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 and constant fatigue. I had unrelenting back pain, debilitating migraines and insomnia, and the best answer doctors had for me was that these things tend to happen when you turn 40… I joined a gym, 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. 

I went to the gym regularly for weightlifting, yoga, Zumba, and TRX group classes. I have ADHD and 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.

 

Sleepovers, family values and identity Part 1 – The risk equation


Last December I poked the oracle — my Facebook friends — asking for writing suggestions and the oracle obliged. Then Christmas happened, then work happened, then snowmaggedon happened, and one day I was riding the bus home as I usually do, thinking thoughts as I usually do, and I found myself in physical pain from not writing anything more meaningful than an email in over two months*, with big ideas and feelings stuck sideways and no way to knock them loose.

* I started writing this intro in February. It’s now April, and I have been writing more meaningful things than emails at work. Like this

In my last topic request, people asked me to write about several overlapping things. At least they did in my mind.

 

The topic as they came out were:

  • Keeping kids on track when your values don’t align with those of the people around you.
  • Our policy about sleepovers and how we negotiate it.
  • The general idea of growing and nurturing a family culture.

These topics work well together because how we manage sleepovers is a perfect sounding board to reflect on family culture and identity, and how we negotiate being different than those around us..  

As a rule, we do not allow sleepovers. When our four oldest children were young, it was a hard and fast rule with no exception. Now that our family has grown in age and size, experience and wisdom have brought some nuance to our position. But as a principle, we view sleepovers as unnecessary and generally unhealthy for children. The risk they pose is disproportionate to the benefit they offer. Let me explain.

There are risks in life that we can’t control and risks that we have no choice to expose ourselves to. Every time we take a vehicle we take a risk. We take a risk standing at a cross walk and sitting on our front lawn. Unconsciously — for the most part — I consider that the benefit of sitting on my front lawn outweighs the risk that I will catch a deadly mosquito-born disease. Everyone performs the risk calculation differently and that’s why we have people who don’t let their children play in the grass during tick season and people who travel to the Amazon with their baby in a backpack. 

Children are vulnerable and part of our responsibility  is to protect them. Vulnerability to risk is not only a function of physical strength and size, but also of maturity and wisdom. To properly manage a risk, we need to be able to see and gauge it. That ability comes with a gradual exposure to situations we can handle and success in handling them . That’s why I don’t allow a 2 year-old outside unsupervised but I do allow a 7 year-old outside unsupervised on my property. I don’t allow my 10 year-old to bike outside our neighbourhood but I do allow my 17 year-old to take my car and go to the grocery store to buy some Ben & Jerry’s providing that she brings some back for me. 

If I were to put the risk/benefit calculation on a quadrant, it would look a little like this:

When I speak to parents about sleepovers, they often mention the necessity to let children learn from experience and the scourge of over-protection. I completely agree with both sentiments but I see judgement as a muscle. Muscle strength builds in increments as does the ability to see, appreciate and handle risk.  

The existence of risk is appreciated against a steady state, a baseline. Our “spidey sense” is a sense — perceived by our lizard brain before it reaches our frontal cortex — that something is amiss, something is jarring. My job as a parent is to lay down a strong foundation of normal and loving interactions against which my children can gauge weird, inappropriate, abusive, and no good ones. 

That sense of deliberate and conscious parenting is where sleepovers start being problematic. When I send my children to someone else’s house overnight, I am making an assumption that this person’s appreciation of “normal” and “age-appropriate” is the same as mine. If my children do not yet have a strong sense of what is normal and appropriate in our family, I am introducing a new layer of information for them to process. In most cases, the differences will be mild and inoffensive. But in the rare cases when they aren’t, confusion is what allows molesters to groom their victims and act under the protection of guilt and shame.

The risk of exposing my children to abuse, traumatizing content or a dangerous situation during a sleepover might be low, but the impact can be life-altering. All it takes is one visiting family friend, one big sister’s boyfriend, one big brother’s experimentation and curiosity. I heard stories of children being left alone after bedtime when the parents went out, children hiding under beds while a drunk parent flew into a rage, children being shown juvenile porn by an older brother, children being molested by the teenage babysitter hired by their friend’s parents. What degree of risk are we willing to tolerate when it comes to sexual or physical abuse? How low a risk is low enough when the risk is not necessary? Must our children learn about perverts by experience? Or are they better off not learning first hand about certain things? 

When it comes to low risk and high impact, I have to make the right call 100% of the time. An abuser (or an idiot) only has to be right once to traumatize my child and change the course of a life. 

As far as our family is concerned, sleepovers pose a completely unnecessary risk that is  (A) completely avoidable, and (B) offers no specific benefit. There’s enough situations I can’t control. This is not one of them. 

 

Staffer’s Notebook: Take me to Paris


Staffer’s Notebook is where I put emails that are way too long, or none of my business, or ideas no one wants to hear about. Glen Gower is my long-suffering boss and the person most likely to receive “I wrote you a 1200-word reply, wanna read it?” in response to a simple question. Sometimes he says yes. Sometimes I send it anyways.

Subject: Paris… Sigh

Hi Glen,

Some time ago (or so) I mentioned the Square du Temple in Paris as an example of a great public space. Today we received an email critical of public art in transit stations in Ottawa. It reminded me of Paris. Everything reminds me of Paris.

As a kid my mom took us back to France often but we never stayed in Paris. Two years ago, I took Éloïse and Marie to France for a family reunion. Since it was their first trip abroad, I decided to play tourist before joining my parents in Brittany. I was always interested in urban design and the secret sauce that makes greatness. My travels to Europe as a child and young adult formed my outlook on density, public transit and art. I wanted my two teenage daughters to experience the smaller footprint of life in a large European city and take that experience back with them to Ottawa, like I did growing up. I took a ton of pictures of public art, gathering space and (of course) transit.

Here is a short video I took in the Square du Temple. It’s about 15 seconds long and doesn’t have much sound: I was trying to capture the feel of the place.

This park is located in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris, a hipster shopping district and former Jewish quarter. The girls and I bought bread, cheese and saucisson at the nearby Marché des enfants rouges — the oldest food market in Paris, created in 1615 — and took our “dinner” back to the park. Once there, we shared a moment with local residents and passers-by. The square is one of the 24 city parks designed and planned by Charles-Eugène Haussman, the prefect of the Seine charged by Napoleon with a massive urban renewal project. Haussman was ousted by critics for extravagance but his vision survives in the spirit that still animates Paris today. The garden in the Square du Temple contains 70 species of trees, some of them exotic and requiring special attention by skilled gardeners. Maintaining the park costs money and the park is not generating any revenues. It serves its purpose as a place of refuge in a densely built environment. It’s beautiful for its own sake.

Paris, like any city in a mature democracy, can no longer put one person in charge of transforming its image at any cost. But the spirit of making art and culture a set piece of any major project lives on. Many public projects in Paris have been commissioned to world-class artists and architects to reinvent and interpret. The Louvre Pyramid comes to mind as do many lesser-known transit stations.

We came to the Square du Temple through the “Arts et métiers” metro station, another public space worthy of a Google search if you are so inclined.

This station is named after the museum of “Arts et métiers” which translates to “crafts and trades”. It is lined with copper panels and was inspired by steampunk esthetics and the Nautilus — Jules Verne’s legendary submarine in 20,000 leagues below the sea. Unlike most metro stations, advertising is not allowed in this station. Portholes dot the walls and display sketches of some of the museum’s exhibits. The station is a work of art. Commissioning the art cost money and the station is not generating revenues through advertising. It’s a public transit station that serves its purpose as a transit station and as a work of art. It’s beautiful for its own sake.

I was reminded of this station during our chat about what our transit system says about our priorities. I said that Ottawa was a City of “good enough”. This is not a value judgement on the morality of being visionary or conservative, it’s a statement about Ottawa’s distinct personality as an agglomeration. I struggle to imagine Ottawa City Council, or the residents who elected it, supporting a kind of artistic vision for transit stations that makes them worth visiting in and of themselves and not just something to pass through. And yet, that ability to think bigger than “how do I get to work?” is part of the secret sauce that makes every corner of Paris worth discovering. I planned our Paris visit around landmark public transit stations, public spaces and public art. The two pictures below are another example of public art adorning a transit station.

We are a practical city. We don’t plant flowers that require a gardener’s care. Our vision for Ottawa Beyond 2036 is to be the “most liveable midsize city.” I wonder if this is not setting us on a path of un-remarkability and damning us to obscurity. Do we want to be a city where people merely live or do we want to be a city that people seek out? Do we want to be “survivable” or “desirable”?

I see “liveable” as a subset of a “desirable”. Liveable speaks to those who are already here. Desirable makes our city attractive to those who are not here yet. The difference between liveable and desirable may be an existential one: do we want to be a city looking inward or outward? Do we want to grow in stature and meaning or do we want to stay cozy within our small-town self-perception? When I listen to Stephen Willis talk about Ottawa Beyond 2036, I hear hopes for a city looking both inward and outward: a city caring for its own and shining beyond its limits. When I listen to the public, I hear wishes for a city that is safe and predictable in scope and ambition. Safe is unremarkable. It will keep our city sprawling, our zoning unequitable, our transit unreliable, our roads wide, our sidewalks missing and our children in our basements.

The best we can hope for by playing it safe is to make the wrong things better or maybe start doing the right things poorly. Doing the right things well will require vision and a will to match.

 

Deadhead: A municipal staffer’s notebook


In public transit speak, “deadhead” is the movement of a transit vehicle without passengers on board. For instance, the time a bus spends driving from the garage to its starting point, or from the end point of its route to its starting point. In a city like Ottawa, where we run one-way express routes into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the afternoon, deadhead is a costly yet unavoidable element of our transit equation. I thought it was a great concept to name my staffer notebook after.

As a staffer, I often feel like a necessary evil in the bureaucratic equation, something that most people would do without if they could, but can’t figure out how to wish away. If transit authorities could magically make their buses appear at their starting point without using gas or putting mileage on those axles, they would. If City Hall could magically make staffers disappear while maintaining a 100+h workweek for its municipal councillors, it would. The only reason we are tolerated is because we help maintain the illusion that elected officials can singlehandedly read hundreds of pages of reports, sit on 4 committees plus City Council, answer the phone, solve their constituents’ problems, cut ribbons and wrangle stakeholders.

Last December, I started working at Ottawa City Hall for a municipal councillor. Personel attached to a politician are often called “staffers”. In Ottawa, “staffers” are not to be confused with “City Staff,” the public servants and bureaucrats keeping the machine going. It is no coincidence that the two jobs I found after spending several years at home were staffer jobs, one for a federal politician in 2008 and one for a municipal politician in 2018: staffer positions are entry-level positions that require no other background than getting along with your boss. We are hired and fired at our boss’ will. Our salaries come out of each politician’s office budget, along with swag, pens and paper, printers and newspaper advertizement. This is not only a pay mechanism, it is an adequate reflection of our relative importance in the hierarchy of the City. At best, we are something less valuable than furniture. At worst, we get shit thrown at us and get fired for being in front of it. In meetings we have no name, no identity, no claim to a chair or an introduction. (As I was writing this in the cafeteria — no word of a lie — a municipal councillor I meet several times a week walked past me and gave me a blank stare of non-recognition when I said Hi…)

Because staffers are poorly paid, mostly young, and often of questionable ability, the turnover rate among political staff is high. We do not have any recourse if we are treated unfairly: we signed-up to be hired and fired at will. For someone like me, it has been mosly an advantage. I am smart, usually competent, and able to get along with anything with a pulse. What I lack is a resume and work experience beyond “raised 9 live children, no face tattoos.”

I am, essentially, deadhead.

But that’s not how I see myself. I was lucky to be hired by a phenomenal municipal councillor, along with two other spectacular woman. My colleagues make me want to be better every day. We are working in a collaborative environement, supporting one common mission and each other. Within the confines of my office, I don’t feel like an entry-level minion. I feel like a trusted advisor, someone’s whose ideas and talents are valued and used to their full capacity. My push back on some of my boss’ ideas is as appreciated as my support and I have yet to execute a direction I didn’t agree with. When my boss and I disagree, we hash it out, argue, convince each other — or vice-versa — and move on. This is a rare work environment where we are building trust one good decision at a time, like a row-boat moves forward one stroke at a time, as long as both rowers are paddling in the same direction at the same time.

This collaborative environment where ideas are shared freely has caused me to dig deep into municipal policy and planning. I have a Master’s Degree in law: I am naturally inclined to get into the weeds. Urban design is an ongoing invitation to geek-out on just about anything. I am driven to keep up with the conversations happening around me, even when I sit unnoticed and silent. It can be hard to keep my mouth shut and I am chomping at the bit more often than not. I am often writing emails I never send and piling on notes no one will ever read. My hope is that sharing my thoughts on this blog will help me manage my restlessness and form ideas that are my own in this new space I just created.

Welcome to my notebook.

 

 

 

Christmas Traditions Undone


Early last December I went fishing for blog topics on Facebook and a few friends asked about our Advent and Christmas traditions. There is a “tradition anxiety” among parents of young families: they look at established older families’ traditions, or think about the traditions their own family took years to establish, and wonder what’s wrong with them. The children are crying, everyone is cranky, parents are overwhelmed and nothing feels like the warm-and-fuzzy they see on the Internet or remember from their childhood. This is especially true with young Catholic families who have Kendra Tierney (bless her heart) to look up to. I really envy people like Kendra who have a skill set that dovetails nicely with being the mother of a large family. Kendra Tierney is amazing at homemaking, hosting and getting her kids to wear matching outfits. I’m amazing at writing, reading, and learning new languages and instruments. All skills that are not only useless in case of a zombie apocalypse — beyond being eaten first — but make me a worse parent because they don’t respond kindly to constant interruption. They require practice and introspection and probably a governess too.

“This year, traditions have been canceled for cause of New Job,” I wrote back, hoping to avoid showing the world how lame we are, tradition-wise. Then the CBC called to ask if they could talk to me on the radio about our family traditions and I thought “Can’t avoid it now…” (you can listen to the clip here).

I learned over years of trying to #makememories that memories aren’t made. Memories happen. They grow organically from the things we do over and over again, like the footpaths that appear between sidewalks, showing the shortest point between A and B. If you break down crying every year over your children’s Christmas outfits and yell at everyone to get in the car dammit we’re late for church, it will become the Christmas tradition your children remember, you can quote me on that. I try to keep my eyes on the overarching tradition of enjoying our time together, especially now that my older children are leaving home and returning for holidays. What flows from that — cooking, special outings, crafts and activities — is always up for grabs.

I like to keep traditions to a minimum. It’s a survival mechanism in a family that spans 18 years from oldest and youngest. It’s one thing to get all excited about the Elf making snow angels in a pound of flour when you have two children born two years apart. The window of time during which you have to one-up yourself Elf-wise is relatively short. I’ve had young children in my house for almost 23 years. Not only is that a lot of years to keep up a charade, but things also happen during those years: new jobs are started, bugs are caught, friendships are created and lost, babies are born and lost, pregnancies are announced, fortunes are made and undone. Because traditions are made on the sod that is repeatedly trodden, the ones that survive must be hardy enough to thrive in dry and depleted soil.

Over the years, I have tried to uphold traditions that are rooted in our Catholic Faith. We are practicing Catholics, which means different things to different people. For us, since having Sarah almost 10 years ago, it has meant something like the absolute minimum required by the Precepts of the Catholic Church (whip your catechisms, flip to #2041-3). Since we are so lame faith-wise, I try to make the most out of the feast days of Advent and Christmas. We light-up the Advent wreath at meal times, we celebrate the Feast of St-Nicholas by leaving a small religious item and chocolate money in the children’s shoes on December 6th, we have Jesse Tree ornaments (although we have never finished a Jesse Tree ever), we celebrate the Feast of Mary Mother of God on January 1st and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. This year, we did none of the above.

In past years, I was leading music ministry during Mass and it forced me to follow the liturgical calendar and Mass readings carefully. I realize now how much this Ministry was nurturing my own life of faith. You may not get on your knees and pray every evening but when you have to practice a psalm or two every week, you eventually learn them. And guess what? In your times of need, the words will come to comfort you. When you have to read the readings, pick the songs, practice the songs and deliver the songs to a congregation, the liturgy becomes part of the rhythms of your life. And the rhythms of a mother’s life become the rhythms of the family’s life.

I had to give up my music ministry responsibilities last year after Easter and while I miss it every week, I didn’t appreciate how much it anchored our families’ traditions. It put me in the Advent spirit of waiting and the celebration of Christmas. This year, we missed the boat entirely, like the Spirit of Christmas passed over our house. On Christmas morning, Éloïse and Clara were taking McDonald’s breakfast orders and I asked “Is that new? Drive-through McD on Christmas morning?” and they looked at me sheepishly and said “Well…. you usually have a whole brunch spread out…” Which is true. Usually.

The 12 days of Christmas are not over yet but in our family it has come and gone quiet as a mouse. We spent time with our older children, who are home from University, and with our parents and siblings. We caught up with cousins and friends we had not seen in a long time. We celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary on the 30th and Marie’s 17th birthday on New Year’s Day, and I was back at work on January 2nd. We watched a lot of movies and drank a lot of coffee. But if I can be perfectly honest, while I am quick to roll my eyes at people’s elaborate traditions, missing out on them reminded me that they serve an important function in breaking the ordinary, in forcing us to become completely engrossed in something different than our every day routine.

A change is as good as a break, they say. Keep changing.