Sunday, 7 July 2019

Hamilton at Last

I went to Hamilton, finally: not the musical but the city in Ontario. Hamilton has a reputation for seediness and steel, which it manufactured for decades (the steel, anyway). I had often seen its smoky industrial profile in passing from the motorway, en route to Niagara and to the US border, but never stopped to investigate the place.

Some friends suggested we meet in the city's downtown for lunch at the end of June during the long Canada Day weekend (which precedes the Fourth of July by a few days and is a diffuse version of American Independence Day, much like Canadian Thanksgiving's relationship to American Thanksgiving. Earlier, milder, vaguer, still fun. There are fireworks). 

So, with a mix of trepidation and anticipation husband and I set out on a drive that our map app said would take an hour. About halfway there we realized that tech had failed us; the motorway was jammed solid. We abandoned it and switched apps. Waze sent us on something called the North Service Road, which led us into the city past Dundern Castle. No one had told me Hamilton had a castle. It all started to seem more promising.  Signs for something called Cootes Paradise flashed past. Also intriguing. We arrived, horribly late, to an understanding welcome. Bless our friends.

And indeed, it turned out to be a lovely lunch at a place called "The French", on a downtown street showing signs of recent renovation, graced by a fountain and whimsical art. The menu included waffles with pulled duck and fresh berries, and a Mexican-style eggs benedict with a crispy corn tortilla and guacamole. Delicious and a far cry from the hot dog street-vendor I had envisioned as Hamiltonian cuisine. Conversation and coffee flowed. 
Hamilton street art

Afterward, the couple who lived and taught in Hamilton invited the rest of us (husband and me from Toronto; another anthropologist and her husband from Buffalo-- all three couples united by having a female North American anthropologist half, and an English academic-of-some-stripe male half) to their lovely home near McMaster University for tea. Afterward they led us on a tour of the campus, which--again contrary to my clearly misinformed expectation--was pleasant and green with a cheerful student community huddled round (cheerful though largely empty on this summer long weekend).
McMaster University

After saying farewells husband and I set off to explore the nearby town of Dundas (formerly called Cootes Paradise, re-named for a Scotsman who never visited Canada) and then to see a bit of the Niagara Escarpment, a long low cigar-shaped outcropping that runs toward the US border and into some border history, it seems. The War of 1812, largely forgotten in Britain and barely remembered in the US, looms large in the Canadian history books: "This trail," reads the sign, "approximates the route taken in early August 1812 by Major-General Isaac Brock to repulse the first American invasion of Upper Canada in the War of 1812."  

Repulsing Americans in the War of 1812

We saw no Redcoats as we walked this part of the Bruce Trail, a section called the Iroquoia, which runs through a Carolinian forest--not, it turns out--an order of monks hidden in trees but instead a 'biogeographical zone'. The label is subject to some controversy. I looked it up, expecting a simple answer. Fie on that.

"What are we to make of this word Carolinian? Perhaps, like many words, it is evolving; a semantic moving target, blurred, difficult to define," wrote Ken Colthurst, forester, and Gerry Waldron, biologist, in 1994 ("Carolinian Canada"). "As it is we have a term that is provincial in both senses. Is it reasonable to change terminology at a political border?" So, not just a dispute, but a dispute with implications for international relations. The authors continued to muse about which species characterize this zone, whatever it be called, including Sassafras and Tuliptree as dominants. "Some flowering dogwood in the understory would be nice," they decided, with, as co-dominants, "Black Walnut, Black Oak, White Oak, Red Maple, Pignut Hickory, and Black Gum." Finally: "By using Carolinian in this way," Colthurst and Waldron concluded, "we may lose some of the romance (and redolency) but just might gain some precision from conformity. We wouldn't be surprised if you disagreed."

Not I. Give me redolency every time.

The drive home was a doddle and took just over an hour. I think we'll be coming back for more. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Raptors on Parade

I keep trying to love Toronto. Every so often I think I have managed it and then something messes it up. Today, for instance. The Raptors won the National Basketball Association tournament (though as my sister says, how does the 'National' part work for the Toronto Raptors?). Hooray! So there was a parade today ending with speeches and a party in the big square in front of City Hall.

Two million people are coming, they told us. The University of Toronto circulated a message saying 'feel free, no need to show up to work or class'. The mayor said 'let your people go' to all the employers in town. I didn't exactly attend the parade but I went to the office, practically on the parade route. I dressed in several layers and headed to work, thinking, "Toronto, you could be warmer. It is mid-summer in a few days." The thermometer maybe hit 18C.

Younger son, a year of uni under his belt, has a new job volunteering as a researcher on a project based at St. Mike's Hospital. The hospital has research offices in the Eaton Centre, Toronto's downtown shopping mall, just the other side of the parade destination. 

Public transport was rammed and jammed. Son reported that it was shoulder to shoulder on the subway train. A Pakistani friend at work said that on the bus this morning he felt like he was back in Karachi, the way everyone was pushing close and closer. 

I rode my bike and parked it off the street near my building. The hordes of fans in black and red streamed past. I wore black and red, too. The security guard stood out in front, soaking up the atmosphere. At lunchtime I called my son and said, "Let's meet." He headed west while I walked east, just on the edge of the parade route, and we found a table at a below-ground Vietnamese restaurant I had wanted to try. I saw empty tables through its windows and scurried in. Some of the hordes followed and the tables filled. 

We poked our heads into a crevice of the big square but could get no further. The crowds cheered and laughed and I thought, "I could get to really like this city. What spirit." Son returned to his office and I to mine.

100,000+ Raptors fans in Nathan Phillips Square (photo from Twitter)

News footage showed that politicians mounted the stage when the basketball stars arrived in their busses: Mayor Tory, Premier Ford, and Prime Minister Trudeau. The crowd, bless them, hundreds of thousands in the square itself, booed the premier, Doug Ford, who is systematically and maliciously decimating the best of the province and most especially, of Toronto, his nemesis. He is defunding public health and education, reducing the cost of beer and increasing its availability. 'Keep them sick, stupid, and drunk' seems to be his motto.

A couple of hours later, son texted me. "Are you in lockdown, too?" Not words to thrill a mother's heart.

About three seconds of Googling told me that there had been a shooting in the square. There were police on scene immediately of course but the shooters ran--right into the Eaton Centre, across the street. Hence the lockdown.

Scary stuff. Gunmen in the building where my son was at work. In truth I my fear was less for the physical safety of son and colleagues--those offices are darned hard to find; I've tried--than for his discomfort and anxiety. He would have a bad time and I so very much wanted him to be happy.

As it happened, he was fine. He hung out in his supervisor's office with other volunteers and research staff, and had to chat with them. Good. The shooters got caught and disarmed by the cops. The victims are recovering in hospital, having been taken thence by an ambulance escorted by mounted police.

"Are they letting you go now?"

"They're not telling us anything," son texted back. 

I tried calling the hospital's Communications office and identified myself as the mother of one of the research volunteers at their Eaton Centre offices and asked when the staff there would be released. "We have offices at the Eaton Centre?" the woman on the other end asked. She said she would call me back.

Before she could, son texted that they had the all-clear and could go. He decided to stay and finish his work for the day, though.

I spoke to him when he got home. He was sanguine. "Dad says dinner will be late because his bike got stolen," son reported. It had been parked and locked on College Street, not far from our house. It was a great bike, gorgeous blue and yellow. Thieving vermin. 

I finished off my own work and headed out, hoping to find my own bike in its place. There it was amid a floe of rubbish and other detritus from two million people celebrating their team getting an orange ball through a metal hoop the greatest number of times.

Still trying, Toronto. I am still trying.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Native and Old Stock

There's been a debate roiling since before we moved here about the wording of the Canadian national anthem, O Canada, which contained the lines "True patriot love/in all thy sons command." The lyrics scan just as well with the gender-neutral phrase 'True patriot love/ in all of us command." And eventually, last year, the Senate officially approved the change.

There's another line in the anthem that bothers me: "My home and native land." However long I live in Canada it will never be my native land and it's the same for quite a few of us.  In Toronto, over 50% of residents were born outside of Canada; even if we become citizens, it still won't be our native land.

The former prime minister, Stephen Harper (odious man) made a comment some years ago about health-care benefits for refugees. He said, "We do not offer them a better health-care plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive. I think that's something that both new and existing and old-stock Canadians can agree with." The 'Old Stock' epithet blew up around him-- as he deserved. A commentator referred to his choice of words as a political 'dog whistle', a signal audible only to those attuned to that register. In this case, though, it backfired and he drew (well-earned, it seems) accusations of racism and manipulative identity politics.

The man was soon out of office (toppled by Trudeau) but those words rattle on. A Canadian playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, wrote a play called "Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story" about Jews fleeing to Canada from brutal pogroms in Romania early in the 20th century (about the same time my grandparents reached Ellis Island escaping pogroms in the Ukraine). Two weeks ago, husband, daughter, and I saw the production at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre and loved it.

But in truth, the 'old stock' Canadians (and Americans) are the indigenous populations. Canada does a better job of acknowledging both their existence and the crimes committed against them by the hordes of invaders. Yesterday, as part of the annual celebration of Doors Open Toronto, I got to visit the Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto, a building I've cycled past numerous times. This time I parked my bike in the scruffy urban park across the street, shoved my helmet and reflective gear in a shopping bag, and went into the cool old dark converted house. High ceilings, polished wood, a long straight flight of white-painted stairs ascending. A man with a pony-tail greeted me and showed me how to smudge by burning one of the four sacred medicines in a container and bringing the smoke to my face. He chose tobacco for me and lit it in an abalone shell.

Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto
We talk about how abalone comes from ocean coasts--you can dive for it in California--and must have been traded. "Yes, a lot of trade," he said. "People prefer the western sage, from the prairies, and the tobacco had to come from the south." The good old days, before NAFTA and Europeans. My guide tells me that he comes to the centre once a week, or sometimes twice, to teach Ojibwe language. "I tell my students that they already speak Ojibwe. You do too. You know what moccasins are?"

"I do. Is that Ojibwe?" It is. The plural, he explains, is moccasinnan.  We look at the program display, a whiteboard neatly divided into 31 squares with bright pink duct tape. The array of offerings intrigues me; there are several in which I would enroll. In addition to Ojibwe, there is beading, 'shopping math', computers, Liberty Moves, indigenous baby-food making, full moon ceremony, drum circle, 'red embers' (here's last month's). I ask about 'red embers' (having figured out from context that Liberty Moves is an exercise class), and it turns out to be a program linked to the Red Dresses, hung from trees to memorialize the many, way too many, missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada.

On a nearby table are paper cups and jugs containing cedar tea and strawberry water. I sample both. My guide points me to the back of the building, to a small quiet outdoor enclosure. "You can see our sacred fire."

The fire is burning in a metal cauldron standing on three legs. There are low flames and a floating cloud of fragrant smoke; a group of four or five Spanish-speaking women lean over and take pictures. I edge around to the less-smoky side and sit by a couple of volunteers, one of whom has just lodged his small axe in a log on the ground. He identifies himself as the sacred fire-maker.

I admire the cauldron and ask if I might take a photo.


"I wondered whether you'd say yes," the other volunteer tells him.

"Well, this time I think it's okay."

The volunteer and I both ask when it wouldn't be; the fire-maker says, "When it's for a specific ceremony, like full moon."

I wonder aloud where the cauldron comes from, because the cut-out animal shapes in the metal are beautifully decorative. The fire-maker and the volunteer shrug and ask another volunteer who has been chatting with the Spanish-speakers. "I think I got it online. Maybe Canadian Tire," she laughs.

"Is it okay for me to burn some of the medicine?" I ask. Yes, they all say together, please do.

"Remember to hold it and put your thoughts into each pinch before burning it," the first volunteer says, and I give it a try: a pinch of tobacco, a pinch of white sage, one of cedar, a few strands of sweetgrass, my good thoughts.

I leave feeling oddly peaceful. These particular oldest-stock Canadians have created an oasis amid the occupation.

Employment office next door

Saturday, 27 April 2019


The dog likes California
In Canada lives a species of human beings they call 'snowbirds'. Like many other birds, these creatures emigrate from the True (and truly icy) North to southern climes in the winter months. Usually they are retirees without jobs holding them in place, and they are also child-free or, to continue the avian theme, empty-nesters, and thus exempt from the need to obey school term schedules. Ontario law permits residents to live outside of the province for seven months of the year while still retaining rights to health coverage and other public goods.

In this increasingly digital world, it's not only retirees who may participate in this circular migration. It is possible to work remotely. We decided to give it a try during husband's sabbatical this term (finally-- his first in 2 decades), and have decamped with high-school daughter to California. We are based in Los Angeles, staying with my kind and generous parents. The timing is pretty good. Daughter is in Grade 10, the second of four years of high school, and the one during which there is an amount of slack available. "Go ahead," advised her principal/ headmistress. "Let her enjoy the month. I'm sure she'll learn so much from being there. Don't worry too much about keeping up with assignments." And indeed the child has learned a lot. We've visited museums, seen wildlife (elephant seals, newborn harbor seal pups, sea otters, deer) and conversed with park rangers about them. She has discussed geography, talked politics, and, beautifully, has lots of time for reading books. We attended the LA Times Festival of Books and listened to Roxane Gay and Laurie Halse Anderson talk about rape culture and women's empowerment ("fuck forgiveness," said RG).

Diligent daughter did worry about keeping up with assignments. She kept an activity log for her PE teacher. We found a circus skills class for her to attend, and also visited Muscle Beach, in Santa Monica, where she further honed impossibly unbelievable feats of balance and strength. Relying on a variety of devices she has completed math homework and submitted essays; she has remote support from teachers and classmates. The other day she asked me to film her acting out a scene from a 'life in the 1950s' script, which her project group spliced into their own clips and handed in to the history teacher. And, blessedly, she gets a month of nights of plentiful sleep.

Husband has glued himself to his study space in my parents' dining room and written more of his book as well as composing papers he will present next month. I created two workspaces for myself: one in my old childhood bedroom and another, my favorite, for mornings, at the picnic table in the back garden, overlooking the swimming pool and the roses, azaleas, jasmine, and bougainvillea. I'm convinced that inhaling the floral scents and listening to the unpredictable hollow gong of windchimes in the pepper tree enhances my productivity. Hummingbirds buzz by. I've been disciplined, working for several hours every morning, and then taking the afternoons and evenings for activities with my parents and daughter (sometimes husband is persuaded to join us).

And best of all, timing-wise, I've managed to overlap at least a bit with both sisters, all their children, and a brother-in-law. I celebrated my birthday here and efficiently made it overlap with Passover Seder, so that much of the family could join me for both at once. Missing, unfortunately for us, were our sons, the elder in Europe for the term and the younger in the midst of final exams in Toronto. It's been a wonderful month with my parents who are both in their late eighties and full of vim and vigor. My dad continues to work three days a week and my mother keeps house. She tells me often to stop helping her. "I can do it myself," she says, feistily, reminding me of my children when they were small. Both parents looked after Jordi the dog (yes we brought the dog with us) while we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway for a few days. I honor them. They're kind of my role models.

This Saturday at the end of April we head back to Toronto where the weather forecast for the week is grim, chilly rain. I repeat: at the end of April. It's my recurring disappointment with Toronto. We endure a Canadian winter followed by an English one. Every year I'm disappointed anew.

So, while I don't look forward to empty-nesting, and can't quite imagine retirement, I do think that I could get the hang of this snowbirding gig.

My morning desk 

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas

Birthday trail run

Daughter at Original Muscle Beach

Friday, 29 March 2019


I often fall asleep on a sofa in my own sitting room, but rarely in the homes of strangers.  One recent Saturday night, however, I did exactly that, although--in my defense--only after being invited to close my eyes. And no, it was not a hypnosis session; I was at a concert. The person who suggested the eye closure was one of the musicians, the percussionist/violinist/ uielleann-piper, Oisin.

So I let my lids fall. During the intermission, the hostess, Kassandra, had brewed and shared out a large pot of soothing herbal tea, which perhaps didn't help with alertness. I noticed that many of us looked extremely relaxed.

Some of the audience sat on a sofas while others lay sprawled on cushions on the floor (the younger ones) or perched on kitchen chairs, or leaned on walls. The music, a mixture of Celtic, Middle Eastern, Appalachian, and Balkan folk tunes, filled the space, and drew us together in enjoying it. In general when I attend a concert I do not remember much if anything about the people sitting nearby, but as I recall this event a month later, I can envision my fellow guests very clearly. There was a knot of young women who curled up together, heads on each other's laps, at my feet. On a couch perpendicular to mine sat Jim and his wife. We had arrived at the same time as this couple and chatted a little in the lift coming up. "Don't I know you?" Jim eventually asked my husband. It turned out that they belonged to the same college at the university.

We were all there in Kassandra's flat because of an innovation called "ARTery," described to me by its founder as "like Air BnB for culture and the arts." The founder, Selima, and I were seated in the same row of an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Toronto late last year. Normally I don't talk to strangers on a plane, at least not till near the end of the journey, because once you start it can be hard to end, and I enjoy the odd solitude of flying, of time to myself in a crowd of others. But during this journey I was not entirely myself. For one thing, I had turned into a bag lady, boarding the plane with easily half a dozen separate receptacles--a hiking backpack, a smaller drawstring backpack in a red-and-white Yayoi Kusama design, a pretty blue floral nylon bag-for-life, and a couple of plastic carrier bags containing shoes and my dinner (two separate bags), hiking boots tied together and strung over my shoulders. Normally I would have consolidated these items into a suitcase, but I had somehow managed on this occasion to leave my suitcase behind when I headed to the Vancouver airport and by the time I realized, it was too late to go back and retrieve it.

But that's another story. Selima, in the aisle seat, waited patiently while I stowed my load in various compartments. And then it turned out that someone from the conference I had been attending in Vancouver was seated a couple of rows ahead and he walked back to visit with me, leaning over my poor neighbor, until the crew secured the cabin doors and he returned to his seat. My conversation with Selima thus began with apologies and ended with.... well, it didn't, at least not in the air. We found one compelling topic after another. Finally I said, "I'd better try to grab a quick nap."

She looked at her watch and said, "Leslie, I'm sorry to tell you this, but we land in twenty minutes. No nap for you." I gaped. We had talked for five hours. And then Selima offered me a lift home in her Lyft, where we talked some more. She is one of the most interesting people I have ever met.

She's remarkable, in fact. One remarkable achievement is her foundation, with a friend, of ARTery, an organization or a network with the tagline "culture is more than content: it's connection" (About Artery). After years stationed as a journalist in the Middle East and in Washington, D.C. Selima felt the need to work at making something more than content, something to generate connection, and ARTery was born. It currently operates in Toronto and in New York City.

The ARTery  event I attended with my husband that evening last month in Kassandra's apartment above High Park, "A Small Wee Concert Vol 2", did just that trick.  It fostered connection. Husband and I connected with Jim, and with Jim's wife, with our hostess Kassandra, and with others in the room, not all of whose names we learned (or remembered-- so sorry, Jim's wife). But we talked. We deepened our connection with our friend Willy who accompanied us. And I made a small wee connection of the sleepy kind with Kassandra's sofa. (Willy confessed that he did, too.) I trust no one minded. I also hope I did not snore, or if I did, that Oisin's uielleann pipes drowned me out. The music was beautiful and memorable, the ambience almost opposite that of the anonymity of the concert hall.

So, thank you, Selima! And by the way I did get my suitcase back, thanks to a friend who posted on Instagram that she was in Vancouver for a few days and who kindly agreed to shepherd it home to Toronto.

What wonderful, connected world it can be.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Great Expectations

It's been a snowy, icy winter and it ain't over yet. I know that elsewhere in the northern hemisphere spring is starting to make itself felt, but not here in Toronto. It's a skating rink out there. Falling is a real risk.

On the other hand, or rather foot, as a family we're getting better at dealing with slippage. We have an impressive array of winter footwear, including my new acquisitions: snow boots with retractable spikes, by a Canadian company called Pajar.


They're great. I can't quite believe I need to own them but now that I do, I wear them with pride. Recently at a work event I spoke to the folks behind the "Rate My Treads" project at iDAPT, part of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, who assign one, two, or three snowflakes (or none) based on boots' performance under conditions such as wet ice or cold ice and against various slopes. I asked how my pair had fared. "We haven't tested these yet," they said, examining my soles. "Email the company and ask them to send us a sample so we can rate them." Nice idea but somehow I doubt I'll get around to it. Instead I'll go by the rating my husband accords them.

What the Dickens?
"You're skipping over the ice patches like a mountain goat," he told me with some admiration, as he picked his own way more carefully in his spikeless footwear one dark evening. I know pride cometh before the fall, so I pledge to exercise care and humility, but I also have great expectations of these being the boots that will see me through not just the rest of this winter, but perhaps the rest of the winters I will spend in Toronto.

Not that I believe in omens but I did spot this stray page lying in the gutter outside Allan Gardens, where husband and I went with our neighbourhood garden club on Sunday. The centre-piece of the gardens is a series of large connected greenhouses. Entry is free and green is everywhere, in welcome contrast to the crystalline whiteness on the other side of the glass. I retracted the spikes of my boots and for an hour pretended it was springtime.
Allan Gardens conservatory: escape from winter

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Scooby Doo and The Art of Parenting

I did a little de-cluttering over the holidays. Husband set me an example by completely clearing his study as he launches into his first sabbatical EVER, which, after 25 years of teaching, is quite a feat. I wish I had taken a 'before' picture but I couldn't tread far enough into the room to point a camera. There were piles of books and papers and folders and tea mugs literally everywhere. After the cleanse, it's a lovely space with actual flooring. 

Thus motivated, I scanned other rooms of the house for items that had overstayed their welcome, and my eyes fell on a battered biscuit-tin lid in the shape of Scooby-Doo's head. Should I should toss it? Marie Kondo hovered in my thoughts, but I pushed her resolutely away. Scooby Doo sparks joy in me, and here's why.

Professor at work
Very often I second-guess my parenting abilities, convinced I've got it wrong, wrong, wrong, all wrong, and wonder how my kids have made it as far as they have with such a hopeless mum. It must be due to their excellent father, I conclude.  But every so often I find a shred of evidence that sometimes, somehow, the two of us together are doing okay. 

The Scooby Doo biscuit tin came to our family as a raffle prize about fourteen years ago, from a fête held at the Fold School, the tiny primary that our children attended in Hove. It was my first school fête and I remember being awed by the treasure trove of donations on offer to lucky winners: a wicker hamper piled high with gourmet foods and wines, a voucher for dinner at a very nice Japanese restaurant, a day out on someone's yacht. We bought a few strips of tickets and distributed them amongst our kids. When the time came to draw the numbers, we gathered round with the other families. The very first number chosen was held by our eldest child, aged not quite seven years old. Completely thrilled, he headed for the prize table, pausing at the food hamper, glancing at a regulation-sized football, not stopping until he reached the tin of biscuits decorated with his hero, Scooby Doo. He picked it up and returned to us, aglow, proudly victorious, chosen and chooser. 

We smiled with him, hugged and congratulated him, and then over his head, my eyes met Simon's as we both coloured in chagrin. Friends laughed and commiserated with us. 'Hard luck!' 'Hope he'll share!' Chuckle, chuckle. Other parents in the crowd had anticipated such a situation, done their reconnaissance, laid plans. One couple charged forward when their daughter's ticket was called and guided her hand away from a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh and toward the voucher for the expensive sushi, mopping up her tears and plying her with sweets afterward. A well-prepared and clever mother told her son that she would pay him twenty pounds if he let her select the prize should his ticket be called (and it worked; they got the coveted food hamper). 

I admired the foresight and determination of those parents; Simon and I kicked ourselves afterward for our short-sighted weakness and vowed to do better the next time. I don't suppose we did, at least, not that I recall. Still, thinking about it now after the many long days and short years that have passed since then, I kind of wonder whether in some way, albeit accidentally, we had done the right thing. That restaurant meal is probably long-forgotten, the goodies in the hamper have been consumed or discarded. If I asked those winning parents to recall them, I bet they couldn't  (but if you're reading this and I'm wrong please let me know:)  Here in our house, though, on my bureau, I still have Scooby Doo's gormless face reminding me of our son's joy on that long-ago day, his bright smile, his arms hugging his lucky treasure. 

Once we had finished the Scooby-shaped cookies in the tin, we filled it with other ones. And when, eventually, the kids didn't care about him anymore, I moved the lid from the pantry to my bedroom and propped him on my dresser among the other detritus. Scooby Doo is not so much an object as an object lesson. He is certainly not clutter.

I could have done without the comment from the school secretary after the raffle ended, though, that day fourteen years ago. She came over to me, laughing, as we all helped clean up and set the room to rights.  "Do you know, at first I put that tin of biscuits in the hamper with the rest of the gourmet goodies," she said. "But then at the last moment, I thought, oh I'll just take it out to make a separate prize. Too bad for you, wasn't it?" 

I can't help but remember that, too, when I look at old Scooby. Also that he needs dusting. 

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).