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.

Friday, 18 August 2017

S'mores and sand

As of August 1, we have lived in Toronto for seven years. Not itching yet (though I've just read a short story entitled 'The Itch'. Coincidence? I think so).

We thought that we still had further time to wait before becoming eligible for citizenship, but rumor has it that government policy has changed since the advent of Le Trudeau as prime minister.  It may be that we are now deemed ripe and ready to apply for a maple leaf passport.

I check my patriotic pulse. Am I truly prepared to become a Canadian citizen? I can't be sure. There are of course many hoops to jump through, some of them bureaucratic and official, but the true citizenship test seems to be more experiential, or maybe existential.

The checklist looks like this:

Have you
1) canoed?
2)  consumed poutine?
3) camped?

And now, for me, the answer is yes to all three. Earlier this month, daughter and I joined friends who know what they're doing, wilderness-wise, at Sandbanks Provincial Park on the shores of Lake Ontario. A delightfully sticky, sandy time was had by all.

I'm at least a step closer to feeling Canadian. Just let's not talk about hockey.

Tent erection team
S'more s'mores 

Lake Ontario 

Heading home....
...and I always thought they just knew to do it naturally.


Saturday, 29 July 2017

Continental drift

July 8, 2017

When I was a child growing up in Los Angeles, I had two friends who had been to Europe: Miriam and Jane. I regarded both of them as touched by great good fortune. Europe! I didn't quite believe in the place. On my first ever trans-Atlantic journey, to Israel when I was sixteen, I used up an entire roll of Kodak film (36 exposures) snapping pictures from the plane window. The English Channel! The Alps! They existed! I really hadn't been certain.

Many years later, living in England took some of the gloss off of European travel but I still thrilled to the various journeys I could take, alone, or with friends, and, eventually with my own expanding family. Amsterdam. Krakow. Dublin. Marseilles. Crete. All an hour or three away by boat, train, plane. Once, my parents and children and I went to France for lunch, because my mother wanted to see The Burghers of Calais. It turned out that we almost had to leave the middle child behind at the Calais ferry terminal because of a minor passport snafu, but that's another story. ("You'd like French boarding school," I assured him. "They have great food.")

Now I live in Canada. I've been to Thunder Bay, St. John's, Halifax. I know Buffalo and Syracuse, and a few other previously unimagined destinations. They all had great food too, but the trips lacked the romance of, say, a long weekend in Rome.

So I particularly enjoyed a sojourn to Copenhagen earlier this month, accompanying husband, who attended a conference (on "Economic Theology" since you ask. No, me neither). I'd never been there, never been in Scandinavia at all other than Iceland, which seems a sort of Scandinavian adjunct rather than the real thing. (Sorry, Reykjavik.) I have been to Helsinki and know that Finland, while Nordic, is not Scandinavian. I don't remember why, though.

Christiania, Copenhagen

Listening to my husband speak at the conference was part of the pleasure. The man is clever. He knows such erudite words and how to use them. Someone sitting next to me in the conference hall whispered, "Are you connected with him?" I admitted it. "He is so wonderful!" the man said to me. "He's just amazing."

I agreed. We've been married twenty years and I still agree.

From our hotel window we could see the Oresund Bridge, famous now (apparently) from the television crime drama 'The Bridge', which connects Denmark to Sweden. In fact, from our window we could see Sweden. I felt a thrill, simply looking at the coast and the faint skyline of Malmo, because Sweden is a country where husband has spent a good deal of time conducting research. He has never taken me there with him before, but now, after more than two decades together, he agreed to let me in, albeit quite a distance from his own field site. So, after a hearty breakfast, we boarded the train in Copenhagen airport and descended, thirty minutes later, in Lund, a charming Swedish university town. Amazing.

Europe is a different country.

Sliver of Sweden, from Denmark (Amager Beach)

We wandered medieval streets and the Botanic Gardens,  and explored the crypt and caught the last of a free concert in the Cathedral. We ate fish soup and shrimp salad in the airy, polished food hall. Husband conducted transactions in Swedish and then we discovered our server spoke perfect American English.  "I was an au pair in Westlake Village," she told us, which is a suburb of LA,  a twenty-minute drive from my childhood home.

In bookshop, while husband looked for Agatha Christie in the unoriginal Swedish, I tried to buy him an anniversary card. There weren't any. I asked shop assistants and a few kindly schoolgirls to help me, in case I didn't know the right words, but apparently Swedes don't make, buy, or give anniversary cards. Husband had to settle for a plain old English one a few days later when we reached Durham, the city where, long ago now, he and I met.

In the beginning: Durham

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.