Wednesday, 31 October 2018

A Tale of Two Tables

Table Number 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table Number 2.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Today I'm Bill: confessions of a Trekkie

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

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

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

"Not bad," responded host Power.

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

Jordi, positively well-groomed 

Thursday, 23 August 2018

The Empty-Nest-cation

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

We needed a list.

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

A typical morning list might include

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Not to Do: 1) cook.


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

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

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

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

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

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

New list: appreciate the present.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Computers 101

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

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

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

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

But then I found Robin. 

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 July 2018

We Canadians are So Nice: a Wedding Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bride's bouquet

Monday, 18 June 2018

Making It Stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What might we accomplish?

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

I still like the invasion plan, though.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Going Green: Wheels within Wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 28 May 2018


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

Talk about a back-handed compliment.

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

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

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

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

Bike ride, Toronto lakeshore (Lake Ontario)

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

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

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Spring Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Home Spiritual Home

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

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

On pilgrimage and other journeys

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

Sather Tower aka The Campanile

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

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

Sunday, 18 March 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Guns of America

A serious one. Sorry. 

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

State of the nation

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

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

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

I looked it up:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Socks, Love, and the Secret of True Happiness

When my sisters and I were children, our mother used to tell us about her freshman roommate at the University of Michigan. This young woman belonged to a wealthy Midwestern family and arrived at the girls' dormitory with far more luggage than the single trunk my mother had shipped from her home in Brooklyn. The roommate's habit was to wear a pair of socks once, then to throw them out. Her mother or her mother's housekeeper would replenish the supply weekly, by mail. "And they were angora," my mother told us every time she repeated the story. We marvelled and laughed at the ridiculous extravagance.

Now, decades later, I often think of this erstwhile roommate. Now, these many years on, I think differently, very differently.  I have in fact come to believe that she, or her mother, or their housekeeper, had in fact discovered the secret of true, if costly, happiness: wear socks once and throw them out.

Do I dare?

There must be a better way. As my middle child completes his university applications, I ponder what advice I might give him when he goes. It just might be 'only ever buy exactly the same socks in the exact same color'. Brown, or black, or white. Doesn't matter. Choose one. Stick with it. Angora optional. Because, I will tell my bright and precious boy, I know that as you spread your wings and discover the world, you will have better things to do with your time than pair socks. You can't throw them out after every wearing because you unfortunately do not have a mother who will send weekly replacements. Plus, the environment.

Be assured, though, I shall tell him, that while your mother may fail on the hosiery front, she will, constantly and continuously, replenish your supply of love: every day, every hour, every single second.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The flying machine and the spinning wheel

One good thing about 2017 is that apparently there were no commercial airline fatalities. I wish I could regard that fact as reassuring, rather than superstitiously thinking of it as jinx.

The last month or two involved a lot of traveling for our family, separately and together, some for work, but most for pleasure, though linking 'pleasure' to air travel is something of an odd concept these days. I counted a dozen flights in a six-week span involving one or more of my immediate family. I anxiously mentally ticked off each one completed. It's stupid. I know that the journeys to and from the airport are statistically more dangerous than the flights themselves, but as is so apparent in the world of today's politics, knowing is not the same as believing. I am a nervous flyer. I am even nervous when I am not the one flying. On Wednesday, elder son left Toronto to return to his university digs in Vancouver finishing our spate of flights. Sadness mixed with relief. Whew.

When we lived in the north of England, in Durham, and I had first one, then two, then three small children, I found myself once or twice or even thrice yearly making what I now see were marathon journeys, sometimes on my own, with the children. I didn't give the decision a second thought, just muddled through. It had to be done. The kindness of strangers benefited me more than I care to recall. (I now attempt to pay it forward.) Once, traveling solo with all three little ones, the youngest took a liking to the motherly woman seated across the aisle, and I allowed myself a brief nap while this complete stranger held the baby.  I had been up half the night packing, and we left for the small local airport at 4:00 am to make our connection in Amsterdam (I became very familiar with Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. I could find my way half-asleep to the baby baths, the rocking chairs, the play area, and most importantly, the best espresso bar) and there were another twelve hours to go before we landed in Los Angeles and had to face immigration and baggage claim. The twenty minutes or so of shut-eye before one of the older kids woke me for a trip to the loo saw me through. I am eternally grateful.

The more flying I did, though, the more anxious I got. Perhaps as the children got older and more self-sufficient, the more time I had to consider how little I understood about aerodynamics, and how much trust was involved in making these trips. Why did I do it to myself, asked a friend who refrained from travel until her own children were old enough to make it easy. A good question. Sometimes I did it because I loved visiting new places and didn't want having children to get in the way of that. Mostly, though, I flew the longest routes because they took me home,  to my childhood home. I wanted my children to know that place, that family, my parents, the aunts and uncles and cousins, all of whom lived on the west coast of the US. It was worth the anxiety and exhaustion, especially before I recognized myself as suffering from them. The friend who asked me 'why' had made a decision I often envy: to raise her own family where she herself was born and grew up.

I did, though, get tired of the adrenaline soaking my system for ten or twelve hours, when we took off, landed, or experienced the slightest turbulence; it began to take a toll, to make me physically ill for the first day after arrival. I needed some sort of rubric, a mantra, a logic to why I should not be terrified on airplanes. I asked people who had gone from fearful or non- flyers to comfortable ones. My sister said, "A little turbulence isn't going do anything." A friend said, "There is nothing you can do about it, anyway." I tried murmuring these words to myself when we hit bumpy air, but they only increased my anxiety.

And then I had an epiphany: the only time I could do anything about the 'danger' I perceived was  when I made the decision to buy an airlines ticket. If I couldn't know in advance whether a given journey would prove fatal, then it was every journey. It's not much of an epiphany, coming more under the heading of what my husband calls 'bleeding common sense,' but my possibly addled mind found it revelatory. Each journey is every journey. That's what I chant to myself these days when the plane bucks and rolls: "This is every flight. This is every flight."My decision was not about the wisdom or luck of being on this particular airplane; it was whether to live a life that encompassed air travel or one that didn't. And if I had chosen one that didn't, I would not have the husband I have or the children I have or even the career I have. It's like Sleeping Beauty's father, the king, banning all spinning wheels from his realm and banishing his own baby daughter to the deepest woods, for fear of her pricking her finger on a venomous spindle.

His scheme didn't work, after all. He missed his child growing up, and the stupid kid managed to stick herself with the damn needle after all. The malevolent sorceress got her vengeance. Then a handsome, charming pilot came along and saved her, along with the rest of the kingdom. At least, that's how I have rewritten the tale. (I'm not sure whether this metaphor actually worked out.)

Now I wish for a good fairy to ward off the dangers of cycling, walking on icy roads in dark evenings, and driving with maniacs about.

The moral of the story is that I can worry for England. And for Canada too.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Luck of the Canuck

Sometimes a great nation...
...but not now.

I was in Washington, DC last week, for the American Anthropological Association meetings: six thousand anthropologists invading the capital to talk about culture, context, community, and of course careers.  Most of the participants, as the society's name suggests, are from the US, but not all. There was a good showing from Canada, Australia, the UK, Europe, beyond. 

During the course of the conference, the Republicans' infamous de-tax-the-rich bill passed Congress. A further proposed bill to tax graduate students' income riled students and supervisors. Strident motions were called and seconded in sub-sections' business meetings to insist that the organization, the AAA, take a stand, for whatever it might be worth (little). 

The mood overall, though, was resigned rather than revolutionary.

Round our necks we wore name-badges that dangled somewhere between collar-bone and belly, so people were forever staring at each other's chests for identification. My badge read 'LESLIE Carlin, U of Toronto'. I lost count of the number of new acquaintances and old friends who said to me, "You're so lucky to be in Canada," or "I bet you're glad you ended up there." The sentiment amongst both US and UK attendees was of living through dire times while trying to batten down recalcitrant hatches.

I had to admit that they were right. We did get lucky. Now that Stephen Harper is gone, and Toronto survived the depredations of the late Mayor Rob Ford, Canada seems like a relatively peaceful and fairly safe--if rather chilly--haven. The rhetoric of diversity and social justice can make me roll my eyes at times, but I notice that it is, nonetheless, infiltrating my attitudes. The other day, at a webinar concerned with ethics and research on ageing, I myself suggested that inclusion and inclusivity be considered important domains. 

Still. The Australians seem pretty happy, too--and a good deal warmer.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Words with the Tedious B

First of all, I am a big fan of the TDSB, the Toronto District School Board. Participating in it has been one of my favourite aspects of moving to Canada. Some of its innovative specialist education programs have been absolute boons to my own children. It is however a large lumbering beast, serving about 250,000 pupils, and it can be frustrating, annoying, and downright infuriating, as well as marvelous. For example, recently the 'Tedious B'  talked about the possibility of closing down some of these great programs because, while they are in high demand, there is inequitable access to them. Surely that's an argument to expand, not reduce them?
And then I read this thing about chiefs, in the local newspaper, the Toronto Star (October 12, 2017):

"The Toronto school board will no longer have chief financial or chief communications officers, as the board finalizes efforts to change titles out of respect for Indigenous people. Dr. Duke Redbird, curator of Indigenous art and culture at the TDSB, said the change “fits with building a student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect — and that’s a quote from the Truth and Reconciliation (Commission) recommendations.” The commission was set up to examine the abuse suffered by Indigenous children in Canada’s former residential school system. Its final report made 94 recommendations. Redbird said the TDSB move solves two problems: First, job titles will more clearly describe what the jobs actually entail. Second, it respects the importance and historical significance of the role of chief in Indigenous communities."

My first response was 'you have got to be kidding'. My next thoughts were even more retrograde. What other words should be banned? Shall we no longer make 'reservations'? Use 'arrows' in our slide presentations? Fortunately, others (actual Canadians) argued the ridiculousness of this route to reconciliation. Numerous callers-in to the CBC News, who reported the same story, said they thought they had been listening to the network's satirical skit show 'This is That', which lampoons current events. 

I know the school board can't please all the people all the time. To their credit, they responded graciously to the wave of negative public opinion regarding the closure of the special programs by saying 'Okay, okay, we'll leave them' (although reiterating a commitment to widen and equalize access to them). The ban on chiefs in schools, though, is apparently sticking. 

It still seems silly to me. But it is possible that my cynicism, such a valuable commodity in Britain, is weakening under the influence of the maple leaf. I woke up this morning to news that a Canadian football team, the Edmonton Eskimos, are receiving some pressure to change their nickname, out of respect for the indigenous Inuit population. My first thought was 'Oh, that would be a good idea.' Progress. And I recently visited the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg ( Both its structure and its content moved and impressed me, and I felt a tickle of nascent pride in 'my' country.  

All of which is to say, I'm getting there. I'm not quite Canadian in outlook just yet but I'm getting there. And good timing, too, as we, my family and I, are now eligible  to apply for Canadian citizenship.

Museum of Human Rights, Winnipeg

Don't get me started on the taxpayer-supported Toronto Catholic School Board-- in a country without a state religion.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

This Land is Your Land

Canada's much on my mind, as well as outside my window.  It's Thanksgiving today, or possibly tomorrow. Or it was yesterday. Unlike the US version, the actual day of celebration varies according to convenience and/or family tradition. We don't have family here, so we get to make up (convenient) tradition. Otherwise, two are similar: turkey, cranberries, cornbread, hospitality, no gift-giving. The differences are mainly a) no pilgrim story and b) not on Thursday. Both holidays have vaguely religious undertones (thankfulness to whom?). I learned recently that  Canadian Thanksgiving owes its existence in part to the publication of Darwin's *Origin of Species*; the newly confederated entity wanted both a unifying holiday, and at the same time to reinforce its commitment to and belief in Christianity in the face of such a challenge, says Peter Stevens, a historian at Humber College in Toronto.

I'm thinking about Canada for other reasons too. Husband has just figured out that this month-- October 2017-- our family becomes eligible to apply for citizenship. (Thank you, Liberal government.) I have to practice considering myself a Canadian. For one thing, I need to confront my issues with the national anthem, 'O Canada'.

I learned by heart the words of O Canada very early in our residence here, because elementary school children sing it each morning as school starts. Because we were so often late to school back in the days when I accompanied the kids, I spent many a minute standing stock-still in the hallway outside the school office (which granted 'late slips'), under the eagle eyes of the vice-principal, while the children sang along with the PA system. It passed the time to join in. It's a pretty catchy tune, and a whole lot easier on the vocal cords than my own national anthem, 'The Star-Spangled Banner'. Oh say, can you sing that incredibly high no-o-o-o-te? No. It also doesn’t revolve around glory in battle (those glaring red rockets).

There's been talk lately about changing the words of the second line in 'O Canada' from "True patriot love, in all thy sons command" to a version that acknowledges the demands on thy daughters, too. I'm all in favour.  Command us women as thee commandeth men, for sure. I'd like to lobby for another change, too. I want the powers-that-be to amend the first line: "O Canada, our home and native land."

It’s the ‘native’ that bothers me. I’m not. I never can be. In Toronto,  50% of the population was born outside *Canada*. Certainly many of these, like me and my family, are not citizens (yet) but they probably could and will be. If you go back a few generations, none but the 4-5% of the current population of Canada who are of indigenous/aboriginal descent would be 'natives'.  So, while I like the tune, and am growing increasingly fond of the country -- especially in comparison with a couple of others I've known and loved-- I wish for an amendment to the lyrics. It’s my home, yes, but even after we get citizenship, it will never be our native land. Not mine, not my husband’s, not our children’s. Maybe, who knows, one day it could be our grandchildren's (gulp).

I grew up having to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every school day. The class stood (except for those who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they had to miss out on Halloween too, so the rest of us were not envious), we crossed our right hands over our hearts, and said 'I pledge allegiance to the flag/ of the United States of America/ And to the republic/ for which it stands/one nation, under God/ indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ For all the flaws in that chant—and it does make me cringe—everything in it could apply equally to native and naturalized citizens.

My children are now in high school or university, and take themselves to school of a morning. I don’t accompany them and thus no longer stand frozen in the hallway listening to the anthem. I still know the words, though.  My high-schoolers report that these days, in addition to playing O Canada, the PA system also broadcasts the ‘Treaty of Acknowledgment’ for the land included in the 'Toronto Purchase':

“I would like to acknowledge that this school is situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat (wen-dat), Anishinabek (ah-nish-nah-bek) Nation, the Haudenosaunee (ho-den-oh-sho-nee) Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis (may-tee) Nation. The treaty that was signed for this particular parcel of land is collectively referred to as the Toronto Purchase and applies to lands east of Brown’s Line to Woodbine Avenue and north towards Newmarket. I also recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal peoples on this land.”

I hear much debate about whether acknowledgement or apology in any way compensates for the wholesale invasion and conquest of the Americas by Europe. In the US, the term ‘Indian’ and “Native American’ are current and politically correct, whereas in Canada, they are decidedly not. (The middle school teacher here in Toronto told me once that during a school trip to Washington her pupils were shocked to be given a tour the Smithsonian’s 'Museum of the American Indian'.) Another good reason for taking ‘native’ out of the national anthem might be to bring it in line with the spirit of the ‘Treaty of Acknowledgement’. How about 'home and honoured' instead of 'home and native'? How about 'in all of us command' rather than 'in all thy sons command'? They scan, and as a bonus, no bullets.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Back passages: laneways, vennels, alleys, and twittens

One spring, many years ago now, husband and I took our children on a tour called 'Back Passages of Brighton'. In Brit-speak, 'back passage' is a euphemism for the rectum and its anatomical environs, just as 'waterworks' refers to anything urinary. Grown-ups use these terms when talking to other grown-ups, not specifically to children ("Separated by a Common Language", Lynne Murphy). Getting back to back passages, as part of the annual Brighton Festival, we signed up for a tour with a knowledgeable guide who led us through the dark, high-walled intestines of the city, called 'twittens', narrow routes hidden from casual view. Generally they run behind buildings, parallel to roads. Hence, back passages. Giggle, giggle. Right.

But the term 'twitten' doesn't travel, even within the UK. In the northeast of England, such passageways are called vennels, which as far as I know, has no scatalogical implications. (Digression: my favourite café in Durham is called Vennels, which had the only espresso machine in town when I first visited, back in the Dark Ages. That's pretty much why I decided to take the job at Durham University. The machine had broken by the time I actually arrived to start work, and was not replaced for about, oh, a decade.)

In Los Angeles, the queenly city of the car, the closest analogue to twittens and vennels is the plain old alley, which to my mind has an unsavoury connotation, being the type of place where  Philip Marlowe encountered the bodies of victims and the perpetrators of crimes.

Here in Toronto, alleys are generally called laneways, and their star is rising. Our neighbourhood association   has taken particular interest in 'greening' its laneways, and they are becoming less back passage-y, less like crime scenes, and more appealing. In fact, some people are building 'laneway houses', small abodes usually converted from garages, whose front doors face 'backward' into the laneway rather than forward, toward the road.

Our own garage is still a garage, and we use our laneway to drive or cycle to and from home. Sometimes I realize days have gone by without my going out the front door.

It's a bit backwards, but it works.

Commune in a laneway. The Junction.
Working laneway. Behind Baldwin Street.

Hidden treasure in Baldwin laneway

Home sweet laneway. Harbord Village.