Monday, 24 April 2017

Marching Mamas

I Marched for Science yesterday, as did thousands in the US and other countries. We're all getting quite good at this marching business: for women, for refugees, for science. Next week, climate change awareness. The current administration is doing its best to get rid of affordable health care, but at least is enhancing our physical fitness. An unintended benefit, no doubt.

I marched, as in January, with the Democrats Abroad.  I'm not entirely sure why we band together. Is it a message to the Canadians around us that there are good Americans, or a message to our fellow Americans that although we're north of the border, we still care?

We proved to be a small group, a dozen or two, but a broad church. Our leader was a biologist from Tennessee who works as a government scientist. And I met a woman wearing a baby on her chest, holding two little girls by the hand, shepherding a pre-teen boy, and somehow also brandishing a round, beautifully-painted, earthy sign that said 'Love Your Mama'. She told me she has five children in total, and that "we homeschool". In the US, this would not be the profile of someone out marching for science.

Canada, clearly, is a different story.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Say cheese

Last month I spent a few days in New Mexico, mostly Santa Fe, for an anthropology conference. Nice work if you can get it; I did feel lucky. I learned a lot at the excellent conference, ate scrumptiously spicy meals, and joined an expedition to Bandelier National Monument where our guide was an archaeologist who is also a park ranger. (Now, that's a job.) The Southwest feels like home; the world looks right: arid, angular, and aromatic with pine and mesquite and dust.  I met a number of transplants (or escapees) from LA.

Don't ruin the ruins: Pueblo remains in Bandelier

I managed a quick shopping trip to Trader Joe's. Among my purchases was a chunk of Monterey jack cheese that cost about $2.50. A similar quantity in Toronto: $6.50.  Why, why, why? (Or should that be 'Whey, whey, whey?') Dairy is practically a luxury item here in Canada, and I just cannot get used to it.  Especially now. I do love a slice of cheese with jam on matzoh. Happy Passover.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Aye, Aye, Cap'n Crunch

Whatever happened to Sugar Smacks?
When I was a child, my parents forbade sugar-coated breakfast cereals at home. My sisters and I would watch advertisements on TV for Lucky Charms, Coco Crispies, Frosted Flakes, and Sugar Smacks with watering mouths and tear-filled eyes. "Pleaaaase?" we begged at the supermarket, at Vons, or Ralph's, or Hughes. "Pretty please?"

The answer never varied. "No," my mother would say, not even pausing the cart as she tossed in Wheaties, Rice Krispies, and Cheerios (not Honey Nut).

In alternate years we got all dressed up and boarded an airplane to visit our grandparents on the East Coast, in Brooklyn and Baltimore. Grandma Dorothy, the Baltimore grandmother, always had a cupboard full of sugared cereals, including my very favourite: Cap'n Crunch. I adored her for remembering. It can't have been easy; she had nine grandchildren.  (On the non-breakfast-food front Grandma Dorothy was less than spectacular, serving us khaki-colored green beans from a long-opened tin, and dry chicken that she had apparently cooked the week or possibly month before. I don't recall her actually preparing any food at all, bar toast and cereal, during our visits.)

In spite of my childhood vows to myself not to repeat my parents' errors when I had my own kids, I too have forbidden sugary cereals at home. And proving that to everything there is a season, when I take the kids back to California to visit their grandparents-- aka my cereally-intransigent mother and father-- what do I find in the pantry, alongside the Cheerios, Rice Krispies, and granola? Lucky Charms and Coco Pops and, of course, Cap'n Crunch. During a week-long visit last month, I demolished an extra-large box of it. (The kids helped.)

Thanks, Mom and Dad. Home, very sweet home.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Climate change

In Brighton I bet there are drifts of daffodils in full bloom. Here in Toronto, we're pathetically happy to see a few droopy snowdrops poke forth.

March. March!

They say this has been a 'good' winter. Not too cold, not much snow. Yet it's -6C at the moment.

Tonight we set our clocks forward. Summer time, my (well-booted) foot!

I feel I have not quite adjusted.

Canine values

The topic of 'Canadian values' seems to come up often of late. There's a woman by the name of Kellie Leitch currently lobbying to lead Canada's Conservative Party. She was roundly derided for a campaign video she released recently on the topic of Canadian values. The derision targeted both Leitch's style--- a highly mannered, weirdly unnatural presentation (someone on Twitter said 'she seems to be promoting the use of mind-altering chemicals')--- and her substance: 'keep it pure,' she says; screen all potential immigrants for Canadian values.

On the same day I saw Leitch's video, I also listened to a presentation at work in which the speakers argued  "tolerance is our main, central Canadian value." This is what I hear on the street, on the radio, in the paper. Tolerance, diversity, inclusion.  I recently looked back through my blog posts and was reminded how consistently and persistently I have been made aware of those Canadian values since moving to Toronto.

It can be so confusing for us humans. Luckily, two Canadian dogs of my acquaintance, one black, one brown, appear to have no trouble at all.  I think I'll hold myself to canine values.

Tolerance, diversity, inclusion, walkies

Wednesday, 22 February 2017


There are so many wonderful things about living in Toronto. I am quite convinced.

Today, though, tromping with my three children across damp brown California sand, I acknowledge that in fact I have not stopped missing mountains and ocean and desert, missing them desperately and daily. I want to "walk in beauty," as the Navajo say, or at least as Tony Hillerman says the Navajo say.

I don't want to hear about mighty Lake Ontario or the forested Muskokas.  Not today.

The Pacific Ocean. Santa Monica beach.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Underground Railroad Revisited

People often say to me these days "I bet you're glad you're living in Canada." First, it was my British friends after the narrow Brexit victory (52% leave to 48% remain). Then it was the Americans, after Trump beat Hillary Clinton (46%  to 48%, respectively). Lots of messages asking whether we have spare rooms, the playful mixed with the grim. "You're so lucky," said one. "We have plans for your house," said another.

I try to reply without getting too emotional. I tell them it's complicated. Being an American in Canada does make me feel fortunate in some senses (universal health care, poutine), but burdened as well. It's as though I have to try harder. Some friends and I are forming our own Toronto Americans' resistance group. We will make phone calls, send emails, protest in front of our consulate, console ourselves.

Also, it seems incumbent on me as an American to be nice even when I'm not feeling it, as though by being seen as a good person, I can make up for the bad one occupying the White House.  As America and Americans are eyed with derision and scorn, I have to say, "This president does not represent me. Hey, it's not really even a presidency. It's a hostile takeover."

Our house is in Brunswick Avenue, the same street where a man called Albert Jackson once lived. Mr. Jackson was born into slavery in Delaware (yes, I thought it was a free state, too, but no), and escaped to Canada with his family via the original underground railroad in 1858. He became Toronto's first black postman, possibly Canada's first, and someone wrote a play about that which was performed in our road a couple of years back.

July 2015

A few weeks ago, January 21,  2017, not quite 150 years later, one day after the inauguration, at the #WomensMarch, a United Church minister asked me what I thought about starting up a new underground railroad ("Democrats Abroad", Public Seminar). He said it might become important for vulnerable individuals in the US. I almost laughed, thinking, "Come on. It's not going to be that bad."

Three point five weeks later, I hear almost daily in the news about refugees, recent immigrants to the US, illegally crossing the border into Canada. In the dead of winter, some have lost digits or limbs. I read about 'ICE' teams following school-buses in Austin, Texas, ready to arrest immigrant parents when they meet their children at drop-off, and I wonder about the definition of 'police state'.

I may make plans for our house, too. Brunswick Avenue could possibly once again be a destination for escapees from the south, an endpoint for that new Underground  Railroad.


Friday, 3 February 2017

Beam me up

There's a Star Trek episode (the original series, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, etc) in which the USS Enterprise is chasing the Federation's arch-enemies, the Klingons, across the galaxy. Or perhaps the Klingons are chasing them. Or it might have been the Romulans. In any case, Lt. Sulu informs Captain Kirk that the Enterprise is somehow becalmed. They can't move further. Their shields don't work; nor do their weapons. Kirk, from the bridge, prepares the crew for imminent destruction by the enemy, who can be seen looming closer. And then... nothing. Over the radio, the two opposing captains sputter at each other in outrage. "Cut it out! Give us back our weapons!" They carry on in this manner until a basso profundo voice interrupts them. "It is we who have disabled your ships and your weapons." At that point, the Klingomulan chief and Captain Kirk both turn on this new, common enemy, and say in unison "Cut it out! Give us back our weapons! It's our right to destroy each other." It turns out that they have sailed into the orbit of a powerful and enlightened civilization that no longer believes in violence. Not only have these cosmic gurus beaten their swords into plowshares (or hydroponic antigravity growing units),  but they refuse to let anyone else practice warfare. "You may have your warp drives back once you've made up and agreed to play nicely," they say to both spaceship captains. Eventually, with their phasers between their legs, they do, and are released. It's not really in doubt, because that's the grammar of the genre, and of course they'll duel again elsewhere, in some further episode. But before the commercial break and network identification, peace and harmony have been imposed.

I think of this episode more and more often in these wild and scary times, where there's a loose cannon in the White House who has access to the button of destruction. In the past week alone we've had the #MuslimBan announcement and the nomination for Supreme Court justice of a person who once founded a fascist party. On the global stage, there has been the mosque massacre in Quebec City, the mad attacker at the Louvre, and the triggering of Article 50 for #Brexit.

The Star Trek episode is a fantasy, I know. We're here in the world, grown-up and responsible, and there is no divine or extra-terrestrial intervention (not even by mice).

But in times like these, I sure do wish it were otherwise.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

January: March

I'm my own guest blogger:

On the Women's March in Toronto.

Queen's Park: view from John A. MacDonald's feet

Four years, less five days...

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Local knowledge

Toronto is a city geared for locals. That's fine, for the most part. All cities first and foremost strive, or ought to strive, to meet the needs of their own denizens, their voters and taxpayers. However, most also acknowledge that some of the people wandering the streets might be  a) new or b) visiting. They don't know their way around. They'd like some help. They look for signs. Sure, they've got cellphones and GPS and Waze. But it's nice when the city itself puts out some indications that it cares, too. Signs like "City Centre", "North", "Welcome to the U.K. Please drive on the left," (in Newhaven, East Sussex, where the ferry from Calais docks).  I think of the wonderful film LA Story, where Steve Martin encounters on the freeway a big traffic notification sign that begins flashing personal messages to him. I'm not suggesting that Toronto need go quite that far in being helpful.

Sometimes it's a matter of idiosyncratic local vocabulary. I remember our family's first experience of driving on the 401 motorway, which runs along the northern edge of the city. It's big. Really big. Bigger than any other highway I've ever seen. At some points it is sixteen lanes across, divided into four subgroups: eastbound: 'collectors' and 'express'; westbound: 'collectors' and 'express'.  That first time I was at the wheel, husband navigating. Heading east, I faced the division into 'collectors' and 'express' . "What do I choose?" I asked in a panic. Husband, who eschewed smartphones, pulled out an almanac, or possibly a parchment scroll, and began perusing it, tracing the route with his quill pointer.  "I'm not sure," he said, peering closely. "It doesn't tell me. Oh, wait, I see something. 'Here be dragons'," he read out. Not really, but whatever he did find was no more useful.

"I'm taking the collectors one," I shrieked, when a decision had to be made. "Find some money." We scanned ahead for the tollbooth which we guessed would appear.  What else would they collect? We puzzled over this strange Canadian system of offering a choice between paying a toll and speeding along in free, parallel 'express' lanes. Perhaps because they were nice, as their reputation insisted, and sometimes chose to throw spare change at the highway authority out of the goodness of their hearts, like supporting public radio.  

In any event, we reached our exit and no toll collector troubled us. We were confused, but so many things confused us back then. Much later I discovered that 'collectors' meant 'set of lanes into which one merges from an onramp, and from which one accesses exit ramps'. In other words, it collects cars, not cash. What opaque signage! I speaks some pretty good English, if I does say so my own lil' self, and that system was Greek to me. But Torontonians know the terminology, and that's what counts. Philadelphia is the only other city I've lived with a similar disregard for outsiders.

There are similar learning curves on downtown Toronto's city streets. For instance parking-restriction signs require a veritable Ph.D. in Torontology. Drive to a party at a friend's house and stay past midnight? I don't advise it. They'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too. Parking is restricted on neighbourhood streets after 12:01 am, says the small print. I've learned some of the tricks, but not all. I can only shrug and regard the occasional parking fine as my contribution to the municipal purse. 

But my biggest complaint about the local myopia involves the crazy streetcar system. Recently @BenSpurr  in the Toronto Star bemoaned the cavalier behaviour of car drivers passing streetcars whose doors are open to disgorge or ingest passengers. It's illegal. Mr. Spurr urged that the police be more assiduous in enforcing traffic laws. I totally agree about better enforcement of traffic regulations. However, in this case, there's a step missing. First, make sure drivers actually know to stop, and when. It is *not* as obvious as you might think, Toronto.

Quck. The coast is clear.
The tracks for most routes run through the outer, central lane. so passengers must step off directly into the curbside one and hope that there are no cars in it. It's a matter of trust. A leap of faith, so to speak.  Usually, it's fine. If you grew up and learned to drive in Toronto, you will know about this rule. If, like me, you passed driving tests in other parts of the world, you will have no clue. Service Ontario gave husband and me local driving licences in exchange for our British ones. Gave. No test, neither written nor practical. (The government did however examine husband's English proficiency.) I learned about the no-passing-a-streetcar rule because I happened to be driving with a local friend in the car. Her screams stayed with me for a long time. She put me right, and I informed husband. Once we knew what to look for, were able to spot the small warning on the right rear panel of the streetcar, 'Psst. No passing when doors are open.' Okay, there's no pssst. But it's pretty low-key.

By pure luck I hadn't mown down any pedestrians in the few weeks during which I drove uninformed. Many on the road-- tourists, visitors, people from Buffalo-- every day must be similarly naive. Why would the transit authority have such a haphazard, contingent system? Why assume that all drivers know about this idiosyncratic hazard of transit in Toronto? Why not put unambiguous, big flashing lights on the backs of streetcars and a bold sign across the rear saying 'NO PASSING WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING'? (Or, like, laser beams, or something.)

It's not rocket science (except for the laser beams). If anything, it's anthropology. It's a matter of looking at the road, at the world, through eyes that are not from Toronto. Like mine. 

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Tradition, tradition

In England I found Christmas impossible to ignore. Not celebrating it took on a truculent, childish quality, like refusing to eat spinach. Participation-- Christmas tree, turkey, Brussel sprouts, mince pies-- equated to good citizenship, regardless of one's attitude toward or relationship with Jesus.

In the US and, I've found, in Canada, there's much more diversity around the festive season, some of which gets tedious ("Is it okay to say 'Merry Christmas' or does it have to be 'Happy Holidays'," etc.) Mostly we've been away from Toronto across Christmas Day, quite often flying or driving on December 25. But this year, because I've hurt my back and can't sit for too long, we're staying put.

In my Californian childhood my family would go for a drive or a hike or to the beach, bring home bagels and lox or maybe have dinner at the deli. Nowadays it seems almost all the Jewish families I know in north America have converged on a tradition: going out for Chinese food and a movie. People assume that's what we'll do. too. "What are you seeing?" ask my non-Jewish friends. The Yiddishkeit yen for Chinese food actually stems from several generations back:

So, we followed tradition. The meal at Mandarin Buffet was excellent. We saw *Arrival*. Thumbs up from the whole family.

Merry holidays!

Saturday, 24 December 2016

It Could Be Worse

I've been taking stock in the long dark of the winter solstice, as the year's end nears. What a year of horrors it has been on the world front, one unbelievably awful event after the next. In a BBC radio comedy programme recently, someone quipped that on quiz shows of the future the questions will begin, "In what year did..." and the winning contestant won't wait for the rest of the sentence but will buzz in with '2016', and be right every time.

The view from Canada seems to be that at least here in the north, things could be worse.  People look south over the US border at the regime change in the offing, and east across the Atlantic to a Brexiting Europe, and treat themselves to some hand-wringing but also to a bit of modest self-back-patting. The ether holds a pulse of national pride. "We are nice," people think. "Just like our reputation. Good for us. Sure, we've got some issues, but really, it could be worse." This is true, in so many ways. But the other thing about Canada, I'm learning, is that 'it could be worse' is more than an expression of contentment and self-gratulation. It's a reminder and a warning: things could be worse!

There seems to be a need to remind themselves just how bad things could get, to conjure up some misery and prepare for it, sort of like a fire drill. 'In the case of real misery, act this way.' Moreover, the powers-that-be inculcate such thinking into their youth, mainly via the education system.  Things could be worse! I've written before about the nation-wide, largely school-based annual commemoration of the unfortunate cancer victim, Terry Fox (who died in 1981), which so terrorized our youngest child shortly after we arrived. The Toronto District School Board's curriculum, in line with the provincial Ministry of Education, incorporates the 'it could be worse' mentality into numerous contexts: equity studies, health, 'novel studies'. This last requires middle-schoolers, kids aged 11 to 14,  to consume Canadian teen literature that is, in my parental experience (third time through), unflinchingly dark and discouraging.  It is an apparently flourishing genre I might call Northern young-adult misery lit. Unlike the ubiquitous dystopian young YA fiction (e.g. The Hunger Games), these novels depict the here, the now, the kids next door or at the next desk. You. Your friends. 

An example is the novel that my 13-year-old daughter is currently reading for school: The Beckoners, by Carrie Mac, an author who, according to her website, lives in Vancouver with her partner and children. In her photo, she is smiling and happy. Meanwhile, the teen protagonist in her tale both experiences and commits bullying on a horrifying scale. For example, the girl is forced to brand herself with a burning fork in order to join a cool gang at her school. She eventually displeases these new friends and, in response. they hang her beloved dog. My daughter has created detailed, well-rendered drawings to illustrate the various plot points. I admire her artistic skills. I'm just unsure where in the house is a good spot to display a picture of a dead dog. The living room?

Recently, my daughter and a friend of hers who attends a different middle school compared notes on their Novel Studies assignments. "In my book, the girl kills herself," the friend says, matter of factly, describing the dark, depressing, and Canadian-set circumstances that drive the character to suicide. I asked both children, is this what it's like in your schools? Girls, do such things happen to you or to people you know? No, they said. Of course not! They look at me as though I've asked whether they have wings. These are children who watch Disney animated films and YouTube clips on how to apply makeup. They have spats, they make up. Their friends are diverse in their family structures, ethnicities, religions, abilities. Relationships ebb and shift and small dramas occur. These are interesting to them, they are absorbing without being tragic or terrifying.

I don't mind what my children choose to read. I don't censor their reading. (Though I do limit, or try to, what television and movies they watch.) But to me, allowing them to read what they choose is different from choosing something for them and assigning it. That's a message. Things could be worse! Feeding them a literary diet of misery and woe as part of their school curriculum seems wrong. But what do I know? I'm a stranger here myself. I asked the girls whether these stories made them cry or feel sad, and they answered, "No," in unison, and definitively, even witheringly. Maybe something about this Northern misery-YA genre is helping them, helping the whole of Canadian society, to be more empathetic and kind, like an inoculation. Maybe it's toughening them up, preparing them for troubles arriving from overseas or over the border. But maybe not. 

Things could be worse. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

A hitchhiker's guide to Canada

Canada is big. Like, really big.

And also really small. There aren't many people. At last count, 36 million or so, for a population density of  4 per square kilometer  or 10 per square mile. In comparison, the UK, with 65 million or so souls (plus Nigel Farage) has a density of 269 per square kilometer  or 697 people per square unit of imperial measure. (Very happy this is a blog, not an academic paper, and I don't have to provide references.) But here in Canada we are not evenly spread, like well-buttered toast. Canada is bottom-heavy. An oft-cited statistic (oft-cited by me, anyway) is that 90% of the Canadian population lives within 100 km (65 miles) of the U.S. border (and not that sneaky one with Alaska). This fact is one of the several knock-on effects resulting from how the War of 1812 ended; I often fantasize, disloyally for an American citizen, about how the Eastern Seaboard right down to Florida could, in an alternate universe, have been Canadian. A further -- and related-- sequel to history as it really happened is the dire condition of Toronto's highways. More than 6 million people live in this area-- one-sixth of the entire nation-- and they all seem to be on the road at rush hour. I stay home then.

The other day I was consulting my family doctor about a back injury  (word to the wise: don't get one. Ow, ow, ow), and happened to mention a friend and colleague of mine, a general practitioner who works in a different city. I used only her first name. "Oh, I know her," said my doctor. And he did. In my academic research, where I do have to cite those pesky sources, we often discuss geographic disparities in access to health care. One of the first things I did when I settled into a desk of my own was to buy a map of the country and pin it to the wall. It's been ever so helpful keeping me oriented. Once I had to look up how many orthopaedic surgeons there were in each province and territory. In some, the number was zero. Another research project involves exploring the effect of big-city specialists holding telementoring sessions with family health teams, better to manage patients with chronic pain. It turns out that so many resources that the urbanites take for granted are simply not there in the vast space beyond. A public swimming pool. Physiotherapists.

Just as there are huge inequities in terms of access to health services,  other necessities are also in short, or expensive, supply. Food, for instance, costs more in the north (which is saying something, considering Toronto prices). Quite recently I learned from my children's piano teacher that music, too, may be considered a scarce resource in Greater Canada. This teacher grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and was taught by a German immigrant. "I don't know how he ended up living there," the teacher mused, "but he is a wonderful teacher. He has a whole system for instruction that he learned from his father. I studied with him for years. He told his pupils who were going on to make music a career that he was offering us a scholarship for our final year of high school. Our parents would not be charged for lessons, on one condition."

With some trepidation, I asked what the condition was. "He said that when we left school, we had to also leave Alberta. If we stepped foot in the province for any of our higher education or training, we must give him back all the money for that last year. He said that there was just nothing going on musically in Alberta, and he wanted us out." Apparently, his prize students obliged him, scattering to the US or to Toronto. Only one returned, having completed her training out of the province. She came back to teach piano. The master did not make her repay the tuition.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016


"People who refused to leave home couldn't have settled the frontier," says the University of British Columbia's guide to parents of first-year students (aka freshmen). This bit of wisdom reached me a few months ago when we moved eldest child into his dorm.

I get the gist of the kindly-meant message: it's warning me off helicopter parenting. I'm not sure, though, where exactly the covered wagons fit in. Is my son getting an education in felling trees and overrunning terrain occupied by non-Europeans? 

UBC has been a leader in promoting respect for First Nations peoples and their prior occupancy of campus lands. Buildings display plaques with indigenous names, and university ceremonies often begin with a blessing or commemoration in the appropriate aboriginal language. And yet the New World ethos seems hard to eradicate. In my school days, I learnt that 'manifest destiny' was believed to be a divine force for expansion of the United States from coast to coast; I guess it had an impact here, north of the border, too. I'll ask my kids about it, like a good immigrant. 

And by the way, daily contact is working quite well, thank you, Ms. Alexander-Ellis. Praise be to Snapchat. I get to hear of son's mistakes much more quickly than I would have by Pony Express.

Friday, 18 November 2016

(G)O! Canada: 'Liberty Moves North'

First Brexit, now Trump.

Election night: "Only America," said one funny guy on the internet, "could look at Brexit and say, hey, wait, we can do you one better." Husband fished this graphic out of the internet soup: 

After both votes, various of my friends wrote or said something along the lines of "I bet now you're glad you live in Canada!" I shy away from responding because the sentiment makes me uncomfortable.  I am trying to figure out why. For one thing, 'glad' isn't a word I'm using in connection with the election outcome. A further clue is that I'm more irritated hearing such comments after the US elections than I was after Brexit. Then, I could laugh along in a mournful sort of gallows-humour way. Tsk, tsk. My hackles stayed down. Why are they up now?

I guess you can take the American out of America, but not America out of the American. I've noticed before that I'm more of a patriot outside my national borders than I am within them. The Obama years have been heavenly. Flashing my US passport has been a source of pride, so different from the years of Bushes when I kept the blue cardboard cover hidden in a pocket right up to when I stepped to the immigration desk. Living in Indonesia during the Gulf War, I sometimes denied being American in situations where no proof was required. Once, I got caught. In a town I was visiting for the day, I told the driver of a sort of motorcycle rickshaw called a becak that I was Canadian.  Several weeks later I went back to the same town, and heard someone calling 'Canadian! Canadian! Bu! Ma'am!' The same driver. He had spotted me getting off the intercity bus, and wanted to drive me again. I tried to recall the details of the story I'd spun for him. When first we practice to deceive, indeed.

Now is another good time to pretend to be Canadian, or at least, so says The Economist, who calls Canada the 'lonely' representative of liberty:

I find that idea a little frightening, the idea of freedom pushed upward to the polar margins of the globe. A comedy radio show on CBC, 'This is That,' described Canada as 'the US in bad clothing'  but I suspect it's less bad clothing and more shapeless parkas for huddling against inhospitable cold. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," sang Janis Joplin. Not that Canada is nothing, but there really are not many people here. Bearing the weight of the free world is a lot to ask of a country whose population is half that of the UK.

There is no denying, though, that, post-Harper, Canada exudes the aura of a safe haven, what with Prince Justin in charge and the national headlines quite often about rectifying, or trying to rectify, past injustices committed by immigrants against indigenes. There won't be a bricks-and-mortar border separating the US and Canada, but I hope the ideological barrier is strong enough to resist a lot of huffing and puffing from the White House. Or rather from Trump Tower.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Funeral for democracy

How, I ask myself at 4:00 a.m., did this come to pass? I tried. I voted. Only once. I made calls to Arizona and Nevada. "Hi, I'm Leslie. I'm a volunteer with Hillary for America. I understand you support Hillary, too."

"No, I don't," said more than one registered democrat on the end of the line.

"Thank you for your time," I would say, according to script, and feel a little worried. I realized I hadn't fully believed in the existence of Trump supporters. Not really. They existed on television, like the Muppets, and on Twitter, like trolls.

I should, obviously,  have been a lot worried. The Muppets and trolls voted in a man who has told us hundreds and hundreds of lies, who has no experience of electoral politics, who molests women for sport, who is racist as well as misogynist and whose fans include Putin and Kim Jong Il, as our commander in chief for four years. 

What a truly terrible feeling. I'm exhausted but don't want to go to sleep only to wake up and realise again that it is true. Can I stay awake for four years? Better yet, can I sleep through them instead? I shall be checking the requirements for Canadian citizenship. The time is unlikely to become riper. I heard that the Canadian Immigration website crashed this evening as the results took their sad and horrifying shape and Americans looked north for an escape route. Come on over, I say to them. Bring a coat.

For my kids, for my parents,  though, I must stay positive. There. Sit up straight. Bake some bread. The man's  going to be president, not king, not czar, not dictator. We are lucky to live under democracy, not because it's the best system of government, but because it's the least worse one.  (Least worst one?) The BBC's satirical radio show "The News Quiz" called this election 'the ongoing funeral for democracy in America.' Well it's not. Democracy is not dead. It lives. 

It's just wearing camouflage south of the border. 

And so to bed. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

My Superpowers

Autumn is beautiful here, yes it is, but it also brings with it one of my pet peeves: leafblowers. These noisy, odiferous machines have to be amongst the most infuriating non-military devices ever invented. Or maybe they are a tool of the military, its secret weapon. Take that, enemy. We'll irritate you into submission. If I had a superpower, it would be to disable any leafblower with a single glance.

Aural blight on the landscape

I know there are social justice issues at stake around who uses the infernal things and why, but my political correctness has hit a wall. Get a rake, people.

Thinking about it, maybe this magic could be just my autumn superpower. Come winter, I'd trade it in for the ability to warm up Toronto without environmental destruction.

And of course in the carefree summertime there would be leisure to use my amazing abilities to create world harmony, cure disease, and heal America from its self-inflicted wounds.

Vote, Americans. Vote.

Quartet in Autumn

I've never really understood people who claim autumn as their favourite time of year. The onset of fall marks the demise of summer's off-leash freedom.

Autumn does however bring out the best in Toronto, especially this year with warm temperatures stretching into November.

Shame about winter and all, but heigh-ho. Turn, turn, turn.

Gourd lovin': Harbord Village Pumpkin Festival

Bike trail

Sun setting on our corner

The other dog park

Monday, 17 October 2016

Love, Canada

Some Canadians decided to cheer America up with a very public display of affection:

One American I know said the short video mash-up made her cry.

My heart felt warmed, too, at first. ''Aw, gee, shucks," I thought, shuffling my feet, shyly smiling. Thanks, Canada.

A second response surfaced. Hey. Hey. Wait one cotton-picking minute. Just how low have we sunk to make such a love letter welcome? I am not sure whether to address America or Canada with the question.

I try to imagine a similar campaign emerging from the UK and can't do it. I believe Brits would sooner request a rematch of the Revolutionary War than openly express non-ironic admiration and sympathy for America. Or for anything, really. No way, no how. Nope.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Leaf Peeping

Ontario has some pretty foliage, but the rises and dips in the terrain of New England and upstate New York-- the density of contour lines on the map-- makes for more drama south of the border. A privilege of living in Toronto is being in driving distance of my friends Rebecca and Sam Busselle, in New York State's Harlem Valley, between the Hudson River and the Connecticut border: the Taconic Range. Rebecca took me leaf-peeping on our way to the wonderful farmer's market in Copake.

Route 22
 I must say, it's fine country, this US of A. I'm hoping fervently that its leadership lands in a safe pair of hands #VOTE

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Thanksgiving Northern style

We've just celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving. Unlike American Thanksgiving, the northern version doesn't have a (problematic) back story about bumbling pilgrims and hospitable natives and approaching winter and transatlantic knowledge transfer.  Instead it arrives for no particular reason, in a rush, two months earlier than American Thanksgiving, chasing summer's heels. The timing always bothered me.

Not this year. This year I am grateful for the holiday's early appearance, because it brought with it not a pilgrim, but a prodigal: my firstborn child. Eldest son has moved way out west, to the Pacific coast, to attend the University of British Columbia, but he came home for the long holiday weekend. Not without some grumbling, mind, because as it turned out he had a presentation to give and a math quiz to take and upcoming midterms to study for, but the plans had been laid and tickets booked long before. So he boarded the red-eye and landed in Toronto at six o'clock Friday morning. I could hardly sleep the night before and popped awake at 5:00 to collect him.

Special delivery: Pearson Airport, 6 a.m.

He was happy to be home, to be fed and coddled and cuddled. And he needed it. He had a lingering cough and a battered thumb from a bizarre rowing accident and tired, bloodshot eyes. As soon as he entered the kitchen he raided the fridge. Moments later he climbed into bed in his own room and slept for hours. I like to think he does still need his mommy, as well as his daddy and his brother and his sister and his cats. It's been so wonderful for all of us having him here. The best part of the weekend was in fact not sharing the scrumptious feast with good friends, nor witnessing the happy reunion of son with his mates, but having a few quiet hours when the five of us sat home, reading and studying and listening to the radio and playing FIFA '16 and giggling. The stuff that up til a month ago was normal life. I can't believe I ever took it for granted. Silly me.

I am quite sure son enjoyed his visit, the friends and the turkey and the cranberry sauce and his family. But he missed uni, too. "Next year," he tells us, "I'm definitely not coming home for Thanksgiving.  I'll be way too busy."

We shall see. For this year, at least, I'm thankful.

Friday, 30 September 2016

New year's resolution

Bitch, moan, moan, bitch.  I complain way too much about how busy I am; it’s become a reflex, and I tire of the sound of myself. Too much to do, too much to do. I think I can’t. I think I can’t. Enough already! I don't have time for it. Whereso and thereupon, my Rosh Hashanah resolution is to stop complaining about how busy I am.  

Because really, there  is enough time to do everything, or at least everything that matters. 

The problem is that there's no time to do nothing. 

Fine, it's not much of a resolution, I grant that. Probably fits in a tweet. In fact I’ll post it on Twitter (@lectoronto), if I have time. 

Okay, stopping….now.

Shana tova v’ metukah to all. A happy and sweet new year.

Postscript: the other day I emailed my regrets to say that I would miss a meeting at work on Monday due to Rosh Ha’Shana. A non-Jewish colleague wrote back to say ‘Shana Tova’. That's a response I never got at work in England. There is much to be said for Canadian multiculturalism.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Paddling Around

I kayaked in the city one evening last week. Really, right downtown. It was great fun. A friend of mine belongs to a yacht club where she keeps her sailboat along with a couple of spider-ridden kayaks. I don't have a particular fear of spiders or other bugs, but my friend does, so we spent a goodly amount of time hosing off, kicking, and scolding (me) or shrieking at (her) the sleepy critters who, disturbed by yet not understanding the plans for our imminent voyage, skittered everywhere but off. Eventually we evicted them, embarked, and propelled ourselves a number of laps round the marina, which is just next to the runway for the little island airport.

Toronto's 'island' airport
Our paddling was accompanied by a slowly setting sun and rapidly rising airplanes. The CN Tower glowed in the east. Surreal and magical.

Later, I mentioned this outing to a friend in England. "Ooh, now you're a proper Canadian!" she responded.

I hope there's a tick-box for 'kayaking in the heart of Toronto at sunset' on the Canadian citizenship application, because there are times in this country when I feel as foreign as I did when I lived in Indonesia. More so, even; a story for another post. At least I'm not afraid of spiders. That has to be worth something.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Never on a sundae

Last month we flew to LA to celebrate my mother’s 85th birthday. Some dear cousins, dear friends really, drove to southern California from their home in Berkeley to join us for the small but elegant dinner party at my parents' house. Relaxing in the garden the next afternoon, our conversation turned to ice cream, as it is wont to do on a hot summer day, and we began comparing our favourite frozen treats. "Chocolate chip," said my mother.

"Coffee," daughter and I agreed. Someone mentioned Rocky Road. Yuck.

"Tell them about ice-cream sodas," said one of my children, wickedly. Husband put his head in hands.

I have strong feelings about this subject of ice-cream sodas.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “He needed to know. He had just opened a malt shoppe, for goodness sake.” 

My parents and cousins were looking puzzled. I tried to keep my explanation both brief and favourable to me. One evening last summer our family walked to a newly opened business down the road whose etched window promised sundaes, malts, and, to my delight, ice-cream sodas. I let my children go first, like a good mother, and then ordered an ice-cream soda. What they served me, though, was an ice-cream float. I, naturally, protested. It was a scoop of ice cream in a glass of root beer. A float, not a soda. Come on. 

It's like asking for a hot dog and getting a hamburger. Both are good, both consist of meat, ketchup can be applied to both, but they are NOT THE SAME THING. Nor are floats and sodas. When my sisters and I were little our mother occasionally took us to the fountain at Woolworth’s five and dime, or, if we were really lucky, to Farrell’s, a dedicated ice-cream parlor,  for soda-fountain treats. My favorite was, of course, the ice cream soda. Sometimes my mother made them for us at home. She mixed milk and the chosen flavor of sweet syrup (for me, chocolate, always chocolate) in the bottom of a tall glass with a wide mouth. She stirred vigorously, then added club soda. Not coke, not root beer, not 7-Up. Club soda. When the glass was half-full, she added two scoops of ice cream; vanilla or chocolate chip for me, or maybe coffee. She poured more club soda on top until the glass was almost full, drizzled on a little more syrup (chocolate!) and added a straw. Voila. Heaven in a glass. A bona-fide ice cream soda. If you stick a scoop of ice cream in with your root beer or your cola, you get a float. Good, but not a soda (and not that good, if I'm honest).

The young man running the Malt Shoppe nodded and tried to look interested in my explanation but clearly did not care one whit, and after we left, my family fell about laughing at me. I guess I deserved it. After all, what's in a name? An ice cream is ice cream. But after that, I stuck to cones or sundaes.  

“In Brooklyn," said my cousin Richie, "sundaes were called ‘fraps’. Then in graduate school I spent a year in Boston,  and I had to learn to call them sundaes.” Of the four elders present, three grew up in Brooklyn. (My father, the outsider, is from Baltimore.)

"No!" said my mother, Elizabeth. "I never called them that! They were always, always called sundaes." Back in the day my mother was called 'Betty', but apparently sundaes were ever sundaes.

"Where did you live, exactly?" I asked Richie.

"He lived on Eastern Parkway," said his wife, Marcia.

"So did I," says my mother.

"Oh, but you lived closer to the Botanic Gardens," said Richie, making me think of Henry Higgins  and accent identification.

That explanation seemed to satisfy everyone and the conversation turned to egg creams, a beloved New York fountain drink containing neither egg nor cream, just like ice cream in 1980s England when I first lived there as a study-abroad student. No dairy products at all. And they were proud of it. "No milk fat!" proclaimed cartons of chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. Not an ingredient in them was under three syllables long. The contents both resembled and tasted like frozen needles. I'm sure they utterly failed to meet Michael Pollan's definition of 'food', or anyone's definition of 'delicious'.

Britain's come a long way since then, of course, and I have consumed gallons, possibly vats, of extremely delicious dairy-full ice cream there (particular thanks to Marrocco's of Hove). But I maintain that North America still does it better than the UK. I've yet to find anything there as delicious as Ontario's Tiger Tails (orange sorbet striped with black licorice), or the fig jam with salty crumble I had in LA, at Sweet Rose, at the Brentwood Country Mart.

And I've not yet encountered any ice cream concoction called a frap. When I googled the term, I got a page describing the electronic filing of a motion with a judge.  Perhaps I must hie to Brooklyn. And possibly to the 1940s.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Adaptive niche

I've loved the word 'crepuscular' since I first encountered it while studying primate behaviour in Anthropology 1. Crepuscularity pertains to the edges of day and night, to dawn and dusk. Some creatures are diurnal, others nocturnal, and a few species are crepuscular. These are behavioural adaptations to temporal rather than  spatial niches, a way of sharing environmental resources and reducing competition.  Most primates, like us humans, are diurnal animals, but the lemurs of Madagascar cover all bases. They include diurnal, nocturnal, and crepuscular species. 

For most of my life, I have been, unlike most primates, decidedly nocturnal. I pulled my first all-nighter at age nine, in fourth grade, to complete a report on Mt. McKinley, aka Denali. Maybe I'm part lemur, cross-cousins with the aye-aye rather than the chimpanzee. As the years progressed, I found that having babies did not change me, but having teenagers has. I've begun inhabiting the dawn hours. I've become crepuscular.


Our family now live in a big hundred-plus-year-old ramshackle house - every room needs something repairing or updating. And yet somehow our 4-story rambling wreck feels fuller than the much smaller houses where we lived in Hove or Durham, when our children were younger or nonexistent (when they were, as we would tell them, just 'twinkles in our eyes').  In those days, the kids always wanted to be near me and also near each other. I loved having them close (I still do). We tended to migrate en masse from one bit of the house to another, depending on the activity and the time of day. Thus we used all the rooms, but rarely were they all required at once. For instance one bedroom could have sufficed back then. We would put the children to bed in their own rooms for form's sake but I used to wake up in the morning in our enormous king size bed and without opening my eyes, reach out to count the number of heads on pillows. One, two, three. Oh yes, four, including the toes of the one lying upside down. They'd all sidle in during the course of the night.

Moreover, and this was crucial, the children went to bed earlier than we, their parents, did. Our reward for getting them bathed and pajamaed, brushed and storified, before the watershed, or at least not too long after, was having the house to ourselves for a few hours. We might only fall asleep on the sofa in front of the telly, or we might engage in riveting conversation (yes we might), or we might sit silently in our own spaces and work or read. The main thing was that after the kids' bedtimes, we had the place to ourselves and to each other. We surely suffered sleep deprivation, but we enjoyed some peace and quiet. Fair dos.

With teens we have learned that there is no set bedtime, especially in the summer holidays. However late I can stay up, they can stay up later. And their brains never shut down. At midnight as I struggle to code an interview, or to write a pithy paragraph,  or to finish the newspaper, an offspring might wander in and want to discuss the nature of the relationship between philosophy and government, where the graph paper is kept, how to calculate the length of the hypotenuse, or whether the washing machine is free. Maybe there's a question about how their father and I got engaged, or the names of their great-grandparents. Always something interesting, not always something to which the answer is 'go ask your father.' And the parenting adage about being available to listen when your teens are ready to talk rings in my ears. I step away from the keyboard or page and ponder with the relevant child on the nature of Marxism and poetry or the location of the laundry detergent. I enjoy it. We laugh, I learn.

It means that peace and quiet are in short supply, or rather that their availability is uncertain, like sugar in wartime. On the plus side, these days husband and I can go out of an evening without the cost and kerfuffle of hiring a babysitter; still, I found myself missing those few silent hours in the house. And now I know where they are. By a happy accident (jet lag) I discovered the treasure trail to tranquility: dawn. Hence my attempt to cultivate a new, crepuscular niche. 

By next week, however, with the arrival of the new academic year, I'm worried that this house will start to feel bigger and quieter. Our eldest child is leaving for university. We are so proud of him and happy for him. It's all good, I tell myself. That other parenting adage, about the days being long and the years short, has never ever seemed so true. Suddenly my yen for peace and quiet comes under the heading of 'be careful what you wish for'. I sigh a lot, and I cry. I must add Kleenex to our shopping list. I've just emptied the box on my desk (as well as my supply of truisms. I ought to take up cross-stitch.)

Coda:  I have read that some animal behaviour specialists now argue that 'crepuscular' lemurs are in fact more accurately called 'cathemeral', or active both day and night. That might be a better description of me, too.