Ruminations

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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Man Proposes, Nature Disposes

China has more than its share of headaches revolving around the Beijing Summer Olympics. Critical attention it would far rather avoid, if it could, from every source imaginable. From its back-treading on its promise for free reportage during the Games, to its obvious inability to control the results of its economic "industrial revolution", to its internal commitment to treating too many of its citizens to abuse.

So sites like Vancouver, which will host the 2010 Winter Games, haven't too much to contend with, in comparison. After all, Canada is a free country, a liberal democracy, a wealthy and developed country. The worst that Vancouver could be accused of is trying to herd away homeless people from key areas during the Olympics, unlike China which summarily disposed of countless homes located in sites meant to highlight future Olympic installations, leaving residents bereft and homeless.

Olympians must wince viscerally every time they allow themselves to anticipate their performance on the world stage, hampered by dreadful air quality impacting on their lungs' capacity to function. A site like Vancouver, with its backdrop of majestic mountain ranges, its clear and clean atmosphere, in a predictable, free and civil environment, will represent a welcome alternative to Beijing.

But danger lurks everywhere. No need to look for Olympics drama, it's there, for nature will have her way in a setting like British Columbia's famed Whistler, the site of the skiing events.
Hundreds of Millions have been spent on re-engineering the Sea-to-Sky corridor from Vancouver to Whistler in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics. It's a magnificent setting, a fabulous backdrop. And it's also one of nature's fragile wonders.

Drive the highway and you see countless warnings to be alert to falling rocks. Look up and you'll notice steel-mesh over the rocks as a cautionary measure, protecting the highway below. The area there is subject to rock slides, simple as that. Just as China has stepped up its plans to temporarily close Beijing down to usual traffic and to have industries cut back on their atmospheric spewing of carbon dioxide and particulate matter, so too does B.C. plan to increase their rock-slide mitigation work close to the Olympics.

There's a continual and ongoing need for the B.C. Ministry of Transportation to ameliorate the situation of continuing rock-slides by slide prevention techniques. Which techniques include pre-emptive blasting of the rockface, rock-bolting, and rock-scaling, where specialized crews knock away loose pieces of rock above the highway. But there's just so much that can be done. Natural geological features have their own agendas. Weather also plays an integral part in the deterioration of rock foundations.

And so, despite the close attention given to safety measures and constant action to ensure no disastrous rock slides occur, they will, anyway. And so it was on Tuesday, at 11:00 p.m. when a massive rockslide occurred, sending down boulders as large as a house in a huge deluge over the highway and a nearby railroad track. A bus plying its usual route made it past the slide as it was occurring, with nothing more disastrous occurring than having some of its back windows smashed.

Police dogs were brought to the scene to sniff out whether there were any people under the huge pile of rocks. Tonnes of rock and debris cover 75 metres of road, piled 10 metres high. It's estimated that between 5,000 and 16,000 cubic metres of debris now litters the highway. As one onlooker observed: "You literally had the face of a mountain drop off the bluff". Awe inspiringly dangerous to the nth degree.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee is adamant - shades of Beijing and their atmospheric problems - that a rock slide, should it occur during the Olympics, would not put the games in jeopardy. According to the the vice-president of services and transportation for the committee, should there be a problem "athletes, officials and the majority of personnel required to stage an Olympic of Paralympic event in Whistler will be housed in the Whistler area so events will proceed on schedule".

Huh? What about all the visitors, the tourists, the spectators, the reporters, the camera crews? There will be a whole lot of helicopters, small airplanes, boats and ferries plying the skies and the seas on that memorable occasion, to be sure. Of course, there's another, alternate highway route that can be taken - putting another 7 hours of travel on the agenda.

Well, in the end, we does the best we can, right?

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Needful Responses

Canada's embrace of refugees from around the world is second to none. This country welcomes emigrants from all manner of ethnic, religious, cultural and national backgrounds.

Offering to newcomers a new life, and hope for the future, often denied them in their countries of origin. Social and financial assistance is part of the package. In the case of refugees from Rwanda, after the tragic misery suffered by majority Tutsis and moderate Hutus through the genocidal attacks, refugees did indeed face their hopes realized when they arrived in Canada.

One such family, the Maliragora family, having arrived in 1997 from a refugee camp in Congo where they had fled to avoid the wide-spread massacre, has now suffered another tragic loss. Their son, who was 16 years of age when he arrived with his family to Canada, has now been deported back to Rwanda.

Remy Maliragora, his father explains, had witnessed horrible atrocities as a young boy, which had the effect of traumatizing him. His traumatic state led him to anti-social activities while in Canada. Resulting in his expulsion at the age of 27. He is an adult, fully capable of decision-making and his decisions have been abysmally awful.

Since reaching the age of majority he has amassed an unenviable police record, has taken it upon himself to join the ranks of street gangs, has been convicted of crimes and spent time behind bars. And then returned to his life of crime. His father pleads for his son, explaining him to have been a victim of circumstances beyond his control.

It can be assumed that his father, his mother and his siblings supported this young man's emotional and practical needs and did their utmost to turn him away from his self-destructive and societal-offensive behaviour. Their efforts obviously were inadequate to his needs. He sloughed off their concern and continued his chosen lifestyle. Racking up a rap sheet that included a number of criminal offences.

The former Rwandan was convicted of robbery, theft, and uttering threats, in 2002. He was given a conditional sentence and two years' probation. But in the period between June 2003 and 2005 he was again convicted of a number of charges that included possession of a stolen vehicle; possession of break-and-enter tools; carrying a concealed weapon; robbery, and uttering threats.

Again, in 2006, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison for assault, uttering threats and a breach of probation. Held in further custody at the behest of the Immigration Board, after having served part of his sentence, he was yet released to an addiction treatment centre in view of his addiction to drugs and alcohol. He represented anything but the potential for an ideal citizen of the country.

He was given opportunity after opportunity to become other than what he chose to be. That he was in dire need of social rehabilitation is beyond doubt. But the simple fact is, the man breached one social and civic and criminal tenet after another. Aid was available to him, and he spurned it. Until the crunch arrived and he realized that he stood in danger of losing his landed immigrant status in Canada.

At which time he made some remedial efforts. In the opinion of immigration Judge Jean-Carle Hudon, Remy Maliragora's tardy expressions of remorse were simply that; too late, too redolent of self-serving abasement to serve his own end. "The facts are that he continued to offend regularly since 2002"; and "he did not stay within the ambit of his family support network ... frequented people known as organized street gangs ... no hesitation to use violence when required."

His appeal, under the circumstances, that he had found "religion" and was ready to turn his life around was given short shrift. His anguished family's further appeals on his behalf fell on sympathetic but resolutely-determined ears that meant to rid the country of yet another social deviant. It's sad beyond words, but can only be described as just.

One opportunity after another simply squandered, ignored, devalued. He will now have the opportunity to save what is left of his life - and as a young man the potential is huge, and up to him - in his native country. Enough, simply is enough.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An Unpalatable Alliance

There's more, far more to the Beijing Olympics than meets the eye. Good for a lot of merchants in the city, with all those tourists anticipated. Good for owners of eating establishments and drinking establishments, for entertainment outlets. They'll most certainly see a substantial increase in their business.

The local fall-out of hordes of sports enthusiasts descending on the host city. A lot of tourist dollars will exchange hands, to the delight of both the purchasers and the purveyors.

And then there are business alliances that perhaps elude the comprehension of the ordinary on-looker.

Can you imagine, a working relationship between a Chinese research arm of government and one of the biggest bottling soft-drink corporations in the world, Coca-Cola Ltd.? A beverage of such universal popularity that the company's income is likely far greater than that of most countries' gross national product.

But there it is, the American company that succeeded in transforming the idea of a pick-up beverage into a national treasure, the giant corporation that employees 90,500 people, linked up last October with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, opening a research centre in Beijing.

Together to discover a new brew that will transform that health-disreputable chemical drink into "the new product for the new millennium".

Coca-Cola is on the prowl, hoping - no, preparing - to launch a revolutionary new product. With that in mind, it is "looking for exotic herbal ingredients to make a completely new drink and sort of revolutionize the whole soft-drink industry", according to Matthew Crabbe, its director of Access Asia.

And look at the market just waiting with bated breath to be baited by its new promise. Imagine 1.3 billion people entranced by the image of their traditional herbal pharmacopoeia enabling the world's largest producer of bottled beverages to finally produce a potable and potentially useful combination of medicine and soft drink.

A Chinese medicinal of ancient lineage combined with the pleasing taste of traditional cocoa leaves and African kola nuts, one that would promise some kind of healing and health properties. To extend and expand its global reach with not merely a recreational beverage of exceptional acceptance, but one that has the potential to heal as it pleases the palate.

Just another bit of entrepreneurship "to exploit the hype surrounding the Beijing Olympics".

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Energy Warriors

Who might have imagined in this tipsy-turvy world that in the battle for the environment in the face of Global Warming and scientific uncertainty whether or not it's truly man-made in its extremities, that the band-aid solutions seen thus far to attempting to slow down spewing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would impact in such an uneven manner as to raise the ire of anti-poverty groups? Well, yes, it could and should have been predicted.

In a sense, it was. The scientific community of environmental experts has warned that low-lying areas of the world will become increasingly susceptible to flooding and even permanent inundation. That already-poor nations will be beset by conditions they will be incapable of dealing with. That agriculture in extreme-weather-vulnerable countries will be direly impacted. That such vulnerable geographic areas will become uninhabitable.

That the already great hordes of migrants, both economic and political, fleeing unstable and dangerous situations, will increase exponentially, becoming a flooding humanitarian burden on the rest of the world. The developed world that will suffer far less, and because of their geographic placement and economies will appear a haven for desperate refugees. It will clearly become the obligation of those who can manage the strain, to welcome as many migrants as feasible.

So much for looking into the future of environmental degradation and its potential impacts. And then there's the present, the current situation where people are being encouraged to muster alternate resources, to carefully determine how they use those resources, and to refrain from unwise choices leading to further environmental degradation. People are travelling less, using less energy.

Governments have turned to the increasing use of biofuels, and wind-generated energy, and solar-generated energy sources. In the process, the higher cost of conventional fossil-fuel sources of energy have impacted dreadfully on production costs, on transport costs, resulting in higher food and other consumables' costs. So while the middle-class has seen a gradual rise in their expenditures for necessities and it is annoying, the poor, with their low, fixed income are in pain.

Amazingly, a coalition of anti-poverty groups in the United States, led by African-American civil rights and faith leaders are targeting the blame at their own legislators, complicit with oil interests, along with "extreme" environmental organizations who are leading the battle against conventional energy sources toward national sustainability. They're urging the abandonment of restriction of "dirty oil" sources, like tar sands.

The new campaign, "Stop The War On The Poor", has its spokespeople explaining "We favour any and every energy source. We do not believe in this artificial game that the radicals play of pitting the so-called bad energy versus good energy. All energy, when prices are as high as they are, which is such a critical resource and the life-blood of a nation's economy and the survival of people, is good energy as far as we're concerned."

And there you have it. Restrictions, they avow, through increasing climate-change legislation in the United States, has caused speculation with the predictable result that oil prices have spiked to levels sufficient to "strangle" the poor. The alliance claims to represent a large cross-section of Americans, the economically disadvantaged from all backgrounds, as well as farmers.

Pointing out that the poor are impacted more than any other segment of society. With far less disposable income, they're forced to make difficult choices between food, fuel, and medicine. All are necessities. Paring down to the barest minimum of what seems increasingly unaffordable in a faltering economy will have a dreadful final impact on the health and well-being of the poor.

America's reliance on "dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive" oil, in the words of Senator Obama, is a predicament he hopes to be able to solve, should he be elected president. But these aren't the words of hope that this coalition of anti-poverty groups want to hear. The alliance plans to "out" environmental extremist groups as well as the politicians that support them, including Nancy Pelosi.

And that includes too, the country's Washington-based Natural resources Defence Council, whose favourite whipping target is oil-sands-derived "dirty" oil. The alliance points out that poor American families spend half of every income dollar on energy as opposed to the five cents of every income dollar spent by the country's middle class. Clearly, a lot of anxious heads have got to come together to iron this one out.

Some accountability required of big-oil interests would go a long way to persuading anti-poverty groups that they're on the wrong track. But one doubts they are. It is U.S. government policy that biofuels are part of the solution, yet figures released by the World Bank concluded that biofuel, low grain inventories related to biofuel production, speculative activity and food export bans have pushed food prices up by 70% to 75%.

Complicating things even further is the weaker American dollar and the whopping half-trillion U.S. treasury deficit wracked up so far this year.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Crabby Codgers - Day Three

The day emerged, at early dawn as sun prevailed, flooding our bedroom with light. Nice. We turned over, and went back to sleep.

Until, as usual, Button jumped down from her place on our orange-velvet-upholstered love seat - a golden-oldie we'd bought almost four decades earlier - and began agitating for breakfast. Ball in mouth as per usual, she begins wheeling about our bed, whining quietly at first, then gradually bringing it up a notch or two until she's obsessively wheedling, loudly imploring us to drag ourselves out of the comfort of our bed.

Riley, who sleeps under the coverlet at the foot of the bed, remains fast asleep, oblivious to the turmoil that grates on our sensibilities. It's more than enough to wake Angelyne, and she pads over from the back bedroom where she sleeps beside her friend Sarah, to see what's up. She knows what's up; she has been long familiar with that particular routine, finds it pretty amusing. Knows it's her opportunity to pack into bed alongside my own recumbent bod.

But it's inevitable, we've got to rouse ourselves, and do. Angie showers, we take the dogs downstairs and let them out into the backyard. Set the table, haul ourselves up to shower, feed the dogs, and Angie then awakens her friend, Sarah. Finally, we're ready to seat ourselves at the breakfast room table. Oranges sectioned for everyone, and bananas. I've prepared piquant Johnson's breakfast sausages, and blueberry pancakes for breakfast.

And once Sarah has finished in the shower, I gather their soiled clothing along with ours for the week and start the laundry. Cognizant of the fact that their stuff has got to be laundered and dried well before they begin packing their cases, since we're taking them downtown at mid-day to transfer them to the care of Angie's mother, who will drive them home once her working day has been completed, in another hour's time, just before the rush-hour begins.

We take advantage of the still-relatively-early time and embark on our usual ravine walk. I grab a digital camera before we leave, determined to have enough photographs out of this visit that I can peruse on occasion when I want to remember not to urge Angie too strenuously to bring a friend along with her.

The girls walk well ahead of us through the ravine, giggling and occasionally knitting arms together. Again, Sarah snaps off a lily and twists it behind her ear. She's decided not to wear her boots, has flip-flops on instead and is doing a remarkably good job of avoiding the large slimy puddles atop the trail, stretching from side to side. It becomes a game with the girls, to see who can leap the furthest.

Back at the house again, we decide it's as good a time as any to continue song selections and get back on the LimeWire program so the girls can get serious about their choices, and at the same time give me the opportunity to download them onto their iPods. This is serious business, after all; they rely on their little musical pets for constant entertainment.

I assure Angelyne that I'm capable of downloading a few songs from the list she has left with me, five pages in number, about 20 to a page, over time. As I rush from clothes dryer to computer. Hauling out the dried clothing, folding it, separating theirs from ours, hauling their little piles upstairs to be packed, and noting how the downloads are proceeding.

I leave them, wrestling on the double bed upstairs, while I prepare their lunch. Fact is, Angie has dispatched me, reminded me of what grandmas are supposed to do, and she's hungry, frankly. As I walk down the hall toward the stairs I fling back at her the comment that I'll really miss her tart little imperatives once she's gone back home again.

I'm sure I hear a startled "Huh?" from my darling granddaughter.

In the kitchen I thickly grate Yukon gold potatoes and onions, and heat a flying pan with extra-virgin olive oil. I take two salmon steaks out of the freezer, drizzle them with lemon juice, butter, pepper and garlic powder. It's started to rain lightly, so I'll just broil them on the counter-top oven. And I put together a small fresh salad of lettuce, grape tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, and baby cucumbers. They'll have what's left of the cherries for dessert.

Later, cleaning up the dishes at the kitchen sink, a few cherry stones whizz by my ear and land somewhere on the floor. It's a dark-blue ceramic floor and I can't see where they've landed. They'll turn up, eventually; no doubt when I dry-mop the floor this evening. Unless someone steps on them and goes sliding in the interim... They've packed though, and they're ready to go, and so are we.

The incessant back-seat chatter resumes, sarcastic, world-weary commentary on everything we pass, everyone they happen to espie on our 20-minute trip downtown enervates us. We will so very much miss their bright, insouciant presence, the dear little things....

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Crabby Codgers - Day Two

We slept the sleep of the minimally exhausted; maximum would arrive a night later. All that unburdened energy sweeping through the house with the transitory introduction of two young girls. Somewhat overwhelming for a pair of co-dependents who have gone through life together, sharing its vicissitudes, and on the way the shining moments and those of despair. Should have prepared us for anything, one would think. What whiners.

Angie was up first; not quite at the crack of dawn, but early enough. She read in bed from 7:00 to 8:00, when she heard Button complaining about our lazy bones still abed, when she urgently required her breakfast. In crept Angie, as we cracked open our sleep-fuzzed eyes to regard her hesitant entry. Seeing we were really awake, she availed herself of the opportunity to leap into our bed, beside me.

Cuddling, even with grandparents, is still important at this stage of life. When, she asked, should she awaken Sarah? Not yet, I replied. Wait until we've showered and breakfast is ready. She whispered in my ear "Sarah rocks from side to side as she sleeps, but she doesn't wake up". Off she went to shower, while we let Button and Riley out into the backyard for their first evacuation of the day. Routine; nothing like it for the day's reassuring commencement.

Breakfast was a repeat of the day before, replete with grapefruit, banana, eggs and bacon, coffee and toast, with honey and jam to spread on the toast; a lingering and very relaxed affair. And yes, the girls said, they had slept well. They were, in fact, raring to go. At the suggestion we might hazard the inauspicious weather forecast and go off for a hike to Gatineau Park, their raring-enthusiasm came to a stuttering halt.

I suffered a mild panic attack - what to do with these perpetual-motion machines - then firmly re-stated the Gatineau Park venture, transforming it from an invitation to an unequivocal statement of intent, surreptitiously watching shoulders droop in resigned acquiescence. Still, once they accepted we'd be going, they co-operated very nicely, dressed appropriate to the mission, and we were off.

Stopped at a Wendy's on the way, to pick up two chicken Caesar salads to tuck into the cooler in the trunk. Which already held a large container of cranberry-orange juice. Lunch would be partaken in a lovely natural, out-door setting. That salad was Angie's favourite take-out food, and Sarah had said she doesn't eat greasy foods; the salad was perfect for her. Our drive wasn't long, well under an hour.

Angie is familiar with Gatineau Park, we've taken her there since she was a baby. The venue was a new one for Sarah; she hadn't ever heard of it. How that's even remotely possible for someone living in the Ottawa Valley is beyond us, but then we don't know everything, either. The heavy clouds didn't relent, and I cringed inwardly, envisioning our getting caught out on the trail a good hour-and-a-half's distance on either side, from shelter.

But it was a warm, muggy day, and even if it rained it wouldn't be a disaster. I could have hauled along rain jackets for everyone in a backpack, but decided against it. Living dangerously. And in fact, once we got up there and embarked on the trail, Sarah seemed determined to do just that. If there was a log, she would straddle it; a huge rock, she would leap onto it; a running brook, she would leap over it. (What if she fell, hurt her arm - omigod?)

Angie did just about everything Sarah did. We ventured a mild caution, but chose not to emphasize it, since they're surely old enough to decide how to comport themselves in the deep woods with so many enticing and moderately challenging geological features to test their balance, agility and strength upon. So we concentrated on our little dogs, and took photographs and enjoyed the day.

No flying pests to annoy us, and although the cloud cover remained, there were no cloudbursts - something we were inordinately grateful for. When we finally approached the huge tunnel to take us onto another portion of the trail, Sarah scrambled determinedly over it, to sit at the top, unsettling detritus that fell on our heads as we emerged. Across from the tunnel a stony ridge rose implacably perpendicular.

Reminding me of the time we'd seen a young couple years ago, at this juncture in the hike. About 18 or 20, the young man decided to scramble uphill, and the girl, watching helplessly at first, finally followed him, clumsily unhappily. We left them to scramble uphill to their hearts' delight, and wandered off up the trail, imagining the scenario following that would inform the young lady she hadn't, after all, that many interests in common with the young man.

And here was Sarah, doing the very same thing. Sarah, with her frail arm, moving heavily from side to side, throwing her weight at the immovable wall of stone, dirt, bushes and trees, grasping with her good arm what she could to allow her to achieve a greater height. We said nothing, and Angie chose not to follow her friend's example this time. It didn't take too long for Sarah to decide it wasn't that good an idea, after all, and she soon returned to the fold.

Finally, at the parking lot, we liberated their lunch from the cooler in the trunk. A mere few yards would take us to the perimeter of the small lake below, with its lovely wooden pier where we could sit on long benches and peer out below at the bullfrogs, tadpoles and endless schools of tiny fish. No, they'd prefer not; they'd eat their lunch beside the car, sitting on top of a low fence. Their call.

We began to chat animatedly ourselves, with a few older men who appeared also to have completed a hike in the woods, joined soon afterward by their two female companions. Amazing how perfect strangers can find so much of common interest to engage in a lively conversation. We concluded that lengthy chat just about the same time the girls finished their lunch.

Sarah had declined to use the two packets of dressing that came with her salad. Sensibly having her fresh vegetables fresh. Angie happily used her two packets of dressing, and Sarah's as well; four in all, dribbled over her salad. Wise Sarah, improvident Angie; I was certain she would feel ill from having drenched her salad so liberally, but no. Truly, that child has a lead-lined stomach.

The drive home was another lively affair, with the two girls rollicking with laughter in the back seat. Poor Button, I thought, stuck in the back seat with the girls; good thing she's gone deaf. We weren't deaf, but the roar from back there did promise some potential deleterious impact on our hearing, should it go on much longer. We stopped at a Giant Tiger store, Sarah's purported favourite shopping venue.

The girls were encouraged to look around at the offerings on display. If they found an article of clothing they liked, it would be a gift from us. Not my favourite place to shop, but I bought a pound of really fresh strawberries, a ten-pound bag of Yukon Gold potatoes, and a pair of gardening gloves, badly needed. As for the girls, they each selected a top for themselves, after much searching, comparing, and critical analysis.

Back home again, we agreed it was as good a time as any to try to download the songs they had selected yesterday to their iPods. Trouble was, I couldn't figure out how to do it. No iPod icon appeared. The usual sequence is to turn on the computer, plug in the device, at which point the computer would recognize it, and up would pop the iPod. No such thing. I tried everything I could think of, to no useful avail.

As my frustration mounted, the girls' high spirits began to grate on my patience. I telephoned a neighbour, asked if their son could come along and bail me out. I'd done the same for them in reverse, so I was calling in my return-favour. When Imran arrived, he explained that somehow the computer just didn't adequately recognize the device; he shut down the computer, plugged in the iPod, then turned the computer back on.

Voila! there was the elusive little icon. Imran then handily took me through the download process. Where, he asked did I get the songs from? He was horror-struck when I told him. Why, he asked plaintively, would you do that? Pay for them? Just a minute, he said, and he slipped off back home and brought me back a software program that would enable us to take our pick of music from LimeWire.

Instead of really paying attention throughout this learning procedure, the girls were busy giggling and poking one another, and generally carrying on as though their intention was to persuade Imran, a young boy some years older than they are, that they're joining the happy lunatic society. I became slightly more than a little irritated with our granddaughter. By that time I was feeling a bit of stress because of the time.

It was late, I had to feed the dogs, had to put dinner together for us, and here I was, mired down in this ridiculous situation attempting to procure music for the two unhelpful girls. I thanked Imran effusively, mumbled quietly to him how grateful I would be when the girls would finally assume some vestige of human behaviour again. He offered to take me through the process again, to ensure I had it down right.

And he sat patiently with Angelyne and Sarah afterward, helping them to select the music they wanted, before finally leaving to have his own dinner. Taking his father, Mohindar, with him. Mohindar, our dear good neighbour, had ambled alongside his son, so he could schmooze with Irving in the living room. And then I frantically got dinner moving. Fed the dogs, chopped up vegetables, grated cheese, filled corn tortillas and put them in the oven.

Later, as I cleaned up the mess in the kitchen, the girls took a nice long and relaxed amble in the neighbourhood. Telling us afterward of their engaging little adventures. Calling out to someone driving by in a car that his vehicle was really "cool". Engaging in conversation with some man who had been walking behind them, having got off a bus en route to his home, after work. My head was beginning to pound.

I was ever so glad to see them drift gradually upstairs, into bed. After they had regaled me sufficiently, while I was attempting to read the newspapers, of their rollicking adventures.
Up there, they could expound, criticize, giggle to the happy conclusion of sleep finally overtaking them. And we could finally relax. A bit of rare solitude.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Crabby Codgers - Day One


We fed Button and Riley, showered, packed tetra packs of orange juice and small bags of cherries for each of the girls and left for downtown. A very short drive, despite rush hour. Took a bit to find a parking spot, and then we had problems connecting with our daughter; she wasn't responding to her cell phone. Finally, we met up, collected the girls and their luggage, and set off on the return route.

The girls were excited and happy; an adventure before them. We hadn't met Sarah previously and were surprised at her appearance. A tall girl, a half-head taller than our granddaughter, but then, a full year separates them. She's also a very broad girl, surprisingly overweight for thirteen, but with a beautiful face; blue-green eyes, long silky auburn hair, and a finely shaped mouth.

They chattered in the backseat, while we pointed out places of interest in our passage through that part of the city en route to the Eastern Parkway. The Parliament buildings, Chateau Laurier, the wonderfully sculpted "Maman" spider with her cache of marble eggs, before the National Gallery - to which Sarah commented: "Ugh".

Then followed the Royal Mint, the Peace Monument, the Saudi embassy, the Agha Khan's new building, the Foreign Affairs building and the National Research Council, the Rideau Falls and the French Embassy. Oh, and the Governor General's residence. Outside the gates, the GG's footguards in distinctive red garb; their tall beaver hats. To this, Sarah exclaimed "cool!".

When we arrived home it was busy work preparing a late breakfast of half-grapefruit, chicken bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. This was a new one for us; heretofore Angelyne had always been a tea drinker - following her customary cup of breakfast cocoa. But 13-year-old Sarah claimed she drinks coffee at home, and 12-year-old Angie said "me too!".

The girls were famished and behaved accordingly. Throughout, pleasant, polite conversation. Then we were off to the ravine for a walk, everyone wearing hiking boots after the admonition to have a care in there; the trails had been muddy for some time, given all the rain we've been having. They skipped ahead, downhill and traversing the bridges, then uphill.

Plucking already-turned-and-fallen bright red poplar leaves to admire the colour. And at one point, Sarah availing herself of a freshly-blooming lily someone had planted alongside the trail. She tucked it neatly behind one ear, and the bright orange against her auburn hair intensified her prettiness. She resembled a Tahitian beauty, painted by Gauguin.

Climbing the penultimate rise, Sarah did not follow Angie's example, which was to carefully pick her way among the roots at the side of the trail to gain a secure footing along the slickly-wet clay rise, but instead took a running upward initiative, dead centre, and quickly slid back down, twisting on her backside, her jeans taking the worst of the reverse journey. Never mind, I consoled her, we'd clean up at home.

After washing up the dogs' paws, Sarah's jeans were next, in the basin of the laundry room; her shorts hung up on the rail of the deck, to dry. And off we went to visit our local Chapters book store to ensure the two avid readers - small mercies - had sufficient reading material for the next few days and beyond. I gave each girl a $20 bill, and encouraged them to look around - especially the offerings on the sales tables.

Angie selected three teen novels, at a sale price, and Sarah a single hard-back, at regular price. When we left, we topped off the cost of the books, extending somewhat beyond their limits. They had a swiftly-prepared late lunch of tuna salad sandwiches on croissants, and raspberries for dessert.

Then we decamped upstairs to the computer because Angie was anxious to have some songs down-loaded onto the iPod her grandfather had injudiciously agreed to buy for her, some two weeks previously. First off, to access the Apple site, then download iTunes and set up the beginning of a music library. We've got dial-up service and just left the business to cook.

The girls made the decision in which bedroom they wanted to sleep. They would share the same bedroom, they decided. Two single beds. Out came the linen, and they helped to prepare the beds for sleep. Downstairs they tripped, out to the backyard where they sat on the glider, swinging happily, turning their attention to word puzzles.

Upstairs again later, the software downloaded, we turned to the offerings in the categories they were interested in and which represent anything but listenable music to my aged ears. Together they decided on thirteen selections at $.99 a pop, and then began the time-consuming tedium of downloading the selections. With dial-up, it took four hours; I finally went off line at 1:30 a.m.

For dinner, Sarah thought she would like the same T-bone steak that Angie's grandfather was having, and I decided for a chicken breast which was also Angie's selection. Meaning that dinner was Irving's job primarily. I pre-prepared the potatoes, sliced them, and he pan-fried them on the gas range alongside the barbecue, while I cooked corn on the cob on the stove.

During dinner, Sarah regaled us with tales of her family. Her grandfather lived in a house beside theirs, right at the lake. Her "crazy" uncle Norman - really her grandfather's brother - lived there too, in sight of their house, and she feared him, he was so mean and unpredictable. Her brother, Michael, was a nasty little brute, two years her senior. His reputation at school outlasted his presence and unhappily prepared the teachers for his younger sibling.

Her parents were in the business of landscaping and worked very long hours. She looks just like her mother; her father has a riotous sense of humour. He built a really nice doghouse for their Labrador Retriever, designating it as Sarah's future home, once she turns 18. Her parents both drive large tractors in the winter months, to plow driveways. Once, her father snowed her mother's tractor in completely, and sat there laughing as his furious wife struggled to free herself.

Angie, fascinated with food, has the appetite of a Stevedore. Sarah, quite appreciating her food is a daintier consumer, her appetite considerably less voracious than Angie's. Perhaps she's conscious that her body doesn't burn calories as efficiently as Angie's metabolism does. A factor of inheritance; the genes have it all. Angie has two helpings of marble ice cream.

During dinner also, Sarah informs us of another inheritance she has; the misfortune of a birth gone awry, where her arm was somehow pulled awkwardly, to the extent that she has had to undergo a number of operations to ensure functionality. But, she says, she has been forewarned by the neurologist who examines her at the Children's Hospital monthly, that she can expect to lose that arm. Perhaps sooner than later.

A year ago, she said, she still had eight functional nerves in that arm. She's down to three now. No, she assures us, there isn't much that can be done for her. She takes medication, and she sees a therapist. We hardly know what to say, how to reassure her; fact is we can't reassure her, knowing nothing about her predicament, other than what she tells us, and we're not medical authorities in any event.

She wants a tattoo, she goes on, but her mother tells her over her dead body. Or she can make the decision when she turns eighteen. The girls retire to the family room while I clean up, having obligingly taken their dinner plates to the kitchen sink. They sit there, rollicking with teen-age laughter, comparing notes on something or other. They're late going to bed.

I've reminded Sarah a few times not to forget to telephone her mother, she might want to hear from her, be reassured of her well-being, in a strange home. Sarah agrees, but doesn't call home though she has a cell-phone. They finally get in bed, and luxuriate there, rolling about, talking excitedly.

Who knew teen-age girls had so much to talk about, so incessantly, so urgently?

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Cranky Old Codgers

We more or less collapsed, afterward. From mental exhaustion more than physical, actually. The house was so still, so tranquil without the inescapable shrieks that had so currently surrounded us in the presence of two young girls. Is there anything quite like the self-absorption of the young? All the more so when they're girls, tweens and teens, and they have the freedom to bounce off one another - or so they feel.

Ours is a large house. We've three floors of living space. For relaxing, or fooling about; on the second floor there's the library where two girls can get comfortable on a loveseat, watch television, read books, play computer games, and/or chat happily together about everything that assails their interests. On the ground floor they have the choice of the living room or the family room to settle down together, tussle and tease and comment to their hearts' delight.

And on the basement level there's a study and there's also another, larger room fitted out for quiet recreation or any other reasonable pursuits; each of those rooms have comfortable plush chairs or loveseats. And plenty of bookshelves, well stocked with magazines, books, and board games. And oh yes, since it's summer, there's our lovely gardens, front and back, where stone benches and wrought-iron armchairs invite one's posterior to sit and reflect.

Not to mention the glider on the deck in the backyard, especially appreciated by young girls for its gliding motion, where they can sit on cushy supports and tattle all they wish - not in our immediate hearing. Fact is, we'd rather not hear their incessant, catty comments about mutual friends for whom they evidently share some contempt. Bad enough we're virtual prisoners in the car, when their back-seat commentary critical of all and sundry gives us massive headaches.

So with all that room in a generous-sized house, why wouldn't they choose to discreetly sequester themselves, have their fun-and-raucous-gossip cloches in rooms other than where we're relaxing, trying to read, or to conduct an adult conversation? What's the allure of having it all hang out in the presence of two grey-haired old codgers? When those two weary oldsters, having devoted the better part of the day to ferrying them about for their entertainment, really need some down-time.

What's the problem, you might query, it was only for a three-day period. True, but three days of intensive exposure to a twelve- and a thirteen-year old is enough to try the patience of any brace of 71-year-olds, however well intentioned they may be. The idea being to give the girls a bit of a summer break, away from home for a few days in a completely other atmosphere than that they're familiar with. Our idea, not theirs, mea culpa.

In which pursuit we took them hither and yon, but obviously insufficiently yon and hither. They weren't interested in going along to the local wave pool, nor were they interested in taking in a film at a local theatre. We thought for certain they'd be eager to see a film say, like WALL-e. We would. They thought otherwise. So we decided to just proceed as we normally would, and after a rip-roaring breakfast, would haul them off with us for a ravine walk.

Then take them to some place like Chapters, because both girls are avid readers. Alternately take them to Winners so they could look about and select something they'd like to add to their wardrobes. Also up to Gatineau Park one afternoon for a hike in the woods up there, just off the McKenzie King Estates; an old experience for our granddaughter, an entirely new one for her friend. Pointing out all the places of rubber-necking interest on the way, as well.

We were enchanted at first with our granddaughter's girlfriend, a fresh-faced thirteen-year-old who had been a classmate of hers, in a mixed grades 6-7 class. She has blue-green eyes, silky long hair, a lovely mouth that's capable of a truly cherubic smile. She's taller by a half-head than our twelve-year-old granddaughter, which would take her height to exactly my husband's, so she towers over me.

A sensible, sensitive young lady. Except that the saccharine brightness that we found so engaging at first became more than a trifle cloying over the space of the three days we were in constant exposure to one another. The iteration and then reiterations of "ewww, he's soo keoote!" referring to our toy poodle. And that liltingly coy "owww, then queu!" that was so initially attractive, then deteriorated to gratingly insincere.

But it was the constant allusions to the perceived faults of other people, whether they represented school chums or distant relatives, or even people they'd see walking about their business in the downtown areas, as we drove past toward our destination, their loud exclamations of "cool" or dismal rejections of "losers" resounding in our ears that deadened us to their coupled charm.

So what's the matter with us, anyway, two cranky old codgers, incapable of admiring and delighting in the presence of two alert, alive and very normal girls...?


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Saturday, July 19, 2008

18 June, 2008 - Day Eight

When Irving got up at 5:00 a.m. for the bathroom, there was Angie, seated in the living room on that awful futon, reading. She was unable to fall back to sleep, she said. We certainly did, and found later that she had, too, finally gone back to bed to sleep again until 7:00 a.m. Then it was a rapid-fire series of showers, dog feeding, last-minute packing and getting everything stuffed in and atop the car.

And off we went. We'd had our week away. Angelyne had experienced her first big adventure away from home for a full week. Her uncle in Vancouver had expressed his interest in flying her down to visit with him, but she felt apprehensive about being so far away from home, about flying. She has inherited her mother's surprising reluctance to become a fearless adventurer.

Her familiarity and comfort with her grandparents, and travelling with them away for a week to a destination hitherto unknown to her, and only imagined by our reports on our weeks-away yearly had intrigued her and piqued her interest in sharing those experiences with us. We'd put her off for several years before deciding she was mature enough to accompany us.

Now she had a week away with us under her belt, and knew intimately what it was like to hike about in the New Hampshire woods, to clamber up a mountainside, to traverse a coll, and mount another summit, then make her way carefully and time-consumingly back down the alternate side of the second mountain.

She knew what it felt like to attain a height that dazzled her when observing it from the highway or the mountain base. She could now recognize the sense of accomplishment and awe, standing on the sheer rocky top of a summit and viewing the endless march of other mountain tops as far as the eye could see, all around her.

Now, for the next six hours as we travelled back home the weather alternated between wet and overcast and occasional sun. The car's heater and the air conditioner used in equal measure until late morning when the skies hosted a series of incomparably, fearsomely beautiful cloud formations billowing and lowering across their imperial stage in whites and bruised hues of grey-to-black.

The lush green landscape rushed past, interrupted by nature's rock sculptures; mountains and highway-blasted rockfaces. Yarrow, daisies, chicory, lupin and cowvetch; hawkweed and clover flowering brightly in the foreground. Passing tiny cabins and cottages, Irving tells Angie the story of Hoppy's Cabins, warns the walls might fall in should anyone be foolish enough to pass wind. They'd fall like a stack of dominoes.

He tells her that when we were young and newly married, we had visited with one of his uncles at his cottage up near Barrie; a family get-together. Needless to say, although the cottage was a respectable size, it wasn't capable of sleeping that many people, so we were encouraged to find our own arrangements, and try the cabins a few miles away. Which turned out to be so small and dilapidated there was room for the bed and little else.

Angie is delighted, repeating her own version of the endless farting possibilities. Collapsing with helpless laughter at her own witty offerings as her grandmother tut-tuts her granddaughter's loud and obnoxious pleasure. What is this bond between grandfathers and their grandchildren, the offerings of scatological humour tickling both their fancies...?

The car labours up one mountain after another, from New Hampshire to Vermont. Mist rising heavily from wooded mountainsides and valleys. Vultures, Great Blue Herons, crows, flap their unhurried way through the landscape. Flocks of starlings flutter and turn on the wind in their choreographed ballet. Small towns strung out along the highway; farms, subsistence and prosperous.

Churches, town halls, post offices. House-proud gardens where huge old rhododendrons and hydrangeas are the order of respectability, interspersed with the ubiquitous geraniums throwing their bright faces up toward that elusive sun. We pass over extended and high bridges beside railway trestles and finally leave the mountains behind, the valleys taking their place.

We're intrigued to note a roadside sign reading "We Want Wind", and wonder what that's all about. Irving had pointed the message out to Angelyne as it fed right into their previous hilarity over the passing of wind; suggesting it to be an invitation for her to apply herself. And then the meaning of the message is revealed, and we're astonished at what it is we see before us.

Long before our near approach we see in the distance a few mysterious-appearing forms, and wonder what on earth they might possibly be. As we approach ever closer, it becomes obvious that we're going to be exposed to the presence of a wind farm. Giant revolving arms of windmills turn lazily on the landscape, like the unforeseen presence of some unknowable feature whose purpose is to puzzle and awe.

Oh, we very well knew what they were, and what they represent. Windmill farms, the wave of the future, as one of the many derivations of new forms of energy. We drive on, ogling them, mesmerized by the image of these huge, graceful and in some strange way, luminous contraptions that seemed to us so futuristic, yet ephemeral. They completely transform the landscape.

They have inherited a rich valley landscape now devoid of growing things. They straddle the landscape for mile upon mile, marching off into the distance from east to west, and still they come. The length and breadth of their peculiar presence is breath-taking, and breath-takingly beautiful. Rolling down the car windows we can hear their swish, but it is their visual presence that strikes us.

We're entranced by them, they're so compellingly present, so obviously a symbol of the future.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Artistic Performance : Ideological Posturing

They just can't seem to get over it. Even after centuries, reality still smacks them hard in the face. They're continually duelling with those whom they believe do not sufficiently respect the French fact in Canada. Fact is, even if most people outside Quebec would love to just have the whole history waft away in a breeze of accommodation, fervid French-firsters won't allow it. They will never accept that the Province of Quebec is but one of ten-plus-three that make up the country that is Canada.

From the pathetic middle-aged woman who rages against fate that she is Canadian, and insists she is French first and always, and whom France has informed she has no right to French citizenship because her ancestors long pre-dated that period when France would accept her into its fold, to the ever-aggrieved resurgence of separatists who insist Quebec must be recognized not merely as a "nation", which Prime Minister Harper obligingly allowed, but as a separate country.

Oh, those little details that creep in with their practical necessity; Canada, they would have it, although recognizing finally that Quebec is a separate country, should still be obliged to forge a close political, diplomatic, assisting and monetary union, to ensure that the country of Quebec would remain afloat and not sink through an inability to administer her affairs without a federal assist and the funds that prop up that province through taxation from other provinces, as "equalization" for a have-not province.

In celebration of Quebec City's 400th anniversary, as "the oldest" settlement/city in Canada (although the East Coast challenges that; see St.John's in Newfoundland) the celebrations and self-congratulatory hullabaloo proceeds unabated, with tourists flocking (they wish) to help the city celebrate. World-renowned musicians have been invited to perform, but a French flavour is the order of the day, week, month, year and anniversary. Anything tainted by l'Anglais is in bad odour.

"The presence of your English-language music on the most majestic part of Battlefields Park, as beautiful as it might be, can't help but bring back painful memories of our Conquest", claimed Quebec City artist Luc Archambault, in an open letter to Paul McCartney who is scheduled to perform a free open-air concert on the Plains of Abraham. Oh, the pain of it; the very site where the French army was conquered by the British army.

The deep-seated, and cherished angst of the Quebecois calls out for justice. They'd love to turn back history to overturn the result of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and gnash their teeth in anguish over cruel reality. A personal Pyrrhic victory for both Wolfe and Montcalm, but an English one, nonetheless. Still, those separatist teeth gnash, French should be ascendant, not those maudit Anglais. Alas, poor suffering souls, reality has it otherwise. One might think they'd relent, relax, refresh and re-align their social compass, but no.

What's truly amazing is the extent of the support these whining nationalists enjoy among their sovereigntist politicians and pur laine artistic elite in the province. The "culture and international relations critic for the Parti Quebecois huffily considers Mr. McCartney's presence a reflection of the "Canadianization" of the anniversary. How silly of us, we continue to erroneously think of the province and the city of Quebec as being geographically and even politically located within Canada.

Quebec's much-lauded and -awarded separatist filmmaker informed
Le Journal de Montreal that the organizers' invitation to Mr. McCartney "makes us look like hicks who want to put themselves on the map". Well, he got it part way right, but one must beg to some little prejudice in the interpretation. It is their own rhetorical fulminating and breast-beating that makes the separatist Quebecois look like hicks, and it's clear their agenda is, actually, to "put themselves on the map" as a clearly separate and distinct country.

Nice to know there is some balance there, however. The premier of the province, Jean Charest, chides these critics of the events. It is his considered opinion they should be ashamed of themselves for speaking out in such a churlish manner. "Nobody criticizes Celine Dion for singing in Paris, Munich, England or elsewhere on the planet" he is said to have commented. More's the pity. Not his corrective comments, one should hasten to add, but the fact that critics of Madam Dion haven't been loutishly vocal enough.

And oh so amusingly, two home-town acts will be opening for Mr. McCartney. That should mollify the critics somewhat, wot? Oops, perhaps not, those francophone sweeties, The Stills and Pascale Picard have won repute and admiration for performing in English. Can't win them all...

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Food Safety Oversight

Words, words - and supposedly good intentions. Which, unfortunately, don't quite stand up to closer inspection. And it's closer inspection that's the source of this particular problem. But then, that's politics; whatever it is that is promised generally requires closer inspection before the intention is fully understood and clarified.

This current government in Canada has undertaken a good many new initiatives, and many of them have been long overdue and in their enacting have resounded well for the country. A lot of them have to do with demographic interactions, unfortunate past histories, and government recognition - and many evolve around Canada's role on the international stage.

Then there are those items meant for internal consumption, mostly the basic nuts and bolts of government responsibility toward ensuring a safe and secure environment for Canadians. The government has undertaken, among other things, new research into problematic chemicals, and has become moderately active in assuring Canadians those that which pose a threat to the health and safety of the population will be removed from active use; others carefully monitored.

The government has also trumpeted its initiatives with respect to food labelling and source-identification to ensure that the consuming public knows exactly where the food it uses emanates from. Other little food labelling tweaks, identifying ingredients and additives in the order of prominence will help. All for the purpose of making certain that Canadians have more confidence in their food sources and ensuring that the population will have confidence in their government.

So what a disappointment, to read that there are plans afoot for government to opt out of active surveillance of safety with relation to the food we eat. Food inspection is a vital part of ensuring that what we consume is safe and reliable. Now government is in the process of finalizing plans to gift food industry itself with that very important process of self-validation. Is it too provocative to ask what's in it for the food industry other than more freedom to do as they will?

The plan was put forward at the behest of the minister of agriculture and has advanced to the stage where Treasury Board has approved it. It means change of a magnitude and possible potential that will disappoint the confidence of the Canadian consumer. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is set to stop funding to producers for the testing of cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

This deliberately balances Canadian consumers' confidence in their government agencies whose major thrust up until now has been to ensure food safety against an unknown agenda. For a saving of some $24-million over the next three years. With an unforeseen and undetected outbreak of BSE in Canadian cattle gone to market, the cost in lost exports, the cost associated with cleaning up affected herds, and the cost related to consumer confidence and resulting illness-related health care would far outweigh that saving.

Government has advised the CFIA that it is expected to trim its budget by 5%. Why, for heaven's sake, when the federal government continues to post huge year-end surpluses and we have a robust economy, with high employment and a thriving export business? Canada's economic performance is the envy of the G-8. Changes to the process of meat inspection and meat products will give Agency representatives an "oversight" role, emasculating its purpose.

Which means industry itself is expected to implement food safety control programs, and to manage "key risks" to production, distribution and public safety. What's truly alarming is that the inspection of animal feed mills will also be affected, and it isn't hard to recall that the common practise of feeding of animal entrails and other non-human-edible offal from one animal to another has been definitively implicated in BSE occurrences.

They're throwing consumer confidence in the food we eat on the mercy of feed mills, animal producers, agri-business, whose interest is in their bottom line, and who will take whatever short-cuts it takes to enhance that bottom line. "They're moving towards the U.S. model, where the inspectors don't actually do the inspection, they just oversee and the companies actually do the inspection.

"That's a really dangerous thing," according to a North American authority on BSE, and senior scientist with the New York-based Consumers Union which publishes Consumer Reports. This same authority, Michael Hansen, has testified in the past by invitation, before parliamentary committees, as an expert on food safety issues. He tells us that ending the BSE reimbursement program should be of "highest concern".

Well, we're concerned. A Canadian academic who specializes in food risk management feels the cuts are "unfathomable", and for a very good reason, since Canada is continuing to discover incidences of BSE-positive animals - and what's truly alarming - represents one of the few countries in the world where BSE is said to be on the increase. He points out, frighteningly, that "the greatest risks" of emerging infectious diseases are specifically related to animal products and food.

"Reducing food safety controls at this time could be disastrous if there is an outbreak of a new food-borne disease. No wonder they suspect they may have some "communication risks" around these initiatives. They have a huge communication risk". In reference to the pussy-footing about that the government is now engaged in, attempting to assess public relations and the potential for a hard back-lash, before fully revealing this new agenda.

And according to University of Guelph professor Ann Clark, who is a specialist in risk assessment in genetically modified crops, herself having testified before Parliament's agriculture committee with relation to risk management and the country's food supply: "The proposals are illogical.

"Companies are in business to make profit, pure and simple. And we, as a society, have fully accepted and bought into that, but with the understanding that somebody will be riding herd on them - minding the shop - safeguard societal interests. Otherwise, history has shown that we are at risk.

"The initiatives outlined in this document suggest government is trying to get out of the business of government, by downloading responsibility for safeguarding human and environmental health to the same industry interests which stand to make money from what is being regulated. This is inherently illogical."

What's amazing is the manner in which a trusting public drew a collective sigh of relief, in the belief that government actually intended to tighten up regulations and food safety inspections. We interpreted government concern on our behalf to have been articulated to assure us, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Health Minister Tony Clement announced a new food and consumer action plan.

The purpose of which, we were solemnly informed, was to make Canadians' food supply safer through "tougher" regulations of food and other consumer products. We've got to let those brilliant minds in on a little secret, it's not going to work, and it isn't in the best interests of the Canadian public, although food production companies may just love it.

Back to the drawing board. And this time, try a little harder.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Choices, Choices

All right, it wasn't a very good idea to select a controversial tabloid television show as the venue to exhibit his charming family and truly sweet and unpretentious children to the public. He most certainly must have - as he said "got caught up in the festivities" of the day; the glorious Fourth celebrations and just coincidentally one of the children's birthdays - forgotten his resolve to shelter them from the public eye.

No the venue was wrong, awkward and completely inappropriate. It's one for jaded sophisticates, for access to celebrities and their doting fans, for electronic gossip about the dark side of society and its excess of shabby divorce proceedings and benighted drug addictions. Even if he wasn't thinking clearly in the fog of relaxed friendliness, one might suppose his advisers might have been a trifle more cautionary.

That having been said - and most certainly the appearance of such innocence on such a blighted stage was regrettable - the unaffected performance of his children must have been a delight to their parents. It can't but have been that to those who watched and listened. Their refreshingly open and bright commentary was a true breath of fresh air in the stale atmosphere of political manoeuvring.

The conclusion to which must most surely be a comfort to Obama-watchers, and those uncertain about his capabilities. If we're to measure his potential as a leader of a nation by his success in helping his wife to raise two brightly intelligent, unself-conscious children, unperturbed by the public limelight, then it's to his credit. If it were only as simple as that.

Access Hollywood may have been an inappropriate and unsavoury stage for the introduction of these little girls, daughters Malia and Sasha, ten and seven respectively, but their presentation can only have done his candidacy a world of good. More than balancing his and his wife's lack of due diligence - a momentary lapse.

We're amused to learn from the girls that they were bemusedly critical of their father's obtuseness in greeting their little friends; they won't be voting material for many years into the future. And Sasha, revealing that her father "likes bubble gum" and talks too much, "blah, blah, blah", can only go into the annals of political performance by default as brilliant.

As accidental constructs go, this one was a clear winner.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Vigilante Geezer

You'd imagine - at least most intelligent people might - that having achieved the age of 70 some degree of temperance would have diluted a younger man's propensity to personal outrage resulting in violence done to someone or something. Unbridled irritation can do that to some people. But in their dotage, some men simply revert to type, feeling perhaps that age justifies behaviour seen as unseemly in the young.

Or perhaps it's just too tempting to watch newsreels of brutal thugs wearing face masks and brandishing weapons they fire into the air as warnings of what they plan to visit on their enemies. The situation in the Middle East has far-ranging ramifications, some which we obviously could never anticipate, as reasonable human beings.

Not only do some malfunctioning intellects bring the angered grievance of their culture clashes with others along with them when they emigrate from the source of the conflict, to a new land of opportunities and there sow the seeds of discontent. But it might seem that the infection of miserable vengeance attitudes goes beyond the conflicts seen in the Middle East. Inspiring to those of similar sensibilities.

Some viewers of the nightly news may succumb to feeling invigorated in their distaste for their near neighbours by witnessing the carnage wrought so far from home, upon those who terrorists purport are deserving of their bloody predations. Still, it would be unlikely for a Canadian-born to take up arms for the purpose of inflicting bodily harm on a neighbour, however provocative his actions.

Instead, stealth is required and covert activities through which that neighbour's property can be destroyed. And that'll teach the bugger a lesson he won't forget. Even if the message is incomplete and leaves the victim confused, without the knowledge of what it is that has motivated the attack. And here's where the story sinks into its own absurd banality of non-effect.

Where residents of an upscale neighbourhood boasting its own traditional hands-off recognition from the City of Toronto through a long-accepted condition of presenting as a gated community within the greater metropolis, establishing a neighbourhood watch program, and discovering the perpetrator of criminal violations against personal property to be none other than their trusted, respected resident archivist and principal Neighbourhood Watch chief.

The ongoing, repeated vandalization of the pricey enclave, Wychwood Park, has finally been solved. The culprit, none other than a retired math teacher, a long-time resident of the private crescent, 70-year-old Albert Fulton has been charged with ten counts of mischief over $5,000. As it happens, considerably over that sum. Along with charges of criminal harassment, and an additional count of disguising himself with the intent to commit a crime.

As far as Mr. Fulton is concerned, what he accomplished was to serve them right, those upstarts. Parking in places where he personally found it to be outrageous, undesignated, not to be countenanced. Those parking spaces were not unlawful for residents to use, but they raised Mr. Fulton's ire, and that was that. His late-night tire-slashing sprees near the gated entrance to the community terrorized the people living there. Goal accomplished.

Targeted residents have had to pay more than $50,000 in replacing slashed tires as a result of those attacks, which began mysteriously occurring in November, 2006. As public mischief goes, Mr. Fulton's late-night forays to assuage his outrage over his neighbours' inability to park their cars where he thought they should - although he left his opinion unsaid - did not represent something as catastrophic as physically harming someone or burning down a house.

But the cumulative, ongoing effect of never knowing when this silent predator would strike, and hoping that the incidents would somehow just go away, drained the confidence and comfort of security from the victims. Would whoever was involved resort eventually to fuller violence? To them, an unsupportable crime, a terrifying, re-occurring nightmare. To Mr. Fuller a clear case of social justice.

Finally, residents decided to pool their resources and they executed a late-night alert operation. With no fewer than three video cameras between them, they managed to capture the evidence they sought. There is a truly incriminating video of a man pulling on a balaclava exiting from his vehicle, then proceeding to puncture tires of the cars parked in his personally forbidden spot.

How this man has endeared himself to his neighbours - unforgettably, in perpetuity.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Mysterious Existence

We exist, therefore we are. We are, therefore we exist. Who made us? Why are we here? Interesting questions, perhaps, but not necessarily to be comprehended by mere human minds. And do we really require that ultimate knowledge to make the most of our opportunities throughout our lives? Can't we just feel ourselves obligated by the circumstance of living to just do it? And believe ourselves to be extraordinarily privileged in the process.

Still, it's a puzzler, one that tickles many minds. And then there are the ideological divides, the polarization of science versus religion. The awe of existence leading inevitably to the belief that there is life through the design of a higher order manifesting it into existence. For what purpose is again beyond understanding. On the other hand, there is science and logic and reproducible experimentation which leads to some very cogent and impressive realizations.

So which will it be? God or nature? Or, perhaps, is nature God? Is nature within God? Has nature given birth to God? In a sense, yes, if God as a man-made construct is a result of nature's having benevolently endowed humankind over a long process of evolution with the initial spark of life, leading to where we are today.

And where's that, exactly? Why, where nature has designed us to be, the diligent caretakers in her magnificent gardens. She must most surely be feeling more than a little exasperated with her creation; it's run amok, creating havoc not only within its own multifaceted communities, but within the general framework of her colossal earthworks as well.

Those obstreperous, curious children of the earth she permitted to evolve have taken their curiosity to a fault. Upsetting her order beyond belief. From the deepest oceans having been inundated with unspeakable waste products, to humankind's predations on other species, rendering them extinct in the process. And oh yes, the atmosphere; even there mankind has been leaving his contraptions to loop endlessly in the void.

The scientist asks of the believer, those of faith, how can one believe the precepts and the concepts detailed by human invention, to be representative of a holy spirit whose presence somewhere in the void above resulted in our creation? Surely the proof of God's existence cannot be those puerile and so-often written statements inscribed by humans for posterity?

There was a purpose, a defined and clever one, perhaps envisioned by a coterie of highly intelligent beings, seeing in the vision and the belief in the existence of a powerful overseer a compelling structure to instruct the greater herd of humankind into an ordered and orderly existence. Commandments, instructions for a meritorious existence had clout, from on high.

Nature endowed many of her creatures with the agile ability to create, to visualize, to envision a structure by which a malleable but argumentative collective could be encouraged to act in their own best interests. Overlaying the primitive instinct for self-preservation with an additional instinct to be fair, useful and helpful to others since in the final analysis group action is more powerful than singular displays of self-interest.

Intelligent for nature to have designed us so; to be adaptable, creative, reasonably insightful, intrinsically fair-minded, to offset our baser instincts of ego, acquisitiveness and jealousy. But then nature has had so much practise, and each time she devised a new inhabitant of her playground Earth, she re-defined and managed exquisite corrections to finally create us.

Mischievously endowing some among us with the potential to free imagination that would result in the most reliable form of social, political administration of the public weal. So we've been left divided in opinion; between those of faith and those of reason. Faith replacing logic; faith where no explanations are required. For Intelligent Design is taken on faith unlike science. One rational, the other emotional.

Where is God, anyway? Everywhere? Does God, the notion of the supranatural denote the presence of a divine spark in everything that exists? Is that divine spark the gift of life, of thought, the very essence of life, the soul? Is our individuality that divine spark? Are we God? If so, are we one with nature?

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Cool Fundamentals

When those people quick to identify trends pick them up because they're basically non-conformist and adapt to what is seen as a new presentation or style, they're expressing their individuality. They're so profoundly non-conformist that they cannot conceive of themselves as individuals without external contrivances. They convince themselves of their uniqueness, separate and apart from the common herd, grasping coolness.

It's been a number of years since the cool and the hip of the male persuasion have been sporting facial stubble. Obviously thinking themselves pretty hip. Even young men who thought it fashionable to grow beards just to level the playing field between themselves and fundamentalist young Muslim men, readily sawed off all that facial hair and happily left a rubbable stubble.

Now, years later, fashionistas are suddenly identifying the trend. Eligible young celebrities of the Hollywood landscape have been themselves looped into the trend, and suddenly it's been noticed. Now you're conforming to a prevalent statement of hirsute manhood. All those non-conformists will have to drop the stubble as though it's now a burning half-bush identifying them as having something in common with those losers just picking it up.

Women have bought into the trend; who would want to be seen dating a man so behind the times that he's clean-shaven, after all? And young marrieds, not willing to be left out of the latest cool trend - even though it's no longer the latest and certainly no longer cool - are also opting in. A new British study tells us so. That women are now identifying male cool with facial stubble.

"The results were very clear cut" according to Nick Neave, an evolutionary psychologist at Northumbria University in Britain. "The face that had the light stubble was thought to be much more attractive, much sexier. It was preferred for a short-term partner, it was preferred for a long-term partner." Doesn't that grate on the cerebrum, an evolutionary psychologist having nothing better to do with his research time...

So that's it; women looking for a prospective partner need look no further than the casual marks of manhood, the careful grooming of days-old stubble. What a sweet conceit. No need to discern intelligence, values, interests in common, even whether life can be sweet in the short term - never mind the long term - with someone who sports a stubble but hasn't a sense of humour and thinks women are silly enough to be won over by externals.

Oops, guess he's right, along with all those other young men trusting to trends to enrapture potential partners - and stubble it is. The prevailing zeitgeist. They deserve one another, those trifling, palpably immature, regrettably insecure men and women incapable of reaching beyond the pedestrian facade of fashion. Shallow does it every time.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Nature's Palette

We've been a long time absent from our once-favoured hiking playground. Aeons ago, when our children were young and so were we, every spare leisure minute was spent up at Gatineau Park. There we learned to canoe on the wonderful lakes that supported all manner of delightful aquatic creatures, enthusiastically introduced to us by our younger son.

We snowshoed there, over winter-frozen lakes, hearing the ice settle and crack under us. We undertook frequent summer-time hikes, and often for the purpose of gathering wild strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. All in their fragrant, colourful and most edible seasons. In competition with area bears, some of whose scat we would occasionally step in.

It's where we often headed after a long day's work, to picnic with the children, and to dip our paddles in the quiet lake, no one else remotely near to where we were. There, at dusk, we would see deer come out, lift themselves to mouth ripe red apples from wild apple trees. There too, we would see raccoons skimming the water of the lake, looking for clams to pull out and enjoy sitting on a nearby rock. There too, we would paddle past beaver ponds and hear the loud slap of a territorial tail.

We would hear the wild lunacy of loons declaring the lake theirs; ours but to enjoy in the most fleeting, temporary of manners. There, the great blue heron and the smaller green herons nested and treated us occasionally to leisurely views of their ongoing pursuits. We would watch kingfishers dive for prey, breaking the smooth surface of the slumbering lake. It's where our budding child-biologist trapped small-mouth bass to take home to his aquarium. It's where we first heard and saw pileated woodpeckers.

So, since the forecasted weather for today promised a high of 28 degrees under a clear blue sky with slight wind, we decided we'd give it a go. Once on the eastern Parkway, we had the best of omens, a beautiful goldfinch fleeting past our vision, its gorgeous colour in synchrony with the bright yellow trailing lotus spilling over in lush abundance on the highway shoulders, enhanced by the true purple of cow vetch creeping over all the upright grasses.

There we also saw daisies in abandoned bloom of white, and Queen Anne's lace, newly blooming its embroidered presence alongside pink, and mauve clover. Recreational bikers out in droves, enjoying the prospect of a long and lazy day, the sun warming their scantily-clad bodies. It's a nice wide road with ample room for everyone. Still, one wonders why they'd choose the highway when there are specific-use bicycle pathways alongside the Ottawa River; far more picturesque than the highway.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police sleek black herd of equines are all out there, in their enclosure, at pasturage. It's where people like to take their small children, to park alongside the fencing, to allow them to see these wonderful horses close up and personal. The horses, themselves curious about the presence of other creatures, often make their way over to the hopefully excited children, to allow them the experience of hesitantly stroking a velvety head.

At the Aeronautical Museum there seems to be a run on the prospect of viewing the contents. All the parking spaces are jammed with cars, and there is spillover parking in places never before imagined. There too, we see signage advertising that day's CHEO's Teddy Bear picnic where indulgent parents will encourage their very young children to bring along their well-worn stuffed animals for tender loving care by CHEO volunteers.

What child could ever, thereafter, feel fear at the prospect of having to enter that Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, for treatment? Any hospital that would go out of its way to love and care for beloved inanimate objects that at night offer comfort and slumber-security, could most certainly be trusted to love and care for bright young children whose brightness has temporarily been dimmed.

The Parkway delivers its own inimitable pleasures. It boasts a landscape of perfect tree specimens, from the huge pendulant willows, to the perfectly shaped pines, spruces and firs. The balanced puffed heads of bass. Careful grooming of the area lends it the air of a monumental garden. Which it most certainly is; not only Nature's intimate devising with a little help from the National Capital Commission, but ours, as well.

As we approach Chelsea, in Quebec, we see the usual congregation of bicyclists and casual week-end drivers, mostly young and hip, eager to spend time looking and being observed, having brunch and lunch or munchies at the hippest food establishments in the area. Operating from within converted, rambling houses of superior vintage and construction, whose perennial gardens have been carefully tended to resemble Ye Olde English Gardens of yore.

They sit there, the young and the beautiful, the fit and the wanna-be's, al fresco, carefully selecting from a menu that promises organic produce, home-cooked-style meals and crafty presentations in an atmosphere of having arrived at a nirvana of the cool and the hip. Chatting among themselves, gesturing emphatically to emphasize their brilliant conclusions, and assuring themselves of good company, great food, superb ambiance.

We turn down the roadway to take us to Kingsmere; our destination, more or less, for our anticipated hike. The road has been made even narrower by the installation of pop-down warning sticks, that the narrow road must be shared, the bicycle lanes outlined aggressively in buttercup yellow. So drive slowly, and be aware, ye motorists, for this is the playground of other lawful users, as well.

Further along, we turn onto the Gatineau Parkway, where the median and the shoulders of the road are softly fuzzed with purple-blooming creeping thyme. A haze of fragrant herbs further setting the atmosphere. Farther along, beside the roadway, there are blue-blue cornflowers, daisies, floral-dangling milkweed, and ferns. Bicyclists crowd the road, painted a solid yellow no-pass.

No pass? When bicyclists are riding six abreast, not single- or double-line? Nice and slow, careful does it, but pass we do, the bicyclists seemingly oblivious to needs other than their own. There are others, hundreds of others bicyclists who travel singly or in pairs, and who do consider the need to share the roadway fairly, and somehow we all manage to do just that.

The lot at Lake Mulvihill is surprisingly empty; one other vehicle besides our own, which we park under overhanging branches to take advantage of the shade they offer. And then we're off. There are opaque-white cowslips in bloom alongside the road, and pale yellow potentilla, spiral-white daisies and Solomon's seal.

Once on the trail proper we appreciate the presence of towering old maples, oak and beech, which tend to dominate the area. Although ash, birch and ironwood also make their presence from time to time. This is the deciduous side of the trail; evergreens will appear eventually, as we proceed. The undergrowth is devoted to ferns, Solomon's seal, and the truly ubiquitous columbines, no longer in flower.

But geraniums, fleabane, thimbleberry and hawkweed do flower in places where the sun manages to fleetingly filter through the green canopy. There are also clusters of bright red baneberry, peeking through the dark green foliage surrounding them. The emphatically distinct trill of thrushes drown out the less intrusive song of robins, in the overhanging trees.

Button and Riley toddle along, stopping often for prolonged, deep sniffs, obviously entranced by odours too particular for us to be aware of. In the depths of this inner trail with its mature canopy, we're shielded from the sun, and a light breeze riffles by, sifting nicely through our hair. Although at this time of year for the past several, we've been plagued by the presence of blackflies long past their normal season, none are now in evidence.

Nor are there many mosquitoes to detract from our pleasure in this hike. For that matter, even though it's a lovely Saturday summer's day, there are scant few other hikers sharing the trails. An amazing turn of events, altogether. Quite different from what we had expected, imagining encountering the usual dozens of people taking their constitutionals.

As we approach the area where a creek, normally low at this time of year, feeds into a small waterfall at the conclusion of Kingsmere's "waterfall trail", an almost thunderous sound of falling water grows louder by the footstep. Accounted for by all the rain we've experienced, the last several months. The steam is wide and full, its water crystal-clear and running swiftly. On its banks, flowering rue, in white powdery drifts.

We hear an ovenbird distantly calling. Black-winged, iridescent-blue-bodied Damselflies flutter about one another, in a late-season display of ritualized mating. We're surprised at how dry most of the trail is, but for the occasional plot of muck, easily avoided. Button steps daintily around the muck. Riley plods stolidly through it.

Rock-strewn ascents and gravel-laden descents take us through the deciduous forest, where only a few months ago wild garlic, beloved of country folk, grew in abandon - but protected by law - at the bases of gnarled old trees. Inviting us to pluck them - quickly, stealthily - pop them into our watering mouths to enjoy their fresh, pungent aroma and taste.

As we ascend the last long hill leading to the Larriault trail which completes our one-and-a-half-hour circuit, a young man, jogging alongside a large yellow Labrador comes into view. Combative Riley gets hoisted, but we allow Button to stay aground, noting the jogger has his dog's leash firmly in hand. Button trots on beside me, unconcerned, while Riley is frantically barking and snarling at the large dog, from his vantage, under-arm.

I smile, greet the runner. The dog pulls as he passes us, and lunges toward a startled Button. It's growling, straining toward Button, who has drawn back, hesitating to proceed. The dog's owner jerks it sharply away, and continues his run, his dog chastened, right beside him. Just as well, given our stupid little dog's temperament, that there are so few people there this day.

Approaching Lake Mulvihill we hear the deep-throated thrum of bullfrogs and are delighted they're still there. It's well accepted that pesticide and organic-waste run-off from farm fields and chemical waste run-off from cottages have impacted deleteriously on aquatic life-forms. Frogs of all types have been the first to give firm indication of just how impacted wildlife has become.

A small orange-and-black butterfly, its colouration and conformation similar to that of the much larger Monarch flits past us. A question-mark? A comma?

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Friday, July 04, 2008

17 June, 2008 - Day Seven

Motorcyclists marred the quiet of the morning, conspicuously revving engines on arrival and departure, but it's their holiday time too, so big deal. Cleaned up the cottage as usual, after breakfast, packed for the morning's adventure, then set off. Back to Smarts Brook, to do the loop again, right-to-left. Another uphill haul over looped roots and rocks, growth of dense green close-packed oak, yellow birch, hemlock and pine.

The ever-present dampness of the area nursing lichens, mosses and fungi galore. Miniature landscapes. Potentilla, buttercups, salvia, daisies, Ladies slippers and luxuriant ferns massed in a tangled garden of form and colour in the understory. From the enclosed green comfort of the heavily wooded initial trail we broke through finally onto the cart track, and trudged its gradual ascent, open now to the greater light of the day.

From time to time, vestiges of worn old paths invited the occasional foray back into the more heavily forested portion off the cart track, as the trail moved closer to the running water, and we satisfied our curiosity by casual diversions to look out over the brook slapping over broad granite outcroppings and on down to its inexorable course below.

The brook is in a huge hurry, shooting itself in a great momentum of froth over the expanse of granite that marks its ancient course down from the mountains, to eventually join other, larger, tributaries that make their way over the land and valleys below the mountain ridges. Its huge roaring presence impresses upon us the power and grandeur of both the landscape and the water that inexorably shapes it.

Black, and yellow Admirals flit about everywhere. They're photo-aversive, brightly elusive creatures of the wind. One moment landing, lifting their delicate wings, and folding them, then quickly, before we are able to fully prepare our cameras, lifting off again to resume their spiralling courtship of one another.

Finally, we come across a mating pair, and they're directly in front of us, in the middle of the trail, seemingly oblivious to our presence; not moving at all. One of them does move its wings rhythmically, but the other sits there as though transfixed by some signal event beyond our knowledge. Angelyne and I, each with our cameras, have ample opportunity to snap all the photos we want.

And then Angelyne exudes a huge sigh of revulsion, one that only a pre-teen girl can manage. The butterflies we so admire for their beauty and fragility are also practical creatures of nature, carefully seeking out the most advantageous place to lay their eggs. While the middle of a trail wouldn't seem to fit that bill to us, they're perched on a flattened, fresh scat, and that, for them, appears ideal.

The area remains free of black flies, to our great relief; we've had more than enough encounters with those flesh-eating nasties. The clear skies that were present when we embarked on this hike have gradually submitted to clouds. Our steaming bodies are grateful for the surcease of the sun's heat, the comfort of the shade.

And then, suddenly, the unmistakable sensation of a water drop. Another. On our heads, shoulders. We've packed light rain gear, but it doesn't seem needful to haul them out, just yet. The light rain soon passes, and then - surprisingly - there's more sun. We'd thought, warned by the weather forecast, that the clear skies would give way completely to heavy overcast, threatening rain.

But the upper atmosphere is playing games. Clouds appear again, and the sun disappears, and there are more lazy drops of rain. We're exceedingly fortunate it's such a lovely day, no warmer than the mid-70s. The teasing sun, then cloud, then rain, perpetuates itself for the remainder of the hike, and that's fine, given there's no accompanying nuisance of flying pests.

The accumulated organic detritus of centuries and more cradle our exercised feet. Gradual and modest ascents are balanced by surprisingly steep descents. The trail, being undertaken in reverse, it's anyone's guess which is more difficult; embarking right to left, or the opposite way. It always seems that way, trying to second-guess advantage and energy out-put.

Finally, we're in the home stretch. Angie writes a little message on the damp trunk of a birch, with a sharp stick: "Angie was here". We admire her handiwork, impressed that she's able to assume that the stick would make a legible enough impression on the bark. And it most certainly has. She instructs us that, when we return this fall, we are to look for her message.

She carefully photographs those brief three words of authority and temporary ownership of time and space. Her little conceit. She laughs uproariously on our return to the car, when she discovers that her grandparents have trod upon some uncivil dog's droppings.

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Motorcycle Week, New Hampshire

Throughout the length of our one-week stay we shared the highways and roads with motorcyclists. Thousands of them. A lot of Harley-Davidson drivers. With their roaring sound that the American company has even taken the trouble to copyright, lest another enterprising manufacturer emulate that dreadful, irritating roar. The louder the machine, the more powerful, right? The higher cost of gas wouldn't be of too much concern to motorcycle enthusiasts.

Bikers stayed overnight at a few close cottages. Can't blame our hosts. They're anxious for enough business to keep them around for yet a few more years. They've introduced, for the first time, a continental breakfast for Saturdays and Sundays; free coffee and doughnuts. And set up a washing station over in a green grassy area, where bikers can wash up their motorcycles last thing at night, first thing before setting off again, in the morning.

We've felt sorry quite often, for motorcyclists caught out in heavy thunderstorms. It's dangerous, the road slippery, and often enough over the years, during this same time of year when our spring trip coincides with motorcycle week, there've been dreadful accidents involving motorcyclists. They haven't much protecting them, they're awfully vulnerable, and they pay the price.

Of course, they're not much on wearing leathers, and too few of them take the cautionary step of wearing a helmet. How can they look appropriately tough, wearing helmets? Well, some solve that little conundrum by wearing helmets reminiscent of those worn by WWI German infantry. Thunder pots. Even so, the greater majority wear nothing to protect their brains; perhaps they haven't any, to protect.

When, on our third morning out, we stopped to gas up and pick up a newspaper before heading to our day's jaunt, my husband had a conversation with three bikers. They weren't driving Harleys. Theirs were big, gleaming BMWs. Turned out they were Venezuelans, on a long road trip. One spoke flawless English. They were happy with their adventure, planned to go as far as Newfoundland.

Their sole complaint? The reckless driving of the American motorcyclists. (These three avid bikers were more than adequately garbed.) But the scenery, the mountains, they said, were wonderful. Oops, perhaps there were a few more observations bordering on the critical. Didn't think much, they said, of the fact that motel operators had jacked up their prices because of all the motorcyclists. Nor did they think much of the sky-high gas prices.

They're not, after all, accustomed to high energy prices, given Venezuela subsides the price of gas for its population. The price of food and lodging may be high in Venezuela, and there may be a lot of unemployment, and too many poor people, particularly in the countryside, but gas is cheap. Hugo Chavez, in his ongoing war of words and ideology with the U.S. even gleefully subsidizes heating oil for poor Americans.

People find their thrills in various ways. For us, it's venturing into the woods and enjoying nature. For motorcyclists it's feeling free, the wind zipping through their hair, the landscape slipping quickly by. Who can blame them, after all? No more than one does people who climb Mount Everest, endangering themselves and considering it worthwhile because they're challenging their physical limits.

For cautious people like us, who like to experience our own little adventures, yet live to see another day, it's like exhibiting a death wish. One we have no wish to emulate. But we can, nonetheless, understand it, up to a point. So really, we don't have anything against the motorcyclists. And the neighbourhood merchants most certainly don't. Their money is as good as anyone else's.

Except that our favourite antique mall shut down early one late afternoon, leaving us and some other late-arrivals fuming. We were informed by someone who had just exited, that the manager of the mall just couldn't tolerate the roar of the motorcycles any longer, and decided to close early.

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