Saturday, September 27, 2008

St. Lawrence

When I first clapped eyes on the St. Lawrence, that sunny morning years ago, I was struck by its blueness, the sheer size and might of it. My life since then has been twined around it: canoeing, tent-camping, swimming, diving. Sometimes, especially in winter, when it's un-navigable, I listen to the growl and scream of shifting ice, the twitter of the ice plates along the shoreline and the chime of the swaying willow branches laden with glittering pendants of ice.

There's so much lying beneath the surface: the remains of the Lost Villages and hundreds of wrecks, which make it a paradise for sport divers. Zebra mussels are an ill wind: they have made the St. Lawrence clearer, better than the thin pea-soup that it once was. In addition divers now ride jet-propelled drives, which means less air expended in fighting the current, and fewer clouds of silt kicked up.

My favourite spot was the wreck of the Lilly Parsons (take a peek at: She's a beautiful, clinker-built wooden coal ship that went down in 1877 and lies upside-down in the Brockville Narrows underneath the shipping lane, her keel arching up towards the sunlight. The current alongside is fierce, whipping the guide rope into vibrations like a plucked guitar string. Around her lies scattered coal, which will still burn even after so many years in the dark depths, though with a foul sulphur smell.

I wonder if the little moray eel still lives in the wreck, or whether generations of divers have scared it away...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Seeing double, thinking single.

"Jim Brownell's Free Picnic", the wheel-up sign proclaimed beside Highway 2. Jim is our local Liberal MPP; from the number of times I've seen him attending local events from ribbon-cutting to church suppers I can confidently reveal that the man has the ability, like Padre Pio, to appear in more than one location at once, unless he has a body double. He's been at Queen's Park for several years now, but has managed to hang on to a guileless, open face and quick smile. The waistline creep tells another story, of the stress and busy-ness of the job. Jim has done a lot of good for our struggling area, which is why, apart from being a Liberal anyway, I vote for him.

Guy Lauzon is our MP in Ottawa. The thing about having this small rural riding as your turf is that you know you're not going to rise to your feet in the House of Commons and have the attention of the world riveted upon you. You may as well devote your time to improving the lives of the ordinary people in your riding, which is what Guy does. I vote for him in the Federal Elections, though he's a Tory.

When I let slip this convoluted logic to my elder daughter she was aghast, as though I'd confessed to running a cat-house for these past few years. "Typical bloody Boomer," she sneered. "Talking Liberal and voting Conservative." She filled me in on the evils of Stephen Harper, who is not regarded as Calgary's favourite son. (Where have I been? I must have had my head in a bag.) I'd always thought he was too cozy with the US; one morning we're going to pull back the curtains and see that Lake Ontario has been piped down to Arizona, so they can squander it on artificial lakes for their golf-courses, in 45*c desert heat. Or all of BC's water has been siphoned away to fill the swimming-pools and wash the cars of Californians.

"Check out 'Security and Prosperity'" she said. "There's a whole body of negotiations going on without the public's knowledge or input."

Water is the new oil. Will the US one day be parachuting troops in to "restore peace" in Canada, seeing as we're such a terrorist threat?

Guess I'll not be voting Conservative, then.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The kid strikes gold--again

The Western Magazine Awards shindig took centre stage at the River Rock Casino in Richmond BC on June 20th. A Gold Award in the Human Experience category went to Charlotte Gill for her story, "Eating Dirt", published in the Vancouver Review.

For more details, check

To read the story, check on the link (R)

To think--she taught me everything I know.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Quite the find.

I'm just back from a trip to England, where I

went on an ABC tour* to Edinburgh, York, Durham and Exeter.

In Canada, where the weather goes in a week or two from sub-zero to 32 degrees, masonry takes a lot of punishment and tends to fall down after a while.

These jaw-dropping buildings, created three hundred years before Columbus discovered Wal-Mart, are all over England, but sadly ravaged by that arch-vandal Henry VIII. Later, Oliver Cromwell finished off what Henry had left untouched, his yob infantry knocking the noses off all the medieval tombstone effigies and smashing all the reachable stained glass with their pikes.

Most cathedrals had their saint franchise--Thomas A' Becket in Canterbury, for example. There Henry demolished the saint's shrine, tossing the bones out on a trash pile and looting the gold and precious stones that adorned the shrine to fatten his coffers.

Durham, in the north of England, has a wonderfully muscular Norman cathedral. The looters set to work to pick off its shrines of Bede and St. Cuthbert, but on cracking open the tomb of St. Cuthbert discovered the body intact--incorrupt. Muttering "Blimey!", they shut it up quick and went away, leaving the body undisturbed.

Durham is England encapsulated--a little microcosm of the best of the country. A visitor could do worse than take the express train up from King's Cross and book into a local hotel for a five-day stay. Cobbled streets, knockout scenery (the huge towers of the cathedral rise over the gorge on a cloud of the trees' green spring fuzz), good shopping, picturesque alleys called "vennels", good eating, neat pubs, and the mirror-like River Wear snaking through the town. And it has the some of the world's friendliest people: two smiling local women, dressed in finery for a Saturday night out at the local bistro, offered to help us with our suitcases, and locals went out of their way to find us directions to where we needed to go.

Definitely worth a return trip--longer next time.

*ABC--Another Bloody Cathedral.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

News from a cold climate

It's been so sudden, this spring; one moment we're hunkering down in the gloom, the snow driving sideways in the teeth of a nor'-easter, settling into drifts three feet high on the back lawn. And now, this? What's going on? This week it's sunshine, blue skies and twenty degrees. Sugaring-off season has come to a screeching halt and the maples that only yesterday looked lifeless have erupted into feathery pink blossoms. The snow piles are shrinking almost with an audible hiss and the cats are giddy with the thrill of stalking everything in sight.

The trees have been spitting small branches all winter, and the lawn's strewn with the wreckage. I gather everything up and have a big burn, before the open-fire ban goes into effect, even cooking supper in the embers: baked potatoes. Rampant efficiency--but I look at the scenery wiggling in the heat and wonder about global warming.

Pretty soon the ground will be hard enough for Dig #4--new weeping tile all round the foundation. "Weeping" is right: I work out what it's going to cost, factor in the landscaping when it's all done and just imagine what I could have spent all that money on.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Alchemists

What is it about a medical degree that qualifies its owner to write/create? Think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Miller and Somerset Maugham. I've just finished "Travels", non-fiction short essays by Michael Crichton, novelist and another MD. It's autobiographical, flipping between journeys in the inner world and the outer; between forays into the jungle of New Guinea and experiments with astral planes in California. It's a page-turner.

Lest I got carried away with the heady prestige of being a medical student in London, undergrads from other disciplines like chemistry and engineering--from most of the other curricula, in fact--hastened to point out that medics were the low people on the intellectual totem pole. For most of us this was true. For myself it was a miracle: nobody in our family had ever gone in for medicine. I was single-minded, but a one-trick pony. But there were a shining few who were renaissance men, for whom medicine was merely a sideline. Some finished their degree but never went on to practice.

At Christmas the medical students performed skits to amuse the patients ("ward shows"). By far the most fun for the patients was watching the inebriated students (who spent much of the week tormenting their patients with multiple blood tests and endless questions) stumble around making fools of themselves. One group, the Cambridge Footlights, had class: their skits had most of us weeping with uncontrollable laughter. A tall, quiet guy named Graham Chapman figured prominently in this group, which was odd, because most of the time he was pretty gloomy. The "Monty Python" show still carried recognizable snippets from the Cambridge Footlights team.

Another gifted student was Michael Church; raised in Rwanda by missionary parents, he thought of himself as African; he brought African music to West End theatres. His talents also included replicas of the cave paintings at Lascaux, in France, reproduced on large plaster-of-Paris boards.

For a while I practised anesthesiology in Upstate New York. My colleague for many years had been a virtuoso clarinet player from Juilliard who'd played in the Metropolitan Opera and Radio City Music hall. One day he decided to study neurology, and that was it. He earned his way through New York Medical College on scholarships but, finding that neurology didn't put bread on the table, he became an ER doc.

At least one upstate New Yorker owes her life to his diagnostic genius; I remember the night we collaborated in drilling a trephine hole (with a bit-and-brace) to release the expanding blood clot that was crushing her brain (see "What to do Till the Neurosurgeon Arrives by Helicopter"). At about that time Allan became fascinated by anesthesiology and at 53 started a residency, all over again, in Buffalo, graduating (of course) with flying colours. All this while commuting each weekend (five hours one way) and moonlighting in the Emergency Room. He never touched the clarinet again.

Michael Crichton's fiction is darn good; listening to a tape of "Airframe" on a long car trip I was so mesmerized I missed my turn-off ramp. Now there's a man with a busy brain. In idle curiosity I browsed his website, with its list of staggering accomplishments, any one of which would do the rest of us credit. But if contentment is true success, as I believe it is, he's still looking. Being gifted is hard to live with, like being pursued by demons.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ah, the pity of it

I mourn the passing of a classical education: when people learned the Iliad, say, in ancient Greek. And Latin's perfectly feasible, even (perhaps especially) for a child.

Just as we no longer embellish our public buildings, our culture is thinner for abandoning its linguistic roots. Latin and Greek aren't cost-effective, so we teach self-esteem instead. Trolling music radio the other day I came upon the Reproaches, that beautiful segment of the Good Friday liturgy; it was a modern composition, in English, and hauntingly sung by a well-trained choir from St. John's church in Ellora. The poetry of the invocations in Greek is like a love song: "Hagiou Theou, Hagios ischyros, Hagios athanatos, eleison imas"...All that remains is a vestige, an English translation that ends the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

And now we have mangled plurals. The other day I heard "criterias". That's a first.
People: it's "criterion" singular, "criteria" plural. And "bacterium" and "bacteria", "medium" and "media".

But the plural of "Kleenex" ought by rights to be "Kleenices". And is the singular of "cafeteria", "cafeterium"?

All we have now is "like" and "go".

Monday, February 25, 2008

If I can't take it with me, I'm not going

If you thought a woman’s purse was just a handy way to carry around a few essentials, you’d be dead wrong. A man wouldn’t dream of carrying a purse; he knows all about its totemic significance. He’d rather have a big wallet, even one on a daggy-looking chain. A big leather tool-belt, yes–but a purse? Forget it.

There’s a mystique about purses that’s way beyond the convenience factor. Think back to your childhood; your mother’s purse was strictly off-limits. For all you knew she kept piranhas in it, and a surreptitious dip into it would transform your hand into a bloody stump. My own children knew about this taboo as well; they carried my purse to me and stood at a respectful distance while I rummaged in it for the last-minute cash they needed.

Leafing through the style section in the weekend papers you’ll see gaudy little purses retailing for the price of a semester’s tuition at college, or a Caribbean cruise. These are not just handy little totes, no; they’re where women keep their brains, the nerve centre of their lives. Women in movies stand outside their blazing homes screaming, “Save my baby!” The purse is already safe–it was the first thing they snatched up when they fled. The baby’s an afterthought.

We hate to be separated from our purses, and the older we get, the tighter the bond and the heavier the load. I’ve seen very sick, elderly patients, at death’s door, coming in for emergency surgery, and the purse is right there on the stretcher, at their elbow. Maybe there’s a pass somewhere in there that says,”Pearly Gates. Admit One.”

When I was young I carried a strappy little number that held a comb, lipstick and Tube fare. Now I can lose five ugly pounds any time, just by dropping my purse. I shudder to think what’s in it. Even I’m surprised when I check–it’s like archeology. And we favour the ones with lots of zippered compartments, just right for church. In the hush you’ll hear zip, zip, zip, interspersed with several minutes of burrowing, and finally the extraction, from the depths, of a cough candy with a wrapper that crackles like a five-alarm fire.

And the rubber bands. A few years back, I began slipping rubber bands round my address book and wallet to keep them together, only to look up and catch my eldest giving me a warning glare. Rubber bands, apparently, are the beginning of the slippery slope. Who knew? Maybe that’s the “fixed income” everyone’s on about–rubber bands round the wallet so the money doesn’t escape.

Meanwhile, somewhere, there’s probably an academic in a dusty library toiling away on a PhD thesis about purses. I’m waiting for the definitive article on how to travel light and leave half this stuff at home. When I come across it I’ll save it and slip it into my purse, inside the crossword-puzzle book, to read later.