Ode to Agnes

ACM--see reverse

It’s very difficult to follow politics without becoming cynical; reports of lavish expenditures on trips and hotels, meals and perks, wear down even the most fair minded of observers.  Recently, the news has been littered with tales of allowances and entitlements taken by Canada’s politicians from Senate to House of Commons to Provincial Legislatures.  It would seem that the public purse is always open and available to the elected class, but voters are increasingly hostile to this excess.

When I despair at the mounting evidence of misspending, I regain some mental equilibrium when I recall Agnes Macphail.  Remembering Macphail puts me in a tiny minority of Canadians.  She’s a largely forgotten politician, who despite her historical anonymity, should figure as a giant in our national imagination.  Agnes Macphail was the first woman elected to the House of Commons; she ran as a Progresssive candidate in the election of 1921, and surprised everyone by winning the seat in South-east Grey, Ontario.

The Progressives were a short-lived agricultural party that pushed for political reform and championed rural issues.  Macphail survived the demise of the party and would go on to represent Ontario both at the federal and provincial levels for nearly twenty years.  Yet Macphail was most unwelcome when she went to Ottawa; sniggered upon, disliked, even hated by some, because her very presence in Parliament was a harbinger of a new age in which women were now citizens of the country, though not equals.  Macphail endured her first months in Parliament; she carried on and earned the respect of her colleagues. She was either a spokesperson for, or a supporter of, social legislation and reform measures, from Mother’s Allowances and Old Age Pensions, to prison reform.

She was progressive in every sense of the word, but she was also a parsimonious guardian of the public purse.  When she went on her first trip as a Member of Parliament, the expense form that she submitted was so circumspect, she inadvertently embarrassed her colleagues, who submitted much larger claims.  Canada has produced many extraordinary parliamentarians over the course of our history, and Macphail figures among the finest.

Unfortunately, as a woman and an independent, she would not receive recognition for her hard work and dedication to the good of Canadians; no appointment to the Senate or a government board – such patronage positions were most often reserved then, as now, for party stalwarts.  Nonetheless, she was a politician of character, conviction, and courage.

Agnes Campbell Macphail – born March 24, 1890


Game of Thrones

We came to watch the popular HBO fantasy series, Game of Thrones, well after almost everyone. Friends and family had watched it, and as often happens, they recommended it and we, eventually, followed their advice. I had heard and seen snippets of the show as they watched, and decided, before viewing the series, to read the first book – A Song of Ice and Fire by author George R. R. Martin.

I read science fiction and fantasy a very long time ago, but it’s not a genre I now favour; however, the novel was a quick and entertaining read. The first season, like book one, is violent and sexually explicit; it’s further enlivened by dragons’ eggs, dire wolves, and sorcery. Family loyalty, fealty to regional lords, and deceptions and betrayals are at the heart of the struggle for the Iron Throne. Seasons two and three provide equal measures of intrigue and brutality. Set in a mythic-medieval time of sword play, castles, and kingdoms, each episode of the series provides conflict, political machinations, and fantastical creatures. Martin has mined history to showcase every sort of torture from the sawing off of digits – a favourite treatment of captured enemies among many tribal peoples, to the common Roman practice of crucifixion. Blood flows.

We watched the first three seasons of the series over the winter months and it was both addictive and repugnant – the former beating out the latter. The series provides a sensual array of locations from the hot desert birthplace of the dragons, to the perpetual cold beyond the Northern Wall – home to the Wildlings and the White Walkers. What further enriches the show is that the plot line moves forward without the usual retention of favourite characters. Heads roll, throats are slit, and good does not triumph.

The “Red Wedding” episode late in season three aptly illustrates this point. The bitter and vengeful Lord Walder Frey promises his guests, on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, that: “The wine will flow red and the music will play loud . . .”, but feast turns to slaughter. There is violence, sex, (the nudity is mostly female, of course), and struggle for order, power, and peace – the human story – with a twist. The new season begins in April – can’t wait.

The Fifties Fun Factor

“It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age.” Margaret Mead – cultural anthropologist.

It’s so true that middle age seems steeped in work, duty, and obligation. By the time most of us reach middle age, we have lives layered with responsibilities. Of course we’ve brought much of this on ourselves through the ambition to get ahead – thus we’ve worked hard, purchased a house, perhaps made the decision to have children, and likely embraced the desire to have more material things than need requires.

The scramble we undertook in our twenties, thirties, and forties now means we have our children’s post secondary educations to pay for, a home to maintain, vehicles to service, and on and on. To add to this we might well have aging parents, personal health issues, and a host of other concerns which suddenly loom large. Layer by layer our lives are tilted away from relaxation and fun, or limited to one or two week dollops of freedom that are carefully planned and anticipated – the vacation.

When my son’s friends are together, I’m always struck by how much they laugh (and how loudly). But relaxing and having fun is too often the exception in mid life. Parties are few, as are spontaneous outings with friends – we’re just too busy with work and domestic duties, and our energy is increasingly limited. But Dr. Seuss got it right: “Fun is good.” We need way more of it.

March Baby Blues

I remember when my youngest son turned 10; this was a big birthday as it always is for children – suddenly they are into the double digits.  They are tweens and seem to be rapidly heading towards the beginning of an independent stage in life.  On the cusp of their teen-age years.  Once into the teens, parents have to nurture themselves for quite a while on the fading memories of the sweet, loving, child they reared (if that was ever the case).

Parents of teenagers rarely get a glimpse of their little darling once they cross-over into that second decade.  As should happen, their kids begin to pull away and measure themselves, not be parental approval, but both by their peers and by their own standards.  Now I’m into the month that my baby, that youngest child, turns 20.

Raising three children, we’ve had fifteen years of teenage drama, loud voices, worry, lessons and sports of every kind, driving licenses, worry, accidents, in short, the general fun, anxiety, and mayhem that teens create.  Now I will no longer have a teenager in the house.  I should be feeling delighted, but instead I’m feeling deflated.  “Parenting” is a complex verb.