Monday, February 28, 2011

Anita Inc.

As with my previous job, my current employment is as a contractor. And since it seems that this will be the state of affairs for an indefinite amount of time, I now find myself in the position of registering as a business and trying to quickly figure out all that this entails.

As a long-time freelancer, I am used to being self-employed. But this is the first time that I’ll be a formalized business where I have to do such things as charge HST on my invoices.

There are many people, of whom my husband is certainly one, who would not like to live with the uncertainty of being self-employed or being one’s own business. I admit that the lack of reliable income can be challenging – and this is where it really helps to have a partner with a fixed income. I am also lucky enough to get to take advantage of his benefits package.

But I love the flexibility of being self-employed. I like being able to juggle multiple contracts, even if it means that at times I feel pulled in all directions. I like that my hours aren't always the same, day in, day out. A 15-hour work day may be followed by a 3-hour day, or by a day of just hanging out with my daughter.

Of course, as I move on to this next step of setting up my own business, there are some details to work out and many things I need to learn. I hope to get in to our local entrepreneurship centre and get advice on some of the legal and accounting details.

I wonder about such things as my lack of a fixed physical place of work. Since my office became my daughter’s bedroom, I do my work on the living room couch, at the kitchen table, at the desk in the basement, at the café and at the office. Do I have to keep track of how long I’m at each place? Does it matter? What about my transportation there and back? What about work I do outside the ‘office’ – like attending a Standing Committee hearing or a community forum? All these details to figure out.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ode to mail carriers

I have a new respect for mail carriers.

This weekend, V and I have been delivering flyers about the community effort to get the city to purchase a portion of the grounds of the former convent site for the creation/preservation of a public garden.

V and I took turns doing deliveries - sometimes accompanied by our daughter who would wait patiently in the stroller while we went up a mailbox and then came back to wheel her to the next house. Covering the few blocks we’d been assigned actually took a surprisingly long time – I guess I was imaging the distance of a city block, not the length of each person’s walkway and the delay of searching for mailboxes.

And this is what amazes me – in at least half a dozen houses I went to, there was no mailbox or mail-slot. Do these people not get mail? Does the mail carrier just drop letters on their doorstep? And is there a reason that people hide their mailboxes? In some instances I thought there was no mailbox, only to find it tucked against a porch pillar or between the screen and inner door. And so I realized that mail carriers don’t just deliver letters, they have to play hide and seek too.

Each winter (with this one being the exception) we get at least one ‘friendly reminder’ in our mailbox that our walk and steps need to be cleared of snow and ice. Last winter when I had a baby in my arms practically 24-7 I felt like posting a reply saying ‘I don’t mean to be inconsiderate. It’s just hard to shovel while breastfeeding’.

But now I have an appreciation for how dangerous it is to go up and down peoples walks and front steps. Very few people had cleared off the recent dusting of snow we had - meaning the ice underneath was hidden, but still treacherous. I didn’t fall, but came close a few times.

And so, having now experienced the mystery of hidden mailboxes and the danger of uncleared walks, I have a new admiration for mail carriers – and I promise to keep our mailbox in plain sight and our walkway cleared.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Looking back - Mali

Almost exactly 7 years ago I was getting ready to leave Mali after spending 6 months working in the capital and in a small village. I had mixed feelings about leaving – aware that Mali wasn’t and would never be home, but still conscious of what I was leaving behind.

I wrote: ‘Mali has come to feel more familiar than Canada – and yet I still notice things, like the men building bricks in the heat of the sun, the women balancing huge loads on their heads, the young girl sweeping the street in the early morning. But these things don’t feel strange – rather beautiful. I love all the activity here, know that I’ll miss that people live so closely together in Mali. On the bus yesterday I was sitting between 3 men, each of whom I was pressed against. In Canada that would have been so strange; we would have felt so aware of touching each other. Here it is not even noticed.’

I reflected on how I had changed, what I had learned. I called it the ‘patience of Africa’ – the ability to wait passively, to not stress about what needed to be done or where I needed to be. I have tried to so hard to hold on to that in these years I’ve been back in Canada. In my diary, I wrote about being unfazed when our bus had to stop for 5 hours in some small village because some U-shaped piece behind the rear wheel had to be replaced. ‘It was so hot that the water in my plastic water bottle was tea-temperature. I went and bought a tea bag and some sugar and made tea to the amusement of the Malians sitting around me. It was my own proof of how hot it was. And yet, despite the heat, waiting 5 hours really didn’t bother me that much – I didn’t really need to be anywhere else.’

Sometimes when my life gets overly busy and I find myself stressing about 15 minutes, I try to recall the mentality of patience in Africa, allowing time to pass without the need to count and measure each minute, and I regret our hurried lives.

Miya 'sings' the ABC song

So here is our 22-month old reciting the alphabet. We do not expect this film to receive any acknowledgment at tomorrow's Oscar awards for directing, editing or photography. But we do feel that M delivers a very strong performance in the role of a budding scholar and logophile.

She often 'sings' this song after she has been put down for a nap - we can hear her shouting out the letters. When she gets to the end - 'now I know my ABCs, next time won't you sing with me' - she mutters 'now-a-now' and then peters off in a bunch of indecipherable syllables.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ode to our public library

I heard today on CBC’s Q that some libraries are moving away from the Dewey Decimal system and arranging their books more like a book store – under categories such as ‘in the news’ or ‘modern fiction’. Perhaps one day all libraries will be virtual and we will just log on to some site that allows us to download books or, in exceptional cases, to pick up a hard copy at some central location.

If such a day comes, I think it would be a real loss. M and I often go to the library on Fridays and our visits are about much more than simply getting something new to read.

Today I picked up a book I had requested that was waiting for me, saw a book on display that I’ve been curious about for some time – Lady Chatterley’s Lover – and grabbed it too. Then M and I went to the children’s section where we take off our coats and stay awhile. There are board puzzles to do, hand puppets (today she brought me a black dog, a zebra and a grey owl) , a rocking chair and couches to read on, tables to colour and puzzle at... all in all a fantastic place to spend some time on a Friday afternoon.

M is very much into her alphabet these days – she can identify all the letters and recite the whole alphabet (although LMNO is rather garbled). So it isn’t surprising that second to books on penguins, she is most interested in books on the alphabet. And so my 22-month old knows that A is for anhinga (and yes, she can identify the bird), anteater, aardvark, alligator and apple (of course). I could go on. The vocabulary she is acquiring through all these alphabet books is quite impressive (i.e. gallinule, hummingbird, newt, flamingo).

It’s been fun rediscovering the public library with my daughter. Sure, I’ve used the library for years – taking out occasional books of fiction, knitting or home improvement guides. But it was usually pretty much in and out.

Now we spend time at the library. I talk with other patrons. I chat with the librarians. It’s becoming a valuable part of my community.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Convent Garden

Across the street from our front door is a public bike/pedestrian path bordered by grass and trees. On the other side of this pathway is a wall, a wall which for many years enclosed a cloistered community of nuns: the Monastery of the Soeurs de la Visitation.

Last year, the 100-year old convent was sold and the property was bought by a developing company. Despite having bid on the property under the guidelines specified in a Community Design Plan and the city’s zoning laws, once acquiring the property the developers made it clear they were doing their own thing.

They have proposed a densely packed conglomeration of condos, retail and hotels that completely disregard the needs, interests and infrastructure of the community. Where the city said 6 stories at the front, they say 9. Where the city said 4 stories at the back (facing our home) they say 6. Where the city said 300 units, they aim for over 600.

Yes, I know – some will say this is the price we pay for living in a popular neighbourhood like Westboro. People will say that we’re all a bunch of NIMBYs (although in our case, we’d be NIMFYs) and that we want urban development, but not in our community.

I’m all for urban development. But I’m also for democracy and community rights. I am furious that a private company can completely disregard community and municipal guidelines in order to milk extra profits off a piece of land. The potential impacts of this development are huge and yet despite all the community meetings, protests, apperances at City Hall, letters, petitions, etc – it seems private companies get to trump citizen rights.

However, there is a ray of hope in this grim tale of corporate greed. A proposal has been brought forth that asks the city to purchase the back portion of the property and make a public ornamental garden that would be connected to the public pathway. The community around would subsidize this purchase through increased property taxes.

What is needed now is that the people from all across the city step forward to support this idea. If you live in Ottawa, please help. More info at

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

email to the Parole Board of Canada

As I’ve blogged about before, the Conservative government is moving to increase the length of time before which criminal offenders who have served their sentence can apply for pardon. They are also radically increasing the fee which applicants will have to pay.

However, Canadian law mandates public consultation on changes to public fees – including the fee for pardon application. So the Parole Board of Canada is currently seeking public input on the proposed fee increase – it was $50 last year, was increased to $150 in December and now is proposed to be $631.

I believe that this decision which will make it much more difficult for former offenders to lead full and productive lives as members of society. If you happen to agree or have any concerns or comments with this bill, you have until Feb 27 (this Sunday) to have them included in this public consultation.

You can email the Parole Board of Canada at

As an example:

To the Parole Board of Canada,

I am writing to express my concern about the proposed increase to the pardon application fee.

Since 1970, more than 400,000 Canadians have received pardons, 96% of which are still in force – meaning the recipients remain crime-free within their communities. Why is the government impeding a process with this level of success? There is no evidence that this fee increase will in any way make our communities safer.

The people most affected by this proposed increase are disproportionately poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized. The proposed $631 fee is very likely to be far beyond their means.

Without a pardon, a person’s chance of finding decent work is extremely limited – and we know that lack of employment is very highly correlated with the likelihood to re-offend. Unpardoned, they continue to live with stigma and oppression, exacerbating such things as low self-esteem and social isolation. Unpardoned, they are more likely to remain on welfare or return to criminal activity, both of which are a far greater cost to citizens and communities than that of subsidizing the cost of processing pardons.

As a concerned Canadian citizen, I sincerely appeal to the Parole Board of Canada to not raise the fee for pardon application.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

another day at the cafe office

I was back at my café office today. The plan had been that with our nanny would be shared with another family and care would be at their home – thus allowing me to work from home. However, that arrangement has fallen through so I once again find myself spending my days at the café while the nanny looks after M at home.

Sometimes it is rather inconvenient – hauling my computer over and making sure I remember to bring any necessary files. And as much as I love coffee, I usually max out after 2 cups – but the wireless system is such that clients need a temporary pass which is only valid for an hour (although some days it lasts for much longer through some random blip in the system). This means that on days I have to be doing a lot of email correspondence or web research, I am obligated to make a purchase almost every hour in order to maintain my internet access. And like I said, there is only so much coffee I can drink in a day.

But despite these inconveniences, I do enjoy the social aspect of working in a café. There are the other regulars I chat with and lots of people watching to do. I can’t help overhearing conversations happening around me – sometimes they are rather banal or annoying and I have to work to tune them out. Other times they are so interesting that I have to work to not let on I’m listening.

Today there was a young man talking with a woman who seemed to be some sort of social worker. It seems he had lost all his ID and citizenship papers. The woman was helping him fill out some forms and was sympathetically talking to him about his life, his interest and talent in art, his social isolation. I’d find my attention often drifting over to their conversation and to thoughts about what it would be like to have no identity cards, no proof of my citizenship and all the privileges which citizenship entails. I think of what a privileged world I live in – and the access to it I so often take for granted.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Playing for Change

We had friends visiting over the weekend. They were amusing M with some videos on youtube – one of which was ‘Don’t Worry’ from the Playing for Change project. It shows musicians from around the world – France, the Congo, Nepal, India, Israel, the Netherlands, and South Africa – collaborating together. The video is filmed outdoors in these locations and it was beautiful to see all these different singers in so many places.

Soon I was looking for more videos. M has two ear infections so she is quite fragile and spending a whole lot of time just sitting on my lap these last few days, so together we watched artists from around the world singing other songs like Bob Marley’s ‘War/No more Trouble’ and ‘One Love’. She seems to like it well enough. I’m loving it.

And so, by the end of this long weekend, I’ve now purchased a ‘Playing for Change’ audio/video album off iTunes and have been learning more about the organization behind all this. Seems that what started as some documentary filmmakers making a film about street music turned into a “global sensation ... including musicians of every level of renown, that has touched the lives of millions of people around the world.”

Playing for Change not only continues to make very cool music, they also build programs which bring music education into the poorest corners of the world, motivated by “the fundamental idea that peace and change are possible through the universal language of music.”

I’m always a sucker for collective movements working for peace, but what makes this project resonate with me even more personally is that of the 7 programs up and running, 3 are in Nepal – the country of my childhood - and 1 is in Mali – a country I have worked in. Watching the videos of the programs set up in these countries is quite touching.

As Mahamadou Diabaté, a Malian griot who has spearheaded a project to build a music school for youth in Kirina, Mali, explains in one of the videos: the goal of project Playing for Change is to build a great family through music to bring peace. Here where politicians have failed, music will always advance.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

It's late - rewritten on request for 'more action'

It is late in the evening. A group of conspirators meets over whiskey and cigarettes. All have drinks. A game of poker was played. L won V’s car. The evening is winding down.

A dog enters the room and bites V. V curses. R grins.

R: What do dogs think about elevators? You walk into a machine. The doors close. The doors open. The entire world changes.
V: That is pretty much the same experience I had at this morning. I walked into the elevator, the doors opened and a Russian spy stepped in. He pointed a gun at me. For a moment my entire world changed.
R: Most of the close buttons don’t work anymore. They’ve been disabled.
V: Some do. Some do.

R exits stage right.
Off stage a muted argument is heard between R and L. A door slams.
Enter L from the stage left.

V to L: By the way, don’t say anything. She will just transcribe what you say and post in on the internet.
L spots a box of cigars in the corner
L: Ooh, Cubans!
V: Yes, I use them for my nerves.
L: Exactly.
L snips a cigar and lights it. V checks what his wife is doing.
V: This is the second lamest blog I’ve ever seen. Look, she’s doing it.
L: I don’t think it should count then.

L continues to smoke, breathing deeply. The sounds of R storming around the basement and V counting poker chips can be heard in the background. The dog enters and growls at the smoke from L’s cigar.

L: Seriously?

V enters.

V: I could throw the cat at the dog... your blogs always make me sound like a crazy person. Someday I'll stop talking. Then you’ll be sorry.
L: I think we should cut off her fingers.
R: I’m going to bed.
V: Don’t think you can get away that easily.
R drops a towel in L’s lap and leaps through the window.


L: Now you have to say something profound.

V looks askance at the women on the couch, slowly draws his fingers across his neck in a gruesome gesture. He exits.

The women sob quietly.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's late

It is late in the evening. A group of friends has had dinner, some had drinks, some ate dessert. A game of Carcassone was played. R won. The evening is winding down.

A dog enters the room and chases its tail, then looks expectantly at the people present.

R: “What do dogs think about elevators? You walk into a machine. The doors close. The doors open. The entire world changes.”
V: “That is pretty much the same experience M had at the museum this morning. She walked into the elevator, the doors open on another floor. She has no concept of that.”
R: “Most of the close buttons don’t work anymore. They’ve been disabled.”
V: “Some do. Some do.”
R: “Insightful.”

R exits stage right.
Off stage a muted conversation is heard between R and L. Quiet laughter.
Enter L from the stage left.

V to L: “By the way, don’t say anything. She will just transcribe what you say and post in on the internet.”
L spots a foam roller in the corner L: “Ooh, foam roller”
V: “Yes, I use it for my IT band.”
L: “Exactly.”
L uses the foam roller to stretch. V checks what his wife is doing.
V: “This is the lamest blog I’ve ever seen. Look, she’s doing it.”
L: “I don’t think it should count then.”

L continues to stretch – shoulder shrugs, neck tilts, deep breaths. The sounds of R brushing his teeth and V cleaning the kitchen can be heard in the background. The dog enters and is knocked on the head by L stretching.

L: Seriously?

V enters.

V: I could throw the cat at the dog... your blogs always make me sound like a crazy person. Someday I'll stop talking. Then you’ll be sorry.
L: I think we should leave her at 363 words.
R: I’m going to bed.
V: That is the safest course of action.
R drops a towel in L’s lap and exits.
L: Wouldn’t it be ‘leaves the room?’ that’s more words.


L: Now you have to say something profound.

V enters. Looks askance at the women on the couch. Seals lips together and exits.

A quiet conversation begins.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Books: The Flight from the Enchanter

Finished Iris Murdoch’s The Flight from the Enchanter last night. This was her second novel, published in 1956 when she was roughly my age now. As always, I find her descriptions of relationships fascinating and her characters intriguing. However, this isn’t one of her better books and the plot was disjointed, the characters a little too enigmatic to be able to fully enjoy.

The Times Literary Supplement said about this book: “Most readers will probably find something in The Flight from the Enchanter to amuse or interest them, yet few possibly will have any great feeling of satisfaction when they put it down.” That expresses quite well how I feel.

Typical of Murdoch’s novels, The Enchanter tells several overlapping stories. There is one character, Misha Fox, which I assume is the enchanter – but while his behind-the-scenes manipulation was suggested at throughout the novel, frustratingly the extent of his influence was never actually revealed.

Another central character is a woman named Rosa who leads a tangled life which includes complex relationships with illegal Polish immigrants, the dominating Misha Fox, a spineless brother and a flighty boarder. There is also a plot line around an old feminist magazine which is run by her brother but threatened by Fox. The most broadly entertaining part of the novel was when the founding ladies of the magazine, now grey-haired and hard of hearing, arrive at an annual meeting to prevent the magazine from being sold – a meeting which descends into scrimmages over champagne and tea yet manages to save the journal.

There are various other characters who get more or less developed as the book goes by. It almost feels at times as if Murdoch was never quite sure where to go with this. Perhaps she invented for herself such a colourful, populated world that she could not figure a way to leave anything or anyone out. But ultimately, this weakens the novel as the story meanders and finally peters out, leaving the reader with the dangling threads of unanswered questions.

Yet despite this negative review, I still enjoyed the book. Murdoch’s characters are so far from two-dimensional – it is no wonder that they often slip out from her grasp.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


So the defence went as well as it could. I had about 10 minutes to present my thesis. I was asked questions by the two members of my committee. For all the formality of the defence, the questioning was quite informal – more like a discussion than a firing squad.

The funny part was that I forgot to invite people to this defence. So it if hadn’t been for a friend who happened to be in town, and who V happened to think about inviting this morning, V would have been the only person at my defence who as not required to be there. It was strange to be in a large room set up with seating for about 20 and have only 2 guests. But this added to the informality and ease of it all.

It almost seemed like we should have been doing the whole thing over coffee – with such a small gathering (8 people in total), it seemed odd to be seated alone at a table facing a practically empty room.

After all the questions my committee left the room for about 10 minutes. When they came back, the chair announced that my thesis was accepted without revisions, given the highest mark, recommended for a prize and for publication. This doesn’t mean that I will get a prize or get published, just that they recommend it. Feels very good.

And as you can see from the photo, there was quite the spread laid out – fruit and cheese platters, crackers and 3 bottles of wine! Everyone sampled and sipped a little as we stood around talking afterward. But given that it wasn’t yet noon, we were all quite restrained.

Afterward V and I went for a lovely lunch at Domus, where it was nice to see old co-workers and my former manager – and to enjoy the complimentary glasses of bubbly sent to our table. I think over lunch it was finally sinking in that I really did get the best outcome I could have hoped for with my thesis. After all this time, it was a very nice way to finish.

But now I must say I mostly feel tired. Heading off to bed.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Prepping for my defence

So tomorrow I defend my thesis. It’s been such a whirlwind with my new job that I have not had the time to prepare as I would have expected to.

But today I think I have managed to get the important things done: I bought a new top to wear and got a hair cut (not thrilled about it, but at least I don’t look quite so shaggy). Oh yes, I also prepared my speaking notes and a hand-out for people who will attend (and who might they be? I have no idea – apart from knowing that my committee and my husband will be there. Perhaps that will be it.)

I’ve also spent some time preparing answers to the questions I’d been given in advance. I wonder if by having the questions beforehand the expectations are going to be higher. It’s like a take-home exam versus an in-class one. I remember when I naively thought that a take-home would be less work – until I realized that I ended up writing an exam for 20 hours as opposed to 3. Now I say give me an in-class exam any day, although I do apologize for my handwriting which after two hours becomes an illegible scrawl.

So do I feel ready for tomorrow? I guess so. Don’t really have a choice, which is probably just as well. Sometimes I find that the less time I have to prepare, the less time I have to be nervous. I used to get so nervous about giving presentations when I was an undergrad – then I discovered that if I reached a certain point of stress , I would care more about simply getting it done than about how I would do. This would get rid of my nervousness (no time for such foolishness!) and I would actually end up doing better on my presentation. Fight of flight.

And so it is just as well that I go in to tomorrow with only a modicum of preparation. But on the other hand, I have now been researching this topic for 3 years and I am quite sure that I will know it better than anyone who will be in that room.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bill C-23B - part II

Yesterday I wrote about how Bill C-23B, a piece of legislation on the table, aims at extending the length of time before which offenders can receive pardon. I said that I would explain today how such legislation could actually make communities less safe.

First, to be clear, pardons do not mean that people’s criminal records are erased, but that the information is removed from public record so as to improve their chances of obtaining employment and reintegrating into society. For example, a pardon ensures that a sexual offender's criminal record doesn't show up on checks of the Canadian Police Information Centre, unless the offender applies for a job involving children, the disabled or any vulnerable group of people.

Pardons can only be applied for after the expiry of a sentence, which means people have paid all restitution orders, served all of their time and satisfied their probation orders. Since 1970, more than 400,000 Canadians have received pardons, 96% of which are still in force – meaning the recipients remain crime-free within their communities.

But the government is proposing to extensively lengthen the amount time before which people can apply for pardons – to 5 from 3 years for summary conviction crimes, and to 10 from 5 years for more serious indictable offences, such as manslaughter

And in addition to delaying pardons, the cost of applying for pardons will increase to $631. Only 2 months ago they already bumped the price to $150 from $50. This may not seem like a lot of money too most, but to people who have been unable to find real work due to their criminal records, this could be an insurmountable obstacle.

Because without a pardon – in other words with a criminal record – a person’s chance of finding decent work is extremely limited. And lack of employment is very highly correlated with likelihood to re-offend. Unpardoned, people also continue to live with stigma and oppression, exacerbating such things as low self-esteem and social isolation which further contribute to anti-social behaviour.

So essentially, by making it harder for people to obtain pardons, the government is increasingly the chances that they will commit more crime – in other words, actually threatening the safety of communities.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bill C-23B - Proposed changes to Canada's pardon system

I spent much of the day researching a piece of legislation currently on the table in Parliament. Given that it’s been a long day (including a few hours observing the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on Parliament Hill), I’m going to turn these notes into a blog. And as a warning, I’m likely to only become more interested in issues of criminal justice and so there will be more blogs about topics such as this. This blog will also be divided into two parts – with more to follow tomorrow.

On June 17 of last year, the House of Commons split Bill C-23 (An Act to amend the Criminal Records Act) into 2 new bills - C-23A and C-23B. Bill C-23A was passed quickly without much debate – pushed through because Karla Homolka, having completed a 12-year manslaughter sentence, would have been eligible for parole under the old legislation and the government used her example to push for legislative changes. It essentially allows the National Parole Board to “deny any pardon that would bring the system into disrepute”.

The second part of the bill – C-23B: Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act, is currently before the house. It addresses the remaining aspects of Bill C-23 with such things as substituting the term “record suspension” for “pardon” and extending the period of ineligibility for a record suspension to five years from three for summary conviction crimes, and to 10 years from five for more serious indictable offences such as manslaughter. It also makes those convicted of sexual offences against minors and those who have been convicted of more than three indictable offences as ineligible for a record suspension.

And as with the other current ‘tough on crime’ legislation initiated by the Tories, there is no evidence that this Bill will result in gains to public safety or that it will further the objective of protecting victims. Instead, it’s been described by Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, as “yet another sad and sorry attempt to inflame, rather than to inform, the public.”

Tomorrow, I will offer more information about why such legislation is actually counter to efforts to build safer communities.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dinner out at Fraser Cafe

We had dinner last night at Fraser Café, a fantastic restaurant in New Endingburgh. I know the owner-chefs from back when they were working at another of Ottawa’s great slow-food restaurants, Domus, and I was bartending there. Around here, we’re big fans of their cooking.

They opened a new restaurant not too long ago, a bigger space than their old place. It has a nice layout in that the space is semi-divided into parallel rooms, and an open kitchen toward the back. A nice buzz, warm atmosphere, funky lighting. All-in-all a great vibe.

The menu changes frequently but always includes a ‘kitchen’s choice’ which is a blind option. One of our friends couldn’t resist leaving his whole meal to the chef’s whim. He described his appetizer – pan-seared tuna with fried risotto and smoked tomato with truffle oil sauce, and some wild mushrooms – as “extraordinary” and “out of this world” (once again I’m shamelessly using my friends to help blog). His main – pork done two ways – was also deemed good, although admitted to be over-shadowed by the appetizer.

“I started the evening with a fantastic martini, that definitely helped things out,” said his wife. She was wowed by the ambiance and the service, adding that the food was fantastic all night. She had the kitchen’s choice Cesar salad with pork-belly bacon and shrimp. For her main she had a duck which was “done to perfection” – although she regretted not discovering the cranberry sauce till half-way through, which apparently just added to the fantastic combination of flavours on her plate.

“Really didn’t need to follow it up with rice pudding,” she noted, “which was just another layer of richness.”

V and I also had fantastic meals. His app was a thick fish cake with smoked trout crème-fraiche and a kitchen’s choice main – lamb with a curry cream sauce. I had a tomato, cucumber, olive and goat’s cheese, a main of salmon in a miso sauce with bok choy and wild mushrooms. Delicious. And mine was the kind of meal that was filling without being too much – like my perfectly balanced dessert – a nutty chocolate brownie that was satisfyingly rich, but not too sweet.

Compliments to the chef!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rideau canal

For living in Ottawa and being not too far from ‘the world’s largest outdoor skating rink’, it’s sad to admit that we hadn’t been out on the canal yet this winter. But since friends are visiting from out of town this weekend, it was a good excuse to get out there this afternoon.

But the weather was deceptive today. Although the temperature read only -4˚, there was a strong wind blowing that made it feel much colder. The wind was so strong in fact that our friends on skates could just spread their arms at times and be pushed along by the wind. But despite the blustery wind, it was fun to be out on the canal in the middle of all the skaters – although V and I chose to stick to the safety of our boots since neither of us is too stable on skates. M was strapped into a little toboggan we pulled along.

Our friends donned skates and weaved around us, circling back to find us trudging along the side. A couple times they would take Miya for an extra-fast dash along the ice.

“I look forward to skating it every year,” said out-of town friend, T, “beside visiting our best friends in Ottawa, the Rideau's my favourite reason to come to Ottawa in the winter. I’m a better skater than I ever was before and that adds to the enjoyment.

“One of my favourite things about skating the Rideau is looking at the type of skates people have,” like the old beat up hockey skates, the speed skates, the longer skates that look like cross-country ski-skates.

“Sitting by the fire was a nice way to finish up a long day in the fresh air,” she added, “and beavertails are always good.”

“Some day I think it would be very cool to throw a curling rock the length of the canal,” said her husband, although admitting that it would take several throws, musing that a 100-ft throw would be a good one, and we’re looking at 7.8 km. My concern is the other skaters who would not appreciate being taken down by a 40-lb rock, but these things could be worked out.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fridays with my daughter

Since shortly after Christmas I have spent nearly every day, all day, with my daughter. Until this week, that is, which has been a bit of a transition. While I’m very excited about my new job and enjoying the opportunity to be back at work, I find myself missing Miya a lot more than I had expected.

So I look forward to Fridays, my one-on-one day with my little girl.

We have a very busy morning, starting with gymnastics at 9:15 (we are almost always a few minutes late). Most of the class is little circuits in various parts of the large gym area – things like walking along balance beam of various heights, hanging from the rings, climbing, crawling, jumping. The instructor will assist kids through movements like somersaults on the beam or over the bar. She had M doing headstands and backbends today. M is really good about letting the instructor flip her around, although she gets a very serious expression at the time.

After gymnastics, it’s straight from there to the senior’s centre where we spend an hour visiting and playing. M was fantastic today – she had wanted to bring along her WWF orangutan this morning and she was proudly showing it off to the seniors. I’d suggest a resident she could show it to and she’d run over and put the furry little orangutan in their hands or on their lap. Sometimes they would dozing off and wake to find a little person thrusting a bright orange animal at them. But they always responded with joy. She’d sometimes let them hold it for a few seconds, then she’d take it back and come running back to me. I’d point out someone else in the room who might like to see it, and she’d head off. Very cute.

After our visit, we head back home for lunch and nap. Then in the afternoon we’ll go out and do some errands – probably going to pick up Valentine’s cards today since she loves decorating cards. Colouring and putting stickers on cards for her friends will likely easily fill up the rest of our afternoon.

Time goes quickly when we’re having fun with someone we love.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Dater/Sitter Co-op

Parents of young children don’t get many opportunities to go on dates. If we pay for childcare during the day, we aren’t too likely to want to pay again in the evening – especially if you know that all the person will be doing is sitting watching a movie or reading a book while your child sleeps soundly in the other room.

And so I’ve come up with a plan. I call it the Dater/Sitter Co-op. Here’s how it works.
Ideally we would have 6 or 8 families who live in the same neighbourhood and who know and trust each other to be in our homes and look after our children. Contact information would be exchanged among members.

The group would be divided, by couples, into two pools – Daters and Sitters. (Initial division could be random or by first-come-first-serve). The distribution in these pools would be indicated on a website – and updated through member log-in/management.

When any couple in the Dater pool would like an evening out, they can send a request to the people in the Sitter pool. Someone from the Sitter pool who is available and willing to sit will let the Daters know and the details can be worked out between them. Obviously, the assumption will be that Daters will not abuse the system – the idea is that parents can go out for dinner or drinks, not all-night raves.

Once a Dater/Sitter pair has come to an agreement, they switch pools. The Dater couple is now in the Sitter pool, the Sitter couple are now Daters.

An understanding could be that if Daters cancel arranged plans, they still have to switch pools with the Sitter couple – but if the Sitter couple cancels plans, they have to go back to the Sitter pool and the Daters go back to the Dater pool.

The goal of this system is to remove some of the hassle in finding babysitting so as to have the occasional evening out. This would also remove the guilt of asking friends to watch your kids. By asking people in the Sitter pool if they want to sit, you give them an opportunity to move to the Dater pool.

So, anyone interested?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Forum for Criminalized Women

As part of my new job, I spent the afternoon at a community forum on criminalized women. This is a subject on which my knowledge has been only marginal, but I’m now getting a chance to sink into it. What I am discovering is quite sobering and disconcerting.

For example, women are the fastest growing prison population not only in Canada, but worldwide. Of the over 1,000 women in Canadian federal institutions, almost a third have a self-identified mental health disorder, the vast majority are poor and under-educated, and over 85% were abused.

If this begins to paint a picture for you of the type of women behind bars in Canada, add to it that over a third are Aboriginal and two thirds are mothers.

Further, almost half of the crimes that they have committed are crimes of property – such as theft and shop lifting. The majority of women charged with assault or murder were acting against an abuser of themselves or of their children. And over 70% of women who are sent back to prison are re-incarcerated because of a technical offense, such as failing to fulfill a parole requirement.

Are these women such threats to their community that they must be locked up for months or even years far from their families and support networks? Because there are such fewer women prisoners then men, there are also fewer prisons, half-way houses, services, etc. – meaning inmates can be thousands of kilometres away from home and support.

Across the board, research shows that offenders are better able to reintegrate into society and less likely to reoffend if they have community support. Yet repeatedly in the discussion today we heard how there is a lack of support within the community, a lack of funded and available programs.

Our government is moving to build more prisons, extend prison sentences and impose more mandatory sentences – none of these things have been shown to deter crime or lower rates of re-offending and none of these things will give criminalized women what they most need – which, as one speaker put it, is support, respect, meaning, healing and connection.

I’m just new to all this. But I’m getting fired up already.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

thesis defence

The date for my thesis defence has been scheduled. Feb 17th, 10:30 a.m.

I have only 15 minutes to present my thesis – which is 158 pages long. I then have 10 minutes with each of the two professors on my committee to answer their questions. Oddly, in this program the committee emails the questions in advance. So I have the pleasure of knowing that I will be asked such things as:

- What do you think we gain from typologies/efforts to categorize social phenomena? What do we lose/what risks are posed by efforts to categorize?
- You state: “I am not suggesting that [the actors] are ‘evil’ perpetrators’ of violence, but rather that they are social actors responding to, and shaping, their physical, social, economic and political environment.” By excluding concepts like “evil” and “primeval” what do we gain? What is lost if we do exclude them?
- Does your viewpoint have an ideological blind spot?
- How would you categorize complex cases such as Hamas in Gaza City, Islamic Courts Union/Al Shabaab in Mogadishu?

Again, I have 10 minutes to address these and other questions. I am actually expected to do this? Can I talk so fast that they hear only a blur of words and assume that I have presented a satisfactory argument? What would happen if I said, “That is a very good question. If I were writing a doctoral dissertation, I would like to address it. However, I have presented a master’s thesis that is already 50% over-length and thus I do not feel that I have the scope to develop my material in the direction you suggest.”

Oh, and then there is round two – questions for which are not pre-disclosed. But I only have 5 minutes to answer them. Perhaps they will ask how my theory of organized urban violence applies to the recent political unrest in Cairo. That is something appropriate for a 5 minute answer.

Luckily, because my university used to be a seminary where the sacrements could be given anywhere on campus, each room is licensed to serve alcohol. Apparently the college provides a bottle of wine for a post-defence toast. I think I will need it.

Camel ride

Tired of Canadian winters, Miya recently hitched a camel ride to head for warmer climes.

Originally destined for Egypt, recent political turmoil deterred them, so she and her traveling companion were forced to remain within the Children's Museum.

This is likely just as well. Neither of them held a valid passport and we suspect that the money she carried was a forgery.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Top 10 Places: Northern Saskatchewan lakes

So far, all my top 10 places have been cities. I’m not a particularly an urban girl, so it seems odd to me that I’ve chosen only urban centres. And so, to end this series I’m not choosing a place that can be so clearly pinpointed on a map. I’m going off road – on to the water.

I first discovered northern Saskatchewan lakes as a kid when our parents sent my sister and me to camp. We did the usual summer camp things, like sit around bonfires and learn to canoe. I fell in love with being on and in the water, so different from a pool or the salty, tumultuous ocean.

Over the years, I would return to northern lakes as camper and counsellor. I not only learned how to canoe, roll a kayak and drop a ski, I also learned how to scare away bears that roamed into camp. I once told my young campers that bears don’t swim, only to have a big brown bear paddling around by our cabin the very next morning.

Later I became a certified canoe instructor and taught lessons to various groups, including a bunch of Thai exchange students who, as it became clear once they were on the water, understood little of what I had said. For a few summers I was part of a team that took Saskatoon street youth up north to canoe and camp. We paddled the rivers, built shelters, sat around campfires and gave the kids a break from their daily struggles on the street.

I was also once one of the leaders on a canoe expedition in northern Saskatchewan that nearly ended in disaster as we faced hypothermia, broken bones, lightening strikes - as well as running out of food rations.

For each of these trips I could tell endless stories – and those who know me have probably heard a few of them. But it’s more than all that. It’s the beauty of the northern lights, the pristine clear waters, the rich silence of the forest, the call of the loon. It’s night-swimming in the path of moonlight dancing on the lake’s surface. This is the magic of northern Saskatchewan lakes.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Top 10 Places: Barcelona

I visited Barcelona in 2004 following my second pilgrimage to Compostelle. On that trip I became good friends with a girl from Girona in the eastern coastal region of Spain. She invited me to come and visit her, so after completing the pilgrimage I took the train to Barcelona where I stayed for a few days before travelling on to her village.

In my typical fashion, I arrived without knowing where I would stay or what I would do. I simply wanted to discover the city. I ended up finding an under-the-table hostel in some seedy part of town that was run by a group of pot-smoking hippies who didn’t charge too much for beds in a communal room filled with bunks. It suited my budget and tastes just fine. One of the hosts even gave me directions to a used clothing store (not as common in Spain as in Canada) where I was able to get a few things to expand my paltry pilgrim wardrobe.

One of my favourite discoveries in Barcelona was the Sagrada Familia, an amazing church designed by Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi. Construction of this unique and ambitious basilica began in 1882 but is still incomplete. I don’t understand all the intricacies and challenges of its construction, but I know that Gaudi’s design of the interior columns was unique and based upon his study of plants and nature – not upon the typically geometric calculations commonly used in architecture.

His unique designs, as well as the detailed facades outside the building, were absolutely breathtaking. By the time I came to the Sagrada Familia I had been to more than my share of churches and cathedrals along the pilgrimage trail. Many seemed cold and dead to me. This church was magical.

Really, it was Gaudi that made Barcelona for me. It wasn’t just his church, there were various buildings of his scattered around town as well as the Park Guell, a beautiful public park/garden filled with his unique architecture and mosaic patterns. I’d never paid much attention to architecture before or had a real affinity to on architect. But Gaudi artistic, organic and magical works inspired me as I would never have expected.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Uncovered poetry

Some days I just can’t come up with something new to write. And so I turn back to old writings - there are so many of them. Boxes of diaries. Scraps of poetry. Letters unsent. Fiction unfinished.

So for today, here are two poems uncovered in old files.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Or perhaps it just grows,
sprouting wild shoots that crop up like dandelions
in your carefully groomed backyard.
One morning you wake to find your heart a dense forest of undergrowth,
tropical flowering vines spanning the continent.

So you follow the vines across the miles
to see if they bear fruit. Arrive with a wavering smile,
cupping your dirty hands around your heart.
But tendrils creep between your fingers,
trip you when you step off the plane.

If he is surprised by your leafy appearance, he doesn’t say
but kisses you quickly and leads you away.
Carelessly stepping on a fallen frond.

He had tried to warn you that tropical vines won’t grow in this climate
and he looks at you with disapproval and pity
when you undress and reveal your budding body.
You believe, you believe that once he tastes their nectar
he will plant you in his yard to drink from you each day.

His forage into the forest is cautious,
like an explorer in new land.
He is astonished; he is pleased.
He grins like Adam when he first sees Eve
and he grasps your colorful petals in his pale hands and caresses each stem.

But soon you notice your leaves begin to fall,
the flowers droop and the tendrils stall in creeping
to hang limply along your thighs.

Foolish, foolish, we’ve all be foolish.
Pick up your dead leaves and broken vines
and return to your own earth.
Wait till spring and plant a garden
outside your window, not outside your berth.

Falling Angels
Better the angel you know
even if fallen angel is.
Your mother’s voice is a reminder
of a broken adage,
a needle through your thoughts
trailing scarlet thread.
The cliff of indecision is your to stand on
and fall from.
A cloud of distracted wisdom
the flimsy net to catch your fall.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Top 10 Places: Bangalore

As I’ve been writing about these top 10 places, I have picked places that I’ve known as an adult. As a child I was lucky enough to visit places such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Calcutta, Sydney and Christchurch. I grew up in Nepal, living for the last year in Kathmandu –probably one of the most interesting places I’ve ever lived in. But it’s hard to write about a place that I knew so distantly and in a childlike way.

So it is that when I think about cities in Asia to include in my top 10, I am going to talk about Bangalore and not the many other places I visited as a child.

My husband’s family is from this state capital in south-central India. In 2008, V and I visited his extended family there, timing our visit in order to attend weddings of two different cousins. It was a whirlwind of meetings with relatives and taking part in the many and lengthy marriage celebrations. I blogged about this trip a few years ago.

As I noted then, the trip for me was an odd combination of new and familiar. I had never been to Bangalore before, but so many things reminded me of my childhood in Nepal and India – the open markets, customs, food and clothes... Also, V and I weren’t there as tourists, but rather as family members. So instead of tramping around to check of guidebook recommendations, we spent most of our time visiting with family. This is an interesting way to approach a new city, diving in right past the exteriors and introductions to living rooms and family conversations.

But the whole new/familiar dynamic was also caused by the different ways I have of seeing things now as opposed to 20 years ago. I was more acutely aware of urban poverty and populations – especially coming from Ottawa (population density of 279 per sq km) to Bangalore (10,100 per sq km). I noticed the informal shacks built on roadsides, the acres of slums. Cows in the street, that wasn’t new - but an interest in broader urban issues, that certainly was. And in this regard, I could only scratch at the surface.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Top 10 Places: Havana

Like yesterday’s entry, this choice of a top ten place is not a city I know particularly well – but one that I found quite fascinating and would like to spend more time in.

V and I had been together only a short time when he asked if I’d like to accompany him to Cuba to attend his friends’ wedding. I happily agreed, although stipulated that I wasn’t interested in spending the whole time at a resort and would like to have the chance to visit Havana.

We arranged for a stay in a ‘casa particular’- a private home in that lets out a room or more to guests. Essentially it was paying someone to sleep in their bed, eat at their table and sit on their balcony. But I’ve always preferred to travel in a way that gets me past the tourist facade – and this, for all its unpredictability, seemed like a good bet.

We got in many ways what I’d hoped for – a glimpse into the daily life of Cubans. One of my favourite memories is sitting on the small balcony of the apartment we stayed in, watching the casual comings and goings of neighbours. We could hear drifts of conversation and laughter, listen in on the violin practice of a young girl across the street. Night fell as we sat side by side in the humid summer air, sipping rum and eavesdropping on Havana.

Cuba is a fascinating place for its resistance to capitalism and defiance of its colossal neighbour to the north. Being in Cuba is like visiting a Petri dish of social and political experiment. Yet the ideology which holds this country in a vice grip seemed tenuous to me – I kept thinking that everything might change in a matter of months. Yet years have gone by now and I wonder how much has really changed.

Politics aside, Havana is known and celebrated for its arts. There is Hemingway, of course. We visited the hotel he most frequented, drank mojitos on its roof. We also heard music in the streets, watched dancing and puppetry in the street. In cafés we were serenaded by singers with more passion than talent. Altogether captivating.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Top 10 Places: Los Angeles

I was never interested in L.A. before I visited it, and I’m a little surprised that I’m including it in my top 10. And yet, it is one of those places that has stuck with me and kept me thinking long after I’d left.

I first went to L.A. on a sort of arts junket, part of a group looking at the role of Canadians in Hollywood. We did the studio tours and schmooze fests. The dollar figures tossed about by our enthusiastic guides when referring to various film and television productions were so surreal that I found myself laughing. I couldn’t help by translate these figures into monies needed to fight poverty, AIDS, malnutrition, malaria.... anything. It was all so ludicrous that I found I could only laugh and disengage. Otherwise, if I had started ranting, I feared I would never stop.

So L.A. seemed to me a ridiculous, self-absorbed, elite enclave that seemed to function on an entirely different plane than the rest of us. And if it hadn’t been for chance encounters, this probably would have been my final impression.

But I actually ended up meeting and dating someone from L.A. It was as short-lived as one would imagine a relationship over 4,500 kilometres apart would be. But it was enough to give me a glimpse behind the Hollywood facade. To see the L.A. that was much the same as most other American, and even Canadian, cities I’ve visited – climate and palm trees aside.

It was this juxtaposition which intrigued me. Meeting students and people with everyday jobs, having a coffee at Starbucks that tasted the same as it did back home – taken alongside the extravagance of Hollywood. It was also a little surreal to go for a walk and recognize the view before as one I had seen several times on the screen.

While touring the studios we visited the sets of some television shows like Friends and Gilmore Girls. It all seemed so fake, these odd rooms with missing walls filled with props. We could see the boundaries of the fantasy, the drab reality beyond the view of the cameras – which essentially is what I found so fascinating about L.A.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

1 down, 11 to go

Well, it’s the first of February. One month of blogging done. And I have a new (used) first gen ipod touch as a reward. I was expecting something like flowers or a sorry-I-forgot-IOU so I am very impressed and excited about my new toy. It has already proved useful for stealth checking emails while Miss M is around.

Funny how over the span of a month each day feels much the same as the one before, and yet when I look back I realize quite a bit has changed. I’ll be starting a new job in a few days, and Miya has a new nanny (after quite a frantic and rather discouraging search).

I also have, for the first time in my life, been able to get into the routine of regular meditation. No vistas of enlightenment to report, but I noticed after a few days that my mind is clearer and I feel sort of energized – in a calm way – after meditating.

My down time of the day is the short hour or so when Miya is napping. It used to be that this was rarely enough time to feel rested. Sometimes I would just lie down for a nap, only to hear her call for me from the other room. But now I find that meditating for around 10 minutes clears my head and gives me a new energy and focus for my afternoon. I still find it very, very challenging to keep my attention on my breath – but am encouraged that even my amateur, bungling attempts are making some difference.

Those are probably the biggest changes in my life over the past month. The other things are little – like finding new ways to keep Miya entertained. The other day we were stuck in a long line at the grocery store and ended up pretending the zucchinis were phones. She got a lot of smiles from people around as she held the zucc to her ear saying, “Hello Grandma, hello Daddy.” I’ve also learnt how to draw penguins for her to ‘colour’. A very valuable skill.

And thanks to those of you who take the time to read these blogs. More to follow...