Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Unbreakable Spirit of Christmas Eve

Fresh-fallen snow protested beneath the crush of my gumboots breaking trail down the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard.

Skuur-eek, skuur-eek.

The boots ignored the sounds. They moved on, ribbed rubber bottoms and laced high leather tops creating a meandering wake in the ankle deep snow.

From each side of the trail, drifted snow leaned tiredly against the backsides of the bungalows, dropped there to rest by an impatient blizzard just passed through. Their crests were indistinguishable against the white stucco walls but nearly reached tufted piles of fluffy snow clinging nervously to windowsills and eavestrough lips.

The squeaks flew through the still night air, dodging fat flakes that fell heavy and straight onto my cap bill, but occasionally splashing into my face flushed warm from the walk. I could have rode back home from Christmas Eve Mass with the family, but the teenage mind always prefers independence, and it was a chance to visit friends along the way.

Faint strains of music joined the squeaking as I approached our back fence. I stopped to hear the music more clearly, now identifiable as singing voices escaping through an open window.

I shuffled forward and listened to the notes float out crisply and clearly, then mingle with smoke rising from the chimneys. Notes and smoke rose together into an icy sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars and the frosty moon the Ojibwe called Minidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon that appears small and cold early in winter.

I held my breath to hear better and determined that the music was “O Holy Night,” and the notes came through the window in my grandmother’s room. It was open to the cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then and at gatherings cracked a window to thin the smoke.

They sang the first verse, and, when they reached the sixth line, the other voices ceased and one voice carried on alone:

“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Niiii ... iiight Diii...vine! ...” That’s the part where the notes rise higher and higher until the singer reaches an awesome note.

The solo voice belonged to my grandmother, and I knew she was hitting that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that crippling rheumatoid arthritis had made her prison for sixteen years. She was unable to walk without assistance and had trouble holding a cigarette between her gnarled fingers.

The others had stopped singing to listen to her. The second time she hit the high notes at the words “O Night Divine,” a shiver danced on my spine. When she finished singing “O Holy Night,” the other voices started up again, this time with “Silent Night” and other favourite carols.

I went into the house and found Christmas Eve celebrants — my mom, dad, and some neighbours — crowded into the ten-by-ten bedroom that was my grandmother’s world. They sang long into the night, mostly in French because the neighbours were the Gauthiers who seldom spoke English to my grandmother and my mother.

After the singing ended my mother served tourtière, which I slathered with mustard. Then we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts.

I have long forgotten what present was under the tree for me. It doesn’t matter, because my real gift came many years later: the gift of realization that those high notes were not solely the products of the lungs. They were driven by something stronger than flesh — an unbreakable spirit. They came from strength far beyond anything that a mere body can produce.

The memory of that unbreakable spirit is the best Christmas gift that I receive every year.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Cappelletti Christmas

It is warm and spring like outside, but when I open the side door and step into the kitchen, suddenly it is Christmas.

Flour dust covers the table, one end of which supports a well-used pasta stretcher. Stretched pasta, waiting to be cut, hangs from old broom handles suspended between the backs of two kitchen chairs.

There’s a maple cutting board on the table where lengths of pasta are cut into small squares. And off to one side, the most certain sign that Christmas is almost here: plump little pasta pieces that have been shaped into the form of tiny hats.

At our house these little hats – cappelletti – are as much a part of Christmas as a decorated evergreen, or stockings hung by the chimney with care.

Cappelletti are small pieces of pasta filled with meat and are cooked in a hearty chicken broth. They are a traditional Christmas Day dish in many Italian households.

My introduction to cappelletti was in my future mother-in-law’s house in Sault Ste. Marie’s Little Italy many years ago. It was love at first sight, and there has not been a Christmas without cappelletti since.

Cappelletti are said to have been created first in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. The hat shape, some references say, originated from the pointed hats that Spanish soldiers wore when they invaded Italy in the seventeenth century.

These pasta delicacies can be bought, but in our house they are always made from scratch, totally by hand. They are a labour of love.

I always watch Christmas cappelletti production with great interest, but never become actively involved. A kitchen is the last place anyone wants me messing about.

I watch as a ball of homemade pasta is cut into small chunks. Each chunk is fed into the pasta stretcher to produce a long narrow strip that is laid out and cut with a knife into pieces roughly 1 ¼ by 1 ¼ inches.

A little fingertip dab of meat filling is placed on each piece of pasta. The filling  consists of ground chicken, nutmeg, ground lemon rind, an egg and Romano cheese. You can use ground turkey, veal, or pork, or a mixture of all. Never go light on the lemon!

Then comes the hard part. The pasta is folded over to have two corners touch and form a triangle. The seams are pressed together. Then the bottom left and bottom right points of the triangle are brought together and through some upward manipulation with the thumbs and pointer fingers are folded into a little hat.

No one should take this as a recipe. I’m just an observer trying to do a little reporting here. If you want a real recipe instead of a description, check with Google.

My wife Diane will make as many of 2,000 of these little hats for the Christmas season. When the entire family is here we will eat as many as 800 at Christmas dinner. Takeaway sacks and New Year’s dinner take care of the rest.

That sounds like a lot, but our cappelletti are small. Three or four fit on a soup spoon.

The only downside to cappelletti is you want to eat too many, leaving little room for the Christmas turkey. But hey, you can have turkey any day.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Mindless Bickering Returns

The politicians are back on Parliament Hill apparently having learned little from October’s general election.

It seems to me that we voters told them clearly that we want an end to mindless partisan bickering. Stop saying and doing things designed only to get more votes. Stop the unintelligent cheap shots. Seek compromise and work constructively on behalf of the people. 

It was too much to hope for, judging by some of the news generated by the return of Parliament. Take for example the mindless criticism of the new prime minister over the fact that taxpayers are paying for two nannies to help with his three young children.

That began when the CBC reported that the Trudeaus have two nannies paid between $15 and $20 an hour for day work, and $11 to $13 an hour for night work. The report criticized Trudeau for this because he had said during the election campaign that wealthy families like his should not receive government handouts to help raise their kids. He said he and wife Sophie would donate their federal Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) to charity.

It seemed odd that the report came from the CBC, which had worked so vigorously to defeat Stephen Harper and elect Trudeau. At any rate, other media and opposition politicians jumped in.

Some media labelled the so-called scandal Nannygate (will we ever stop tagging anything even slightly controversial as something ‘gate’). Some opposition politicians called the prime minister a hypocrite for saying the wealthy should not receive  the UCCB, then have taxpayers pay for his two nannies.

Let’s all take a deep breath and give our heads a shake. Being prime minister is a job, an incredibly busy job. The job comes with a salary and benefit package that includes staff such as drivers, housekeepers and other assistants, including nannies. All recent prime ministers with young children have had nannies as part of their salary and benefit package.

The child care benefit is not part of a salary package. It is for all Canadians who qualify. That’s why it is called the Universal Child Care Benefit. Lumping it in with a job benefit is disingenuous. 

Criticizing the prime minister for it is unwarranted and silly. It is the type of political manipulation that we told the politicians we want them to stop.
There will be many reasons and opportunities to criticize the new prime minister and his government as time goes on. We could start with the fact that Canada sent 383 people to the Paris summit on climate change, all expenses paid by the taxpayer. The U.S. sent 148, the UK 96 and Australia 46. 

Canada is back all right, but hopefully not back to bigger spending, bigger deficits and bigger tax increases.

Taxpayers voted for change, not only in government but in the attitudes of the politicians. They want a progressive opposition that holds the government accountable, and one that works constructively to create better programs and services for the people.

Mindless criticisms about nannies are misguided and not a hopeful sign for constructive change. Neither was the start of the throne speech debate in Parliament Monday.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose initially took a constructive approach to the debate. She promised that the opposition would be the taxpayers’ watchdog, and praised Trudeau for revising his overzealous plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by Dec. 31.

However, she slipped back into old-style cheap shot political rhetoric, saying that while world leaders were ramping up their efforts to defeat ISIS, Trudeau was posing for selfies at international conferences.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison returned the insult by saying that the defeated Conservative government was one of the biggest, most wasteful governments in Canadian history. Whether that is true, or false, or somewhere in between is hardly relevant now. 

To which Ambrose shot back: "It's been 25 minutes and the sunny ways are over." That was a reference to Trudeau’s Oct. 19 election victory speech in which he said sunny ways - positive politics – achieve good things.

So much for real change in political behaviour.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Whispers of Winter

Gentle mists caress the lake like a mother’s hand massaging her child's back, calming her to sleep.

Sleep for the lake is delayed this year. Winter’s approach, usually loud and bullying, is just a whisper so far. It might be well into this month of December, perhaps even early January, before the lake stiffens and accepts the inevitable.

This is the quietest time of year on the lake. The hunters are gone. The last motor boat appears to have been pulled ashore. It is a time for reflection. Time to review months passed and contemplate what might be ahead.

My favourite place to reflect is on the hilltop overlooking the lake. There is perspective here. What often seems so important when I am away from here, is of little importance when I am here.

The stillness in the surrounding forest makes my ears ring. The trees are grey and their limbs have that stiff, arthritic look as they stand stoically waiting for the snow that will clothe them soon. The stillness is broken occasionally by a few remaining dried oak leaves scratching against each other in an almost non-existent breeze.

High on my thought list today is the fate of the big buck whose movements I have followed for the past few years. He has posed many times for my trail cameras, almost always at night. He is a beauty; muscular and healthy, crowned with 10-point rack. I have never seen him in the flesh.

There has been little sign of him in the past month. A few tracks and a scrape
but it is impossible to tell whether they were made by him. I worry that perhaps he was shot during the fall deer hunt. I hope not and soothe my concern by telling myself he got to be a 10-pointer by being cautious and cunning.

In past years he has stayed around this hill until the snow deepened, so I might see signs of him yet. I will be sad if he is gone forever, but change is a part of life that we all must face and accept.

From up here I see change as a blessing. The snow and cold that will come any day offer us time to recover from the exertions of spring, summer and fall. With it comes Christmas and New Year’s and relaxed fun with family and friends.

The second part of winter, which can so harsh, brings the excitement of planning and preparing for spring.

The winter ahead is forecast to be mild because of the return of an El Niño weather pattern created by unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean. This year the El Niño is forecast to be one of the strongest ever.

A milder winter will be appreciated by many, but hopefully it will not be so mild as to curtail our great winter recreations, such as downhill and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. And, of course, fishing through the ice.

The last powerful El Niño brought disaster to Ontario. That was the winter of 1997-98 when what has been tagged The Great Ice Storm caused massive damage to trees and electrical infrastructure, especially in Eastern Ontario. That storm caused 35 deaths and basically shut down Ottawa and Montreal, with power outages lasting days, and sometimes weeks and months.

More than 16,000 Canadian Forces troops were mobilized to help with the crisis created by the storm. It was the largest deployment of Canadian soldiers since the Korean War.

No one knows exactly what El Niño will bring us this winter. The forecasters say that if it continues to strengthen, the deepest part of winter will be mild. There are indications, however, that this strong El Niño will weaken come January and cold air could return along with plenty of lake effect snow.

If the latter occurs, we’ll just put another log on the fire and consider John Steinbeck’s thoughts, written in Travels with Charley:

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” 


Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Sinkhole of Debt

It is remarkable how tiny pieces of news help us to see much larger, worrisome trends.

For instance, we now learn that the Natural Resources Ministry has been poking about, seeking a partner to help  maintain the Sherborne Road. The gravel road winds 12 kilometres from Highway 35 just south of Dorset through the bush to Sherborne Lake.

It is an access road for anglers, hunters, hikers, campers, snowmobilers, ATV riders and logging operators.

The ministry is asking various sources, including Algonquin Highlands Township, to take on the costs of maintaining the road. It says it can no longer afford the upkeep.

The good news here is that the Ontario government may be getting serious about its dire financial situation. It must be when it goes begging for help maintaining a 12-kilometre gravel road.

The bad news is that if the government cannot afford to maintain the road, nature will take it back, limiting access to a huge wilderness recreation area. Also, the Sherborne Road is a glimpse of the new trend in which citizens pay more to receive less.

The Sherborne Lake road story illustrates how badly Ontario is hurting from years of less than brilliant financial management. And, how the current government is relentless in squeezing taxpayers for more and more dollars to try drag itself out of a quicksand of debt.

Our electricity bills will increase at least an average $120 a year Jan. 1, on top of a series of stunning increases this year. Driving and vehicle licensing fees have increased and will increase more. We all will receive higher municipal tax bills in the spring because of more downloading of Ontario Provincial Police costs onto rural municipalities.

Then we have the service fees placed on top of service fees at Service Ontario outlets. And, the plans to make High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

Not to mention the new three-cents-a-litre provincial tax on beer, which took effect this month.

The government is desperate for more money to service its overwhelming debt. Ontario residents can expect this trend to continue, and likely worsen.  

Ontario’s debt has surpassed $300 billion. California, poster child for reckless government spending and poor financial management, has less than half the debt of Ontario.

Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario’s auditor general, expects the Ontario debt to reach $325 billion by 2017-18. To pay off that debt Ontario would have to collect $23,000 each from every woman, man and child in the province.

Ontario pays more than $11 billion a year in debt interest charges. That is more than the province spends on post secondary education for our children.

Credit raters have been following closely this plunge into deeper debt. Moody’s Investor Services and Standard and Poor’s have downgraded Ontario’s credit rating in recent months.

The province plans to spend another $130 billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years, which will increase the debt load even more. Much of the spending will be to alleviate the nightmare of Toronto-area transportation.

The government says going deeper into debt will spur economic growth, which will produce more dollars to pay off debt. We all hold our breath and hope this is true. Past performance leaves us skeptical.

Another reason for skepticism is the controversy surrounding the government’s selling off 60 per cent of Hydro One. It hopes to bring in $9 billion from the sale but in fact will realize only $3.5 to $5 billion after the utility’s debt is paid.

Some observers call the Hydro One offering a disaster in the making.
Stephen LeClair, the province’s financial accountability officer, says that selling the utility to private investors will cost the provincial treasury more than it takes in.

“The province’s net debt would initially be reduced, but will eventually be higher than it would have been without the sale,” he wrote in a critical review of the plan.

Deterioration of the Sherborne Lake access road would be a disappointment to users, but not a catastrophe. Real catastrophe will come to all of us if the government does not create a strong plan for reducing its debt.