Thursday, 29 June 2017

Patio season

After several months of intense focus on work and family, I'm emerging from my shell, or cell, or hole, like a mole, or perhaps like a groundhog. I sniff the air and smell barbecue plus the slightly pharmaceutical waft of patio heater. It's the scent of Toronto in the summer.

Two female American friends and I met for dinner on the patio of a trendy restaurant near my house. "Ours is a sharing-based menu," the waiter informed us in a brisk, practiced chant. "But it's not tapas. We don't like to be tied to any one ethnicity. We are multi-cultural and draw on cuisine from across the globe." How Canadian, we commented, and the waiter dipped his head as if accepting a compliment. "Five or six dishes should be enough for you," he estimated. We embarked on a trip around the world, stopping at gnudi with mushrooms, chopped salad with avocado hummus, albacore tuna with sun-dried tomatoes, puffed farro and lamb.  Google Maps would have been very confused if it tried to locate us by the ingredients we consumed.

What I loved even more than the food, though, was the conversation. We talked about our kids, yes, and our husbands, a little, but mostly we talked about ourselves, work, our neighbourhood, urban planning, local politicians, travel. We completely aced the Bechdel Test. Why are women like us, and conversations like ours, so rare on screen or stage or in print?

Possibly because we're ordinary and boring, I suppose, but if that's the case, why did we laugh so much? It can't have been only the cocktails.

A stout chaser

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Splashing out

I must have the most generous friends and family in the world. Seriously.

Every year Heart & Stroke Canada organise a charity event to raise funds for research into cardiovascular disease and treatment of people living with it. The main event is a bike ride along two of the major motorways in the city: the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway. "What, really, they close the freeways?" I asked when I first heard about it.

They really do. I always planned to join in, but never quite got around to it. Then, terribly sadly, just over two years ago, a Canadian friend of ours died of a heart attack in Durham, England ("Requiem for Joe Cassidy"). The Ride for Heart took on new meaning and importance and in 2015, I signed up. The designated June morning was wet, cold, and grey. I got soaked, chilled and fulfilled. I'd raised a few hundred bucks and, as I pedaled, I thought about Joe, who had worked in Toronto for a time. "I used to live on that street," he would say of almost every block in the Annex, when our families walked around together.

Since then, I've come to know more people affected by heart disease and stroke and have reason for gratitude that research and treatment are available.

This year I determined to do the ride again and set out on another rain-drenched June morning for another splashy slog. I finished absolutely wet to the bone. This ride was my first attempt at sustained exercise after an agonizing back injury last November, and so turned out to be both a physical and a fundraising triumph. Friends and family had donated over twenty-five hundred colourful Canadian dollars! Truly amazing, truly heart-warming. Heartfelt thanks to any of you reading this now.

Spring shower, CN Tower
I forgot to ask for towels. Next year.

Don River rising: starting to wonder whether to pedal or paddle

Friday, 26 May 2017

New Scotland

"I was Out East last weekend," a colleague said on Monday. I must have looked puzzled, because she clarified that she had visited a friend in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Yesterday I myself flew even Easter, to Halifax, in Nova Scotia, for a conference (the Canadian Pain Society, since you ask). "Here I am in New Scotland," I thought as the plane landed. I listened for bagpipes at the airport.

There weren't any (thank goodness) but the hotel's bellhops are wearing kilts, which is particularly impressive given how cold it is. Just like Old Scotland.

Canadians in kilts

A few of my favourite things in Halifax (other than the excellent conference presentations): the gorgeous sparkling Central Library with its green roof and nice cafe; Propeller craft brewery; water, water, everywhere.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Better in Canada

Canada turns 150 this year and shall be celebrated. The national bookstore chain Indigo is not backward in coming forward:
It's got legs

Better than what, I wonder? Than over the border to the south, with that decompensating megalomaniac at the helm? Than across the Atlantic, where the UK packs its bags and thumbs a ride out of Europe? Than itself, ten or twenty or fifty (or a hundred and fifty) years ago?  Probably impolite to ask.

Canada's got some competition going, though,  from today. A French friend texted me: 'We've elected our own Trudeau!' Vive la republique.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Big country, small world

The eldest is back from his first year at university! So happy to have him home. The dinner table feels complete again.

He chose to attend the University of British Columbia, about the furthest away he could be from Toronto and still study in Canada. It's a distance of about 3000 miles, give or take a few hundred kilometers. At least there are direct and frequent (though not cheap) flights between Toronto and Vancouver. Most of his friends stayed local, in Ontario.

After a grueling month of exams, at last he boarded a plane back to us. The whole family drove to the airport to meet him. His flight landed on time but he had a long wait in baggage claim for his bulging suitcase. The rest of us stood impatiently outside the sliding doors. "Authorized personnel only," said the sign. Isn't motherhood authorization enough? I argued, thinking of slipping through. Husband said no, so instead we dialed son's number and kept him vocal company.

Near us, I spied a couple who looked as eager as we did, the man wearing a UBC tee-shirt. Eventually the sliding doors emitted a teen-age girl who hugged the mom and the tee-shirt-wearing dad. On the phone, I mentioned this reunion to prodigal son (still separated from us by our lack of authorization) who asked, "Are there two of them?" Puzzled, I looked again, and sure enough, a duplicate of the first girl popped through. More hugs. "Oh, those are Nicole and Jo," son said. "They're also in engineering. They live outside of Toronto." The family saw me looking at them and I waved, gesturing to the phone, laughing, and, walking nearer, named my son. The girls smiled and said "Oh yes, he's so nice. He's the one to go to if you have a programming question." Suddenly, Vancouver seemed less far away, and the enormous University of British Columbia a cozier institution.

By the time our son and his luggage emerged through the automatic doors to give and receive his own hugs, the twins and their parents had departed. "Come drop by to see us if you're downtown!" I told them. Canada is huge, but it's also a small world. I reflected that, as is probably the case for most immigrant families, it's the kids who make an adopted country feel more like home.

Or perhaps just more Canadians

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