Friday, January 30, 2009

Return on Investment

The Globe and Mail's Report on Business reported this remarkable fact this morning. While people's pensions are plummeting, you would have seen a 6.4% return on your investment if you'd bought subway tokens in 1974.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

1,000 words for snow

I realized something profound while I was Billy-goating over innumerable snowbanks this morning.

The word "snow" actually has the word "no" built right into it.

As one of my co-workers said, after having taken the subway a single stop to avoid the slush of the city, "This is not the winter that global warming was supposed to produce."

Amen, brother.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fond Memories

While I was killing time in the book store Saturday night, waiting to meet up with my friend for Frost/Nixon, I came across Still Alice.

The author, Lisa Genova, has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard. She's also an online columnist for the National Alzheimer's Association.

But this isn't a text book.

Genova has written a compelling narrative about a 50 year-old woman's descent into early-onset Alzheimer's Disease.

That the novel's protagonist is also a Harvard professor, makes the story especially engaging.

It's a serious topic, but the novel isn't depressing.

Genova manages to do for Alzheimer's what Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time did for autism. It sheds important and compassionate light on this unpredictable and frightening disease. You'll learn a lot, while being transported along one family's journey.

The novel is gripping. I started giving myself memory tests about page three.

Even if you've never spent any time around anyone suffering from some form of dementia, the novel is a good primer for the inevitability.

Alzheimer's Disease is a fatal disease, with no known cure. It's a disease where the mind dies, leaving a shell of a body.

As many as 5 million Americans are suffering from the disease. 10 million care for someone with the disease. And every 71 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer's.

Read this book. It might just make you an advocate.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Those who know me, know that I believe there are only two compelling reasons to work full time: to buy books in hardcover as soon as they're released, and to travel.

So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I'm planning another trip. This one's to Zambia.

Okay, it's not on everyone's top 10 (or maybe 100) list, but I'm pretty psyched about it.

Great friends from my international development days are posted to Lusaka so, once the flight is covered, lodging won't be much of a problem.

(Everyone should work in international development for at least part of their life so they'll forever have someone to stay with in the world's out of the way places. How better to see beautiful downtown Ougadougou.)

Years ago, while I was helping orchestrate a Southern Africa Regional Strategy Conference in Harare, several of my colleagues jetted off to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls. It's one of the great wonders of the world.

At the time, I didn't have the $200 to go along with them. I've always, always regretted it. In fact, it's become the story I hold up to say -- when you get the chance, you just need to grab it and go. Two hundred bucks, twenty years later, seems like a paltry reason not to have done something so inspirational and life-changing.

So I'm grabbing it and going.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Report.

I finished two books this week. The first is Oprah's Book Club pick this month, which shouldn't scare you off if you're a literary snob.

Oprah chooses some challenging subjects. The Reader, now a major motion picture, was one of her choices. And now, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a nearly 600 page tome, is another.

Edgar Sawtelle is a meticulously-written first novel that, it turns out, is a modern re-telling of Hamlet, with a little Greek Tragedy thrown in for good measure. The fact that it took me about a third of the novel to figure this out, is testament to how modern and captivating the re-telling is.

The novel takes place on a farm in rural Wisconsin, where the family business is raising a fictitious breed of dog. The Sawtelle dog.

Edgar Sawtelle is Gar and Trudy's only son. He was born mute, but communicates with his parents, and the dogs, with a combination of sign language and telepathy. There's also his Dad's twin brother, Claude -- the conflicted, bad seed. But you'll have to read it to get the skinny on him.

What makes the novel riveting, and what also gives it its most evocative tragic quality, is that each of the characters is profoundly flawed. Sometimes lovingly so, sometimes maddeningly so.

It makes it interesting, and sometimes challenging, to read a novel where you don't always like the main character.

But lest you thought there was no one likable in the novel, get ready for the dogs themselves.

If you love dogs, you MUST read this novel.

You'll not only learn the finer points of animal husbandry and training, you'll be introduced to one of the most generous, and furriest, heroines in all of literature. Almondine, Edgar Sawtelle's closest confidante and staunchest ally, personifies service and goodness. She will break your heart with a wag of her tail.

So, as you might have guessed, this was a deep and nuanced read. The sort of thing you need to sit with and ponder. Which is exactly why I followed it up with Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher.

The book is based on what surely must be a gut-splitting one-woman show. It details her life living with addictions of all kinds, a bi-polar disorder, and a regrettable hairstyle in Star Wars.

I couldn't put it down. I actually didn't put it down. Read it, in its entirety, in two sittings.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inspiration, then perspiration

Much has and will be written about this Inauguration Day.

I know I'll remember it forever -- like where I was when the first man walked on the moon or when the Berlin Wall came down.

History and possibility intertwined. Hope and exhilaration. The shock of the possible.

If this truly impossible and inconceivable change can happen, what more can we do?

"Let it be told to the future world... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

It takes way, way more courage to be part of the solution than it does to criticize the process.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An American Prayer

Dear God,

Bless Barack Obama.

He has willingly embraced the toughest job in the world. Right now he's the world's President.

Certainly in my lifetime, there's never been so much goodwill extended to a foreign leader. Help him succeed with the same dignity, humility and message of hopefulness that we've seen throughout his campaign.

Keep him safe, God.

The unspoken threat is always there. We've lost so many other truly great leaders before their time. We don't need another martyr.

It's inevitable that this new president will make some mistakes, maybe piss off some people, and move slower than some people would like. Help us be patient.

And help us realize that our common welfare should come first. Personal progress for the greatest number depends on unity.

And help those of us in countries that border America to demand leaders who are as charismatic and full of grace as Barack Obama.

They're out there. Let us find them, cultivate them, and elect them to office. Public service is a vocation. Let's elect leaders that reinforce this fact.

In closing, God, I just wanted to say "Thank You." Thanks for allowing me to live in such interesting, challenging and inspirational times. I remember being woken up to watch the first moonwalk.

And today,, a man with a black, Kenyan father and a white American mother will put his hand on the Bible and swear the oath of office to be the President of the United States of America.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Revolutionary Road

My BFF and I saw Revoloutionary Road this weekend. It's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" for our generation.

Even before the movie started, the energy was so intense that a fight nearly broke out for the seat in front of us...twice!

If you've been living under a rock, you haven't heard that this film marks the first celluloid reunion of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio since Titantic. The two movies couldn't be more different, except maybe that their marriage in Revolutionary Road is sinking big time.

Don't worry, I won't spoil it for you if you haven't already seen it.

But I'll say this: the movie is a perfect study of two people who come together because of a mutual dislike of the same thing.

We couldn't stop talking about it...probably because we couldn't shake off the gloom. Don't expect to be uplifted. Expect to be challenged.

And expect to ask yourself the question, "What am I afraid of?"

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Ingenuity Gap

In the wake of the miraculous aftermath of the US Airways crash into the Hudson River yesterday I read, with interest, the pilot's story.

It seems like everything in life had prepared Sully Sullenberger for that moment.

He was trained in the Armed Forces and had 28 years of flying with US Airways under his belt.

He is also the president of Safety Reliability Methods, a company that provides safety, performance and reliability consulting to various businesses. He co-wrote, with NASA, a report on crew decision-making errors in times of emergency.

In addition to doing the impossible -- landing his Airbus 320 intact, in the freezing waters of the Hudson -- Sullenberger reportedly was the last one off the plane.

He walked the aisles twice, ensuring that all passengers and crew were safely deplaned.

In what could only be described as the most complex set of circumstances, Sullenberger made all the right decisions. Helped, no doubt, by the gentle hand of God.

This incident reminded me of a story that launches Thomas (Tad) Homer-Dixon's book, The Ingenuity Gap.

I met Dixon about fifteen years ago.

He's a brainiac who holds the International Innovation Governance Chair of Global Systems at the School for International Studies in Waterloo. He's also distractingly good-looking.

Tad focuses his research on the threats to global security in the 21st century and on how societies adapt to complex economic, ecological, and technological change.

He measures a country's "development" based on their ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

And he launches his book with a breathless account of another incident in the sky. This time it's United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago.

A complex set of incidents. And the impossible. Plus, a word from our sponsor: God.

You can read the chapter, in its entirety here.

The book's a page turner, too.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Everybody salsa

I've signed up for salsa lessons at a local dance studio.

It really doesn't matter what dance I learn.

The purpose of the endeavour is to have fun while burning calories and getting fit.

And maybe win the Mirrorball Trophy. Now that would be something.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cold Shoulder

The city has issued a cold weather alert today, so I opted for the subway instead of my usual mode of transport, which is walking.

As I was making my way to the subway station, I met a guy.

"Excuse me," he said. "How cold do you think it is?"

"Well," I said, "the news is reporting -30 with the wind chill."

He looked horrified.

"You're not from around here," I ventured.

"Just arrived from South Africa two weeks ago," he said. "It's summer there."

So I did the Canadian thing and apologized...this time for the weather.

And I gave him a little primer about what to do in the cold (layer, stay inside with cups of cocoa and good books) and what not to do (polar bear swims, stick your tongue on a slide).

I also gave him the three minute Canadian Literature synopsis, that begins with Susannah Moodie's "Roughing it in the Bush" and briefly mentions Roch Carriere's "The Hockey Sweater."

Canadian identity is rooted in the weather, I explained. If you don't believe me, just read Margaret Atwood.

All in all, we managed to make it to the subway station without half noticing how cold it was.

"Do you think it's cold?" he asked as we bade farewell on the subway platform.

"Not so much," I said. "Where I come from, it's actually colder than this."

I'm pretty sure I could see him shiver.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Told you so

Nothing good ever lasts.
Nothing bad ever does, either.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Light over Toronto

The worst part of winter is the darkness.

It's dark when I get up, dark when I leave for work, and it starts getting dark again about 4 in the afternoon. I usually need to turn on my desk lamp about 3:30, so I can see.

And I have a corner, with floor to ceiling windows.

But all that changed this morning.

This morning I noticed that it was getting a little lighter, as I made my way across the Bloor Viaduct.

The sky was bright. The sun refracted off the tip of the CN Tower.

Somewhere in my body I felt it. The darkness would not last forever. Spring would come.

Isn't it funny how just a little change in a positive direction -- the slightest tweak -- can so immediately improve the mood?

And isn't it funny how this lesson applies to all of life?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Bad News

I did something really bad this morning. I read the newspaper.

Wow, I'll never do that again. It was filled with some seriously bad news. My appetite for seriously bad news is waning. Bad news is the great immobilizer. As I was reading it, I could actually feel my breath grow more shallow. Fear crept up my backbone with its icy fingers.

Thank God my glass is half full...of coffee.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


My wonderful cousin, whose comments appear on this Blog periodically under the name Wendy Walnut, spawned a delightful little walnut of her own. I met her for the first time over the holidays, since oceans and borders separate us.

Baby Walnut is all chubby, gooey Kiwi goodness. She's incredibly perfect. You'd be tempted to stick her entire foot in your mouth without any provocation.

One of my favourite presents that I gave this holiday season was a subversive little baby sleeper -- all black and long-sleeved -- upon which was written: This is what a feminist looks like.

I suspect Mommy will like it even more than Baby Walnut.

The alternative, which I hotly debated before making my choice, had the following written on it: 2,000 years of patriarchy and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

See, this is why I love shopping in Kensington Market.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


I got completely slushed on the way to work this morning.

Slush is that lethal combination of snow, dirt and road salt, usually sprayed out like a machine gun from the tires of a passing vehicle. Doubly treacherous if it's a city bus. There's usually no ducking for cover.

I figured after the slushing that I might as well walk to work, even if the snow was falling in huge, wet clumps.

The flakes were as big as your head. The sort of snow that makes you believe that God is just a big kid. No one else could design snow as perfectly beautiful.

It was perfect snow man snow, too. I managed to drag my arm along a stone fence to come up with several handfuls of the white stuff that I formed into perfect balls.

The only thing missing was someone to throw them at.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Reading room

More years ago than I care to mention, I dated someone who was in one of Northrop Frye's classes at the University of Toronto.

Frye, if you didn't already know it, was one of the most distinguished literary critics and literary theorist our country, and probably the world, has ever produced. He passed away back in 1991.

At the time, one of my friend's proudest moments was asking a question to which Frye replied, "Good question."

What I've always loved about Frye's literary criticism is that, unlike the deconstructionists of the period, you always had the sense that he loved nothing more than curling up with a good book. He'd just been smart enough and lucky enough to devise a job that would allow him to do that all day, every day, for the rest of his life.

I recall reading -- I think it was in "The Educated Imagination" -- about the fundamental role that literature plays in the development of a civil society. Frye argued that literature provided a kind of imaginative key to history -- so that you didn't have to actually experience a thing in order to understand it. Literature would provide that framework.

I though of Frye this morning while reading a particularly poignant passage from the novel I'm reading. It was about animal husbandry -- dog breeding to be precise. It was so beautifully wrought and so painstakingly crafted that I almost didn't realize that I was learning something.

That's what literature can do.

It can hit you between the eyes when you don't even realize you were looking.

Monday, January 5, 2009

In with the new

Today is my first day back at work after 13 days of holiday. I might need a nap.

In this economy, one needs to be careful about saying "I could get used to being off". But really, I could get used to being off.

That said, a return to routine is never a bad thing.

A few holiday memories to share:

Best movie: The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke is incredible and Marisa Tomei is fearless. Eat your treat before the fight scenes start...basically during the Trailer, if you can't stand the sight of blood.

Worst movie seen: 7 Pounds. Dumb, dumb, dumb. But if you make it to the end, you'll laugh your ass off at what happens to Woody Harrelson.

Best meal: Mussels at Leslie Jones on Queen Street. Little pillows of goodness and one of the best waiters I've had in a long time. Runner Up: Bagel Champignons at Le Petit Dejeuner.

Best Christmas present. A book compiled by my BFF, chronicling our trip to Thailand. It immediately became one of the few possessions I would grab if there was ever a fire.

Best present I bought myself. Season One and Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sarah Michelle Gellar still slays them, twelve years later.

Worst Karaoke Performance: Come on Eileen, sung with two friends at a local watering hole. What possessed us all to sing a song that no one knew particularly well, is one of life's big mysteries. My contribution was trying to get the other patrons to clap their hands above their heads, thereby forgetting what they were listening to.

Happy New Year. Hope your holidays were swell.