Rocks and trees and trees and rocks

Canada is a rugged country. Thing‘s birthplace is located somewhere on the Canadian Shield — it must be so!

This weekend, we travelled from Ottawa to Peterborough to attend my Mom’s 75th birthday party. (See previous post.) The distance is 270 kms / 167 miles. The drive takes about three and a half hours, one way.

Canada is vast and sparsely populated. It takes about 45 minutes to leave Ottawa behind. After that, you pass through occasional towns; but mostly, Canada consists of thousands of square miles of uninhabited land.

The trees are colourful since we’re well into autumn weather now. (In fact, many trees have lost most of their leaves.) And in this part of Ontario, the highway has been cut through tonnes of rock.


Note the parallel, vertical lines in this photo:

Years ago, when they built this highway, they wanted to make it as straight as possible. So they opted to cut through much of the rock rather than curve the highway around it. The lines resulted when they drilled long holes into the rock. They dropped dynamite into the holes and blasted the rock away. As a child, I sometimes heard the blasts in the distance. (“Mom, I just heard thunder, but it isn’t raining.”)

If you’ve never visited Canada, how shall I describe it to you? In the immortal words of the Arrogant Worms:

We’ve got
rocks and trees and trees and rocks
and rocks and trees and trees and rocks
and rocks and trees and trees and rocks
and rocks and trees and trees and rocks
and water.
Water? I almost forgot:


Brule Lake, Ontario
photo taken by my sister Arlene one week ago

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75th birthday

This weekend my sister Linda hosted a 75th birthday party for my Mom.


Actually, there was a bit of a mix-up. Mom turned 75 last year, but we thought it was only her 74th birthday. (Only?)

When we found out that Mom was already 75, we scheduled the party one week before her 76th birthday. Snuck it in just under the deadline!

To make the most of the occasion, Linda purchased a pinata.

Here’s the birthday girl, taking a poke at the pinata with her cane.


And here she is, withdrawing from the field of battle, her dignity intact.

It was a draw:  Mom didn’t bust open the pinata, but it didn’t bust her open, either.

Roadside memorials

From time to time, I pass a handmade cross on the side of the road. I am vaguely aware that such crosses mark the site of a tragedy. These are very personal memorials to loved ones who died prematurely and violently. But I hadn’t really attended to the practice until this weekend.

Evidently they have become a social phenomenon.

roadside memorial 1

(Note the work gloves.)

An article in the Ottawa Citizen made me stop and think. And today, when I googled “roadside memorials”, Google returned 38,000 hits, including this one:

On the Pacific Highway in [New South Wales, Australia], north of Clybucca, is a white cross by the roadside.

It tells any passerby that Timothy was born on November 5, 1987 and on April 8, 2001 he was “born to eternal life”. Motorists speeding by see Timothy’s memorial out of the corner of an eye, friends and family come to mourn there and bring floral tributes, and road maintenance workers know to leave it alone.

In the process of claiming public road space for themselves, those who construct these memorials clearly desire to go beyond the management of mourning practices and spaces provided by the traditional authorities of the church and the state. Timothy was “born to eternal life” by the roadside; that place is now sacred space.

[source: Pointers, journal of the Christian Research Association, Australia]

Road memorials mark the site of a traffic fatality. They have proliferated because so many people die prematurely in automobile accidents. The Citizen reports:

Once found mostly in Catholic countries, roadside shrines are now common in Canada, the United States, Europe, Britain and Australia, where about 20 per cent of road deaths attract memorials. With an estimated 1.2 million traffic deaths worldwide annually — including nearly 2,800 in Canada, 850 in Ontario and about 30 in Ottawa — there’s no shortage of victims to memorialize.

Undoubtedly this is part of the message of these roadside memorials, sprouting up like so many mushrooms after a week of rain. They are probably not intended as a gesture of protest, but they do have that effect.

Don Baccus puts it succinctly:  What’s the message behind these photos? How does “drive safely” sound?

It’s a good reminder. When you’re behind the wheel of a car, it only takes a moment of inattention at the wrong time to cut short someone’s life. I do not want to live with that on my conscience.

Despite the obvious connection with automobile accidents, roadside memorials originated in an era before cars. This account takes us back to a simpler time:

THE CUSTOM of marking the site of a death on the highway has deep roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where these memorials are often referred to as Descansos (“resting places”). …

“THE FIRST DESCANSOS were resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.

“Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough hewn pine of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.

“The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there was time to contemplate death. Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground.

“Rested , the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the cemetery would become resting spots. …

“Yes, there have always been accidents, a wagon would turn over, a man would die. But the journeys of our grandfathers were slow, there was time to contemplate the relationship of life and death. Now time moves fast, cars and trucks race like demons on the highways, there is little time to contemplate. Death comes quickly, and often it comes to our young.”

[source: Descansos; the text in quotation marks is from Descansos: An Interrupted Journey, by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (Del Norte , 1995)]

Contemporary memorials mark an evolution in our religious practices; a kind of democratization of religion, given that this is a grassroots phenomenon. The Citizen reports:

“These practices mark an historic change,” says John Belshaw, acting dean of arts at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. “The grieving process has gone into the public domain.” …

One of the striking things about roadside memorials is their similarity in every country in which they appear. While some are simple wreaths or bouquets of flowers, the more permanent shrines usually feature crosses, often with the name and date of death of the victim. Some also include personal mementoes such as stuffed teddy bears, pictures, cards and letters, sports equipment and other meaningful items.

A few shrines are virtual celebrations of hard-living, risk-taking machismo. While such memorials are most common in Australia, they can be found in Canada as well. One that Mr. Belshaw and Ms. Purvey found in B.C. featured beer bottles and packs of cigarettes, with images of well-endowed women plastered on the cross.

“In that case, the cross is clearly being used ironically,” he says. “He clearly didn’t lead a good Christian life.” …

Mr. Belshaw admits that when he and his wife began their research, the whole notion of roadside memorials left him feeling a bit queasy.

“I thought it was a bit grisly and grim,” he says, “but I’m increasingly of the mind that it’s one of the healthiest things the public’s ever done.”

That’s a view shared by another academic who has studied the roadside memorial phenomenon, Jennifer Clark, of Australia’s University of New England. …

This represents “a dramatic shift towards the democratization of memorialization,” Ms. Clark contends.

“Roadside memorials are not earned as a reward for selfless or admirable deeds, nor do they commemorate service in public office. Rather, those they remember are ordinary men, women and children with no claim to fame. They may even have died because their actions were foolish, such as speeding, driving while drunk, or driving while tired.”

I found this comment particularly poignant:

Researchers have noticed the tendency to infantilize victims in their teens and twenties by surrounding their memorials with soft toys and other talismans of childhood.

To Mr. Belshaw, this is a reference to the victim’s lost potential for redemption. “When a 19-year-old comes out of a bar three sheets to the wind and wraps his car around a lamp post and the next morning you find teddy bears at the accident site,” he says, “that’s a statement that essentially this was a good person who could have been redeemed.”

The article from Pointers (cited earlier) also reflects on the spiritual significance of road memorials. The authors call attention to the concept of sacred space:

Although memorials that use apparent religious symbols signal a significant link with Christian faith, this is not necessarily the case. The use of such symbols may in fact be little more than an attempt to find culturally appropriate symbols to express death, where there has previously been a paucity of such symbols apart from those offered by institutional religion. …

The memorials witness primarily to the spiritual significance of place. Their role is to mark the very spot where life was lost. Some memorials are explicit about that and refer, for example, to Sharon who was “tragically killed at this spot” or Sandra, Stacey and Joanne, all “tragically taken at this spot” or Jody who “died here”. …

When a roadside memorial is erected it suggests that the cemetery or crematorium is unsatisfying as a focal point for mourning. Anecdotally the place of death holds a stronger spiritual connection with the individual than any place of final rest of the body. There remains something intrinsically more important about the place where life ceased or, more accurately, where a life-changing event occurred.

At this point, I think we are approaching an explanation for the phenomenon. The majority of people no longer feel any sense of personal attachment to a religious institution or a church community. When it’s time for a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral, the clergy who performs the rite of passage is often a complete stranger. Even the cemetery has become a place of little spiritual consequence:

When the state-controlled secularised cemeteries replaced the more communally-based churchyards in the 19th Century, a sense of community was lost, as well as a spiritually meaningful place to mourn the dead.

“The cemetery,” wrote Thomas W. Laquer, “would not speak of a place but of people from all places … unknown to each other in life and thrown together in a place with which they might have had only the most transitory acquaintance”.

By contrast, the site of the death is instantly infused with a profound personal significance.

Not everyone is thrilled with the proliferation of roadside memorials. It certainly puts municipalities in an awkward position: the space has been privatized and hallowed, but it remains public property. West Virginia has posted a primer for roadside memorials on the Web to try to retain some control.

Private citizens may have mixed feelings, too. Returning to the Citizen‘s account:

Family members are not always pleased when friends erect roadside memorials to their loved ones.

Mr. Belshaw tells of a woman in Victoria [British Columbia] whose son was killed in a traffic accident. Friends put up a memorial and she went along with the idea. But she had to drive past it every day to get out of the cul-de-sac where she lived. “It was like a knife through her heart,” he says. “She really suffered with it.”

Sometimes property owners near the accident scene object because they find the constant reminder of tragic death depressing.

“People tend to react fairly viscerally to them one way or another,” says Mr. Belshaw. “Some will say, ‘I don’t need to be reminded of my own mortality on a daily basis.’ Others will say, ‘Yes, you do’.”

Put me in the latter camp. We’re too insulated from death in our society. If road memorials remind people that we all have to take death into account, I think that’s a social good.

roadside memorial 2

The “war on terror” is like …?

This is a follow-up to my previous post, in which I summarized an article written by Rick Salutin.

I am gratified to note that in their recent comments on the post, Jack and Cyberkitten are taking the discussion in precisely the direction that I felt we needed to go. They are debating whether 9/11 constituted an act of war.

But let me take one step back. In the previous post, I didn’t say whether I agreed with Salutin or not. For the record, Salutin is too far to the left for my comfort. In particular, when he suggests that we should seek out a different interpretation altogether of events such as 9/11, I’m a little alarmed by the direction he’s taking us in.

Even so, I think his perspective is valuable, which is why I shared it with you. Salutin provokes us into examining the “war on terror”. I find myself asking questions like, Is the “war on terror” really a war?

Or this one:  when President Bush whips up support for the war by saying, “We stand for democracy and peace; the extremists would ban books, desecrate historical monuments, and brutalize women” is that just typical war-time propaganda? — so much empty rhetoric?

Similarly, the terror alerts:  is fear just another tool to whip up support for the “war on terror”? (Note the irony, if the Bush administration is fighting terror by sowing terror among the US citizenry.)

I propose that we explore the issue as follows. I invite you to fill in the blank in the following sentence:  The “war on terror” is …

  • like World War II.
    In this analysis, Osama bin Laden is cast in the role of Adolph Hitler; George “Dubya” Bush therefore plays the part of Winston Churchill.
    David Warren, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, is a proponent of this point of view.
  • like the Cold War.
    In the Cold War, communists and proponents of democracy fought for the global supremacy of their system of government. The war was largely ideological:  the USA and the USSR never declared war on one another (hence the term, “cold” war).
    Over at Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, Dr. Bean and ball-and-chain believe the “war on terror” is the same sort of conflict.
  • a phoney war.
    Rick Salutin is a proponent of this position. To reiterate:  The “war on terror” is no real war, more an endless state of tension like the wars in Nineteen Eighty-four. Even George Bush says it will last years, or decades.

I think the question is significant. How we fight the “war on terror” depends on how we characterize it. In World War II, England and Germany bombed each other’s cities into a state of ruin (and the USA dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan). In the Cold War, there was no direct conflict between the USA and the USSR; but a series of proxy wars played themselves out around the globe (for starters, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan come to mind).

On the other hand, if the “war on terror” is a phoney war, presumably the West shouldn’t resort to military force at all.

At this point, once again, I turn the discussion over to you. I’d like to hear your answers to the following questions:

  1. The “war on terror” is …?
  2. Therefore we should fight it …?

Problematizing “the new normal”

Rick Salutin has a written a particularly good column on the subject, Torture and the new normal. First he poses the question:

Can you justify torture under “the new normal”? This is sometimes done in the name of the ticking bomb. What if you know one is set to go off in a subway etc., wouldn’t that validate torturing a terrorist who has details?

Then Salutin concedes that we’re all capable of committing acts of violence if the provocation is sufficient:

Now, I certainly think you can imagine a situation in which any of us might act brutally under stress for the sake of a noble result, often involving kids or loved ones, or mass murder of innocents. You don’t have to be Jack Bauer on 24.

Personally, I can imagine anyone doing almost anything, under certain conditions. If you get tossed into that blender, you have to achingly do what seems right or required, and live with the consequences. That’s what having a conscience is all about:  lonely individual choice and responsibility.

This is a provocative point in its own right. My inclination is to agree. Occasionally — though I don’t know why I should daydream about such a topic — I imagine how I would respond if someone broke into our house and threatened my sweetie. I don’t have any trouble believing that I could resort to violence, and be pretty pleased with myself about it, too.

As Salutin says, the scenario necessarily involves kids or loved ones. If the only person at risk was me, I’d be more likely to passively cooperate with the intruder and hope he only wanted my valuables. (An amusing thought, because I have no valuables.)

Salutin asserts, “having a conscience is all about lonely individual choice and responsibility”. That’s an interesting image:  when it comes to moral choices, Salutin pictures each individual as alone in the universe, just her and her conscience.

As a theist, I don’t quite see it that way. I believe that moral direction comes from outside of ourselves. And not only that, I also believe that God provides support to help us do what is right:  at least an inner nudge in the right direction. It’s a partnership, not a lone individual grappling with a grave and difficult decision in an indifferent universe.

But I admit, even from the perspective of a theist, there’s truth in Salutin’s way of expressing things. When I am confronted with a moral decision, ultimately only I determine which path I take. It helps if there’s someone watching. A little social pressure often tips the scales in favour of the good. But ultimately I am responsible for my moral decisions:  not God, and not society.

But we still haven’t gotten to the issue Salutin set out to address. Here it is:

U.S. law prof and human-rights buff Alan Dershowitz thinks torture should be legalized under clear conditions in these harsh times, so as to control and regulate its negative effects. He says this precisely because, he claims, he is opposed to torture. There’s a fine legal mind at work. …

I’m against legalizing acts like torture. … They should remain crimes, to be punished or — very rarely — treated as exceptions, full of moral ambiguity.

But perhaps it doesn’t seem so ambiguous to you. Isn’t it just a matter of the end justifying the means, even if that means is torture? I’d say the problem with means-ends arguments lies usually not in the means, where attention mainly focuses, but in the ends, which tend to go unexamined.

I have set the last sentence in bold type because this is the point upon which the discussion pivots.

We need to pause here to consider what “means” and what “ends” Salutin has in mind. Torture is proposed, by people like Alan Dershowitz, as a means to a noble end. The end is, the victory of good (Western ideals like democracy, individual freedom, the separation of church and state, equality for women, and the like) over evil (terrorism, Islamo-fascism and the like).

That’s the logic that is being thrust upon us, and we’re not supposed to examine it too closely. But Salutin deconstructs it. He doesn’t just want us to reject the means — torture — he wants us to reject the end:

The “war on terror” is no real war, more an endless state of tension like the wars in Nineteen Eighty-four. Even George Bush says it will last years, or decades.

It makes me respect the power in that phrase, the new normal. It normalizes what is absurd, objectionable and entirely questionable (and not so new, either). Instead of challenging this absurd and disastrous “new” version of reality — clash of civilizations, war on terror and their like — you end up agonizing over issues like torture, as a response to it. You don’t seek out a different interpretation altogether of events such as 9/11. Instead, you fall in line with the war mentality, though you might be for or against a particular tactic.

Means and ends reverse:  The end of fighting a successful war on terror becomes the means to multiply practices such as torture and moods such as fear. I’d say this applies as much to Osama bin Laden’s jihad as to George Bush’s “war.” All the intensity would be far better invested in rejecting their versions of reality, which jibe minimally with actual conditions in places such as the Middle East and offer no hope for a better future.

There are all kinds of provocative remarks here:

  • the “war on terror,” is no real war, more an endless state of tension;
  • we should vigorously reject this absurd and disastrous “new” version of reality;
  • we should not even consider torture as a legitimate means to achieve victory in the “war on terror”;
  • neither “George Bush’s ‘war'” nor Osama bin Laden’s jihad — the two worldviews are depicted as parallel — offers any hope of a better future.

Well! You are cordially invited to offer your thoughts in response to Salutin’s provocative point of view.

Rick Mercer reports from Afghanistan

Readers who do not live in Canada (which is 72% of you, and nearly 100% of those who leave comments) presumably have no idea who Rick Mercer is.

(Shame on you! What passes for culture in the USA and the UK, anyhow?)

Rick MercerMercer is a comedian from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. All the funniest Canadians hail from that province. Potatoes grow in the red earth of Prince Edward Island; comedians sprout from The Rock.

Mercer is an honest-to-goodness icon. I have irrefutable proof: he has his own entry at Wikipedia. In the digital age, that’s how you demonstrate that you’ve joined the ranks of the gods.

Anyway, Mercer just returned from a week in Afghanistan where he visited the Canadian troops and did the Bob Hope thing. Mercer comments:

Show-biz folk love a captive audience; we will gladly travel across the world and visit a war zone to find one.

Mercer is also a blogger. He has cleverly named his blog, Rick Mercer’s blog. (No one is inspired 100% of the time.)

Mercer’s posts on Afghanistan stand out among his usual fare. (Mostly he likes to roast Canadian politicians you’ve never heard of.) This excerpt is the highlight for me:

This was my second trip to Afghanistan and the capitol city of Kabul has changed dramatically since Canada showed up. Kabul looks and feels like a city on the mend. New construction is everywhere, the stores are crowded, there is fresh produce in abundance and women are seen everywhere on the streets — many without Burkas. Canada has played a huge part in this transformation.Now things start to get real tricky. The bulk of Canada’s troops will soon be stationed in Kandahar. This is the Wild West. Kandahar is, bottom line, far more dangerous than Kabul. If you wanted to drive home this fact all you have to do is take a look inside the front gates of the Canadian camp. Inside the gate sits a British armoured vehicle that was recently hit by a suicide bomber. Because of the armour everyone walked away from that attack.

Kandahar 1

Kandahar 2

Canadians on patrol in this area drive now similar vehicles made by Mercedes.

But check it out for yourself — Mercer provides an interesting, first-person perspective.

The world is getting safer

Another story from today’s Ottawa Citizen. And a good news story at that! The world is a more secure place than many of us imagine it to be:

A startling new Canadian study has found that all forms of political violence, except terrorism, have plummeted 40 per cent since the early 1990s.

The first Human Security Report, by the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, which is being dubbed the most comprehensive survey to date of trends in warfare, genocide and human rights abuses, has also found that the gravity of armed conflicts has dropped dramatically since 1992.

In 1950, the study found, an average of 38,000 people were killed in each conflict; by 2002, that number had dropped to 600 — a decline of 98 per cent.

While the number of deadly terrorist strikes has increased sharply since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., terrorism still accounts for a fraction of the annual death toll from war, the report points out.

The study’s findings “run very much against the grain of today’s conventional wisdom,” says Andrew Mack, director of the University of British Columbia’s Human Security Centre and author of the study.

Mr. Mack blames the popular misconception that we live in an increasingly violent world on the media, which “gives far more coverage to wars that start than the greater number that quietly end.”

Until now, he adds, there was little data to combat such myths because “no international agency collects data on wars, genocides, terrorist acts or core human rights abuses,” not even the UN, where Mr. Mack served as an adviser to Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1998 to 2001. “The issues are just too politically sensitive,” he explains.

The report, which was funded by Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain, is to be published by Oxford University Press next month. It identifies trends in world violence:

In spite of massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia, the total number of genocides and other mass killings worldwide plunged by 80 per cent between 1988 and 2001, Mr. Mack says.

Reports of human-rights abuses have fallen in five of six regions in the developing world since the mid-1990s, and the number of attempted coups has declined by about 60 per cent since 1963, the study says.

The generations born after the end of the Second World War have enjoyed the longest interval without wars between major powers in hundreds of years, the report says.

Mr. Mack cites a number of factors which contribute to the reduced loss of life. If you are a critic of the United Nations, you’ll be taken aback by the first item on his list:

  • Mr. Mack traces the trend to a more peaceful resolution of conflicts to the United Nations, which, despite high-profile failures, has been quietly leading “a remarkable explosion” in conflict prevention since the end of the Cold War. The report notes that, since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, UN diplomatic missions to head off conflicts have risen six-fold; the number of peacemaking missions has quadrupled.

    He also cites a study by the RAND Corp., a U.S. policy think-tank, that found that two-thirds of the UN’s peacebuilding missions had succeeded.

Other factors, according to Mr. Mack:

  • So-called proxy wars, where the major powers bankrolled conflicts in other countries to undermine each other, ground to a halt in the late 1980s when the Cold War ended.
  • The end of colonialism also brought a sharp decrease in violence, as the wars of liberation that raged around the world from the 1940s to the 1980s finally wound down.
  • The nature of conflict has changed. While Cold War-era clashes often led to major wars involving large armies, today’s clashes typically pit weak governments against ragtag rebels.
  • Many more civilians now flee conflict zones, so fewer wind up in the line of fire.

    Mr. Mack says displacement, while it has reduced battlefield casualties, is a “humanitarian tragedy,” and stresses that the study did not take into account millions of indirect deaths related to conflict, such as disease and malnutrition.

As for terrorism:

Despite its relatively low death toll so far, terrorism remains a significant threat, Mr. Mack says, pointing out that the “war on terror” has sparked major conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and “almost certainly increased the number of potential terrorist recruits.”

Even more chilling is the lingering fear that terrorists may acquire weapons of mass destruction, he says.

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