blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The deer of Stony Swamp

On impulse, Elva, Carol and I went for a walk on the edge of Kanata on Saturday, in the NCC's Greenbelt conservation area around Stony Swamp. I like the name: all of Ottawa was once a stony swamp, which explains the difficulties John By and his engineers and navvies encountered when cutting the Rideau Canal.

Along the Old Quarry Trail we came upon a herd of white tailed deer, including yearlings, so unafraid as to be almost tame, probably because local people keep coming into these woods with bags of carrots for them. Chickadees hopped around our feet as well. The circular trail was a pleasant one, crossing the swamp by means of a board-walk bridge at a couple of places, but under the trees the snow had thawed and frozen, thawed and frozen, making it very slippery underfoot. We didn't rush.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From the bottom up

This was the theme of a lecture I heard last week at the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on Sussex Drive. The topic was democracy in Afghanistan: can it be "built from the bottom up"? The speaker, introduced by the CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation in Canada, was Sujeet Sarkar, Senior Regional Advisor for Governance and Civil Society with the AKF. During the last six years this gentleman has lived in Afghanistan—"the most volatile place in this universe ... the second-most corrupt country in the world"—working in conjunction with that country's National Solidarity Programme to invigorate Community Development Councils (based on the traditional shura) in remote villages where "poverty is more of a concern than violence."

The objective is for each village to identify, plan, manage and monitor its own development projects. The representatives of the Aga Khan Development Network (supported by CIDA), are simply facilitators, sitting deferentially with the village elders at their meetings; the outsiders' role is to influence the council's decisions by offering funding (micro-grants), on condition the local project be planned fairly. "How would you like to see your village in 2015?" each group is asked at the outset, and "Who would you like to have as your leaders?" Our own people, is the usual answer. It turned out that hardly any problems need to be solved outside of the community itself.

In order to be awarded the funding for a new school, for road repairs, bridge building, tree-planting* or whatever, village councils are obliged to participate in role-play games to give them a better understanding of modern approaches to old problems. The men and the women do not "play" these games together, but in some cases the facilitators contrive to give the men concerned a new appreciation of their womenfolk's problems and potential. Sujeet confessed he had been sometimes moved to tears by the frustration conveyed by the women's groups; they had so much to offer and were barred from offering it because of their lower status. However there's a feeling that this will change in future generations because their daughters now get more of an education, and, interestingly, the menfolk seem to encourage the idea of girls going to school. Only 10% of adult women in Afghanistan are literate at present, but 50% of Afghan girls are learning to read. The present day average life expectancy for an Afghan woman is 40 years.

*5 million trees have been planted at the AFK's expense, orchards replacing the former poppy fields

The AKDN has introduced the concept of a social audit to these communities, where those responsible must stand in front of the council and report on how much money is being spent and why. This process is, apparently, acceptable. Women of the village may ask questions but only in writing, and only from behind a screen.

There are also meetings for women-only, for example when micro-loans are awarded for the purchase of sewing machines. The promise to pay back the loan has to be ratified by the women's signatures, or thumb-prints, more usually.

A high-profile journalist from the New York Times came to report on the National Solidarity Program while Sajeet Sarkar was working in Afghanistan. She warned him that if the publicity didn't match the reality she would tell the truth about this, but in the end, having visited one of the the NSP projects in Jurm, she wrote a very positive article about it. The Jurm project was a significant one because it required the co-operation of twenty-two separate Community Development Councils, their delegates sitting together on beautifully woven carpets, to plan a mutual response to the floods which had destroyed some freshwater pipes (18km of pipes having recently been laid). The tricky question of who would be chosen to supervise the teamwork without any of the elders losing face was solved by the drawing of names from a hat!

During question time here in Ottawa, someone asked what proportion of Afghan villages had been supported by the AKF so far, and having seen the somewhat "rosy picture" painted by the documentary film Change in the Making, a Journey in Afghanistan, we were subdued on hearing the answer: "only 3%." But it is a start which, it is hoped, will encourage the remaining 97%.


Before the presentation a group of us had a guided tour of the premises, learning that His Highness, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV (since 1957, the 49th Ismaili Imam) has a suite of rooms in this building where he can stay when he comes to Canada. The building, designed by Maki, an architect from Japan, incorporates traditional Islamic features in its design, such as Jali (lattice) screens and a courtyard garden planted with silverberries and divided by watercourses (rainwater trickles down the warmed tiles into a central hollow).

The AKF also laid on an elegant reception for us in the atrium, with glasses of juice and mineral water and plates of cheese.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring wings and a foretaste of flowers

At the vernal equinox today, I have seen a nuthatch, a pair of cardinals, pair of pigeons, a mourning dove, two grackles with luminescent dark blue heads, many sparrows, many chickadees, a crow and a pair of American robins, all in our garden. The chipmunk was back too, along with a number of squirrels (who feed upside down like the nuthatch) depleting the stock of seeds in the bird feeder.

The garden still has frozen soil and a large amount of snow, but I discovered the bud of a primula flower hidden behind leaves. No outdoor flowers yet but the nicely small-scale flower show at the horticultural department of Algonquin College is open to the public; four of us went there yesterday and let our eyes feast on the colours there.

As soon as you enter "Building M" you're assailed by the smell of springtime: hyacinths and damp moss. Potted plants line in the entrance hall: hydrangeas, geraniums, tulips on one side, pansies and daffodils and lilies on the other. The walls are hung with student-florists' arrangements along with home-made garden decorations, which also lavishly adorn the ceilings. This year mirrors were featured, making the flowers seem twice as many, as well as circular decorations made from foil pastry pans or embroidery hoops and wrapping paper or cellophane. Spring plants are combined with tropicals and summer annuals in adventurous, but not tasteless ways. In the main room (or greenhouse) steps to higher levels and a couple of water features enhance the general effect of walking into early summer, into a work of art.  (The show closes next Friday.)

Nobody is looking forward to the snow and rain that's due to fall tomorrow. Chris having declared categorically that winter is at an end, we rolled up our wing-covers for the season and brought them home.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Schadenfreude and other consolations

The news is bad, catastrophe after catastrophe. Fascinated by the video clips, we send donations or messages to mitigate our Schadenfreude or sense of shame. Hard-pressed journalists and commentators in the media sometimes unwittingly reveal the hypocrisy of distant onlookers.  Larry Kudlow, host of CNBC's financial news, put his foot in his mouth in regard to the Japanese earthquake: The Markets are taking this in their stride," he announced. "The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that." (He later added on Twitter: "I flubbed the line. Sincere apology.")

There was an earthquake felt here too, on Wednesday afternoon. Not like the Japanese one, just a small reminder, so that we felt for those people again.

We scour the media for news of an encouraging nature. The dignified and purposeful arrival of the Chinese team to help with the rescue work in Japan touched me. Not so long ago these nations were enemies.

On Wednesday there was a big fire at our local shops and I was there watching from a safe vantage point, like many others. One lady I know whose watch is forever lost in the jewelry repair shop said, "I stood there for a long time... I got lots of photos."

A recommendation for coping with bad news is to let ourselves be  "... fed with that which is eternal," as the early Quakers put it: James Nayler, 1653, or, like George Fox, to "know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was." But we still have to recognise what it is we're looking for.

I immerse myself in the turning of the seasons. I'm afraid it's escapism that keeps me sane. This week I made the discovery of a so-called Eagle Cam, set up in a pine tree in Norfolk, Virginia, that's trained on an eyrie, recording a pair of bald eagles nurturing their three chicks. This live news makes for much happier watching than the violence in Libya or Yemen or the Ivory Coast or Sudan. As I write this the male eagle is waiting for his mate to return from her mid-afternoon flight as the fluffy head of an eaglet peeps out from under his feathers.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Change for the better

Cheer up, I told myself, and I did. So did the weather.  Today I sat in the garden to sunbathe (my hands and face, that is; the rest of me was wrapped up), listening to the chickadees cheeping and reading Neville Cardus' autobiography. I saw a chipmunk running up the fence post. The temperature rose to 5ºC and melted some of the thick ice on our driveway. In the last few weeks, the Rideau River has had some of its ice removed and is now flowing fast through our neighbourhood.

粤来悦好 (yuè lái yuè hǎo)! That's a phrase I learned this morning, the Chinese for better and better.

No flowers in Ottawa yet, other than indoor ones, but it's a start.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bad case of cabin fever

Ottawa weather alert: "Freezing rain changing to rain this morning. Snow has changed over to freezing rain early this morning and the freezing rain will persist for a couple of hours before changing over to rain later this morning as the temperature edges above the zero degree mark. Dangerous winter driving conditions are expected. Untreated surfaces may be icy and slippery."

"Precipitation outlook"—40-50 mm of rain from Thursday Afternoon to Friday Afternoon" As I write, it's still snowing quite heavily in this part of town. The snow that began in the early evening yesterday has since buried my garden bench. The truck that ploughs our driveway has just taken three quarters of an hour over the job, its wheels spinning crazily on the thick ice that lies under the fresh snow.

Saturday's and Sunday's forecasts are vague but pessimistic: "mixed precipitation" seems to sum it up.

It looks as though our German conversation in the west end is cancelled for today; I'm not venturing out and nor are several others. The start of the week was bright and sunny but bitter cold and the sidewalks / sideroads lethally slippery. I'm still trying to recover from my stupid 5 mile walk in these conditions (Monday) when the effort of keeping upright strained so many muscles that I couldn't sleep at night.

Staying indoors, though, is yet more debilitating.

Baudelaire knew how to describe such a malaise (and strangely enough, there's comfort in this):
En es-tu donc venue à ce point d'engourdissement que tu ne te plaises que dans ton mal? S'il en est ainsi, fuyons vers les pays qui sont les analogies de la Mort [...] installons-nous au pôle. Là le soleil ne frise qu'obliquement la terre, et les lentes alternatives de la lumière et de la nuit suppriment la variété et augmentent la monotonie, cette moitié du néant. Là, nous pourrons prendre de longs bains de ténèbres, cependant que, pour nous divertir, les aurores boréales nous enverront de temps en temps leurs gerbes roses, comme des reflets d'un feu d'artifice de l'Enfer!»

Enfin, mon âme fait explosion, et sagement elle me crie: «N'importe où! n'importe où! pourvu que ce soit hors de ce monde!»

(Anywhere out of the world, 1867)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The "bagnards" of Brest

On Monday I and some French-speaking ladies were at the home of Danielle whose relatives live in Brittany, and who talked to us about the city of Brest. Here's some of what I learned.

In 1859 the last ship to carry convicts from Brest in France set sail, bound for French Guiana. There's no longer a trace of the stone edifice that held 60,000 such prisoners in Brittany at one time or another between 1749 and 1859.  The régime of Louis XIV sentenced criminals (and some not so criminal) to the "galleys," galères––to forced labour, la chiourme––in order to make the regular prisons less crowded. In 18th / 19th century France and England forced labour and penal transportation was the order of the day. Convicts did their best to escape from the bagne de Brest, usually in vain.
A chaque fois qu'un forçat s'évadait, on faisait tonner le canon pour alerter les habitants. Le canon s'entendait à 20 km à la ronde, d’où l'expression favorite du capitaine Haddock: "Tonnerre de Brest!"
The prison was a huge structure with unscalable walls and panoptic lookout towers. In its day it was considered modern and less severe than other prisons; it had running water and allowed the inmates palliasses to sleep on. The convicts made up a good 10% of Brest's population."On avait des moments libres" when the galley slaves were not labouring and their sad little works of art have lasted longer than the prison walls, it seems, such as sculptures made out of coconuts, as have some of the letters sent to their relatives, informing them abruptly that their family members had been dispatched to the penal colonies across the Atlantic.

Jacques Prévert wrote a poem, Chasse à l'enfantabout a child convict (some were under 13) who tried to escape from a penal colony on Belle-Ile-en-Mer and was hunted down... in the 20th century. That wasn't the Bagne de Brest, but like it. Prévert was thinking of Brest though, when he wrote one of his most famous poems, Barbara.

Brest is mostly famous for its military port, still France's main nuclear submarine base, and the centre of terrible confrontations in both the 1st and 2nd World Wars, but also for its connection with François Frézier, who introduced France to white strawberries. Nearby Plougastel is still known as the Pays des Fraises.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Very strong women

The Nobel Women's Initiative (an NGO) was founded by six winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1966. Yesterday morning, at the German Ambassador's residence, our German-speaking conversation group met one of its managers, Diana Sarosi, who addressed us fluently in German, although she confessed that it was years since she had made a presentation in her mother tongue, and that she'd had to look up some words beforehand. In recent years Diana has been working in Burma and Thailand, documenting the treatment of minorities in those countries who oppose their governments, as well as championing the rights of persecuted individuals and offering them personal support.

Diana has an MA in Conflict Resolution from the University of Bradford "with a research focus on women, peace and security." Judging by the way in which she speaks and writes, I guess she has been influenced by Quakers. She used to work for the South East Asian branch of Nonviolence International and published a paper entitled Rule by the Gun: Armed Civilians and Firearms Proliferation in Southern Thailand. While working there she created a Working Group on Justice for Peace, its objectives being to raise public awareness of the people (women in particular) who are suffering and to strengthen their will in a non-violent fight for justice, hoping that international advocacy would help to counteract the harsh police interventions and  "disappearances." As The Guardian says of southern Thailand ...
The region was once a Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago, and separatist tensions have simmered ever since.
The tensions are complex and very difficult to resolve. Diana described and showed us pictures of one of the people she had been supporting, Angkhana Neelaphaijit, a dignified Muslim woman whose husband, human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelaphaijit, had "disappeared" (murdered, it seems, by those in power, after daring to criticise their policies concerning followers of the unofficial religions) and whose own safety was at risk. Diana sat beside her during her hearings in court. She felt that her westerner's face would offer her friend some protection. The Thai leadership associates dissidents with terrorists and drug dealers, and does its best to rid the country of their influence. On the other hand, this nation is also sensitive to international opinion, its prosperity and image being dependent on its tourist trade which, because of the continuing unrest, is under threat.

The last photo in Diana's presentation yesterday was of Hilary Clinton shaking hands with Angkhana Neelaphaijit, now president of that Working Group on Justice for Peace which Diana had set in motion. We asked her, is this lady's life still in danger? Not any more, apparently. She has too high a profile now.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A blaze of flowers

The theme was FIRE: "Ignite"!

I made a few notes on what was used in the flowery, twiggy Ikebana sculptures exhibited at the Museum of Nature last weekend, where three of my friends and I were visitors:
photo from
  • pine twig with cones and two orchids
  • wild vine, driftwood, hollow tree trunks
  • painted onion seed heads on a "tree" of chopped red reeds, like matchsticks
  • coals planted with sea holly painted red, palm leaves and mulberry branches
  • ginger flowers, dogwood twigs, birds of paradise flowers
  • ginger flowers, gladioli, golden rod, carnations, statice, monstera leaves
  • fire-coloured alstroemeria with coppery, wiry ribbons. Vases from tins and pipes covered with shiny, copper-coloured wrapping paper
  • a pair of antlers with orange roses
  • peacock feathers, pebbles, parsley ...
  • hydrangea roots, stripped, pointing upside down and painted red (not spray painted either; the artist, whom I knew, told me it took ages) with blackened logs and tropical flower heads (these pointing upwards)
  • yellow and maroon calla lilies with palms, orchids and driftwood
  • leather fern, calla lily, pussy willow, white carnations, leucadendron ... in 3 white pots
While we were at the museum, we explored the Mammal Gallery too, and I discovered that musk oxen don't belong to the ox family at all, really; they are rather an enormous kind of sheep. Their scientific name, ovibos, means "sheep-ox," so there you go!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why I didn't replace my water heater

National Home Services claims on its website to be the fastest growing "home services" company, and I'm not surprised, so persuasive are the techniques it uses to grab its customers.

I gave the rep. 10 out of 10 for his courtesy, by the way. He had blue eyes and an affable, respectful manner. When I opened the door he made a point of drawing my attention to his badge and his uniform. He informed me that the Ontario government was having a drive to replace old water heaters / tanks with "greener," ones that were Energy Star rated and that, if I had an older tank, this initiative would entitle me to a free, new one, which would be 25% more efficient. He asked to see a recent bill from our gas company that would tell him what kind of rental agreement we currently have for our current water heater, which we rent from Direct Energy. I didn't see any harm in showing him this piece of paper and when he saw it he made a note on his notepad, nodding sagely and telling me that, since Direct Energy "is no longer renting out these water heaters," I was going to have to switch my allegiance to National in any case.

"Some of your neighbours have already made the switch," he said. "We must have missed you the last time we came round."

Then I let him into the house (after he'd asked politely whether he could take a look at my old boiler to see if I qualified for a free replacement). We went down to the furnace room. I'd insulated our water tank, as advised by the City of Ottawa's energy auditor who inspected our house a couple of years ago, but I kindly removed the insulating cover so that the sales rep. could take a close look at the numbers and make another note on his clipboard pad. "Oh yes," he said, "this one was installed in 1997. It's an old, 37 gallon tank and there's sure to be a lot of sediment at the bottom by now which will be making the heating mechanism less efficient. We'll give you a 40 gallon tank with a glass-lined inner flue that will give it a longer, cleaner life." What's more, the new model would be so much better insulated that I'd no longer need to cover it with the extra jacket.

We went back upstairs and he showed me some pictures of what I assumed was the inside of the dirty old, poorly insulated tank I have at the moment, and the super-clean modern equivalent which would have an easy-to-use adjustable thermostat and would never need lighting with matches. (I didn't recall ever needing a match for the one I've got, but still).

Well, I said, this seems almost too good to be true. How generous of the government to replace our old water tanks for free. Making no comment, the rep. changed the subject.

We discussed the new rental agreement, in which he promised the first two months rent free, a free preventative check-up of the heater every three years, and any service charge or cost of replacement parts to be included in the monthly rental ... which incidentally would be only slightly more than what we're paying at present—about $4 a month more: $17.95 plus taxes. In the small print, which he didn't dwell upon, is the additional statement that "annual fee increases are limited to 3.5%". Actually, the Terms and Conditions (in what appears to be 5 point font) state "...on each annual anniversary of your Effective Date, your monthly rate will increase by 3.5%...." (my emphasis). He did say that the savings in heating costs with the more efficient unit would more than adequately compensate for the increase in the rental charge.

He then told me he was obliged to contact his headquarters by phone before leaving my house (he used my phone) to make an installation appointment for me and so that I could confirm that he had been wearing his uniform when he called and that I had been given all the proper information and paper work, etc., etc. I said "yes, yes". The agent also asked me to give the door-to-door rep. a mark out of 10 (see above).

Then we got round to fixing a time for the installation. Again I could hardly believe my luck; they could come round as soon as Monday and the job was only going to take about an hour and a half, he said. I made the appointment, wrote it down, and signed the Residential Water Heater Rental & Protection Plan Agreement there and then. We didn't take long over the paper work because all the requisite information had already been written down by the rep.

Next time, if there is a next time, I won't be so hasty.

In the evening friends of ours came round and I told them about the deal, showing them National's Program Guide and my copy of the Agreement, as well as our old tank in the basement, at which it was pointed out to me that the new tank I was expecting was in fact exactly the same model as the one we have at present (size 40 gallons, with a glass-lined inner flue).

We can find nothing on the Enbridge Gas website to suggest that Enbridge has withdrawn its alliance with Direct Energy. If we had transferred our allegiance to National Home Services, we'd have been locked into the contract for 15 years and if we had moved house we'd have been obliged to persuade our buyers to accept the same rental agreement themselves (it's not really a rental, it's a lease).

Here's an alert which was easy to find on the Internet once we'd had second thoughts about the contract with National Home Services, and here's another. Perhaps the best one is this video from the CBC that actually filmed their sales people in action.

On Saturday we called National, spoke to an agent and asked for our new agreement to be cancelled. The lady who answered the phone said it would be possible but if we did this we would have to give a reason for the change of mind, despite the relatively large print in National Home Services' own Program Guide, saying ...

Your Rights Under the Consumer Protection Act, 2002:
You may cancel this agreement at any time during the period that ends ten (10) days after the day you receive a written copy of the agreement. You do not need to give the supplier a reason for cancelling during this 10-day period.

As a matter of fact Chris did tell her the results of our post-agreement enquiries.

It was as well we acted speedily, once we'd had our eyes opened. If they'd installed the unit on Monday it would have cost us too much fuss and expense to back out at that point.

If this story sounds familiar, if you have just signed up with National Home Services (also known as JustEnergy—clicking on their links to water heaters sends you straight to "") and now want to withdraw from the arrangement, send them a letter of cancellation, obtaining proof that you sent it. In your letter write a simple description of the agreement, state that you wish to cancel it and add a request for confirmation that the cancellation has taken effect. Then tell your friends about this, as I am doing here. Or write to the press about it!