August 2003 Archives

The Stone Diaries

This was my first Carol Shields novel – I’ve read a couple of her short stories – and I zipped through it in record time. There’s something about it that feels inherently Canadian; it reminded me of Alice Munro and Margaret Lawrence.

The book is “written” by the protagonist, Daisy, from moments before her birth to moments after her death, but the narrator continually shifts from first to third person. In fact, most of the story is told in the third person, so that the occasional “I” really throws you – and reminds you that the narrator is naturally biased, and theoretically at least, writing from distant memory. In fact, the one unanswered question is “when did Daisy write her life?” – from beginning to end, the story is presented in the past tense, but if we are to believe that this is a memoir written by the protagonist, whose death, funeral, gravesite and epilogue are included, then we have to assume that at some point, memory becomes prediction. But which point? I like to think that her old age and death are imagined by Daisy while she in the depths of her ‘nervous condition’ in her 60s, but of course, it’s all conjecture.

One of the things that I most enjoyed was the complete lack of amazement at the advances taking place in the outside world – there’s very little real history, and certainly no ‘wow, isn’t that incredible’ reflection on things like landing on the moon or Watergate. Daisy is born in 1905 and dies in the 90s, so she essentially lives through the century. She spends her married life in Ottawa, but there’s no Trudeaumania. There isn’t even Beatlemania. It’s real enough to feel real, but isolated enough to be exclusively Daisy’s story.

Definitely a recommendation, especially if you’ve read and enjoyed Munro and/or Lawrence.

Currently on the nightstand:

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle (so far, it’s reminiscent of Under the Tuscan Sun (the book, not the &^%*# movie))

Update

A Year in Provence was a fun read, and my initial impression of it being in the same subcategory of travellogues as Tuscan Sun was not altered - but I did find it amusing to learn that Mayle is almost universally disliked by his Provencal neighbours.

The "great drama of gay rights"

Douglas Farrow, a professor of Christian Thought at McGill, states in today's Gazette that marriage "is about children and what's best for children." He continues: "the hidden premise of so-called gay marriages... is that children are a secondary issue at best." (my italics)

I have already submitted my letter to the editor, but there's plenty of rant to go around.

If marriage is about children, what happens to childless heterosexual couples in Farrow's world? Do their marriages automatically dissolve after a prescribed amount of time without offspring? Despite Farrow's definition of marriage, hetero couples do get married for reasons beyond procreation; in fact, many straight couples deliberately opt out of parenthood. There are also plenty of frustrated couples who cannot, for one reason or another, have children - does Farrow propose to compound their unhappiness by telling them they shouldn't be married?

As for gay marriages and children, it seems to me that gay parents have a better motivation to marry for the sake of their children. Children of straight couples are related biologically to their parents, and therefore require no legal definition of parenthood, family or marriage to protect their interests. Children of gay parents, on the other hand, cannot be biologically related to both parents. What happens if disaster strikes - the biological parent dies or disappears, leaving the other, nonbiological parent with potentially horrible legal battles to maintain the relationship with the child.
I'm not sure what Farrow believes is the "hidden premise" of gay marriage - apparently it's hidden from him as well - but surely there are plenty of gay couples who's prime incentive for marriage is to provide a safe, stable, socially recognized family unit for their children.

It's disappointing to read statements like these from a professor of Christian Thought. One would hope that some one with that level of education, not to mention "Christianity," would (a) be more tolerant and accepting, and (b) at least be able to present a rational argument, rather than resorting to the language of intolerance. For instance, he makes sarcastic comments about the intellectual capacity of Martin Cauchon, to whom her refers as our "minister of justification." A few more examples from Farrow's article:

- "the word 'fishers' [was created] so as not to offend that largely fictional character, the lady fisherman"
- "the grand farce that is being played out in place of a marriage debate"
- "the great drama of gay rights"
- "the innocuous-sounding Act Respecting Marriage"

I have said before that the debate on marriage, gay or straight, should be considered outside the realm of religion. Churches, sects, congregations, and so on should have the right to choose not to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. But they should stay out of the legal debate - that's what the separation of Church and State is all about.

Not fade away

My grandmother is 85. She has all her own teeth, and does not use Miss Clairol to keep her hair brown. She wears a hearing aid, but no glasses. She is definitely all there mentally.

She has Parkinson’s, and is now confined to a wheelchair. She lives in a private room in a nursing home in Ontario. When she needs to pee, she has to ring her bell for help. Geographically, I am her closest relative – and I live more than an hour away by car.

Yesterday, I accompanied her to a liver specialist to try to get to the bottom of her most recent affliction, jaundice. Because of the weakness in her legs and other factors, it is next to impossible to get her anywhere by car, so we had to rely on an ambulance to get her to and from the doctor’s office. Since budget cuts have reduced the number of ambulances serving the area, non-emergency transports like my grandmother’s are the lowest priority, and we waited almost two hours for some one to bring us home after the appointment.

The doctor has recommended a CT scan and an ERCP, which means we’ll have to get her to and from the Civic Hospital in Ottawa, an hour away.

My grandmother is very tired. It’s all she can talk about. She was tired before we started on our grand tour yesterday. By the time the doctor’s appointment was over, she was exhausted. By the time the ambulance finally arrived to bring us home, she was starting to scare me. I had visions of myself having to explain to my dad that… well, you know.

Every time she closed her eyes, I got nervous. I managed to resist the urge to poke her, but I found myself reliving those scary moments as a new mother, watching the chest for breathing, just to reassure yourself that you haven’t inadvertently killed some one.

My grandmother, who taught me to swim and made almond shortbread crescents every Christmas, is tired and weak and scared.

I still remember the way those almond cookies melted in my mouth.

Mea culpa (fortasse)

Interesting op-ed piece in the L.A. Times from Robert McNamara, who served as secretary of defense under JFK and LBJ. In the piece, McNamara admits that as SoD he was responsible for some pretty gruesome activities in Vietnam, including Agent Orange. His point is that the US should participate without reserve in the International Criminal Court and should operate under an international set of rules of war.

Chances are, of course, that McNamara's voice will go ignored. The US has resisted participation in the ICC because it fears not only that American soldiers be under scrutiny and vulnerable to indictment, but also that "the court might prosecute the president or other civilian or military leaders." In other words, US presidents would be afraid to order "legitimate but controversial uses of force to protect world peace."

McNamara, who obviously believes that he personally could well be prosecuted, nonetheless advocates American participation, because he also believes "that the human race desperately needs an agreed-upon system of jurisprudence that tells us what conduct by political and military leaders is right and what is wrong."

According to McNamara, the Bush league is concerned that the US administration, from top to bottom, could find itself hopelessly mired in "frivolous or unfair" ICC cases. McNamara points out, however, that it is possible for the US to get on board and then negotiate protection against such cases - which is apparently what Clinton had in mind when he signed the ICC treaty on Dec. 31, 2000.

Canada's participation in the ICC, beginning with the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, is perhaps one more reason the US perception (when there is one) of Canada is less than generous. Militarily, Canada is an international, if underfunded and disregarded, player. We participate in UN-backed coalitions, for instance. And, if our cooperation with the ICC is any indication, we're willing to subscribe to and live by an agreed-upon [international] system of jurisprudence.

But what do we know? We're just a bunch of pot-smoking fag hags, right?

One marine for each day of the week

So the US has sent seven marines into Liberia, bringing the total number of US military personnel there somewhere between 70 and 100. In an analysis piece I cannot for the life of me track down online, Barry Schweid (AP) writes "Bush and his politically conservative supporters came to power determined not to be drawn into what they called nation building."

As Noah Leavitt points out, the US has a certain obligation to Liberia, given that the nation was the sanctioned destination for freed American slaves, and that since the 19th century, the US has been financially supporting the Liberian government (or at least promising that the cheque is in the mail).

Many of those who are opposed to US intervention in Liberia are citing Clinton's Somali disaster as precedent. But, at the risk of repeating myself, it seems to me there is a more recent precedent in Iraq. The background is eerily familiar - current Liberian president Charles Taylor was educated in the US, his predecessor was trained by the CIA. Funding and political support from the US has been strongly influenced by Liberia's relations with Cold War baddies.

Of course there are fundamental differences - in the case of Liberia, for instance, the US has ignored trade sanctions imposed by the UN to counter "diamonds [used to fund terrorism], illegal arms sales, massive refugee flows, the use of child soldiers and unspeakable human rights abuses." Oh, and the diamonds? According to Leavitt, money from the Liberian diamond trade has been used to fund Al Qaeda, among others. So unlike Iraq, there are actual ties to those responsible for 9/11.

And of course there's the one fundamental difference - in Liberia, US intervention is supported, requested and expected from the nation's citizens, the UN, and all those pesky Europeans who refused to get behind the coalition.

Oh well, at least the US can't get pissed at us for not sending anyone this time.

If I'm the trophy, what the heck was the contest?

Dr. T and I attended his high school reunion this weekend. I've been toying with the idea of returning my hair to its natural colour (if we can remember what that is). Dr. T's reaction? 'Please wait until after the reunion. I want a blonde trophy wife.'

The reunion was loads of fun, which is good, since it could have been a total yawnfest for me. As it turns out, he went to school with some very nice people, many of whom are now rather scarily grey and do not look at all like they were ever teenagers. Eavesdropping on the various conversations, however, quickly puts it in perspective. Room full of middle-aged, married, Volvo-driving people, all engaged in variations on the same theme:

Remember when we got completely wasted and trashed your dad's car?
No.*
Man, that was a blast.
*Alternatively, yes.

Scariest part of the event - discovering that Dr. T's contemporary is about to become a grandfather. And that it's mathematically possible. Yoiks.

Whatever happened to separation of Church and State?

Bush, who is heavily backed by conservative religious groups, suggested he wants to take the United States in the opposite direction of Canada, where federal legislation endorsing same-sex unions could become law within months.

While Bush said people must "respect each individual" and "welcome those with good hearts," that "does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on the issue of marriage."

The US government, while condemning foreign governments for ruling with, through or by religion, is ignoring its own constitution. By denying same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals, the US is at once violating the fundamental rights of gay couples, and literally defining marriage according to Christian laws, not secular laws. If you consider marriage secularly, it has nothing to do with procreation, and more to do with taxation, legal responsibility, and social acceptance.

The US - which, granted, has to deal with a whole lot of Bible Belt right-wing fanatacism - is supposedly governing without the influence of the Church. However, the US President is openly discussing the issue of same-sex marriage in terms of his personal beliefs. Meanwhile, our Canadian Prime Minister-in-waiting, Paul Martin, is telling reporters that although he is a Catholic, his responsibilities as an elected representative come first.

Last night at the supper table, my son was asking Dr. T about his impending trip to Malaysia. It seems Colin has heard that in Malaysia, boys can't kiss boys. Sign of the times - my son thinks this outrageous cultural standard is hysterically funny, and is currently struggling with the notion that people can tell other people who they can or cannot kiss...

God help me, I'm raising a bleeding heart liberal.

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