July 2009 - December 1998
July, 2009
Can or Should We Legislate Against Stupidity?

Toronto - Some might disagree, but I am quite certain I live in one of the most idyllic urban spots in Canada - The Beach, aka The Beaches, in southeast Toronto. So, it is unfortunate that I have discovered something rather unsettling here.

Sadly, this negative aspect of The Beach isn't at all specific to this area. In fact, it might be seen as a microcosm of many communities and societies - illustrating how we co-exist, whether we are co-operative or selfish.

In other words, the problem is local, but universal. It centres on The Beach segment of Toronto's lengthy, cross-town Martin Goodman Trail, which winds its way parallel to Lake Ontario.

Based on my experience with this recreation trail, I believe there is potential for a serious accident. In fact, as I watch the trail in action with thousands of daily users, I am beginning to wonder if we can or should legislate against stupidity and inconsideration.

Symbols at trail entry points indicate that it is for runners, walkers, cyclists, and those in wheelchairs. Rollerbladers, too, can make the scene. In other words, the trail's designers are hoping it can be all things to all people - even though there is a very pleasant boardwalk just feet away.

Instead, chaos reigns. At least, that's my assessment as both a cyclist and pedestrian. Those who travel on wheels tend to move fast - and those who go shanks' mare often fail to realize that they should stay out of the way of the speedsters.

The frightening thing is that some cyclists can travel 40 kilometres an hour or more (98 if you are a top athlete with perfect conditions) and rollerbladers can reach something similar. That makes them both quick and, if you get in their way, dangerous.

I remember hearing of a CBC executive who was killed when knocked down by a cyclist in Montreal. That image has made me cautious ever since. So, I don't walk on the trail. I cycle only - and even then I feel threatened. Balanced on two wheels, I am intimidated by those who see the trail as a race course. I know that one false move and I might find myself being rearranged.

At the same time, as I pedal along the asphalt, it is like an obstacle course. There are couples walking arm-in-arm, families four or five abreast, mothers with strollers, five-year-olds on their first set of wheels, and dogs running free. It's a zoo, which could turn into a tragedy. I've already had a couple of near misses with meandering children, even when I make every effort to avoid them.

At first, I tried to be patient. When confronted with an adult, child, or dog, I would simply move to the other lane - after looking very carefully over my shoulder - and go on my way. But the more I see of this unsafe combination of the fast and furious and the slow and oblivious, the more I want to straighten things out.

Recently, I put on my brakes behind a mother pushing a double stroller in the right hand lane - my lane. "You would be safer if you used the boardwalk," I said sweetly, trying to cover up my frustration. "I know," she replied - and kept walking. What could I say? She had a right to be there.

When I questioned some people sitting on their lawn next to the trail, one person told me he "sees close calls every day." The sharp turns, he noted, were the most dangerous - where you couldn't see oncoming traffic until it was "too late."

This made me wonder if there should be stricter laws to protect trail users from themselves. At present, there aren't even speed limits. Just a busy, survival-of-the-fittest, free-for-all. As another trail user said: "Everybody's doing their own thing, so you can expect something to happen."

Don't get me wrong. I am not a fan of Big Brother. After spending several months in London, England, where there are spying CCTV cameras everywhere, I like Canada's more low-key approach to controlling society. But surely there's a happy medium between Big Brother and Let the Citizen Beware.

So, I called my local councillor, Sandra Bussin. After I outlined my concerns, we talked about possible solutions - better signage, flags, lights, more city staff or police presence. But when it came down to it, Bussin said, she thought locals had other priorities - she hasn't had many complaints about the trail - and budgets were tight.

Also, Bussin noted, "You can't completely legislate everything, alleviate everything." It came down to people, she told me. If some are going to "barrel" along the trail endangering others, then "our society is really in trouble."

Perhaps it is! As I watch the speedsters go by, I am beginning to think it's time we all looked at what we owe each other as fellow citizens. Do we really need laws to make us more thoughtful and co-operative - especially in these tough economic times? Sadly, I think the answer is "Yes".

June, 2009
Is the Talent Drain to the US Coming to an End?

Vancouver, BC - Over the years, Canada has lost many good citizens to the US because of the age-old "talent drain" - along with its close relative the "brain drain." Our stars, both actual and potential, from Joni Mitchell to Jim Carey have gone south to follow their dreams - and the big contracts.

But could things be changing in this era of the virtual? Do artists still have to pack up their guitars or acting skills and head to the Promised Land, or can they function happily and successfully at home? If so, would they prefer to stay put and continue to be fully-functioning Canadians - or would the bright lights still draw them away?

These thoughts came to mind when I saw the singer/songwriter Sue Medley perform in a small, historic hall on Salt Spring Island. I had heard of Medley's work, but was completely taken by surprise and "blown over" when she belted out her first song of the evening. What a voice!

Further into the concert, she spoke calmly and charmingly to the audience, telling us that she had been back living in Canada - specifically the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island where she had grown up - for a year now. She had spent almost two decades in the top music centres of the US, including Nashville and Los Angeles, and it was great to be home.

Medley's career started taking off in the late 1980s when she released two independent hit singles and was nominated for the Rising Star Award at the Canadian County Music Awards. She moved to the US after "Sue Medley", her first CD with a Canadian record company, went gold here in 1990.

She was a star, so, as Medley told me later, "hopes were high we could do something south of the border." She felt that being a Canadian artist signed to a Canadian label didn't put her on "any priority list" with radio stations, for example.

Her US record was released under her name as well, but, as she put it, "quietly disappeared into the system." The "ball was dropped" too soon by the promotion department and the marketing and distribution teams because the record company executives had more important artists to think about, including Jon Bon Jovi and John Mellencamp.

Medley then toured with the likes of Bob Dylan, who said: "I know talent when I hear it ...". Her second album resulted in a fair amount of radio exposure, more touring, and an appearance at Madison Square Garden for a tribute to Dylan. Her single, "Maybe The Next Time", was heard often in Canada in 1991.

However, according to Medley, there were frequent "disagreements" with the record company over that album, concerning "which song should be released as a single, what pictures or images should be used, and on and on and on."

In fact, "Being tied to a record label back then was not all it was cracked up to be, leaving me with very limited freedom, and feeling like my voice and vision were constantly being compromised."

The upside was that life in Nashville was "enlightening." It exposed Medley to "a whole new world" of singer/songwriters and writing collaboration. "It definitely raised the bar for me regarding my own writing."

Los Angeles was another story. She felt she didn't really fit in. "Everybody had an angle." They were "behind you one minute and gone the next." But it was here that she began teaching voice and guitar to children, which has given her "great satisfaction and joy unlike the music business."

Medley pointed out that "much has changed for the better" in the case of Canadian artists trying to expand into the US. "It's called the internet! These days there really is no need for a major label in order to have success in the States or the world for that matter."

Instead, there is You Tube, something called CD Baby (these things seem to pop up daily), and various other means to "promote and market an independent CD." This also means that artists can now make "more in profit" rather than the record label "taking a huge chunk."

Interestingly enough - and perhaps par for the course in these times - most of my communication with Sue for this column was by email. This is how she summed up her present life. "After living in places like Indiana, Nashville and L.A., I returned to my roots here in Canada where I will continue to teach, play and write music from the place that has always been home to me ... It doesn't get better than that!"

It is strange how technology affects not only the efficiency of our society and world, but people's lives in such a profound way. In the case of Canadian artists - musicians at least, it has had an impact which no government cultural policy over the past several decades has managed to generate. It allows Canadians to stay put.

Welcome back, Sue.

March, 2009
Do We Value Health Freedom?

Toronto - After more than a year in the UK, where even a former head of the intelligence agency, MI5, has complained about the curtailment of citizens' rights, I quickly got a taste of the same sort of thing Canadian-style.

On my first visit to a local health food store, I was asked to sign a petition supporting the defence of health freedom. Needless to say, I had to request more details. Like most Canadians, I am familiar with various democratic freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of the press. But health freedom is something new.

After all, isn't the maintenance of an individual's physical well-being more or less up to him or her? If so, how can that freedom be threatened or denied? I soon found out.

The United Nations is in the process of finalizing what has been referred to for decades as the Codex Alimentarius or World Food Code. Right now, there are about 16,000 pages of documentation related to this new code. That's a lot of reading material to wade through and decipher.

The Codex was conceived of originally in the 1960s to manage the trade of food on the planet, which sounds fairly harmless and even helpful, by defining different types of food products - including health foods and supplements. But critics now complain that the whole concept has been hijacked, taken over by corporate interests, such as Big Pharma, and the pesticide, biotechnology, and chemical industries.

These guidelines will have a lot of power behind their enforcement. If a nation doesn't comply with the hundreds of Codex standards and guidelines, the World Trade Organization can impose severe trade sanctions to bring it back in line.

During my research, I discovered that this is not a simple issue. There are claims and counter-claims from both the pro- and anti-Codex sides. For example, the anti-Codex people warn that there are Codex supporters who feel that nutrition has nothing to do with health.

In fact, one anti-Codex article states that Dr. Rolf Grossklaus, the chair of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU), has actually argued that "nutrition is not relevant to health".

Another anti-Codex observer notes: "Codex pertains to every bite - and kind of - food traded internationally and allows high doses of pesticides, veterinary drugs, synthetic hormones, contaminants, artificial sweeteners, and other dangerous compounds and processes (like mandated irradiation of food) while it forbids health claims for food."

If this is true, then it is both ridiculous and frightening. The existence of malnutrition and the various modern-day diseases among those North Americans living almost exclusively on processed and fast foods should be proof enough that nutrition and health are related, as nature intended them to be.

The anti-Codex movement also warns that the Codex Vitamin and Mineral Guideline (VMG) will allow only very low doses of nutrient supplements - vitamins and minerals - to be manufactured or sold as foods. This could make their use to prevent or combat health problems illegal or almost so.

Codex advocates claim that this new control over the world food and nutrition supply is all about consumer protection, making sure that we don't overdose on supplements or use dangerous alternative remedies. Natural health product producers claim that no deaths can be attributed to their products.

They say that Big Pharma is simply protecting its own markets. After all, if we don't have access to adequate supplies of vitamins and minerals, our bodies will suffer; we will become ill, and probably turn to some kind of medicine - drugs.

As one anti-Codex article put it: "Therapeutic grade vitamins, minerals, and amino acids would be eliminated from the marketplace (although a few low-dose supplements would be allowed by Codex, as a symbolic measure to avoid suspicion about their ulterior motive).

"Natural health professionals would lose the tools of their trade (nutritional supplements) and health conscious people would be unable to choose natural health options for health promotion and disease treatment."

Illness prevention and natural remedies which are becoming increasingly popular - in part because too many people have had negative experiences with pharmaceuticals -aren't very profitable for Big Pharma. This is because you can't patent nature.

So where does this international debate about food and nutrition leave Canadians? Last year, the Harper government tried to push through Bill C-51, which one observer described as "the worst bill I have ever seen in ANY country that attacks dietary supplements and alternative practitioners since I first started doing this health freedom work 20 years ago."

Under Bill C-51, existing penalties would have been raised dramatically for the selling of certain natural health products - and some sold in Canada for decades would have become unavailable.

The Bill died when Parliament was shut down before Christmas, and, so far, it hasn't been re-introduced.

As I mentioned, the Codex issue isn't an easy one for the average person to unravel. But we owe it to ourselves to look into the matter - and do whatever we can to protect our health and health freedom.

September, 2008
Are We Putting Young Women at Risk?

Kingston, ON - As school children are being lined up for vaccines of one sort or another, it appears we are subjecting yet another generation of young women to the uncertainties of modern science and research. Creating more guinea pigs. I am referring to the federal government's hasty decision earlier this year to spend $300 million on a campaign to inoculate females 9 to 13 against cervical cancer - a case of political and medicinal overkill if there ever was one.

Four provinces - Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island - have jumped on the bandwagon, making the relatively new vaccine Gardasil by Merck Frosst available for varying ages. Others are deliberating on the matter, along with the territories. I don't think I am the only one who feels this is premature. Why rush with the needles until we are 100 per cent certain that no harm will be done?

Cervical cancer is not an epidemic, as the Canadian Medical Association Journal has pointed out. There are about 1300 cases annually in this country with just under 400 deaths. It is not striking females the way polio struck the general population in the 1950s when mass inoculation had some basis in reality. Therefore, the Harper government's aggressive initiative raises doubts and concerns, even suspicion. Was it swayed by those high-powered Big Pharma lobbyists - some with connections to Harper himself, as well as Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty?

It is not just the statistics that make me question the government's costly enthusiasm to inject girls with Merck's vaccine. My own negative experiences with the various medical trends of the past several decades make me more than cautious. They date back to the birth of my younger brother during the height of the Thalidomide tragedy in the 1960s - and my mother's relief because she hadn't used the drug, which resulted in limbless children.

A few years later, when confronted with the possibility of taking another miracle solution - the birth control pill, I balked. It, too, was questionable. However, after the birth of my daughter, I followed my doctor's advice and had a Dalkon Shield inserted in my uterus - the IUD which killed more than 30 women and caused irreparable damage to thousands of others.

Although I can't prove that the Shield harmed me and I didn't take part in the 300,000-strong class action suit against A.H. Robins, I found that, after the device was removed, I couldn't get pregnant when my partner and I tried to have a second child. In fact, I never again got pregnant.

Since then, I have witnessed other tragedies: the girlfriend who committed suicide while taking the anti-depressant Halcyon, the afflicted children of pregnant women who took the synthetic estrogen DES, a relative's negative reaction to Vioxx - another Merck Frosst product recently taken off the market after being linked to heart attacks, strokes, and many deaths. Even the much-touted polio vaccine of the late 50s and early 60s, containing cells of infected monkeys, had to be removed due to cancer-related fears.

I am now sceptical about new products being touted as both effective - and safe. In the case of Gardasil, questions have been raised about the results of the vaccine's clinical trials. I have read of horrible reactions, including seizures, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, and possibly deaths.

And what about the long-term health impact? Merck admits that it only tested 100 nine-year-olds for a period of 18 months. No young women of any age for more than five years. As one of the inventors of the vaccine said: "There's no reason to think that there's going to be rare, serious adverse events from the vaccine that haven't come up so far in the clinical trials, but you never know until the data's in."

If that doesn't make you cringe, here are more questions. How will the vaccine react with other drugs these girls might take in their lifetimes? How long will the protection last? Could it compromise women's natural immunities?

There is also a concern that being inoculated could mislead young women, making them feel safer than they are. After all, the vaccine only protects against two of the many strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Will they stop going for Pap screenings and using condoms, which are much more effective?

In spite of the aggressive media ads we've been subjected to, portraying cervical cancer as a universal threat, the sad fact is that most women who die because of the disease are poor, uneducated, or malnourished - without adequate care. If the Harper government is so very concerned about cervical cancer, it should run its own advertising campaign on the prevention and detection of the disease. Injecting drugs with unappealing short-term and unknown long-term effects, while filling the coffers of Big Pharma, should be the last resort - not the first.

August, 2007
Found: A New Brand of Hero

Kingston, ON - When it comes to heroes, I've had a change of heart. An epiphany followed by a conversion. This is because the past few weeks have been particularly hard on the usual sources of heroes - a few of which I will examine.

(I'm not going to discuss the antics of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, the idols of too many young people! I'm also not going to dwell on the demoralizing sight of Conrad Black's fall from grace.)

Yes, sadly, examples of dishonesty, corruption, and all-round bad behaviour seem to be as common as rain, floods, heat waves, and fires this summer. I know there have already been comments on this phenomenon, but I haven't seen anyone put the blame where it should be: At the top.

In my opinion, the growing lack of integrity is a result of a moral dry rot in many institutions - in society itself - that appears to be emanating from on high: the White House and its supporters. Perhaps, this is the first instance where the trickle down theory of economics - which argues that money from the wealthy will make its way to us all - has actually worked.

In this case, a bad attitude is trickling down.

I don't want to be accused of arbitrary Bush-bashing, but, because of his moral and political leadership position, the president does have a certain responsibility to Americans and the world. However, he doesn't seem to see it that way. Even after all he has been through.

For example, American TV commentators and comedians have been having a great time with one of Bush's recent speeches in which he mentioned al-Qaida 93 times. What's wrong with that, you might ask. Simple. It's highly misleading and dishonest.

Dubya still wants desperately to impress upon the American people that al-Qaida is the enemy. Full stop. However, as Professor Fawaz A. Gerges - Middle East expert, Carnegie Scholar, and author - points out, there are thousands of Iraqi insurgents who have nothing to do with al-Qaida. Some even oppose the organization.

In fact, Gerges claims that al-Qaida in Mesopotamia is such a small force that, even if it were wiped out tomorrow, the war would rage. Yet Bush continues to create a faulty impression. Deliberately. What kind of influence is this when the most powerful man in the world distorts events over and over again?

NASA is another letdown. Even with a Canadian involved in the Endeavour space shuttle flight, I find it is difficult to see the organization the way I once did.

When astronaut John Glenn first orbited the earth, he seemed almost god-like. My family gathered in the living room and wrote a poem about him, which included the line: "For he had a fearless notion to explore this other ocean." Who would have thought that the organization behind the saintly Glenn would someday be facing allegations of astronaut drinking and internal sabotage?

A sports fan I know says he isn't at all surprised that a referee with the NBA - Commissioner David Stern's hyper-promoted empire - became a little cynical and tried to make a few dishonest bucks betting on games, even some he officiated. My friend thinks the attitude among the players is often a little too disdainful for his liking. They leave the court if they hurt a finger. It's theatre not sport.

But what makes my friend cynical himself is the fact that people seem more concerned over the dishonesty of an NBA referee than they were about Bush's lies concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The referee, Tim Donaghy, resigned when he got caught. Bush didn't.

Since the organized, elite world is not delivering as it has promised, I've decided to look elsewhere for heroes. Fortunately, there are actually quite a few, if you look around. They pop up on the nightly news on a regular basis.

For example, there are the volunteers in Quebec who have given up their time to search for a vanished girl, or the many people who pitched in to help when the bridge between St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed earlier this month. Whenever there are disasters - and there seem to be many - there are heroes.

For a long while, I would read the paper and concentrate on the Big Name stories, feeling quite let down by all the various underhanded shenanigans. What was happening to human nature, I would ask myself.

Now, I look at the heroics of so-called "ordinary" people, and I am happy to report that those who have not been tempted by money, fame, and power are still behaving very well. If only they had more say in running the world.

December, 2003
With Telefilm Canada Policies Future of Film Looks Bleak.

Kingston, ON - Disappointment Actually. Anger Even.

That was what my mother and I felt as we emerged from the pre-Christmas film, "Love Actually." That is also how I feel about the direction Telefilm Canada is headed.

But first, the movie.

Lured by the likes of Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, and others, my mother and I were prepared for an amusing, but sophisticated, evening.

Instead, we got what my mother aptly described as "frivolous nonsense" - the British prime minister falling for a foul-mouthed, much-younger secretary, a schoolboy smitten by a Britany Spears look-alike.

Developed to represent the quirkiness of love, in reality it illustrates the shallowness of today's filmmaking.

Of course, the acting was good - Emma, Hugh, and company rarely let you down, but the roles these poor thespians had to interpret were contrived and embarrassing.

However, it is not actually "Love Actually" I want to discuss, but the phenomenon it represents - nothing less than the deterioration of our culture.

Why, you may be wondering, am I picking on a fairly inoffensive seasonal flick when there are others far worse - more violent and exploitive - to attack?

That is true. But, often the warning signs for a certain unpleasant direction in society are not seen in the most obvious places. Instead, they are found hidden where least expected.

That is why, for my mother and me, "Love Actually" was particularly obnoxious because it had the ingredients to be a cut above. In our opinion, however, it brought together trends that indicate a definite decline of taste and cultivation in our society.

First, there is the fact that respected actors had lowered themselves to perform such pap. Until now, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman have appeared in reasonably thoughtful films - with a few exceptions. (Hugh Grant fell into the Hollywood trap years ago.)

Next, the director, Richard Curtis, has an admirable past as a screenwriter for such films as "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

"Four Weddings" had believable characters who shared often-touching - and credible - feelings for each other. At least, some effort was made to put people's actions and reactions into perspective. Its aim was more reflective and thoughtful.

"Love Actually," on the other hand, was like a three-ring circus with a variety of clever stunts being performed with very little reason or substance. Clever, but not wise.

Finally, the British film industry, itself, has a relatively good history of producing low-budget, but above-average products. (I hope it's not on a downward slide.)

Like my mother, I don't want "frivolous nonsense" disguised as social commentary, I want something warm and human I can relate to and even learn from.

The problem in the world of film - and generally - is that "culture" is being replaced by "entertainment."

What is the difference? Well, to me (and my mother, a former high-school English literature teacher), culture both reflects and enhances our lives. It helps explain the world we live in.

Entertainment has no such intent or responsibility. It comes cheap and easy. It leaves you unaffected and unchanged (or offended!).

Let me illustrate by offering an example of another contemporary movie that goes beyond the mere entertainment category - "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

This film, as my mother points out, revolves around "the dignity of human endeavour and achievement." Members of the crew on the British ship, Surprise, are struggling, overcoming problems - the sea, the wind, the enemy, themselves, each other. There is actual character development.

The sad thing, says Mum, is that many young people miss films (or books) of this content or calibre and, when they go out into the world, don't know how to act or react. The entertainment they have been mindlessly devouring all their short lives has left them ill-prepared for reality.

To sum up, culture teaches or sensitizes. Entertainment amuses, diverts, and sometimes desensitizes. Generally, it helps people of all ages avoid confronting real issues. Can that be good?

Sadly, we are being offered more and more stuff that is supposedly entertaining - manufactured, assembly-line style by the powerful, mainly U.S.-based, entertainment industry - and less and less that is in any way enlightening or edifying.

All of this is to say that Canada could do better, too.

I have read that Telefilm Canada, the public funding agency, now has a policy of supporting films it thinks will have commercial value. In other words, box office potential is being given a higher priority than artistic expression or cultural relevance.

As a taxpayer, I resent supporting the proliferation of "junk." Film historian and critic Gerald Pratley has translated Telefilm's new directive: "... what they're meaning is make a lot of tripe, rubbish, as if there isn't enough made already."

Or, as my mother says, what we are getting these days - and will be getting more of - are a lot of B or even D movies.

Yes, indeed, instead of films about chasing chicks and getting lucky, we need more screen time devoted to how to be a decent human being.

Necessity Actually.

September, 2003
Federal Legislation Concerning Pot Changes Neighbourhood

Kingston, ON - Well, there goes the neighbourhood. Up in smoke. Pot smoke.

Yes, since the federal government introduced legislation to decriminalize the use of smaller amounts of marijuana, a relatively new type of retail outlet has opened up - right across the street from my home.

(I have promised the cautious young owner not to reveal the name of his store, but the slogan is "Your One Stop Puffin' Shop.")

The hours are - suitably enough I suppose - 11 am - 8pm, and business seems quite brisk.

So, being the intrepid journalist I am - or perhaps simply a nosy neighbour, I decided to wander over and have a look.

Of course, the first thing I noticed was that I was twice the age of anyone else in the small place - certainly the only respectable, middle-aged woman! I was also struck immediately by the bright colours and odd shapes of the various pot-related paraphernalia neatly arranged in display cases.

Now, unlike former US president Bill Clinton, I am not going to feign innocence. As someone who experienced the sixties, I am certainly not a complete stranger to the world of pot (although I really don't like the stuff). I have inhaled.

But, as I looked more closely at the items offered for sale, I felt like a complete stranger in a very strange land. There were several things I simply couldn't identify!

As with most human endeavours, there are endless, often rather ingenious, practices and products in the world of pot. Have you ever heard of a "Butt Head," for example? These odd-looking plastic forms stop smoke "instantly" in the ashtray by cutting off the oxygen supply to the toke.

But that's just the beginning I soon learned! There were little green packets containing metal screens for inserting in pipes and blocking ashes. And pollen boxes for collecting pollen from the marijuana plant (although the owner told me, rather defensively, it could be used to remove pollen from other plants as well).

As I continued to prowl around the shop, I saw scales for weighing, grinders for grinding, an electric herb chopper, pipe cleaners, and cigarette rollers.

At one point, I spied a product called "Hello Neighbour" which promises to "neutralize" smoke and odours - "The Neighbourly Thing to Do." Living nearby, I appreciated that attitude.

And, of course, there were books: "Marijuana Question? Ask Ed." "The Joint Rolling Handbook" and "Stir Crazy Cooking with Cannabis," as well as a video, offering step-by-step instructions "for the budding grower."

Then there were the endless pipes of all styles and sizes - including many beautifully-blown, glass pipes from B.C. - and rolling papers in all colours and flavours - blueberry, cherry - with names which reminded me of condoms - Sphinx, Tribal.

A Spanish brand of papers, Pay-Pay, has been produced since 1764. The Spanish, I was informed, make a large portion of the world's rolling papers. Go figure.

Of course, rolling paper isn't just rolling paper. One wants, it seems, the slowest burning, the thinnest, and most transparent. Life, even getting high, is never uncomplicated.

As I made my way around the store like a mature Alice in Wonderland, I held up small items for identification or explanation. Harkening back to my university days, I proudly asked if one article was a roach clip. It was a pipe cleaner. Oh well. Next time.

The only shocking discovery on my tour were two products I didn't even know had been invented - although I realize now I was terribly naive: urine cleanser which, if taken 48 hours before a drug test, will "flush out" the system, and shampoo which "penetrates the hair shaft and cortex" and "removes contaminates and medical residue."

Although I immediately pictured certain athletes diligently packing these for the Olympics, my tour guide explained they were mainly in demand in the U.S. where drug testing - in the workplace, for instance - is more commonplace.

My looks of dismay, surprise - or, indeed, shock - were unsettling for my host and he became somewhat defensive as my snoopiness continued. "A lot of people get real surprised," he told me. "They think it's all brand new, but it's not. It's just usually not on display."

He pointed out that, although his store is new and a result of the liberalizing bill introduced in the spring, there were other stores in the city - one of which was raided two years ago so it, too, will remain nameless - which have been around for a few years.

When I asked him about the success of his own business, he replied simply: "There are a lot of smokers in this town; a lot of people just won't admit they are."

Well, if this new legislation has the same effect on pot-consuming individuals as it has had on this young entrepreneur, we might soon see Canadians coming rather cautiously out of their smoky closets. Gasp!

January, 2000
Where is Spirituality When We Need It?

Toronto - I have come to the conclusion that spirituality is passe. No one seems to have time for it these days.

This observation might come as a shock to some readers - especially since we have all just passed through what could or should have been a spiritually-uplifting moment in human history. But I am right - spirituality is all but dead.

I realized how irrelevant things spiritual have become while taking time a few weeks ago to read my New Year columns of years-gone-by. During this pleasantly-nostalgic exercise, I came across a pronouncement I made in January, 1995: "Spirituality is going to be big this year. Spiritual book sales are skyrocketing; Mother Teresa is making a comeback, and polls show that Canadians are looking inward."

In this column, I identified three types of spirituality in vogue at the time:

The first was what I referred to as "Social Active" spirituality, which went beyond the traditional concept of Christian charity and was based on the belief, I asserted, "that one cannot attain spiritual satisfaction in a vacuum - concern for the lives of others is a prerequisite."

In 1995, this type of spirituality had found its clearest expression just before Christmas when United Church ministers across the country took to their pulpits with a pastoral statement in defence of the poor. This statement was a response to governments cutting the deficit by shredding social programs for those in greatest need. It was paralleled by "An Open Letter to All People of Good Will" from Roman Catholic leaders who opposed Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution.

At the time, I thought the churches' outcry marked the beginning of a real movement among fair-minded Canadians to deal with the increased suffering of those around them. I think now I was overly-optimistic.

The second form of spirituality I identified was what I called "Jet Set" spirituality, which often included Gestalt therapy, yoga classes, a familiarity with the works of great spiritual thinkers, and an ability to travel to comfortable retreats in faraway places for solace and meditation.

This form of spiritual expression had recently received a fair amount of media attention because of the popularity of the book "A Simple Path" by Toronto literary agent, Lucinda Vardey. It was a compilation of prayers and testimonials by the Nobel- Prize-winning Mother Teresa and her associates and seemed at the time to touch the depths of the well-funded.

Finally, there was a third spiritual option for Canadians on a more-limited income, a quieter form of spirituality, lower-profile than the others. I called it the "No Frills" spirituality; it came to light in the dying moments of 1995 when polls showed that people were turning inward, becoming more spiritual, looking for deeper meaning in simple things.

I noted: "The poll findings are not surprising. These are tough times and the usual panaceas - material goods, travelling, career - that help people make it through the night no longer work or are impossible to obtain."

However, I warned that some aspects of the spirituality trend - particularly the "Jet Set" type - were troubling: "In certain cases, the spiritual quest seems too comfortable and commercial - as if some seeking higher meaning in life think they can buy a healthy soul."

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been critical of any of those spiritual trends! After all, at least people were taking their souls into consideration, giving them priority in one way or another - unlike the bleakly soulless attitude we seem to be embracing at the outset of the new millennium.

All of this became abundantly clear when I read an internet article by Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford. He began by asking "What is value?" noting that it can be established in many ways: for the Marxist, value reflected labour effort; for the aesthete, beauty; for the intellectual, knowledge.

But today, Stanford pointed out, there appears to be one dominant value, promoted by the financial pages of most newspapers, and that is "the stock market value of publicly-traded companies. And 'creating value' means driving up the price of a company's shares ..."

In other words, we are living in a world dominated by the pursuit of money - big money for some. It is a world that really only benefits a small percentage of people, but I have noticed that the rest of us have fallen prey to its one-dimensional, casino-like mentality. Almost everyone I know is obsessed with comfort, security, paying their credit-card bills, and getting more. I can't think of many who take time out to contemplate the meaning of life. It just isn't relevant.

(A friend of mine has been wishing everyone a wonderful Year Two Grand. Does he mean "grand" in the sense of splendid or magnificent or "grand" as in money? I hope it's the former - but I doubt it very much.)

The CAW's Stanford sums up his article with the following words: "I am thinking that perhaps the term 'value' should be promptly reclaimed, and used once again to describe things with rather more lasting, worldly characteristics - things like labour, beauty, and knowledge."

We shall see.

January, 1999
Too Many Spending Time in Front of Screens

Kingston, ON - I have a challenge for Canadians in 1999: Give up movies! Dare to say "No More" to the cuteness of Meg Ryan, the charming blandness of Tom Hanks, the comfortable brilliance of Disney. Turn your backs on the Hollywood fantasy machine and live your own lives to the full.

In other words, choose reality!

I know giving up the "drug of choice" for the Nineties (renting movies, going to movies, watching movies on TV, talking about movies) is one heck of a belated New Year's resolution to keep, but imagine having more time during the next twelve months for children, conversation, reading, music, travel, fresh air, sunlight, moonlight, making love, sports, hobbies, good food, contemplation, Scrabble, bubble baths, playing with the dog, political activity, and whatever else exists in that fascinating realm - known as life - beyond the screen.

Why my sudden rage against things cinematic? Why am I urging others to boycott the latest blockbuster, to run from the glittering worlds of "Psycho," "Stepmom" and "Prince of Egypt," to take a well-earned break from fiction and go for fact? You might say I am recovering from too much inadequate festive interaction, too much unsatisfactory human contact, too much renewed awareness of the role movies play in today's society - especially when people come together as they have been for the past few weeks.

But this is nothing new for me. Two years ago, I wrote in frustration about the people I encountered in my seasonal wanderings at that time. I described a seventeen-year-old boy who watched four movies between Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner and then headed off to Blockbuster Video for more. I mentioned a neighbour's kids who slept in Christmas morning (something we never did!) because they had stayed up late the night before watching the movie "Grease," and I commented peevishly: "Nothing like Olivia Newton John to help young people appreciate the season's ideals and traditions."

At that time, I observed that the modern-day festive season was becoming a tad too dehumanized, because videos, TV, and computers had become central to our lives and celebrations, rather than peripheral to them as they once had been, and I concluded: "Now, it seems we fit our real and direct experiences around our virtual and indirect ones. The simplicity and convenience of the artificial world are too much for most people to resist - especially young people. Enjoying time together without the presence of a glowing screen is becoming a rarity."

I dare to repeat my words of years-gone-by because nothing has changed - except that, if anything, the screen-obsession has increased. Television seems to be losing ground, but videos for adults and children have become for many part of daily routine. I know mothers who carry videos around in their purses, and I am beginning to think there are people who feel empty without the day's ration of glitter and star-gazing.

Now, after another round of festive events, I have more nasty comments: I have had enough of visits to friends' homes where the children are glued to, say, "Beauty and the Beast" while the adults attempt to carry on a reasonably thoughtful conversation; I am depressed about the woman who talked to me in a deadpan voice about her own life, but became animated when referring to the latest film she had seen; I have become exhausted by the trivia games which emerge when cinema addicts get together. (What is Citizen Kane's full name?); I am astonished that almost every conversation I have these days includes movie chatter.

Yes, indeed, I am beginning 1999 in a video-induced state of crankiness because I have had what you might call "screen cuisine" up to here! I have had my fill of watching adults and, even more frightening, children become increasingly dependent on artificial characters created by an extremely aggressive film industry in another country. What began as a medium for cultural expression has become a tool for overwhelming individual and original thought and experience. How can we function as full-fledged human beings on a diet of mass-produced and generally mediocre myths, ideas, and philosophies?

I realize I am being harsh. After all, I appreciate the joy and comfort of curling up in front of the TV screen with a good flick. But somehow, we as a society, a community of vibrant human beings, have got to get a grip on ourselves - before we become too drone-like in our various forms of screen-assisted escapism. This is especially true for the young minds being moulded by Disney (to say nothing of Nintendo and others).

As adults, we can't turn the responsibility for inspiring, teaching, and caring for our children over to movies and machines. Technology has an important place in our world, but there is simply no substitute for human and natural interaction.

July, 1998
Chretien's Claims to be a "Feminist" Fly in the Face of his Record

OTTAWA - If Jean Chretien is a "feminist", I'm a brain surgeon.

In fact, I would question the feminist credentials of every member of Chretien's government - females included. No woman with a social conscience could give her support - tacit or otherwise - to the hurtful policies of this federal government over the past three-and-a-half years. Actions, dear sisters, speak louder than words.

And, unlike most commentators, I'm less shocked at the arbitrary and undemocratic method Chretien and the Liberal party bosses are using to promote female candidates, than I am at those eagerly lining up to be anointed. Haven't these women looked at the prime minister's record? Besides, feminism doesn't mean the advancement of a few privileged females at the expense of the majority.

In almost every area of social and political concern, women have taken several steps back in their efforts to attain equality and a better life. They have lost jobs and job security. Many who once held full-time positions have been demoted to part-time with fewer benefits and no prospects for advancement. They have seen the social programs they sometimes fall back on made less generous and more restricted. Unemployment Insurance is now Employment Insurance, covering a shorter period, paying less, and harder to get. Welfare is becoming workfare.

Working women are seeing the dream of well-regulated, affordable day care die as the federal government tosses its responsibilities to the provinces, in spite of its election promises. Only about 16 per cent of children 13 years or under who need such care for at least 20 hours a week get it. The Liberals have also brought an end to federal support for social housing (making us the only country in the OECD with no national program in this area). Homelessness is a growing fear.

Female students have experienced tuition increases, cancelled courses, and deteriorating classroom conditions as educational facilities at all levels adjust to federal government cuts in this area. Older women are paying more for prescription drugs - the Liberals now support a law they once adamantly opposed which limits the production of cheaper generic drugs - and paying user fees for deteriorating home care services. Ageing women face a bleak future with lower seniors' benefits.

And many, many women are becoming increasingly nervous about the future of Medicare.

Those with special needs have been treated with disdain and disrespect by this government. Organizations, such as the National Youth In Care Network which supports young females being raised in foster and group homes, have had their funding cut. And women with disabilities have had a roller coaster ride under the Liberals. When he was Human Resources Minister, Doug Young threatened to pass federal responsibilities in this area over to the provinces. After much lobbying, a task force was struck to examine this and other issues. So far, there's been little response to its many recommendations.

Life for female artists has been equally insecure due to harsh funding cuts to arts groups and institutions such as the Canada Council - while International Trade Minister Art Eggleton has made noises about ending cultural protection policies in this country. And how many women have been directly - because of lay-offs - or indirectly - listeners, viewers and, again, artists - by the scandalous cuts to the CBC?

Native women are in the midst of major changes to the federal government's relationship with the Aboriginal community. The Liberals say they support self-government, but Native leaders fear the real rationale behind restructuring is cost-cutting. In the meantime, many Native women and their families continue to live in third-world conditions and the youth suicide rate is the highest in the world.

Across the country, women have been affected by cuts to public transportation, decreased regulations in the areas of health and safety, weakened environmental protection, and far less funding for public interest groups, such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Ironic, isn't it? As well, female immigrants now have to pay a head tax.

And yet, not one "feminist" in the Liberal Party has risked her political neck for her non-elected sisters. Not one has resigned on a point of principle, demonstrating the courage of MP Jan Brown who left the Reform Party because of its intolerance and extremism. (Brown's politics I might argue with, but, uniquely, she had the courage of her convictions.)

Perhaps the debate about the presence of female Members of Parliament in the House of Commons should be framed differently. Instead of falling for the usual numbers game, shouldn't we be aiming for quality, not quantity? What kind of women do we want sitting in Parliament representing other women, and men? What values should we as electors be looking for?

After all, there are more women in government than ever before and my life certainly hasn't improved. Has yours?

January, 1998
Clinton/Lewinsky Scandal Sends Negative Messages to Young People

Ottawa - What might a young, working woman conclude after having absorbed more than she ever wanted to know about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?

She could get the impression that sexually "servicing" the boss (yes, it's as basic, crude, and unromantic as that) can lead to a lucrative promotion - especially if your boss happens to be the President of the United States, has already been charged with sexual harassment, and could be the victim of right-wing conspiracies.

But what are the odds?!

The thing that really gets my goat in the alleged, tawdry, and desperately unoriginal Clinton\Lewinsky affair is that it might have gone off without a hitch. A young, flirtatious girl goes in the front door of the White House as an intern and scoots out the back door with a great job at the Pentagon, followed by an even better one with Revlon.

Now that's climbing the professional (I'm being generous here) ladder! Before she's 25, Lewinsky has a public relations gig with a giant corporation in New York City - the kind of position many long-time employees can only dream of. Almost makes you envious, doesn't it? But I'm not really sure I want to share her secret to success.

Indeed, if things are as they appear to many, lovely Lewinsky's impressive vertical climb delivers at least two horrible messages to young people - male and female: Relating sexually to your boss (even if he or she is old enough to be your parent) is just part of the scramble to the top in this competitive age; the skills not listed on your resume are as crucial as those listed.

Based on my experiences in the working world, I would suggest that, in too many cases, these messages aren't far wrong. In other words, there are lots of Bill Clintons and Monica Lewinskys out there. It's an all-too-common feature in the nine-to-five world. (Or is it eight-to-eight these days?)

No, I'm not confessing that I prostituted my way to the top. In fact, the opposite is true. Over the years, I have lost or been denied jobs - and I'm certainly not the only one - because I have a fairly narrow idea of professional development. Call me old-fashioned, but I want to go to my grave knowing I never "slept" my way to anything - especially not the top. (Although I am guilty of wearing short skirts!)

I can remember sitting with the manager of a wire service in Toronto wondering whether to accept a job offer which was prefaced by: "I'm very interested in you, Kathleen." Did he mean me or my resume? (I found out soon enough. When I wouldn't play the game, he made life difficult for me. I quit in spite of being a single mother and needing the job.)

Then there was the time my career as a radio announcer came to a halt. I had spent a summer as an on-air host for Canada's public broadcaster. When I returned to my regular job, my employer offered to help me hone my communications skills - upstairs in the boardroom. He began by yelling to me from one end of the room, illustrating that one doesn't need to speak loudly into the microphone. Then, he came up and whispered in my ear - demonstrating that one shouldn't be too soft spoken. I shuddered when I felt his breath on my neck, and, the next day, informed him that I wasn't interested in an on-air career. (I wasn't too courageous when it came to confronting these guys.)

My experience with on-the-job harassers is that they are usually fairly discrete. There aren't many of the "kiss it" types - as Paula Jones has alleged about Clinton - although the owner of a high-end restaurant where I worked exposed himself to me in his office. (I told him to buy a raincoat.) Usually, predators just send out vibes and wait for the relatively-powerless victim to respond. In this way, the employer leaves room for the defence that the employee made the first move.

At this point, I care little about Clinton's sex life except that it's sad to think that female workers in the White House might have to travel in pairs or with an escort. In fact, stolid Al Gore is looking pretty good right now - the kind of man you could trust in an office alone with your daughter.

After all, shouldn't we expect "the most powerful man in the world" to be a good employer role model? It would be much better for our kids as they enter the difficult job market of the '90s.

And there wouldn't be as many jokes about the phrase "getting ahead."

December, 1998
Canadians Are Being Worn Down by Poverty

Kingston, ON - If there is one message that was delivered over and over again to me - and I am sure to many others - during the past year, it is this: Money is very important. More important than most of us realize or care to admit. It does make the world go round.

In fact, the more I think about the key role of money and the formidable effect possessing or not possessing the stuff can have on a human being, the more I realize that it is actually undervalued as a force in our society. For some reason, we have never really assessed how crucial wealth is in our daily lives. How it impacts on our very souls.

At this point, you might be asking yourself what planet I am from. How can I say that, in our materialistic world, money is not fully - if not overly - appreciated? Aren't most of our lives geared toward the acquisition and distribution of hard-earned funds? True indeed. However, I would argue that, in spite of our fierce emphasis on capital, we haven't come to any group acknowledgement of how important a good, reliable supply of cash is to an individual or family - and how downright horrible life is without it.

The above observation or admission might sound a tad bizarre coming from someone who purports to be on the left-end of the political spectrum (as I do), but let me continue. (It's not that I approve of our dependence on money; it's just that I accept the reality that we can't exist without it in our present world!)

One of the most telling illustrations of the power of money came with the transformation of a person I have watched closely over the past several months. At the beginning of 1998, this woman in her late-sixties was unhappy, negative, insecure, and neurotic - as she had been for most of her adult life. She verged on the self-destructive. As a widow and single parent, money and comfort had eluded her for years. Then, last spring, came the financial windfall - a lump sum and monthly payments for the rest of her life. Now, she is on Easy Street.

So, as the year comes to a close, this once semi-reclusive woman, who sat at home watching television with her cats, is dining out with friends, buying gifts for her grandchildren, and redecorating her home. She has confidence, style, and a positive attitude toward life. Access to money has made her a new woman.

All of this came to mind when I read three reports recently. The first, entitled "The Growing Gap: A report on growing inequality between the rich and poor in Canada," was prepared by The Centre for Social Justice in Toronto. It had some startling statistics on what is happening in the new, restructured Canada. For example, in 1973, the richest 10 per cent of Ontario families made nine times that of the poorest 10 per cent. This difference has increased to 229 times! As well, in 1973, middle-class (incomes ranging from $30,000 to $70,000) families with children accounted for 60 per cent of the population. By 1996, that number had dropped to 40 per cent. After-tax family incomes in Ontario dropped from $49,620 in 1980 to $48,988 in 1996. In other words, many people are poorer.

The second report is "The Town Hall Report", put out by the Ontario Federation of Labour in which "real people" tell "real stories" about their lives. Again, the pages paint a bleak picture of increasingly difficult times for many. They tell of "the number of people living in poverty, the number of children who fail to thrive physically or emotionally." The report quotes a Sault Ste. Marie bus driver who describes what he is seeing from his front-line vantage point: "There's a constant feeling of depression and despair among my passengers ..." It is not fun reading, especially at this time of year.

Finally, the third report comes from the Social Planning Council of Kingston, establishing a "Quality of Life Index" - including the number of people on social-housing waiting lists, the number of low birth-weight babies, suicide rates, bankruptcies, and hours of poor air quality. Unfortunately, but somehow predictably, the Social Planning Council concludes that, in all but two of the 12 areas studied, the local quality of life declined between 1990 and 1997.

With these facts at hand, it is time we as a society asked ourselves some very basic questions: How can anyone be happy and productive if he or she can't pay the rent, hydro and telephone bills, buy proper clothing for job interviews, or scrounge enough money to take the bus to work? How can we ignore the fact that poverty quite simply wears people down?

We are demanding too much of our fellow human beings if we expect them to endure real deprivation without short- or even long-term damage to their sense of self-worth and ability to cope. At a time when too many Canadians are living bleak and hopeless lives, we must make the connection between financial depression and psychological depression - and act accordingly.

September 1998 - July 1995
September, 1998
Canada Has Reached a Hidden Crisis in its Food Supply

Kingston, ON - I have a harvest season tale to tell - one which doesn't have a happy ending.

Once upon a time, there was a small seed buried in the warm ground. A spinach seed, perhaps. This tiny beginning of life depended on the earth for the nutrients it needed to grow big and strong. For, although it could make its own vitamins, it could not produce the 30 or more minerals - such as iron, copper, iodine, selenium, magnesium, zinc, cobalt, boron, and vanadium - it needed to be really healthy.

But the seed was unlucky. It had been planted in soil which was just a few inches deep (only enough to hold its roots) and had few nutrients left. In fact, the soil was almost devoid of living creatures. There were hardly any worms! For years, crop after crop of vegetables had been grown in this earth and had soaked up all the goodness. Unfortunately, very little was done to replace the important things the seed needed so badly. No mulching, no manure, no crop rotation. Instead, the farmer had relied on chemical fertilizers to keep plants growing every year - and other chemicals to keep the bugs and weeds away.

However, this was not the best thing for the little seed. Granted the chemical fertilizers had a few nutrients - mainly nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium - which made plants grow big and leafy, but these were not enough to make them grow really strong and healthy. In fact, by the time the seed had developed into a fully-grown spinach plant, it had toxic chemicals in its leaves - but not many minerals. No one seemed to care though.

So the plant was picked, packed in a box, shipped miles away, and placed on a cool, bright shelf in a huge, bright store. Suddenly, along came a man and woman who were buying food for their growing children. The man and woman looked at the spinach; they admired its green leaves; they took it home. They didn't realize that this poor plant had never been fed properly itself and, therefore, could not properly feed the family. And no one can live happily ever after without nourishment.

That is the end of my harvest season story.

The sad fact is that our food - even the wonderful fruits and vegetables we are enjoying at this time of year - is mainly "dead." This is not a new problem. It has been developing over the years. At the end of World War II, chemical companies were left with stockpiles of the nitrates and phosphates used in weapons manufacturing. Fortunately for them, agricultural experiments had shown that plants could grow on a diet of three minerals: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Thus a new era in farming - and eating - began. By the 1960s, most farms had switched to the new chemical-based fertilizers in order to stay competitive.

(As early as 1962, Rachel Carson warned about the dangers of toxic farming in her book "Silent Spring," but little has changed. Now, agricultural pollution is one of the greatest hazards facing the planet. We are also facing a crisis over the depletion of the earth's top soil.)

Now, after years of chemical-dependent farming, the crucial minerals mentioned in the tale above have all but disappeared from the land. That means that plants which are nature's way of conveying those minerals from the land to our bodies - plants convert inorganic minerals in the soil into a form the human body can use - no longer play that role. Take spinach, for example. In the late 1940s, before chemical farming had taken over, a bowl of spinach contained about 150 milligrams of iron. That has dropped to a mere two milligrams. In other words, today we need to eat 75 bowls of spinach to get the same health benefits offered by one bowl 50 years ago. (Unless your name is Popeye, you might find this a little difficult!)

A speaker I heard recently had a different way of describing the modern eater's dilemma. She pointed out that it is now necessary to eat six meals to get the nutrients found in one meal prior to WW II. (I don't know what the ratio would be for those who live on hamburgers and pizza.) How many of us realize this when we sit down to a plateful of shiny vegetables, hoping they will help maintain and build our needy, over-stressed bodies? Pass the empty salad, please!

There's a lot to be learned from the simple art of growing. At one time, gardeners and farmers maintained a close connection to the earth (some still do). They respected the soil, appreciated its needs, and replenished it naturally as best they could. It's time we looked back to those days for a few crucial lessons. There is no point in devoting acres and acres of land across the country and around the world to the growing of "dead" food - no matter how perfect it looks on the store shelves.

May, 1998
Toronto Exudes Pre-millennium Energy - But Also Raises Concerns

Toronto - Move over Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin. I, Kathleen O'Hara, am the ultimate Out-of-Towner, the small-town hick overwhelmed by the endless challenges of a gigantic, modern, end-of-the-millennium city - or at least that's the way I've felt since my arrival here a few days ago.

It's not that I have been very far from this oh-so-trendy urban centre. I've been in Ottawa and Kingston where changes are also taking place, and have made my way to Toronto at regular intervals over the years. However, as I begin an extended stay in our national Mecca, my sense of observation seems heightened - and I have the distinct feeling of having crawled from under the proverbial rock only to discover that the world around me has been revolutionized.

Little is as it was when I last lived here six years ago. In fact, the contrast between Toronto-then and Toronto-now is incredible. For example, who had heard of oxygen bars in the early '90s? Or dreamt that we might need them?

Apparently, our oxygen supply is dwindling, especially in populated areas. Where once it made up about 38 per cent of the air we breathe, it can now range as low as 10-15 per cent. For this reason, people frequent crowded bars where they put "nose hoses" up to their faces to get a dose of this once-tasteless gas - offered in a variety of flavours!

I have been told that Toronto was the first city in the world blessed with this type of futuristic social venue.

On the health front generally, much has changed. One of the city's most successful health stores is opening an outlet on Yonge Street, once the bastion of wild night-life and decadence. Major grocery chains stock organic foods for those concerned about pesticides; people have organic produce delivered to their doors - along with the bottled water they began buying a few years ago. Super-vitamins, anti-oxidants, herbs, new forms of exercise and relaxation are all easily available.

Of course, this contrasts interestingly with the proliferation of coffee shops - especially the U.S.-based Starbucks - and fast-food chains. In fact, I find it difficult to reconcile the two trends - one pure and health-conscious, the other apparently oblivious to the impact of caffeine, fats, and other elements on the body. And, it seems that, as more Torontonians celebrate wellness and the body, others are piercing and tattooing wherever possible.

At the same time, the presence of technology in peoples' lives is so much greater than it was when I left this town. All my friends and relatives have cellular phones (unimaginable in the early 1990s) or pagers (again, a rarity); they have e-mail addresses (one friend gets 100 messages a day), personal web sites (a family I know has the directions to its cottage on its web page), fax machines (once office equipment only), and scanners (unheard of until recently). Musicians can now produce or "burn" their own CDs at home, and everyone has a VCR and takes home-movie-watching for granted. Disney and Nintendo play a larger role in children's lives.

Other changes? We now live in a world of lazer magic - hair transplants, hair removal, eye surgery, cosmetic surgery; grocery stores give Air Miles and patrons dream of Paris or Rome while buying milk and bread; Interac has made money even more irrelevant; gambling is legitimate; world music is everywhere; more children are being educated at home, and people pay big money to watch basketball (that high-school sport) in a super-modern arena.

(When I asked a friend about changes she had noticed in recent years she pointed out that men now have better skin-care products than women.)

As well, the roads look different - apart from the fact that there are many more of them and one major artery is a toll route (once unthinkable in Canada). Trucks, vans, jeeps, even the bizarre-looking Hummer are de rigueur. Although recycling has become commonplace, people have forgotten to care about the environment. In the early '90s, Earth Day, which recently passed with little fanfare, was marked by millions. No longer.

Finally, many Canadians are gravitating to this fast-growing metropolis. When I lived here last, a mega-amusement-park known as "Canada's Wonderland" was located several miles north of the city. Now, it is surrounded by new homes and more developments are underway farther north. Valuable farmland is being eaten up by housing for those in search of jobs and, probably, the energy exuded by the region. The endless jungle of instant shelter is not dissimilar to that found in developing countries, although the shacks are of much better quality.

I realize that it is exciting to be on the cutting edge in the big city, but I worry about the rest of the country. After all, we can't all be central Canadian trendoids, can we?

April, 1998
What Kind of Information Age Do We Want?

Toronto - This is a column about computers, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Y2K problem. (Does that come as a relief to any of you?) Instead, it is an attempt, with the help of some European thinkers, to discern where we are heading as we move through the Information Age - to well beyond the year 2000.

But first, I will give a ridiculously brief summary of humankind's progress to date.

We have passed through four main stages in our social, cultural, economic, and political development: the Nomadic, the Agrarian, the Industrial and, now, the Information. Each stage has represented a great leap in technological know-how and has affected almost every aspect of human beings' lives.

The pervasive influence of technology is something Canadians (and citizens everywhere) should appreciate as we become increasingly immersed in the Information Age, because our lives will change more than most of us realize - and there has been little public education and debate related to such change.

For example, I only became aware of Information Age concerns being raised in Europe after attending an extremely stimulating international conference on The Evolution of World Order at Ryerson University recently. A German delegate gave me a small book funded by the European Commission entitled: "Towards a Human Information Society" - and it opened my eyes.

The book begins with the following statement: "What is clear is that we all must share a common aim for the future of Europe in the Information Age. A common vision of the kind of Information Society we want is needed, where no one and no group is 'disabled' by failures of access, or by ability, or age, or race ..."

That said, the book gets to the point: "The central social problem of the Information Age is the connection between it and a particular American ideology. Consumerism, the use of information technology in the pursuit of industrial production efficiency, and information as capital are the main benchmarks of a mainly American approach to society." It notes that such an ideology or vision "leaves no place for social values, priorities and goals ..."

As a computer neophyte, I thought of those words while waiting for my e-mail server site to appear on the screen this morning. (I don't know the technical terminology for any of these things yet.) As the page slowly became visible, the first image I saw was a large, colourful advertisement telling me to "click here" for more information. I had no trouble resisting that option, but was offended by the fact that I have no control over these ads, which seem to be everywhere in the virtual world.

Again, on this subject, the Europeans are extremely conscious of the way our need and desire for information is being exploited and manipulated - and they don't mince their words. They are unhappy about treating what many consider a public good "as just another free market commodity" like breakfast cereal. They warn that information "is communicated in a socio-cultural context which confers meaning."

In other words, the medium is the message, and the message being conveyed through advertisement-riddled screens as we embark on our global voyage through the Information Age is "Buy, Buy, Buy." You, the screen tells us, are a consumer above all else.

At the same time, say the Europeans in their book, we are sacrificing information of "high-meaning value" for information of "high-exchange value." And that is a tragedy given the great potential of communications technology to improve our troubled world.

After reading the first few pages of the European Commission volume, I felt I had suddenly entered a brave new realm I had resisted too long; I was finally facing our computer-dominated existence with all its uncertainties and pitfalls. But what, I wondered, are the responsibilities of citizens in ensuring that we avoid the negative aspects of the dynamic world we find ourselves in? After all, we are in the midst of a major transformation - shouldn't we have a say in how it develops?

The Europeans certainly think so: "Europe has to break away from the inherent bias ... of the present transition ... Avoiding a revolution in society requires a carefully planned and managed evolution. This can only be achieved by looking at the social consequences ..."

Surely, we Canadians are not just going to sit back and let a few self-interested corporate giants, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates, gain even more control over the technology that has such an impact on our children's lives.

Or are we?

March, 1998
Cancer Can Be Beaten - But How?

Ottawa - Someone I love very much has cancer, the disease that has become the Black Plague of the 20th Century striking one in every three or four of us - depending on whose statistics you trust.

She has Hodgkin's Disease, a type of lymphoma (cancer of the lymph system) made famous by hockey player Mario Lemieux a few years ago. Like Lemieux, she discovered a lump in her neck and a surgical biopsy revealed the kind of malignant cells no one wants to find nesting within. And, like Lemieux, she will survive. I am certain of that.

But the question is: How? How can she pull through this ordeal with the least amount of physical, psychological, and emotional trauma? How can those who care for her keep the kind of collateral damage inevitably suffered on the cancer battlefield to a minimum? How do we avoid negative, long-term effects? How?

I'll admit that, as a newcomer to the realm of cancer, I didn't realize initially that such questions existed. I thought, along with most Canadians, that the way out of the nightmare of CAT scans, tumours, and oncologists (tumour specialists) was simple and direct: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. After all, cancer is so mysterious and frightening, no one wants to second guess the experts. It's best to do what the doctor says. Right?

Indeed, nothing would be simpler than to hand the ill body of my loved one over to the medical establishment for the full treatment of "cut, poison, and burn" - as some cancer patients describe the orthodox procedures. But, fortunately or unfortunately, I don't always trust the simple route. Instead, I have become an obsessive traveller in the broad world of cancer therapies - conventional, complementary, and alternative. It's fascinating stuff.

The first lesson I learned after discovering I was indirectly battling cancer was to confide in people I trusted. As the Black Plague works its way through our society, a responding knowledge base is developing. People have experiences to share, books to lend, doctors to suggest, groups to contact. For example, it was through a friend's partner (a breast cancer survivor) that I learned about the Canadian Cancer Research Group (CCRG), an Ottawa-based organization. This was the real beginning of my odyssey.

William O'Neill, who heads the CCRG, helped shake me out of my ignorant lethargy by exposing the weaknesses of what he refers to as "industrial medicine." I soon began to realize that there is a very lucrative Cancer Industry making healthy profits on the conventional methods. The highly-toxic drugs being poured into hundreds of thousands of patients undergoing chemotherapy in this country are obvious money-makers. (Could that be one reason we haven't perfected the more individualized, non-toxic, but less-profitable vaccines now available in private clinics in the U.S.?)

Perhaps the main thing I have learned about cancer - and many other diseases - is that treatment must be holistic, embracing the needs of the body, the mind, and the spirit. Sadly, Western medicine - as I have witnessed it over the past few weeks - looks at a cancer tumour as if it existed in a vacuum. Little, if any, attention is paid to the overall health of the "host" - the desperate human being engaged in a life and death struggle with mutant cells.

Those who advocate surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation rarely look at environment, lifestyle, diet, and attitude. On the other hand, those who advocate alternative therapies also seem to suffer from their own kind of narrow vision. There are immune therapies, nutritional therapies, metabolic therapies, herbal therapies, and mind-body therapies. Each has its own theories about the causes and cure of cancer; almost all have one or two items of interest, but fail to stand alone.

At this point in what is sometimes referred to as the "healing journey," I have come to the conclusion that it is wise to steal the best from a variety of sources. In some cases, the cut, poison, and burn approach might be necessary; in others, a strong vaccine might do. In all cases, diet, exercise, deep breathing, relaxation, detoxification, vitamin supplements, herbal teas, positive thinking, pottery classes, and many other harmless, but probably helpful remedies are worth trying.

Unfortunately, learning about these approaches takes a fair amount of time and energy - not something all cancer patients and their families have at their disposal. Yes, there are hundreds of books out there with lots of good, solid advice; some will even give you the names and addresses of private clinics worth investigating. (My favourite so far is the Immuno-Augmentative Therapy Centre in Freeport, Grand Bahama, but this, of course, is restricted to those with deep pockets.) But it's all quite overwhelming for the cancer newcomer.

Another sad fact is that alternative therapies are cropping up everywhere (some with more legitimacy than others) because modern medicine is failing too many cancer patients - either by its inability to heal or because its methods can result in hideous side-effects (such as other cancers) that some patients would do anything to avoid.

At the end of the 20th Century, our society seems better at causing disease that it is at curing it.

February, 1998
Bill C-55 will not even begin to solve Canada's cultural problems

Kingston, ON - Although I am what some people sneeringly refer to as "an ardent Canadian nationalist," I am having a tough time supporting Bill C-55, the federal government's controversial legislation designed to protect our magazine industry.

Needless to say, I feel I should be praising - rather than doubting or damning - the Liberals for their valiant effort to defend Canadian culture in the face of great odds. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to endorse the government's extremely rare and strangely quixotic act of bravery (or bravado) on this crucial issue.

For one thing, the legislation - which penalizes Canadian companies advertising in the Canadian editions of foreign magazines - is, as they say, "too little, too late." In fact, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps et al remind me of someone who goes off eagerly to a nudist camp and then, as a last minute act of modesty, insists on wearing socks. Given the context, the gesture won't make a lot of difference.

Most of us have heard the statistics on the foreign-domination of our culture: about 70 per cent of music on the radio; 85 per cent of prime-time English television drama; 95 per cent of screen-time in movie theatres; 70 per cent of English-language books; 80 per cent of English newsstand magazines, and 85 per cent of musical recordings sold. Indeed, we are more dominated by the ideas and creations of others than any nation on the planet.

Don't get me wrong. I neither want to defend nor maintain our abysmal cultural status quo, but I do think Canada's strategy for turning things around has got to be more thoughtful and less stop-gap than the likes of Bill C-55 - and include no nonsense policies for stimulating and supporting Canadian culture (rather than cutting it back). In other words, tokenism won't do.

At the same time, we must appreciate that our options are limited - because of the actions of the very government which is now trying to save us.

What frustrates me most about the Liberals' latest show of patriotism is that they don't seem to understand the meaning of "agreement." For some reason, our leaders think they can sign various free-trade agreements - and then protest when fellow signatories insist that Canada abide by its promises. Are our government members unaware of what they accepted in NAFTA and at the WTO? Or are they trying to lull uninformed Canadians into a false sense of security by understating the seriousness of these trade deals (while tossing them the odd nationalist bone)?

For example, we have been told over and over again that culture was exempted from the FTA and NAFTA. This is not the case. It is true that culture appears to be exempted in Article 2005:1 of the FTA (carried over in the NAFTA) - but, in Article 2005:2, the exemption is overridden when the U.S. is given the right to retaliate against certain cultural "actions." It's a textbook case of smoke and mirrors.

(Now, our American friends want to retaliate against Bill C-55 by placing tariffs on Canada's steel, plastics, textiles, and lumber. Can you blame them? We told them they could!)

Another reason I find the Liberals' latest gesture in the name of Canadian sovereignty incredible is that it comes after a decade of making this country completely vulnerable to the U.S., our largest trading partner. In 1988, just before the free-trade era, trade between Canada and the U.S. was $194 billion annually; last year, there was more than one billion dollars worth of trade a day. In other words, we have placed our own heads in a noose.

(Of course, Canada is not alone internationally in its precarious state - although we probably win the prize for "Most Willing Victim." The cover of the February issue of "Mother Jones," an American magazine, cries: "First the world bought our products. Now it's buying into our values ... What happens when American culture conquers the globe?" Good question.)

I remember hearing a representative of the Centre for Trade Policy and Law at Carleton University speak a year ago. He pointed out that culture is society's way of sharing "value-laden" ideas that are "a necessary underpinning" of any effective democracy. In fact, a democracy can't really function unless citizens share similar values and beliefs - and a vision of the kind of country they want to build together.

For the past decade, Conservative and Liberal governments have promoted a culture of weakening government (and democracy) and strengthening the market. They have put corporate goals ahead of citizens' needs. Now, anyone who thinks this process can by reversed or even modified by the likes of Bill C-55 is misleading Canadians.

So, it's time to look closely at the big picture. If we can't live with the fall-out from our free-trade agreements (the loss of our magazines, for example), we should get rid of them. Otherwise, we ain't seen nothin' yet!

December, 1997
Malnutrition in the '90s

Ottawa - I realize it may seem outrageous to pose the following questions in a wealthy, developed country where food is abundant, but here goes:

Are you malnourished?

Is your body - that complex network of systems you depend on 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year, for 60, 70, possibly 80 or 90 years - getting the nutrients it needs to function properly? Or are you, like so many human beings at the end of the 20th century, suffering too often from colds, headaches, fatigue, or more serious ailments?

In other words, do you feel truly healthy? Or have you forgotten what healthy means?

I ask these questions because I have begun to look more closely at the people around me and I am frightened by what I see. Aside from those who could be classified as "out-of-shape" or overweight, I am shocked by the number of friends or friends of friends or children of friends, who have been cut down by tragic illnesses: cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, diabetes. Canadians - young, middle-aged, and old - are taking medication, visiting doctors, lying in hospitals.

What on earth is going on?

In a desperate search for answers, I have begun to read about nutrition - which seems the obvious foundation for good health, along with a clean, stress-free environment. After all, we must be, in large part, what we eat, digest, and absorb! (I have been told that medical students receive only a few hours of training in nutrition. If so, the medical profession is seriously hindered by inexcusable knowledge gaps. Could this be part of the problem?)

Running counter to our consumer society, which believes that health - whether physical or mental - can be purchased at the drug store, I have come to the conclusion that "food is the best medicine" (as someone aptly put it). The hundreds of millions of cells that make up our Central Nervous System, our Skeletal and Muscular Systems, our Metabolic, Digestive and Excretory Systems and our Cardiovascular and Respiratory Systems need high-quality sustenance.

Very basically, what our cells require are carbohydrates and fats for energy, proteins (amino acids) for building, vitamins and minerals for general maintenance, enzymes as catalysts, fibres to cleanse, antioxidants and phytochemicals to detoxify. Most of this material must come from the things we put in our mouths each day. But sadly, much of our food is grown in "dead" soil which has few nutrients and produces virtually "dead" food (usually further compromised by chemical fertilizers and pesticides).

To make matters worse, whatever life there is in the key elements of our diets is often processed, preserved, packaged, transported, stored, and cooked (in many cases, microwaved) out of existence. The new "high tech" foods are put through what one doctor refers to as "a vast number of tortures" by being treated with "acidifiers, alkalinizers, anti-foaming agents, artificial colours, artificial flavours, sweeteners, deodorants, fillers, disinfectants, emulsifiers, extenders, hydrogenators, moisturizers ..."

(Don't ask me to define these terms, I just eat the stuff. But could this be why almost 90 per cent of children suffer from nutritional deficiencies?)

It is said that Americans (and the border is becoming less and less defined) consumed about three pounds of chemicals in their food every year in the 1960s. This is now closer to the ten-pound mark, including the many drugs and hormones used in the dairy and meat industries. Our intake of unnatural additives rises to well over 100 pounds, if we include refined white sugar, filled with empty calories.

However, this seems like small potatoes compared to the food technologies looming on the horizon. There are already some irradiated and genetically-altered items in our grocery stores - often lacking labels to indicate that these products aren't quite "normal." And, if the nuclear and bio-technology industries get their way, we'll have more space-age delicacies to feed to our loved ones. (Unfortunately, the science on the effects this food will have on our bodies seems a little hazy. The phrase "guinea pig" comes to mind.)

But talk of unnatural edibles is ruining my appetite. I would rather discuss my new awareness of the joy of eating whole, natural, tasty foods. This long-overdue revelation has come because of the illness of someone I love - an illness which one friend described as a "wake-up call" for all those involved. Indeed, I now want to know as much as possible about what I am eating and feeding to others and be sure it will make a positive difference to our well-being. No more "dead" food!

Am I asking too much?

In his book, "May All Be Fed: Diet for a New World," John Robbins states: "There are few places where the spiritual, political, personal and ecological dimensions of our lives meet as fully as they do when we sit down to eat our breakfasts, lunches and dinners."

Wholesome food for thought.

December, 1997
Health-care in the 90s -- lots to choose from if you are willing and able to pay.

Kingston, ON - The human body fascinates me. In fact, I am becoming rather obsessed with the subject - or object.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those desperate characters who "surfs the net" in search of naughty pictures of disrobed individuals in compromising positions. On the contrary, my new-found interest has nothing to do with the superficial diversions offered by the outside shape of the body. It's the complex inside that has me enthralled.

And I'm not alone. Many Canadians are becoming more aware of the body, its functions, and needs. That awareness is reflected in the increasing variety of therapies available across the country - mainly outside the conventional health-care system and, scandalously, not covered by Medicare - such as live-blood exploration, vascular cleansing, lymphatic drainage, and cellular detoxification.

(Oooops. Have I lost you with all these unpleasant-sounding medical phrases? It would be a pity, if I have. Would it help if I mentioned that all of the above could be good for you? They might even help you live a healthier and, therefore, happier life. And a longer one, too!)

The treatments and therapies I have mentioned are all part of a growing wave of alternative health practices. Although most have gained acceptance and are regularly applied in Europe, there is still a hint of suspicion about them here in Canada. In fact, two people warned me NOT to write about them lest I be labelled a "flake." But I'll take my chances.

What these therapies have in common is their focus on helping the body to stay as healthy as possible with as little harmful intrusion as possible. They also tend to expose rather than cover up or ignore symptoms of disease, unlike many medical treatments we experience. Indeed, most alternative therapies are designed to go to the root of the problem - healing before anything worse can develop. They are geared toward patients who want to be pro-active about their health.

Take live-blood exploration or analysis, for example. This involves monitoring a living drop of blood (the cells of blood only stay alive for about 20 minutes) with a video camera. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Practitioners claim that this analysis can detect body imbalances, such as red-blood-cell distortions, the incomplete digestion of fats and proteins, liver stress, and the existence of bacteria, fungi, yeast, or parasites. It is a good tool for allowing a patient a clearer understanding of what is happening deep within him or her.

Wise idea.

Vascular cleansing sounds rather painful, but it is simply a natural way of unblocking arteries through nutrition and plain-old clean living - thus allowing heart-disease sufferers some needed relief. Proponents of the cleansing method say they have seen patients throw away their diuretics, blood thinners, anti-cholesterol drugs, and nitro-glycerine after following a naturally-based program of vitamin, mineral, and other supplements. They claim we must return to the diet and lifestyle of the early part of the century when heart disease was almost unknown.

They have a point.

Lymphatic drainage and cellular detoxification are also based on the premise that a cleaner, more smoothly-functioning body is less prone to disease. To achieve this, they employ a small bulb which emits heat, ozone, and radio frequencies. The heat increases circulation, improving the transportation of nutrients and the elimination of wastes; the ozone kills germs, and the radio frequencies destroy viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

All this and the side-effects are nil - unlike most of the drugs we swallow with abandon.

These are just a few of the therapies and treatments offered in many Canadian cities. Here in Kingston, once a cautious and conservative town, the range of health alternatives has grown tremendously over the past decade. Now, everything from acupressure to touch therapy to electromagnetic healing is available - some with intriguing names, such as ear candling, flower essences, iridology, Trager bodywork, Craniosacral therapy, and reflexology. (I'll let you guess what they are!)

Why the movement away from conventional medicine? I'm sure one reason is simply the fact that many of us just don't feel as good as we used to or know we should - and we are looking for the safest way to better health that we can find.

I recently came across a list of the 13 causes of ill health, which sums up what our poor modern-day bodies must contend with. The first six causes are depressing enough: constitutional (genetic or hereditary weakness), temperamental (negative emotional patterns, stress), trauma (mechanical injury), chemical intoxication (pesticides, plastics, auto exhaust etc.), latent infections (illness suppressed by antibiotics, intestinal decay, root canals), parasites (worms and fungi found in 80 per cent of the population).

The last seven aren't good news either: diet (lack of fibre and nutrients), electromagnetic stress (from power lines, x-rays, microwave ovens, television etc.), lack of oxygen (improper breathing, environmental conditions), tension (cramping, constricted blood flow), dehydration (a 100-pound person requires 50 ounces of water daily), malillumination (lack of sunlight), sedentary lifestyle (lack of muscle mobility).

With all the challenges our bodies face at the end of the 20th Century, it's no wonder we are looking for new and more holistic treatments. Fortunately, there are many health-care pioneers who are ready and willing to provide them. I don't know about you, but that makes me feel a whole lot better.

September, 1997
Cyber-tots: Marketing Target for the Nineties

Ottawa - What is it with screens and children? Those pliant, eager creatures can't seem to get enough of television, video games, and computers. I asked an eight-year-old boy why he jumped out of bed every morning and headed right for his Nintendo game. "I have to," he responded. "It helps me wake up." Would coffee be safer?

My awareness of the impact of screens, especially computers, on kids was heightened by an article, "Wither Our Children in the Digital Age?", by Kathryn C. Montgomery, a co-founder and president of the Centre for Media Education in the US. She writes that after 50 years of wondering about the effect of television on children we now have cyberspace, which will have an even greater influence on their lives.

"Like adults, children will increasingly be connected to a vast digital universe that transcends the family, the local community, and even the nation," she observes. The Information Superhighway is more interactive and participatory and allows children to slip easily into their own virtual worlds. It could, she predicts, "supplant television as the most powerful and influential medium in children's lives." But is this good?

Montgomery admits that there are positive aspects to on-line technology, such as access to a wide variety of information and the ability to connect with the world, but she definitely has some concerns. She points out that, like radio, television, and cable, cyberspace is being touted as a new tool for education and enlightenment - always good in a democratic country. But, she warns, none of the previous advances "has lived up to these claims. In each case, powerful commercial forces have used civic values to gain support for the new medium - and then squelched the very policies necessary to serve the public good."

(As a Canadian reader, I was tempted to attribute all Montgomery's comments and fears to the fact that she is living in a land which isn't as kind and gentle as ours, but then, the on-line world knows no national, legislative, or cultural boundaries. So, I read on.)

Montgomery points out that marketing to children in the US has become a multi-billion dollar business and, according to an executive for Turner Home Entertainment, "kids are now being recognized as a truly gigantic part of the consumer purchasing block." What is worse, on-line children are now labelled by marketers as the "lucrative cyber-tot category." Montgomery notes that advertisers are moving quickly to dominate cyberspace, arguing that ad revenue is the only way to make the new technologies affordable.

Armed with the knowledge that, according to one survey, children trust their computers more than their parents (a horrible thought), advertisers are easing their way into children's virtual landscapes. Montgomery points out that research has discovered that kids going on-line quickly slip into a "flow state", described as a "highly pleasurable experience of total absorption in a challenging activity." To take advantage of this, many advertisers have set up children's websites where they try to involve kids with their products by, for example, playing with corporate spokescharacters such as Ronald McDonald, Kellogg's Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

"The new interactive media are being designed to compile personal profiles on each child to help in developing individually tailored advertising known as 'microtargetting' or 'one-to-one marketing'," Montgomery points out. The websites entice children to share information such as their street, e-mail address, names of family members, and buying patterns. In fact, sophisticated computer software can even track a child as he or she moves from one site to another. In the biz, the trail is called "mouse droppings."

I don't know about you, but I find this scenario absolutely frightening. While parents busy themselves at home after a long day, their children are glued to a glowing screen happily entering a virtual world with few, if any, controls over how their minds are being influenced and exploited. The question, "Do you know where your children are?" takes on hideous new meaning in this context?

So what does Montgomery think should be done to save the endangered cyber-tot? She calls for government legislated safeguards to prevent the complete commercialization of on-line media for children, arguing that corporate self-regulation simply won't be enough. She also suggests that more effort be made to develop non-commercial alternatives which offer educational and informational services for children - where they can be treated as citizens, not just consumers.

"Just as we have parks and playgrounds in our natural environment, so we should have public spaces in the electronic environment where children will be able to play and learn without being subject to advertising, manipulation and exploitation," Montgomery concludes.

An excellent suggestion - especially in light of my encounter with that screen-addicted eight-year-old. I wish Kathryn C. Montgomery luck.

June, 1996
Hyphenated Feminism: Bane of the Nineties

Ottawa - We're in the thick of nuptial madness - in spite of the dismal grey weather that passes for summer this year. This means thousands of blushing brides and grooms, champagne-drenched receptions, rented stretch limos, and multi-tiered cakes. It also means a rash of name changing or, in this post-feminist period, name re-arranging.

In the nineties, marriage is not just a simple matter of a joyous woman tossing away her family name (as she does her bouquet) after two, three, or more decades and assuming that of her spouse. Nor does it mean the opposite - a woman steadfastly clinging to the designation she's had since birth as a symbol of her continuing independence in the context of a loving relationship.

No, as we spin chaotically toward the new millennium, it's never that straightforward. Many of today's modern women have found an unwieldy alternative to wholesale maiden-name abandonment or retention: the hyphenated last name. Brides who take this third route emerge from the wedding ceremony bearing a strange concoction of his family name and hers or hers and his - whatever the agreed-upon order.

Because of this, we now have a world of last names such as MacIntosh-FitzPatrick, Smith-Fernandez, Mankowski-Ellsworth or just plain Jones-Brown - names which often extend well beyond the allotted number of boxes on most government forms and are often such a test of one's powers of enunciation that they are best avoided. (I'll say nothing of the future when hyphenated children get hitched!)

What is most troubling about this tongue-twisting phenomenon is its sexist application. In many cases, the male spouse will hang on proudly to his own family name - Charbonneau, for example, a good solid name worth clinging to. At the same time, his bride will take her own name, say Carruthers, slap a hyphen between the two and there you have it: Charbonneau-Carruthers.

The end result? The happy, nineties couple is now Fred Charbonneau and Letitia Charbonneau-Carruthers or Carruthers-Charbonneau (some thought must be given to cadence, preference, and pecking order.)

But is this a real improvement over our parents with their simple name transference? Not much. These double names for women are nothing more than a token gesture toward change and liberation - and a dangerous sop to the anti-feminist backlash.

Just as one can't be partly pregnant, a woman can't be semi-liberated or almost independent. In other words, hyphenated feminism doesn't work. It reeks of compromise and hypocrisy, and makes for ridiculous nomenclature. (Perhaps, I shouldn't dwell on the hyphen as the offending symbol of this trend. There are those, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, who have managed simply to imply the punctuation.)

But these aren't easy times to be a "raving" feminist or the spouse of. Even twenty or more years ago at the height of the women's liberation movement, it was difficult. Ask Maureen McTeer and poor Joe Clark, our former prime minister. When McTeer refused to switch to Clark, one cartoon stated: "There must be something wrong with the guy if even his wife won't take his name." Small wonder a compromise was adopted for those who preferred to avoid such heat.

As someone who has clung to her family name with pride and determination, I, too, speak from uncomfortable experience. I can't count the number of times I've been asked my maiden name. And, when I stand tall and declare that I was born an O'Hara and will die an O'Hara, I can imagine my bra burning beneath my clothes, sending whiffs of smoke winding up around my ears as I glare at my inquisitor. (Using the term "Ms." can also be discomforting.)

I blame my mother for my inflexibility when it comes to name selection among married women. When I was young, most wives not only abandoned their last names, but also their first. The neighbourhood was populated by the likes of Mrs. Jim Johnson, Mrs. Leonard Firestone, and so on. My mother's (private) reaction - and this was well before anyone had heard of Gloria Steinem - was usually a smirk followed by the comment. "Jim, that's a strange name for a woman." I tended to agree.

But, perhaps I'm being too rigid, too "sixties". We are, after all, living in the nineties, not the most radical or even progressive decade of the century. In the spirit of compromise, I, too, will become a hyphenated feminist. Call me: Kathleen O'Hara-O'Hara.

February, 1996
Spirituality: Consumer Item for 1996?

Ottawa - Spirituality is going to be big this year. Spiritual book sales are skyrocketing; Mother Teresa is making a comeback, and polls show that Canadians are looking inward. But aspects of this trend are troubling. In certain cases, the spiritual quest seems too comfortable and commercial - as if some seeking higher meaning in life think they can buy a healthy soul.

There appear to be three strains of spirituality developing in the disappointing Nineties. The first, and my preference, is what I would call "Social Active" spirituality. It is based on a form of activism which goes beyond the traditional belief in Christian charity and gets its strength and power from the fact that Jesus was a social activist. It's a belief that one cannot attain spiritual satisfaction in a vacuum - concern for the lives of others is a prerequisite.

This type of spirituality found its clearest expression just before Christmas when United Church ministers across the country took to their pulpits with a pastoral statement in defence of the poor. The statement was a spirited spiritual response to governments cutting the deficit by shredding social programs for those in greatest need. It is paralleled by "An Open Letter to All People of Good Will" from Roman Catholic leaders who oppose Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution.

The social activist strain of spiritualism has often been condemned - holiness and politics are considered separate domains by some. In fact, the debate over the suitability of the United Church action, which has raged in the pages of The Globe and Mail - after a nasty editorial denounced the ministers' statement - has been one of the most fascinating spectator sports of the 1995 holiday season. I think the church's outburst marks the beginning of a real movement among fair-minded Canadians in the face of increased suffering among those around them.

The second form of spirituality on the rise is what I would call "Jet Set" spirituality. This often includes Gestalt therapy, yoga classes, a familiarity with the works of great spiritual thinkers, and an ability to travel to comfortable retreats in faraway places for solace and meditation.

This form of spiritual expression has received a fair amount of media attention lately because of the popularity of the book "A Simple Path" by Toronto literary agent, Lucinda Vardey. Although Vardey's book is a compilation of prayers and testimonials by the Nobel prize-winning Mother Teresa and her associates, most reviews have focused on the author herself. Vardey has undergone a kind of transformation from workaholic Yuppie to what appears to be workaholic spiritualist, even purchasing her own 600-year-old Italian farmhouse in St. Francis of Assisi country.

But Vardey's new spiritual lifestyle and interests are not without their nagging and very material problems. For one thing, there is growing debate over the methodology of her mentor, Mother Teresa. American writer Christopher Hitchens, for one, has taken the Saint of Calcutta to task for her public relations and fundraising techniques, pointing out that Mother Teresa has accepted honours from the likes of former Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, who has been directly responsible for the suffering of many children.

Finally, for those on a limited income, there is a third spiritual option for Canadians. It's a quieter form of spirituality, less high-profile than the others. It is the ordinary person's "No Frills" spirituality - the kind that came to light in year-end polls indicating that people were turning inward, becoming more spiritual. Canadians, it seems, are looking for deeper meaning and richness in simple things like the smile of a child or good conversation.

The poll findings are not surprising. These are tough times and the usual panaceas - material goods, travelling, career - which help people make it through the night no longer work or are impossible to obtain. Even love seems to be an elusive commodity for many. Accessible alternatives must be found to satisfy the demanding soul. After all, we are human beings with certain needs.

As I was discussing spiritual trends with a colleague recently, he told me about visiting an enormous ski chalet in Quebec during the holiday season. When night fell, the owner of the chalet made a grand display of his appreciation of nature and the more sublime things of life by pulling a switch and lighting up the nearby mountainside. Remembering the incident, my colleague laughed and pointed out that some forms of spiritual fulfilment can cost big bucks.

That does seem to be the danger in the Nineties, as the emphasis turns toward individual survival rather than community needs and rights. Although some of us will continue to look to each other for help and the real meaning of life, others will open up their wallets, hoping they can make the road to "heaven" smooth enough for their BMWs.

August, 1995
Canadians Are Being Convenienced to Death

Ottawa - Perhaps it's the summer heat, but I've had it up to here with technology - high and low. I'm tired of flashing lights on digital clocks and gadgets that are smarter than I am. I don't want to pour over pages of incomprehensible instructions, so I can use an answering machine. And, if I hear one more voice-mail message, I think I'll head for the hills.

That feels better. What you have just witnessed is the cry of someone who has reached the technology saturation point. A 1990s-style nervous breakdown. I haven't done a scientific survey on this modern-day phenomenon, but I am sure I am not alone. In fact, I think the problem is so prevalent I've given it a fancy title: Technology Adaptation Fatigue or TAF.

Quite simply, our world has become too complicated. We are surrounded by supposedly helpful things that we can't quite figure out; things that just won't co-operate. We're being convenienced to death. Even low-tech gizmos designed to make our lives easier, just aren't. And it's not only frustrating, it's downright embarrassing.

Recently, my daughter and I borrowed a friend's new umbrella to go to a baseball game. It was handy while it rained and we waited for the game to begin. But when the sun came out and we tried to put the umbrella down, it just wouldn't go. Imagine our discomfort as we struggled with this apparently simple object, knowing the fans behind us couldn't see a thing. I wanted to stand up and yell that I'd been opening and closing umbrellas without a problem all my life!

I saw two people go through the same humiliation at a campground last week-end. They had one of those bubble tents, which pop out of a small, round bag and instantly stand up ready for use after a few pegs have been put in place. Everyone admired this seemingly magical invention - until the next morning when the couple tried to get it back into the bag. Onlookers giggled as the pair fought with the tent, reading and re-reading the instructions.

And then there's my car. It's wonderfully reliable, although I still don't understand all its features. Sometimes, however, the key refuses to turn in the lock or the steering wheel jams. This is all in the name of security, I'm sure. But I feel like a fool - or a very brazen car thief - when I have to stop passers-by and ask them if they'll help me start my car. Afterward, I immediately come down with a severe case of TAF.

As you can probably tell, I have always been inclined toward a mildly Luddite, anti-technological way of thinking. I have never liked things with mysterious buttons that beep when I do something wrong. I have resisted doing battle with inanimate objects. "It's best to keep life simple" has been my motto. But recently, an almost surreal experience while staying alone at the high-tech home of some friends has turned me into a complete technophobe.

What seemed at first to be an opportunity to surround myself with many of the modern innovations I have managed to avoid turned into an adventure akin to "The House of Horrors." It took me days before I could figure out the stereo system. I tried any number of button combinations - and got nothing but silence. Oh well, I thought to myself, I'll watch television. But what was I to do with the three remote-control boxes lying on the coffee table?

My favourite introduction to this far-from-humble home was the night the smoke from my dinner cooking on the stove set off the whine of the smoke detector which in turn triggered the scream of the security system and even disconnected the phone (while I was talking)! It was chaos. Modern madness. The whole neighbourhood was alerted. Luckily, I knew the security code and wasn't arrested.

Our lives are supposed to be less demanding, more leisurely, because of the marvels of modern technology, but instead they are more stressful. I have a friend who feels uncomfortable in his own home because of the digital 12:00s flashing at him from various sources. He says he can't be bothered changing them every time he pulls a plug or there's a power shortage, and besides, the buttons are too small for his fingers.

Nothing is simple these days. My phone bill used to be easy to read. Now, it is four pages long and almost impossible to decipher. (It also comes with several hours worth of reading material on the latest "conveniences" available.) Even shopping is complicated. Buying basic things such as shampoo, pantyhose, and sanitary napkins requires the patient study of package details to make sure you're getting the right style, shape, size, or ph balance you need.

The other day, I couldn't get the nozzle on my hand cream to work. Enough! I surrender.

I've been trying to figure out when I lost step with the modern world. When it moved ahead with a burst of innovation and creativity and I stayed behind wanting things to remain easy and familiar. I think the first feelings of disorientation came years ago when Canada switched to metric. Suddenly, I didn't know the temperature or what things weighed. I, like many Canadians, have been off-balance and feeling a little overwhelmed by change ever since.

July, 1995
Canadians are Dropping Shopping

Ottawa - A funny thing happened to me as I struggled to survive the rough recession we've all endured over the past few years (to say nothing of the "recovery") - I gave up shopping. Yes, in this consumer-oriented society with its constant messages to buy, buy, buy, I don't. It feels good.

I first noticed a new discipline in my spending habits, a sudden urge not to take out my wallet, a couple of years ago. Shopping centres started to overwhelm me with their products; I began wandering from store to store in a state of listlessness and apathy. What could it be? I wondered. Poor air quality?

But something more serious was affecting me. I was being transformed by the financial realities of these lean times. Unconsciously, I was drawing away from one of my favourite pastimes because I simply could no longer afford to shop until I dropped. Instead, I had to drop shopping. Surprisingly enough, it didn't take long to break the consumption habit.

My sudden conversion is not unique. Recently, an American economist pointed out that in the eighties people bought what they wanted. In the nineties, they buy what they need. Very good point, although I would hasten to add that for many people even buying necessities has become a case of priorities. What do I need most? Grab the toothpaste and run.

Statistics Canada data show I am not alone in my non-consumerism. Retail sales have been sliding since the beginning of the year. In April alone, clothing sales dropped 2.3 per cent. Some economists are crowing about the boost buyers will get because of recent cuts in interest rates, but the Royal Bank's prediction of more than ten per cent unemployment later this year will help to control any celebratory spending sprees.

These dry statistics are reinforced by an informal survey of the people around me. Mandy is a young, single woman with a salary in the mid-$30,000 range. She, too, is no longer a "material girl". "I never just go shopping anymore," she says. "I used to buy things to make myself feel better, money was no object. Now, I only buy things I really need."

Deirdre and Dennis, in their forties, have two kids, good jobs, and own property - recreational and income. On the surface, they would seem to be at the height of their earning and spending years. "I don't even browse anymore," says Deirdre, who also admits to being a reformed shopping addict. "Shopping just depresses me. I can't justify it anymore. You could say I've undergone a kind of aversion therapy."

Deirdre says this new attitude even extends to grocery shopping. She no longer stocks the cupboards the way she once did because it costs too much. "Two-hundred dollars is too much of a hit at one time, I'd rather go more often. It's not as painful."

Mandy and Deirdre and I are not alone. My neighbours, two lawyers earning more than $100,000-a-year, told me they've given up shopping, eating out, and, this year, they might even forfeit their annual family vacation. And then, there's my fellow journalist who responded to my question about her consumption patterns with the blunt statement: "I'm not a consumer." She has a child and an unemployed husband.

But what does this new "aversion" to dishing out money for goods and services mean for our economy? Consumer spending accounts for 60 per cent of Canada's approximately $750 billion Gross Domestic Product. In the past, it was the engine that drove the country's economy, although recently our new post-free-trade economy has been riding on our exports, especially to the US. (That, too, is faltering because of an economic slump south of the border.)

If you think about it, it's not surprising our domestic economy is shrinking. In some ways, this move away from consumption is a quiet form of rebellion, an undeclared boycott. For one reason or another, our lives are much more difficult than they were twenty years ago. In the past six years, for example, family incomes have fallen 6.5 per cent. Interest rates have been prohibitive. Debt loads high. Taxes, well, taxing. And, of course, there are bills, bills, bills. The market-based economy just hasn't been delivering the goods - literally.

Economist Duncan Cameron, who confesses to having a weakness for Italian designer shirts and suits, but has also given up shopping, says Canadians have been getting a mixed message lately. "First we're told we're living beyond our means, and then we're told the economy depends on consumer spending. Which is it?" Cameron points out that the economy was once dedicated to the production of consumer goods and energized by consumer spending. Now it is directed at "wealth creation" for the few and consumer power is dwindling.

Have you looked at your bank book lately? Borderline, perhaps? Few of us are in a position to "save the economy" by the sheer strength of our purchasing power. We've been left behind - and deep down we know it. Small wonder that - in spite of a constant barrage of advertising - we are able to walk happily past stores, as if they didn't exist. And somehow, last year's summer wardrobe is doing just fine this year.

So, to all those financial gurus, those wise (and very well-paid) CEOs in office towers, those government policy-makers: Before you plan more plant closings, layoffs, higher interest rates, or so-called hidden taxes, remember the economy needs us. Until you make some decisions with us in mind - we're dropping shopping.