January 2010


At first glance, it seems my popularity is at an all time high.  My inbox is bursting with new messages.  I receive daily friend requests on facebook.  I’m getting ready to set up a twitter account in anxious anticipation of my legions of followers.  But unfortunately I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a cup of coffee with a good friend.

I often wonder how online social networking influences our ability to interact with one another in person.  Long gone are the days when I stop in at a friend’s house just to say hello.  Granted, online networking is much more convenient since we always know the person is “at home” and we never have to deal with annoying busy signals or call-waiting tones.  As a result, I suspect many of us are now more comfortable writing an email or texting than picking up the phone or stopping in for a visit.  Maybe this is why online dating services like LavaLife and eHarmony have been so successful, or why I can’t find a teenager walking down the street without manically punching texts into their phone… these devices compensate for our diminishing ability to initiate a face-to-face conversation.

I remember my student days – before the advent of myspace and facebook – when each new class, new party or trip to the campus pub presented an endless array of potential great friendships.  If you are a student, cherish these opportunities: go out and make enough friendships to last into your thirties and forties.

These days, going out and meeting new people is exhausting.  First I have to find a place where it is possible to interact with others… not easy.  Then I have to work up the guts to actually interact with others.  All this work to find that the person you’ve reached out to is not a good match.  Add an infant who demands regular naps and feedings and the task is near impossible.  Meanwhile, I can type a few words into Google and instantly connect with hundreds, if not thousands, of people who share my interests, concerns and ambitions.  So why bother?

Our global online community, while interesting and exciting, is impeding the success of the local community right outside our front doors.  While we sit inside approving friend requests on facebook, our good friends sit at home wondering why we no longer share those intimate cups of coffee.  While we discuss a book with someone overseas, the cookies go stale at our local book club.  As I write this post, I’m sure there are a wide array of local service clubs that would welcome my time and energy.

It’s time to start reaching out.  Thinking of someone? Show up at their house with a bottle of wine.  At work?  Consider popping your head over the cubicle with a smile and wave.  Griping about the lack of a particular program, service or piece of infrastructure?  Go out and join those who are actually doing something to make it happen.  These experiences are more meaningful than those we have while mesmerized by the glow of our screens.

But here I sit at my computer, filled with excuses to stay inside.  I don’t want to disrupt Tess’ napping and eating schedules.  I don’t know many other people with children and don’t know where to meet other parents.  And surely all of my childless friends are too busy with their careers to be bothered.

Yesterday Tess and I were in the pool during her swimming lessons.  She made eye contact with another infant and the other little girl smiled and reached out to hold hands.  There they swam, hand in hand, completely content in their friendship.  My heart melted… it was one of the most powerful cases for physical interaction I’ve ever seen.

Now if only mommy can get out from behind her computer screen.  Does eHarmony offer matching services for parents?

This month I found myself stuck in excruciating traffic on the highway while visiting a friend in a Toronto suburb with my 8 month old daughter in the backseat.  I looked at the car next to me and saw a four-year old girl in the backseat with her nose pressed against the glass and the saddest expression on her face.  It occurred to me that this was part of her daily routine between 3:30 and 6:00 pm.  Right there and then I promised my daughter that she would not spend her childhood afternoons like this.

Before I became a parent I took pride in my support for alternative modes of transportation.  I regularly took the bus to work.  I donned a helmet and hopped on my bike.  I became so fit I even began to run the 8 km trek home.  My colleagues looked at me sympathetically because my husband has our only car or they think I’m crazy for foregoing my free parking pass.

Tess and I enjoying a stroll at 8 weeks

I can’t blame them, because I too was married to a car-centric lifestyle before I worked at an NGO filled with environmentally savvy do-gooders who inspired me to discover that commuting need not include hours stuck in your car on the freeway.

Now that I am entering the last leg of my maternity leave, I do not want motherhood to force me back into my car.  Granted, I am anxious about the kind of commitment involved.  I see frustrated mothers on the bus, struggling with their strollers and unhappy children.  I question the safety of child seats or chariots strapped to my bike.  I think of how easy it would be to pick Tess up from daycare in our Volvo and be home in no time.

So this week I experimented with our commuting options… I figure if I can get us around without a car in the middle of January then we’re golden when I return to work.  We went to a play date yesterday, with Tess in her Ergo Carrier on the bus and we cuddled happily all the way to the YMCA (she even slept soundly on the way home).  Last week I bought some winter treads for my trainers and strapped Tess in the BOB stroller— she laughed and laughed as the wind blushed her cheeks and her stroller trudged through the snow.

I realized that I don’t have to swear at traffic while my children stare listlessly out the window.  Commuting is central to the quality time I spend with my kids as long as it seizes the opportunity to bond… just like going for a swim, reading bedtime stories or putting on a puppet show.  Quality time is not something I have to wedge into my schedule, but part of every single minute I spend with my daughter.

As much as I can, I pledge to leave the car at home.  Even though our commute may take a little longer our journey will be filled with love and laughter.

Is it just me, or has city-living literally become synonymous with sophistication?  Terms like metropolitan, cosmopolitan and urbane imply a sense of style and cultured outlook that can only be obtained in cities.  It is no wonder that more than a few city dwellers often turn up their noses to small town living.

Across the Americas, or at least in my home country of Canada, rural advocates begrudgingly accept the rural exodus, the phenomenon that has all their best and brightest bee-lining for metropolitan regions to escape the confines of their small towns.  At a conference in Twillingate, NL a few years ago I watched an elder municipal councillor tear up as a high school student asserted “I have to leave.  There is nothing for me here.”

So the fortunate graduates leave their hometowns and head for bigger things and bigger places, taking with them all their talent, prospects and bright futures.  As a result, the small town perpetuates antiquated and dull lifestyles destined for stagnation.  End of story?  I refuse to submit…

In Who’s Your City, Richard Florida argues that where you choose to live could be the single most important decision you ever make.  His enthusiastic endorsement for major urban areas is clear: this is where you can make six figures, where it is near impossible to exhaust the dating pool and where you can take in highbrow activities like the opera, ballet or new exhibits.  But (not just in Florida’s work, but other urban advocates like Ann Golden, Glen Murray and many others) there is less emphasis on a different kind of value set in the “quality of place” equation.  There are those who dream of a different place: a place where you can live on the water without spending millions; a place where you can run those horses you’ve been dreaming about; a place where you can grow more than those tomatoes on your balcony; a place where you have a direct link to civic leaders who have no choice but to listen to your opinions.

The values associated with small towns are more likely to resonate with those who are setting out in a young family.  So maybe in a few years that teenager from Newfoundland will be ready to raise a family and grow nostalgic for her childhood in Twillingate.  Maybe she will return to her small town educated, fulfilled with her early adulthood metropolitan experiences, and empowered with ideas for the future of her small town.  I see this kind of promise in research hubs like the Canadian Rural Research Foundation, a network filled with talented grad students raised on 4H, fresh lobster or county fairs.  These twenty-somethings see value in their small town heritage and have converged to seek solutions to make these places economically and socially sustainable.

While the place where I live isn’t rural by most definitions, it has many of the attributes of small town living.  We define “stuck in traffic” as stopped by more than two traffic lights on our way home from work.  We can enjoy agricultural land by walking ten minutes down our street.  Our home is affordable and we are a short walk to the shore.  In essence, we have given up our high earning potential, pool of hot dates and trips to the opera for something more sacred… authenticity, quality of life and a permanent escape from the rat race.

Is the small town sexy?  Maybe not.  But what it lacks in promiscuity is makes up for in charm.

Back in November I attended the One-of-a-Kind trade show in Toronto, an etsy inspired crafter’s paradise with inventive, quaint pieces lovingly constructed by artists, hobbyists and work at home moms.  I perused aisle after aisle with Tess in her sling, a self-righteous, baby-wearing mother determined to shop locally for Christmas gifts this year.  I was a crusader.  A hip eco-mama.  An individual who refuses to eat the mass market bs from evil corporate America.  Best of all, the place was abound with like-minded women and men… I wanted to unite with my comrades and start the revolution.

Until I saw the boots.  She was a gorgeous, 5’11” goddess with her baby strapped to her back and her boots were to die for.  I looked closer to see designer labels.  Then I reflected on my designer boots, bag and hat.  Then I looked back at my poor husband navigating the show with our way-too-expensive stroller filled with items I had consumed that day.  I also considered the hour drive to the convention centre in our SUV.  Whoops.

I think there is a bit of contradiction in all of us.  Like that woman we see in the bookstore trying to juggle her copy of Adbusters with her Starbucks latte and Louis Vuitton handbag.  I preach sustainable practices but I own a Coach purse.  I take public transit but also take epic showers.  But hey, even Al Gore and David Suzuki consume thousands of miles in air travel.  I’m sure there are very few out there without some innocent hypocritical tendencies.

I maintain that you can’t blame us for trying.  The problem with much of the environmental movement is that it is elitist.  The average do-gooder is intimidated by the one per cent of the population leading the movement that judges us for not being able to recite the intricacies surrounding the science of climate change.  They speak in jargon that is out of reach for the majority of the population.  This is unfortunate because without the masses there is little that these leaders will be able to accomplish.

This leaves us to figure things out on our own, and take it upon ourselves to do what we think is the right thing.  We are not hypocrites if we constantly educate ourselves on the impact that our decisions have on the world around us– rather, we are evolving.  Consider how big recycling became when the general population grew to understand the limits on landfill space.  Then, when we understood the resources involved in recycling we sought to divert some of our waste through compost and/or organics collection.  Now we understand that is probably best not to generate waste in the first place and we should limit consumption or at least choose the vendor with the smallest environmental footprint.  As a society, our understanding of the consequences associated with our decisions is constantly evolving.  This evolution is changing the way we get around, eat, and power our lifestyles.  And meaningful change is out of reach unless the majority is on board.

Maybe my next handbag will be homespun from local, organically grown wool.  Then again, I hear Coach is having a massive clearance sale…

there… in an instant

she opens her eyes to see

bewildered parents