July

For me, there’s only one golden month of the year, and that’s July. Days spent on holiday in this seventh month have a languid feel and a lazy quality, but perversely the month goes by at alarming speed. It’s already half over.

This July I’m very fortunate to be off work and spending my time lakeside. This hiatus is wonderful. I’ve been enjoying the company of friends who I only infrequently get to see in person; as well, I can spend time with family – holiday time, which is outside real time – the latter framed as it is by work and routines, and the many stresses and tensions of life. But July encompasses casual get-togethers, playing games, long coffee chats after our walks, and leisurely swims together. Crokinole; Taboo; Euchre; Cribbage; Scrabble; why not?

I’m grateful for this interlude. This is time leavened by sunshine and relaxation. Sitting beside the lake and watching light play on the water is a quiet pleasure. Enjoying the company of friends and close family – those who know your back story and whose back story you know, and sharing time together, makes it special. It doesn’t last long enough, but it’s golden while it lasts.

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The Gender Issue

It’s really hard to watch and listen to the news coverage of the recent kidnappings of over 250 young school girls in Nigeria.  These girls are gone, at least for now, and beyond the help of their distraught mothers and fathers.  As a parent, I can imagine the dreadful anguish that their families must be feeling; I can also imagine the terrible treatment that these girls are being subjected to under the berserk control of the Boko Haram.

Sadly, the Nigerian government has proven incapable of swift and effective action against those who perpetrated this atrocious act. This is an egregious example of male subjugation and enslavement of female children, but sadly, the news cycle is riddled with horrific stories of the abuse and murder of women and girls around the globe.  Under the umbrella of religious extremism and societal strictures, girls and women are subjected to “honour killings”, genital mutilation, undesired arranged marriages, intimidation, denial of education, forced domesticity, sexual control, physical abuse and on and on.  It’s appalling.

Each case that reaches beyond village or national boundaries, such as the reprehensible gang rape and killing of a young woman on a bus in Delhi, and the shooting of the young school girl, Malala, in Pakistan, underscores the terrible reality that for millions of women around the globe, their lives are lived as secondary persons, regulated and controlled under restrictions, often religious, that deny their personal liberty and equal status. Women in many cultures are property, to be bartered, sold, punished, restricted, dictated to, physically and mentally abused, and sometimes murdered at the whim of male “guardians”.

In the Western world, decades of agitation and pressure led to women having citizenship and the promise, though not yet fully realized, of equal status. In Canada, our constitutional democracy has safeguarded gender equality in principle, but here too, outrages abound. The mysterious and disturbing disappearance and murder of hundreds and hundreds of native women comes to mind. Where are these women? Why has the government failed to establish an official inquiry into these missing persons? To what extent has discrimination and gender rendered these women inconsequential?

Canada needs a sweeping investigation into this issue, which will likely reveal much that is dark and disturbing, and politically dangerous, but nonetheless imperative, if we are to believe or pretend that we live in a just and equal society.

Community Living

A tragic event, even at two or three degrees of separation, has the effect of sweeping away the inconsequential and irrelevant annoyances in life.  That has certainly been the case in Calgary after the recent tragic and inexplicable slaying of five young people.  For those of us who have daughters and sons attending university in this city, this event struck very close to home. A shock.

Too often, in the daily grind, it’s easy to focus on small matters and lose perspective about just what’s important.  Given that it’s spring, with all the promise of new beginnings and new growth, it’s a good time to let go of old grievances.  Here’s one – our tiresome, retired neighbour who regularly uses his leaf blower at 4:30am to clear his drive of a skiff of snow.  After the first time this happened, our daughter came out of her bedroom in full sail – ready to confront me for blow drying my hair at such an ungodly, ridiculous hour of the morning!  Nope, not me, it’s the high whine of a landscaper’s tool – tool being the operative word.  (Ok, so it’s a bit easier to let this one go as the days of relentless snowfalls are behind us.)

Life’s just full of aggravations and slights from unattended yapping dogs (of which there’s always one or two in close proximity), rude people, inconsiderate drivers, unreciprocated invitations, to a host of other issues and complaints associated with community living.  Life can be filled to the brim with dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t have to be; it’s also true that our neighbours, with only a few exceptions, are interesting, helpful, friendly people, and several are close friends.

In the course of the day, I can usually find as many examples of decency and friendliness as the opposite, but it’s the bad behaviour that rankles. When that happens, it’s time to reach out to family or friends and laugh at the small matters that can darken any day, because they are small matters, and you know that when real tragedy strikes close to home.

Maintenance – Mid-Life

When a grinding noise began to accompany the action of braking my car, I didn’t wait too long before making an appointment at a garage.  Like anyone else, I was hardly anxious to find out that an extensive and expensive repair was in order, but the estimate was straight forward:  new brake pads, rotors, and calipers – front and back, plus the labour charge – ca ching.  Goody.  Those unexpected, big expenses are always unwelcome.  And, while I value safety and understand the benefits of regular car maintenance, there is simply no frisson of joy in such an expenditure.  It’s not the same as getting new furniture, jewelry, or a perfect new purse –  or a motor cycle, fishing rod, or electronic device (to be gender neutral).

But more and more, maintenance is the order of the day.  Usually, however, it’s of the personal kind – exercise, mindful eating, hair colour, nail care, magic creams . . . it’s a rear-guard, stop-gap, wish and a prayer exercise to keep ahead of time’s ravages.  Wrinkles, lines, spots, sags, fat, grey hair, wattles, and weakness – ah, middle age.  I don’t have all the symptoms, but I certainly have most, and what is surely the common denominator –  mid-life maintenance is both time consuming and expensive.  Dealing with grey hair takes a couple of hours while a concoction of chemicals does its work; this is the calm and restful period of a process that is followed be a sharp jolt of sticker shock – the bill that follows the cut and colour.

Any cream that promises to smooth away wrinkles, age spots, or any other unwanted age-related affliction is bound to be costly.  Staying the hand of time cannot be done on the cheap.  No, if we choose to address the signs of ageing with dyes, creams, pills, and such, we must pay with time and money.  Of course, there is an alternative.  Acquiesce to our life stage; embrace the grey, celebrate the wrinkles (we’ve surely earned them), and eschew the fruitless quest to remain youthful.  So here is some sound advice – exercise, eat well, and enjoy life.  Having said that, I’m off to the salon tomorrow.

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.