Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cards close to the chest

Lately, I haven't written anything of consequence that would have Ottawa at its centre, for better or worse, as the original intent of the blog claimed. Inspiration was coming from all sorts of oblique angles and strange, unlikely, sources but never from the capital of beige.

As usual, it takes a visit to Montreal, rushing to the rescue of senses. But it also took a visit from an out-of town friend to refocus and reload, so to speak, to gain further ammunition in the back-and forth shoot-out over Ottawa. The combination of the two perspectives, plus maybe the sunny, crisp weather we'd been having, it all helped crystallize a few more impressions.

First, Montreal.

Unlike many of the locals, my roots or family or even university experiences have nothing to do with the city of Montreal. My eyes, when I go there, are strictly the eyes of a visitor, perhaps beyond the mere tourist stage, but definitely an outsider. I don't know all the street names, McGill is a bunch of historical buildings, not my alma mater, and I never got to "party" in Montreal, most likely because all my partying happened in Alberta...or Ottawa. Therefore, when I go to Montreal, I am still in awe of the stained glass windows on Notre Dame, I eat crepes somewhere in the Vieux Port, I repeatedly climb 'the mountain' and revel in Mt. Royal's natural views as well as the, let's say observation of local humans in their natural habitat. My senses still get relatively intoxicated by the fine curves and angles of 18th and 19th century architecture and equally by the fine curves on the Quebecois ladies. And I'll add that the opening hours of restaurants seem a bit weird, my stumbling through la langue francaise quickly leads to a normal English conversation. But I do appreciate the slightly off-the beaten path attractions, will have a beer or a coffee at a 'local' joint as opposed to something completely touristy, and I have scoured the museums and galeries, perhaps more than the locals do...because locals, everywhere, tend to get complacent. To me, Montreal has always had this slightly heroic stature; things are faster, more colorful, heavier-hitting than in English Canada. Church spires straight from the old continent almost rub shoulders with risque sex shops, and anarchist punk kids do their thing in city parks. One can actually run into a street demonstration of some sorts, on most weekends. One will always hear new music or see very original art in Montreal. And then there are the statues of important men, with and without horses, including Dollard d'Ormeaux who'd saved, in the 1640s, the then-fledgling French settlement from a big Iroquis raid. A geniune hero, in the physical mould, pictured in the Three Mousqueteers era garb. My friend simply remarked: "hey, this is old, because the guy is dressed like a mousqueteer...we don't have d'Artagnan in Western Canada".

Pondering what that statue of a guy from the 1600s meant, my reaction is not (anymore) the polite and deferential Western Canadian "this is old and gorgeous stuff". It is more along the lines of "Ottawa has some great bronze statues of some important people, too, but none of them kicked ass like that." Which brings me right back to the meaning of Beige.

When you look across the still frozen Ottawa river back to the Parliament Hill, sharp in the morning air, with the noble spires rising out from the equally impressive natural setting, it is a view to admire. My friend really liked it. Many of my visitors, in fact, have remarked about the scenic and tranquil walk across the Alexandra bridge (facing the parliament and Chateau Laurier, not the other way around) - it was almost the best city skyline in the country, according to one person.

What Ottawa has and what Ottawa does very well are the facades, the large cultural institutions, the occassional dash of neat and always monumental architecture. It is what capitals are made for, after all. What Ottawa does not do as well, especially if the Montreal comparison comes into play, is the life that animates these spaces. Not that there aren't the ever-present tourists; au contraire, the tourists help make the Byward market the place that it is and the tourist always come. There is no truly low season for visitors. But what happens with the touring itself is that Ottawa is a disjointed mosaic of several interesting areas, centered around the Hill and the Market, with the rest of the city being spread very thin and quite unremarkable. Instead of the expansive and lively streetscapes of Montreal (old and not-so old), the streets here all exist in isolation. Elgin Street is a microcosm. Sussex drive and the adjoining few blocks present another microcosm. Wellington street is the "power corridor" inhabited by suitcase-carrying nervous types, usually in a hurry to make that next meeting. Ottawa shows the visitor a tableau of disjointed, albeit stimulating, urban existence, a grouping of insular communities that rub shoulders..and rarely come together. In Montreal, the spirit of the city, even though it is a very diverse and complicated city, is something that just hangs in the air. It's a restless and simultaneously hedonistic spirit. The spirit of someone who is not in a hurry for that next appointment.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Snowjob 08'

No, I am not referring to the annual MuchMusic concert series held at some ski hill. And no tongue-in cheek references to anything else, including sex acts in snowbanks.

I am simply wondering where all the headlines about global warming and global climate change retreated, indeed retreated like glaciers do, since this mega-huge, unheard-of late winter onslaught dropped another metre of snow on our collective doorsteps.

So, Ottawa is up to 411 cm of cumulative snowfall. Interesting time to wade into the, hmm, the proverbial snowbank in search of some lost items...like some factual items. The National Post writer, in the meantime, exploits the relatively slow newsday by another Gore-bashing article.


What I have never understood about the climate change debate, about the politicized end of that debate, is the grasping at the straws by proponents of both the extreme accounts of the theory - either you hear the 'global warmers' shout at any instance when some warming trend has been detected somewhere...or you will hear the 'deniers' pointing out some trend that does not correspond with the alleged warming prediction. But not much middle ground.

So, I ask, where is the "change" in the climate change political equation?

When the original theory of climate change came out, and when the first large-scale computer modelling of its effects started, the buzzword was change. Including erratic patterns, unpredictability, loss of reliable benchmarks for certain weather related processes. Parts of the Earth were going to gradually warm up, even dessicate, while other parts would experience cooling. Cyclical effects such as La Nina and El Nino were going to be accentuated or more pronounced. Everyone was told -look, we can't predict a reliable range of outcomes but let's prepare for the unexpected. And let's study the issue further.

By now, you see an article after article about Anctartic ice sheets breaking off, extent of northern sea ice (it's actually bigger this year than it has been for a while), disappearing snows on Kilimanjaro and the more frequent flooding in places like England that haven't seen any major floods in decades. It's all got a negative, almost apocalyptic narrative running through it.

I admit, climate change is afoot. No doubt. I will even say, based on some education in the matter, we are partially to blame for it. But don't feed me the diet of "Earth is steadily getting warmer". That's too generalistic and will simply not mean a damn thing if I am to be the decision maker in some specific place, in a specific polity. There's no such thing as some generalized citizen of the world.

Consider Ottawa, with the Ottawa valley and the nearby Laurentians as the local region, local ecosystem. Are we experiencing climate change?Maybe. Are we getting warmer...? No one will be able to say "yes" if you ask a person on the street today. But are we experiencing more and more of the so-called extreme weather? That, in my mind, ought to be the question. The scientific and political question.

So, let's look at the past five winters:

2003/04 - very snowy, lots of cold spells

2004/05 - more snow than previous year, colder, too

2005/06 -mild winter, ended early

2006/07 - another mild winter, with a very warm January

2007/08 - long winter...411 cm of snow..but not the coldest on the record

Anyone detect a bit of chaos in this 5-year pattern?

Just a thought.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

See the Light...Jeff Healey - 1966-2008

I am a big fan of his work, and there's not much more to say than "rest in peace, and hope you'll be jamming with Jimmy Hendrix or some New Orleans jazzmen in the sky".