Sunday, December 14, 2008

Where is Jestina Mukoko?

Mukoko was forcibly taken from her home in Norton, west of Harare, Zimbabwe earlier this month by 15 armed men in civilian clothes in umarked cars and has not been seen since.
[Photo taken by Peter Bischoff].

She had been collecting evidence on human rights violations in Zimbabwe, and has documented that from January to September, 2008, there have been:

463 kidnappings and ab
202 murders

41 rapes

3,942 assaults

According to fellow campaigners, Mukoko had established a network of hundreds of monitors -- mostly church people, teachers and ordinary township dwellers -- who had provided handwritten testimonies of the campaigns of brutality carried out by Mugabe's government. The testimony could have been used in any future investigation of human rights abuses by the Mugabe regime. 'She had catalogued thousands of incidents of murder, assault, torture, arson, and who the perpetrators are. The work was so meticulous it could stand up in any court,' said one associate. [2]

This is the second serious kidnapping in over a month, after a suspected government hit squad seized 14 MDC activists – as well as the two year-old daughter of one of them – from the town of Banket 100 km north of Harare. Witnesses saw them being taken by police officers who have been identified. [3]

Human rights workers have gone into hiding across Zimbabwe. At least 20 political activists have disappeared in the last six weeks.

Friends and supporters fear that Jestina is dead. No one knows where she is. Meanwhile, a cholera epidemic ravages the country, leaving more than 500 dead.

'Tis the season of joy and peace, or so we hope, and thuggery, greed and genocide show no signs of abating. So in addition to cheery greetings of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, we still feel compelled to ask:

Where did they take Jestina and what has become of her?

Why is Mynmar jailing bloggers for simply expressing an opinion?

When is Aung San Suu Kyi going to be given her freedom? A Nobel Peace Prize recipient in her thirteenth year under house arrest, for advocating democracy.

Why did the Chinese arrest and torture Jigme Guri, a Tibetan Buddhist monk from Labrang Monastery for talking to the foreign media?

To the brutes and thugs of the world who think you'll eventually win: You WON'T. For every 10 you kidnap, torture and kill, another 20 will emerge to take their place.

Peace on earth from my window in Quebec this freezing winter morning. My deepest wish for this holiday season: that the world will one day heal itself and true peace might actually, one day, happen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Fear in Lhasa

A hurried farewell to Lhasa,
Where the fear is in your breathing, in the beating of your heart,
In the silence when you want to speak but don’t,
In the catch in your throat....

countless police with their guns ...
plainclothesmen beyond counting ...

Dreadful footsteps reverberate all round,
but in daylight you won’t glimpse even their shadow;
They are like demons invisible by day, but the horror is worse,
it could drive you mad...

A few times I have passed them and the cold weapons in their hands...

All those cameras,
Taking it all in,
Swiveling from the outer world to peer inside your mind...

They’re watching us ...

A hurried farewell to Lhasa:
The fear in Lhasa breaks my heart. Got to write it down.

(The above are just fragments of a poem by Woeser. Complete poem, at Ragged Banner Press.)

This Tibetan writer, who lives in Beijing, risks being arrested for what she writes. Her work is banned in China because she's investigating the March 2008 uprising in Tibet, because she "articulates the repression that many Tibetans feel," because she flouts the official line that Tibetans are okay with Chinese rule. [1]

Woeser's poem Remembering a Battered Buddha:
-- Text
-- Audio [Recited in English by A. E. Clark].

You have the guns.

I have the pen.

--- Woeser.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Burma Crisis Update

At least 14 democracy activists, including three Generation 88 student leaders, who participated in the 2007 protests were sentenced to 65-year prison terms.

A young blogger, who was responsible for getting the truth out to the world during the uprising, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

No one should go to prison for advocating democracy in their own country, no one should go to prison for practicing free speech on the Internet -- not even for one year, not even for one moment. The cruel sentences meted out to these brave dissidents prove that the Burmese thugocracy has no intention whatsoever of loosening its grip or changing its ways. [Excerpted from Words of Power blog].

Imagine: 20 years in prison just for writing on a blog. And 65 years for advocating democracy.
What a brutal regime.

(One day you'll be free, Suu Kyi.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Day of Remembrance

For all those who have lost their lives

or limbs
or sanity
fighting in a war
For all those who have lost a loved one

fighting in a war

May you find peace.

-- awyn

Monday, November 10, 2008

Afghan writer wins the Prix Goncourt

France's top literary prize this year went to Atiq Rahimi, an immigrant from Afghanistan, for his first novel written in French, Syngue Sabour, which in Persian means "Stone of Patience." It's about a woman in a country resembling Afghanistan whose war-wounded husband lies in a coma, "as paralyzed as a stone."

The 150-page story is set in a country resembling Rahimi's native land and is narrated by the paralyzed combatant's wife. Sitting at his bedside, she talks, not knowing if he can hear or understand. Freed from normal constraints, she reveals long- buried secrets about their life together. The book was published by P.O.L. [1]

Sounds interesting. I wonder if it'll be available in the local bookstores this week.

Atiq Rahimi's published works:

* Syngué sabour (2008)
* Le Retour imaginaire (2005)
* Les mille maisons du rêve et de la terreur (2002)
* Terre et cendres (2000)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

lines from Conrad's Secret Agent

-- It hung at a moderate elevation above Hyde Park Corner with an air of punctual and benign vigilance.

- The shoulders of Mr. Verloc, without actually moving, suggested a shrug.

-- His wit consisted in discovering droll connections between incongruous ideas.

-- A sad silence reigned for a time.

-- ... he said, with sinister familiarity.

-- He passed on, unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ungridify me

"Life are hard" he said
(and parenthetical)
tell me what to do
I am disappearing.

Where is the core?
Maybe if I undo the edge
or alter the pattern ...
what have you left
but shadows.

Open the window.

-- Annie Wyndham

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Aung San Suu Kyi on Hunger Strike

I heard this morning that Suu Kyi has not accepted her weekly delivery of food since August 15 and is rumored to be on a hunger strike. [1] She has spent 13 of the last 19 years in prison or under house arrest, and has not been seen in public since September, 2007.[2] And the military junta has just extended her detention for another year. [3]

Burma has one of the worst human rights records in the world: a country of only 20 million people with a thousand political prisoners, 500,000 political refugees, poets and journalists tortured for speaking out.[4]

I passed along this news to a friend and former colleague with whom I worked in Amnesty International some years ago, who was lamenting the fact that despite all our efforts advocating for human rights, such monstrosities still continue. "History has moved on into an even stranger world that I no longer feel relevant to," he said.

I know how he feels. I've been thinking the same thing lately. But what is it about this woman that makes it so insistent that the fight must go on? Imagine ... winning your country's election, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and your country's military junta is so afraid of what you represent that they lock you up and forbid you visitors, not even a dying husband wanting to see his wife one last time. This woman is a giant, and they know it. Even if they succeed in killing her, she will have won.

And where is the rest of the world, while this continues? Why aren't more speaking up for Aung San Suu Kyi??

I find that so bizarre--that an army of over 400,000 soldiers is so afraid of this one woman. It says volumes, both about them--and her.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Saturation Point

Information overkill, I am shortcircuiting today.

Everytime I turn on CNN, it's the Denver convention, 24/7, and will be for the rest of the week. Overkill with re-runs of the same footage, repeated over and over and over, as if there is no other news. (When was the last time they talked about what's going on in Iraq? I can't remember.)

So what's happening in Denver? Well, you can click here to see Amy Goodman of Democracy Now's video coverage of the Democratic National Convention. She gives some interesting interviews, some of which helped put things into perspective for me. Real, in-depth discussion, as opposed to soundbites and spin.

Maybe it's time to kill the television. So rare that anything worthwhile ever comes out of that box, and it's eating up time better spent elsewhere.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

You Are Who I Say You Are

I was thinking this morning of my best friend in high school, now deceased, whose name was Mary Lou. We all went to a Catholic school and every time she wrote her name on a school assignment, the nun would cross out the middle name "Lou" and replace it with "Louise". "No, that's not correct," my friend would say. "It's Lou. My birth certificate says 'Lou', not 'Louise'." But still the nun insisted it had to be "Louise" (because "Lou" is not a saint's name). My friend's birth name was not acceptable; she was forced to use the one the nun had assigned to her.

Then there was a friend from college days, Vladimer, from Slovakia. He had been renamed "Val" by his co-workers, who couldn't, apparently, pronounce a "v" and an "l" together.

These are examples of the perhaps unconscious reactions by people to the concept of Otherness, i.e., you encounter something that is not familiar or that somehow bothers you; it makes you a bit uncomfortable. Your solution is to change the situation to make it more acceptable. So you rename the person or thing, and in doing so reveal to the person involved, as well as everyone else, a subconscious desire to cancel out the Otherness. Some will acquiesce to this, out of a desire to be accepted or assimilated, and adjust accordingly. Others, however, may feel that a portion of their self identity has been compromised, and in some cases, forever altered.

Vladimer didn't seem to mind becoming Val. But Mary Lou stubbornly fought, from her desk in the third grade, to not become a Mary Louise.

Dunno why these thoughts popped into my head this morning, perhaps it was the winding down of the Olympics and I'm reminded again that since the Chinese began occupying Tibet, the Tibetan language and culture are being systemically wiped out. You can apparently get arrested for possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama. (Shades of the pesky Borg: "You WILL assimilate!") Kind of like we did with the Native-American Indians, discouraging and downright forbidding them to speak in their own language--and renaming them. (The goal of Indian education from the 1880s through the 1920s was to assimilate Indian people into the melting pot of America by placing them in institutions where traditional ways could be replaced by those sanctioned by the government.)[1]

What is it about Otherness that threatens us so? Why do we feel we have to make others be just like us in order to feel completely comfortable with them? It happens all the time, and not just with foreigners. People of some religions cannot rest until they have converted people of another religion, or of no religion, to their particular way of thinking. How many wars have resulted as a result of this type of mindframe?

I read an interesting review recently, by Naz Rassool of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas's book Linguistic Genocide in Education--or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? (2000) "Skutnabb-Kangas draws on experiences of people in the USA to highlight the different pressures on some immigrants to change their names as a prerequisite of belonging to the dominant group within the country of adoption. Other contemporary examples include the widespread pressures for workers employed by Western transnational companies located within, for example, the Far East to adopt a Western (Christian) name."[2]

Check out Skutnabb-Kangas's 2002 essay entitled Language Policies and Education: The Role of Education in Destroying or Supporting the World's Linguistic Diversity.

Myriad thoughts on a lazy Sunday morning, over a cup of lukewarm Chinese flower tea.

Monday, August 18, 2008

An invitation

A dear friend and former teacher has invited me to join a religious/philosophy discussion group, which would be a very good way for me to improve my French. But I am going to decline, not because I don't need the practice--I do. But because while it purports to be a "discussion," what really usually happens is that it quickly could turn into a verbal sparring session: Someone presents a theory and cites a historical reference; someone else disagrees and challenges the validity of the 'argument', citing a different reference; and then a third person pipes in to demonstrate why his belief or opinion is more valid than that of the others'.

What does it matter, really, that Buddhism is not really a "religion" [break off here for a 15-minute discussion on what constitutes a religion], or that atheists don't believe in God, or that agnostics aren't jumping on any particular spiritual bandwagon (i.e., committing one way or another, belief-wise), or how a particular religion mutated or evolved, or what Jesus or Buddha would say about X, Y or Z? I know these things matter to some people, and they can discuss such subjects endlessly. I guess I am not one of them because it doesn't, in the scheme of things, seem all that important to me right now.

My experience of discussion groups involving religion or philosophy (or politics), has been largely that participants attempt to defend a particular belief or position to people who believe the exact opposite. There is a lot of talking, but very little actual listening, and it always seems to boil down to: "I believe X, and you believe Y," and the sole purpose of the "discussion", as it sometimes escalates into an eventual shouting match, is everyone is trying to convince everyone else that they are Right and the others are Wrong. The thing is, nobody will admit that to themselves.

For example, say a person makes a statement (about religion or philosophy or politics) and someone else replies with an alternate view. This often results in an immediate verbal attack back. If the discussion is by email, it a response might be delivered with exclamation points or words all in capital letters (indicating that someone has hit a nerve). One then responds with a counter comment or cites a reference; the other person then argues that that information is erroneous, irrelevant, or biased and offers his or her justification for the opposite view... punctuated with more exclamation points. And the war is on, ha ha. And while it's always good to gain more knowlege and be better informed, it rarely results in either party's really being all that receptive to seriously considering anything that would radically change an already deeply held belief.

To have a meaningful discussion, you first have to agree on the terms, define the language. If what X means by "God", for example, is different from what Y means by the word "God", then you're coming from different universes. Ditto for philosophical or political discussions.

To be fair, perhaps this group wouldn't turn out that way. But discussions of this sort seem to me an exercise mainly for scholars and fellow devotees. I'm flattered to have been invited. While it might be interesting to compare what Kant and Plato and Aquinas and Spinoza and Christ and Buddha all have to say on a particular subject, in the end I have really only my own personal experience to go by. I have spent years reading and thinking about philosophy and religion and don't especially enjoy having to justify whatever conclusions I've drawn, or engage in debate about why I feel that one particular belief system seems more reasonable to me than another. It's too personal a matter. Again, if I were a scholar, such lively academic conversation would be of much more interest. (It was,at one time, very much so, actually.) But you can only talk about it so much (unless it's your "field"). Everybody to his own path.

It occurs to me that the REAL reasons for my declining, though, are something much more basic: (1) I get tongue-tied when obliged to speak in front of a group; and (2) my French is not yet good enough to allow me to engage in any meaningful way in what probably would be a lively discussion with everybody all speaking rapidly, discussing books or writings or philosophers or scriptures with which I may not be familiar.

But what a nice thing to have been asked.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

No Free Press at the Beijing Olympics

The IOC issued firm statements that freedom of the press would be respected during the games. China has also insisted that, "there will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games."

But foreign journalists have issued reports about everything from restricted internet access to restricted movement. They also report of being photographed by police officers while they interview athletes
. [1]

So much for freedom of the press. As for the audacity of anyone raising the issue of what's happening in Tibet--don't even THINK about it! A number of Chinese commented on this video saying, in effect, that such protests are "disrespectful" of the Chinese people and "Don't come to China if you aren't going to follow 'the rules.'"

Run that by me again, will you? "There will be no restrictions on journalists", China said. So China blocks or denies internet access and restricts journalists' movements. (And in the case of this British journalist, arrests them.)

I think that's what the Native American Indians used to call "speaking with a forked tongue."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Cobalt Blue Tea Kettle

Last week I happened to pass by a thrift shop and saw inside, high up on a shelf, a marvelous little cobalt-blue tea kettle, on sale for a mere $8.00. It was flawless, it looked brand new. (I found a similar one on sale on the Internet for $60, and another at $119.) I had no cash on me at the time and I resolved, at soon as possible, to return and buy it. It matched other items in my blue kitchen. I had bowls and dishes the exact same color.

I began obsessing about that blue kettle. I HAD to have it, I just had to. I had never seen one like it before. I wanted it desperately. It seemed, well, urgent that I go get the money and come back and buy it.

It was this sudden sense of urgency that puzzles me.

On Thursday I had an appointment across the street from the shop and arrived early, for the express purpose of going and getting that blue tea kettle. But when I went inside, it was no longer on the shelf. Someone else had bought it. I was devastated. It had become such an obsession. Why? I was willing to spend grocery money on it. I already HAVE a tea kettle--a plain, boring, rather pedestrian aluminum one. So I didn't NEED another one. But it wheezes and sputters instead of whistles and it was a hand-me-down--why not replace it with something more functional and attractive? And that cobalt blue color!, the sleek, smooth design--everything about it was perfect. And I HAD to have it--that one and no other, right then, right there.

In retrospect, it puzzles me, the force of that sense of urgency about that little blue tea kettle. It got me thinking about how strong some compulsions and obsessions are and how much they rule us. Just a random rumination today on Attachment and Obsession, and particular objects we covet and ultimately don't get to have. How does one detach oneself from the urgent longings for certain material objects?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Controlling Our Food Supply

The World According to Monsanto, a documentary by Marie-Monique Robin.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

For Tibet

At 9:00 PM.
One candle,
in my window,
with the others around the world,
in solidarity
with the Tibetans.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness.

-- Kahlil Gabran

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Where are you, Cedrika?

It has been one year today that Cedrika Provencher disappeared.

She was last seen at the corner of Descheneaux and Chapais Street in Trois-Rivieres by two women who said that she was looking for a small dog for an unknown person.

Cedrika is 10 years old, 5 feet tall, with brown hair and brown eyes, weighing about 70 lbs.

If you have any information regarding Cedrika, or know of her whereabouts, please contact L'Enfant-Retour Quebec at 1-888-692-4673, or call the QPP at 1-800-659-4264.

Une messe spéciale pour Cedrika, suivie d'une marche à la chandelle, aura lieu ce soir à 20 heures au Sanctuaire Notre-Dame-du-Cap, à Trois-Rivières.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Candle for Tibet

It's almost time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. If you're going as a journalist there, you will have to be careful what you write. You may be instructed to leave your Blackberry at home. And above all, don't mention the "T" word, or you risk expulsion or arrest. Welcome to the Summer Olympics.

Some of us are going to light a candle for Tibet on August 7th, the day before the Olympic Games, because it nags at the collective conscience when a culture--this time, it's the Tibetan culture--is in the process of being systematically, and cruelly, swallowed up.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Container Gardening

This summer, the city made it obligatory for every household to use large identical, standard-size trash and recycle bins. What to do with our old blue recycle bins?

Well some people have gone and created small container gardens out of them. What a great idea!

Sustainable urban and suburban gardening is a growing trend. So is container gardening. My next-door neighbor rents an upstairs apartment and uses her tiny front porch to grow cucumbers and sunflowers, and her back porch to grow tomatoes. Many people grow herbs in pots in their windowsills or on their patio but a lot of them are also using containers to grow small vegetable crops.

My back yard is beginning to resemble a mini farm, requiring constant weeding, pruning and working the soil. I'd decided that next summer maybe I should downsize a bit and bring back what used to be a green lawn. I hate relinquishing space now allotted to all my veggie plants, though. And so when I saw that some of my neighbors, whose space is not even a fraction of the size of my backyard, are establishing mini-gardens in their old recycle bins, I realized I can turn parts of my yard back to green grass AND keep my current veggie production by simply using earth containers!

One nice thing about container gardening is that you can easily move your portable garden-in-a-bucket around to follow the sun. You can grow carrots, beans, onions, garlic, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, radishes and tomatoes this way. (Click here for how to make a container garden--and to grow your own tomatoes indoors this winter, click here. Don't have a yard, porch, balcony or patio? How about the roof? Check out this urban farmer's rooftop garden in Chicago (photos, video, and informative hints).

This is their roof garden -->

You hear talk about peak oil. Today I heard a backyard farmer warn about peak nitrogen. He plants crimson clover to fix nitrogen in soil that has been depleted of nutrients.

Suppose the unthinkable happens--food production becomes unstable, crops are increasingly contaminated, and commercially available foodstuffs are frequently unsafe to eat? More and more people will turn to growing their own food, even if it's only in a recycle bucket. And the saving of seeds becomes paramount.

Imagine an emergency preparedness scenario in which seeds become the new currency, where if you hope to find future food that has not been genetically modified or contaminated, a stash of organic saved seed becomes more valuable than gold.

Seed as currency, though. That gives me an idea for a short story, about a group of survivors following a global emergency, in which they're forced to sustain life by adapting and creating, out of necessity, methods both bizarre and ingenious by which to sustain life. It would not be a preachy type piece of fiction; rather one that examines the various mindsets before and after, and how each of say, eight different people react.

After a week of rain (and last week, hail!! which pock-marked many of the tomatoes and sliced and whacked the leaves of my little tree, Maurice)--finally, the sun has come out again.

Woo hoo.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Day at the Moulin

This afternoon we went for a short drive over to Pointe-du-Lac to walk around the grounds of the Moulin Seigneurial.

This is an historic flour mill built in 1790 that still operates today. Its original machines were powered by a waterwheel that still drives the mill stones.

A wonderful place to take a nice, peaceful stroll through the woods behind the mill or along the pond and enjoy the quiet. There's a little garden at the side of the mill, just bursting with cosmos (my favorite flower) and other colorful blossoms.

The address, if you want to visit the mill, is: 2930, rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Trois-Rivieres, QC, Canada G0X 1Z0 (Telephone 1-819-377-1396).

A short drive up the hill will take you to Boulangerie Guay (home of the famous baked beans). Or you can swing down to the little beach along Lac St-Pierre and watch the windsurfers, occasional barge drifting by, and of course, the ever-present, wonderful, swooping seagulls.

Right now at the Moulin, there's an interesting outdoor art exhibit by Celine Noury, titled "Imagin'aire". (You can read a review of this exhibit (en francais) here.) This exhibit ends September 30. We just happened upon it by accident. (That is, we just went there to walk around a bit in the woods and enjoy nature. What an unexpected, delightful surprise!)

My favorite wood sculpture was in a group called "Les Voyagers" (the Travelers). (See the last photo at the bottom.)

Can't get there in person? Click here to take a virtual tour.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The There and the Here

When you reside in one country
but your heart lives in another…
the Here becomes the new familiar.
What may have begun as reluctant acquiescence
turns to habit
as the Now slowly compartmentalizes
all former knowns.

Sometimes, lured by the pull of nostalgia,
you return to the There,
only to be met with a chill of alienation
wrought by time
and changes,
prompting you to question:
Where is my home?

You vacillate between the There
and the Here,
between the Then
and the Now,
struggling to hold a life remembered
against the blistering winds of change
that take you sometimes
where you may have never
to go.

--Annie Wyndham

Friday, July 4, 2008

It's That Time Again

... to celebrate what's the best--and try to fix what's the worst--of America.

Bruce Springsteen, live at the Memorial Colliseum in LA, singing "This Land is Your Land."

Happy Birthday America.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

When They Tell You to Shut Up

I would like to pass along a very arresting article I read today, called "Welcome Home, Soldier. Now Shut Up" by Paul Rockwell.

Rather than write about it, I am going to quote it here in its entirety. People should not be shunned or chastised for what they think or how they feel about something, just because the subject matter is offensive or embarrassing or contrary to their own perceptions of a thing. That a soldier can't talk about his personal experience of a war, because it contradicts someone else's story about that war, is disturbing.

Thank you, Mr. Rockwell, for calling attention to this matter.

There are two kinds of courage in war — physical courage and moral courage. Physical courage is very common on the battlefield. Men and women on both sides risk their lives, place their own bodies in harm’s way. Moral courage, however, is quite rare. According to Chris Hedges, the brilliant New York Times war correspondent who survived wars in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, “I rarely saw moral courage. Moral courage is harder. It requires the bearer to walk away from the warm embrace of comradeship and denounce the myth of war as a fraud, to name it as an enterprise of death and immorality, to condemn himself, and those around him, as killers. It requires the bearer to become an outcast. There are times when taking a moral stance, perhaps the highest form of patriotism, means facing down the community, even the nation.”

More and more U.S. soldiers and Marines, at great cost to their own careers and reputations, are speaking publicly about U.S. atrocities in Iraq, even about the cowardice of their own commanders, who send youth into atrocity-producing situations only to hide from the consequences of their own orders. In 2007, two brilliant war memoirs — ROAD FROM AR RAMADI by Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, and THE SUTRAS OF ABU GHRAIB by Army Reservist Aidan Delgado — appeared in print. In March 2008, at the Winter Soldier investigation just outside Washington D.C., hard-core U.S. Iraqi veterans, some shaking at the podium, some in tears, unburdened their souls. Jon Michael Turner described the horrific incident in which, on April 28, 2008, he shot an Iraqi boy in front of his father. His commanding officer congratulated him for “the kill.” To a stunned audience, Turner presented a photo of the boy’s skull, and said: “I am sorry for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on innocent people.”

The Winter Soldier investigation was followed by the publication of COLLATERAL DAMAGE: AMERICA’S WAR AGAINST IRAQI CIVILIANS, by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian. Based on hundreds of hours of taped interviews with Iraqi combat veterans, this pioneering work on the catastrophe in Iraq includes the largest number of eyewitness accounts from U.S. military personnel on record.

The Courage to Resist

We cannot understand the psychological and moral significance of military resistance unless we recognize the social forces that stifle conscience and human individuality in military life. Gwen Dyer, historian of war, writes that ordinarily, “Men will kill under compulsion. Men will do almost anything if they know it is expected of them and they are under strong social pressure to comply.” “Only exceptional people resist atrocity,” writes psychiatrist Robert Lifton.

How much easier it is to surrender to the will of superiors, to merge into the anonymity of the group. It takes uncommon courage to resist military powers of intimidation, peer pressure, and the atmosphere of racism and hate that drives all imperial wars.

Silencing the Witnesses to War

War crimes are collective in nature. Especially in wars based on fraud, soldiers are expected to lie — to their country, to their community, even to themselves.

The silencing process begins on the battlefield in the presence of officers, power-holders who seek to nullify the perceptions and personal experience of troops under their command.

In his war memoir, Aidan Delgado describes attempts of his commanders to suppress the truth about Abu Ghraib. First his captain says the Army has nothing to hide, Abu Ghraib is just a rumor. But then the captain continues: “We don’t need to air our dirty laundry in public. If you have photos that you’re not supposed to have, get rid of them. Don’t talk about this to anyone, don’t write about it to anyone back home.” In the U.S. military, the truth is seditious.

Two years ago, Marine Sergeant Jimmy Massey published his riveting autobiography (written with Natasha Saulnier) in France and Spain. How the Marine Corps - through indoctrination and intimidation - transforms a homeboy from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina into a professional killer who murders “innocent people for his government” is the subject of Massey’s unsettling, impassioned, Jar-head raunchy, and ultimately uplifting memoir, COWBOYS FROM HELL. (No U.S. publisher has picked up the book. A Marine who speaks truth to power is not without honor save in his own country.) In Chapter 18, Jimmy describes a seemingly minor encounter with his captain. Here Massey gives us a look into the process of human denial in its early phase.

Massey has just participated in a checkpoint massacre of civilians. His sense of decency, his sanity, is still in tact. Like any normal human being, he is distraught. The carnage of the war, the imbalance of power between the biggest war machine in history and a suffering people devoid of tanks and air power — the sheer injustice of it all — begins to take its toll on Massey’s conscience.

In the wake of the horrific events of the day, his captain is cool. He walks up to Massey and asks; “Are you doing all right, Staff Sergeant?” Massey responds: “No, sir. I am not doing O.K. Today was a bad day. We killed a lot of innocent civilians.”

Fully of aware of the civilian carnage, his captain asserts: “No, today was a good day.”

Relatives wailing, cars destroyed, blood all over the ground, Marines celebrating, civilians dead, and “it was good day”!

The Massey incident goes beyond the mendacity of military life. It concerns the control, the dehumanization of the psyches of our troops.

As one Vietnam veteran put it years ago: “They kept fucking with my mind.”

In 1994 Jonathan Shay, staff psychiatrist in the Department of Veterans Affairs, published a pioneering work on post traumatic stress — Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. According to Shay, who recorded volumes of testimony from Vietnam veterans, commanders routinely try to efface the perceptions and the normal feelings of compassion among American troops. Military necessity, including the ever-present need for political propaganda, determines what is perceived, and how it is perceived, in war.

It was an extremely common experience in Vietnam, Shay writes, to be told by military superiors dealing with crime and trauma: “You didn’t experience it, it never happened, and you don’t know what you know.” And it was fairly common for traumatized soldiers to say to reporters: “It didn’t happen. And besides, they had it coming.” Shay recorded the testimony of one veteran who, in great anger, describes the pressures to alter his perceptions of collective murder.

“Daylight came, and we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids…You said to the team, ‘Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.’ Because that’s what we were getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it. We got body count.’ They’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians. So in your mind you’re saying, ‘Ah, fuck it, they’re just gooks.’ I was sick over it, after this happened. I actually puked my guts out…But see, it’s all explained to you by captains and colonels and majors. ‘Fuck it, they was suspects anyways. You guys did a great job. Erase it. It’s yesterday’s fucking news.’”

Willful Ignorance at Home

The collective process of denial on the battlefield eventually extends to the homeland. Returning soldiers, to be sure, are often honored, but only so long as they remain silent about the realities, the pathos, the absurd evils of war. Willful public ignorance is a source of pain for veterans.

Ernest Hemingway’s brilliant short story, Soldier’s Home, published in 1925 after World War I, gives us insight into the reluctance of civilians to address the psychic needs of soldiers back from war.

The simply told story is about a young man named Krebs who returns to his home in Oklahoma. At first Krebs does not want to talk about the war. But soon he feels the need to speak — to his family, his neighbors and friends. But as Hemingway tells us, “Nobody wanted to hear about it.” His town did not want to learn about atrocities, and “Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie.”

There’s the rub. His ability to assimilate into civilian life depended on his willingness to fabricate stories about the war. Soldiers are not only expected to lie on behalf of the military during the course of war, they are also expected to participate in homecoming rituals that preserve the civilian fantasy of war’s nobility.

In Hemingway’s story, the pressure to lie is so powerful, Krebs begins to manufacture stories about his experiences in battle — just to get along, just be able to lead a normal life.

Repression, however, is a major cause of mental illness and loneliness. Krebs morale deteriorates. He sleeps late in bed. He loses interest in work. He withdraws into himself.

That’s all Hemingway tells us. It’s a quietly told story, all the more powerful for its understatement.

There is a connection between Hemingway’s war-informed fiction and real life. As Shay notes, there is a tension between a soldier’s need to communalize shame and grief and the unwillingness of civilians to listen to troops whom they sent into battle. One Vietnam veteran told the following story:

“I had just come back from Vietnam and my first wife’s parents gave a dinner for me and my parents and her brothers and their wives. And after dinner we were all sitting in the living room and her father said: ‘So, tell us what it was like.’ And I started to tell them, and I told them. And do you know that within five minutes the room was empty. They were all gone, except my wife. After that I didn’t tell anybody what I had seen in Vietnam.”

Welcome home, soldier. Now shut up.

Notwithstanding clichés and pieties about support for troops, those who promote war are often the least likely to share the burdens and memories of war when soldiers return. When Ron Kovic, who was paralyzed from the chest down during the war in Vietnam, steered his wheelchair down the aisle of the Republican National Convention in 1972, the delegates spat on him and cheered for Nixon — “Four more years.”

W.D. Erhart, Vietnam veteran and author of Passing Time, never forgot the horrific episodes of his tour in Vietnam. In his first autobiography, he tells a friend about his speech at a Rotary Club. “I even put on a coat and tie and went to the Rotary Club. The Rotary Club, for chrissake. I laid it all out for ‘em. I told ‘em about search and destroy missions, harassment and interdiction fire, winning hearts and minds, all that stuff…Was I ever sharp that day.

“Now listen. You won’t believe this. I got done and nobody said a word. No applause. Nothing. Then this skinny old fart shaped like a cold chisel gets up and says he’s a retired colonel, and he thinks we should keep on pounding those little yellow bastards until they do what we say or we kill ‘em all, and he tells me I can’t be a real veteran because a real veteran wouldn’t go around badmouthing the good old U.S. of A., and the whole place erupts in thunderous applause.”

Welcome home, soldier. Now shut up.

Today Georgia Stillwell is a mother of a 21-year-old Iraqi war veteran. Her son is now homeless, unemployed, and despondent. Early one morning he drove his car over an embankment. She says that her son is a mere physical shell of himself. “My son’s spirit and soul must still be wandering the streets of Iraq.” It is not simply what happened in Iraq, but how veterans are treated at home when they seek to unburden their souls, that reinforces post-traumatic stress. On the night he drove the car off the road, he was crying, talking about the war. “His friends tell me he talks about the war. They describe it as ‘crazy talk.’ He wants the blood of the Iraqis he killed off his hands.”

“Each generation,” writes Chris Hedges, “discovers its own disillusionment, often at a terrible price. And the war in Iraq has begun to produce legions of the lost and the damned.” For our morally courageous veterans — for all of us, really, who seek forgiveness — only the truth can heal.

Published on Friday, June 27, 2008 by The Black Commentator.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

FISA rumblings...

The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a legislative compromise on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, marking the beginning of the end of a fierce battle over civil liberties and national security that has been waged in the halls of Congress for more than three years.

And yet, for all of the political passions the issue engendered, the fight over FISA ended with something of a whimper. The final product -- much to the consternation of the progressive community -- gave the president wide authority to monitor terrorist suspects and collect communications from U.S. citizens without review. It also offered telecommunications companies that helped with the previously illegal program immunity from lawsuits, a hard provision to swallow for the program's opponents.

In the end, only 15 U.S. Senators were willing to resort to procedural tactics as a last-ditch effort to hold up the legislation

Five Myths About the New Wiretapping Law
(why it's a lot worse than you think)

Entire FISA Bill
FAQ on legality of wiretape program

Background of Controversy

Friday, June 20, 2008

Trois-Rivières, ma ville à moi

J'aime ma ville.
C'est pas trop grande...
et pas trop petite.

I admit, I wasn't so fond of it at first. I didn't find it as charming, for example, as old Quebec City; it lacked the number and variety of the great restaurants and lively markets (comme Jean Talon!) to be found in Montreal.

I found the downtown area (apart from the main street of centre ville) rather drab and colorless. But mostly it was the industrial pollution: Gentilly-2 just a short way up the road; and Wayagamack, daily spewing its toxic particulates and foul-smelling fumes into the air from tall red and white smoke stacks, which, depending on the direction of the wind, often heads directly toward my house.

One summer I tried swimming in the St. Lawrence near l'Ile-St-Quentin and was nearly swept away by the strong current, a truly scary experience. And the public pools close in mid-August, a bit too early because it's still as hot as Hades at that time.

So those were the negatives. But, as with any place where you live for a while, you become accustomed to things. You discover little pockets of interest you hadn't noticed at first: like stores that sell the special kind of food you like; quiet places you can bike to and sit in the grass and watch the cargo ships pass by on the river; wonderful little private gardens in your neighborhood; activist and community organizations with which you can relate. In short, Trois-Rivière has become "home" now.

Not that I don't miss the wonderful mountains of Vermont and Pennsylvania, or the bookstores and memory-filled streets of Boston and Cambridge. But there's something to be said for Being Where You Are, not always living in the past or future but making the best of wherever you happen to be at the moment, for however long that is.

There's an interesting little local street mag here (
journal de rue trifluvien ) called La Galère, which I bought for the first time the other day. Its May-June issue, titled J'aime 3-Rivières, is devoted to singing the praises of T-R, in essays, interviews, poems and pictures. Check it out: (la texte est en français) on line.

I can honestly say, I rather like being a trifluvienne now.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

As the World Churns

Newsjunkie-itis. Be glad you don't suffer from it. Only, you never get real news anymore--only vague snippets, misquotes, talking points and sound bites. You actually have to hunt down alternative sources sometimes to find out what's really going on in the world.

Don't you just love how news TV networks show live coverage of some important person speaking, then abruptly cut to some talking head advising you that the network will "monitor" the situation, and "get back to you" on it. (Why not let us hear the whole thing for ourselves so we can form our own opinion? Instead they spend the next 10 minutes opinionating, giggling and interjecting their own cute remarks. It's called "anchortainment.") What you have to watch out for is when something that's being reported all over Europe and the rest of the world seems to get minimal or no exposure on US news. The message, it seems to me, is: "Nothing to see here, folks. Let's move on."

Or they take a single event, and cover that one thing 24/7, footage re-run after re-run after re-run (OJ in his Bronco, Stacey Peterson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson, Natalie Holloway--crime, celebrities, fluff, spin and politics).

Dennis Kucinich presented 35 articles of impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives this week against George W. Bush, which will go into the Congressional Record (so much for your legacy, George). Nothing will be done, of course. Everyone's too afraid, it seems. (Of what?) This skinny little vegan (DK) has more guts than the rest of the bunch combined. About time it got in the record.

Unrelated but still of note (I hadn't been aware of this before), the number of suicides among young people in Bridgend, South Wales since January has now reached 22. Some people are blaming it on Bebo (an internet social network similar to MySpace). Others, suggest there's a connection with the "mosquito" (youth deterrent) device. Who knows what really caused these kids all to kill themselves? And why were 19 or more of them all found dead by hanging? A V2K experiment? [1], [2]

Speaking of news, there was a virtual media blackout back in April and May re: RVC's high-speed chase and subsequent death by gunshot (through the back) in Houston. (Who ordered the Tuxedo taken out, and why?) And when you tried to search recent articles about it, they seemed to have been mysteriously expunged from the local newspaper's website (the search reply was always "zero articles"), which is strange, because other, much older articles on other stories were still available. Anyway, someone with his same name, let's call him RC#2, posted a comment on a political blog recently, warning that Israel's going to stage a false flag terror op in August that will be blamed on Iran. ("Israel will ‘retaliate’ and so will the US," RC#2 says. "We're all screwed.") What is one to make of that?, except it's not the first time such concerns have been voiced. In fact this war chatter has been circulating much more frequently net-wise these past weeks, which is worrying.

Please ... please ... not another war.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Garden Spirits

A curious trend, among some people, is to place certain plastic, metal or wooden objects on prominent display in or near their gardens, that have nothing to do with the plants themselves.

These things are usually not large enough to act as an impediment to animals or other beings intent on messing with the garden, and are used mostly for decoration.

But there's also the unconscious belief that by placing these things in the garden, it will bring good luck--and if your object is a replica of a spirit entity, that it will protect and watch over the little seedlings as they eke their way out of the soil.

I, too, have fallen into this strange practice. My Tibetan prayer flags on the roof of the tool shed send wishes to the universe, a grinning Buddha sits among the medicinal herbs (minus a hand, which somehow got broken off last summer), and a wood spirit scowls from the windowsill to any slugs hovering maliciously around the new tomato plants.

I got the Tibetan flags in Cambridge, Mass., the buddha at the dollar store, and the wood spirit from a whittler in Wisconsin (carved from the bark of native trees), courtesy of Ebay. And there they reign, in the queendom of veggies and flowers, from late May to mid-November, when I close up the garden and return them to the shed for the winter. Except the flags. They stay all year round and bear the brunt of thrashing rains that plaster them to the roof and drain their color, or frigid winters where they're either encased in ice or totally buried. I have to replace them every year but they have become such a tradition, I cannot imagine the place without them.

Some relatives dropped by last week to deliver four large raspberry plants and a pot containing six strawberry cuttings. They assured me we will have raspberries in July and again in September, from these plants. Yesterday there were little flowers on the strawberry plants.

I love my garden.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Montreal Bike Fest 2008

Check out Le Tour de Nuit last Friday night (an estimated 12,000 cyclists participated)!
[Photo André Tremblay, La Presse]

From last Wednesday, May 28 to today, thousands of cyclists have been converging on Montreal for the World’s Largest Cycling Festival: The Montreal Bike Fest. More than 45,000 bike riders participate in this annual event.

This week-long family-friendly festival includes Operation: Bike-to-Work, The Metropolitan Challenge, Un Tour la Nuit (Fly through the air with 12,000 friendly night owls on a 22-kilometre bike ride through the city!); and Tour de l’île de Montréal, where they shut down city streets to accommodate the approximately 35,000 cyclists who usually participate.

Unfortunately, it rained the whole weekend! Bummer. But they still came, and they rode through the rain anyhow.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Healing Our Warriors

In Sierra Leone, traditional purification rituals using ash soap have been an integral aspect of psychosocial healing and reintegration for girls forced to serve as child soldiers. [Photo by Lindsay Stark]

War poisons the spirit, and warriors return tainted. That is why, among Native American, Zulu, Buddhist, ancient Israeli, and other traditional cultures, returning warriors were put through significant rituals of purification before re-entering their families and communities. Traditional cultures recognized that unpurified warriors could, in fact, be dangerous. The absence of these rituals in modern society helps explain why suicide, homicide, and other destructive acts are common among veterans.

Scholars count over 14,600 wars in the last 5,600 years of recorded history.

If we are to return war to its proper place as a last defense when absolutely necessary, we must heal the wounds of our soldiers and communities. We cannot achieve peace-making without first achieving true and comprehensive war-healing.

Excerpted from the article Heal the Warrior, Heal the Country, by Edward Tick.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

An Evening with the Gypsies

Well, not exactly gypsies, but their music. Thanks to Sergei Trofanov and his accompanist, a roomfull of us had the opportunity to hear a pretty amazing performance last night at le Centre culturel Pauline-Julien here in Cap-de-le-Madeleine.

What is it about gypsy music? Maybe because some of my ancesters came from Eastern Europe, it's somehow in my blood. This kind of music awakens something in me, like a forgotten memory.

The violinist is incredibly talented. This piece in particular seems especially difficult to perform but he does it with such ease--The Skylark. [Click here to listen]

An evening with the gypsies, and when I walked home, the sky was full of stars.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tibetans Speaking Out

When I was in Massachusetts a few weeks ago, I happened upon a quiet demonstration at the Pit in Harvard Square. (If you're from there, you'll know where that is.)

I recognized some old friends from more than a decade ago when I had stood with them a few blocks from here in yet another silent protest against China's treatment of Tibetans--the Chinese burned their monasteries, imprisoned and tortured their monks and have taken over their country. All month long, every single night, this little group has been gathering here to remind people of what is happening.

And other matters:

It's been a difficult spring: thousands and thousands dead in the earthquake in China; tens of thousands dead and missing from the cyclone in Myanmar, not to mention the continuing wars, poverty and disease claiming lives worldwide. But for chance and circumstance, I might be one of them. I can't even imagine having to deal with such loss and tragedy.

It's a beautiful Sunday morning. Blue skies overhead, sunshine, a gentle breeze. The lemon balm (melisse) has inched its way out of the soil and is in full bloom; the chives, mint and rhubarb, as well as the garlic I planted last fall, are likewise making their appearance. Yesterday I spent two hours just working the soil, preparing it for planting. A tiny piece of land where you can grow your own herbs and vegetables. By what stroke of fate did I come to have this, while so many others have so little? It is always there--this awareness of the absolute unfairness of life.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Le régime de Montignac

Back from my trip, and after a nasty, week-long bout of sinus and right-ear infection, back to work again, as they say.

Okay, Monsieur Montignac, let's give it a try. No more white bread, refined flour, potatoes, sodas or patisseries. Nix the white rice, pasta made with refined flour, alcohol, strong coffee, or liquid with meals. No honey or fruit juice. And above all--no sugar. Supprimer totalement le sucre!! Red wine and dark chocolate, however, are allowed, woo hoo!

Am also following the Hay food-combining principles and suggestions from other readings, coupled with daily Falun Gong exercises --I figure this time it's going to actually work. I give myself till the end of October to reach my goal.

Daily walk, eat consciously, check the Glycemic Index, abstain from ice cream. Oufffff!!! (Cooked carrots are 85 on the glycemic index; tofu is a mere 15.)

Anybody out there currently following this particular regime? I would be interesed in your feedback.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

This 'n That

Sunshine flooding into the windows, it's like a gift. News junkie that I am, I couldn't not do the morning read and it's grim enough to dispel the happy mood... but it's just not possible to live in a bubble; just gotta learn to balance things...

Caught the tail-end of the Obama-Clinton debate last night on TV. Please don't tell me those moderators, Stephanopoulos and Gibson, didn't arrive with an agenda. It was more like a "Gotcha!" fest. Armed with irrelevant and/or trivial questions, they were in full attack mode. Quite a "show"... no doubt it satisfied those seeking political entertainment. Frankly, it bordered on disgusting.

Three interesting articles that kind of jumped out at me this morning: The $200 Million Bail-Out for Predator Banks ... this current economic mess we're in, learning who's really pulling the strings, who's getting rescued and who's getting shafted, was sort of unnerving.

And American Refugees Are Flooding into Canada: Tens of Thousands of Americans Are Now Economic Refugees ...this was news to me, and as I have a foot in both these countries now, it very much grabbed my attention.

The final item, one that portends even more calamitous forebodings, informs readers: As Hunger Rises, Chew on This. It's difficult when your focus is pretty much on personal concerns: how to pay the bills and how am I gonna afford gas this week; who's gonna watch my kid who's home sick from school and I can't get off work; and if I don't pay the electric bill soon, they're gonna cut off my electricity-- to worry about what's going on everywhere else in the universe ,much less have time to consider the bigger picture. But I think we have to be prepared, start conserving, start thinking about ways to survive when the going gets worse and all our little backups have been depleted.

Bushes of vibrant yellow blooms burst out, welcoming spring--why are you spreading gloom-and-doom pronouncements?, my inner self scolds. In defense, just 'cause you leave the Awareness button permanently turned on and tune into the gathering storm clouds doesn't mean you can't absolutely drink in, with wholehearted, exuberant gusto, the absolute joy of those other things life has to offer. I fully intend to enjoy this magnificent morning.

Onward to Beantown, by commuter rail, to see the l'il bubs. Yay!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hello again, Providence

A little walking tour of Benefit Street, an interesting house on Staples Street near the art gallery; a small jaunt down near the waterfront. Back again to reaquaint myself with Rhode Island.

Sign on a gate outside an ancient yellow wooden house on Benefit Street: "Attention: Chien Bizarre" ... and another, even smaller sign, confirming that here resides a "Chien Lunatique!" ha ha ha. Beware of crazy dogs on Benefit Street!

Houses of the 18th and 19th century, blues and pinks and yellows and grays, of wood or red brick, with shutters, little hidden courtyards, gated gardens--and plaques denoting the original owner and date of construction; houses of merchants and ministers, architects and dignitaries, assembled in a stately row beneath budding trees and impertinent robins atop a sun-drenched hill.

I wonder what the street looked like back then, in their day; what they did of an evening, how they greeted one another, these long-dead residents, what sort of neighbors they were to one another.

It's spring vacation and the colleges have emptied. Last night we ate at an Indian restaurant and this morning visited a toy shop and a Russian food store where the chocolates, jam and newspapers all announced themselves in cyrillic. A large fish on a bed of ice with its head still attached stared blankly from behind a glass counter.

On my last visit here we trekked on over to Swann Cemetery to see where H.P. Lovecraft is buried and despite having a map, we had difficulty finding the exact location. A tiny, simple tombstone, I don't know why I thought it would be larger, more ornate perhaps. I mentioned (silently, to H.P.) that I've enjoyed his books, despite the sheer terror some of his tales seemed to have instilled in me. He lies interred in a magnificent park with hillettes and ponds and peaceful trees, one can get lost there.

Now why would someone find that more enjoyable than, say, traipsing through the ornate mansions over in Newport, with their marble floors and chandeliers and dark, tired wallpaper? (Been there, done that, some years ago, when a chance to see the remnants of the Gilded Age for some reason was of interest at the time.) I had thought about doing the cliff walk, skirting the occasional precipitous hidden drops that had you not been careful could send you tumbling headlong into the ocean below, but I didn't bring the proper shoes and to be honest, I'm kind of walked out enough already.

From the third-floor loft where I'm staying I can see the lights of the city, spread out like a million tiny stars. The absolute quiet is surprising... not even a taxi rumbling by below. Good Lord it's after midnight already. Goodnight Providence.

Monday, April 14, 2008

En Route to Vermont

A small sojourn, of several weeks, down to the States ... taking, as usual, entirely too much stuff. We always drive down by way of the islands (North Hero, Grand Isle, South Hero) which takes a bit longer but the scenery alone is worth it.

A barrage of snowflakes cascaded into the windshield from just after the border on to almost Rouse's Point, and small parts of the lake remained frozen but by and large winter's pretty much gone here in northern Vermont. You no longer need a heavy coat and scarf and gloves and boots. What a contrast to back home in Trois-Rivieres where there is still at least four feet of snow in the back yard.

How wonderful to see the lake and mountains again, the farms and cottages and rolling hills--it's like a balm. We walked along Lake Champlain in the biting wind and popped into the new (at least it was new to me) creperie along the waterfront which was crowded, cozy and expensive. I just learned that one of my favorite used bookstores in town is going out of business. So many familiar favorite stores gone, now occupied by other, less interesting venues. It was a bit disorienting. On to Beantown tomorrow, but only as a stopping point on the way to Providence. I've unfortunately acquired even more items to add to my already burgeoning luggage--like books and gifts and fresh roasted coffeebeans whose delicious aroma leap out and remind me of those happy times in the Queen City when I used to live here. [Photo of Lake Champlain taken by Emily A. Cox].

Friday, April 11, 2008

Label it!

I got an email from Greenpeace today, saying:

By the luck of the Parliamentary draw, a private member's bill supporting mandatory labelling of GE food in Canada was randomly selected for debate in the House of Commons in April. The bill has a very good chance of becoming law. We have the power to persuade our federal MPs to support this bill and to choose us instead of Monsanto!

Bill C-517, presented by a Bloc Québécois MP, was debated during a second reading on April 3, 2008 . A second hour of parliamentary debate may take place in as early as two weeks, according to the House of Commons calendar. Following this second debate, the House will be called on to vote on Bill C-517 on mandatory GE labelling in Canada.

In the meantime, there is nothing preventing Canadian provinces from moving forward and adopting their own laws on mandatory labelling of GE food.

Write your MP if you support this.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Nitpickers Gone Amok

A retired professor and some colleagues exchange emails regarding their concern over what they see as a subtle deterioration of their spoken or written language. “I saw this in the newspaper yesterday, and it really disturbed me,” says one of them. “In this sentence, written by X, it seems to me that the subjunctive is not justified”-- after which he provides an example of the correct usage.

The slow creep of anglicisms into the French language in everyday discourse is alarming to some francophones. It's so pervasive, in fact, that even when I remember to use annuler instead of canceler, for example; or boycottage instead of boycott, other francophones tell me it's no big deal. ("People still understand you, right?")

In defense of the nitpickers and those annoying people who find themselves inadvertently becoming the grammar police, I must admit that I, too, sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Maybe it’s the editor in me, but when I see alot written as one word instead of two, or it’s with an apostrophe when it should be its (to denote possession), or hear people say “Walla!” when what they mean to say is Voilà--out jumps that cursed mental red pencil. (Ça me chicote un peu—mais pourquoi?!! ) It is why, I think, I can sympathize with the language purists to some extent. A little erosion is unavoidable. But look how many languages today have become completely extinct. The Melting Pot aside, the idea of One Language for All--if civilization ever came to that point--to me smacks too much of a numbing one-dimensionality.

Replacing words you can't spell or pronounce with easier-to-remember, substitute words reminded me of a friend I once knew from Czechoslovakia. His name was Vladimir. People at his workplace called him "Val" because, he told me, they found it too difficult to pronounce the consonants V and L together without a vowel stuck in between. So rather than try, they simply re-named him. Say your birth name is Josef (pronounced YO-seff.) How does that make you feel when you introduce yourself to someone and pronounce your name and instead of their repeating it, or at least attempting to repeat it, they say: "That's Joseph, right? In English your name would be Joseph. I'm gonna call you Joe (spoken as a fait accompli; i.e., your new name, to this person, is now Joe.)

How utterly arrogant a frame of mind that reacts to unfamiliarity with another culture or language, not by trying to learn something about it but by finding it necessary to ignore, redefine, or change it in order to deal with it. It shows a certain lack of interest and respect, I think, when one succombs to re-naming a person with a substitute name in one's own language, simply to make saying it "easier".

Not only native English-speakers engage in this unflattering practice, of course, and, to be fair, not all English-speakers do. (Perhaps more prevalent than anglicizing foreign names is the predilection, at least in the U.S., for nicknaming. If your name is Robert, for example, be prepared to be addressed and referred to, automatically, as Bob. If your name is Richard, who can guess what your preferred nickname might be? Dick? Rich? Richie? If you're a Barbara, you could be re-named Barb, Barbie or Babs; and if you're a William, it could be "Will", "Willie", "Bill" or "Billy". Take your pick.) (Bush's nickname for Vladimir Putin is "Pooty-Poot" . No comment, haha.)

In our French conversation class we are four. (Before, I would have said, "there are four of us. " The way I sometimes express a thing in English, I notice, has changed as a result of my living in Quebec.)

In class we all speak French with a “foreign” accent: Spanish, Russian, or in my case, "Murrikan". This is good for the ear because spoken French differs: Belgian French sounds a bit different from Algerian French; Parisian French differs from the French spoken in Quebec. Each French-speaking country has idioms other French-speaking countries do not use, much less understand.

When my Spanish classmates pronounce chaque as “chock” instead of “shawk”, or my Russian classmate trills her r’s (making prendre sound like “prrrrrrrrrrawndrrrah”, I learn something about the pronounciation patterns of their native languages as well. As my ancestors spoke Slavic, a rolling "r" is familiar, but Spanish pronounciation is not and it may someday come in handy to be aware of the how things are pronounced in Spanish. We all, in the class, somehow, understand each other when speaking French, though.

It’s the darn word contractions that continue to confuse! When I first arrived here, one day I heard my mate talking to the cat, murmuring something that sounded like “moan tee-CUR.” I recognized “moan” as the personal pronoun mon but the “tee-cur” was a mystery. I went to the dictionary and looked under the T’s. How would that be spelled in French? I wondered. Tikker? Ticur? Tyquer? What he was actually saying was mon petite Coeur (my little heart), but he somehow swallowed the “pe” part before the “t” and I heard the remaining portion, tite, as TEE. (What a delightful term of endearment for one's beloved pet: My little heart!)

All languages do this—contract or eliminate words in daily use. My French grammar says the sentence Je ne sais pas” ("I don't know") should be spoken like this: zhe-neh-say-PAW. But that’s not how people say it here. You’re much more likely to hear it pronounced "Shay-PO." Moi, je pense ... comes out sounding like "Mwashponse ..."

Bostonians do this with their pizza, ha ha. (It's pronounced PEET-za by the rest of the world, but PEET-zer in Boston). "Square" is SKWAY-uh, "park" is PAWK, "car" is KAHH. (Pawk ya kahh in Hahvid Sqway-uh"). "Barb" sounds like BOB and "Worcester" is WOOSTA. "Gloucester" is GLAWsta. "Revere" is Reh-VEE-uh. "Leominster" is LEMON-sta. "Peabody" is PEA-buddy. "Waltham" is WALTH-ham but "Chatham" is CHATT-um. "Medford" is MEFFA and "Woburn" is WOO-ban. (I’m allowed to make fun of this because I'm a former Bostonian!)

Hey, that gives me an idea for a short story! A guy--let’s call him Bernie--becomes an obsessive compulsive nitpicker re: spoken and written language. He forms a little club whose six members take it upon themselves to scan published articles and monitor local television broadcasts, making a note of the grammatical inaccuracies. They then email each other and pontificate on the correct usage. Of course they’re all preaching to the choir, so to speak, but certain members are more observant than others and the less conscientious ones are made to feel, well, less important. One day the group decides to have an election to choose who will be their president. A hilarious competition ensues whereby each member tries to top the others in locating and presenting ever more vigorous erudition about the day's offending texts or emissions. They pout and squabble and bicker and the group finally ends up disbanding. Bernie finds a new soulmate.

Well, that’s as much as came to me this morning just as I was waking up, thinking about grammatical nitpickers and the peculiarities of language, and all things strange and wonderful about the French and English languages.