Sunday, August 30, 2009

All for James

I always wanted to go to a James Taylor concert. My husband and I were going to see him perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra several years ago, but the TSO went on strike and the concert was cancelled. When I found out a few years later that he was coming to the outdoor Molson Amphitheatre, I immediately booked tickets. The seats were expensive but lousy. Never mind. At least they were under the covered section. When the tickets arrived in the mail, I tucked them away in a safe place for four months.

I’m not a music buff. In fact, most of my musical exposure has been through others. When I was young, my older brother bought all the latest albums, and then it was my boyfriends who regaled me with their tunes and brought me to rock concerts. Eventually my husband became my music educator, and now my adolescent sons keep me abreast. Vicariously, I’ve been exposed to ACDC, The Sex Pistols, Van Morrison, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and my sons' current favourites: Against Me and Motorhead. Sweet Baby James is one of the few albums I bought for myself. I used to play it over and over and over, especially when I was studying for exams. If you came to my apartment in those days you got to listen to Cat Stevens, Carole King and Carly Simon…but mostly James Taylor.

I was never one to spend a fortune on rock concerts, unlike my friends who would break their bank books for tickets and then drive hundreds of miles to see their favourite bands. Why spend my hard-earned summer cash to attend a show in a hot, crowded, loud, smoky concert hall? Once I went to see The Cars at the Montreal Forum and I felt like I was the only person at the entire concert who didn’t really want to be there. It was like sitting through two hours of a foreign language film without subtitles. I pretended to get into it, screamed like a wild thing, and got on my boyfriend’s shoulders to show some enthusiasm; but truth be told, I would have rather been at home…listening to James Taylor.

Finally, it's the day of the JT concert and I’m so excited. But the weather is not pretty. The wind is howling, the rain is pounding, and the thunder is roaring. We crawl on the highway and make it to the venue with little time to spare. Umbrellas can’t even protect us from the whipping rain. Within seconds, my shoes are soaked and my pants are so wet you can wring them out. At the amphitheatre entrance, we line up like wet sheep at the gate. I rifle through my purse…where are the tickets? I take everything out. No tickets. I’m sure I put them in my purse before leaving the house. But I changed purses. Are they in the other one? My husband doesn’t say a word. We traipse back to the car as thunder and lightning strike overhead. “Fun date,” I say to my husband. He just smiles.

I find the tickets on the car floor between the seats. Yippee! We race back to the concert and by then even my hair is soaked (good thing I washed and blow-dried it before coming). We finally arrive to our wet seats and sit down. The rain is pounding so hard on the flimsy roof-top that you can barely hear the music. There must be holes in the ceiling because we’re still getting wet. Before long, the volume is turned up, the rain settles into a steady drizzle and I’m swaying to my favourite JT songs with a smile emerging on my face. I look around me and see a packed house. People are singing and dancing in their seats. Someone yells out, “I love you, James!” JT sits down on his stool, looks out at the audience and says, “Thanks.” Then he smiles and coyly says, “I love you too.”

When he starts to sing my all-time favourite, “You’ve Got a Friend,” my smile gets even wider. The woman sitting beside me obviously likes it too because she sings along—so loud that she drowns him out. But how can I ask her to be quiet? She looks so elated. When he belts out, “I’m Going to Carolina in my Mind,” everyone is hooping and hollering like they want to go with him. I’m just happy that I finally get to see and hear James Taylor in person…and this time, I don’t have to pretend to have fun.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Northern Perspective

As a Canadian spectator watching the U.S. health care reform ruckus from a distance, I am intrigued and disheartened by the heated (and often uncivilized) clash over the issue. Town hall brawls and scathing verbal assaults seem to be the favorite means of communication between opposing sides. Makes me wonder how progress can ever be achieved. Of course, it’s easy to watch smugly from the Canadian peanut gallery and criticize, ignoring the fact that we’ve had our own share of unsavory health care debates up here.

But what is clear, even from this viewpoint, is that something has to change. Almost 43 million Americans without health insurance is unconscionable. We may not have the perfect system in Canada, and reform is desperately needed here too, but one thing we can attest to is that each and every man, woman, and child in our population of 33 million has public health insurance. It’s not the fantasy world of Michael Moore, where people can walk into a hospital in any part of the country and always receive immediate care, or where your general practitioner jumps when you call, but the basic care is there. You will be seen, you will not pay from your pocket.

Several years ago, my husband was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio. His package included a health care plan commiserate with what we were accustomed to in Toronto. In the two years that we lived there, I spent more time in doctor’s offices and hospitals than I had in the previous decade. Why? Because every minor medical concern seemed to warrant a battery of tests.

When a pediatrician detected a mild heart murmur in our two-year-old son during a check-up, he recommended a major cardio investigation. Off we scurried to the Cleveland Clinic where one of the best pediatric cardiologists in the country oversaw our son’s case. After many tests, amounting to several thousand dollars, the specialist escorted us to his elegant office and thoroughly reviewed every detail of the results. The murmur—benign. The prognosis—fine. The course of action—nothing.

Would a doctor in Toronto have advocated such an intensive examination under the same circumstances? Absolutely not. Upon our return to Canada a year later, our own doctor didn’t even mention the heart murmur during our son’s check-up. When I queried her about it she said yes, he had a slight murmur, but it was inconsequential. Not the kind that required further scrutiny.

Whether this was a case of malpractice paranoia, work creation, or genuine concern for our son’s well-being, I can’t know for sure, but our American experience represents an inefficient system that provides over-care for some and under-care for others.

In Canada there can be long waits in emergency rooms and shocking time lags for life-saving operations. Appointments for MRIs may take months and equipment may be out-dated (especially in rural communities), but everyone in this country has the same access to the same kind of care. And most of the time, it’s good.

The American system has its benefits. Indeed, if you belong to the fortunate 25% of the population who has superior insurance, you will be well taken care of. You will jump the line, you will not wait for an operation or an MRI, and you will have the best doctors and the best facilities at your disposal. But what about everybody else? I would gladly have given up the superior care we received in order to give someone else the critical health services they lacked. Five star treatment is nice, but if three star treatment has the same outcome, is it not incumbent upon us as humane citizens to make the trade-off?

Barack Obama spins a great argument in his New York Times article, “Why we Need Health Care Reform,” where he outlines his four-point health reform plan. As is typical, his message is clear, concise, and informative. He counsels dissenting constituents to listen carefully, to gather all the facts and to argue reasonably. He cautions about the risk of doing nothing: “If we maintain the status quo, we will continue to see 14,000 Americans lose their health insurance every day. Premiums will continue to skyrocket. Our deficit will continue to grow. And insurance companies will continue to profit by discriminating against sick people.” President Obama is a wise man. His measured words inspire action...and hope.

From my northern perspective, I see a great opportunity for Americans. With collective goodwill and a shift from thinking “me” to thinking “we,” a new social fabric can emerge– where everybody wins.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Kid Debate

During the last couple of weeks, Maclean's Magazine has highlighted a raging debate between the "childless by choice" faction and the "why would anyone choose not to have children?" faction. Ann Kingston’s cover story article, The Case Against Having Kids (Aug. 3), has stirred such a pot of emotion that over 1000 people have weighed in with their commentary, mostly to rage against the argument that having kids is not the be-all end-all of life. The basic premise of the article is not so much that having kids is not a good idea, but rather that couples are unjustly judged as being selfish and unnatural (almost defective) if they choose not to have children. Kingston mentions a number of books that have recently flooded the bookstores about the subject, starting with Corinne Maier’s No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children. Throughout the article she cites other similar books, and identifies a number of celebrities and prominent people who have decided not to have kids and are proud to proclaim it. The point of the article seems to be that the “childless by choice” are finally standing up to the “ignorant masses” who judge them.

Because of the strong reactions elicited from this topic, Kingston wrote a subsequent article:
The No Kids Debate Continues
. Here, she recaps many of the comments posted by readers including one from a woman who chose to have kids and now regrets it. Parenting is not what it’s cracked up to be, she implies. “Clearly the subject struck a nerve,” Kingston writes. “Parents were outraged.” One woman commented, “I presume you’re going to give equal space to “The Case For Having Kids.””

What surfaced for me when reading these articles, and many of the comments, was how intolerant and judgmental each side was of the other, and how both sides seemed to be missing a very important point. Having children or not having children is a personal decision and who am I, or anyone, to presume what is right for someone else? My choice to have children and another’s choice not to have children should not be judged—period.

I have wonderful friends who have chosen not to have children because they have embarked on a different kind of life journey. They work hard, travel extensively, enjoy their country home, and get pleasure from other people’s children. For them, this is the right decision. Years ago, Oprah publicly declared that she did not want to have children because she knew she couldn’t be a good parent and thrive in her life's work. Katharine Hepburn made the same decision decades earlier. For these women, it was the right thing to do.

I know people who don’t have a lot of money but chose to have four children. They both come from large families, they love each other, and they adore kids. For them, this was a great decision.

I know a woman who is married to an older (set-in-his-ways) man and although she would love to have a family, she does not think it would be good for their marriage, or for the child. For her, this is the right decision.

All these people have made the best choice for their own lives. What is there to judge? I’m amazed and appalled that the topic has caused such controversy. All the arguing about, and judgment towards each position seems futile. And it dismisses the fact that some people don’t even have the privilege to choose.What seems to be missing entirely from the discussion is the fact that the “child-free” (as they like to call themselves) and the “child-ful” are extremely fortunate to even have a choice. How extraordinarily grateful they all should be. Those who decide to have children (and are able to) should be thankful every day. And those who choose not to have children should be grateful they can still enjoy an intimate relationship without worrying about conceiving a child they do not want. Thanks to birth control, we now have power over our own child-creating destiny. Fifty years ago, physically, sociologically, and for some, theologically, there was no such choice.

Many people are desperate for children, but cannot have them. Infertile couples, singles, and same-sex partners, are often devastated by their limited options. These are the people for whom I have great empathy, not for the folks ranting about their right to remain childless. And for those who claim that having children is the only life worthwhile having, they should consider their good fortune in being able to fulfil their own personal dreams.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Joy of Food

Food nourishes us, pleases us, comforts us, entertains us, unites us, and even charms us. Apart from the weather it's one of the safest conversation topics around. According to Webster’s Dictionary, food is “a source of nutrients that living creatures need for energy and growth.” Beyond that, food provides a multi-dimensional source of entertainment.

In recent years, the media has exploded with everything from celebrity cooks to food facts. One can find a plethora of information on the internet, in magazines, and on television. The new movie, Julie & Julia (based on the book), which is about the life of Julia Child and her blogging protégé, is further evidence of our insatiable appetite for foodie fare.

Do you ever get stuck on a food network show when surfing the channels? Even my thirteen-year-old son Ryan, who can be a rather picky eater, is drawn to the likes of Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa), cooking away in her beautiful Hamptons kitchen. But who wouldn’t want to be a guest at her house? Her warmth and hospitality ooze from the screen as she prepares delightful dishes. The young British cooking sensation, Jamie Oliver, has managed to attract the most reluctant customers (high school junk food lovers) to his brand of healthy eating. And Martha Stewart, the "Queen of Cuisine," has developed such a following that even incarceration couldn't hold her back. Food isn’t just an industry or a biological necessity, it’s become a phenomenon.

Food can connect people in a powerful way—family, friends, colleagues and strangers share a part of themselves when they share a meal. Eating with others reveals so much about character, mood, decorum, personality, and manners. Many people drop their inhibitions in the pleasure of their food; whether enjoying hotdogs together on a city bench or oysters on the patio, our true selves are apt to shine.

My great-grandmother—one of the best cooks I’ve ever known—escaped to Canada after the Second World War with barely a suitcase in hand, leaving her privileged life behind. She couldn’t speak English and her only previous work experience was managing the staff back at her estate in the Hungarian countryside. In Toronto, the roles were reversed and she became the housekeeper—cooking and cleaning for others. Her biggest pleasure was to prepare incredible meals for appreciative diners. I recall the tortes and pastries and perfect meringues awaiting us when our family visited her from Montreal. Although she didn’t speak English and we children didn’t speak Hungarian, her food connected us in a way that language couldn’t. Food was her gift and, forty years later, I still carry the memories of the tastes and smells of her kitchen.

Food doesn’t have to be fabulous or fancy to elicit a positive response from me. If you invite me for dinner and put out a baguette with some cheese, a few grapes and a tossed salad, I’ll be happy. Friendly company, a welcoming atmosphere, (and perhaps a glass of wine), is in itself a recipe for a fine evening. Like sharing French fries at the ski hill, simple foods in the right climate make for a special time with others.

That said, one of the greatest gifts a person can give me is a lovely dinner. The thought, the time, the energy, and the expense that go into entertaining should never be underestimated (and always be followed with a thank-you note!). If you’ve done it yourself, you know what it takes to put a dinner party together.

My mother is the quintessential hostess and a fabulous cook, and we are lucky to be frequent guests at her house. Last week she asked what the boys would like her to make for Sunday dinner and they said tacos. She’d never made them before, but with determination and creativity, she made the most gourmet taco dinner you could ever imagine. I am sure that our children will never forget the love their grandmother disperses through her delectable feasts.

Sharing a family meal provides a great opportunity to engage with children. Gathering the troops together at dinnertime may be a challenge for busy people, but I believe that it’s critical to make the effort as often as possible. Some of our best family discussions have emerged around the dinner table. And it’s the ideal time to teach table manners, which seems to require constant reinforcement. Life can be challenging in this competitive world, but if we raise our children with good table manners and an appreciation for food, they will have a better chance at making that positive first impression (especially on a date!).

Food-talk can wander in many directions—organic farming, nutrition facts, dangerous additives, good restaurants, great recipes, and favourite cooking shows, but what I like best about food is the bond we feel when we look at each other across the table and say, “Yum!”

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cottage Envy

Cottage envy is a most unpleasant syndrome. It can be set off by a beautiful summer day when half the city seems to have retreated to the lake, or when I’m visiting a friend’s cottage on a perfect (bug-free) mid-summer weekend; the lake is pristine, the people are relaxed, the wine is chilling, and the loon is calling from across the bay.

The fantasy of owning a cottage rattles my mind and I imagine our own little cabin on a peninsula, surrounded by firs and balsams, lake breezes, and sparkling water. In my mind’s eye, I see my family sitting on a wrap-around porch sharing stories while eating grilled lake trout with new potatoes. I imagine playing cards or old-fashioned games, picking wild raspberries and blueberries, reading novels, and swimming in the clear, refreshing lake. With no television, no video games, no computer, and not even a telephone to distract us, my family would bond and nature would rule. We’d go fishing at dawn, canoeing at dusk, and gaze in wonder at the brilliant stars at night.

Then I recall cottage life from my mother’s perspective, when I was a child.

Every Friday, Mom packed up the station wagon with groceries, clothing, linens, pets, and children, and drove through rush-hour traffic to pick up my father at his office in downtown Montreal. Dad shed his tie and jacket, rolled up his sleeves, took the wheel, and headed north to our parcel of paradise in the Laurentians. Strapped in her car seat for the long drive, my little sister screamed for freedom, and my brother and I fought upon the slightest provocation. Once we hit the windy roads, my stomach hurled and a bag was thrust in my face. Sometimes our car broke down and the two-hour drive became a five-hour trek; other times a highway accident caused an inordinate delay.

Upon arrival, the black flies and mosquitoes assaulted us as we unloaded the wagon. My mother unpacked the groceries and prepared dinner while we scurried off to play. For the rest of the weekend Mom cooked, cleaned, bickered with my father, and tried to keep us safe and out of trouble. In his element, Dad happily razed trees with his chainsaw, built new decks and docks, or worked on repairs. When he ran out of projects, he bought the property next door and built a second cottage. For my mother, a true urbanite, cottage life represented isolation and domestic drudgery without the city’s amenities.

Owning a cottage comes with increasing property taxes, bumper-to-bumper traffic, break-ins, winter damage, pumps breaking down, regular power outages, and constant repairs…not to mention arguments over chores, teenagers losing interest, and eventual sibling feuds about who has the greatest claim to the place.

What about those inclement days when it’s too cold and wet to be out on the lake and nobody feels like reading or playing games? The children are antsy, the adults are crabby, and everyone is driving you crazy—such are the times when I’m more than happy to be at home in the city making headway with my backlog of tasks.

So, on a mid-summer Saturday morning when the neighbours have made their weekend exodus, my husband and I lounge on our deck with coffee and newspapers, listening to the birds sing, while enjoying our peaceful garden (notwithstanding the construction racket behind us and the airplanes flying overhead). We don’t have to risk our lives on a congested highway, or fret about missing a sacred cottage weekend because of an important function in the city.

Isn’t rationalization a wonderful thing!

Here’s the plain and simple truth: The minute I arrive at a cottage, whether it be in the rugged Ontario north, along the stunning shores of Lake Huron, or on the shining waters of the Kawarthas, I’m smitten. The second my toes dangle in the lake, or I hear the call of a loon, or smell the forest, I’m lured in.

I want a cottage. I don’t care how big it is, where it’s located, or how simple a structure. Forget about the cost, the headaches, the bottomless pit of maintenance and the long drives with quarreling children in the back seat. As much as I can rationalize the advantages of not owning a cottage, ‘reason’ does not apply here.

Fortunately, when autumn rolls around, my cottage envy begins to wane. But then, when the cold winter months arrive, I must contend with a new syndrome—snowbird envy.