Rainbow Brite

Spring in Toronto this year has been a bit dull and cool and rainy.

The other day, to combat the weather, I opened up a pack of vibrant pastels that had been lying around forever, and my Lark spent the day drawing rainbows. All the rainbows.

If it’s a little overcast where you are or in your mind, I hope you enjoy these.

We did this together. She told me, “Mum, I’m a better artist than you are.” Agreed, babe.
“A Portal to Roatan.” If only.

I love when a child tries something new and then runs with it. She is now in love with pastels. I’m in love with what she’s done.

Not so thrilled about pastel on the couch, the dining table, coffee table and bedsheets, but I’ll live!

When Things Go Wrong

I’m having one of those weeks.

One of those is obviously code for somewhat crappy.

Monday morning, as I was getting the bikes out of the shed to take the kid to school, Bean suddenly piped up behind me, “I hate to tell you this, Mum, but there’s something really furry up there on that shelf.” A quick glance revealed a raccoon, curled up in a ball, sleeping. If you are not from Canada, you may not understand why this was an annoying discovery. Raccoons are cute, nocturnal, territorial, destructive and hard to get rid of.  With a sigh, I ignored the fuzz-ball and left for school.

Tuesday, I learned that we have signs of termites in our house. “Not a major infestation,” the inspector informed me. Ugh. Isn’t any kind of infestation bad news? We are in the midst of home renos, a time during which it is important to remain very, very calm even in the face of termites. “Hmmm, okay,” I said, very, very calmly. Then he handed me a quote for several thousand dollars worth of termite-termination.

The next day I got a text from my contractor, telling me my cheque had bounced. “Hmmm, okay,” I texted back. Further investigation revealed this was due to bank ineptitude and was resolved the same day. Phew.

Later on that day, as I was about to sit down for a picnic in the park with friends, my phone rang. It was my son’s school. “Bean’s not feeling well,” said the secretary. With a sigh, I collected him. We’d organized an appointment at the hospital that afternoon which I’d rather hoped he could keep, but in the end had to cancel.

Which brings us to today. This morning at the park, I saved my daughter from an almost epic bail off the climber, which left me breathless and shaking with adrenaline. This afternoon, I didn’t manage to save her as she tripped in Rowe Farms and slammed the side of her face into the corner of the counter. And this evening, I locked her in the car.

Yes, you read that right. I locked her in the car and had no way to open it.

Here’s how this went down: I’d organized with my sister to babysit my two, while I got a hair cut this evening, and we agreed to get takeout from a place we both like.

Before her arrival with my niece, I cajoled Lark into hopping in the car to drive over to pick up the food, and was chuffed to get a parking spot right out the front of the restaurant.

Food secured, we returned to the vehicle, and that’s when the shenanigans began.

Of late, my daughter is a total imp when it comes to buckling up. She decides she wants to sit in her brother’s booster. She climbs into the front and starts playing with the high-beams. She wriggles her little body in such a way that I cannot, for the life of me, do up the clips of her seat-belt. I’m torn between hilarity and frustration, dying to laugh but also trying to keep a stern face as I bark at her to GET INTO HER SEAT. Usually, there are threats. No Paw Patrol. Daddy’s doing bedtime for the rest of the week, etc. Generally, these don’t work.

Tonight, she scampered into the driver’s seat and started pressing every single button she could lay her little hands on. Most of the time, this means that when I start the car I’ll be turning off the windshield wipers and turn signal. I should also add that our car is old and low-tech, so this isn’t really that big of a deal.

Often, my biggest concern is the time-crunch. I’m standing there, waiting for her to decide she’s done playing, as the minutes tick by, and suddenly that comfortable 15-minute buffer to get wherever we have to be, has dwindled away. Then I have to resort to brute force, which I hate.

This evening, I watched her manipulate the steering wheel and jab her finger repeatedly on the hazards. I made a few attempts to lure her into the back seat, “Auntie will be waiting for us.” “Aren’t you hungry? It’s almost time for dinner!”

Finally, after this went on for ten minutes, she climbed out of the driver’s seat, got in her seat and allowed her clips to be done up without fighting me. I immediately felt that parental wash of relief that you get when your wild-card child is contained in a way which prevents them from engaging in any more silliness.

I closed her door and marched around to the driver’s side. The door was locked. A shot of sheer panic went through me. Naturally, I checked the other doors, just to be sure, knowing that they were also locked. She had locked them in her button-pushing frenzy. And had put the car keys on the passenger seat along with the food and my wallet.

As with home renos, in these situations, it’s important to remain very, very calm. My daughter called to me through the window, but wasn’t upset at all. Yet.

Quickly I assessed the situation. I needed the second set of car keys. They were at home. My sister was on her way there. I pulled out my phone. If this was the movies, my phone battery would’ve been flat. But it’s real-life, so I had 20% charge left. I called her and rapidly explained the situation. She was stuck in traffic, far from us and still at least half an hour away. Damn.

My next thought was CAA. I called their helpline and began listening to elevator music while a soothing voice informed me that they were experiencing a higher than normal volume of calls.  The same voice also told me to hang up and call 911 if this was an emergency. Was this an emergency? I wasn’t sure.

I was starting to not feel very, very calm.

I could see now why parents go mental in these situations. I thought back to how my mother had famously chopped the bathroom door down with an axe when my sister locked herself in there at the age of 3, and stopped responding to questioning. She was fine. The door was not so fine.

Suddenly, a light-bulb appeared above my head. I have neighbours! Neighbours who might be home and whom I can call! Rapidly, I pulled up my friend J’s number and rang it. She answered! She was home! She had her car there! She grabbed her daughter and they ran across to our house. I guided her to our hidden key and to where the extra set of car keys was. She was on her way.

The solution was approaching. I continued to smile and wave at Lark.  She kept smiling back. I resisted the urge to find something heavy and smash the window open.

A few minutes later, J and her daughter appeared and joined me and another friend who’d happened to be passing by. We unlocked the car and opened the door. Everyone cheered. Bemused, my daughter looked at all of us surrounding her.

It felt strange to not immediately take her out of her seat, but it had only been 15 minutes. Waving goodbye to our saviours, I drove home, and then took her out of her seat and held her.

I held her so tightly, thankful that it wasn’t a hot day. Thankful that I have great neighbours. Thankful that if I had needed to, I could’ve called 911 and help would have been there in a minute.

 

 

 

Screen-Free Sundays

A few weeks back, I was hiding in my bedroom, trying to find ways to free up storage on my phone, which had reached capacity and was in a feeble state. I heard Bean looking for me around the house, while I continued tapping away at my device, in stealth mode.

“Mum! Muuuuum. Where are you?” He bounced into my room and saw me holding my phone. “Hey!” he said accusingly. “Isn’t this supposed to be screen-free Sunday?”

It was. It was our very first screen-free Sunday – a family initiative that I had announced to general groans the previous week. The other household members were doing pretty well with this new thing, but I was failing miserably at it, as I just needed to do one more thing on my phone. All the time.

“What IS a screen-free day?” you might ask. There are a few iterations on this theme: screen-free weeks, social media detoxes, screen breaks, etc. Basically, it means taking a break, (of some pre-determined period) from screens in all their forms. Phones, iPads, TVs, video games, and so on. I knew that a screen-free week wasn’t realistic for our family, but I imagined that a full Sunday would be a refreshing break from being nose-down in some sort of tech all the time.

The first thing that I hoped to gain from it was to back my daughter off of her Paw Patrol habit. Every morning, she asks to watch Paw Patrol before she even eats breakfast. Even though we have a hard and fast rule that we don’t watch any TV before school. I know why she thinks I’ll suddenly relent though, because to be honest, depending on the day, I sometimes allow her to watch 2 or 3 episodes in a row – in the afternoon. This is usually when I’m desperate to get something done and having her absorbed in a show is a welcome break from the unceasing two-year-old-ness.

The last few Sundays have been kinda great when the kids have wanted to watch some telly, and we could be all, Sorry, no, it’s screen-free Sunday. And they were like, Awwwww, okaaaaaay. On the flip side, after the kids went to bed, Craig and I realized that we couldn’t watch our show on Netflix either because…it’s screen-free Sunday. So, one Sunday night, I ended up reading a chapter of The Magician’s Nephew with Bean and then fell asleep. At 9:45. For once, I got 8 hours of sleep instead of my usual 6.5.

Realistically though, the kids’ TV habits are the least of my problems. The world and the technology we now use daily is so different from what it was even 10 years ago. About a month ago, Lark called me over to where she was playing. “Do you want to watch a video on my phone?” she asked me, holding up her hot pink plastic smartphone. Thankfully, it doesn’t light up or make noise, except in her imagination.

“Sure!” I said. “Who’s in this video?” “Me and Ginger,” she said. “See?” She tapped the fake screen with one small finger. We both pretended to watch it for a moment, and then she moved on to a different game. On another occasion, she brought the phone over to me and asked, “Shall we FaceTime with Bubby?” Almost every day, she – relentlessly – asks to look at photos on my phone, play iPad, watch children’s clips on YouTube or check out videos of her and her brother.

These are the realities our children are growing up with. Hundreds of videos and photos of themselves to view whenever they like. Every episode of every show that they love on demand. All of their video games available to play for as long as they want. None of this pay-25-cents-then-you-die crap that we grew up with.

As much as I may lament, or at the very least, ponder the implications of all of this for my kids, the next obvious question is: What about the adults? 

What’s happening to all of the grown-ups who spend more time each day doing stuff on their phones than, well, anything else? Who did my daughter learn from that a smartphone is such an endlessly fascinating device?

Recently, on the same topic, I heard an interesting interview on CBC Radio’s The Current, with Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked. Alter explores how addictive technologies like social media can be destructive to our human interactions, and also what we can do to create some distance from them.

Personally speaking, I’m completely addicted to my phone, and I’m well aware of that. Hence, screen-free Sundays. I’m sure that many of you can relate to that feeling, half-panic, half-despair, that you have when you think you’ve left your phone at home. And then the consequent rush of relief when you realize it’s actually in your bag. I don’t even want one of those apps that tells you how many times a day you’ve looked at your phone or whatnot. Because, yeah, it’s a lot.

I’m not making an argument for chucking our phones out and returning to Morse code and carrier pigeons. The Internet is amazing and I can’t imagine living without it. Our devices enable so much ease in our lives, as one Sunday when I used my phone to book an Uber to go to my parents’ house for my niece’s birthday party. I’m trying, though, to create a little mindfulness around using it, rather than picking it up all the time as an instinctive, knee-jerk reaction to boredom. My husband and I mock each other when one of us pauses a show to get a drink, and the other immediately picks up his/her phone, because the Lord knows we can’t be alone with our thoughts for an entire minute and a half.

Okay, we do bend the rules of screen-free Sunday for certain things: when we need to Skype Australia, check the weather, quickly reply to a text message, or order an Uber as mentioned above. If we are doing something memorable, then we’ll use our phones to take photos. And quickly post them to Facebook or Instagram. Just kidding. I do that on Mondays.

For the most part though, we have to pick up the phone, not get distracted by it, and complete the task at hand. Sundays make us more thoughtful about using screens. We all have to find other things to do, together and alone, so we’ve been doing more reading and playing games. And even better, getting more sleep.

During that 20-minute Uber ride to north Toronto, I couldn’t sit there and scroll through various feeds, or text people, or put things in my calendar, or whatever it is I do all the time on my phone, so I chose instead to stare out the window and just be. My driver was skimming through an oldies playlist, and I Only Have Eyes For You by The Flamingos came on. Spring sunshine was streaming in, I was relishing the quiet of being alone without a small person clambering on me, and I had one of those dreamy moments where a song on the radio becomes the perfect soundtrack to your day. Everything seems to blur around you, as you really notice a song for the first time, although you’ve heard it many times before.

With my phone in my hand, that moment would have been lost.

Or captured forever on Instagram. #uberselfie #theflamingos #bestsongever

 

For more on this topic:

http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/spark/segment/12390509

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-may-15-2017-1.4112604/why-technology-is-addictive-and-what-to-do-about-it-1.4112606

http://adamalterauthor.com/irresistible/

 

 

 

5 Reasons Australia Rules

When people find out that my husband is originally from Australia, I usually end up fielding a few questions about it. How’d you meet, Is his family still there, Does he like it here, and the inevitable: WHY did you choose to live in Toronto and not Sydney? (Subtext: Are you crazy?)

Yeah, it’s a hard one. On February days, when it’s a grey -22 degrees, and everything is covered in salt, and my car just got stuck on an ice bank whilst trying to park, and the inside of my nostrils is frozen, I ask myself the same question. These are problems that just don’t exist in Australia. In truth, I adore life down under, but being there doesn’t make sense for us right now. Life is pretty great in Canada most of the time, so we continue our day-to-day in The 6ix.

BUT. As a foreigner, whenever I visit Australia, I can’t help but compare Sydney to my hometown, and I have to admit, Toronto comes up short in a few areas. Both cities are the largest of their respective countries. Both are vibrant, multi-cultural centres of business and the arts. Both have amazing beaches… oh wait, that’s just Sydney.

Bondi

I’m not talking about the obvious factors like sunshine 362 days a year, world-class beaches and charming marsupial wildlife. There are a few other areas of comparison in which we in Toronto could really pull up our socks.  So many things about our city are fabulous, but there are some things that have me rolling my eyes and muttering, “Come on, Toronto, we can do better than this.”

  1. PLAYGROUNDS

I’m not sure if it’s because they live in a country infested with extremely poisonous critters, but Australians have very different attitudes than Canadians when it comes to safety. Nowhere is this so evident as in each city’s playgrounds. Most cities in Australia are home to tonnes of beautiful parks, where the children’s playgrounds are areas for fun, play, exploration, and yes, a hint of danger. All of the latest research on child development finds that children should be exposed to a healthy amount of risk. This advice has definitely been taken to heart down under, as proven by this:

IMG_7224

And this:

IMG_4067

And this:

IMG_4066

And this:

IMG_1406
National Arboretum Canberra

As any Torontonian parent can tell you, many of our playgrounds are in dire need of an upgrade, often sporting rusty old equipment that dates back to the 70’s.

Space Rocket

And unfortunately, when room is finally found in the budget for new equipment, the results can be disappointing, as when the play structure was recently replaced at the small park nearest to us.

Fuller Parkette

Cries of dismay were heard around the neighbourhood. If it isn’t obvious from the photo, this structure is about two feet off the ground. Shiny and new? Yes. Elements of risk? No, unless the child happens to be under the age of two. I’ve never seen “flying foxes” in any of Toronto’s parks, like the one you can see my son whizzing along on above. There couldn’t be any, unless there was someone there handing out helmets and getting people to sign waivers. Because safety, everyone.

Trust me, this is all coming from one of the world’s worst helicopter parents, but even see the advantages of allowing our children to experiment with adventure and learn from their own mistakes, and our parks should be places to let them do that.

2. TRANSIT

As I lack a degree in urban planning, I’m definitely not qualified to comment on public infrastructure. Of course, I’m going to anyway. According to this stats site, Canada and Australia rank very near to each other when it comes to public infrastructure. Therefore, my opinion on this matter is based on my own, highly subjective experiences.

No one who regularly takes transit in Toronto could possibly rave about the TTC. We are still glacially phasing out tokens as a form of payment. In 2016. Our subways run efficiently… until they don’t. Then they fail us in a most spectacular way. Our streetcars are mired in gridlock, and city council has been bogged down in transit squabbles for what feels like decades.

TTC Closure

Sydney’s transit system may not make international Top 10 lists, but at least it wins the beauty contest. Starting a morning commute with a ferry-ride across one of the world’s most scenic harbours definitely beats finding out that the Bloor Line is closed for track-work again  – after you’ve taken the bus to the station.

Ferry2

Each time I visit Sydney they seem to be installing another light-rail line, building another tunnel under the city or recreating the ticketing system. In Toronto…still waiting.

3. PUT ANOTHER SHRIMP ON THE…

Sometimes it’s the little things that make life in the big city better. One such thing that I’ve always admired about Sydney is this:

BBQ

“What is that?” Canadians are asking. Australians are just shrugging. “What? There’s one of these in practically every park in the country.” This, my friends, is a public barbecue. They are there for public use, and at the most popular spots are heavily utilized. There are barbecues in some Toronto parks! someone out there is saying. Yes, some. Only, you have to bring your own charcoal. You can bring your own portable barbecue, but you need to buy a permit in order to use it.

4. BOOZE

From the Australian standpoint, there are few events in life that aren’t made better by a drink or two. Most Canadians probably agree, but we’re hampered in our drinking by puritanical laws that prevent us from indulging in wild excess. One such law stipulates that alcohol in Ontario can only be sold in government-sanctioned branches of the LCBO and the Beer Store. These operations keep fairly normal hours, but they close at an archaic 6:00 on Sunday evenings, meaning if you want a bottle of wine of a Sunday night, sorry! Only recently has beer been made available for sale in some supermarkets and we are unreasonably excited about it. We are also not allowed to drink in public. Anywhere. So when you haul your portable barbecue – with permit, naturally – or bag of charcoal to the local park, you will not be able to enjoy a beer with your sausages.

Hence, the other day I read with envy an Australian friend’s Facebook post describing how she’d celebrated her birthday with friends and a bottle of champagne at her kid’s soccer practice. How much better would soccer be with champagne? Am I right, moms and dads? Isn’t everything made better by champagne! Birthdays aside, Australians have an endearing habit of breaking out the bubbles on just about any occasion. It’s Wednesday! Yay, let’s have champagne!

Champagne

5. LAID-BACKNESS

Obviously, that’s a terrible adjective, but I think it describes a certain je ne sais quoi in the Australian character. Maybe it’s all the champagne-drinking, but people in Sydney, and even more so in small-town Australia, tend to be pretty relaxed. It could be due to the fact that an inordinate amount of an Australian’s weekend time is spent lounging on their world-class beaches and having barbecues with their mates. It could be the fantastic weather. Maybe loads of Vitamin D just chills one out.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, whenever I ask friends and acquaintances how life is, I get the same response: “Good! But… we’re so busy these days.” And my response is, “Yeah, me too. We’re really busy too.” Busy working? Busy cooking and cleaning? Busy shovelling the snow off the driveway? Busy posting about our busy lives on Instagram?

Sigh. Busy can be good too. But it’s summer y’all! And this summer I’m taking a page from the Australian laid-back playbook. There will be picnics and barbecues. (Oh don’t worry, I’m getting that permit!) I’m going to hang out at the beach, even if Bondi is one million times better. And at soccer practice, that’ll be me with the champagne – come and join me. (As long as you don’t mind drinking out of plastic cups and pretending it’s juice. I don’t want to get arrested.)

 

How Sweet It Is

If Hollywood has taught me anything, it’s that it takes 28 days to change addictive behaviours. You know the scene: Loveable F***-Up has cleaned up his act after a stint in rehab, and is being seen off into the sunset by his warm and fuzzy mentor, to live a happy life free of booze/drugs/sex/whatever.

It’s not my intention to make light of struggles that can be devastatingly real, but I’m pondering addiction today as I’m trying to kick my own sweet habit. Yes, I’m an addict. Admitting it is the first step, right? I’m fully addicted to a substance that society not only sanctions but throws in our faces with almost every bite of packaged food we take. That substance is SUGAR.

As a kid, I was always on the bony side, and never had a huge appetite. I remember feeling stuffed after eating pretty minimal meals, but I also remember always somehow finding room for dessert. Like most of us, I had a sweet tooth, but my eating habits were controlled by my parents, who didn’t stock tonnes of treats in the house.

On into the teens and twenties, I didn’t have healthy eating habits, but they weren’t fast-food-daily-horrendous either. I think. It’s hard to remember at this point. Back then I wasn’t so worried about sugar, firstly because I had no clue how damaging it is as a substance, but also because I smoked like a fiend, so clearly I had bigger fish to fry. After many, many attempts over many years, I finally managed to quit smoking permanently nine years ago. Smoking now has no place in my busy life with small children, and most of the time, when I encounter people smoking, which isn’t that often, I think, Ugh, can you smoke that thing somewhere else? However, there are STILL times when smoking seems like a good idea. (Hello, wine!) On the occasions over the years that I’ve given in to the impulse to have a cigarette, I’ve seen the reality of looming addiction again. Nicotine is so addictive, that after all this time, I could potentially slide back down that slope. Obviously, I won’t. I no more want to be a smoker than I want to be a rhinoceros.

Despite the difficulty that quitting smoking posed, it’s pretty easy for me to remain a non-smoker. As in, it’s not hard to refrain from a habit that makes one a stinky social pariah. However, my sugar addiction is a different story. Sugar is food and it’s in so much of it, that it’s increasingly hard to avoid, especially when it arrives in disguise. I needed to be making better choices.

Six years ago, shortly after my son’s diagnosis, I read a truly inspiring book called Anticancer: A New Way of LifeThe book gives solid, evidence-based advice on diet and lifestyle changes to make when you are faced with a cancer diagnosis. There were many recommendations that were revealing, but the thing I found most sobering was the information on sugar. Basically, the suggestion here is to avoid sugar like the plague. I’m sure we’ve all been aware for some time of the role sugar plays in obesity, diabetes and other conditions – but cancer? I thought that as a family we were pretty healthy, and we were, but I needed to go deeper.

These were not just changes I had to make for myself, but for my kids’ habits too. The first step was an easy change: drinks. I was never much of a pop drinker so soft drinks were no hardship to give up completely. Next up, juice. On the rare occasion, we will buy juice or juice boxes, but it’s as I say, rare, as in a couple of times a year. Taking a hard look in the mirror though, I realized that I was putting a teaspoon of sugar in every cup of coffee and tea that I had. The WHO’s daily recommendation for sugar intake is no more than 50 g. That’s 12 teaspoons a day. Sounds like a lot, right? Except that they then amend that to: actually it would be even better if you only had 25 g – 6 teaspoons. If you’re drinking 3 hot drinks a day and putting a teaspoon of sugar in each time, that’s half your daily dose. I cut that out. Easy.

Then, that’s when I had to really start reading ingredients, double-checking the labels on my bread and crackers and yoghurt.

I eventually gave up buying almost all children’s snack food, and almost all packaged foods except for a few acceptable brands. Why? Because, all of those cute, individually-packaged things that are so easy to throw in your kid’s lunch pack an insane amount of sugar – organic or not. Yoghurt tubes, granola bars and fruit chews masquerade as healthy options, but many yoghurt cups have as much as 26 grams of sugar per serving. The whole daily allotment in one go, and as much sugar as there is in a Twinkie. Sadly, the cheapest foods are the worst foods, which makes good choices even harder for many families.

I wanted to know when we were eating sugar and do it consciously, as when we go to our local ice cream shop for a cone, pick up a cookie from the bakery, or have a piece of birthday cake.

I know what you’re thinking. This all sounds very pious, right? I’m going to stop cantering around on my moral high horse for a moment.

I made all of these great changes. The meals that we eat as a family are on the extreme side of healthy. But am still a complete junkie who goes to sugar when I’m tired or cranky. When I’ve had a bad day. Or had a good day.

Whilst I’m in confessional mode – when it comes to eating sugar, I don’t have an off switch. I’ve been guilty of buying one of those large Lindt chocolate bars, and eating the whole thing. In one go. On autopilot. I’ll buy ice cream, eat a bowl of it, and then think, That’s unbelievably delicious! and then go back for ANOTHER one. Who needs two bowls of ice cream? Certainly not my liver. I seemed to be giving myself free rein in the sugar department because I was eating so well all the rest of the time. Clearly, this kind of logic isn’t working for me, or for my family, as the repercussion is that I expose my kids to more sugar as I feed my own demons. My 19-month old has recently discovered the joy of ice cream, and asks for it with appalling regularity. I don’t want my kids to never get to indulge in a treat, but reasonable limits must be set, not just for them but for myself.

Of late I’ve felt the need to make more changes, but half-hearted efforts always seemed to end in a binge of some kind after a couple of days. So let’s loop back to the beginning. I’m currently in the middle of my own 28-day program. I’m on Day 8 of no sugar, caffeine or alcohol and I feel great. I needed something totally prescriptive, to help me out of the what’s-for-dinner vicious circle and to break my unhealthy evening sugar-binge ritual. I am really enjoying being told what to do for once.

Will I ever eat sugar again? I would say that it’s likely. It just feels really good to take a break from things for awhile and press the reset button. Stay tuned. I’ll keep you updated.

 

For more information on the evils of sugar, check out these documentaries:

That Sugar Film – by Damien Gameau

Sugar Coated by Michele Hozer