Thursday, January 26, 2006


Some people, when stressed, get ulcers. Others get stomach aches or headaches. I get a sore throat. A killer sore throat. The kind that wakes me up in night because it hurts too much to swallow. The kind that make the back of my mouth bright, angry red and has me constantly drinking fluids, sucking on cough drops or mints .... In short, the kind of sore throat really not convenient to have when doing multiple presentations each day.

I started this morning at 8:30 with an assembly of 600 kids. While I wasn't exactly shouting, I had to get my voice all the way to the back of a very large gym. I think it cracked at least 3 times during that presentation alone. From there it was a race to the next school, then a race to another, and another. I was sucking on lozenges between each school, sipping water during the video part of my presentation - and praying that my voice would get me through the day. Thankfully, it did, and now I'm home drinking hot water with honey, ginger and lemon. Aaaaahhh.

I only have 2 more schools tomorrow, then 2 on Monday. While I sincerely enjoy doing this Read-a-Thon tour, it will definitely be nice to be done.

And as it would work out, this was supposed to be my last week at the restaurant I quit, but when I called today to check that I was still on the schedule for tonight - it turned out I was not. So no more of that. Curling up with a book and a hot toddy tonight.

I did want to mention in particular one school I stopped at this week. It was on Monday - in the evening actually, after all the kids had gone home - a little school in my neighborhood. There was a bright yellow sign on the door - a cirle with an X in the middle. Voting station.

I was in Spain the last time we had a federal election, I think in Europe the time before that - so it's been awhile. And I think this is the first time I've actually voted for a candidate who won my riding. With our archaic first-past-the post voting system, unless your vote goes to the winner, it is basically worthless. Well, not completely - after the last election it was determined that each party receiving over 2% of votes will annually get $1.75 per vote. That's how much your vote is worth if it wasn't for the winner. It's not worthless. It's worth $1.75.

We have another minority government - and, if patterns repeat themselves we will likely be back at the polls in 18 months. But I am actually not displeased with the outcome of this election. I think minority governments, while perhaps less effectual in producing laws and passing bills, demand more cooperation among parties and prevent the kind of radical policy changes many Canadians fear.

Newspapers, radio and tv are still full of political talk. Being in the capital, we probably get an even greater share. It is a very political town - we had the highest voter turn out of any major city. 74%. Sad that is our highest, but still glad that we had at least that much interest.

Anyway, enough rambling about politics... there are better informed opinions out there on the web. My 2 cents is really only worth... well, $1.75.

Monday, January 23, 2006

kids, MS & reading

For two weeks, in school gymnasiums across Eastern Ontario, I am up in front large groups of kids talking about the Multiple Sclerosis Read-a-Thon. 15 schools down, 14 more to go.

My job is to get kids informed about MS and excited about joining the read-a-thon fundraiser. It's a great cause and a lot of fun, even if I am losing my voice.

Today I had a grades-7 & 8 group, then a country school of 110 kids in grades 5 - 6. The older the kids are, the harder it is to get them hyped. It is so not cool to show you like reading.

My favourite schools are those where I have rows of kindergarten and grade 1's sitting right in front of me. To start off my talk I get them snapping their fingers, stomping their feet, then clapping their hands to make a rainstorm. They love it. It's also a great way for me to get their attention and lead into how our brains send messages to our hands to make them clap, or feet to make them stomp, etc...

But when you're in grade 7, you're way too cool to make a rainstorm. Luckily a teacher I talked to in a staff room at the second school gave me a suggestion that worked as well as the rainstorm for my segue- and was cool enough for pre-teens. She suggested I do a clap-back: I clapped a brief rhythm and the kids clapped it back. They responded well - and were dead on in their clapping. I felt like I'd been given the inside track to this school and the rest of the presentation went really well. It's easy to spot who are the 'cool kids' in a class. It feels like a real accomplishment to get them participating. At the first school I had this morning I had no such inside track and could tell I had not made it in to being cool in their eyes. I was not deemed worthy of much attention or interest.

Before I started doing these MS RATs, I never thought much too much about the differences from one school to the next. But each year I visit about 50 schools (Jan, Mar & Oct) and there can be huge differences from one school to the next. The age of the building doesn't seem to be factor - old schools can be more dynamic and high-energy then some new, big schools. Rural schools are definitely more white, but some country kids seem keen, kind and less cool-obsessed. But then others are sullen and miserable. I remember one small town school where the teachers had no control of the students and stood with arms crossed and bored expressions throughout my talk. They made it very clear that they were frustrated about being stuck in this town lost somewhere between Cornwall and Ottawa. Their actions and tone of voice communicated this negativity to their students - who of course responded in kind. I could have stood on my head and juggled flames with my bare feet and I still wouldn't have drawn a smile.

I never know what to expect when I'm heading in to a new school. Some inner-city schools are bitter and run-down. Some are great - teachers giving all they have to give these kids a decent shot at life.

I visited one school in the poor east-end of Ottawa last week. It was day of freezing rain and one school had already cancelled on me; I wasn't sure what kind of reception I would get here. Approaching the school, I noticed all the low-income rentals, the shabby duplexes, the run-down apartments. "Most of the fund-raising we do is just for the school," one of the teachers told me in the staff room.

But can I tell you that those kids were the some of the keenest I have met? After I had shown a little video about the RAT, I asked the kids if that looked hard to do. 'No!' they shouted back.

"Do you think you can do that?" I asked.

"Yes!!" they cried. I knew they didn't come from money and that their parents wouldn't be pleased to be asked for a few more dollars, so I emphasized reading over raising cash. But it was really touching to see the kids who have so little be so eager to help others. Wish I could say there was the same positive response in some of the richer schools I've talked at.

It's an old saying, but it seems so true that those who have the least always seem to give the most.

I don't know what kind of school is waiting for me tomorrow. Will my city suburbs school be the rainbow of nationalities I love to see? Will the teachers be keen or tired and grumpy? Will I be able to hold the attention of the youngest for the whole half-hour? Will my voice hold out? (It cracked a few times today - something which perhaps won me sympathy from the adolescent boys.) This is all a little draining at time, but when it works - when the kids are with me, laughing and participating - when I seem to be able to communicate at least the basics about MS and the importance of helping fight this disease - well then it all seems pretty worthwhile.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

quitting work

I had not planned to do this without a back-up in place. But it seems I quit my job yesterday. It also seems I have become so good at quitting that my boss was apologetic when I gave my notice!

I have been working on and off at this restaurant for over 3 years. When I first quit my job as Communications and Public Relations Manager for a national arts organization in 2002 I thought I could do part-time work until I managed to earn a living through writing. First I went to Starbucks since I heard they have a dental plan for employees and despite their bad rep with leftists, they actually pay decently, give shares in the company etc. Plus you get tons of coffee - a pound a week to take home and plenty during and between shifts. I'm all about the coffee. But I lasted just under 3 months - before any dental plan kicked in - since they would not give regular schedules and not being able to plan anything further than 2 weeks in advance was rather frustrating.

Word of mouth, I heard there was a job at an upscale restaurant in Ottawa's trendy, touristy Byward Market. It's all about who you know, so when I went in saying I heard Kate was leaving, I was given the job right away. That was in October of 2002.

The tip-out was good. The hours were fixed and it seemed a decent fit. I got on as a regular reporter for an Ottawa weekly, a contributor for an arts report and for a time I was happy writing, reporting and bartending. I stuck around for a year, then left to go to Africa for five months.

Since coming back from Africa, and subsequently Europe, I maintained a good relationship with my former boss and sometimes she'd call me in to pick up some shifts when she was short-staffed. Somewhere along the line I also started managing the restaurant website - at a ridiculously good rate for them.

She called me up around August of last year and asked if I could take some shifts. Some shifts turned in to regular shifts and suddenly I found that I had stepped back to 2002. Felt I was moving backward instead of forward with my life. 'Well,' I told myself, 'at least this will motivate me to find something else to sustain myself so I can quit.'

I've been hunting since then - always struggling with that balance between something that pays the bills but still allows time to write. Whenever I got close to finding something, I would look forward to giving my notice at the restaurant. But these things would fall through and I would keep going back to the restaurant, increasingly frustrated with this stalled place I'm at.

But now lately things have been coming up. I'm busy enough that sometimes it is hard to find the time for my shifts - which I end up swapping or giving away. I have an interview coming up next Thursday for a part-time web admin job. And starting Monday I will spend the next two weeks visiting 29 schools in and around the Ottawa area telling kids about Multiple Sclerosis and getting them to join to a read-a-thon campaign.

But the Read-a-Thon conflicts with my restaurant shifts. After unsuccessfully trying to get them filled, I had to tell my boss that I won't be able to work for 2 weeks. At first she seemed okay with it, then yesterday she told me she liked me, liked my work - but it seems I'm not too committed to the restaurant and am too often not available to work.

The moment of truth had come. I felt it burning in my stomach like a hunger pain. I could lie and tell her I was committed, that this was temporary, etc... or I could admit that I am desperately trying to find other work so I don't have to keep coming back to where I stood three years ago.

Obviously, this calls for more tact than the words in my heads. So I apologized to her, told her I wanted to do right by her and respected the fact that she has a business to run. 'But,' I said, 'I also feel that when I have opportunities to advance in my career, I have to take them.' She said she could understand that.

She had said before that she has not hired someone else because she does not have enough shifts to give. So I told her that if she needs to hire someone, she should maybe go ahead with that - and give that person my shifts.

I've never been good at confrontations. I was nervous and could feel my eyes tearing up. To my amazement I saw hers do the same. She said she appreciated my honesty. 'No one is mad at anyone, are they?' she asked.

'Oh no,' I said. 'At least I hope not.' She said no and thanked me. Asked if I was okay with that. I told her yes and that I would be happy to pinch hit if she needed me.

As she walked away I realized I must be getting pretty good at this, since I just quit my job and she asking me if I was upset with her! Times like this I don't know if I should feel proud of myself for handing this well, or feel guilty of manipulation.

Either way, it seems I have now given notice. I don't know when my last shift is - or what I will do afterward. It will be nice to not go back there. I just hope something else will fall in to take its place.

Monday, January 09, 2006

the world's biggest skating rink

I feel so Canadian. No, I didn't go to the advance polls and take part in the democratic process.

I went skating on the world's largest outdoor skating rink.

Those of you who know me will know this is significant. This is my 5th winter in Ottawa and 2nd time on the canal. I am grateful to friends who dragged my unwilling butt out onto the canal last year and encouraged me into a pair of skates. Luckily for me there was an ice-wary mother in our group who wanted to ride in a little push-sleigh - I volunteered to push her so I would have something to hang on to. After a time my friends pried me away from the sleigh and I expected at any moment to go crashing to the ice - bruising knees and pride.

Surprisingly I managed to remain on my feet and to my amazement, realized I could grow to enjoy this treacherous sport. Done right, it looks so graceful. I resolved to try again next winter.

So this weekend the canal opened. V and I went to a used sporting goods place and joined the crowds buying and sharpening skates. A young blond guy - with that weary look of a pro dealing with idiots - picked out a pair of old skates for me. They felt stiff as wood, but apparently that is how they should be? Having no better opinion of my own, I accepted his and bought them.

The ice conditions were "fair". The canal was crowded. There are benches on the ice beside stairs leading down from the street. V and I inexpertly donned our skates and rose to our wobbly feet. Left our boots under the bench, counting on the goodwill of fellow skaters.

Fortunately V is as confident a skater as I, so we stumbled along together and felt no shame. Large cracks in the ice and patches of pebble-like unevenness made us both stutter step and weave, but I am proud to say we both managed to remain on our feet and even picked up a bit of speed.

We skated down to Dow's Lake. Trucks were on the ice clearing large paths in the light layer of slow. Skaters of all ages and abilities surrounded us. Parents pulled toboggans and red wagons with bundled children aboard. Fearless kids zipped around, fell and jumped up again. I admired all those moving with even, effortless strides. This is something to aspire to.

We rewarded ourselves with hot chocolate - which V insisted he couldn't drink and skate at the same time. My feet were hurting by the time we got back to our boots. I was aware of certain muscles in my legs I haven't felt in awhile. And I felt great. My Canadian blood was warm and tingling.

So if you happen to be out on the canal this winter you may see me clumping along. But before you get too close - I should warn you that I can't yet stop.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

the future in the palm of my hands

I had my palms read the other night. Saw a sign in a coffee shop window and impulsively went it. Something about the start of a new year turns me toward plans, goals and that curiosity about the future. Where will I be at this time next year? What will I be doing? Never one to be locked in one place, a year can often bring radical differences (and usually at least 2 changes of address).

So what did Jocelyn, the palm reader, have to tell me?

She was a blonde woman, perhaps in her late fifties, with short hair and glasses. A face not unkind, but not warm. I did not get the sense of strange mystical powers, but more of a housewife who has studied hard and approaches each client with academic sincerity.

She pulled a lamp toward my outstretched hand and spent about five minutes tracing the lines of my hands with a black ballpoint pen - first my right, then my left. The right she told me is my conscious side, the part of me I have affected. The left is more innate, what I was born with. She picked up some insecurity on the left, but said my self-doubt and anxieties shown on the right I had done to myself. "Question self / Trust in self" she wrote on heel of my right.

She also wrote a few other things - 'open mind', 'avid reader'. "You can be giving," she said, and added that I enjoyed the arts. 'Curious' she wrote, 'worries'.

She made a number of hatches on the lines she drawn, then seemed to use those marks to come up with significant years. Apparently my 30th year was supposed to be big for work, but I must have missed that somehow. My chance may come around again when I turn 35. For relationships the big years are 32 and 35 - she said that could mean a new relationship, a marriage, a child, etc. Pretty much covered her bases. She thinks I'll have 2 children.

I can't say my future is much clearer for having let Jocelyn peer at my hands and write all over them. For a few hundred times what I paid her I could go to a clinic in Ottawa and get a genome test that would predict my chances of having cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's and other diseases. That test, though highly debated by ethicists, doctors, and geneticists, would likely tell me more than she could. But the problem with predictions is that they can never tell the whole story. It's like peering through the keyhole and trying to describe the room.

I don't know what I was really looking for in having my palms read. Some confirmation of who I am perhaps? Do it make it more true that I am an avid reader with a curious mind because a woman claimed to see that written in my palms. That she did not see I am a writer, does that make me less of one?

It is one of my core beliefs that as humans we spend a lot of time running around trying to get others to confirm who we believe we are. A desire to be understood is, I believe, one of our most fundamental motivators.

Even when it makes us do strange things like pay $20 to get our hands written on.