Staffer’s Notebook: We’re not gonna take it. Or we will.



This post started out as an email to my boss, Glen Gower. Then it got a little too long. 

Last month news broke with allegations of improper behavior by Councillor Chiarelli. This week, Councillor Chiarelli requested a leave of absence for stress-related illness as victims shared more first-hand testimonies of sexual harassment. For women working on Councillor’s Row, questionable workplace behaviour from elected officials was old news . The real news was that someone was talking about it. 

My work relationship with my employer gives me the space and confidence to share my concerns about the general working conditions for political staffers. In the weeks since the news broke, Glen and I have had several conversations about woking conditions for Councillors’ staff and he encouraged me to share my thoughts in my Staffer’s Notebook.  

The power dynamics leading men to exert dominance over women’s minds and bodies is well expressed by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” We expect elected officials to be leaders in their community and we hold them to the highest standard of behavior, yet it is democracy’s inconvenient truth that they represent the best and the worst of us.

The story of the powerful man and the intern is as old as democracy itself. I scoff at the surprise that it should happen here, in Ottawa. If the MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that years of sensitivity and inclusion training has done nothing to discourage those who use sex to control. We seem to take comfort in the suggestion that this behavior is the purview of jerks. Drawing a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys prevents us from looking at the ways our work environment enables abusive behaviour. Nowhere is this as true as in political offices. At all levels of government, the harassment and questionable hiring practices of elected officials take root in a garden carefully maintained by others.

I have worked as a political aide in federal and municipal politics. Everywhere, our employment conditions are precarious. Yet we work amidst organizations with mature and elaborate HR practices, alongside a well-represented unionized workforce. Be it in the federal or municipal government, elected officials are free to belittle, sexually objectify and threaten their staff while everyone looks the other way. And so the seeds of abuse sprout and grow unchecked, untamed and unmanaged. Our only recourse is to take it or leave it.

The image of one elected official representing one constituency has not kept pace with the complexity of representative democracy. Elected officials still hold office as a one-man show, but their operating budgets have grown to include a full-time staff providing the level of service that residents expect. Yet, everything in the staffing of political offices seeks to minimize the visibility of staffers and discount their existence. We are an extension of our employer, a line item in an operating budget, hired and fired at will. Our jobs have no requirements, our salaries are drawn from the same budget as office furniture and left to the discretion of each councillor. There is no salary scale, no promotion track, no equal pay, no performance reports, but most importantly, no complaint mechanism protecting us from the consequences of speaking out. Like office stationery we are expendable, and our value lies in augmenting a Councillor’s capacity without being noticed.

The low pay and precarious conditions of employment invite a workforce that is young, inexperienced and transient, unwilling to compromise its ability to find better paying work elsewhere in the organization. It also works to create a revolving door of young and inexperienced staff that carries with it a reputation for incompetence and ineffectiveness. Some departments will not let municipal staff interact directly with political aides in the absence of a manager. It works at cross-purpose with the City’s stated goal to be an employer of choice and with councillors’ need to receive sensible and knowledgeable advice in the conduct of their duties. Most importantly, it prevents the coalescence of stories, concerns and experiences into corporate memory and practices.

The precarity and sensitive nature of elected officials’ positions has explained their need for flexibility in staffing. For the most part, this flexibility has worked to the advantage of people like me: people with incomplete or patchy resumes, people with interrupted work experience, people whose personal lives have stunted their professional development, in other words, people who have difficulty finding work elsewhere. A CBC news item referred to our positions as “desirable” and I agree that my position as a Councillor’s Assistant has given me a unique perch into the complex levers of public administration. But being “lucky to have this job” combined with the unchecked staffing practices afforded to elected officials compromises our ability to challenge abuse,  especially in the absence of clearly defined protections against retaliation.

We assume that the desirability of our position makes up for its precarity. This might be true for the stock staffer imagined from political tv series but for those who eschew the glamour of fiction, the desirability is subservient to the precarity. We have bills to pay, families to support. We make decisions to manage the precarity of our positions rather than its desirability: we keep our heads low, we don’t make waves. We can justify the low pay and long hours by the desirability of the position. But we cannot in good conscience justify vulnerability to abuse and harassment as the price to pay for a desirable position. Yet this is the message that the City sends staffers by letting elected officials make their own rules in matters of staffing.  

Last week, Mayor Watson and Councillor Kavanagh issued a public statement stating that “All City employees, including employees of elected officials, have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment.” This is as true as it is meaningless. We may have access to counselling services and a shoulder to cry on, but we are institutionally kept at arm’s length from the City’s Human Resources. Once we avail ourselves of our 6 counselling sessions, our options to deal with harassment remain as binary as they ever were: take it or leave it. There is no HR pipeline to find us safe employment elsewhere in the City, no procedure to provide adult supervision to our employers, no protection against the gossip and rumours that may spread as a result.

The Clerk’s Office sent out an email reiterating the City’s commitment to be a workplace free of harassment and announcing a review of the recruitment and hiring process for Councillor’s Assistants. I hope that this review will be done in consultation with Councillors’ Assistants. However, I am concerned that the need for sweeping systemic changes, once identified, will meet fierce opposition from Councillors and inertia from City Staff. 

Power is a tricky thing to pass on. It’s slippery and it doesn’t have handles. 

Sight Lines


It’s Tuesday morning and we are walking to school down a neighbourhood street, the kind that invites speeding.

The street is straight and as wide as a French highway. Every street corner boasts ample sight lines, right into another beautiful, wide, straight, neighbourhood street. These neighbourhood streets are so close to two elementary schools that the children who live here do not qualify for bussing. They are expected to walk or bike. Yet the car — or if you live in an affluent suburb like Stittsville, the luxury SUV and the contractor pick-up — is King. The roads are designed for maximum visibility, which we have learned, invites maximum speed.

On our walk to school, I am holding my 5 year-old’s hand on one side of the street. My daughter is walking on the opposite side  because she’s mad at me.

Before we left, her brother threw her school bag on the ground instead of giving it to her and she said: “I’m not picking it up” and started leaving. I said “So he throws your school bag on the ground and you leave it here with your lunch and your homework. Who are you punishing exactly?” Her brother was long gone. She lashed out at me “SHUT UP. I don’t care about you, I don’t care what you think. Just stop talking.” And my heart just broke because it was the third time before 8 am I had been told by someone to shut up and the second time I had been told that no one cared. And that was after being yelled at by another angry child who had been asked not to swing a toy at the walls, accusing me of not caring about anyone. Never in my life have I met someone who worked so hard for people she doesn’t care about.

And so we walked towards the school and toward an incoming white SUV who had to swerve to avoid my daughter on one side, then swerve to avoid my son and I on the other side. In my impatience, I made a hand gesture signalling her to slow down and she did slow down just enough to roll her window down and yell at me.

“I’m doing 35!” she said as she sped off again through a stop sign. The stop signs are beautifully designed for maximum safety, with sight triangles the size of Texas. The visibility is so impeccable that you don’t even need to stop, you can see cars coming a mile away. A 5 year-old on his bike, maybe not. But he’s not the King of the road.

Who knows, maybe she was doing 35? Speed is hard to appreciate when the pick-up coming at you is so jacked that the front wheels are taller than your 5 year-old. You wouldn’t want to be stuck in traffic on the 417 with anything less than 10 inch of ground clearance. Everything looks too fast when it weights 2 tons and is coming at you, know what I mean? I don’t have a radar gun in my head, I only have a hunch that whatever the speed limit is, if you need to serve to avoid my child, it might be too high. Just a hunch. Just a mother’s heart that may be bruised but still skips a beat when you hurl a heavy-duty motor vehicle at the featherweight child she’s just been accused of not caring about.

My daughter crossed the street and came to see me. She said “Why was this lady yelling at you?” and I said it was because I had made a sign to slow down. “That lady looks like she might have a problem” my daughter answered.  And I said “Maybe. But how is that different from what you did this morning?”

“I said something you didn’t like so you yelled at me. I said something this lady didn’t like so she yelled at me.”

“I’m everyone’s anger doormat. People are angry and they don’t like it, so they look for someone to wipe their anger off on. You just used me to clean the anger you felt towards your brother. This lady used me to clean up the anger she felt at God-knows-what. We wipe our anger on people and we leave satisfied, for a moment. But the anger doesn’t disappear. Now I have to deal with it. Now I have to deal with the pain of having been yelled at, of having been told no one cares about what I say, of having been accused of not caring.”

Now I have to deal with the fear that the next time this lady drives by my family she’ll speed up instead of slowing down, just to show me who this street really belongs to. Anger doesn’t dissipate. It doesn’t evaporate. It communicates like a disease. It sullies everything it touches until all of us are trying to wipe it off something else.

Seeing is not caring. We thought that better visibility would make our roads safer,  as if seeing the other was all that carefulness needed to take root. We expanded the sight lines, widened the triangles, until we realized that carelessness expands to fit the space it is given.

We have worked diligently to eliminate friction points. To eliminate the need to proceed with caution. To eliminate the need to look the stranger in the eye, to see the other’s fear. We are trying to eliminate the need to mature, to become self-aware. To admit our mistakes. We make it possible for a grown woman driving an expensive vehicle to react with the maturity of a 10 year-old girl and drive away satisfied, having learned nothing but maybe taught two children that problems are solvable by denial and deflection.

And so carelessness expands to fit the space it is given, anger communicates like a disease, and sight lines become blind spots.

 

Blogging like it’s 2009


Last Fall, after looking unsuccessfully for work for a few months, I deemed it God’s will that writing should be my new job and committed to write a blog post every day to get back in the writing habit.

Of course, 3 days later I found work that I enjoy so much it became my hobby. In other words, I haven’t been blogging much since December. I still write plenty but that will be lost on you unless you have questions about utility easements and bus rapid transit.

All that being said, I miss writing about inconsequential things like raising well-adjusted children in an off-kilter world, loving your babies when you don’t like them, and trying to find balance when everything piles up on one side. I still have ideas and opinions and I share them freely on text and email. But I miss the interaction with friends and family near and far through my blog.

As more and more people take breaks from social media and become more circumspect about what they share publicly, and as social media grows increasingly useless as a free sharing platform, writers have switched to subscription models and email newsletters. I tried the subscription model but I’m not popular enough to make it worthwhile: I received enough money to create an obligation to write but not enough to free-up time to do so. I never tried the email newsletter but if your Inbox is anything like mine, you know that we are way past peak newsletter. I’m not sure what the solution is but I think that we will soon see a return to RSS readers and eventually ink on paper. In the mean time, if you enjoy reading what I write, I would like to know what is the best way to reach you.

I have a few “Staffer’s Notebook” posts on matters of urban planning and city-building currently stuck in the pipe but I plan too return to my completely haphazard mix of “whatever floats my boat” as soon as I clear them. I’m also working on a “Now” page, which is something more specific than the “About” page but more permanent than a social media status. Think of it as what you would tell relatives you see once a year at a family reunion.

In the meantime, here is a picture of Ève and Lucas — my twins — who were the reason I started this blog 8 years ago, while on bed rest expecting them. Don’t blink!

 

Staffer’s Notebook: Trees and road safety


I am currently in France visiting family for a little over two weeks. Since my job is also my hobby I took the opportunity of travelling without young children to turn this holiday into an urban planning field trip. Europe is far ahead of North America when it comes to managing population density, resource conservation and the perils of pollution. It’s not a criticism as much as an observation: they addressed those concerns as they emerged, they just emerged earlier than they did in North America..

Yesterday, we travelled from Rouen (in Normandy) to the Ardèche region, a forested mountainous area near the Rhône and within a crow’s flight of the French Alpes’ foothills. It’s in the south-eastern quadrant of the Hexagon.

Instagram: @hey.vero_

We travelled most of the way on France’s privatized toll highway system and finished the trip with a short stint on the “Nationale 7” , the historic tree-lined trunk road stretching from Paris to the Italian border. Used by thousands on their way to the Mediterranean, it is known in popular culture as “Route des vacances” (Holiday route) and — more tragically — “Route de la mort” (Death Route). It is comparable in history and popular culture to America’s Route 66. If Route 66 had been built by the Romans.

We drove down the old Nationale 7 along the Rhône River towards the mountains of Ardèche.

Later that evening, we were discussing road safety and how a series of French policies in the 80’s and 90’s had seen a steady decrease in road casualties from 18,000 a year down to 4,000 with an increasing population. My uncle said in passing that it was hard to parse out which policy had had what impact “between alcohol, speed, seatbelts and trees…”

Trees?

My mother said “Oh, these trees killed a lot of people!”

As it turns out, the iconic borders of trees have a storied past. Seen by some as a road safety hazard, they are also part of France’s cultural heritage to be saved and protected:

Avec la vitesse, la conduite en état d’ivresse, les incivilités, les arbres d’alignement en bord de routes sont aujourd’hui considérés comme un danger à éliminer. Et pourtant… Depuis des siècles, nos paysages sont structurés par les alignements qui bordent routes, fossés, canaux et rivières. Les arbres de bord de route, et en particulier les alignements, constituent un patrimoine reconnu, protégé par la loi dans certains pays.

http://www.patrimoine-environnement.fr/les-alignements-darbres-en-danger-partout-en-france/

Believed to be an answer to medieval deforestation and a solution to shipbuilding needs , the trees, called “arbres d’alignement” for the way they delineate the roadway, were mandated by Henri III in 1552.

Roadway tree planting intensified at the beginning of the 19th Century as a mean of reducing the dust caused by vehicular traffic. By 1895, 3 million trees lined 35,000 km of national roads and even more could be found alongside secondary roads and channels.

In the 1940’s the border trees — until then considered a source of shade and cultural identity — became the scapegoat for the death toll brought on by the rise of the automobile. Calls for their systematic removal met cries for their preservation. Accused of causing 10% of roadway deaths, border trees were not even given the grace of mentioning the state or behavior of the drivers before being killed.

Caught in the crosshair of a campaign to reduce road fatalities, border trees received the support of President George Pompidou in 1970 when he wrote an exasperated letter to his Minister of the Interior upon learning of a policy to remove border trees in spite of his express wishes that they be preserved (my translation):

Trees have no other defenders than myself it seems, and even this doesn’t seem to matter. France does not only exist to allow the French to drive around it at will. Regardless of their importance, road safety problems shouldn’t result in the disfiguration of France’s landscape.

Decreasing traffic accidents will only result from educating drivers and establishing simple rules adapted to the configuration of the road instead of the current complexity sought in signalisation as if it was a hobby. It will also result from more stringent rules in matters of drunk driving (…)

In other words, blaming the trees is a little rich when you were soaked as a Christmas cake behind the wheel. (My uncle told me that blood alcohol levels used to be an extenuating circumstance in vehicular manslaughter trials. We laughed but it wasn’t funny).

Ordinances calling for the systematic removal of roadside trees multiplied in the 80’s and 90’s until 2006 when studies of road safety revealed that border trees — or as one urban designer once told me “anything vertical close to the curb” — had a traffic calming effect. Studies of road safety statistics in communes where trees has been completely removed also emerged showing the questionable impact of designing roads to be wide, straight, and devoid of obstacles (spoiler: it makes people drive faster, has an hypnotic effect and contributes to an increase in accidents.)

In 2010, a village near Norfolk, England experimented with the traffic calming effect of the ironically called “French style avenue”. Borders of trees were shown to reduce the average speed upon entering the village by 3-5km/h for a fraction of the cost of buying and maintaining traffic cameras.

England is generally considered to be 30 years ahead of France in matters of traffic safety and yet, despite these positive results, the remaining French border trees have been singled out as part of a wide-ranging safety audit of French departmental roads.

If you are as interested in the confluence of road safety, traffic calming, environmental preservation, urban design and urban heritage as I am, go and read this 66-page document (with pictures) on road infrastructure and natural landscape from the European Landscape Convention : http://patrimoine-environnement.fr/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CEP-CDPATEP-2009-15-TreeAvenues_fr.pdf

In the meantime, here is Charles Trenet singing the praises of Nationale 7:

Q: How do you know someone does CrossFit?


A: … they tell you.

At the risk of being one of “these people”…

About 4 years ago, a friend joined a Crossfit gym and started gushing about it *incessantly* on social media. My 9th child was about 7 months old and my health was declining rapidly due to undiagnosed autoimmune thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease. I was gaining weight rapidly, going from 140 to 200 lbs over a 4-month period. I suffered from creeping depression, constant fatigue, debilitating migraines and insomnia, and the best answer doctors had for me was that these things tend to happen when you turn 40… I did a Whole 30, cut gluten and dairy. I lost some weight but nothing got the results my friend was seeing on her CrossFit journey. I envied my friend’s measurable progress but I thought — as most people do — that I wasn’t in good enough shape to start CrossFit: I had a back injury, bad knees and a lazy streak. I wasn’t as focused as my friend, it looked too hard, the people looked weird, it just wasn’t for me.

The picture below shows me in December 2014 and May 2015, before and after adopting a paleo diet. 

In the Spring of 2015, after adopting a Paleo diet and cutting out gluten, my cycles regulated and I was able to get pregnant. After an early miscarriage I was pregnant again and looking forward to welcoming Baby Number 10 around the end of March 2016. In September 2015, I miscarried again, this time after 13 weeks of pregnancy. The miscarriage was sudden, unexpected and turned into a major medical emergency when I started bleeding out. It was like my body had opened a faucet at full volume. The last thing I told my oldest daughter as I left for the hospital was “try to make my bathroom not look like a crime scene.” There was blood up the shower walls from the large clots that felt splashing on the floor. I passed out from the blood loss, was hospitalized and received a blood transfusion. A friend told me to expect the recovery to last as long as the pregnancy would have. Of my 10 pregnancies, that one was by far the one that took the most out of me.

September 2015, before and after the blood transfusion.

After my miscarriage, I started sufferig from unrelenting back pain. I assumed it was due to poor core conditioning and took a gym membership. I went to the gym regularly for weightlifting, yoga, Zumba, and TRX group classes. I have ADHD and the trauma of the miscarriage had sent my symptoms into overdrive. Back then, before I gave up trying to brute-force it without meds, I had a decent day if I could get two exercise classes a day. I would drop off the kids at school, go to the gym for 3h, see the physio for my back, see the therapist for my brain, and it was time for school pick up. I used to joke semi-seriously that being me was a full time occupation.

Being active was better than not being active but the results rapidly plateaued. I had lost some weight thanks to dietary changes but I kept gaining unless I followed a strict autoimmune protocol diet. This caused me to hyper-focus on food and tailspin into anxiety. I felt in a constant loop of lose-lose situations, damned if I did, damned if I don’t. I was cycling through different types of physical therapy and alternative medicines  to address my back pain, looking for anything, anyone, that could at least stop it from getting worst. My thyroid condition was tricky to manage, going through 3-month cycles of flare-ups, medication adjustment, stabilization, and back to flare up. My migraines were getting more intense and more frequent, often keeping me bed-ridden for days. Medication narrowly kept my ADHD from running away with my sanity but if I forgot to take my meds, the whole day was a write off. I was moody, unpredictable and sad. I was looking for work unsuccessfully and half-thankful I wasn’t getting any luck: I didn’t know how I could hold down a job in these conditions.

I was hopeless and depressed, believing what I was told: I was over 40, my body had been through a lot, that’s just what happens when you have 9 kids. You’re amazing for showing up, why do you expect more?

My oldest daughter signed up at CrossFit Closer on my recommendation. A year later, we moved just around the corner from Landmark CrossFit in Stittsville and registered two of our kids for the teen classes. A few months later, my husband signed up. One of our close friends signed-up at my daughter’s gym. At this point, I considered myself Patient Zero for 5 CrossFit memberships and I didn’t even know what a box looked like on the inside. I saw how amazing it was for other people but I wanted no part in it.

On my 45th birthday, I sent my resume on a lark to my new municipal councillor and on December 1st 2019 I started working at Ottawa City Hall. From my first interview, I knew that this job would change my life. Right out of the gates, it gave me enough confidence to see that I still had a fight left in me. I agreed to try a CrossFit class with my husband on New Year’s Eve just so he’d shut up about it.

I went. It sucked. I came back two days later. I’m stubborn like that, and I just can’t quit at the bottom. And that’s how I knew the old me was still hiding somewhere in there.

It’s been 6 months and I go to a 6:00 am class every weekday. I started training 3 times a week in January and increased it to 4 then 5 times over March-April. I try to squeeze-in a yoga or mobility class once or twice a week and I bike 30km to work once or twice a week.

Inside the gym, the transformation has been slow and steady.

You won’t see my Amazing Mom Bod on Instagram because I ain’t got one. I still weigh more today than I did 9 months pregnant with twins. In 6 months of training I gained 8 lbs and dropped half a pant size, so i’m not even getting new clothes out of this deal. If I was in it for the body, I’d be blowing my nose in my bikini right now. My technique is improving, my stamina is improving, my range of motion is increasing. When I started CrossFit I couldn’t run, I couldn’t lift, I couldn’t jump. And now I can run a little, I can jump on and over things, and I can lift some weight. My back pain is slowly decreasing but is still a limiting factor. I take two steps forward and one step back, consistently slower than everyone else, but I’m moving in the right direction.

Outside the gym, the transformation has been more remarkable.

I can bike to work. I can drive my car in reverse without needing pain meds to get over the twisting motion. I can get out of my car without having to remember which foot goes down first. This spring, I helped with the flood mitigation efforts in Ottawa and I was able to fill sandbags, move sandbags, hoist myself on the back of a flat bed truck, jump off the back of a flat bed truck, run with a wheel barrow from one site to another, in pouring rain, all this a few hours after my 6 am workout and I felt better coming out than I did going in.

My migraines are almost completely gone and their severity has decreased to the point where they can be managed with minimal medication. My autoimmune condition is a non-issue and my thyroid meds have not increased since last year. I was even able to completely eliminate one thyroid medication. I went from taking 4 prescription drugs daily to two. I eat well but I’m not tracking calories, macros or eliminating entire food groups. I limit my sugar intake by eating whole foods but I don’t worry about treats. The reality of high intensity workouts is that you can’t eat like shit before and you don’t want to eat like shit after. I can follow my body’s cues on how much carbs, protein, fat and hydration it needs. Not having anxiety over food and diet has been a huge improvement to my quality of life.

Inside my head, the transformation has been life-changing.

The biggest difference CrossFit has made has been in the management of my ADHD symptoms and I want to dwell on this for a minute. We know that exercise is key in managing symptoms of cognitive and mental disorders but few therapists know that all exercise forms are not created equal.

ADHD medication — while life-changing — is not a panacea. It makes it possible to manage your condition by giving you the ability to form habits and follow through with healthy lifestyle choices but it doesn’t magically give you a “normal” brain. Using enough medication to manage all your symptoms without effort puts you in dicey territory when it comes to the delicate balance of benefits and side-effects. To get the most benefits from medication with the fewest side-effects, you should travel the last mile on your own steam. That’s what CrossFit has done for me.

High Intensity Interval Training combined with strength training have had the same impact on my ADHD symptoms than medication. Medication gave me the ability to function normally in the world. CrossFit is allowing me to finally realize my full potential (and if you or someone you love has ADHD, you know that “not performing to potential” is one of our Greatest Hits).

Living with ADHD is like trying to drink from a fire hose. All the time. Your brain is processing every input cranked up to 11. Physically, CrossFit workouts are like a soothing bath of endorphins for your brain. Every morning at 6 am I take a day’s worth of nervous tics and fidgetting energy and I burn it for fuel in a workout.

My CrossFit coaches were the first people who didn’t buy the “you’re over 40 and had too many kids” set of excuses. They took me where I was at and told me to push it an inch farther. With 9 children, nobody dares call me lazy or tell me to try harder… except my CrossFit coaches. They believe that wherever you’re at is where you push from. And maybe the range of how far you can push is tiny, but they’ll make you cover than range.

As a mother of 9 in her mid-forties, I can’t tell you how life-affirming it has been to spend the first hour of every day with a group of people who believe that you can always improve something, that there is no right age to give up and stop trying.

The group class setting and the planned workouts have helped me stay consistent for 6 months, a record for anyone who has a brain wiring averse to forming habits. The feeling of peace and contentment I feel after the buzzer rings and the workout ends is like nothing I ever felt before. It acts like its own drug and it keeps me coming back the next day.

Don’t take my work for it. Try it. Find a CrossFit gym that matches your needs and abilities — some are more competitive than others. If you have injuries or challenges, ask clearly how the coaches are planning to address them. Ask about modifying workouts to fit your circumstances. If you don’t like the answers, visit another gym — or just come with me to Landmark CrossFit in Stittsville. The coaches have built their brand on achieving progressive results through great form and technique and my gym mates cover the gamut of age and ability.

Come on, do it. I wouldn’t be “one of these people” if I didn’t think it could change your life.

 May 2019 at my second born son’s graduation from RMC, holding my youngest son.

Full, beautiful, blessed and lonely


Hi world,

I know it’s been a while.

Life here is relentless. I work, I take care of my family, I try to sleep enough and I go to the gym. Taking care of mind, body and family is all that my 24 hours currently allow. Of course, my family is a little larger than average and my work has no clear boundaries. But last weekend, my husband went on a motorcycle trip with his friend Brad and I had a moment of sadness when I realized that I had no one to talk to.

It’s nothing new. I’ve been on the outer edge of my friends’ lives for most of the last 23 years. But when Paul leaves, the echo rings deep. I have friends, don’t get me wrong, but I never see them. I’m the weeds growing on the shoulder of people’s personal lives: my friendship is the rugged type that blooms in weird and inappropriate places. It doesn’t expect care and feeding, it takes root firmly in the poorest soil but remains mostly ignored and undisturbed. Nobody picks it up or plants it on purpose, it never ends up in a bouquet, displayed in a special spot or marking a special occasion.

It’s a full, beautiful, and blessed life. So full it has pushed out relationships, ambitions and dreams. So beautiful it has built walls around itself. So blessed its halo intimidates those who come close to it. Full, beautiful, blessed, and lonely in the midst of a crowd of children, acquaintances, colleagues and followers.

I started this blog almost 8 years ago while I was expecting my twins. At the time, social media was but an echo of what it has become. It offered a connection with the outside world, a way to keep in touch against the isolation of bed rest and, later, the twins’ infancy. But its promise of friendship without effort was a hopeful lie. Friendship requires presence. Presence requires effort. Our brains are tricked into believing that the little thumbs’ up at the bottom of a post are a meaningful connection but our hearts are not dupe. I am lonely in the midst of a crowd. I get social media wine emojis all the time but I have no one to go for drinks with.

This sense of loneliness and isolation comes at the bottom of a wave, when there is a false sense of calm. In the calm, what was previously hidden appears in sharp contrast.

“And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.”

This full, beautiful and blessed life has required much. When the water recede for a moment, in the momentary lull between two waves, I feel a sadness at what I have lost, or never been able to gain. In these moments, what has been given disappears in the shadow of what has been required. I mourn the relationships that withered and those who were never given a chance to grow. I mourn the skills I lost and the progress I never made. I mourn meeting someone to play and write music with. I mourn traveling to the cities I only read about. I mourn being sought out for my knowledge and experience. I mourn the person I thought I would be when I grew-up. I mourn the friend I could have been.

When the loneliness weights too heavily, I take refuge in writing and there, in my own thoughts, characters live, breathe and love, they travel, sing and fight. They take risks and make horrible mistakes that they struggle to repair. They live the lives I will never live and screw them up in ways I will never dare. They process emotions I hide deep down and move along an arch that bends away from proper order and convenience. They are left to run freely towards their dreams and ambitions without too much regard for appearances or good conduct.

These days spare little time for fiction and creativity, for pretending, for music and drawing. In times like these, I have to make do with patience and civility, keeping entire universes of things unsaid and stories untold in square little boxes, hoping they don’t escape as angry words, bitter tears or extravagant expectations. I carry the weight of this contained universe in my chest and pray that it doesn’t implode and burn everything in its vicinity.

Universes are hard to carry: they are slippery and they don’t have handles.

 

Staffer’s Notebook: A motion to declare a climate emergency


On April 16 2019, Ottawa City Councillor Shawn Menard presented a motion asking the City to declare a climate emergency to the Environmental Protection Etc. Standing Committee. The motion passed at Committee and will rise to City Council for a vote by all City Councillors. 

Dear residents of the City of Ottawa displeased with Shawn Menard’s motion to declare a climate emergency,

Since most of you are conservative-minded, I thought I would respond to you directly rather than wait for your left-leaning City Councillor to do so. Not all Councillors are left-leaning mind you, but I’m sure that anyone who supports this motion will be painted with the same red-orange brush.

I offer myself as your interlocutor because I made life choices that have planted me squarely in the centre of the conservative messaging’s Venn’s diagram.

I represent everything progressives want to progress away from.

I studied law but sacrificed my career to stay home with my children while my husband worked. To this day, my paycheque is sent automatically to a joint account and I couldn’t tell you the figure on my bi-weekly deposits. I am a Catholic mother of nine children conceived the old fashioned way. I chose not to use birth control with my own brain.

As a mother of nine, living in a walkable neighbourhood is unaffordable, electrical cars are too small, and using my bike to go grocery shopping is impossible. We live in a house built over prime agricultural land by one of those greedy developers bike-lane advocates wake-up to loathe at night. Neither of the two egress routes out of my neighbourhood have sidewalks and both require a documented death wish to be biked. Our neighbourhood — while far from the worst — has no green space other than the Hydro corridor and is so poorly serviced by public transit that we own three vehicles, one for each driver. Our van is the biggest on the street, yet another proof of my husband’s virility, as if we needed one.

Because I’m a good hang, I’m often tapped by newsmedia to be their token mother of a large family. In 2014, Robert Sibley wrote a piece about our family in the Ottawa Citizen. It took no time for the global warming trolls to  go to town in the comments. I’ve been called every ugly name in the progressive workbook and then some. Not only was I not convinced to stop killing the planet, I wrote a blog post defending my choices. It remains the most popular post on my blog. You can’t buy right-wing creds like these. My husband is a gun owner and we have three grown children in the military. I don’t vote Conservative yet I’m a neodemocrat’s worst nightmare.

I’m friends with a lot of people who believe, as you probably do, that climate change is a matter of opinion at best and a hoax at worst. It’s not that you don’t want to use your bike or a LED lightbulb, you just don’t want the government to force you to do so for reasons you don’t buy. You want fiscal responsibility, business cases and freedom. Liberals think that your political inclinations are due to selfishness. In reality, you think, just as liberals do, that you hold the key to political stability and social cohesion. Every decision you make, from how to plant your garden, where to buy your house, and who to elect, gives shape to your understanding of happiness. Your imagination fails when you have to accept that other people are acting under the same inspiration.

Politicians who succeed in moving the ball forward on broad societal change are those who understand that public support does not rest on homogeneity of purpose but in aligning common interest among a diversity of points of view. If you can convince people that their neighbours are not after their piece of pie but rather part of a closed system, you might achieve something meaningful.

Part of my job at City Hall is to think of ways to talk about social issues without using words such as “sharing,” “equity” and “fairness” and replace them with “business case,” “common sense” and “freedom.” It’s interesting because conservative political philosophy never argued for letting the poor and the downtrodden fend for themselves. The difference between conservative and liberal philosophies is not whether or not we should help the poor but how to do it. In conservative philosophy, communities are loosely organized by geographical closeness or family ties and riches are shared based on need as defined organically by the community. Families should be strong and are worthy of protection because they are the social safety net. In liberal philosophy, government is responsible for  sharing the riches and determining who needs what. The judgment call, the agency, is transferred from the family to the government. Things get sticky when the government and the taxpayers disagree on how much to share, who is needy and what is needed. Liberals don’t have the humility to admit that governments are becoming too large and unwieldy to adapt to need in a timely manner. It needs families and communitites to bridge the gap. Conservatives don’t have the humility to admit that individuals and families don’t have all the information necessary to decide who deserves to be helped. Evening-out the playing field with objectivity is the fair thing to do.

Pride: still going before the fall, after all these years.

The problem in Canada is that we lean left when it comes to our expectations of what we should receive and right when it comes to giving it to other people. We howl for tax cuts and service increases in the same breath. We elect conservative governments on promises of tax and spending cuts but we don’t carry through with the rest of the bargain: that in exchange for more freedom, we will make sure that those in need will be helped. We’re content to leave people to their sorry fate while commending our hard-work and good choices. Until hard times befall us and everyone is looking the other way.

Our election system rewards divisive language and polarizing ideas. Then leaves the winners to reach out to those they painted as the problem, wondering why they can’t reach consensus. The motion to declare a climate emergency is a good move for those who value freedom and fiscal responsibility but how can we expect conservatives to take Shawn Menard’s word for it when he just called them Dinosaurs on every media platform available? I have been telling my kids to use nice words rather than insults for 25 years, I can be your mediator.

Forget about making life better for other people. Forget about the environment, forget about a low-carbon economy, forget about stewardship, rising sea-levels and equity if you must. Just think about yourself, your family, and how measures to counter climate change can improve your quality of life, give you more freedom and lower your taxes.

The motion to declare a climate emergency comes with an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to review the City’s priorities from the perspective of climate change. This may sound like a whole bunch of gobbledygook but think about it: the City will have to start thinking in terms of getting people off the road. I don’t think we’re arguing that cars and trucks cause pollution anymore. To do so, the City will have to promote density in areas already well serviced by transit and improve the efficiency and coverage of our transit system. You may think “how does this benefit me, who drives a car and lives in the suburbs?” and “What about my taxes and how much this will cost me?”

If I learned one thing in my 4 months at City Hall is that there is a lot more to the smooth running of a municipality than meets the eye. You might think that living in the suburbs is just another real estate option but your choice to live far from the core is an expensive one. Take my house in Stittsville for instance. Each time I flush my toilet, a complex system of pipes and pumps works to send my sewage to the Robert O. Pickard waste water treatment centre, 39km away. 39km of pumps working non-stop to transport my sewage from one end of the City to the other. And you worry about the cost of LED lightbulbs.  Building density around the core rather than build more suburbs like Stittsville means that we’re not extending the capacity of our sewage system farther away than we have to. You can make the same calculation for every piece of infrastructure, from parks to stormwater management to roads and sidewalks, streetlights, I challenge you to name one City service that doesn’t get more expensive as you build it bigger and farther away. If you build more density, your garbage trucks don’t have to drive as far to pick up the same amount of trash. It just makes good business sense. See: I’m using the same means as climate advocates to reach different ends. There’s nothing wrong with making everyone happy!

This is a Google map of the distance — by road — my poop has to travel to reach the water treatment facility. Since sewer pipes generally run under roadways, this is approximatively correct. I wanted to draw a poop emoji line like on Snapchat but Google doesn’t have this important functionality yet.

Transit and bike lanes are another sore point but as God is my witness I don’t understand why you can’t see the benefits of the so-called “war on cars”. I understand that no one likes to be painted as a monster but if I were you and I valued the freedom of car driving and the imperative of fiscal restraint I would sponsor a bus route. You think LRT is expensive but so are roadways. And the more cars we put on these roads, the more they need to be maintained, 12 months a year, in snow, sleet and suffocating heat. By crews of people drawing salary and benefits and driving Really Big Trucks. Not to mention the cost of being stuck in traffic: time is money and idling in traffic is both. Now, you might feel like it’s your prerogative to spend 3 hours in traffic every day and by a large measure it is. But here’s the deal: there are people like me who would rather put needles in their eyes than drive. I much prefer being driven. If you get enough people like me off the roads and into a bus or train, you get more highway to yourself, more time to your day and more money in your pocket.

Diversity of purpose, unity of means. That’s how the world should go round.