the tyranny of the subconscious

Two nights ago, I did a stupid thing. I read about something very disturbing right before going to bed.

Allan, D and I had been talking about trying to keep what we know about players' personal lives out of our enjoyment of sports. D mentioned Michael Vick. I had heard about it, but hadn't read any details. D said the details were too horrible to talk about.

I decided it was one of those things I had to know, even though knowing would upset me. So I read about it. That's OK. But anyone with sleep issues should know better than to do that before bed.

I woke up at 2:00 a.m., crying.

In my dream, we were at the vet's office where we had Buster put down. I saw our last moments with him, the same as they occurred. But in the dream, after we left the room, the doctor injected Buster with another drug that revived him. He wasn't really dead. Then Buster was taken to a pit where other dogs would attack him. (That is likely what happened to him in real life, and why our boy had so many problems.)

But that wasn't the worst part.

In the dream, Buster thought we let that happen to him. He thought we tricked him into going to the vet's office, then betrayed and abandoned him. That was the worst part.

At 2:00 a.m., this felt so real. My chest hurt like my heart was being crushed.

It was a while before my mind swam back up to full consciousness and I was able to convince myself this hadn't really happened.

* * * *

In some cultures, dreams are visitations from the spirit world, or travel to other dimensions or states of consciousness. One of my nephews studies depth psychology, an offshoot of Jungian thought that says a person cannot truly know themselves unless they understand their dreams.

I never wanted to examine my dreams. There have been times in my life when my greatest wish was for dreamless sleep. But I'm fascinated by how our minds are at work even when we're not conscious of it.

When I have a writing problem that I can't solve, staring at the computer screen and trying to force an answer will never work. The best thing to do, I've finally learned, is to get up and go do something else. When I'm being smart, I go for a swim. In the pool, or later, relaxing with a cup of tea, the answer comes to me.

That means my mind is working on the problem even when I'm not aware of it. I remember learning about this "Ah-ha Experience" in my own psychology classes in university. The human mind is so amazing.

* * * *

But the workings of my subconscious mind have been more curse than blessing. Anyone who has lived through post-traumatic stress syndrome will know what I mean.

After I was raped, I used to wake up in terror, every night, at the exact same time. Over time, and with a lot of help, this happened less frequently. Sometimes it wouldn't happen for months, and I would think it had stopped altogether. Then it would happen again.

I've been told it's very difficult to wake me up when I'm experiencing this. Whatever is being said to try to rouse me gets incorporated into the dream. So if someone is saying, "It's ok, you're ok, you're safe," then someone in the dream is saying this, while they assault or torture me.

In the dream I hear screaming, coming from a distance, and I try to move towards it. But I'm immobilized; I can't move. I know to be safe I must get to that screaming, but I can't. Finally the screaming gets louder and helps me wrench free. It's the sound of my own voice. My own screaming wakes me up.

After one of these incidents, I'm exhausted the whole next day, sometimes for several days. My concentration is low, I feel stressed, wrung out. Years after I was raped, it was still happening - only once in a while, but never stopping altogether. I would wonder, when will this cease? I am over it. I am healed. So when will this terror be flushed from my brain?

About ten years ago, I was quietly celebrating inside that I no longer had these night terrors. Years had passed - including the anniversary of the incident itself, formerly a difficult time for me - without an incident. In my public speaking - on "survivor panels" to help medical students, police, or other populations learn about rape and domestic violence, and for outreach to other possible survivors - I would say that it no longer happened at all.

Then I had another. This time I was angry. Enough already!

Years passed again. Surely that was the last one.

But no.

Within the last six months (I know because we lived in this house), it happened again. I didn't remember it upon waking, I just didn't feel well. Then later in the morning, it came back to me. I asked Allan, did something happen last night? Did I wake up?

Enough already!

All the work I've done - the therapy, the activism - all the time that has passed - more than two decades, for godsake! - and this shit is still in there?? Leave me alone already! I am healed, I am whole, I'm more than fine, I'm great. The rape is just part of my life's landscape, and has been for so many years. It's the worst thing that ever happened to me (and I hope it always will be), but that's all it is - something that happened to me. It was one incident, one night, and it was more than 20 years ago! Why, why, why can't this part of my consciousness get past it?

* * * *

In 2001, I started having minor anxiety attacks. Not full-blown panic as I've seen some people experience, but frightening little incidents of racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, anxiety and fear. I would think something terrible was about to happen to me. It mostly happened in the morning, upon waking. It seemed unconnected to anything going on in my life.

My own doctor thought it might be purely physical, an irregular heartbeat, the adrenaline surge that happens in the morning (when most heart attacks occur). But I wasn't being fully honest with her. The incidents were coming during the day, too.

I had a consultation with a psychiatrist who I really liked. To my surprise, she asked if I had ever had post-traumatic stress. I told her I had been raped, and she just asked a few simple questions to get the basic picture. She also asked briefly and pointedly about my childhood, and zeroed in on whatever fear and anxiety I had growing up.

Then she probed my current life. I didn't think I had anything to tell. But to my amazement, I ended up briefly relating "The Finger" incident. That's our shorthand for a series of events in which an incompetent dog trainer set us up for disaster, leading Buster to attack another dog. The other dog sustained minor injuries to its ear; Allan was hurt trying to separate the dogs, and spent five days in the hospital, having part of his finger re-attached. Buster - calm and sedate afterwards, with blood all over his face - was never the same.

The Finger occurred when we, with the "trainer," were walking Buster in our neighbourhood and he slipped out of his collar. After, I was terrified to walk him. The five days when Allan was in the hospital were incredibly scary for me. (Worse for him, certainly.)

Somehow the psychiatrist easily pulled all this out and brought it together. "There you go," she said. "That's likely the source of your anxiety."

She talked to me about anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. She said that the brains of people who have had post-traumatic stress syndrome react differently to anxiety and fear. The ultra-high levels of adrenaline pumped into the system during trauma permanently change the body's sensitivity to fear, anxiety and acute stress. She told me that if we saw a CT scan of my brain when I'm frightened, compared to the brain of a person who had never been traumatized, we would see a difference, whether or not I was aware of feeling anxious.

The session was a bit scary, but wonderfully insightful. She wrote a prescription (Klonopin to the rescue), and made some recommendations on how best to use it. She also gave me a few names of therapists, in case I wanted to continue. I didn't. I understand it as well as I want to. I don't want to explore any further. I just want to sleep through the night.

* * * *

Trauma is an over-used word. Like so many words in our world - hero, tragedy, awesome - its meaning has been ruined by overexposure. But trauma exists, and long after it's over, it exists still.

I imagine a many-tentacled creature burrowing deep into our minds, lying dormant, perfectly camouflaged. Until something - the tiniest of catalysts, minor, unnoticed in our waking life - taps its shoulder.


what i'm reading: crossing by deirdre mccloskey

After finishing A Complicated Kindness, I struck out on the next two novels, The Darling, by Russell Banks, whose work I normally love, and War Trash, by Ha Jin. Both very good books, I'd be thrilled to write half as well as either of the authors. Just not for me, at least not now.

But I just started a book that has grabbed me from the first words: Crossing, by Deirdre McCloskey. I read a review of this book when it came out in 1992, put it on my List, then happened upon it when Allan and I were at The Strand last September.

Here's the preface, which I scanned so you can read it, too.
I want to tell you the story of a crossing from fifty-two-year-old man to fifty-five-year-old woman. Donald to Deirdre.

"A strange story," you say.

Yes, it is strange, statistically. All the instruments agree that what's usually called "transsexuality," permanently crossing the gender boundary, is rare. (The Latin in "transsexuality" makes it sound sexual, which is mistaken; or medical, which is misleading; or scientific, which is silly. I'll use plain English "crossing".) Only three in ten thousand want to cross the boundary of gender, a few of them in your own city neighborhood or small town. Gender crossing is no threat to male/female sex ratios or the role of women or the stability of the dollar. Most people are content with their birth gender.

But people do after all cross various boundaries. I've been a foreigner a little, in England and in Holland and on shorter visits elsewhere. If you've been a foreigner you can understand somewhat, because gender crossing is a good deal like foreign travel. Most people would like to go to Venice on vacation. Most people, if they could magically do it, would like to try out the other gender for a day or a week or a month. The Venice visitors as a group can be thought of as all the "crossgendered," from stone butch dykes to postoperative male-to-female gender crossers, all the traversers, permanent or temporary, somber or ironic. A few people go to Venice regularly, and you can think of them as the crossdressers among these, wearing the clothing of the opposite gender once in a while. But only a tiny fraction of the crossgendered are permanent gender crossers, wanting to become Venetians. Most people are content to stay mainly at home. A tiny minority are not. They want to cross and stay.

On a trip to New York to see a friend after my own crossing I stood in the hall of photographs at Ellis Island and wept at the courage. Crossing cultures from male to female is big; it highlights some of the differences between men and women, and some of the similarities too. That's interesting. My crossing was costly and opposed, which is too bad. But my crossing has been dull, easy, comfortable compared with Suyuan's or Giuseppi's outer migrations.

Or compared with some people's inner migrations. Some people cross this or that inner boundary so radically that it would look bizarre, a slippage in the normal order of the universe, Stephen King material, if it were not so common. The most radical one is the crossing from child to adult, a crossing similar to mine that we all experience. I once saw a spoof scientific paper titled "Short Stature Syndrome: A Nationwide Problem." The strange little people, whose thoughts and actions were so different from normal, requiring the compulsory intervention of psychiatrists, and lots more money for the National Institute of Mental Health, were . . . children.

The word "education" means just "leading out." People are always leading themselves out of one life and into another, such as out of childhood and into each new version of adulthood. Not everyone likes to keep doing it, but the women I most admire have. My mother educated herself to earning her income and writing poetry after my father died. My roomer for a year in Iowa educated herself as a hospital chaplain after a third of a century teaching elementary school. My sister got a second degree in psychology, my former wife made herself into a distinguished professor. May Sarton, so glad to become by forced crossing an American rather than a Belgian woman, an English rather than a French poet and novelist and memoirist, kept crossing, crossing and looked forward at age seventy to "what is ahead — to clear my desk, sow the annuals, plant perennials, get back to the novel. . . like a game of solitaire that is coming out."

It's strange to have been a man and now to be a woman. But it's no stranger perhaps than having once been a West African and now being an American, or once a priest and now a businessman. Free people keep deciding to make strange crossings, from storekeeper to monk or from civilian to soldier or from man to woman. Crossing boundaries is a minority interest, but human.


My crossing — change, migration, growing up, self-discovery — took place from 1994 to 1997, beginning in my home in Iowa, then a year in Holland, then back in Iowa, with travels in between. As Donald and then as Deirdre I was and am a professor of economics and of history at the University of Iowa. From age eleven I had been a secret cross-dresser, a few times a week. Otherwise I was normal, just a guy. My wife had known about the crossdressing since the first year of our marriage, when we were twenty-two. No big deal, we decided. Lots of men have this or that sexual peculiarity. Relax, we said. By 1994, age fifty-two, I had been married those three decades, had two grown children, and thought I might crossdress a little more. Visit Venice more too.

I visited womanhood and stayed. It was not for the pleasures, though I discovered many I had not imagined, and many pains too. But calculating pleasures and pains was not the point. The point was who I am. Here the analogy with migration breaks down. One moves permanently from Sicily to New York because one imagines the streets of New York are paved with gold, or at least better paved than the streets at home, not mainly because back in Catania since age eleven one had dreamed of being an American. Migration can be modeled as a matter of cost and benefit, and it has been by economic historians. But I did not change gender because I liked colorful clothing (Donald did not) or womanly grace (Donald viewed it as sentimentality). The "decision" was not utilitarian. In our culture the rhetoric of the very word "decision" suggests cost and benefit. My gender crossing was motivated by identity, not by a balance sheet of utility.

Of course you can ask what psychological reasons explain my desire to cross and reply with, say, a version of Freud. Some researchers think there is a biological explanation for gender crossing, because parts of the brains of formerly male gender crossers in postmortems are notably female. But a demand for an answer to why carries with it in our medicalized culture an agenda of treatment. If a gender crosser is "just" a guy who gets pleasure from it, that's one thing (laugh at him, jail him, murder him). If it's brain chemistry, that's another (commit him to a madhouse and try to "cure" him).

I say in response to your question Why? "Can't I just be?" You, dear reader, are. No one gets indignant if you have no answer to why you are an optimist or why you like peach ice cream. These days most people will grant you an exemption from the why question if you are gay: in I960 they would not and were therefore eager to do things to you, many of them nasty. I want the courtesy and the safety of a why-less treatment extended to gender crossers. I want the medical models of gender crossing (and of twenty other things) to fall. That's the politics. I am ashamed that from the 1960s to the 1990s, in the political movements for black civil rights, women's liberation, gay rights, and opposition to the war in Vietnam, I had sound opinions but never really took a chance on them. Telling you my story is my last chance to be counted.

And incidentally, Why do you think you are the gender you were officially assigned to at birth? Prove it. How odd.

Ah. I think you need some treatment.


After a year of hesitation, and two years from well beginning, I found to my delight that I had crossed. Look by look, smile by smile, I was accepted. That doesn't make me a 100 percent, essential woman - I'll never have XX chromosomes, never have had the life of a girl and woman up to age fifty-two. But the world does not demand 100 per-cents and essences, thank God. An agnostic since adolescence, in my second year of crossing I came tentatively to religion and then could thank God in person, who made me inside in my comfort a woman.

I get weepy sometimes as I walk to the office, pick up my dry cleaning, shop at Prairie Lights bookstore, so pleased to Be. It's like someone who thought herself more French than American and one day was able to be French; or someone who always hoped to be a professional athlete and finally became one; or someone who felt herself a businesswoman and at last was seen as one. My game of solitaire came out.

I apologize for romanticizing sometimes the goodness of women and criticizing sometimes the badness of men. It's how I felt at the time. Forgive me, new to this place and starry-eyed. Perhaps my stories of Donald and then Dee and then Deirdre show enough bad women and good men to offset my romantic theories. In contrasting how men and women "are" I do not mean to recruit stereotypes or essentialisms that have been used to the disadvantage of other women. Women are not always more loving, or less interested in career. And certainly they are what in detail they "are" not on account of some eternal Platonic ideal or the imperatives of genetics. I am reporting how the difference in social practice seemed to me, admitting always that the difference might be, as the professors say, "socially constructed." Gender is not in every way "natural." "Feminine" gestures, for example, are not God's own creation. This of course I know. The social construction of gender is, after all, something a gender crosser comes to know with unusual vividness. She does it for a living.

I apologize, too, for any inaccuracies that remain despite my earnest attempts to get them out. I have tried to tell a true story. Yet none of the conversations and descriptions in the book are court transcripts. Each is something I believe I remember, ordered in the sequence I believe I remember, and intended to show how I heard and saw and thought at the time—my recollections, my ardent opinions, how I felt as I remember how I felt. I have been as careful as I can and have offered to show the manuscript to the main parties, some of whom could help.

The world does not tell stories. Men and women do, and I am merely a woman telling. It would be impossible to recount every single thing about your hour just passed, tiny things that illustrate character or position, much less to tell every single thing about three crowded years, or one side of a tangled life. Whether the result is God's own truth I don't know. Telling any story, from physics to fiction, is like placing stepping-stones through a garden, choosing what spots to miss in showing the path.


After the crossing I was eating lunch in Iowa City with a woman friend, another academic, and we spoke about how talk normalizes. She said, "This is the age of the candid memoir." So it seems. It's a good thing, we agreed, because talking to each other about who we are can make us mutually all human. Demonizing Others is the first stop on the railway to the gas chambers. Nowadays there are many books about the crossgendered. Movies and television have stopped portraying them as dangerous lunatics in the mold of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Since the 1960s, detested by those who value order above freedom, many kinds of people have spoken up: the raped women who kept their secrets, the unmarried mothers who kept theirs. In the 1950s a lot of people were keeping secrets, personal and state: the obedient wives, the hidden handicapped, the closeted homosexuals, the silenced socialists, the blacks under Jim Crow. After the liberation and the talk that followed they are no longer disgraceful Others or pathetic victims, or merely invisibles — "We don't have any homosexuals in Oklahoma" — but people whose stories are heard and talked about and might even be imagined as one's own. It's the difference between shame and life.

For this age of openness I praise the Lord, blessed be her holy name. I began to see that Christianity resembles the secular stoicism circa the 1930s in which I was raised, A. E. Housman to Hemingway, in that it promises no bed of roses. The world is mysterious from a human point of view, as both the stoic Housman and the Christian Gerard Manley Hopkins would say, and it contains bad news as well as good.

I found Christianity in this way grown up, admitting sin. That is God's own truth. And slowly as the story ended I began to hear the good news of forgiveness, the duty to offer it and the grace to receive.

You've probably seen "TransAmerica," and if you haven't read "Middlesex," I recommend it. Those were both fiction, and although based in reality, the constraints of fiction must always leave many questions unanswered. In this case the memoir seems like the perfect form.

I love transformations, the kind we choose, the kind that choose us, and the kind that are somewhere in between. Excellent reading so far.


checking in

I started my new weekend job last night. So far, so good.

For various boring reasons, the Friday afternoon commute sucks, but it's only once a week and hopefully only for six weeks. After the end of August, I'm hoping they will let me drop Friday evenings but keep Saturday and Sunday.

I have lots to write about but no time this weekend, so expect an overload on Monday.


my dogs are so thoughtful

Our dogs always get us cards for our birthdays and anniversaries. They are so thoughtful that way.

Allan and I don't usually go for cards with messages; we usually buy blank cards and write our own. So this one surprised me. (Uh, even though it wasn't "from" Allan.) I really love it.
Every dog lover should

know his dog's birthsign; leave phone messages for the dog; get birthday gifts from the dog; consider getting a cat for the dog; see babies and think puppies; have a near-miss in traffic because a dog was walking by; have stepped in some, barefoot, in the dark; know better than to leave a closet open; know all dogs by name, if not all owners; be pleased to learn that 63% of you sleep with them; buy anything a dog is selling; should be counted on to ask, no matter what other awful things are reported, Was the dog ok; understand they are never replaced; and you will fall in love again...

Oh no, I teared up this time, too.

mississauga continues to amaze me

I belong to the YMCA of Mississauga, a beautiful facility right next to the Square One mall and the central branch of the Mississauga Library. I joined for swimming. They have a great pool, I'm a 5-minute drive away, and it's only $50 a month for a basic membership.

In New York, because we didn't live in an upscale neighbourhood, I either walked - not a pleasant walk, but a congested, annoying walk - to a low-budget, low-service gym, or schlepped on the subway to swim in an overpriced basement - and paid well for the privilege. The Mississauga Y is nicer than any health club I could afford in New York City, and half the cost.

Of course, that means you're living in Mississauga, not New York City, which for most of my life was not a tradeoff I would have chosen. When co-workers would come back from vacation extolling the low rents or housing prices in Houston, or Atlanta, or Cleveland, I'd think, Yes, rents are low, but you have to live in Cleveland. I didn't move here for the inexpensive health clubs. It's just a nice bonus.

So anyway. (Notice I didn't say "But I digress"? I'm waiting impatiently for that one to die out.) Now it might get even better.

We live right near the Mississauga Valley Community Centre, one of many community centres out here. This one houses a branch library, teen and senior programs, and all kinds of sports and recreation. Walking and driving past it, I've seen a sign for the Terry Fox Aquatic Centre, and kept meaning to check it out.

I finally did, and I'm amazed.

It's free.

You don't even have to register. You just show up.

It's in walking distance, and it's free. Wow.

Hours are limited, as length swimming has to share time with swim lessons, but I should be able to work with it.

Naturally I'll check it out before I end my Y membership. But if it works, it will be completely amazing.


harper's alert

New Yorkers, former New Yorkers, and everyone afraid of the Bush agenda: quick, run out and buy the current issue of Harper's. The terrific New York writer (and my email friend) Kevin Baker has this cover story: "A Fate Worse Than Bush: Rudolph Giuliani and the politics of personality".

The first sentence:
Rudolph Giuliani has, by far, the most dubious known personal history of any major presidential candidate in American history, what with his three marriages and his open affairs and his almost total estrangement from his grown children, not to mention the startling frequency with which he finds excuses to dress in women's clothing.

There's tons of other worthwhile stuff in this issue, including Jonathan Kozol (another favourite writer of mine) on US education, Benjamin DeMott on addiction to violence, and fiction by Alice Munro. Go for it.

new england in july, part four (final)

Our next stop was in Northampton, near Amherst, in western Massachusetts. It's an artsy, organic, progressive area, with a lot of college (meaning university) students, activism, music, art, good food, used bookstores and all the rest. Our friend and nephew D has lived there off and on for many years. He's about to pull up stakes to re-join his partner in acupuncture school in New Mexico. They met in a bodywork and holistic healing institute. She is also an herbalist, and with acupuncture added to their repertoire they will one day have a holistic practice together. This was an opportunity to see D before he heads back out west.

D is a great friend of ours, and had a great time talking, eating, drinking, and seeing a bit of his community. We even got in a small dog fix, taking a walk in the woods with "his" dog, a border collie he has taken care of and spends time with.

D is also an avid sports fan, mostly football but also baseball, and we're pretty much the only people he shares that with. We were going to ask him if we could watch the Red Sox game in a bar - a great treat for us, being in Massachusetts and all - when he said, "Do you guys want to watch a game?" We caught the last half of Monday night's game in a bar in town. On Tuesday we went to a spot he frequents, an organic cafe/bar/used-book store housed in an old mill over a stream. The owner is a Sox fan who keeps a small flat-screen TV behind the bar. We ate organic noodles and sandwiches and drank sangria and watched an exciting pitching duel between Daisuke Matsuzaka and C.C. Sabbathia. Sox won 1-0.

Allan and I also met Charlie, an old friend of mine. Charlie and I were once very close, but last saw each other shortly after high school. He Googled me a few weeks ago, out of the blue. Turns out he lives in the same town as my nephew - in fact, D has played music to benefit some of Charlie's peace activism - and he got in touch just as I was about to visit. It was great to see him. He's a very intelligent, creative, open-minded person. The three of us easily could have talked all day.

The other thing I did in New England: drank large amounts of iced coffee. Oh boy. Although I found a workaround for my iced coffee problem, there is no substitute for being able to get The Real Thing everywhere. D works in a cafe that makes the best coffee I've ever tasted. (This is their other branch. Both super fabulous.) So not only was the coffee delicious and plentiful, it was free. Can't beat it.

We drove back on Wednesday, happy as always to come home to Canada and to our pups. My new weekend gig starts tomorrow night. Hope you are all well. Feel free to catch me up on news.

new england in july, part three

We took Betty out for dinner on Sunday night, and she suggested going to Stowe, the huge ski resort area on the other side of the mountain from her place. This is called "driving through The Notch," a narrow mountain pass, from which Smuggler's Notch gets its name. The road is completely closed in winter - and jammed with tourists in autumn.

Neither of us had ever done this before. It was a spectacular winding drive through dense forest. As you near Stowe, a tall, white steeple comes into view: it's the archetypal Vermont postcard. It's actually the church that you always see in photographs.

At dinner, somehow the subject of the Shelburne Museum came up. When I used to visit Allan in Vermont, we were always supposed to go to this Museum but somehow never did, even though it was minutes from where he lived. Then he moved to New York and I forgot all about it. When Betty mentioned it, I realized this was our opportunity. Since I never seemed to be able to plan this, a brief, spontaneous visit the next morning would be perfect.

Shelburne Museum is part craft museum, part New England cultural history and part historic village. It's on a big piece of land, dozens of buildings spread out over several acres. One admission fee is good for two days, which is really smart, as that would be the perfect way to see everything without going into complete numbing overload.

For us, a couple of hours focusing on a few things was perfect. Our highlights were some amazing quilts, a demo of various old printing presses, and a 19th Century Vermont train and train station. We also saw a miniature wooden circus, carved by an obsessed man with a penknife, and made a brief visit to a 19th Century general store. A big attraction for kids is the restored steamboat Ticonderoga, the last of its kind.

The whole museum is beautifully done, not kitschy, not theme-park-y. No one is dressed in period costume or speaks in pretentious pseudo-archaic language. It's just some very good preservation and education, and an opportunity to think about a world that preceded ours. I recommend it.

From there, as planned, we drove down Route 7, the scenic route that stretches from the Quebec border to Connecticut's Long Island Sound. On a tip from Betty, we stopped for lunch at Rosie's, outside Middlebury: perfect, delicious comfort food. If you find yourself in this area, and you like things like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, go here.

Route 7 is picture-book New England the whole way down. I find it so refreshing - such a relief - to be away from advertising and chain stores, to see scenery that looks like a specific region, not Everywhere, North America. We drove through villages and college towns, and lots and lots of farmland. Driving back and forth from Betty's to Ray's to Mary's was all farmland, too. Corn and cows, corn and cows. Vegetables for sale, maple syrup everywhere, more corn, more cows. Silos, barns, churches, town squares.

Vermont is smart to try to control development. I know it's a difficult balance, but if Vermont doesn't look like Vermont, who will ever go to see it?

We're usually only in the Burlington or Stowe area. This was the first time I had ever driven north-south through the whole state, and may have been the first time Allan did, too, although it's his home state. It was beautiful.

new england in july, part two

Sunday was a family day, not a common occurrence on Allan's side, but always very pleasant. It's also pretty superficial, which keeps it pleasant - but this is not a bad thing.

Allan doesn't keep up with these relatives in his daily life, but when he touches down, he's always made to feel welcome, and I am too, when I'm there. There's a lot of warmth and good feeling, and there's no tension, no prying, no obligations. Allan has no parents and is estranged from his siblings, but this family connection has slowly strengthened over the years. It's nice.

We spent time with great-aunt Betty, some of her children (who are a little older than us), their children (who are young adults and doing interesting things), and a newly adopted kitten. We also visited Mary, Allan's grandmother, who is doing much better than she was a few years ago. That's always a little tough, but it means a tremendous amount to her to see Allan, so it's worth the effort.

Betty is one of my favourite people. She's traveled all over the world several times; if there's a place she hasn't been, it's because she didn't want to go. She's camped across the US, backpacked through Europe, scubaed the Great Barrier Reef, canoed on the Amazon. (And she's seen way more of Canada than I have.) She grew up on a farm, working in the sugar house, taking care of the animals and the land. She was a school teacher for a long time; her husband worked in White House media and they traveled on Air Force One.

Now Betty lives in an idyllic setting, where she gardens, photographs wildflowers (from which she creates her own note cards), and watches the local wildlife. But she's no isolated country crone. One of her grandsons is covered in tattoos and piercings, rides a motorcycle and works in web design. For Betty, it's all good, as long as he's happy.

A big presence in their lives right now is a nearby neighbour who is in the end stages of cancer. Friends and neighbours have made a huge outpouring of attention and effort, including gathering to build the family a new roof. It was an amazing thing to see and hear about. I'm accustomed to communities forming through lifestyles or world views or common interests. I barely knew old-fashioned geographic communities still existed.

new england in july, part one

I wasn't able to write on this trip, but I need a journal of all my travels, no matter how short or seemingly ordinary. I'm sure this will make for completely boring reading; you know what to do.

The drive through eastern Ontario to northern Vermont was stressful and annoying. It rained almost the whole way, we hit rush-hour traffic around Montreal and then missed a turn before the border, adding an hour to our trip at the very end. Bah. We didn't pull into Betty's until around 9:30, a good 3 hours later than we were expected. We sat and talked with Betty for a while before bed. More on Betty later.

The rain was worrisome, because the wedding was outdoors, but RFV and L lucked out - Saturday was a perfect blue-sky day. We found a roadside motel not far from their home by rural standards, telling Betty we were staying at RFV's, and RFV we were staying at Betty's. That way no one felt obligated to put us up, and we (especially me) could have a little privacy and quiet the following day.

RFV and L live in a big rambling farmhouse with exposed beams and zig-zagging additions. Their huge yard slopes down a hill, with a creek running through it and cowpaths on all sides. They live there with L's two sons, a beagle and a couple of cats, and they seem like they couldn't be happier.

Allan has known RFV (that's Ray From Vermont) since high school, a connection that has waxed and waned over the years, as those things will do, but is strong and genuine. I've known RFV a few minutes longer than I've known Allan. Allan and I have met several of Ray's girlfriends over the years, and in recent years he has really wanted to settle down, but was smart enough to hold out for the real deal. It's clear they have a real partnership.

The ceremony was in the backyard, everyone wearing shorts, sandals and plastic leis. They read their own vows, and it was pretty wonderful. I hate the fetishizing of weddings, and neither Allan nor I could care less if RFV and L made it legal or not. But seeing someone you care about in a solid, loving, happy partnership is truly a beautiful thing.

On the groom's side, the theme of the wedding seemed to be, Can you believe Ray is married?? He lived in an extended adolescence for a long time, remaining single while all his friends started families. On the bride's side, there seemed to be sheer jubilation and celebration. I get the feeling her boys' father was not exactly an ideal partner.

As for the party, let's just say it was a lot of time for me to spend in a group setting, without knowing anyone, and without making any good connections with anyone either. But what are you gonna do. Not everything is about my entertainment. I hung out, talked a little, watched my drinking, admired the scenery.

Allan talked to some people he hadn't seen since high school, and also Ray's mom, a wonderful woman who has always been very good to Allan. L's kids had lots of friends there, so there were gangs of teenagers running around and splashing in the pool. People played horseshoes and volleyball, and after dark we sat around a bonfire. We only got into one "discussion" with a wingnut, and even that was civilized. RFV told us several times how much it meant to him that we were there.

I drove back to the motel at about 10 miles an hour. Those dark, winding country roads, wildlife suddenly darting into view, with only a vague idea of where we were going, pose an interesting challenge late at night. But we found the motel without killing any creatures or getting lost, and we were near a good store for coffee the next day. Those are the things that make me happy when I travel.


i'm back

We're back. We had a great little trip and I'll be blogging tomorrow.

I know the wmtc banner has disappeared. The entire directory it was living in seems to have vanished. I'll sort it out. For now we'll all use our imaginations. I'm imagining a comfortable bed with a two dogs curled up beside it.


happy day, and bye for now

We're off to Vermont - a great way to spend one of the five major Kaminker-Wood stat holidays. Allan and I met on July 20, a million years ago.

Plus, I just wrote a cheque to our dogsitter, and the date on the cheque comes out like this:
20 07 2007


Have a great week, everyone. See you soon.


odds & ends, mostly canadian

You may remember my asking about your produce and food buying habits - organic vs local vs what's available.

I took advantage of not working weekends for a while to shop at Mississauga's farmers' market. It was a great treat for me. I tried to remember to bring a fabric shopping bag or two, and I bought corn, berries, cherries, tomatoes and nectarines. The quality was excellent, the atmosphere friendly and it's very nearby.

Much to my surprise, however, most of the produce sold there was not grown in Ontario! When I asked about that, vendors told me that their growing season is so short, if they only sold their own produce, they could participate in the market for only a month or two. But they are still local farmers, and I think it must be better to buy from them than from Loblaws. The quality was certainly better. So when I saw Ontario-grown produce - tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries and cherries - I bought it. But I also bought corn, nectarines and plums from various eastern States.

When we get back from our short trip, I'll be back to working weekends, so my farmers' market days are over for the time being.

Friend of wmtc Ferdzy has a new blog about local food, appropriately titled Seasonal Ontario Food blog.

* * * *

Allan and I have a bad habit of getting into TV shows just before a station replaces them with reruns of some other show. Most recently this happened with "Sons of Butcher".

I had seen previews or fleeting glimpses of this cartoon show ever since moving to Canada. But I didn't know what it was, and I never looked into it.

Recently, while unemployed, I checked it out - and loved it. I knew Allan would like it, too. Rock-and-roll self-parody, skewering religion and government, and silly sex-crazed young men. What's not to like.

When we moved to Canada it was on at least weekly, and sometimes every night. Then we started watching it - and it went off the air. Teletoon has replaced it with back-to-back "Family Guy"s, which we really don't need. I like Family Guy, but it's already on Global and the Fox affiliates. Only Teletoon had Sons of Butcher. Damn.

I know about the "Red Green" connection - Steve Smith was SOB's executive producer - but I haven't been able to find out if all the Smiths in the credits are related to him. Anyone know?

* * * *

This reminds me that I have not seen a single movie since Opening Day. Not one. We used to watch movies on off nights, or when there's a day game, or sometimes when our team is on the west coast. But now when there's no game, we just want to hang out in our backyard.

And, since I expect the Red Sox to play in (and win) the World Series, I won't see a movie til November.

I never even finished my movie list from the 2006 baseball season. I might have to give up on the list altogether.

* * * *

Canada Post has released a set of "Canadian Recording Artist" postage stamps, featuring Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Anka and Joni Mitchell. I love this, since no living person is ever honoured by a US postage stamp.

The stamps come in sets of eight, two stamps per artist, in decorative packages featuring one of the artists on the cover. Allan - frequently at the post office to mail CDs and DVDs all over the world - told me about them and I asked him to bring one home. He couldn't find one with Joni on the cover, but here's what they look like inside.

joni stamp001

I love that picture of Joni. I have a headshot from the same series on the wall near my desk.

Many friends and family from the US have mentioned how attractive Canada's currency is. I always show them the pictures, too - kids playing hockey, art work, animals. It's so refreshing to see something other than dead presidents and strange symbols on the bills. These stamps are a similar idea. Living, breathing Canadians. A nice touch.



I think Tala may be obsessive compulsive, or at least could easily become so if we encouraged her. Which we won't.

She's always been fascinated when our neighbours water their gardens. She runs alongside the fence, trying to get wet. Some folks will play with her - spray her - and then she's in heaven.

We don't water our lawn (what a waste!), so it took Tala a while to realize that she could actually get sprayed in her own yard. But now that she's discovered it, she loves it. She craves it. She's obsessed with it.

To do this post justice, I would really need to post a video, but a description will have to suffice.

Tala has two favourite modes of spray. If you set the nozzle to mist, she closes her eyes, holds her face up into the spray, and simply basks. If you set it to jet, she runs face-first into the spray with her mouth wide open. We were afraid she would drown, but she must be closing her throat in some way, because she doesn't even cough. The jet is definitely her favourite.

When she's soaking wet and we don't want her to be completely water-logged, we can spray a high arc, which she will gleefully chase for as long as someone is willing to hold it.

Why do I say she's OCD? Because this is all she wants to do. She sits bolt upright in front of the hose, staring, looking from person to hose to person. She has completely lost interest in her Kongs, which I took pains to teach her to fetch, so she could get more exercise and leave Cody alone. If she picks up a Kong at all, it's only to place it in front of the hose. And sit. And stare. If you ask, "Tala, where's your toy?" - which used to cause her to run to the nearest Kong - she goes straight to the hose.

She's desperate to be sprayed, no matter what the weather. Is there a 12-step program for a garden hose?

hose 001
So, my friend, we meet again.

hose 002
Please, please, please...

hose 007
If I stare at it long enough, will it turn on?

hose 005
That's ok. I can wait.

three days of 9-5 does not kill me

Especially since I got out at 4 every day.

Training was excruciatingly boring, but the trainer was good, we took lots of breaks, and best of all, we ended early and were paid for the full day.

Working downtown for three days, I was asked for directions seven times, all when there were tons of other people around. And I work three blocks from Union Station. (Last week I took a long walk around Mississauga Valley Boulevard, and was asked for directions twice - by people driving past, who pulled over when they spotted me.)

New Firm seems good so far. I think the job may last for a while, as I'm filling in for someone is seriously ill. Weird, isn't it, to benefit from someone else's misfortune?


a possible absence

Tomorrow I start a three-day training for the new part-time/contract job. For once I won't complain about training, because no matter how boring it may be, I'm paid by the hour and can use the bucks. After that, I have one day of appointments and busy-ness, then Friday we leave for a brief road trip.

First we head to Vermont for our friend Ray's wedding, a Hawaiian luau in a northern Vermont backyard. In Vermont we visit Allan's grandmother and some other relatives he has reconnected with. (Although the man has very little family, we have managed to see them - and stay with them - in three different states, including Alaska, plus one province.)

From Vermont we'll drive slightly south into western Massachusetts, to spend some time with nephew D before he moves back to New Mexico.

A five-day Allan-and-Laura road trip is always fun, especially since I feel like I haven't left my house except for job interviews and the gym in months!

So that's the week ahead, and I know you'll understand if I don't blog much while it's in progress.*

* Although every time I say that I end up blogging daily, so we'll see.

young people speaking truth to power

Amy Goodman has an inspiring story about some young US activists: Young Scholars Tell the President 'No' on Torture.

michael moore's open letter to cnn

The story starts here. (Well, actually the story starts a long time ago, but the immediate story at hand starts there.)

Michael Moore writes:

Dear CNN,

Well, the week is over — and still no apology, no retraction, no correction of your glaring mistakes.

I bet you thought my dust-up with Wolf Blitzer was just a cool ratings coup, that you really wouldn’t have to correct the false statements you made about "Sicko." I bet you thought I was just going to go quietly away.

Think again. I'm about to become your worst nightmare. 'Cause I ain't ever going away. Not until you set the record straight, and apologize to your viewers. "The Most Trusted Name in News?" I think it's safe to say you can retire that slogan.

You have an occasional segment called "Keeping Them Honest." But who keeps you honest? After what the public saw with your report on "Sicko," and how many inaccuracies that report contained, how can anyone believe anything you say on your network? In the old days, before the Internet, you could get away with it. Your victims had no way to set the record straight, to show the viewers how you had misrepresented the truth. But now, we can post the truth — and back it up with evidence and facts — on the web, for all to see. And boy, judging from the mail both you and I have been receiving, the evidence I have posted on my site about your "Sicko" piece has led millions now to question your honesty.

I won’t waste your time rehashing your errors. You know what they are. What I want to do is help you come clean. Admit you were wrong. What is the shame in that? We all make mistakes. I know it’s hard to admit it when you’ve screwed up, but it’s also liberating and cathartic. It not only makes you a better person, it helps prevent you from screwing up again. Imagine how many people will be drawn to a network that says, "We made a mistake. We"re human. We"re sorry. We will make mistakes in the future — but we will always correct them so that you know you can trust us." Now, how hard would that really be?

As you know, I hold no personal animosity against you or any of your staff. You and your parent company have been very good to me over the years. You distributed my first film, "Roger & Me" and you published "Dude, Where’s My Country?" Larry King has had me on twice in the last two weeks. I couldn’t ask for better treatment.

That’s why I was so stunned when you let a doctor who knows a lot about brain surgery — but apparently very little about public policy — do a "fact check" story, not on the medical issues in "Sicko," but rather on the economic and political information in the film. Is this why there has been a delay in your apology, because you are trying to get a DOCTOR to say he was wrong? Please tell him not to worry, no one is filing a malpractice claim against him. Dr. Gupta does excellent and compassionate stories on CNN about people’s health and how we can take better care of ourselves. But when it came time to discuss universal health care, he rushed together a bunch of sloppy — and old — research. When his producer called us about his report the day before it aired, we sent to her, in an email, all the evidence so that he wouldn’t make any mistakes on air. He chose to ignore ALL the evidence, and ran with all his falsehoods — even though he had been given the facts a full day before! How could that happen? And now, for 5 days, I have posted on my website, for all to see, every mistake and error he made.

You, on the other hand, in the face of this overwhelming evidence and a huge public backlash, have chosen to remain silent, probably praying and hoping this will all go away.

Well it isn’t. We are now going to start looking into the veracity of other reports you have aired on other topics. Nothing you say now can be believed. In 2002, the New York Times busted you for bringing celebrities on your shows and not telling your viewers they were paid spokespeople for the pharmaceutical companies. You promised never to do it again. But there you were, in 2005, talking to Joe Theismann, on air, as he pushed some drug company-sponsored website on prostate health. You said nothing about about his affiliation with GlaxoSmithKline.

Clearly, no one is keeping you honest, so I guess I’m going to have to do that job, too. $1.5 billion is spent each year by the drug companies on ads on CNN and the other four networks. I'm sure that has nothing to do with any of this. After all, if someone gave me $1.5 billion, I have to admit, I might say a kind word or two about them. Who wouldn't?!

I expect CNN to put this matter to rest. Say you’re sorry and correct your story — like any good journalist would.

Then we can get back to more important things. Like a REAL discussion about our broken health care system. Everything else is a distraction from what really matters.

Michael Moore

P.S. If you also want to apologize for not doing your job at the start of the Iraq War, I’m sure most Americans would be very happy to accept your apology. You and the other networks were willing partners with Bush, flying flags all over the TV screens and never asking the hard questions that you should have asked. You might have prevented a war. You might have saved the lives of those 3,610 soldiers who are no longer with us. Instead, you blew air kisses at a commander in chief who clearly was making it all up. Millions of us knew that — why didn’t you? I think you did. And, in my opinion, that makes you responsible for this war. Instead of doing the job the founding fathers wanted you to do — keeping those in power honest (that’s why they made it the FIRST amendment) — you and much of the media went on the attack against the few public figures like myself who dared to question the nightmare we were about to enter. You’ve never thanked me or the Dixie Chicks or Al Gore for doing your job for you. That’s OK. Just tell the truth from this point on.


if you didn't see it for yourself, you'd swear we were just paranoid

Memo to Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and the rest of the propagandists: just because we progressives say the Democrats are as bad as the Republicans, doesn't mean you have to label them all the same!

From the inimitable Joseph Cannon of Cannonfire, via you-know-who: more disgraced Republicans identified as Democrats in the mainstream media. Click here for the story, 'cause you've got to see the screen shots.

michael moore, still a hero

If you can sit through CNN's lies and distortions about the Canadian health care system, you'll enjoy watching Michael Moore slice and dice Wolf Blitzer.

(Yes, Canadians access health care outside the system, because the system doesn't cover dental care or prescriptions. Not because of wait-times, and not because the system fails us! And maybe some Americans have a shorter wait for hip replacements, but how many can afford them?)

Many thanks to my researcher-in-chief.

i join the neighbourhood

It seems our family has been adopted by some neighbourhood kids.

It started when our doorbell rang on Thursday afternoon. Allan told me there were kids at the door with a petition about animal cruelty. The petition was a little vague, but they were going door-to-door for signatures to give to our MPP. I was impressed. Besides signing, I went to the door to tell them what a good thing they were doing, and to chat with them about animals and activism. Any young person with an impulse to activism deserves encouragement.

An hour later, our doorbell rang again. The two girls were back. They said, "You were the only person who told us we were doing a good thing and actually talked to us. You were so nice and your dogs are so great and we were wondering, could we walk your dogs or come over and play with them sometime?"

I was friendly, but skeptical, as they're only 11. They both have dogs of their own, and one of them is very mature for her age. And of course, 11-year-olds are older now than we were kids. We let them do a brief trial walk while we watched, then a walk around the block without us, and it grew from there.

Yesterday Sue and Janie (not their real names) rang the doorbell off and on all day. They played with Cody and Tala in the backyard, and walked them a few times, and also sat around with me, drinking iced tea and talking about life.

They are bored - home all summer with no camp or planned activities - and have some upheaval at home. Janie's parents are already divorced, and she's in a joint custody situation, where she spends every-other week at each parent's home, a common arrangement. She has an older sister who doesn't see their dad, which makes me wonder what's going on with dad. Sue's parents are in the process of splitting up right now, and she's hurting. I'm no stranger to family upheaval. I could see it helped them to talk and get a little support.

They asked me a lot of questions about myself and Allan, and when they were found out we were writers, they almost exploded. Seeing books on our shelves with our names on them was the final kicker. (Looking at our packed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, they asked, "Did you write all these?") As it happens, the serial fiction I've been writing for Kids On Wheels, which concludes in the next issue, is about a girl who is trying to stop some animal cruelty. I'm going to give them the story to read - a rare opportunity for me to get some feedback from a young reader.

Sue is very smart and mature. She's also an excellent salesperson, trying to convince me that she can be our weekend dogwalker while we're at work. One, I don't think she's old enough to have full responsibility for a job that my own job depends on. I'd have to get Sue's mother involved, and I don't want to bother her. And two, the job is already promised to a young woman who really needs the money, a college student who is a single mother.

I'm working out an arrangement with Sue where she can "help" me with the dogs this summer. Come September, if she's still interested in a job, I'll invent one.

I'll have to manage this, as they'd move in here if they could. Last night the doorbell rang while I was relaxing with the baseball game. When I said that I was done for the day, that I wanted to spend the evening relaxing on my own, Sue quickly said, "You're busy, that's fine, sorry to bother you," and I told them to come back tomorrow. It's my last weekend at home alone for a while, and I do want to enjoy it.

On the other hand, it's been a long time since I had some young people in my life, and this adult-friend role comes naturally to me. In fact, I once earned my living through it, as a nanny. (If "mkk" is reading, she's nodding her head in agreement right now, as her kids were my special friends through their teenage years.) These girls, one of them especially, are clearly in need, and I'm happy to make the connection.

Interestingly, no parents have contacted me. I've asked several times, but the girls insist their parents don't care, as long as they have their cell phones and they haven't wandered too far away. It's much more similar to how I was raised (sans cellphone, of course) - with a large degree of trust and freedom, without a lot of fear, different from the overprotectiveness and paranoia I hear about today. I won't speak to the parents unless they contact me, to further the bond between the girls and me. It will be interesting to see if anyone ever calls.


ice patrol

Stephen Harper recently announced that the federal government will buy eight new Arctic patrol ships. This will supposedly help Canada "reassert sovereignty" over the far North.

There are a lot of things wrong with this, in my opinion. While I've been thinking about it - and while I wasn't blogging - for the last few days, two letter writers in the Toronto Star voiced my opinion for me, and better than I would have. Here they are.

Stephen Harper is astute to recognize our need to invest in Canada's Arctic, but his plan is embarrassingly misguided and far from prudent.

The matter for true concern is not the condition of Canadian icebreakers and patrol vessels. For Harper to casually admit that Arctic waters will be navigable by 2015 is reason enough to puncture the veneer of his environmental concern. Does he not recognize the sheer ludicrousness of such a statement, or the sense of urgency that it elicits?

Harper is telling us that when the planet has been altered beyond repair, we will be there to plant our flag and exploit its resources. Reckless exploitation is what brought us to this crisis in the first place.

In this age of concern for the state of global warming, it's perhaps the mode to criticize Harper for his lack of any environmental agenda. But Harper's knee-jerk spending defies common sense. An icebreaker becomes obsolete when there is no longer any ice to break.

I thought civilization had tired of the need to break through the Northwest Passage. The 17th century is over. If we want to lay claim to the Canadian Arctic, we've got to be committed to its upkeep before we concern ourselves with a petty attempt to defend it. If Harper's hope is to assert our sovereignty in the Far North, then there is no better way than by spearheading an effort to ensure its survival. That would be prudent Arctic spending.

Eric Démoré, Stratford, Ont.

* * * *

Let me get this straight. Our Prime Minister is prepared to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars in military hardware and personnel in order to keep his best friend from usurping traditionally sovereign Canadian property and resource rights. Has it not occurred to our hapless leader that no amount of military might will scare off the world's mightiest superpower? If Uncle Sam wants something, a few icebreakers and a hundred troops will hardly keep him at bay.

Apparently, Stephen Harper can think of no better way to establish our presence in the North than to send troops and hardware. Has it never occurred to him that supporting culture and encouraging the development of civilian infrastructure may be considerably more convincing to a truly "friendly neighbour"? It seems to me that civilized friends respect each other's sovereignty and settle problems in discussion and debate, not by showing off their respective gunboats.

Every time we have a problem with Harper's best friends, he is ready to snap shoulder-to-shoulder, ready-aye-ready, and we have to borrow from our grandchildren to finance military operations. I, for one, am getting a little tired of Canada's new government's obsession with military solutions to issues of civility and democracy.

Joseph Romain, Toronto

Thank you Mr Démoré and Mr Romain!

the incredible living camera

A friend sent me this astounding video of a British man who is an autistic savant. Check it out.

Sometimes I think the human mind is the greatest mystery of the universe.

PS: I'm using Blogger's new video upload function, which you can find at Draft Blogger.

mom leaves, i return

In a couple of hours we'll drive my mother to the airport. We've had a lovely visit. We haven't done much of anything except enjoy each other's company. She wasn't able to walk much because of an ankle injury, so we didn't go to the ROM or into Toronto at all. We had dim sum, played with the dogs, grilled dinner and ate in the backyard every night - good (coincidental) timing with the All Star break, so there were no baseball games, thus no reason to go inside - and mostly just sat and talked for hours.

I had purposely saved a few errands so I could take my mom on a drive and show her a little bit of Mississauga. On her previous visits, she only saw Port Credit - the village, the mom-and-pop stores and family restaurants on the lakeshore strip, the gorgeous stretch of waterfront trail - each an anomaly. As we drove around this time, my mom was amazed at the dozens of huge high-rises, the endless townhouse tracts, the vast acres of big-box stores.

Granted, my mother is very easily amazed - what's the dead opposite of jaded? that's her - but even so, I knew Mississauga would impress both positively and negatively.

Our little development looks like the suburbs she's familiar with - modest homes on large lots. The oversized homes shoehorned into every available lot, the collections of ugly condo towers, punctuated only by shopping plazas and strip malls, and the sheer quantity of housing and shopping out here, are very different. She loved the diversity. And man, did she love our big backyard.

Now I've pretty much been sitting for 3 days straight. I'm looking forward to a good swim after she leaves.

* * * *

Big local news recently, eh? First Sam's closes, then Ed Mirvish dies. Yesterday my mom was asking about a store she remembered from a previous trip to Toronto. She didn't know the name, but from her description we thought it had to be Honest Ed's. Then this morning we get the paper and see Mirvish's passing. Spooky. I'm glad I've been here long enough to appreciate, at least a bit, what these things mean to Toronto.


mom visit

My mom arrives today, staying until Thursday morning. We have a few things planned, like the ancient Peru exhibit at the ROM, but she's been having some trouble with an injured ankle, so we'll have to play that by ear.

She's excited to see our new place and meet the new member of our family. (All our dogs have known her a "Grandma".) Dim Sum in Mississauga and grilling in the backyard are definitely on the agenda. And endless talking, of course.

I can't wait to see her! Now off to clean.


stealing = stealing

Here's another find from my friend AW1L, who keeps me posted on so many things of great interest to me that I would otherwise miss.
The stones at Machu Picchu seem almost alive. They may be alive, if you credit the religious beliefs of the ruler Pachacuti Yupanqui, whose subjects in the early 15th century constructed the granite Inca complex, high above a curling river and nestled among jagged green peaks. To honor the spirits that take form as mountains, the Inca stoneworkers carved rock outcrops to replicate their shapes. Doorways and windows of sublimely precise masonry frame exquisite views.

. . . .

Imposingly tall and strong-minded, [Hiram] Bingham was the grandson of a famous missionary who took Christianity to the Hawaiian islanders. In his efforts to locate lost places of legend, the younger Bingham proved to be as resourceful. Bolstered by the fortune of his wife, who was a Tiffany heiress, and a faculty position at Yale University, where he taught South American history, Bingham traveled to Peru in 1911 in hopes of finding Vilcabamba, the redoubt in the Andean highlands where the last Inca resistance forces retreated from the Spanish conquerors. Instead he stumbled upon Machu Picchu. With the joint support of Yale and the National Geographic Society, Bingham returned twice to conduct archeological digs in Peru. In 1912, he and his team excavated Machu Picchu and shipped nearly 5,000 artifacts back to Yale. Two years later, he staged a final expedition to explore sites near Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley.

If you have visited Machu Picchu, you will probably find Bingham's excavated artifacts at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven to be a bit of a letdown. Mostly, the pieces are bones, in varying stages of decomposition, or pots, many of them in fragments. Unsurpassed as stonemasons, engineers and architects, the Incas thought more prosaically when it came to ceramics. Leaving aside unfair comparisons to the jaw-dropping Machu Picchu site itself, the pottery of the Inca, even when intact, lacks the drama and artistry of the ceramics of earlier civilizations of Peru like the Moche and Nazca. Everyone agrees that the Machu Picchu artifacts at Yale are modest in appearance. That has not prevented, however, a bare-knuckled disagreement from developing over their rightful ownership. Peru says the Bingham objects were sent to Yale on loan and their return is long overdue. Yale demurs.

Call it scientific inquiry or manifest destiny, it's all just political words* to mask the cultural theft that was once accepted practice. Strong nation marches into weaker nation, plunders its cultural heritage (and usually its natural resources and its people, too), marches off with everything it deems valuable (funny how those savages managed to create all that loot!), then uses it to attract tourists and the profits that follow. Later, when stronger nation no longer controls half the world, and weaker nation has a leg to stand on, formerly stronger nation says, sorry, we can't give it back, we're still studying it, and those people would only wreck it anyway, and we have to store it here for safekeeping, where the world can enjoy it.


I have not made it to Greece or Egypt yet - both very high on our must-visit list - but I have seen the treasures of the Parthenon and the Rosetta Stone. And as much as I love the British Museum (and I do!), there was something sickening and wrong about seeing the cultural heritage of those ancient civilizations divorced from their context, sitting in a room half a world away, in the capital of a country that once ruled the world, but does no longer. (Do you know the Parthenon Marbles were always known as the Elgin Marbles, after Thomas Bruce, "Lord Elgin", who discovered stole them?)

There's no excuse anymore. There should be no argument. Would Americans allow the treasures of the Smithsonian to be shipped to, say, China? Would the British relinquish the Shakespeare quartos, Magna Carta, Caxton's Chaucer, and the rest of their awe-inspiring literary heritage, housed in The British Library?

The treasures of Machu Picchu clearly belong in Peru. Perhaps we'll live to see it in our lifetime.


* "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." - George Orwell

"the strong shall not dictate to the weak"

The Toronto Star recently ran a series they called "Uneasy Mosaic," purportedly examining the state of multiculturalism in Canada today.

Most of the issues they highlighted were the ordinary growing pains of any society with a diverse population: intermarriage, gender equality in religion, assimilation vs ethnic identity. To my mind, none of it showed Canada's mosaic as especially "uneasy". Multiculturalism and diversity bring all sorts of tensions and challenges. And a majoritarian society - where minorities are second-class citizens and conformity is required - does not?

In today's Star, Haroon Siddiqui offers a good perspective.

Canada Day brought with it the usual hand-wringing about Canada.

Are we too multicultural? Do we have enough common values? Are too many immigrants importing alien values and contaminating ours? Are too many of them clustering in "ethnic ghettoes" and not learning enough about Canada and other Canadians?

Such discussions tend to be ahistorical and, therefore, uninformed and unhelpful. Those fretting should read some history themselves.

Canada has always had ethnic enclaves, still does. Is the Lawrence and Bathurst neighbourhood too Jewish? Woodbridge too Italian? Rosedale too WASP? Yes. So what?

People live where they want to, with their own kind, if you will. The rich "self-segregate" in Forest Hill. Why are pundits mum on that bit of isolationism but pontificate against "ethnic segregation?"

Immigrants have always brought their beliefs, languages and cultures with them. They don't develop amnesia the moment they land in Canada. There was a time when they were expected to, and many pretended to. Multiculturalism has done away with that bit of posturing.

What we can, and do, demand of immigrants – something they accede to, anyway – is that they obey the law of their adopted land. They cannot import any cultural or religious practice that might run afoul of our law. Where there is ambiguity between the law and some egregious imported practice, the government outlaws it, as Ottawa did with female genital mutilation, by amending the Criminal Code to remove any doubt about its illegality here.

Prejudice against the religious practices of immigrants is also as old as Canada. Just ask the Catholics – French, Irish, Italians, etc. – and the Jews, who faced the most scorn.

Social exclusion, too, predates multiculturalism. In fact, it is universal and timeless. Most people marry their own kind. Why is intermarriage between whites the accepted norm but not among others?

There's always tension between the young and the old, especially in immigrant families. That's the push-pull of old values and new – and of "old country" attitudes and newer, evolving ones. That's the alchemy of a living, breathing – as opposed to an ossified, dead – culture.

Cultural and social effervescence is what makes Canada a nation of possibilities. Each generation feels free to redefine the country and does, for the better. That's something to celebrate, not condemn.

Immigrants are not the only ones blissfully ignorant of our history. In fact, a poll for the history-conscious Dominion Institute shows that immigrants may know more about Canada than the native-born. In a 21-question test, more immigrants answered more questions correctly than those born in Canada. While only 7 per cent of the foreign-born did not know the name of our prime minister, nearly thrice that many of the Canadian-born, 18 per cent, had no clue.

Canadian history should be compulsory in school. That would, to start with, make the debate on immigration/multiculturalism less banal, more logical. It would also help explain some Canadian quirks: why pipsqueak P. E.I. has four guaranteed seats in the House of Commons while Toronto is denied its due demographic representation; and why Catholic schools get government funding but not Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other separate schools.

Often the debate on Canadian identity/values is a smokescreen for old-fashioned immigrant bashing. Or it is designed to denigrate multiculturalism, whose bedrock principle of the equality of all cultures and the dignity of all groups is hard for some people to stomach. So such people suggest setting some undefined "limits" on this or that immigrant religious/cultural behaviour.

But there can be no limits other than those drawn by the rule of law. People need not sacrifice their culture, religion and ethnicity, let alone their sense of self-worth, to suit majoritarian mores.

How far can respect for difference go? As far as the law allows, and no further.

This is not a negative assertion. Rather, it is a stirring affirmation of one of the core constitutional values of modern Canada: The strong shall not dictate to the weak on what is, or is not, acceptable. That power rests only with the people's parliaments.


friend of wmtc meets white stripes in whitehorse

How's that for an egocentric headline?

While Allan and I are sipping wine in our suburban backyard, and most of our friends are hanging out in Toronto, New York, London and similarly urban places, one friend of wmtc is living in a tent and clearing land to build her own house. And now I've learned that the only person I know north of latitude 60 met the White Stripes on their Yukon swing!

That's right, Dogsled_Stacie, friend of wmtc from back before we actually did the m-t-C part, met the White Stripes on their recent visit to Whitehorse. She hung out with them - demonstrated spear-throwing, I believe - and they put her on the guestlist for their instantly sold-out show, which she watched from the front row. Because a lot of people in the area couldn't get tickets, the White Stripes also played a free concert in a local park.

I am not a White Stripes fan, but if I were, I'd be freaking out over how they've embraced Canada. Even without loving their music, I am way impressed. Going up to the Yukon, the bus and bridge gig in Winnipeg, their surprise visit to a Toronto YMCA - this is the stuff of rock history.

Funny, when I heard White Stripes were in Whitehorse, I thought, gee, I wonder if Stacie saw them. She's the only person I know there. What are the odds.

More locally, plans are afoot for wmtc to meet the Yukon Yahoos live and in person. I am still very eager to travel in Canada. And although I thought our first major Canadian trip would be to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, it appears that we might go in a different direction: north. Way north. Plans are still pretty amorphous, but it looks like Dogsled Stacie may help our mushing dreams come true. More as things develop.

outsourcing education

As I may be doing some ESL tutoring this year, my friend AW1L thought of me when he saw this story in The Economist.
"We are addressing the bottom of the pyramid," says Krishnan Ganesh, an Indian entrepreneur, of his latest venture, TutorVista. It is a phrase that cheekily calls to mind the mass poor in his native country—but TutorVista, an online tuition service, is aimed squarely at customers in the developed world.

Mr Ganesh founded the company in late 2005 after spotting that personal tutoring for American schoolchildren was unaffordable for most parents. His solution is to use tutors in India to teach Western students over the internet. The teachers all work from home, which means that the company is better able to avoid India's high-wage employment hotspots. TutorVista further hammers home its labour-cost advantage through its pricing model. It offers unlimited tuition in a range of subjects for a subscription fee of $100 per month in America (and £50 a month in Britain, where the service launched earlier this year) rather than charging by the hour. Tutors are available around the clock; appointments can be made with only 12 hours' notice.

It is too early to gauge the impact of the service on educational outcomes, says Mr Ganesh, but take-up is brisk. TutorVista has 2,200 paying subscribers at the moment (most of them in America) and hopes to boost that figure to 10,000 by the end of the year. The company is expected to become profitable in 2008. Even cheaper pricing packages are on the way. Launches of the service are planned for Australia and Canada. Mr Ganesh is also investigating the potential of offering tuition in English as a second language to students in South Korea, where high rates of broadband penetration make the market attractive. Get that right, and China looms as an even bigger prize.

Mr Ganesh is gambling that the benefits of offshored services can be sold directly to consumers. Building trust for an unknown Indian brand is the biggest difficulty he faces. Having reassuring local managers fronting his operations in America and Britain certainly helps; so too does the fact that TutorVista's teachers are experienced hands, with an average age of 45 (many of them are retired). Quality control is vital: sessions are recorded and parents, student and teacher share a monthly call to discuss progress. As for the thorny problem of accents, Mr Ganesh points out that much of the communication is non-verbal—teachers and students write on a shared virtual whiteboard.

I don't know how I feel about this.

I have protectionist tendencies, having been raised in a very pro-union household. And I have trouble seeing how online tutoring could be even half as effective as one-on-one, person-to-person communication.

On the other hand, many people can't afford a private tutor, and there's always a shortage of affordable public classes. I'm all for the internet being used to help connect teachers and students in any way possible.

But I'm not in favour of dumping cheap labour onto the market, undercutting hard-won employment gains for teachers, who are already paid too little.

What do you think? Could this succeed? Could it ultimately hurt educators, or will the users be a different market, people who wouldn't normally hire tutors?


As an aside, I note that The Economist, a British publicaiton, often refers to the United States as "America". Because I got tired of hearing this favourite nitpick of the left, I have retrained myself to say "U.S." instead of "America". But this is one lefty line I don't tow.

The world over, including in South and Central American countries, the US is often referred to as "America". North America, Central America and South America are names of continents, but "America" by itself equals the United States, and in my opinion, that's OK. The only people who seem to care about this, in my experience, are Americans and Canadians.

I'll still do it, but I think it's silly.

great date

07.07.07! A great date.

It's not that I think sevens are lucky. Last year I liked June 6.


talk about sickos!

I hesitated to blog about this, but it's just too bizarre to ignore. What is up with wingnuts blaming Michael Moore for the recent bombings in the UK?

I really have to wonder if Aetna, Kaiser Permanente, Humana and the like are behind this. (If those names don't mean anything to you, feel lucky. Feel Canadian.) Could any ordinary citizen who was not an insurance industry lobbyist be so in love profit-driven health care that he would resort to such lunacy to defend it?

justice, american style

Obsidian Wings: "Which Of These Things Is Not Like The Other?"

Great stuff. Thanks to Allan for passing it along.


problem with comments?

Many people have mentioned that they've had a difficult time leaving comments - that Google won't let them log in, or the comments wouldn't take, or other issues.

I have only two suggestions, which are not guaranteed to work, by any means. One, log in to your Google/Blogger account before coming to wmtc. That seems to help. And two, try using the "ghost" address of www.wmtc.blogspot.com. That's the URL before it's forwarded to wmtc.ca.

I'm sorry to hear that Blogger has been strangling our conversations, however unintentionally. Annoying!

my plastic bag dilemma

Loblaws, where we do most of our food shopping, is selling these reusable bags for 99 cents each. They're made of 85% post-consumer recycled materials, they're big and they seem very strong.

I've only seen a few people at the store using these bags for their entire shopping. I'd like to do that, both for the plastic bag replacement itself, and for the visibility, to encourage other to do the same.

As I've mentioned before, we re-use all our plastic grocery bags. One use is for household trash, but there are always bags from the LCBO (which are sturdier) or Canadian Tire to use for that. With diligent recycling, we only have two or three small bags of trash each week.

The real issue is dog poop. We save all our grocery bags for dog poop cleanup, and with two dogs, we go through a lot of bags. Unlike Toronto, Mississauga doesn't want dog waste in the green bin - we have to throw it in the trash.

In New York, we used newspaper to clean up after our dogs. But in NYC, there's a trash can on every corner. We could scoop the poop, walk a few steps (half a block at most) and toss the paper.

In our little Mississauga subdivision, there are no public trash cans. We have to walk home with the poop, which makes newspaper pickup very impractical. Try walking two dogs, one of them young and energetic, holding two newspapers full of poop in your hand. Actually, don't try it. You'll end up cursing in frustration, and possibly worse. The grocery bag can easily be held along with the leash. Bags are really the only way.

We could buy small plastic bags for dog poop cleanup. But doesn't it seem silly to buy new bags for a single use, instead of re-using bags you get for free?

So if we buy reusable grocery bags, how will we clean up after our dogs?


war crimes = war crimes

While we're thinking about Canada treading a path independent of the United States, we should take a careful look at what road the US is actually on.

If you haven't seen this column by Scott Horton in Harper's, and the Andrew Sullivan post it references, please read both. They've been sitting in my inbox for more than a month, but it's never too late to see clearly. Thanks to both James and Allan for sending this on the same day.
One of the truly disturbing aspects of the Bush Administration's program of "enhanced interrogation techniques" is that there's nothing new about them. Each of the techniques is well known; each has a very long legacy. The practice of waterboarding, for instance, was closely associated with the Spanish Inquisition, and appears diagramed and explained in woodcut prints from the early sixteenth century. Similarly, the practice we know as the "cold cell" – or hypothermia – was carefully developed by the Soviet NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, as a means of preparing prisoners for interrogation. The Soviets used the motto "no blood, no shame," and the same motto recently emerged in units of the American armed forces in Iraq.

Many of these techniques were also practiced during World War II and the years leading up to it. They were certainly not practiced by the United States, however. The practitioners were German, particularly the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, the intelligence arm of the SS. The procedures were known as "enhanced interrogation techniques," or in German, verschärfte Vernehmung.

Today, Andrew Sullivan reproduces the Gestapo memorandum which set the guidelines for verschärfte Vernehmung. One of the most striking things about it is that, compared with what Dick Cheney and company want, it is mild. The Gestapo memo forbids waterboarding, hypothermia and several other techniques that the Bush Administration permits. And it imposed strict limits on how these "enhanced techniques" could be used – requiring oversight and permits. But what happened in practice? As usual, there was a race to the bottom and the obstacles put in place were quickly overcome.

Sullivan reviews the Norwegian war crimes trials in which the use of verschärfte Vernehmung was established as a war crime, and a capital offense. He includes testimony of a Dachau survivor describing treatment which is within the limits of the "program" prescribed by President Bush. In my mind, this is mandatory reading, and more evidence of the depraved thinking of U.S. leaders who have pushed the "program" forward. Is it reductio ad Hitleram to even raise this? That will be the dismissive charge. And on this point, I'm afraid, we need to insist that the accused stand their ground and defend themselves on the merits:
Critics will no doubt say I am accusing the Bush administration of being Hitler. I'm not. There is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007. What I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn't-somehow-torture – "enhanced interrogation techniques" – is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.

If you're not familiar with Andrew Sullivan, he's no bleeding-heart lefty. He's perhaps best described as a conservative libertarian. But this is not about politics. This is simply about being human.

"canada is a grown-up country"

Among the ubiquitous what-Canada-means-to-me stories papering the landscape last week, I read this essay in the Toronto Star by Michael Byers, a political science scholar. Byers praises Canada's current status:
We have the world's second largest expanse of real estate, a population of 32 million well-educated, globally connected people, a strong infrastructure and good public services.

We have abundant natural resources and vast tracts of farmland. Our location, halfway between Europe and Asia and next door to the United States, gives us easy access to the world's largest markets. We have the eighth largest economy and are the only G-8 country (apart from oil- and gas-rich Russia) with balanced books.

We have no sworn enemies and remain well regarded for our contributions – mostly during the 1950s, '60s and '70s – to United Nations peacekeeping, multilateral diplomacy and international law.

But he cautions Canada to follow its own path, distinct from that of the United States. Right now this means distinct from Stephen Harper - but Harper's Liberal predecessors are not blameless on the central issues of climate change and foreign policy.
Stephen Harper's government has been particularly subservient, blindly adhering to the policies, prejudices and prerogatives of George W. Bush.

On the Middle East, Harper discarded decades of Canadian policy when he declared last July that Israel's response to a Hezbollah raid in northern Israel was "measured." The Israel Defence Forces bombed arterial roads, bridges, power and gasoline stations as well as Beirut's international airport – the heart of Lebanon's tourism-based economy. More than a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed.

Harper refused to moderate his stance after eight innocent Canadians, all members of a single family from Montreal, died during an Israeli strike. He later accused those who questioned the Israeli government's actions of being "anti-Israel."

Harper's black-and-white vision of the Middle East stands in contrast to the nuance and even-handedness that Pearson brought to the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Canada's then-foreign minister won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Afghanistan, Paul Martin moved our troops from a peacekeeping mission in Kabul to a U.S.-led counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar. Harper has kept them there despite mounting casualties, diminishing prospects for success and an absence of support from 21 out of 26 NATO allies. A focus on air strikes and poppy eradication – strategies borrowed from U.S. failures in Iraq and Columbia – are turning the local population against all Western troops, to the public consternation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

On the all-important issue of climate change, successive Canadian governments have dragged their heels while knowing full well about the dangers.

. . . . In August 2006, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the Conservatives were developing an environmental plan that would push for greater co-operation with the United States "on key aspects of air pollution and climate-change policy." The plan ignored the reality that the Bush administration has an abysmal environmental track record, not only on climate change but also on air pollution – where it has loosened the regulatory requirements for coal-fired power plants in spite of the objections of many U.S. states.

Last month, at the G-8 summit in Germany, Harper colluded with Tony Blair and Bush in watering down a summit communiqué that might otherwise have included specific, post-2012 emissions reduction commitments on the part of the world's largest economies.

Byers concludes:
Across the board, it's time to insist on a made-in-Canada foreign policy that relies on a clear-eyed assessment of how Canadians could best advance their collective interests, and those of the rest of humanity.

It's also time to recognize that, when we stand up to the United States, we rarely incur a penalty. Instead, we often gain. Jean Chrétien made the right decision on Iraq, and by doing so he saved Canadian lives, avoided the ensuing quagmire and signalled to other countries that Canada remains an independent country –open, among other things, to its own diplomatic and trading relations.

He might even have gained some respect for us in Washington – a city dominated by bare-knuckle politics rather than quiet, Canadian-style consensus – by demonstrating that Canada is a grown-up country, that our support must be earned and never assumed.