Thursday, July 31, 2008


(photo from the Vancouver Sun)
Can it really be summer for Albertans without driving on BC highways? When I told folks I was headed for The Island a few weeks ago, no one had to ask, "Well gosh, which island would that be now?" Same goes for "The Coast". But when Albertans say they were "at The Lake" I'm never sure if I'm supposed to know which lake. "Yeah, we were up at The Cabin at The Lake" probably means somewhere north of here, but then again my wife uses "up" for wherever we're going (ie. "going up to Calgary" (due south!)).
I was reminded of my all too-brief annual foray onto BC roads with the dramatic rock slide this week on the Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler. There will be some unhappy Olympians if the road is closed for a week during 2010! As well there were the 6 hour traffic jams last weekend as people tried to get to the Pemberton music festival, just past Whistler.

Anyone driving crowded BC highways this summer, or anyone stuck in traffic on St. Albert Trail for that matter, will find the book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt interesting. called it the "Freakonomics of cars" for its similar use of recent studies and research to upend traditional thinking and fondly-held myths. Traffic investigates why street signs don't work, how merging is the most stressful thing we may do all day, why new cars crash more than old cars, and why Saturdays have the worst traffic.

[I just noticed that Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt is one of the Baffler boys, the witty writers who were founders or contributers to the late-lamented magazine, The Baffler. The boys, Rick Perlstein, Tom Vanderbilt, Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland all have books out this year: Nixonland (Perlstein), Traffic, The Wrecking Crew (Frank) and State by State (Weiland).]

A related book is from Toronto writer Tim Falconer: Drive: A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair With the Automobile.
Falconer drove from Toronto to the U.S. west coast in his sad-sack 1991 Nissan Maxima, stopping in places along the way like Detroit to riff on things car. Vancouver writer Kevin Chong wrote a lengthy positive review in the Globe & Mail (July 12, 2008):
"Drive, a thoughtful cultural history of the car, explores the manifold, sometimes contradictory, reasons why even a person with a non-essential relationship to his vehicle, such as Falconer has, might also feel attached to it.... In some ways, taking a road trip that explores the dark side of the automobile is something like spending an entire summer on the beach to write a story about skin cancer. It's hard to enjoy a road trip when you're worrying about its carbon footprint. Fortunately, Falconer also takes pains to write about the joys of driving: listening to music while driving ... getting behind the wheel of a sports car, and taking in the scenery along Route 66 and other "blue highways," the secondary roads that are drawn in blue on maps."
Chong knows what he is talking about, having written about his own epic road trip, retracing Neil Young's footsteps across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto and then back over to California in his book Neil Young Nation.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero

Congratulations to St. Albert’s Lyle Best, who was named a member of the Order of Canada on Canada Day. Lyle is President and CEO of Quikcard, but he is well-known for his links with the Edmonton Oilers and his extensive volunteer work (for which the Order of Canada was given). But Lyle was certainly overshadowed as another person named a member of the Order of Canada was quite a controversial choice: Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

This morning, CBC Radio’s The Current talked to Christopher McCreery, author of a seemingly arcane book, The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History, and Development [the Library has owned it since August 2007 but it has yet to be checked out!]. McCreery noted that Morgentaler’s naming is the most controversial appointment in the Order’s history.

The title of Catherine Dunphy’s 1996 biography of Morgentaler puts it well: Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero. She refers to the ‘difficult’ relationships Morgentaler has had with friends and family but the tag applies equally well to the difficulty some Canadians have in considering him a hero.

I remember walking through the Law building at the U of A in the 1980s and stumbling across a demonstration against Morgentaler, who was giving a speech. The anger amongst the protestors was palpable, and then as Morgentaler left the crowd surged forward and someone threw ketchup at him. I remember thinking this guy has some serious convictions if he’s willing to weather this kind of vitriol.

A recent book gives a view of the quieter side of abortion, the folks in the trenches providing services to women: This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor. The author, Susan Wicklund, describes her experiences of “twenty years on the front lines of the abortion war”, mainly in Montana and the Pacific Northwest.

And a good fictional read about an abortion doctor is John Irving’s classic 1985 novel, The Cider House Rules. It is the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch, an obstetrician in rural Maine, and the founder of the orphanage in the town of St. Cloud's, and Dr. Larch's favorite orphan, Homer Wells.