Archive for July, 2009

The Dog we love, the Beast we fear

July 27, 2009 Leave a comment

A sharp controversy has been running in Toronto about the management policies of the local Humane Society. In British Columbia there is alarm and fear over the increasing number of attacks on humans by cougars and bears.

Both represent aspects of our conflicted relations with animals. In Toronto, it’s said the management is autocratic and refuses to employ euthanasia when it’s in the best interest of ill animals to do so. In B.C., the incursion of humans into wilderness areas — as in the case of mountain-side housing that’s been caught in forest fires around Kelowna — is blamed for driving hungry animals to attack people.

These issues came home to me while listening to Erika Ritter discuss her new book, The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath (Key Porter) at the Leacock Summer Festival this past weekend.

Ritter, a well-known CBC broadcaster who is the author of a novel, The Hidden Life of Humans that’s written from the perspective of both a woman and a dog, offers a wide-ranging and almost exhausting array of anecdotes, insights and observations in what she calls “some paradoxes of human-animal relationships.”

Her appearance at Leacock was part of a fun morning billed as a Dog’s Breakfast, to which people were invited to bring their pooches. Deborah and I brought our Wheaten terrior, Morag. Here she is, with me on the left. Erika is third from right.

Leacock Festival 

Ritter uses the legend of the dog and the serpent, a fable widely recounted in medieval societies, to get us into her book. It’s the story of a faithful dog left to guard the infant in the absence of the master.

On the master’s return, he finds the cradle overturned and the dog happily welcoming him with blood on his paws. He assumes it’s attacked the baby. But it hasn’t. It’s killed a serpent that was slithering into the cradle. Too late, he discovers the child unharmed. By then, he’s killed the dog in a frenzy of anger.

The fable is a reminder that our image of the Dog we love can turn suddenly into that of the Beast we fear.

Ritter goes on to discuss the use of animals in medical research, visits a home for “retired” medical primates in Quebec, and interviews an autistic academic at Colorado State University who has developed more humane procedures for slaughtering livestock. A Stairway to Heaven, she calls the ramp up which animals are led, quietly and orderly, to their ultimate dispatch, all the while shielded from foreknowledge of their fate.

Ritter as a human being and as a writer and an animal lover is very much in this book. She tells of the sad outcome of a friendly mutt that insisted on following her to school. She recalls the effect that reading The Yearing had on her as a child.

She also investigates the role of animals in religious sacrifice, and tells us how elephants, caught in the Roman Circus Maximus where they faced death at the hands of men armed with javelins, aroused the sympathy of a blood-thirsty crowd by their howls and lamentations.

As Ritter spoke, it became clear that her book is no mere emotional testament to the humanity of animals, or an endorsement of radical animal rights activism. Reading it last night, I found it a hard-headed and dispassionate assessment of our inability to behave very much differently than we always have toward non-human species, be they wild beasts, domesticated livestock, or companion animals.

Ritter says we’ve corrected unjust policies stemming from slavery, launched a women’s liberation movement, and made “grudging gestures” toward indigenous peoples.

There’s been “less uptick,” she writes, in “broadening the rights (of animals), assuming we could figure out how to do it.”

But we’ll treasure the dedication she put on Deborah’s copy of her book:

“For Morag – thanks for your respectful attendance and interest.”


Leacock, the wars, and history

July 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Stephen Leacock is one of the most enduring figures of Canadian literature. Some might regard that statement as faint praise. But he was a good choice for inclusion in John Ralston Saul’s series of Extraordinary Canadians for Penguin Canada.

Margaret MacMillan, a distinguished Canadian historian (Paris 1919, Nixon in China) admits her field is international history, not the history of this country. Yet she was a good choice to write the Leacock entry in the series.

In delivering the 2009 Leacock Lecture last night, MacMillan told us it was not easy “to get a sense of the full man.” She’s right. He is, I believe, the least understood of Canada’s literary figures.

Leacock worked as a university economics professor but is known for his humorous writings. His life, 1869 to 1944, covered the years of Canada’s existence as a loyal member of the British Empire. Canadianness was viewed with suspicion by an establishment that largely denigrated the few original expressions of character that were developing during his lifetime.

Most notably known for Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock , MacMillan writes, “lived through great changes in Canada and in the world, and his writings are part of the record we have of the past.”

MacMillan paid tribute to Leacock both as a humorist and a public intellectual — one of the very few that Canada had during his life. His speeches were reported on the front pages of the newspapers. His ideas were fodder for the editorial writers.

LeacvockIn the book, she reminds us of Leacock’s view that “the real virtue of a nation is bred in the country, that the city is an unnatural product.” Then she asks: “Don’t we still have that today with our enthusiasm for our cottages and for summer camps for our children?”

This makes me think that MacMillan is addressing the same comfortable upper middle class audience about whose foibles Leacock, wrote, made fun of, and otherwise demolished.

I asked MacMillan whether she thought there was still a market for Leacock’s work, and works about Leacock and others of his era, in today’s post-British, multi-ethnic society? Do Canadians whose recent roots lie in other lands give a damn?

She didn’t really answer my question, probably because there isn’t an easy answer. But she did make a good case as to why those Canadians should be interested in our past: The institutions and values of Leacock’s time are still largely our institutions and values, she said, and you can’t understand a country without knowing something of its past.

Other echoes of Canada’s past were heard at the Leacock Festival when authors Ted Barris and Tim Cook discussed their books: Juno by Barris and Shock Troops, by Cook.

The former deals, of course, with the Canadian landing in Europe on D-Day. The latter is the second volume of Cook’s history of Canada in the First World War.

Barris gave us illuminating anecdotes of Canadian achievements. Like the weather observer whose report after flying along the coast of Europe led to General Eisenhower’s decision to postpone the invasion by 24 hours. Or the cameraman who rode a Canadian landing craft onto the beach to record the first film of the Allied invasion.

Barris reminded us that soldiers don’t usually talk of their wartime experiences. He’s collected many such stories for his next book, Breaking the Silence, to be published in September by Thomas Allen.

Cook didn’t read, but he did sing. He sang a few ditties of World War I, such as Hit Me There Again (a satirical challenge to the Boche) and Mademoiselle from Armentieres, a bawdy ballad of the trenches.

How religion poisons everything – again

July 24, 2009 Leave a comment

I must break off my blogs on the Leacock Summer Festival to comment on the dreadful case of the three teenagers and their caregiver who died when their car plunged (was pushed?) into the Rideau Canal, near Kingston, Ont.

One must make no assumptions in a criminal case. But the fact their parents and an elder brother have been charged with first degree murder, has raised the question of whether this is an “honor” killing. 

It is interesting the extent to which apologists will go in rationalizing cultural practices like this. I heard a woman who is a sociologist at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) speak about this on The Current on CBC Radio this morning.

She seemed offended by the outrage being felt over this incident. Her line was that the issue is violence against women, not cultural practices, and that Canadians shouldn’t think they’re any better than people from other cultures because women are often violated in this country.

There are, unhappily, cases of women being murdered in Canada, as well as their children, by the woman’s mate.  But there’s no pattern of the type of murder of children by their parents like the estimated 5,000 “honor” killings per year that happen around the world in Muslim families.

It is an ironic coincidence that just this week, the United Nations issued its Arab Human Development Report, 2009. An account of the report is here.

Arab nations are part of the Muslim world. The report asks: Why have obstacles to human development in the region proved so stubborn.”

The report identifies several. Here’s one:

Many Arab women are still bound b y patriarchal patterns of kinship, legalized discrimination, social subordination and ingrained male dominance. Because women find themselves in a lowly position in relation to decision-making within the family, their situation continuously exposes them to forms of family and institutionalized violence. It is difficult to gauge the prevalence of violence against women in Arab societies. The subject is taboo in a male-oriented culture of denial.

What applies to the Arab countries in this respect also applies to other nations where Islam is the predominant (or only) religion.

All three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianly and Islam, spring from cultures of male supremacy. Secular movements within the first two have brought about the development of human rights and personal freedoms.  Not so much within Islam.

I think this is yet another example of how religion poisons everything.  The full report is at this link.

Of Highways and the Underground Railroad

July 23, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m at the Leacock Summer Festival in Orillia, Ontario. I’ll be hearing and visiting with authors for the next few days, and will blog as I go along.

You’ve probably speculated, as I have, on the idea of driving across North America — just dawdling along, stopping when you feel like it, and doing whatever comes to mind. All the while collecting memories, taking pictures, and of course keeping a journal.

Two people who’ve done just this are Wayne Grady and his partner Merilyn Simonds. They’re writing a book on their trip — “The Long Way Home.”

I got a preview at last night’s session of the Festival, when Wayne and Merilyn spoke of their adventure and read from their upcoming book. It’s scheduled for publication in September, 2010. It should rank up there with Travels With Charley and Blue Highways.

Their road trip begins at the border crossing of White Rock, B.C. Their intention is to drive wherever across the United States their mood takes them, ending up on the east coast before turning north and back to their home in Athens, Ontario.

Wayne led off their reading, explaining that each is writing his own section of the book. He took us through a farcical Customs clearance and on down past Seattle, all the while speculating on the differences in the sexual drives of men and women. He wondered if they shouldn’t find a romantic motel overlooking the Pacific. A thoroughly funny account.

Merilyn’s literary contribution is of quite a different nature, which will add to the charm of the book. Her reading tells of their travel through the Arizona desert to the Grand Canyon, and visiting the Mormon-populated northern strip of the state. She delivers a geography lesson and gives us telling insights into the religion that brought thousands of faithful polygamists into the “promised land” of Utah and the “democratic theocracy” of Brigham Young

Both are gifted writers. Between them, Wayne and Merilyn have published around a score of books over the past 20 years.

Nature and the environment feature in Wayne’s work. His most notable titles are probably The Great Lakes (Greystone, 2007) and The Tree, with David Suzuki (Greystone, 2006).

Merilyn’s most recent work is Night (Greystone, 2009), an exploration of nocturnal forces. She’s best known for her novels, including The Lion in the Room Next Door.

GloryLandThe first reader at last night’s session was Karolyn Smardz-Frost, the York University archeologist who is the author of the much-acclaimed I’ve Got a Home in Gloryland: The Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad (Thomas Allen, 2006).

This is a wonderful true story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, a young slave couple who escape from Kentucky in 1831 and find a home in Toronto. It’s also the story of how the author and her students unearthed their home in a downtown school yard, and her search to learn more about the lives of its occupants.

Ms. Smardz-Frost put her account into a modern context by explaining that a decision by the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada allowing the Blackburns to stay in this country, resonates today in Canada’s refusal to extradite in cases involving the death penalty.

The L-G of that day decided, in the case of the Blackburns, that they should not be sent back to face punishment “more stringent” than that which they would face in Canada. Because slavery had been outlawed here, they were innocent of any crime by Canadian standards.

The Blackburns lived on, to start the first taxi service in Toronto, and to play a vital role in development of the Underground Railroad.

My only disappointment last night was the small crowd hearing these authors. The Leacock Festival has to learn to become a destination attraction. The authors deserve it.

40 years from the Moon

July 16, 2009 Leave a comment

 I watched with a mixture of excitement and apprehension as my TV screen filled with images of Endeavor’s blast-off last night from Cape Kennedy. There’s still nothing like a space launch. You’re confident everything will be all right, but you’re never 100% certain.

Moon scene

The launch that put Canada’s Julie Payette back into space — joining another Canadian already at the International Space Station — came on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the historic moon trip of Neill Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

And Monday, July 20, will mark the 40th anniversary of their Apollo 11 landing, when Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon and uttered the memorable words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

(Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, that NASA had to doctor the tape of Armstrong’s audio; he muffed the famous line and it had to be edited.)

I remember gathering with my family that Sunday night long ago to watch the scene unfold on our black and white TV.

With us that historic night was my friend Ronald Lawrence, who was just getting up his own steam as a naturalist and author of wildlife books. Ron went on to a fabulous career in which he had his books translated into many languages. Sadly, Ron is no longer with us.

Mag DesolationThere’ll be a celebration at NASA headquarters in Washington on Monday. Armstrong, notoriously shy, won’t be there. Aldrin will. He’s been more public about his life, including his struggle with depression and alcoholism. He writes of his life in his new book, Magnificient Desolation: the Long Journey Home from the Moon (Harmony).

I’m old enough to remember the consternation Sputnik caused. When the Russian satellite went up, I told anyone who would listen that we’d be on the moon in ten years. It took twelve.

There are only seven more flights scheduled in the Space Shuttle series. Then it will be on to the Constellation Program. NASA hopes to have astronauts on Mars in 20 years. It’ll be a case of hopping out in stages. First, back to the Moon on a new space vehicle, the Orion, and its Moon lander, Altair. Then to the moons of Mars and finally, the Red Planet itself.

Worth all the cost? Of course. I’m convinced that Homo sapiens are genetically programmed to explore this world and move on to new ones. Some day, we’ll have to give up this burned out old planet, and abandon our tired, weak sun.

That’s longer in the future than any of us can imagine. The trail begun by Armstrong and Aldrin shows us the way. In the words of Chairman Mao, “The longest trip begins with but a single step.”

Vengeance of the guitar player

July 15, 2009 1 comment

I’ve always admired the ability of people who have “a way with words.” The journalists whose short, punchy accounts bring us the core of a dramatic story. The novelists who reach our hearts with their dialogue.The poets who create lyrical verses — especially those that can be put to music.

So I’m blown away by Dave Carroll of the Maxwells group. He had a bad experience with Air Canada/United Airlines. United broke his guitar and refused to acknowledge responsibility. Finally, in frustration, he told them he’d write three songs to tell the world of their negligence. Here’s one version, that’s all over the Internet:

Dave writes of this episode in his blog, which is here.

I once had a run-in with United in South America, but I was able to convince them to give me a free ticket as compensation. Then there was the time my daughter Sharon and I were trying to fly back from Tokyo. The day before our scheduled flight, I learned American Airlines had my booking, but had lost hers. I phoned the PR Vice President’s secretary. The next day, we were on our way — first class!

Yes, you can get published

July 13, 2009 1 comment

The setting was the big, cavernous auditorium at the Lakeshore Campus of Humber College in westend Toronto. I was there to join a panel of authors who were to deliver “success stories” on having their books published following their attendance at a Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop.

My invitation came from Antanas Sileika, director of the School for Writers. I attended the week-long Workshop two years ago. As a non-fiction writer, I wanted to see what I could learn about writing fiction. I learned a lot about creating narrative, setting dramatic scenes, writing dialogue, and establishing character roles.

There were seven of us on the panel. A remarkable number, considering that five had not previously published.

All were good, though some were too long. Most offered check lists of writerly techniques. Do your research. Don’t get frustrated by rejection. Go for a small press if you can’t get a big press.

I decided to use what I’d learned at my Summer Workshop to tell a story. About a non-fiction writer who wants to write a historical novel, set partly in a country (Scotland) he’s never visited. So he does a ton of research, reads a lot of books, and realizes he’ll have to go there.

He likes the works of a Scottish historian Michael Fry. So he phones up Fry, tells him he is coming to Edinburgh, and asks if they can meet. They do, and Fry — over a nice lunch and a pricy bottle of wine — agrees to read the guy’s first two chapters. A month later, Frey’s comments come back, offering lots of great historical advice.

Then the guy hears about Humber, decides to attend the Summer Workshop, and is teamed up with Guy Vanderheage, one of Canada’s greatest novelists. It’s a great week. After, he realizes he’s learned he can make his non-fiction a lot more appealing by borrowing from the novelist’s techniques of creating narrative, conflict, and suspense.

Joplin Cover

Armed with these new tools, he rewrites his latest non-fiction bit and promptly gets it published. I’m talking about my book, Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime, published this Spring by McFarland, a U.S. house.

Our host Antanas Sileika told the crowd of this year’s students (many doctors and lawyers among them) that he was blown away by my story of Michael Fry. He said he always advises students that the last thing one writer does is to ask another writer to read their work. They won’t do it! Maybe I’ve proven him wrong, at least this time.

I wish I had more space to talk about the other six presentations.

Cathy Ostlere spoke sensitively of her seven year struggle to cope with the death of her brother, drowned when he was sailing the Atlantic, and write her memoir of that tragic time, LOST (Key Porter). She was fortunate to be recommended to a leading agent, who negotiated a good package for her. Cathy’s now at work on a second book, a young adult novel of religious and racial strife in India, a country with which she has some familiarity.

I also liked the talk given by Sharon Kirsch, whose love of animals brought her to the writing of What Species (New Star), a book about the strange breeds of animals encountered by the first white settlers of North America. Like many authors, she had a series of rejections from various agents and publishers, but persevered, and won a contract with a B.C. publisher that specializes in nature books. It pays to know your niche!

Carol Helfenstein, a onetime farm wife, spoke of her book Why Not? (Brucedale Press) about how she and her husband took over a country weekly newspaper. Monika Lee told of the frustrations of getting poetry published, and how she found a publisher for Gravity Loves the Body (SWOP Press).

Madelaine Moore had amusing anecdotes about her career as a writer of feminist erotica, the latest being Wild Card (Black Lace/Random House). And Adrian White offered good advice in telling us of his new mystery novel Bethesda (Loon in a Balloon).

I’ll look forward to the alumni of this year’s Workshop giving their success stories in another year or two.