes of snow, swirling about lackadaisically as though pretending there was no intention on nature's part to sling yet another big one at us. After yesterday's ravine walk in the wake of the latest foot-high deposit of snow, we were out doing the weekly food shopping, just preparing to leave for home when the first few innocent flakes began to appear.

And they steadily increased, as we knew would happen; else why would there be a winter storm-watch alert? Nature is clever in disguising her intent, but all those climatologists who have so long studied her feints and gestures are quite capable of discerning what she has in store for us. Aided in no little shade by news coming from south of our border, where our neighbours have been subjected to earlier incarnations of this very storm now assembling overhead.

Waking up halfway through the night our bedroom was illuminated as though by day; the brightness of the steadily falling snow turning night into day. By the time we awoke in the morning there was yet another thick and fluffy layer that required attention before we could encourage our little dogs to have a round in the backyard. It took an hour to shovel the deck, the deck stairs, and all the interconnecting little trails we maintain for their ease of movement.

And then, suddenly, during breakfast, the snow stopped. Just like that. The sky was still that bright pewter where, when you look up to the roofs of houses burdened with snow, you cannot tell where the snow leaves off and the sky begins. Opportunity to get out the snow thrower and clear off the driveway to make room for what we know will most certainly fall in the succeeding hours.

And yes, two hours later the snow began anew, this time thickly, heavily intent on recapturing ground lost to the war of the shovels. The winds, we're warned, will be picking up, blowing up to 70kmh by nightfall, and people are being warned to stay off the roads. We slipped out briefly to pick up some bubbly, then glad to be back home, since road conditions are not good and the snowfall is steadily increasing.

Thankful we are of the comfort of a house that is our home, surrounded by all those items that make a home the comfort that it is. We are guarded against the excesses of the elements. Under these circumstances, no thought given to assaying our way into the ravine, just now. Conditions simply too inclement for two little dogs, although we'd manage.

There are other opportunities we can take advantage of. Not only enjoying a few more hours of reading than we can normally rely upon, but other things too. My husband is downstairs in his basement workshop, putting together yet another stained glass window. For my part I was busy with our two little woolly-mammoth miniatures, giving them long overdue haircuts. Much to their dismay, and our satisfaction.

Nice to know there's no compelling reason for us to venture out into this amble-averse weather. We'll have more than enough opportunity in the next few days to admire the snow-laden trees in the ravine - that is if the blasting winds of the storm don't succeed in ravishing the boughs of their crystalline bounty. Meanwhile, looking out our windows, there is a thick white veil over the landscape.

There'll be increasing white-outs as the day progresses into nightfall. Families briefly escaping our environment for March break have been arriving at the airport only to discover that their flights have been cancelled. We've been through all this before. It's always fresh and new, though.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

The Lull Before

After breakfast this morning when Button and Riley went out for the second time to have a walk-about the backyard, we heard the clear, bell-like trill of a cardinal. And soon saw not one, but a pair, male and female, at the top of a neighbour's tree adjacent the back corner of our yard. The male a bright scarlet, the female dun-brown with a bright red beak, and both handsomely crowned. Ah, spring but a few weeks away.

Yesterday we had to scramble over mounds of piled-up snow to access the trailhead to the ravine. There to discover that no one had yet broken trail, though it was by then mid-afternoon. A lovely day it was, with mild temperatures, just under the freezing mark, and the sun peeking out from scudding clouds time and again. We carried our little dogs, meaning to deposit them once we accessed the trails.

Every step we took sunk a foot deep into the new snow. Not possible to set them down; the snow would completely engulf them. We descended the first long hill into the ravine nonetheless, thinking the main trails would have been traversed, surely. But no, they had not. And clearly, progress was not possible for us and there would be no point for us to struggle onward any further, since we would be unable to have Button and Riley take their ravine walk as usual.

Today, though, it was a different story. Milder yet even than yesterday, but overcast. Not even a hint of wind. Once we surmounted the initial obstacles we could see that there had been others out, besides ourselves in our failed attempt of yesterday. And, gaining the top of the first hill, there was a decidedly cleared, albeit extremely narrow trail. We deposited our little dogs and away we all went. Crows flew overhead, cawing coarsely.

A cardinal sang as we proceeded, from somewhere close by. Chickadees were happily engaged in flitting about the trees, still laden, albeit lightly, from the previous day's snowfall. Wind and warm weather allied with the sun to melt much of the snow from deciduous branches, though it clung yet to evergreens. A wonderfully bright landscape, undulating and softly white, that my camera captured here and there as we proceeded.

Footing was a bit of a problem, since the trail hadn't been flattened, merely pocked here and there by earlier treading trail walkers. Walk too close to the edge of the trail and you're stuck, deeply, in a clasping embrace that can suck your boot off your foot. We're conscious of walking at a height we're not accustomed to. Evident as we traverse the bridges, as the rail tops now come to our hips' height whilst they're normally at chest level.

It's a bit tough going, given the circumstances, but we're truly happy to be out, and able to mount our usual circuit. Button, with her longer legs, is sprightly and delighted, taking odd little rushes back and forth. Riley, as is his habit, plods stodgily along; very little activates his interest to the extent that he'll pick up considerable speed. We extend our circuit, wanting to be out there for as long as possible.

Environment Canada's climatologists have already issued a storm warning for this evening, over into tomorrow and beyond. More, much, much more, on the way.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

What A Dreadful Book: The Da Vinci Code

A truly awful book deserves a review reflecting on its awfulness and also how exactly it is that despite its lack of literary merit it has received such great public acclaim as to have become a best seller. True, it also engendered more than one book's share of criticism, as some discerning reviewers did point out its lamentable lacks, but the more the book was criticized, the more a vast readership appeared to laud its merits as a wonderful piece of literature.

Having read all the furore over the book, and feeling slightly curious, though not sufficiently so to avail myself of a copy, I let the matter rest, until a few weeks back when I came across a second-hand copy while perusing the offerings at our local Sally Ann. At $.99, I figured I wouldn't be sacrificing much to assuage my curiosity. Now I understand I paid $.99 too much to do just that. I'm no longer curious about the contents of "The Da Vinci Code", but I remain curious why so many readers found it a compelling read.

I suppose it's a little like the visual arts, when people attending an art gallery will stand back and enthuse about the "message" contained in a non-representational abstract artwork for which the gallery paid out an obscene sum to the genius who created it. As a work of artistic merit, an object of beauty, a reflection of the high arts that human creativity can attain to, it may be highly lacking, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder - or, in such instances, the apprehension of those informed how they should react lest they reveal the Philistine within.

Some writer looks for a winning formula. Tacitly acknowledging to himself that he's incapable of innate literary creativity; he must recognize those elements that attract a large popular readership if he is to produce a work that pays for the effort and lends him credibility and a measure of fame as a writer. Some would call that formulaic writing; isolate the types of events that draw human curiosity, consolidate them and you have a winning formula.

Of course it helps immeasurably to have a publisher as interested in enriching themselves as the writer is in lining his bank account handsomely. Advertising and public relations can do wonders, for people are so given to believing what they read. We are trusting beyond limits. Always hopeful. Gullible, even. And that's not entirely a bad thing. But we should also be prepared to use our singular perceptions of quality, exercise some intelligent discrimination in our own defence.

Even when there is more than a slight whiff of plagiarism, because, after all, inspiration - for those devoid of authentic creativity - must come from someplace. So in this particular instance the formula becomes a combination of mysticism, scholarship, religion, esoteric artistic and religious cross-references, glamorous locations, violence, fascistic and secretive religious cells, mystery, and erotic symbolism. Isn't that a winner?

That this stew is contained within a crockpot of tepid prose allied with a clumsy introduction to factoids certain to fascinate a vast readership easily led to confuse fiction with fact, pseudo art and cultural expertise to intrigue the uninformed makes for a palatable guise of acceptability. Aided and abetted by the clever titillation of those who welcome the belief that religion is the bedfellow of arcane sexual gymnastics.

(Let's face it, people do need cocktail party circuit small talk, and to boast of having read and appreciated the latest, greatest offerings of the literary world becomes a social leg-up.)

The gross manipulations of character, and their awkwardly sketched characteristics, allied with pathetically amateurish nudges about self-flagellating seekers of salvation, and sabotage in the name of religion, clunk and clatter from one chapter to another, drawing the reader forward through the sheer force of frustrated annoyance. The inevitably thrill-intentioned depictions of sinister intent within the Catholic Church obviously meant to engage the frenzied attention of conspiracy theorists.

Posing as a literate piece of fiction purporting to factuality this is the badly written product of an untalented hack who manufactured a leaden tale of intrigue within a facade of scholarship. The emphasis here is on what sells. Hot damn, it did!

What is particularly irritating, is the appearance of all those "acclaims" on the back dust cover of the publication. Gushing commendations written by previous "#1 New York Times best selling authors". Have they no shame? I'm not actually certain which represented a worse travesty of the literary arts, The Da Vinci Code or The Celestine Prophecy, both, however, execrable scribblings by untalented writers.

A useful antidote is always available; to grab a book that does reflect the genius of writerly prose and personal literary values. For me, it's the entry on my night table of Peter Carey's "Oscar and Lucinda", a Booker Prize Winner.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Snow ... Freezing Rain ... Rain ... Sun

Saturday there was so much snow on the ground in the ravine from the overnight snowfall of the night before we could barely shove ourselves through the usual circuit. And didn't, in fact, because we couldn't manage it; just too tough. So we did half a circuit, and ended up feeling as exercised afterward as though we'd done the usual circuit twice over. It was surpassingly beautiful though, all that lovely new snow blanketing the landscape.

We did a whole lot better on Sunday for by then the trails had been well tamped down. Thank heavens for those groups who love to haul through on snowshoes on occasion. Usually snowshoes aren't required in there, and it's rather amusing to see snowshoe devotees doing their thing on tamped-down trails, but Saturday was their day, to be sure. They hailed up hill and down, dogs in tow, infants strapped on their backs and fronts and bravely demonstrated their pioneer instincts.

When we were younger we used to do just that, ourselves. But in an entirely different terrain. Where snow reached amazing depths, and only the wild denizens of the area were to be seen, no other people around for miles. Just us, fearlessly treading in our modified Green Mountain snowshoes, occasionally coming across a deer or two, startled to see us in their neck of the woods. Look up...up...up. There's a huge Snowy owl, what a sight. That was then, this is now, and we restrain ourselves to walking up our residential street to the ravine.

By Sunday then, the trails were friendly once again, and we were able to amble up and down the ravine to our hearts' delight, at temperatures much more kind than the previous week's. We and a host of others from the community. Never before have we seen such throngs; entire families out with their family dog, tramping the ravine trails. And our stupid little Riley snarling at them all; who are they, daring to enter his sacred precincts?

And then, overnight Sunday, hours of freezing rain. By morning our driveway was a broad sheer expanse of shining ice. The freezing rain followed by plain old rain. And then - out came the sun! And so did we, entering the ravine under a sunny sky, yet under the trees it was as though the rain had never stopped. For all the accumulated snow, covered with ice, bringing heavily-laden pine boughs down to ground level, was beginning to melt. And it dripped continually from the trees as we progressed along the trails.

Still, before melting completely, there was the sublime vision of bare twigs and boughs of hardwood trees backlit by the sun, the shining sheath of ice coating them gleaming and glowing surreally.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Snow, And Even More Snow

It's been a banner year for snow. We started in November with colder than normal temperatures and plenty of snowstorms, and haven't looked back since, in a manner of speaking. Oh right; there was a hiatus in early January when the usual January thaw kicked in and huge mounds of snow embarked on a quick-melt, leaving the snowpack compressed and woefully murky looking, but that's a dim memory.

Since then, the cold returned, as did the wind, and with both those elements, snow, and plenty of it. Often; remorselessly frequently. Nice for those of us who appreciate the pristine beauty of newfallen snow on cedars. And pine. And fir. And spruce, yew and junipers and hemlock. There is nothing quite like the faerie landscape of a frigid winter day, sun shining brightly through the branches of a pine laden heavily with snow.

Speaking of which, those self-same pine branches, so heavily laden, are brought down to levels not customary for them; the sheer weight of the snow causing them to bow over the trail. Impeding our progress, lest, thrusting ourselves underneath we invite a fall of snow upon our heads, our shoulders, our little dogs. A quick push of a ski pole does the trick, loosing the snow from overladen branches to fall below, while the newly-released branch itself, now freed of its weight, springs back to height.

Loping along a snow-deep trail and wherever your gaze takes you, abundant vistas of trees, both evergreen and deciduous, winter-draped gracefully in fresh-fallen snow, startling in their frozen loveliness. And when the sun is hidden, as it was today - a lowering pewter ceiling from which continually fell clusters of flakes in the kind of slow-motion snowfall seen in snow-globes - the picture is complete and indescribably wonderful.

It snowed overnight, all night. Leaving about ten cm of snow on top of what we already have accumulated. Accumulations so deep that when we walk along the ravine trails we're standing several feet in elevation as compared to the terrain free of snow mass. And the new snow, falling all about us on that which had already accumulated throughout the night, presents as entrancingly bright, fluffy, and a struggle to traverse.

Our pace is glacial, fitting to the landscape, as we slowly make our way uphill through one ascent after another, in the ravine. Riley, our toy poodle, while game, is really having a hard time of it. The temperature now mild enough that they don't need their boots, at minus-4 C., yet deep enough that despite our having tamped the snow slightly walking before them, he must practically swim through its depths, to proceed.

Button, our miniature poodle, is capable of putting out a greater energy expenditure, as do we, and her long legs take her handily through the deep fluffy snow. Their little faux sheepskin jackets have acquired a soft fluffy burr of snow as we proceed. As have ours. Fortunately, no wind to speak of this day, unlike the previous few days, with far colder temperatures, exacerbated by a stiff wind. It's so still out there; not the remotest sound other than those we quietly impose on the landscape.

Thus far this winter we've experienced about 311 cm of snow, not including last night's. We're told than the month of March normally accounts for about 22% of the total snowfall received annually in the Ottawa Valley. That's a whole lot of snow for this year. The record is still held by the winter of 1070-71, however, when the total plugged in at 368 cm.

Seems as though we're getting there, however.

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