Sunday, 30 December 2018

Curling Ice

Recently I read on Twitter that salt and pepper shakers are manufactured with ridged bottoms so that if they clog up, rubbing them--the bottoms--with an object encourages the contents to pour out smoothly. A Torontonian tweeter explained: "The pebbles on bottom of curling ice...rub against pepper for the proper delivery."

"Like curling ice"? That's supposed to clarify the issue? Hmmm. File under: 'Only in Canada'.

Canadians do like playing with ice, there is no doubt. I know multiple people who follow curling or are passionate curlers themselves. But mostly what Canadians do with ice is skate on it at the rinks that pop up everywhere, parks, plazas, backyards. People corral any puddle of water and encourage it to freeze, which works as entertainment because nearly everyone seems to have their own skates, just as they have their own shoes. When I was a child we skated too, but indoors at the rink in our local shopping mall, Topanga Plaza, and we rented skates by the hour; only the very posh or the very competitive owned their own. (The mall is still there but the ice long gone, replaced by a department store.)

When we moved to Canada, the whole family bought ice skates, one of the many 'winterizing' tasks accomplished in a manic frenzy, along with acquiring thick coats and snow boots and snow pants and  long underwear and hats with earflaps and gloves. I was a woman obsessed, nesting like an expectant arctic tern. In the chaos of acquisition I ended up possessed of skates rejected by eldest child when he discovered they were too small; he got new ones that fit correctly while I, worn out, simply adopted his cast-offs rather than going through the kerfuffle of returning them. They were hockey skates, not the figure skates I had rented, but how different could they be?

Very. It turns out that I really dislike hockey skates. I hate their thick, rigid construction. Getting them on and laced up is a full-body workout that ends in scraped knuckles and aching fingers. Probably worth it if you're going into battle with your team for the gold medal, but totally out of proportion for a few laps round the rink. Since I used them only two or three times each winter,  though, it didn't matter enough to bother replacing them.  I suffered through and just enjoyed the relief of taking them off.

Then early this month daughter got invited to a Santa Lucia skating party by a new school-friend. "It's for families, too," she reported. With high-school kids it is rare to get to meet the parents of new friends; I didn't want to miss this chance but I could not face the embarrassment of wrestling at the rink with my bulky, recalcitrant hockey monsters. The time had come to get new skates. Where?  I wondered. The answer, which should have been obvious to me by now, was Canadian Tire. It's always Canadian Tire. And Canadian Tire came through, with a sale to boot, so to speak. The Santa Lucia party was delightful, complete with good company and hot chocolate on tap. The ice cooperated (it only hit me once) and the skates fit perfectly.

I've yet to examine closely the bottoms of pepper and salt shakers--ours are grinders--but next time I'm at a cafe or a diner, I will take a look and think of ice. Curling ice.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Committing Democracy

"Your polling place is...Mexico Fire Station"
"There's too much democracy," says Kyle as he drives through the gray rainy morning, following yardstick-straight Highway 401 along the northern shore of Lake Ontario. It's November 6, the day of the US mid-term elections, and four of us, all Americans living in Toronto, are heading for New York State.  "We should have philosopher kings instead," Kyle continues. I rather agree, though I fear that's exactly how our current president regards himself. 

Our destination for today is Mexico, New York; our mission, which we chose to accept, is to get out the vote for Democratic congressional candidate Anthony Brindisi. He is challenging the Republican incumbent in New York's 22nd district, Claudia Tenney, a rampant Trumpista (or Trumpette).   

In this ever more electronic world, ironically, it's face-to-face knocking on doors that has become the best way to get out the vote. Because, truly, who answers the phone to an unidentified number or heeds a text or an email from an unknown sender? I ignored my own inbox on November 6:

All right already.

Our destination is somewhere north of Syracuse. Kyle, through the Democrats Abroad Canada, has determined that in the 22nd district, four hours' drive away, our little team of ex-pats might make a difference. "It's a really narrow margin," he says. Who knows? 

Also in the car are Bart, who, like Kyle, is a colleague of my husband's, and Anne-Marie, a friend of theirs who works at SickKids,Toronto's bluntly-monikered children's hospital. Halfway to Mexico, we pull into an 'ONRoute' motorway services to refuel with petrol and sugar. Queuing for Timbits, what should be playing on the speakers but Jimmy Buffett's "Mexico"? A good omen.


The border at the Thousand Islands Bridge, where the St. Lawrence River turns into Lake Ontario, is a new one to me. There's a stunning view in spite of the mist, of dozens of islands fringed with autumn-colored trees.  The border agent asks, "Why are you going to New York?" Kyle tells her we are helping with the election. This telling of the truth is a calculated risk. We have nothing to hide, but you never know at a border. She nods us through. "Have a nice day." 

Score one for democracy.

The four of us agree that the US side is somehow more scenic. We pass a man in a horse-drawn wagon plowing up a field. Then we overtake a prisoners' bus from the state penitentiary. We zip by Watertown; Kyle tells us he once attempted to buy bear spray there en route to a camping trip with his small daughter, and instead was shown racks of guns. 

Mexico Town Hall 
Mexico greets us through a drizzling rain. It is not difficult to find our headquarters in the tiny town: the home of Michael and Dorothy, who live next to the tiny Mexico Public Library and across the street from the Mexico Town Hall. Dorothy, I learn, works at the library. The couple have provided a spread of food to make us weary travelers glad: mac and cheese, soup, bread. Cake, cookies and chips.  

Colleen 'Two-Glasses', our chauffeur

Replete with carbs and coffee, it is time to get to work. Kyle and Anne-Marie head off in Kyle's car, with several sheets of addresses and a GPS. Bart and I are driven by Colleen, a local volunteer. Colleen wears two pairs of glasses at the same time ("see my bifocals?" she laughs), and she knows the roads. She knows them particularly well, she tells us, because her autistic grandson Conor loves to cruise the county with her and to read the road signs. Colleen spends a lot of time with Conor because his mother is disabled. This remarkable woman has her hands full but has still found time to volunteer for the Democratic party. She tells us about campaigning for Obama, in Ohio, years ago. 

Oswego County
The clouds roll away and sunlight floods through the windshield. Bart and I get out and do the door-knocking. At this time, mid-day, many houses are empty and we can only hang our 'Brindisi' cards outside. "Have you voted yet?" we ask those who do open their doors. Most people say yes, and are friendly, which makes sense since our list includes only registered Democrats and anyone else who has at some point indicated support for our guy, Brindisi. The aim is not to tell people how to vote, but rather to convince them to go out and vote.

"I voted all Democrat," one woman tells us. "Where there wasn't a Democratic candidate, I wrote in "Hillary." 

Houses of Oswego County
We encounter numerous dogs, many of them roaming free. At one home with the smell of wood smoke rising a man opens the door and attempts to block the escape of several hounds. He catches one with his knee and says "You get back. You're the biter." He is unkempt and uncombed; he squints at Bart and me. "I've already voted," he tells us. "But do you wanna bring in some firewood for me?" We decline, politely, a bit nervously.

Door hangers
A pink-haired woman with a gaggle of kids pokes her head out the door at us. "Nope," she says. "I'm not voting. I don't even know what it's about." We try to persuade her--such a close race, your vote counts, we can help you get to the polling place--but she shakes her head. She agrees to take one of our "Vote Brindisi" door-hangers.

Almost everyone is white. We encounter only one African-American, a man who tells us he would like to vote but that Child Protection Services have confiscated his driving license for non-payment of child support. He is worried that without government ID, he will be turned away. We worry about that too, and contact HQ for further instruction. Michael tells us to inform the voter that he does not need to have his licence, but that it might be helpful to bring along an unopened piece of mail addressed to him. A utility bill, for instance. We offer to find the man a ride to the polling place. "No, it's fine, I can get there myself," he says, gesturing to a battered paint-less car parked on a patch of soil. "But thank you." Bart and I tell him that's great, and look at each other as we walk away. Maybe there's an exemption for driving without a license if it's to go vote? 

Addresses are difficult to spot. Sometimes Colleen asks, "What's the name?" and when Bart tells her, she says, "Oh I know them. It's just over here."

Colleen's front porch
Colleen returns home to look after Conor, who is unwell that day, and her husband takes over as our chauffeur. Off we go on Round Two. At this later hour, more people are home and we do more talking than knocking. One of our last calls, an hour past sunset, when we can barely read the house numbers on the dark country roads, is at the home of a man who is 87 years old (our paperwork gives us name, age, and gender of our targets). He throws open his door and fulminates; there is no other word. "I hate Trump," he froths. "And I knew Trump. He's a brown-nose. I spent four years in the Navy. But I'm not going to vote and I'll tell you why: it's that damned Electoral College. You're too young to remember but before they put in that Electoral College, your vote counted. Not any more. So I'm not voting." We nod and express sympathy, slowly retreating. Bart, the historian, whispers, "If he remembers a time before the Electoral College he must be a lot older than eighty-seven." 

Finally we collect Colleen, who has been relieved of grandchild-care, and head for headquarters where we meet up with Kyle and Anne-Marie, as well as Deborah, another volunteer, and stuff ourselves with scrumptious chili and pasta and salads and bread (is Mexico perhaps the culinary capital of the 22nd district?) before starting the long trek back to the True North. The polls won't close until nine, so there are no results available when we say our goodbyes and hit the road. We're exhausted and happy to let the radio do the talking.

Aftermath at HQ
Before we reach Toronto, Colleen calls me to announce victory: 52% to 48% for Brindisi, she reports jubilantly, with 60% of the vote counted. We cheer. Prematurely, as it turns out:  by 2 a.m., just before I fall into bed, his lead has narrowed uncomfortably and Tenney declares that she will not concede. The next day's New York Times says: "With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Brindisi scored a razor-thin victory over Ms. Tenney, 49.5 to 48.9 percent, or a margin of about 1,400 votes. Ms. Tenney said she would refuse to concede until absentee ballots were counted, telling supporters, “I’m certainly not going to give up the fight”."

Early results... 
And there are 17,000 absentee ballots to be counted, by hand. It takes half a month, until November 20, when at long last, Brindisi is declared the winner and heads for the Hill. We exhale and allow ourselves to feel that we--Kyle, Bart, Anne-Marie, Michael, Dorothy, Deborah, Colleen, her husband, me, our counterparts across the 22nd District, across the country--perhaps we made a difference. Who knows.

Anthony Brindisi celebrates after edging out Rep. Claudia Tenney by 1,293 votes on election night at the Delta Hotel in Utica, NY, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
Victory at last
CONCLUSION: democracy is, after all, the least worst option. Long may it rule. Unless, of course, the world wants to nominate me as its Philosopher Queen. 

Home again, home again

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

A Tale of Two Tables

Table Number 1.

Recently I went to London for dinner. Sometimes one is that hungry.

Seriously, though. Husband received an honour: the Royal Anthropological Institute invited him to give this year's Henry Myers lecture, on the theme of 'ritual', in the Clore Education Centre of the British Museum.  Previous presenters include such luminaries as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bronislaw Malinowski; for anthropologists, these are names to conjure with. So, an honour indeed. To sweeten the deal still further, the RAI included words to the effect that they wished to invite the speaker, aka husband, and his partner,  aka me, to a formal dinner afterward at the Athenaeum Club, in Pall Mall. (Buckingham Palace, just for the record, is in the next street over.) So when husband asked if I wanted to join him in London for dinner, it was a no-brainer. Of course the need for brains came later, figuring out the logistics of school-aged child in the middle of term, pets, accommodation, whirlwind travel on trains, planes, and automobiles.

It was done; it was all worthwhile. Husband gave a brilliant talk ("Laterality: a sideways look at ritual," in which he played with an old anthropological concept called liminality (Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner) and, yes, cleverly turned it sideways) and I was thrilled almost to tears to be present. Along with a roomful of eminent colleagues, husband's parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and our daughter and her close friend all attended the talk. At the post-talk reception, kudos and and wine flowed. (Husband, like Two Crows*, will no doubt deny the former.)

He will, however, agree about the dinner afterward. It was a trip through time-- backward-- as well as through space (a stroll across the West End from the BM). In the august halls of the Athenaeum Club,  a 'gentlemen's club' established in 1824, we dined in style, Silver Service all the way. Amongst the club's founding members were Sir Humphrey Davy, a chemist who, along with other accomplishments, invented laughing gas, and Michael Faraday, another famous name in chemistry who invented electrolysis. I learn from Wikipedia (making it easy; click here) that some of its other worthies included a couple of Charleses (Darwin and Dickens) and a brace of Arthurs (Conan Doyle and Wellesley, Duke of Wellington). Members have apparently won 52 Nobel Prizes, covering all of the categories. At some (relatively recent) point the club allowed, or was made to allow, women to join. 

The main hallway features a soaring ceiling and two curving wood-banistered staircases. The air is cigar-scented.  "Is smoking still allowed in here?" I wonder to our host, the director of the RAI, thinking there might be some Victorian decree in operation that overrode EU law (RIP, soon). It's not unimaginable in these surroundings.

"No, no," he assures me. "It's just that over the years the smoke has permeated the walls." I don't want to believe him, but I suppose there is no real hope of discovering a secret door to the gentlemen's smoking room. (Beneath the left staircase?)

In the dining room, I exclaim about the charm of the long oak table, the glistening place settings, the candles and centrepieces. "I'd love to take a picture," I say. The host looks as shocked as if I've just asked to do a strip-tease between the soup and the main course.

"Oh, no," he says. "Cameras and phones are not allowed." Of course they're not. I hasten to the restroom, where, hidden in a cubicle, I text the friend who is awaiting the arrival of our teenage daughters. Help, I'm locked in the last century, I feel like typing. Seated back at the table, trying to look innocent, I notice there are potted shrimps on the set menu. I peer over my shoulder for the ghost of Barbara Pym.

The venison was superb. The Veneur sauce was indeed grand.

Dinner is delicious, the conversation delightful. To my surprise potted shrimps are tasty. My place-card identifies me as 'Mrs. Leslie Coleman,' which is not my name ("I'm sorry," husband whispers when he sees it. We are not seated together).

The woman on my left, a lecturer at a Northern university, has already asked me about myself and my career and other interests, and I about hers, and we have a lively conversation. But, but. The One on my Right. Yes. To him, I can see, I am damned by my label; I am, merely, The Wife. While he is perfectly polite, it is clear that no contribution is expected of me to the stimulating discussion he conducts with the man on his other side. When my friend from the north must leave to catch a train, I am stranded and must work to find my way in to the men's discussion, which concerns professional politics. I listen; it is, after all, my profession too. Eventually I dare to pose a question. They pause politely and answer patiently, accepting me as a participant. I'm in, and the subsequent discussion is entertaining, for a variety of reasons, some of which I'm not allowed to put into print (a surrendered wife, me). The evening concludes with a walk up the graceful staircase to the club's drawing room, where I lie on a chaise longue and sip Lagavulin, my favourite single-malt, and we all converse cheerfully. By the end of the night I have made friends and even have an invitation to write an essay for possible publication.

Table Number 2.

A few weeks later, last Friday, I had the pleasure and honour of being invited to my friend Polly's birthday party. We were a group consisting of eight Excellent Women (Barbara Pym making her presence felt here too), some of whom knew each other and all of whom counted Polly as a dear friend. One of them,  Laurie, orchestrated the event, to which we each contributed a dish and some drink. My place-card said 'Leslie' in calligraphed letters inked by hand. There was no written menu detailing the food we consumed but Polly had selected for each of us a card and a quote that she felt suited our personalities or our relationship to her, and laid them on our plates. We went round the circle and shared something about ourselves and how we knew Polly (how do I know Polly, I wondered? I was aware of her from afar, back in the days when our now-eighteen-year-olds were still in primary school, and wanted to know her more, but I don't remember how it finally occurred). Not a one of us had been born in Toronto, we learned, and only three in Canada.

Polly's table
After we talked, and ate, and drank, and laughed, we sang: led by Amahla, a singer and, with Polly, a member of a Song Circle. They chose an old Celtic folk tune called Farewell to Fiunary, with a refrain in which we could all join, while Amahla and Polly served up the verses that advanced the story,  a nostalgic tale about leaving a beloved home--Fiunary--behind. Very appropriate for us transplants and ex-pats, and hauntingly sad. Still, I could not help reflecting that if we had stayed where we were, had we not relocated to Toronto, we would not have been together laughing and singing at Polly's table. 

My place-card 
I did love my visit to the Athenaeum Club. I hope to dine out on the story, so to speak, for some time to come, at least until my children start rolling their eyes and saying "Mom! Not again." But isn't it interesting, I find myself thinking, that a meal with a table full of anthropologists was akin to conducting fieldwork, while dining with women from all over the world, here in Toronto, feels like home?

*Mild anthropology witticism. Linguist Edward Sapir explored the meaning behind one member of the Omaha tribe, Two Crows, disagreeing with definitions of kinship terms and structures given by other tribe members which led to a broader discussion of the relationship between culture and individuality (Sapir on Two Crows).

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Today I'm Bill: confessions of a Trekkie

William Shatner was interviewed recently on the CBC's arts-and-entertainment radio show, Q, by host Tom Power. I don't listen to a lot of Canadian radio, preferring BBC or NPR (thank you internet), but while in the car, taking the dog for much-needed grooming, I happened to catch this segment. Mr. Shatner, I learned, was doing the rounds to promote his new memoir, but he gave every indication of actually enjoying himself in the CBC studio.  He filled the airwaves between us with a hail-fellow-well-met aura, making me smile to myself (or at the dog in the passenger seat). The man was the very definition of being in fine fettle.

Tom Power, the host, however, seemed to flounder in Shatner's company. I've checked, and learned that Mr. Power is both a musician and an experienced radio host, born and bred in St. John's, Newfoundland, one of my favourite Canadian cities (there are three on that list). But he was struggling. I could almost hear him panting to keep up with Shatner's good humour and to join in his camaraderie. Power praised his guest's down-to-earth friendliness.  "Before the show," he said to him, "When I asked you whether I should call you 'Mr. Shatner' or 'William', or 'Bill', you answered, 'Today I'm Bill. Call me Bill.' So, I'm calling you Bill." 

They laughed together at this shared reminiscence, but the guest laughed more, vainly chivvying his host toward greater merriment. It was uncomfortable. I stayed tuned because a) I'm a Trekkie (vintage: original series; wanna make something of it?:) and b) I've always felt a fondness for William Shatner. I've often been told that he resembles my father, and I understand that like my dad, Today-I'm-Bill has three daughters, including one named Leslie, who attended UC Berkeley, like me. So I carried on listening as Bill--perhaps hoping to gain some conversational traction--started talking about an activity that he and his extended family enjoy: riding e-bikes. "Everyone can keep up!" he exclaimed. "We go all over the place! No one gets left behind! It's great!" Shatner chortled. (It was a true chortle. I always wondered what one would sound like.)

"Not bad," responded host Power.

"'Not bad'?" Shatner burst out, chastising his interlocutor. He checked himself, seeming to consider whether to go on. A brief second and he decided in the affirmative, taking aim with his verbal phaser, though setting it to stun. "'You have to get rid of that," he told his host.  'Not bad' is not good." Power, taken aback, hastened to express more enthusiasm ("that's great!") and Today-I'm-Bill responded with approval: "Now that's better! Now you sound like a positive Canuck!" I could almost hear the top of Tom's head being patted. Good boy.  I patted Jordi, too, completely sympathizing with Bill's frustration at his compatriot, and feeling grateful that our dog is a naturally positive Canuck. 

Jordi, positively well-groomed 

Thursday, 23 August 2018

The Empty-Nest-cation

So, last month the kids went off and left us alone. Eldest is working in Vancouver all summer; middle one travelled around the UK with a friend for almost 3 weeks, and the youngest volunteered as a sleepaway-camp counselor for 8 days. In other words, husband and I ended up with a full week at home without kids, which has not happened to us for over two decades. We saw it as a rehearsal for our nest emptying (sobering) and as a romantic staycation (joyful). "What shall we do with all this freedom?" we asked each other. 

We needed a list.

I love lists and make them often, sometimes multiple times daily, in a sort of obsessive-compulsive manner that gives me an illusion of being in control of my life. 'If you write it, it will happen.' Oddly, the fact that I failed yesterday does not make me any less hopeful for today.

A typical morning list might include

-get dressed
-eat breakfast
-walk dog
-call the dentist
-go to work

Super-low-hanging fruit, bar the dentist (I can do that tomorrow, right?). Sometimes I stick something on the list that I've already done, just for the pleasure of ticking it off (e.g. 'floss', since that hygiene appointment is coming up).

Once I get to work, I start a new list, buoyed by my morning success at donning clothes and feeding myself. The work list varies somewhat day-to-day because it's that kind of a job, but always includes 'check email' (as if otherwise I wouldn't) and 'finish writing paper' (as if I certainly will).

"Come on, let's make a list!" I said to husband, full of enthusiasm. He rolled his eyes. 

"Go ahead." He never makes lists, either because he has a better memory than I do, or because he lives in the moment, or, and most likely, because he is wise and knows that listing and accomplishing are very separate activities. (Alternatively, it's because his handwriting is so poor that neither of us can read what he writes, so jotting a list is futile. Long ago, when we were mere colleagues at the University of Durham, he would sometimes leave little messages in my pigeonhole. I would look at the scrap of paper covered in chicken scratch, maybe consult with someone else who happened also to be in the post-room, and then give up and telephone him to ask what he had written.)

For our empty-nest week, I made two lists: Things Not To Do, and Things To Do.

Things Not to Do: 1) cook.


Things To Do: 1) attend a book launch in a small Georgian Bay town; 2) get lots of exercise: running, riding, kayaking, dancing (NB see item (3)); 3) go to an art exhibit at the Power Plant and dance to Cuban music on the lakeshore; 4) eat at a new restaurant or cafe every night;  5) attend an outdoor film screening at a nearby park; 6) watch a movie at home all the way through without falling asleep or being interrupted; 7) celebrate our anniversary at a day spa.

Ellen Gallagher's "Nu-Nile" at the Power Plant

Check, check, check, check, check, check, and check.

Decadent, but a whole lot less costly than going away, plus NO PACKING.

We had a really great time. The eldest child called from British Columbia a few days in, solicitously, to see how we were coping. I described the activities on our list. He complimented us on managing so well. Creak, creak, creak: the sound of tables turning, or of time passing. The child is father to the man etc.

So yes, we managed. We had fun. Nonetheless, we were pretty darned happy to get our two younger kids back. It's bittersweet, though, because in ten days' time,  we have to say good-bye again.  The middle one toddles off to start university. He'll just be down the road, but he won't be under our roof.  We will have to get used to having only one of our three at the dinner table. Plus the pets, of course.

New list: appreciate the present.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Computers 101

Daughter argues that she needs a new computer for her schoolwork. She is currently using the MacBook we bought for all three kids to share when we first moved from England to Canada. They were thrilled, and buying it gave us some breathing room before they resumed clamouring for the puppy we had also promised them.

So, I count on my fingers. We moved to Canada eight years ago. EIGHT YEARS AGO. Goodness gracious me.

I get over my shock and check out the once beloved computer, typing something about a quick brown fox skipping over a lazy fence by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon. Or rather, kipping by the light of the moo, the moo, the moo, because the 'S' and the 'N' don't work. Some letters cannot be capitalized. 

Okay, perhaps daughter is right about needing a new laptop. When she gets back from camp, she and I will go shopping. I feel capable of helping her because of the education I received after my own laptop was stolen, when I had to go to the computer store to replace it ("My Ten Plagues," 2015). I ended up, eventually, with a saleswoman who was also a brilliant teacher. First one, then another assistant had retired in defeat, and I cursed anew the thieves who forced me into this situation. If the police caught them, I wished their punishment would include having to choose me a new computer. 

But then I found Robin. 

Robin was maybe a year or two past her teens, of the generation for whom the vocabulary of bytes and gigs is as familiar as a MacDonald's menu. She explained everything in words from my millennium of origin. She said: "Look, the whole system, the computer, is like a library. Think of the processor as a librarian; its speed is how quickly she or he can run back and forth to the stacks to get the books you want. The RAM is like the size of the library table at which you are sitting. How big it is determines how many books you can have open at once. And the memory is how much the whole library holds, like, how many books can fit in the stacks?" I gazed at her and wondered if she could hear the 'click' in my head as the whole thing made sense. I understood, and I expressed my gratitude. Robin shook it off, disclaiming any special knowledge or skill. 

I think of her, as well as of my own children, when people express pessimism about the future of the planet. We have some pretty smart cookies coming down the pike. We should try to remember that when we feel excessively worried.

And for anyone wondering what a librarian is, or a book, it's bedtime, dearie.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

We Canadians are So Nice: a Wedding Tale

The wedding started off smoothly, much to my surprise. It's really going to happen, I thought, pleased, a little surprised. It had required a lot of work on the part of the bride and groom, neither of them Canadian, one of them living in Pakistan, and with various issues like divorces and visas to arrange along with the usual marriage preparations. We guests met in the City Hall lobby in happy anticipation, and wended our way up the long curving walkway to the green roof, where the Wedding Suite perched.

Hurrying to Service Canada
But the bride and groom, who had ascended previously in the single working elevator, came rushing down past us, going the wrong way and looking a little wild around the eyes. "Changed your minds?" we laughed. No, but a single missed piece of paperwork had halted all proceedings. Service Canada, the agency in charge of bureaucratic forms, had an office on the ground floor of City Hall and apparently had the power to solve the problem. We clucked sympathetically and went into stand-by mode, shuffling our feet in the anteroom outside the Wedding Suite.

We waited, and waited. My phone rang: the groom-to-be. "I have to go home to get another piece of ID," he said, sounding tense, but not hysterical. He specializes in disaster relief care after all.  I sought out the wedding suite receptionist. "What happens if the couple with the 1:30 appointment are a bit late?" I asked. The receptionist has clearly seen it all. "No problem," she said. "We'll let the 2:00 couple go ahead because they're all here. As long as your friends arrive by 3:30, we'll fit them in. Don't worry, they'll be married today." I texted the news to the groom in his getaway (and get-back) car, driven by a family friend who turned out to be the hero of the day by having brought a vehicle and knowing how to use it.

The rest of us guests trooped back down the long curving ramp, through the lobby of City Hall, to gather supportively round the bride, who sat smiling and beautiful and for some reason still calm, clutching her numbered paper ticket. I would have been in tears, myself. It's hard to cheer up the metal folding-chair decor of a Service Canada outlet, but we tried.  I made a quick foray to buy several cups of takeaway coffee at the cafe on the other side of the lobby, and then ended up with an extra drink, which I gave to a woman in the next gray chair over, who in turn offered to share it with the woman next to her. As it turned out, woman #2 was vegan and woman #1 had already added milk, so we all had a rueful laugh and started sharing stories. 

"I'm here to change my name after getting divorced," #1 informed us. Our bride, also a divorcee, nodded sympathetically. Woman #1 continued, "It was a good marriage, don't get me wrong, but it had run its course." Her number was called, and she rose to leave us. As she did she patted my shoulder and said to me in conspiratorial fashion, "This shows them that we Canadians are the nicest people!" She gestured to the cardboard coffee tray, and to our little support group. We all laughed, and she disappeared toward her appointed window.

I turned to the others from my lab and asked, "Should I have told her I'm American, not Canadian?"

"No," answered a post-doc and a PhD student, in unison. "Definitely not. That's a dirty word. Besides, you live here. You're almost Canadian." 

Finally, the prospective groom came back, the official piece of paper got signed, and up we marched again. Luckily it was a beautiful day; no dodging of raindrops or shivering into coats or wraps. We waited for a beautifully arrayed group, all in suits and ties and heels, to go in to the Wedding Suite and to come out, married. One member of our party had a train to catch and nervously looked at the time. Two others dropped out, with regret, to attend meetings. A young woman with a delightful baby boy offered her apologies as the baby became less delightful, and eventually they departed. We remained quorate, though, and when it was our turn to file in to the wedding chamber, there were seats for all. They were wooden, not folding metal, upholstered even. Flowers in tall vases stood in corners. The officiant, a balding man in judicial robes (perhaps he was a judge?) smiled beatifically and looked serene and unhurried. Perfect.

The couple exchanged vows under the judge's guidance. "Are there rings?" he asked. Sort of. A ring for her, a watch, as it turned out, for him. "That's good," pronounced the judge, turning to the bride. "You'll see your hand and know you're married." To the husband: "And you'll look at your watch and know it's time to go home to your wife." 

I laughed. Probably I shouldn't have: how normative, how sexist. How almost-Canadian. Like me.

Bride's bouquet

Monday, 18 June 2018

Making It Stop

I usually strive for a light tone in my posts because much of the academic writing I do is dull, serious, or both. It's a genre thing.

But I'm not feeling jaunty at the moment. I've been looking at pictures by Getty photojournalist John Moore of the families separated at the US border by order of the current administration.

The horrors of Nazi concentration camps and of Canadian and US Japanese internment camps during World War II have been invoked. Forcibly separating children from their parents is cruel and unusual punishment. It's illegal, immoral, unconstitutional, inhumane, and shitty. It's basically kidnapping. Children are being held hostage by the White House and the ransom demand is money to build a wall. It is absolutely un-American.

When I was an undergraduate I worked as a volunteer in a children's hospital in Oakland. My assigned shift was 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. I was meant to leave the hospital when the volunteer office closed, and for the first few weeks, I did as I was told. But at six p.m., most of the parents left the ward; back then, few parents stayed overnight with their children. Some were unenlightened, yes, but most simply could not manage it even if they wished; they lived far away, they had jobs and homes and other children and too few resources. So at six o'clock, the crying started. The nursing staff were busy. I stayed, moving from crib to crib, from most frantic to least, until the little ones fell asleep.  I remember one youngster, maybe two years old, standing up in her crib and wailing 'Mommy! Mommy!' A nurse walked in and told me to distract her. "Show her this picture book. Sing a song." I tried; nothing worked, she cried harder. Finally, I started agreeing with her. If she said "Mommy," I replied "Mommy." Sometimes I added "...will come back tomorrow," or "...loves you." And that finally did the trick. She settled down. Her intonation changed to "Mommy?" and I answered, "Mommy." With our shared words, we created "mommy" for the night. I crept out when she fell asleep. My shift became 6:00 pm to 11:00 pm.

In the shell of a Walmart, in the cells where these children are incarcerated, who is caring for them? How are they recreating their mothers and fathers, and what happens every morning when they wake up and mommy is not there, again? What horror fills their minds? How can any civilized society get away with inflicting such torture and how can the rest of us make it stop? It makes me understand a little better how the rest of Germany felt in 1939. This is how holocausts happen.

Last week, after the man occupying the White House trash-talked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, there were numerous messages of apology and support from various US citizens to Canada's government. One American tweeted, "Hey Justin Trudeau, if you want to invade us, many would welcome you. Come on over. I made potato salad."

I have a dream. My dream is to accept that invitation, and for everyone to start crossing into the US. At first I imagined we would gather in Canada and march south,  holding hands in a long line, like a search party. We sing lullabies as we walk across the dividing line. When we reach the other side, we might get potato salad but more likely, we get locked up. Fine. We might start a trend. Everyone, come on in. The ICE is cold.

But now I have another idea. Let's go to Mexico. Everyone. Hundreds and thousands of us, from every country. And let's all start crossing the southern border into Texas, Arizona, California. We won't bring our kids; let's not get silly.

What might we accomplish?

I know there are other ways to help. Activists here in Toronto are protesting creatively; an example is the "Toy Tower of Shame" at US ConsulateSlate shares a list of organizations that are helping practically and who need funds here. I've donated; have you?

I still like the invasion plan, though.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Going Green: Wheels within Wheels

Politics is interesting to me if it's local. The nearer the better. I began this morning by sitting for 90 minutes in the little park across the street and counting up the number of cars that failed to stop at the stop signs and who drove the wrong way on one-way streets. It was part of a neighbourhood traffic-safety fact-finding mission; volunteers agreed to monitor a number of intersections in our Harbord Village area. I experienced stretches of boredom and moments of high drama (a speeding garbage truck dinged a parked car! Yelling ensued!). I drank tea from a flask, made tick marks on the page, and felt like an Involved Citizen.
Rights of way

Same during the recent Ontario provincial election. Husband and I could not vote, having yet to complete our citizenship applications, but we could campaign. Rather like the Russians, I thought: influencing an election in which we had no right to cast a ballot.

I aligned myself with the Green Party, because a) my friend Rita Bilerman ran as Green Party candidate for 'MPP' (member of provincial parliament) in the district or 'riding' just south of me, while a neighbour, Tim Grant, ran in my riding; and b) the Green Party platform pledges to abolish the system of separate, taxpayer-funded Catholic schools, a deal with the devil made some decades ago to placate Quebec and convince them to remain in Canada. (That's the gist, though I probably have some of it at least slightly wrong.) The unfairness makes my blood boil.
Going doormat to doormat

Husband and I happily canvassed door-to-door for Rita, and we displayed Tim's lawn sign in front of our house. The election took place last week. As predicted, neither of 'our' Green candidates won. The NDP (New Democratic Party) triumphed locally, but overall the province went resoundingly blue-- conservative--and elected Doug Ford, brother of the infamous former mayor Rob (RIP) as premier, or provincial leader.  The party formerly in power, the Liberals, got whupped and are barely hanging on to 'official party status' with only 7 seats. On the plus side, the leader of the Green Party in Ontario, Mike Schreiner (an American/ Canadian who lives in Guelph), did win, taking the first ever Green seat in the provincial parliament.
The Green Party after party at the Victory Cafe

I definitely did not have my finger on the pulse of the province, believing that everything was pretty much okay under the Liberal regime. Clearly not. I guess I don't live amongst and work with the disaffected majority. All that blue. Who are those people? I suppose I feel as foreign here in Ontario as I would in Brexit UK and Trump USA.

Soberingly, though, the real and best reason to have backed the Green Party is its commitment to the environment. Like husband and me, candidate Tim Grant goes around everywhere on his bike; his campaign signs depict him mounted on two wheels (and helmeted). The future of the city, the province, the world, depends on safeguarding the planet, in large part by reducing our use of petroleum. In Toronto, a flat city with a lot of people and a fairly compact downtown, a bike is best for moving from point A to point B. Right? Of course right. Not, however, according to a foolish city councillor who today said in a meeting of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee that bikes should not be allowed on the roads at all. Yes, today, well into the 21st century, that's what he said. Out loud, on the record. Protest ensued but he did not back down.

In a tragic twist, by the end of today, two cyclists in the Greater Toronto Area had been struck by motor vehicles. Another cyclist who had been hit by a car several weeks ago, today succumbed to his injuries. One of today's fatalities was a 58-year-old woman, hit by a flatbed truck just outside my husband's office building. Ten minutes earlier,  I had ridden right past that spot. I can't stop thinking about her and her family tonight. Horrible. Chilling.

I'm almost ready to say that cars should not be allowed on the roads. And that is quite a thing for someone who grew up in Los Angeles to almost say.

Save our environment. Save our cyclists. Save my husband, and children, and friends. Save me.

Monday, 28 May 2018


Before we decided to move to Toronto from Brighton, a friend who lived in Canada enumerated Toronto's good points. "It's so easy to get out of here," he said, as number one on the list. "You can fly to Europe or the West Coast in no time."

Talk about a back-handed compliment.

But it is true that I do not miss the twelve-hour journeys between California and the UK. Due to family and work, we have frequent call to cross the Atlantic or to traverse north America, and being able to do so in an hour or five or seven is much less physically stressful than those long-haul flights in cargo class.

Increasingly, the dreaded part of travel came to be the barriers on the ground: check-in, security, immigration. In many Canadian airports, passengers go through US immigration and customs prior to flying, in Canada, meaning potential hours of queuing until the dubious pleasures of an airport Starbucks fix. (If kids are along, it is also essential to acquire what they call 'lift-off' sweets before boarding).

Technology is making things better: online check-in, apps to monitor flight delays, electronic immigration kiosks that take the worst photos it is possible to take but speed up the process. This year we added to our bag of travel tricks membership in a 'Global Entry' programme, Nexus, which lets us go through the fast lane for immigration and security. It doesn't always work, but when it does, we have a lot more time for our Americanos and frappuccinos.
Sunset over Boston

In the last few months, I've flown to a whole mess of North American cities armed with my handy Nexus card:  Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, LA, and most recently, Boston. For the most part, Nexus simplified and expedited the transit. Short flights, straightforward airporting. Yes, it is easy to get out of Toronto.

Bike ride, Toronto lakeshore (Lake Ontario)

And it is also easier to get back in. It's a nice time of year to be here and I appreciate the unpacked suitcase that is stored in the closet, rather than lying open-mawed on my bedroom floor. The weather is warm and sunny, the garden green and flowering, the neighbours are out and chatting. The dog frolics on his leash. Patios overflow and outdoor markets flourish.

The Nexus card can take a little break. For now.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Spring Cycle

I won a three-month membership at our local gym, and over the winter became well-acquainted with its machines and classes. Last Wednesday, the three months expired, fortunately at the same time as the weather showed signs of catching up to the season. The AccuWeather app displayed double digits (centigrade). Every April I am shocked that spring in Toronto begins in May, not March, and this year is no exception. When will I learn?

Yesterday I jumped the gun by a week or two,  mounted my bike, and boldly rode where the snow had nearly melted. Slushy but blissful to be on two wheels moving forward.

Nice things about going for a bike ride outside in the sunshine: the sunshine, the sky, the scenery, the solitude. Being mistress of one's route.

Nice things about riding an exercise bike at the gym: not getting lost, not getting muddy.

I don't mind being a little bit lost. And while it is said that cleanliness is next to godliness,  I'd really rather be next to my family. We don't mind mud. Much.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Home Spiritual Home

My spiritual home is Berkeley, California. I've just been back for a visit, and I'm sure.

Husband and I had a lovely trip to northern California, where he gave a lecture on pilgrimage at Chico State and I tagged along, as chauffeur, social planner, café advisor, and overall helpmeet extraordinaire. (Right, honey?)

On pilgrimage and other journeys

Afterward, we headed to Berkeley: a pilgrimage. (Right, honey?)

Sather Tower aka The Campanile

We loved the journey, loved seeing good friends and wonderful cousins. It is also pretty nice to come back to our bricks-and-mortar home in chilly Toronto and to reunite with our children (most of them) and pets. Now it's time to unpack, see about the cat litter, the mortgage (hmm... etymological link to 'mortar'?), work deadlines, find a recipe for gluten-free fried green tomatoes, and practice for a choir performance.

Yes home again. Not spiritual, perhaps, but sweet. Except for that cat litter. (Honey? Honey? Where'd you go?)

Sunday, 18 March 2018


To me, as a child growing up in California, the 'East Coast' was a magical, faraway land. My grandparents lived there, with my aunts and uncles and cousins: one set (my mother's) in and around Brooklyn; the other, my father's family, in Baltimore. Every couple of years we would go 'back East' to see them, on a plane, dressed up in our finest clothing. In the alternate years, one or the other set of grandparents usually came to stay with us for several weeks.

We spoke to them on the phone once a month or so. My father's parents, Grandma Dorothy and Grandpa Ben, were the frugal sort, and wanted to be sure their toll money went to good use. Calling person-to-person via the operator would ensure that my father was home, but that type of call cost more. So they devised a trick, probably fraud, now that I think about it. From their apartment in Baltimore, they dialled 'zero' and requested an operator-assisted 'person-to-person' phone call to Diane (the name of my eldest cousin, who lived in Baltimore) at my family's number. The operator rang it, and, with my grandparents listening in in the background (but not allowed to speak), the operator would say to whomever answered, "Person-to-person for Diane. Is she there?"

Then came our part of the ruse. It was always exciting to be the one to take that call. We knew the drill, practiced it just as we did fire drills and 'drop drills' (for nuclear bombs or earthquakes) at school. "Mom!" I would shout, if I had struck lucky that time. "Is Diane here?"

My mom would call back at the top of her lungs, "No, I don't think so!"

Then I would yell, "Dad! Is Diane here?"

"No, she's not!" he would shout.

"No," I would return to the operator, trying to sound sorrowful. "She's not here right now."

"Caller, your party is not there," the operator would relay to my grandparents, who had of course heard the whole hullabaloo. "Would you like to continue the call?"

"No, thank you, dear," my grandmother would say. "Goodbye."

Then my family would gather round the phone in the den and wait. My grandparents, now assured that both son and daughter-in-law were at home, called us at the lower, unassisted long-distance rate. For my sisters and me, the conversation itself was stilted, awkward; we hardly knew these people. ("How is school?" "Fine." "Are you studying hard?" "Yes.") All the fun was in the preparation. (My other grandparents simply phoned, which had no thrill at all.)

This week my own parents are visiting London. They have just landed; I know, because my dad texted me. "Arrived. Snowy!" We'll likely speak later. My cousin Marcia, who is with them, had already sent me an email using the plane's wifi, inviting my husband and me to stay at her house when we are in northern California next month. My children have lived most of their lives thousands or hundreds of miles from both sets of grandparents, yet, thanks to marvelous inventions and democratization of long-distance travel, the two generations have a close relationship.

I know, I know, I know. Time to stop being amazed by the speed of technological development. When I was little I used to ask my mother to tell me about her childhood 'in the olden days', and she obliged, relating tales of the ice-man delivering blocks of ice in his horse-drawn cart, and her own grandfather's endless fascination with the refrigerator that he eventually bought. How could warm air coming out the bottom be linked to the cold inside?

I laughed at those stories and shook my head at such antiquated grownups. Now I fear I am one myself.  Just the other day, when I had to ask for help with Instagram or maybe Snapchat, my daughter said,"You really are olden times, aren't you?" and shook her head. Fondly, I hope.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Guns of America

A serious one. Sorry. 

In yesterday's @TorontoStar, columnist Rick Salutin wrote an opinion article with the stark title "US gun lovers would rather lose their kids than their guns" (Friday, February 23, 2018):

State of the nation

I wonder if he had read the tweet I saw, posted by a self-described 'elder of the True Light Pentecostal Church': "It's sad enough that 17 students had to die in Florida and it further stings that the survivors are being brainwashed into hating POTUS Trump, the NRA and the Second Amendment. The Dumbocrats exploited this tragedy to secure a block of future voters. Oh well what else is new?😡"

I remember my own school-days, long ago in the Los Angeles Unified School District which at the time was mercifully free of shooters of bullets. We had only to duck flying rubber bands and the odd bit of chalk (not just the kids; also one really bad teacher that @LAUSD eventually caught). In particular I remember Miss Young, who taught eighth grade US history and required students to write and perform little skits to accompany her lessons. The exercise often felt excruciating (especially when I got assigned to the same group as Steven Lamb, who had cooties) but it worked, and much of what I learned stuck. 

One of those lessons involved the meaning of the Second Amendment, which, she told us, never intended to give all citizens the constitutional right to keep guns (let alone assault weapons), but instead, guaranteed the right of states to maintain independence within the federation by raising their own militias, or state-based military units. 

I looked it up:

"'Amendment II: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

By 'state', said Miss Young, the hallowed forefathers meant, literally, 'state', that is, the soon-to-be former colonies such as Pennsylvania or Virginia. Their priority at the time was forming a happy union on American soil by cajoling these newborn States to become a United nation, while assuring them that they would retain self-determination. State-run armed militias would guarantee it. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams did not--could not-- envision centuries later a boy with an automatic rifle entering a sunny high school in Florida filled with children and spraying them with bullets. If they had, that Second Amendment would without a shadow of a doubt have read differently. 

States' rights have been pretty much on an even keel since the Civil War, which ended in 1865. They do not rely on citizens' gun ownership. I'm pretty sure the Supreme Court has ruled on this matter with far greater acuity than I have, but they did so after I finished eighth grade, so the details have not stuck with me. Perhaps I should look it up and act it out. Apparently they disagreed with Miss Young, which is more than I dared to do.

What I do know, without the help of drama or teachers, is that the plethora and power of guns in America is untenable, unsafe, and unhealthy, and that the answer to the problem is not more guns. I am pinning my hopes on that block of future voters, the vocal and passionate survivors of the most recent (as of this writing) shooting and on their mature refusal collectively to lay the bulk of blame on the troubled perpetrator, instead aiming their fury and their fire at the troubled system. At the State.