Friday, September 30, 2011

Victory for Insite

Today the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that Vancouver’s Insite clinic can stay open and that Ottawa has to back off.

In a ruling based on evidence and research showing that Insite saves lives and promotes rehabilitation, the Court declared that Ottawa’s attempt to shut down the site undermined the protection of health and public safety and violated the Charter of Rights.

Insite supporters celebrated the win. “This is the triumph of science over ideology,” said their lead lawyer, Joe Arvay.

Insite opened in September, 2003 as a safe, sanitary, medically-supervised place where addicts can inject drugs. In this downtown Vancouver location, people “inject drugs and connect to health care services – from primary care to treat disease and infection, to addiction counselling and treatment, to housing and community supports.” It is funded by the BC Ministry of Health and is North America’s first legal supervised injection site.

The Court stated that Insite was “launched as an experiment. The experiment has proven successful. Insite has saved lives and improved health. And it did those things without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime in the surrounding area.”

In fact, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS reports that since Insite opened, there’s been a 30% increase in the number of addicts who enter detox and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority says there have been more than a million safe injections at the site with more than 1,400 overdoses but not a single death.

Prime Minister Harper has said that he is disappointed in the ruling, but that Ottawa will comply. This will likely fan the flames of Tory contempt for judicial powers though. It is also unlikely to change the Conservative approach which rejects that addition is an illness best treated by doctors instead of police and prison guards.

I predict that in the years to come the courts will be hearing more cases in which citizens groups challenge tough-on-crime legislation as reducing public safety and violating Charter Rights – especially given that legislation before us now is based on ideology, not evidence.

But today I’m grateful that we have a Supreme Court with the authority and wisdom to protect human rights from political ideology.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Believe it or not, I am actually encouraging my husband to grow a mustache. Those who know me may be surprised, knowing that I am not a big fan of facial hair on guys, especially when it comes to a guy I kiss.

On the other hand, you won’t be surprised since growing a mustache would be for a good cause – raising funds and awareness for cancer, especially the number one male cancer - prostate cancer.

The ‘Movember’ campaign began in Australia in 2004 by Adam Garone who encouraged men to “groom, trim and wax their way into the annals of fine mustachery” and raise money, through sponsorship, for men’s health issues, especially cancers affecting men. .

According to the Movember Canada website: “We want everyone to know that most cancers are highly curable if caught in the early stages - including prostate and testicular cancer. Movember aims to increase early detection, diagnosis and effective treatment, as this will ultimately reduce the number of deaths from cancer. It’s time men face the startling health facts.”

In a Globe and Mail interview, Garone describe mustaches as ‘the hairy ribbon’ for prostate cancer – comparing it to the popular pink ribbon for breast cancer. He points out that women have been successful in moving breast cancer into the public arena and thinks men need to similarly break the stigma around prostate cancer and raise its public profile.

On average, 11 Canadian men will die of prostate cancer every day and testicular cancer is the most common cancer in young men in Canada between the ages of 15-29.

Last year, the ‘Mos Bros’ (with support from the women in their lives, the ‘Mos Sistas’), raised $76.8 million (Canadian) globally – which includes $22.3 million from the Canadian campaign.

But besides raising money for research and awareness of these diseases, Movember seems like a good excuse to have fun experimenting with mustaches. The idea is to start clean shaven on Nov 1, let a mustache grow for a week, then start sculpting it into shape. V is talking ‘reverse goatee’, ‘dapper Frenchman’ or ‘stylish porn star’.

So, any guys out there who want to join my husband in some Movember growth?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In defense of hitchhiking

Today on CBC’s ‘The Debaters’ the topic of discussion was hitchhiking. One debater suggested that picking up hitchhikers was basically an invitation to murder and rape - which the police wouldn’t bother investigating on the grounds that you should have known better. The other debaters did not so much defend hitchhiking as suggest that even if you were murdered by a hitchhiker, at least you died doing someone a favour and would have good karma going into the afterlife.

I, however, would like to defend the practice of hitchhiking – albeit with a very healthy dose of caution. Sure, when my daughter is 16 and tells me she plans to hitchhike across Canada, I may feel differently. But I would like to agree with the point made by one debater – not all hitchhikers are weirdos, and not all weirdos want to kill you.

When I lived in France, my friend and I would hitchhike to the coast or to little villages surrounding Bordeaux. We used common sense and a couple times got out of a car that didn’t feel right. But generally we got lifts from kind, regular folk who took pity on two young girls.

When I was walking the pilgrimage there was one day when I had to make a detour of several kilometres to go by a village where there was something waiting for me at the post office. I had a swollen ankle at the time and was walking with a young nurse. She reasoned that since we were off the pilgrimage trail, it wouldn’t really be cheating to hitch a ride. Figures that it was a priest who picked us up and, upon learning we were pilgrims, jokingly scolded us.

A couple days later my ankle was so swollen that my friend insisted we hitch a ride to the next city where I spent a couple days recovering. The kindness of strangers was very appreciated.

It’s only been in Canada that I’ve been the one in the position to offer a ride to hitchhikers – and I actually did so a couple times. I was alone both times and yes, many people flipped when they found out. But my karma is solid.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Which one should go?

So here’s my dilemma – there are only so many hours in the day and too many things I want to do. I've reached a point at which I know that I have to take something off my plate.

The following is an outline of the main activities with which I could, or do, fill up my Monday-Thursday working week (Fridays are spent with Miya and I am not ready to give these up). If you had to choose, which of the following would you say should go?

1) A 15-hour/week contract (with the potential of increasing to 3.5 days/week) doing research and communications with a national organization. I enjoy the subject matter (restorative justice and criminal justice reform) and the position offers steady income and professional development, but not necessarily personal fulfilment. While I have some flexibility and freedom in my tasks and main activities, the internal politics of the organization can be challenging.

2) A position on the chairing committee of a start-up national network advocating for safe and effective responses to crime. Again, this is a subject matter that I believe in and want to work on, but being a start-up, the work can be unpredictable, stressful and at times very demanding. The remuneration is less than I'd get doing the same work for an established organization and some things need to be done on a volunteer basis. However, I'm able to take a lot of leadership and initiative and this position offers great opportunities for professional development and networking. As I am involved in the leadership as well as implementation, the work can be fulfilling and stimulating.

3) Turning my thesis into a book. While publication is not certain, I have an opportunity to collaborate with a professor to turn my master’s thesis into a book. I would be combining policy and academic research and hopefully produce a book which would be published by a university press. While this is far from a sure thing, it will only be possible if I can invest time and energy into developing the proposal, rewriting the text, networking etc.

I have come to the realization that I can only do 2 of these 3. Which???

Monday, September 26, 2011

Books: Bright from the Start

A few weeks ago when Miya was going through a stage of resisting bedtime and many other requests, I went on to the public library website and requested several books on raising toddlers. I am a researcher by nature and often feel a compulsion to understand things I see around me. This applies to such things as politics, basic physics and raising my child.

During my pregnancy and in Miya’s first year, I had time to read and get informed about the various milestones she was going through and headed towards – and the impacts these have on her emotional state. I read several parenting books and generally felt pretty confident about how to handle various issues that came up.

Then, not too long ago, I realized that at some point my little girl had moved out of babyhood into toddler-hood and this was a whole new realm I knew very little about. I could see that she was more volatile at times, that her need to be independent and make her own choices was becoming more pronounced, but I wasn’t sure how best to help and guide her.

One of the books I found has been quite useful in helping me understand how Miya’s brain is developing. Bright from the Start, by Jill Stamm, is a layman’s overview of recent neuroscience findings on infant and toddler brain development. It’s a quick and very interesting read.

This book isn’t geared toward things like how to get your toddler to sit still through dinner, but it does provide a lot of practical tips and ideas for helping your child develop emotionally and cognitively. I found it very encouraging that many of the things she advocates – such as the importance of a strong emotional attachment between baby and caregiver – were things that we have already learned about and are practicing.

Stamm encourages parents to use ABCs with their kids – attention, bonding and communication. She uses science to show how importance these things are, and practical, easy suggestions for developing each of these at various stages from infancy to age 3. Lots of great ideas – I’m going to copy out some notes before returning the book to the library.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tips for Amazing Race Competitors

I just watched the first episode of this season’s Amazing Race. While the show is ridiculous in many ways, V and I do enjoy watching it together – and watching it makes me knit faster.

But one of the things that strikes me when I watch is that the competitors on the race rarely know how to help their partner get calm and focused in times of stress. Usually the pair end up bickering and yelling, often saying things like ‘Stop talking to me!’ and ‘Com’on, you’re not trying hard enough.’ Sure, this may be the kind of drama that drives up ratings, but I hope nobody is actually taking any sort of life lessons from these guys.

And while I don’t expected to be invited on the Amazing Race as a life coach, if I could take these competitors aside and give them some of my humble advice, it would likely look something like this:

In times of stress, the brain and body retreat into a ‘fight or flight’ state in which things like logic, problem-solving skills and short-term memory take the back seat to a racing heart rate and muscles coiled for flight. If the problem you two are facing requires someone to use a higher part of the brain, then you need to help your partner get calm and focused – which obviously will not be accomplished by yelling and reminding of failure and ticking clocks.

So how to calm down in times of high stress? Stop, drop and roll if you’re on fire. If you mind is on fire – stop, straighten and breathe. Stop what you are doing and stop thinking about what you need to be doing. Sure, stopping seems like the last thing you should do if you are racing the clock – but you can’t be effective anyway if your mind is in panic mode. One minute of self-calming will save you many minutes of futile rushing.

Stand straight. Push down your shoulders. Stretch your head up high. Breathe deeply and slowly.

You don’t need to sit and meditate, but a few deep breaths can help you release yourself from the panic state and focus on what you need to do.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hangin' with my kid, part II

After I finished my entry yesterday, I realized there are so many things I enjoy doing with Miya. And so I continue yesterday’s post into today.

- Arts and crafts. I absolutely love doing art with my daughter. I love her freedom and the way she does things for the fun of it, not so it will look ‘good’.

I’ve heard that it is very hard for adults to do thing randomly. Brains love patterns – it’s how we learn and make sense of our world. The older we get, the harder it is to stop our brains from imposing patterns on the things we do. It’s also very hard to not form judgements about things. Miya is still too young to be held back by either of these things – so watching her put paint on paper, string beads, apply stickers, etc. is watching complete artistic freedom, pleasure and fun. I love it.

- Going for coffee and a muffin. I spend an inordinate amount of time at coffee shops – they are where I do much of my work as I sit with laptop and latte for hours on end. But every so often I go to the café with my kid, not my computer. We like to find a table by the window. I sip my coffee; she eats a muffin or some other bakery treat.

Lately we’ve been going to a café along a street that is being completely torn up and re-done. Like most toddlers, M is fascinated by large construction trucks. Yesterday we had front-row seats for watching guys pour cement for a new sidewalk. Fun stuff.

- Slowing down. I don’t know how to explain this one exactly, other than that being with a kid makes you move just a little bit slower – to stop and smell the roses, or pluck a dandelion, or pick up a pine cone, or watch a squirrel, or an excavator, or a city bus, or a lady walking a dog...

They say with kids that the nights are long but the years go quickly. Taking my time to slow down with my kid helps me hang on a little longer to these quickly passing years.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hangin' with my kid

Today, as Friday, was my day with Miya and I thought that for the blog I’d list some things I enjoy doing with my kid.

- Hanging out at the park. This has been one of my favourite things to do with Miya ever since she was just weeks old. I truly believe in the restorative properties of being in nature and while a hike in the Gatineaus or extended camping trip would be wonderful, what is most practical and accessible for us is frequent visits to local parks.

I love sitting on the grass or a bench under the shade of a tree, watching Miya explore her world. Our neighbourhood park is as familiar to her as her backyard, so she moves it around it with the same confidence she does at home. She’ll play by herself in the sand, run around the grass, climb on the play structure... I sit and watch, sometimes joining in her play but mostly just letting her do as she’d like, at her own pace. I’ll chat with other parents or care-givers, or just breathe deeply and relax.

- Visiting the seniors. I’ve written about Miya’s volunteering with the seniors a few times before, but I can’t help mentioning it again. Watching her with them is fascinating, humbling and heart-warming. Her mood may vary – shy and quiet (like today) or active and out-going, but she never fails to interact with the seniors and bring them joy. I love watching her respond to people, young and old and appreciate how she responds differently to different individuals; she is too young to feel the obligations of social pressure to treat everyone alike.

- Reading. Miya is going through a stage where she will latch onto one or two books at a time and want these to be read repeatedly, for days on end. While I admit this can get a bit boring as I know each line by heart, it is still pretty amazing to watch her mind develop and see how she interacts with books. I will change words just to make her correct me, pause so she will fill in the blank – lots of way to have fun.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Discussing the Omnibus Bill

For those of you who are sick of me blogging about politics and justice issues, forgive me. Since the Omnibus Bill was tabled I have been spending much of my time following responses to the bill and encouraging Canadians to speak up and express their concerns. Even as I write my husband is sending out postcards to MPs about this issue. He’s never looked sexier.

(In case any of you would like to look similarly sexy, you can visit the Elizabeth Fry site for some postcards which you print double-sided and mail (postage free) to your local MPs and other key ministers like Harper, Nicholson, Toews, Comartin, Sandhu, Cotler and Rae.)

Anyway, you have heard plenty from me about this and related issues, so tonight I’ll share some of what Ministers were saying today about the crime omnibus bill.

Joe Comartin, NDP Justice Critic: “This bill continues a long-standing pattern of disrespect by the government to our judiciary by taking away judicial discretion around sentencing in particular.

Don Davies, NDP MP: “There is nothing in this bill that deals with prevention. There is nothing in this bill that addresses the need for increased resources to help prevent crimes from happening in the first place.”

Vic Toews, Tory Public Safety Minister: “Canadian prisoners convicted abroad continually want to come home and foreigners who are incarcerated in Canadian prisons do not want to leave. That should give the opposition an indication of the relative benefits of being in a Canadian prison.”

Paul Dewar, NDP MP: “I would plead with Canadians to hold their members of Parliament to account on this because it is going to cost us more. There is the economic argument regarding downloading all the costs to provinces which right now have difficulty withstanding the costs associated with education, health, et cetera. There is the question of justice. Does this work? The evidence is pretty clear in other jurisdictions that it does not....

“This is about dealing with an issue which all Canadians are seized with, but doing it in an intelligent manner, based on evidence and making sure we take what I believe is an overtly political agenda out of an extremely important issue.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Because I'm a girl

One of the charities I support is Plan (formerly known as Foster Parents Plan) which is an international children’s rights organization fighting poverty. One of their campaigns which I’ve joined is called ‘Because I am a Girl’ – it’s an effort to break the cycle of poverty and gender inequality.

Their 2011 report: “Because I am a Girl: The State of the World's Girls" asks the question, "So, what about the boys?" in recognition that men and boys – the fathers, brothers and husbands – must get on board if there is ever going to be gender equality.

Yesterday I was driving back from Kingston late at night and listening to an interview with Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian graphic novelist who wrote Persepolis. She was commenting on the Arab Spring and said that her assessment of a democracy is based upon how women are doing in a given country. She pointed to the deeply entrenched patriarchy in Iran as a reason for her pessimism about imminent political change.

It seems a bit of a no-brainer in some ways that you can’t empower the girls without some buy-in from the boys. But it’s easier said than done. As the report pointed out, gender inequality is not something that can be changed by an act of government – it is often part of culture, tradition and even religion.

Plan International surveyed more than 4,000 12 to 18 year-olds from countries around the world and found that gender stereotypes are deeply entrenched. For example, 65% of participants from India and Rwanda somewhat agreed that a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together and 43% agreed that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.

Even in North America, it’s likely no surprise to any parent that things are marketed differently to boys and girls. Princess culture anyone?? I would hope that a survey of Canadian youth wouldn’t have quite the stark results as seen in these numbers from India and Rwanda, and yet the Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that on average, every 6 days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner.

Clearly there is still a long way to go – here and around the world.

Career choices - pilot?

Wanting to be sure that she has time to explore all her options, Miya is beginning to consider future career possibilities.

Becoming a pilot is one of the many options she is considering.

This choice is not surprising to her parents, given that one of her first words was 'airplane'. However, they are cautioning her that she may not advance very quickly in this career path given that she is still encumbered with the responsibilities of attending pre-school.

Not easily discouraged, Miya is spending her time familiarizing herself with different aircraft models and the layout of the flight deck.

Tories table misguided crime bill

As expected, today the Conservative Justice Minster Rob Nicholson tabled the omnibus crime bill – the Tory’s massive ‘tough on crime’ legislation package. They’ve called it the ‘Safe Streets and Communities Act’. As the title shows they have a firm grasp on the rhetoric. I mean who wants to oppose safe streets and communities?

Unfortunately this 110-page bill is likely to lead to massive spending, tax increases, over-crowded prisons, decreased judicial discretion and fewer rehabilitative services – none of which will make our communities safer.

The Conservatives were brought down after being found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to disclose the costs of their tough on crime bills. They somehow managed to come back to government with a majority – and are still continuing to refuse to disclose the costs.

Nicholson says that they are ready to pay the price to keep the streets safe. Well, it’s the taxpayers who are going to be paying for it – not just through increased taxes but through seeing money taken out of services like health care and education and sucked into massive prison complexes.

I was at a press conference in the Centre Block today where four groups – the John Howard Society, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Native Women’s Association, all spoke out against the bill.

Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of the John Howard Society, pointed to concerns about already over-crowded prisons potentially violating human rights as they become more packed. Kim Pate, CAEFS, proposed that an amendment be added to the bill stating that it cannot be enacted until all the provinces and territories have signed off on the costs that they will have to face in housing the increased number of prisoners this bill will create.

Opposition MPs are also demanding that costs be tabled and that the bill not be rammed through without due consideration and deliberation.

“We’re being encouraged to believe we need this for public safety,” said Kim Pate. “It’s a farce. If in fact it was true, then the U.S. would be the safest place in the world, the States would not be going bankrupt and they would not be retreating from this agenda.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Memories and stories

I have realized (through the plunging popularity of my latest blog series) that a trip down memory lane is not nearly so interesting to others as it is to the person who once walked there.

Memory is a funny thing – and reading other people’s memories perhaps even more so. I’ve been reading lately a book about how babies' brains develop and there was a discussion about the plasticity of brains and memories – how over time our connections will be formed where our memories are stored with other things. Not only might our memories be imprecise due to forgetting certain events or having viewed things from only one perspective, but we will actually over time alter and embellish our own stories.

I’ve long been a fan of reading memoires and auto-biographies, especially of women writers. Margaret Laurence, Virgina Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin.

The Indigo Girls have a song about Virginia Woolf which resonated with me when I first heard it:
They published your diary and that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and mind without end.
And here’s a young girl on a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend.

But I’d been enjoying memories and diaries for quite some time before I discovered the added pleasure in reading corresponding biographies which often provided more detail about things that the subject may have left out or skirted around in her own writing. Through reading various and multiple accounts of the same person, I felt I could get a fuller understanding of who she was, how she worked and what things in her life had shaped her.

But sometimes I almost felt like I was betraying her by reading what others wrote, especially in those biographies written after she was dead or without the endorsement of her family. Skeletons were brought out of closets she had built, poked and displayed. Sure, it was interesting and even salacious – but I was finding out things that she had not chosen to tell me about. Or had she simply forgotten? How are our stories shaped and told?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Homes: France, Spain, Switzerland 2000

I went to Europe in May of 2000 to walk the Camino de Santiago. I landed in Paris and stayed a few days with a friend of mine before taking the train to Le Puy-en-Vélay to begin my pilgrimage. I spent the next 64 days walking 1,600 kilometres across southern France and northern Spain; my home was my backpack and the trail.

Along the way I met a Swiss guy. I told him that I was hoping to stay in Europe after completing the walk so that I could get the first draft of my book done before going back to Canada. He extended an open invitation that I could come and stay with him if I wanted. So I took him up on his offer.

I think my favourite address of the homes I’ve had was this place on Rue de Fleurs, La Chaux-de- Fonds, Switzerland. The street was not actually one of flowers, but rather a strip of three-story apartments that had been built for industry and industrial workers in this little Swiss town up in the Alps. The apartments were adjoining and different colours of exterior paint used to distinguish separate units – so the street had a colourful, almost whimsical feel as if it were made of flowers.

The apartment we lived in was at the end of row of these industrial buildings which seemed to have been built more for functionality than comfort – our little place was a living room, a small kitchen and a bedroom. The toilet was a in a closet-sized room out in the hall (unheated, I might add). Luckily my friend’s mother lived not too far away and she gave us an open invite to come over for showers.

I’d been living for months in my backpack and crowded hostels, so this place seemed pretty great to me. I spent much of my days writing, although I also learned to make some casseroles and earned a little bit of money by looking after a little baby. Some articles I wrote on the pilgrimage were picked up by papers back home (Montreal Gazette, Saskatoon StarPhoneix) which was encouraging.

Then I moved back to Canada to get a job.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Homes: Outlook, 2001

For the last couple months of 2000, I lived in Outlook, Saskatchewan. I’d been in Europe prior to this and had been applying from jobs from Switzerland. The only place that hired me was the weekly newspaper in Outlook, the town where I went to high school.

So I ended up back in the small town I’d left about 8 years prior. It was very far the opposite of good to be back.

I don’t remember much about the place I lived in other than that was a two-bedroom bungalow, a far bigger space than I needed. The rooms looked painfully bare since I had almost no furniture. I didn’t even bother trying to furnish one bedroom. I remember that I had one of those old televisions that come in a wooden box that weighs as much as a sofa. I didn’t mind the clunkiness of it – was rather glad that it filled the whole corner in which it stood.

As the only reporter at this paper, I wrote most of the articles, took several of the photos. I got to help with layout and learned a few things about production and sales. But being back where I did not want to be was not good. Within a few weeks I was applying for other jobs and luckily had some offers before my probation period was over.

What else to say about this place? Outlook is a small farming community about an hour south of Saskatoon, the city where I went to university. It’s built along a river and is the proud home of Canada’s longest pedestrian bridge - an old train bridge that’s been converted to a pedestrian walkway. It’s there so you can walk across the river to the bald prairie on the other side.

Perhaps when you get to the other side you will wonder why you came, what could have drawn you to a wind-tossed field of dust and grain where you stand in solitary foreignness. So you turn and gratefully find that the bridge leads you right back from whence you came. It’s a long walk, giving you enough time to determine that never will you cross the bridge again.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Homes: Aylmer, 2001

I moved from Saskatchewan to Ottawa in January of 2001 because I’d been offered a job here with a national arts organization. But when I started looking for a place to live in, I was shocked by how expensive everything was. There was no way I could afford even the smallest, ugliest place I saw that was reasonably close to my new office.

But since I needed to find something, for the first three months I lived with a couple in Aylmer - an anglo community just across the bridge from Ottawa.

We lived in a townhouse right beside the Ottawa River. The couple who owned the place were looking to bring in a renter to off-set their costs. The price was right, but otherwise it never fit.

They didn’t have a separate suite to rent out – I just had a bedroom on the same 2nd floor that they did. We shared the bathroom, the living room, the kitchen... well, actually it felt more like I was invading their privacy every time I used any of these rooms. The woman was a stressed and anxious type who didn’t really warm to me and with whom I had a hard time talking. The guy was easy-going and I could make conversation with him – but if I talked too long his wife would glare daggers at me.

So I spent most of my time in the house up in my room. I also tried to be away from the house as much as possible. I actually ended up getting to know Ottawa a lot better than I might have if I’d lived in a place I actually wanted to be in.

They would sleep in on weekends so I’d get up early and have my breakfast and coffee. As soon I heard them stirring, I’d grab my keys and get in my car. Often I‘d drive just to explore, not sure where I was going till I got there.

I don’t think they were too surprised when I gave notice that I was leaving. And as far as I know they didn’t take in another tenant – so likely the experience wasn’t all that great for them either.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Homes: Hull, 2001-2003

Before going to Mali, I lived for 2 ½ years in Hull – the Quebec city just over the bridge from Ottawa which has since been amalgamated into Gatineau. I lived in what you could describe as a working class part of town (although that would include the girls who sometimes worked the street corner nearby).

I actually liked the neighbourhood, for, not despite, its rough edges. I liked its sharp contrast to the clean-cut, middle-class city across the river.

I’d also received a bit of sticker shock when I moved to Ottawa and found that the cost of renting a whole house in Saskatoon wouldn’t get me a bachelor apartment anywhere close to the city centre on the Ontario side. It was much more affordable across the bridge – even though my place in Hull was less than a half hour walk to Parliament Hill.

The place I found was advertised as a bachelor apartment – which usually means that the bedroom is not separate from the living room. I’ve lived in several such apartments before and while I don’t mind the coziness, it can be a little uncomfortable having people over who you don’t know well as they may have to sit on your bed.

But while this apartment was small – just a corner of a house – it was split on two levels. A flight of stairs led from the main floor room (in which was a kitchen and table) to a sort of loft-style bedroom (my mattress on the floor) and a bathroom off to the side. There was no door separating the floors, but having guests over didn’t have to feel like inviting people into my bedroom either.

The place was cold in the winter – I hammered rag rugs to the walls to try to cut down the drafts – but it suited my needs well enough. It’s one of my old homes that I look back on fondly – not as the kind of place I will likely ever live in again, but as sort of emblematic of a certain time in my life. It’s interesting looking back at my old homes in this series and thinking about what these places represent to me now...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Homes: Bamako, Mali, 2004

I just realized that in my backwards chronology of homes, yesterday’s blog should be for today since I wrote about the place I lived in during the first 3 months of my Malian internship. Anyway…

My placement in the village of Markala was not ideal. The project that I had been sent to do did not really exist. And while I was there to help with IT development, we had only 3 sometimes-functioning computers (after I cleaned out the ants nest) and no internet. These and other reasons lead me to move to Bamako, Mali’s capital city.

I found an organization that was working to help youth and community development – and volunteered to develop their website and help with some computer stuff. They happily accepted and I was relieved to be able to move into their compound where I had some more personal freedom and space.

I lived in one of three adjoining rooms on one side of the organization’s compound. Each room had a door and window facing the courtyard. The offices were in another building in the courtyard.

My room was quite small – a single bed, some shelves, a table and a fan. Cooking was done over a single burner – although I quickly picked up the bachelor habit of going out in the evenings and buying my dinner for the equivalent of about 25 cents from one of the many women who would set up stands where they served traditional Malian food.

I was still a white foreigner who stood out like a sore thumb, but I was relieved to no longer have the close, constant scrutiny of living within a family in a small village. There was a young British couple living in room adjoining mine, and another British woman who worked with the organization. I made friends with other foreigners as well as with Malians who could see past my skin colour and engage with me as a person.

While I certainly learned a lot about Malian culture and rural life while living in Markala, in Bamako I was able to explore and interact with my surroundings much more. The overall experience was very enriching, but was certainly very challenging too.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Homes: Makala, Mali, 2003

In October 2003 I went to Mali for a 6-month internship with Canadian NetCorps. After spending a few days in the capital city of Bamako doing things like getting my visa and some local currency, I went out to Markala, a small village of mud houses and dusty dirt roads.

I lived with the family of the director of the organization which had applied to have me as their volunteer. Typical of Malian family-compound dwellings, this family lived in and around a small, rectangular yard which contained a well and two trees. Several metal chairs with nylon-strung backing and seating were moved around the courtyard as needed. The vast majority of waking hours were spent in the courtyard

Two sides of the courtyard were lined with small, banco buildings and the cooking hut. Along the third length of the courtyard was an unfinished stone building, half of which was used to store chairs, dishes, tools etc. Along the fourth side was a wall and the ‘bathroom’ – which was actually a small enclosure with no roof and a cement floor with a hole cut in it.

There was no running water – we drew from the well. Bathing involved crouching naked the unfinished building and splashing myself with water from a bucket while mice, birds, lizards and bugs observed me.

I was grateful to have the luxury of a small room to myself, within which was a bed, a small mirror, a little bench-like table and some hooks for clothes. A dusty lace curtain hung in the doorway, upon which crickets would cling and call out.

I lived with the family for 3 months and while we grew accustomed to each other, I never felt like I really integrated. The women in the family did not speak much French and so it was difficult to talk with them. While I could converse with the men, the clear gender lines made it awkward to spend too much time with them.

So I would spend much of my time in Markala sitting in a chair without speaking much or being spoken to, watching what was going on around me, often being studied by small children or eaten by mosquitoes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Homes: Hull 1/2 apartment 2004

From October 2003 to March 2004 I lived in Mali, West Africa. When I came back to cold Canada in the dreary last days of winter, I wasn’t really sure what my next steps were going to be.

After spending a few weeks sleeping on couches in friends’ apartments, I found a little place in Hull just over the river from Ottawa.

Like many places on the Quebec side, this one was part of a house that had been divided into individual apartments. It was even one of those places with the ½ on the address. It was sort of like a half apartment, an afterthought.

The entrance was on the side of the building and led right into a narrow kitchen not much wider than a hallway. There was a flight of stairs to the right, leading up to a much nicer 2nd floor – two rooms (living and bedroom) and a little balcony. The previous tenants had been kicked out because they let their little dog out on the balcony to pee. The pee would drip down and, of course, the family living below with the 2 year-old daughter complained.

I moved my paltry belongings in, painted the living room sage green and hung up art from Mali. I got a contract putting together an arts directory, but I don’t think I had a desk since I remember a lot of time being spent crouched over my laptop on the floor.

A lot of time was also spent figuring out what to do next. Since this accounting of homes is backwards in time, you already know what I did – which was to pick up and head off to Europe to be a pilgrim and a writer.

Amazingly the landlord let me out of the lease even though I only had the place for 2 months. I think he figured with the new paint job he could up the rent. I actually kind of lied to him and told him that I had been accepted into the translation program at McGill in Montreal and had to move there. I had been accepted into the program, but had already decided to do the pilgrimage/writer thing instead.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Homes: France and Spain, 2004

Before coming back to Canada in the early fall of 2004, I lived for awhile in what had always been my dream – a 6th floor walk-up in Paris.

I’d come to Europe in June to re-walk part of the Santiago pilgrimage. I started at the French/Spanish border and walked to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west corner of Spain. Part of motivation for doing this was to further research the book I’d been working on since first walking pilgrimage in 2000. And I was able to make this return trip to Europe due to the incredible generosity of my dear, late great-uncle.

I first spent a few wonderful weeks living with my backpack in hostels and pilgrim accommodations along the magical trail of St. Jacques. Then I took the train to Barcelona and went a little farther north to stay with a friend I’d met on the trail in her small village not far from the Costa Brava.

Toward the end of July I came to Paris to spend several weeks working on my book. I’d left my computer and some things with a friend there – in fact it was into her place that I moved since she was returning to her home in Switzerland. I had one room in a little three-bedroom apartment shared with two guys, a German and a Canadian.

My room was sparse – a small single bed, a desk, a chair, a drying rack for clothes. The common area was pantry-sized kitchen (two-burner counter-top stove, some shelves for food) and another room with a table, a sink and a shower. To take a shower I’d pull across a folding dividing wall and loop it to the wall to make sort of a triangle between the shower and the rest of the room. Sometimes the clasp would slip and I would have to hope that no one came through the front door just as I was stepping out of the shower.

I spent my days writing, reading and wandering the streets of a city I loved before I knew it. Paris in August is quite deserted, and I knew few people, which only added to my abstract sense of my writer’s solitude.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Homes: Ottawa, Churchill Ave, 2004-05

When I came back to Canada after walking and living in Europe for a few months I found an apartment on Churchill Avenue in Ottawa – one of 3 suites in a house.

The location was pretty good – once again, not far from this Westboro neighbourhood I am so fond of. The house was in decent shape, although it could have used some general repairs and TLC. My apartment was on the 2nd and 3rd floors. The kitchen was on the 2nd floor – and then up the flight of stairs was a low-ceiling attic room where I had my bed, books and hanging-out space. I spent most of my time working on a book.

As I usually did when I would move into a new place, I painted the walls. The kitchen I painted a sunny yellow, the attic two shades of slate blue.

Landlords usually loved me as a tenant. I would paint the walls (often at my own expense, although with this place the landlord reimbursed me for the paint). I paid my rent on time and didn’t cause any ruckus. But in this case, the landlord and I ended up in court.

Not long after I moved in, I noticed that my kitchen would often smell strongly of cigarette smoke. This got worse at the weather turned colder. I discovered that my neighbor across the hall, a scruffy, skinny, older guy with greasy blond hair, would stand just inside the doorway to smoke. There was an air vent right above him that basically fed directly into my kitchen. On top of this, he played his music so loud that my dishes would rattle in the cupboard.

I tried talking to him – he cussed at me. I tried talking to the landlord. He said it wasn’t his problem. I asked to end my lease and find a new tenant. He refused to let me out of the one-year lease, even after I found a new tenant. So I ended up going to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Housing to file a complaint.

I was given the option of mediation, which I accepted. I won the case – a personal victory. But an unpleasant situation overall.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Homes: Wakefield, 2005

Before my crazy housing experiences on Carleton Street in Ottawa, I temporarily lived in Wakefield, Quebec – a picturesque little town about 40 minutes outside Ottawa.

The place I lived in was completely lovely, my situation not quite so much. I had been living in Ottawa prior to going out to Wakefield – and as I will describe in tomorrow’s blog, that situation was not ideal. So when I saw an ad for a reporter at the weekly paper in cute little Wakefield, I borrowed a friend’s car to drive out and drop off my application.

The editor was in the office when I came by and she invited me to have coffee with her next door. We had a lovely chat and it wasn’t too long afterward that she contacted me to tell me I had the job. Since living in Wakefield was required if I was going to be covering local events, and since I didn’t like my place much in Ottawa, I moved.

I found a lovely little place – it was a small, ground-level suite attached to a little house in the woods. It was surrounded by trees and had a spacious interior with lots of windows. I painted the walls sage-green and hung light-weight white curtains. There was a cardinal that would sing from the tall pine tree just outside my front window.

But when I sent an email to the newspaper editor to let her know my new contact details and that I was now living in Wakefield. She replied with this vague email, “Sorry, who are you? Are you looking for an internship? We don’t have any internships right now, but thank you for your interest.”

When I relayed this story to a local resident at the local pub, he was not surprised. Apparently she was known for being a bit of a flake. And apparently even my landlord knew that the guy I was supposedly replacing at the paper had decided not to move away after all and was living just up the road.

I stayed for 3 months because the place was so nice and I thought I might be able to work something out. Then I moved. Again.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Homes: Ottawa attic, 2005

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I moved far too often in 2005 and the place I’m writing about today I lived in only for 2 months one summer. Shortly after I moved in, my housemate and I received notice that the owners were going to renovate and sell the house.

It had seemed a good deal at first. I had found an ad for an affordable place in Ottawa’s Westboro neighbourhood (the part of the city we live in and love). V came with me to check it out and it turned out he’d played on an ultimate team with the guy who was looking for a housemate – so he could vouch for him as a nice guy and likely a good roommate.

The space I rented was the little attic level of a small bungalow. The ceilings were low and sloped – but I’ve always had a thing for little garret places, so I was fine with that. One small room had a mattress on the floor beside a window looking over the front yard. The other room held my books, a small tv and my papasan chair. It all seemed fine – although poor insulation and lack of a/c made the attic quite hot and stuffy, driving me to sleep on a cot in the basement a few times.

The first bad break was the news that we were being kicked out. Then my housemate invited a girl he knew to stay with us while she was in between places. She wasn’t his girlfriend yet – that would happen just before we all moved out – but she definitely was into him and definitely was possessive – of him and his house.

I didn’t care about her possessiveness of my housemate – nice guy and all, but I wasn’t interested – but I would tell V that the two of us in the house were like two dogs pissing on everything to mark territory. I resented having an extra roommate in an already small place – and someone I hadn’t chosen at that. She seemed to resent my general presence. So we stomped around, the two of us, staking our petty claims and biding time till the lease ended. What a life.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Homes: Ottawa basement suite, 2005

It’s kind of odd writing my list of homes in reverse order since often the reason for moving into a place was determined at the previous residence.

This is especially true in the case of the basement apartment I lived in September through December, 2005. This was the fourth out of five places I lived in over the span of one year and I chose this place completely for its convenience – it was on the other side of the driveway from the place I lived in the two previous months.

Just after I moved into that place, I was informed that the owners were going to renovate the house so I had to move out. Luckily, I heard that our neighbours were thinking about renting out their basement suite. I approached them and said I would love to rent the place, sight unseen. A friend helped me carry my things across the driveway and down into a little basement.

It was a nice enough suite – L shaped so that my bed and a closet were in the short part of the L and there was a small sitting area, a table, a decent sized kitchen and then the bathroom. I shared laundry with the family upstairs, but had my own entrance.

Like I said, I’d been very tired of moving at that point, so having a clean and comfortable place to move into that wasn’t too much of a hassle was a very good thing. And by that point I’d been dating V for a few months so I was at his condo quite often. I also had a great-uncle in the States that I was visiting quite often – so I wasn’t too attached to my own home. Home has often been a very loose concept to me. I would say it’s where my hat is, but I don’t usually wear one.

One of the nice things about this little basement suite was that it was on a street I’d already grown to like. It’s actually not too far from where we live now, in this neighbourhood I love. Sometimes we pass by it when taking Miya to a great park not too far away.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Homes: Ottawa condo, 2006

Before V and I moved into our current home, we lived in his condo in the south end of Ottawa. It was a 2-bedroom place on the 8th floor of a tall tower. We weren’t far from the airport, but far enough from most other things that we both had cars and used them daily.

The tower we lived in was one out of a pair of identical condo towers. Nearby were other similar stacks. In the grounds around us was a small pool, a duck pond, lot of parking spaces and a path leading to a strip mall. There were condo rules such as ones forbidding us to dry laundry in our solarium (a rule I violated repeatedly).

I’d never lived in a condo before moving in with him – and never as high up as the 8th floor either. I found it an interesting perspective, to look down on trees and buildings below – or directly below to asphalt and parking garages. But while the view could be pretty – and watching storms rolling in quite spectacular – I didn’t like being so far off the ground, so far removed.

I moved in with V in January of 2006 – and we were there until we moved to our house in the fall. I’d been moving so often before this that I brought very little stuff of my own – basically just several boxes of books, my clothes, some pots and dishes and various random things. So while we were there it felt very much like living in someone else’s space.

I don’t know when we started talking about getting a house together, but it must have been fairly soon because I remember that condo as always feeling like a stop-over place. Or maybe that was just hangover feeling from the very many stop-over places I’d lived in before.

V had painted the condo in some strange fit of inspiration – rooms bright red, blue or yellow. He’d tried patterns with tape and borders for a rather, um, interesting effect. When we decided to sell the place I repainted all the rooms in subtle tones of beige, mushroom and grey – and we both agreed we should have painted much earlier.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Homes: Ottawa house 2006-present

So I thought of a new series to blog about: I’m going to write about the places I have lived in, moving from the present to as far back as I can remember.

It was September, 2006 when V and I bought the house we now live in. Five years in one place, definitely a record for my adult life.

Our house is a little, 2-bedroom brick bungalow that was built in the 1940s. It has a brick exterior, hardwood floors throughout and a basement with potential that could be realized if time and money grew on trees.

Our house is great, but what makes it even better is the neighbourhood which surrounds it. As I’ve written about before, we live in a community filled with families, a neighbourhood sprinkled with parks and bike paths and a part of town quickly becoming one of the trendiest places to live in Ottawa.

The downside of this trendiness is all the development and construction, but the upside is that we keep getting more little cafés, restaurants, bakeries and specialty shops. We can walk to do almost all our shopping and both V and I can bike to work from home (admittedly he does it much more often than I do).

Having lived here now for 5 years, I definitely feel more of a sense of community and even ownership than I did with any other place I lived. I’m fighting alongside my community for public say in large-scale development projects; I’ve organized family-friendly events in local parks and schools and hung up knit-graffiti at my favourite haunts. I don’t think I’d be doing these things, at least not to the level I am, if this community and home didn’t feel increasingly like an extension of myself and my family.

We have a great back yard, a garden, a crab apple tree that we planted in the front a couple years ago. And although sometimes I wish we had some more space, or an extra room I could turn into my home office, I like the size of our house. It’s cozy and unpretentious. It’s filled with books and things we’ve collected over the years, including our memories.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Writing lists

I have a lot of lists on the go lately – and while lists can be very helpful in organizing and ordering things, if it gets to the point where you need lists to keep track of your lists, then things have gone a little too crazy.

For example, right now I have different work lists for my different jobs – and competing priorities between them. I have a list of home renos and another home list of basic home maintenance (wash floors, clean sunroom, etc.). There’s the list of things we need for Miya’s first day of day care, a list of groceries on the fridge, a list of tasks I’ve let slip.

I have lists of books on-hold at the library and books waiting to be read here at home, mental lists of knitting projects...

I don’t know how old I was when I first started using lists to keep track of things or motivate myself – but I know it’s been a very long time. There is something very satisfying about crossing something off a list. And when the tasks ahead of me seem monumental, it helps to break things down into do-able parts that I can check off as I go.

When I was in university, a lot of the things on my to-do list we’re so easy to check of (like studying for an exam) so I’d divide the tasks into time increments. After 45-mins or an hour of studying, I could put a check on my list for that task and take a break.

Sometimes lists help me prioritize and I just work my way down. But my preferred way of tackling a list is to add in a bit of randomness. I will write out everything I need to get done, then divide the list in half and flip a coin, and I keep dividing and flipping till I end up with something I have to do. If I’m not particularly rushed or hard-pressed to finish anything, I will add a few fun things to the list so that the chances of landing on ‘go for a walk’ or ‘knit’ are just as good as ‘clean the bathroom’ or ‘finish report’.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Work-Life Balance

There was an article in the Globe and Mail today about the work-life balance for working women. It was a bit of a rambling piece and didn’t make much of a focused argument, but it got me thinking about the issue. Not for the first time, I might add. Even before Miya was born I was trying to figure out how the balance might work.

I had a contract for communications work when I was pregnant, working with an organization that I was really happy to connect with. But my pregnancy had me feeling so nauseous and tired that when I was offered an extension of the contract, I turned it down.

After Miya was born I took a break from academic, writing and professional work for awhile – completely consumed by her infant demands. She was around a year old when I got a call from my university saying that if I didn’t finish my thesis within a year, I would forfeit my whole degree. The balance game began.

I also started picking up contracts again – work that would seem at the outset to be not too demanding, but would inevitably lead to a time of extra hours and stress and I struggled to fulfill my obligations within the constraints of childcare hours.

The article I mentioned above quotes a businesswoman as saying, “You can’t have two number one priorities.” That seems logical enough – but legion are parents are trying to defy that logic.

About 10 years ago, I quit a full-time job in order to write. Leading up to that decision, I thought that it would be a one-off choice – non-writing career vs. writing. Once I’d made it, I thought, my path would be set. But instead I found that it was a decision I have had to continually make. In the struggle to feed myself and pay the bills, I was constantly juggling finding ways to make enough money to stay afloat without losing my time and focus for writing.

Having a child has thrown a whole new dimension to this struggle. I’m trying to balance my desire to be an engaged, involved parent with my career and writing goals. The work-life-writing balance.

Friday, September 02, 2011

#3 Sensory capabilities of cats vs. humans

Cats are superior to humans. This can be seen in the fact that they rule households around the world, making humans feed and tend them, dispose of their feces and comb their fur. And while their cognitive abilities may not be quite as advanced as ours, they are far superior to humans in their sensory capabilities.

For example, with regards to visual capabilities, they have been shown to have better night vision than humans due to their tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind the retina. Additionally, their visual field is estimated at 200˚ (as compared with 180˚ in humans) due to a binocular field overlap. They also have heightened depth perception.

And while I’m not sure if this is a sign of their sensory superiority, cats have a third eyelid which closes from the side.

With regards to hearing, cats have a similar range of hearing to humans on the low end of the scale, but a much greater range on the higher-pitched sounds (1.6 octaves above the range of humans and 1 octave above the range of dogs). Cats ears can also swivel independently in the direction of a sound and their ear flaps can point backwards as well as forward so as to accurately pinpoint the sound’s source – giving them the ability to very accurately judge the location of a prey according to its noises.

With regards to smell, their sense is about 14 times stronger than humans and they have twice as many olfactory receptors compared with what people have. They even have s cent organ in the roof of their mouths!

With regards to touch, a cat’s whiskers allow its brain to receive information similar to that found in the visual cortex, enabling them to create a 3-D map of their surroundings based on touch.

With regard to taste: “The cat is an enigmatic animal. Composed, this strict carnivore is fussy about the quality of its food. It attaches equal importance to the smell, flavour and texture of its food. Its preferences, based upon its individual experience, give it a particular sensitivity.” This is from the website of company which claims to be “the world number one for petfood appetence factors.”

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Back at the seniors

Miya and I went back to see the seniors today. We haven’t been there much this summer since things have been a bit crazy and schedules have gone awry.

But Miya and I were looking at some photos on last night and came across some pictures of a visit to the seniors in June. I asked her if she’d like to go see them again and she said yes. She seemed to be having second thoughts in the morning, especially while we were sitting at a coffee shop eating muffins and watching excavators dig up the road (she told me she wanted to stay there “all night”), but once she saw the seniors’ residence, she was excited to go in.

Even though we’ve only been there a handful of times in the last few months, I was impressed by how much Miya and many of the seniors remembered each other and were comfortable together. She walked up to many of them and greeted them by name. They respond to her like flowers to the sun.

“Look, our little girl’s come to visit us,” the staff will say when we arrive and old, sleepy faces lift and light up.

The residents are often sleeping when we arrive and Miya will go up to some of her favourites and put her hand on their knee or hand. “Wake up!” she’ll say, but doesn’t insist if they aren’t roused.

Many of the residents want to reach out and touch her, but she generally keeps a bit of distance. But today a lovely old man with kind, blue eyes, asked if she would shake his hand – and she did happily. He was thrilled.

One of the residents is a tall, broad-shouldered woman who has a gaping mouth void of teeth which broadens into big cavernous smiles when she sees Miya. Today she kept blowing kisses at her and at times the two were laughing with each other and clapping their hands. 97 years difference between the two.

Being back at the seniors again today with Miya reminded me of how richer our lives can be when we reach out and how easy it can be to brighten someone’s life.