Our house during Earth Hour, March 2010

I will always remember the day the lights went out.

I was sitting at my desk and everything shut down.  I met my husband at home to find our apartment powerless as well.  Our stove unusable, we decided to venture down to the market for something to eat.  Store after store was locked up due to power outages.  We continued walking aimlessly until we asked an RCMP officer where we might find an open restaurant.  He told us that the entire province and eastern seaboard was experiencing a major black out that could last for days.

Most of us viewed the 2003 blackout as a fluke incident and a novelty.  My husband and I eventually found a cozy place that had opened without power and we dined by candlelight and swiped our credit cards the old-fashioned way.  Save for the uncomfortable heat and spoiled food in our fridge, we were in the clear.

But what if it happened again?  What if we were without power for weeks, or months?  What if the power outage was accompanied by some sort of catastrophic storm, terrorist attack or civil unrest?  It is a plausible and, many argue, a likely scenario.  Our society’s rampant consumption habits paired with our dependence on inefficient, non-renewable sources of energy have left us vulnerable.

Now that I am a mother, the possibility of such an event terrifies me.  While my husband and I might get by in a disaster, would we be able to fulfill the basic needs of an infant?  Do we have enough formula on hand?  Would our home keep us comfortable in a heat wave or ice storm?  In the wake of major campaigns, such as Earth Hour, Earth Day, and Emergency Preparedness Week, my awareness has turned to fanaticism.

According to Public Safety Canada, households should maintain adequate supplies to sustain themselves for at least 72 hours following an emergency.  It is our responsibility to understand the risks in our regions, prepare plans with our families and build a kit that includes basic survival items such as water, non-perishable food, emergency contacts, medications and infant formula.  Additional items, such as toilet paper, matches, fuel and a change of clothes would also prove useful in an emergency.  During Emergency Preparedness Week, the Government of Canada blasts communiques that urge each family to ensure they have a their kit ready to go should some sort of unthinkable disaster arise.

Surely an emergency kit is a wise investment in our family’s security and Canadians, particularly those of us with children or elders in our care, should aim to ensure a few basic items are on hand.  But, if we want to get fanatical, we can go even further.  I obsess over ways to protect food storage, heating, cooling and potable water.  I look to our backyard vegetable garden as a means of food security and try to plan harvests in a way that will maximize the growing season.  I find myself pondering how our household might become less dependent on scarce and polluting energy sources and research the feasibility of solar, geothermal or wind generation on our property.  I’m convinced these kinds of household investments will go even further in ensuring my family is secure.

Then again, isn’t it the role of government to ensure basic needs of their citizens are protected?  It follows, then, that our tax dollars should be invested in renewable energy sources, food security and infrastructure protection.  Yet my national government continues to support oil sands projects in ways that diminish transparency and axed an eco retrofit program that made major headway into energy retrofitting because it was too successful.  Until such a time comes when my federal government agrees to tackle root causes in their emergency management planning, I will continue to feel as secure as those in the Ninth Ward.

According to industry experts, such as Tim Flannery, Bill McKibben and Fred Krupp, our window of opportunity to slow the effects of human activity on the planet are rapidly diminishing.  If we reduce consumption immediately, emissions may scale back to a point where catastrophic events are less likely.  Unfortunately, in my observation many of us continue to play the waiting game: we complain that our leaders are not taking substantive steps while our leaders seek affirmation from us that bold moves on the climate change agenda will assure their posts are secure during the next election.  Unless this cycle comes to an abrupt end, we had better be sure we have more than flashlights in our emergency kits.

A serious paradigm shift is required before the lights go out for good.

Happy Earth Day.

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Last week the dreaded but inevitable milestone came to be when I dropped Tess off at daycare for the first time. I told myself it wouldn’t be as terrible as I anticipated, but when I handed Tess over and her lower lip started quivering and tears welled up in her eyes I was terrified to turn and leave.  I made my way down the front steps and turned back to see the confused and frightened look in her beautiful eyes.  It was an image I knew I would never forget and I immediately started sobbing as I walked away.

I did everything I could to make the experience easier on us.  I selected a great daycare hosted by a loving family in a fantastic neighbourhood not far from work and home.  I took her there for visits to acclimatize to the new environment.  I spelled out the standard “helicopter mom” list of emergency contacts, schedules, and instructions that I’m sure would have any care provider questioning their decision to take me on as a client.  I’ve done everything by the book…. so why is it that I’ve had to take frequent breaks from my keyboard as I write this post because recalling the experience sends tears streaming down my cheeks?

In the instant I handed Tess to our daycare provider, I immediately understood why women decide to leave their office to stay home with their children.  I admire and respect their courage and dedication to their families.  But, as much as I want to spend every minute with Tess for the rest of my days, I know that a stay-at-home-mom is not who I am.  As maternity leave comes to an end, I find myself searching for every tidbit of information to give me insights into what is happening at work.  I’m absolutely certain that the place is falling to pieces without me there to provide recommendations for the past twelve months.  And I secretly relish this thought, ready to return rejuvenated with the fresh perspectives I attained during my leave…. if only I could overcome the misery of spending my days without Tess.

My afternoon away from Tess was excruciating.  I sobbed to my dental hygienist, cell phone clutched to my close to my chest, and babbled as my teeth were scraped and polished.  I resisted the urge to rush back after only an hour and opted to go for a swim, hoping that plunging into the cold water would rinse away the lump in my throat and the pit in my stomach.  When that didn’t work I stood in a steaming hot shower and cried unabashedly hoping, but not really caring, that the sound of the running water would render my sobs inaudible to others in the change room.

When I finally returned to daycare, our reunion was uneasy.  She was overtired and adjusting to a new experience and I was completely overcome with guilt.  Thankfully, I was invited to stay for a visit and observe her new environment.

What she had learned in a single afternoon amazed me.  She saw that little people her size can walk, all by themselves, without the aid of furniture or mommy.  She saw the consequences of her actions, such as denying another child the pleasure of a special toy or overexcitedly grabbing hands or locks of hair.  She was exposed to new routines, new menus and new friends.  These were experiences and life lessons that I was not capable of providing her at home.

Later that evening Tess looked directly into my eyes and recalled an animated, if incoherent, account of the day’s events.  It occurred to me that our bond could grow stronger by spending time apart.  All this time I have been rationalizing my need for a life of my own and never stopped to think that Tess might also like a life outside the home.

Yesterday I dropped Tess of at daycare for the second time.  This time I arrived early to help her get settled before I had to leave and thankfully my departure was tearless.  I kissed her good-bye, took a deep breath and walked out the door.  I told myself this was the best thing for both of us and allowed myself to enjoy an afternoon on my own.  When I returned I heard the unmistakable sound of Tess’ laugh coming form the backyard.  I peered in and was delighted to see her interacting with the other children and having a wonderful time.  When she saw me she smiled and reached out for a hug.  It was wonderful.

Tess made three new friends yesterday.  She ate a rice cake at snack time.  She won an award for being a friend to the environment.  Even at 11 months, she is her own person with her own goals and agendas.  And once she finished telling me about her day I promised her that I would try my best to never, ever hold her back.

The view from our driveway last night

6:40 pm

Last night we emerged for our post-dinner stroll to find police crews roping off our street.  A block away, a female driver had wrapped her car around a hydro pole.  As we walked in the opposite direction, we saw that her car have been swerving down the street for over a kilometer, riding up on the boulevard and sidewalk and hitting trees, street signs and parked cars along the way.

Though officials have yet to confirm that alcohol was a factor in the crash, based on the evidence on our street and eyewitness accounts I will assume the driver’s blood level far exceeded legal limits.  Neighbours said they saw the women at the local bar down the street, enjoying the warm weather with drinks on the patio all afternoon.  According to onlookers, by 4:00 pm she was visibly inebriated.

Miraculously no one was hurt but the driver, who was airlifted to hospital with life threatening injuries.  Neighbourhood gossip has it that a couple of dog walkers and local boys on bikes narrowly escaped the path of destruction.

I embraced Tess and kissed her forehead.  Just an hour earlier we had been cycling down the street, with Tess in her child seat, happily enjoying the sunshine.  What if this driver had decided to leave the bar an hour earlier?  What if we had stayed at our play date an hour later?  Despite our regular caution, including helmets, signals and strict adherence to all rules of the road, nothing could have protected us from a drunk driver.  The thought made me sick to my stomach.

I thought about our street at dinnertime on a lovely spring evening, the sidewalks filled with families, pets, and seniors out for a stroll.  Cyclists out for their evening rides.  Children in strollers out for one last happy walk before bedtime.  It’s a beautiful scene, and a big part of why I love our neighbourhood.  But, in an instant, the crash had robbed us of our carefree evening and had us pondering “what if….”

I sifted our local paper this morning for news on the crash and found a single cold, fact-filled paragraph.  Though I knew this was standard reporting for such an incident, for some reason I felt cheated.  What about our tightly knit lakeside community?  What about the destruction to the places where our kids learn to ride their bikes?  Where families gather before church?  Where neighbours come together?  Even if for an evening, the innocence of our street had been taken from us.

The next day I find myself wondering how we can take back our street.  Yes, we could insist on regular police checks by the bar district.  We could pour money into anti drunk-driving campaigns.  I’m sure these measures would make some difference.  But my fear extends beyond drunk driving to those driving down my street on their cell phones.  I even fear myself, fiddling with the radio or trying to retrieve the baby’s pacifier while behind the wheel.  We continually fail to recognize that our vehicles are potentially fatal machines and a single distraction is an avenue for the unthinkable.  Needless to say, my contempt for cars has become entrenched.

The solution?  Drive less. Walk your kids to school.  Ride your bike to work.  And for heaven’s sake: if you’ve been drinking, do not get behind the wheel.  We are less of a menace to our neighbourhoods when our modes of transportation are powered by us and us alone.

I sincerely hope the driver recovers from her injuries and uses this experience in a way that positively contributes to the community.  My heart goes out to her family and friends during this difficult time.

The day is coming when Tess will be the one who decides to indulge her parents in a pink tu-tu photo shoot and I will have absolutely no say in the matter.  Truth be told, I look forward to that day: it is the day she starts to think critically and I get a glimpse of the woman she will eventually become.

I often wonder what Tess’ interests and ambitions will be when she gets older.  Will she be an athlete?  A scholar?  An artist?  An entrepreneur?  A philanthropist?  Will I be walking her to the rowing course down the street, or the dance studio next door?  Will I be a soccer mom, a hockey mom, or a mom who has to comes to terms with a daughter who is not at all interested in sports?  Will she groan when we force her to take part in family Friday night karaoke, or belt out the lyrics like Celine Dion at Caesar’s Palace?

Whatever her chosen path, I hope she is able to pursue her dreams free of gender stereotypes.  If she wants to get into management, I hope she will not be asked to fetch coffees or feed parking meters.  If she wants to pursue a trade, I hope she will be able to do so without cat-calls or condescension.  And, most importantly, I hope she finds a partner who respects her ideas, opinions and aspirations.

The other day my husband and I were discussing the panel of dragons on Dragon’s Den and we pondered the common attributes of self-made wealthy men.  Slick.  Quick witted.  A little bit abrasive.  But I qualified that the same does not hold true for self-made women.  “It’s hard for us, you know,” I mused, eluding to stereotypes like dragon-lady and bitch.  He waded carefully into this redirected conversation, “But not as tough as it was for women thirty years ago,” he said.  I sighed, “but hopefully much tougher than it will be for women thirty years from now.”  He gazed at baby Tess thoughtfully and nodded in agreement.

It wasn’t until I became a mother that I really understood that gender inequalities remain prevalent in our 21st century North American society.  For women who decide to pursue a career outside the home, there are few affordable, equitable and systematic early learning centres backed by the public sector (though the province of Quebec has a promising model that I hope will soon catch on in the rest of the country).  And the women who choose to care for others’ children in order to stay home with their little ones are paid a mere pittance when you consider the importance of the service they offer: outside of doctors and presidents, I can think of few more significant roles than nurturing young children.

And the inequities don’t stop there.  According to Van Jones in The Green Collar Economy, women in America earn only 77 cents on the dollar of their male counterparts.  Careers traditionally pursued by women are paid significantly less and women who pursue traditional male roles are still paid less than men.  These issues are unlikely to receive much policy attention because, as it stands, women are significantly underrepresented in governments at the local, regional, and national levels.

I am one of the lucky ones.  I was raised in an environment filled with high expectations and opportunity.  I have had mentors who recognized my potential and helped me to achieve my goals.  And I have a partner who doesn’t just claim he supports my dreams, he truly walks the walk.  Despite my good fortune, I fear that my experience is more the exception than the rule.

The twenty-first century holds many challenges that will require fresh perspectives and innovation.  Climate change must be stabilized at no more than 3 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100.  Food security is paramount for the millions of people who will face shortages in the coming decades.  Entire economies must be transformed to recognize that traditional manufacturing based solutions are fiscally and environmentally unsustainable.  And these are just a few of the challenges that lay ahead.

We are doing ourselves a disservice if we exclude half the population in the pursuit of solutions.  Luckily, new models of innovation based on inclusion and collaboration are revolutionizing traditional hierarchical approaches to problem solving.  Open source software, direct publishing and collaborative design have advocates claiming that accessibility enhances the end product because many were involved in developing solution.  If we could meaningfully apply these models elsewhere policy making will no longer be the sphere of an elite backed by special interest.  And we will be privy to the ideas of brilliant young minds from across gender, racial and socio-economic boundaries.

Women are up for the challenge.  In North America, female enrollment in post secondary education is at an all time high.  Young girls are so consistently outperforming in academic environments that in cities like Toronto school boards are establishing schools specifically aimed at helping boys catch up.  If we invest in supports to help women cope with the challenges of raising a young family, such as nationally supported early learning programs, equitable parental leave opportunities, and legislated employer flexibility, women will be better able to contribute to the solutions we require.  And in developing countries, programs are desperately needed to alleviate family burdens on young women so they may pursue an education and life outside the home.

We have come a long way since the days of Mary Wollstonecraft and Betty Friedan.  But the next generation of women will play a much greater role than we could ever imagine.

Thank heaven for little girls.

Ever since the ink dried on my first rent cheque I have always left my personal touch on the spaces I’ve inhabited.  I’ve surrounded myself with lovely, obscure or whimsical items that made me feel at home.  However, as our awareness of the things we consume (and throw away) evolves, it may be time to rethink how we adorn our dwellings.  I maintain that we can still create magnificent spaces without compromising nesting for future generations.  To this end, it is becoming increasingly clear that secondhand is not synonymous with second-rate.

My oldest and dearest friend recently hopped on the property ladder and bought a slick new condo at hip downtown Toronto address. Last week I was honoured to visit him during his first full day in his new place and was awed by the sleek kitchen, the exhilarating view and the happening neighbourhood.  Impressed by their spring catalog, we decided to venture uptown and check out some wares for his new pad at Restoration Hardware.  From studio lamps to Parisian cushions to factory cart coffee tables, surely we would be inspired by unique pieces to embellish his space.

When we arrived I was thoroughly disappointed to find myself in the midst of a soul-destroying shopping experience.  To my right was a selection of factory worn towel rings in a multitude of finishes.  To my left a couple with way too much disposable income debated the placement of scuffs on a “vintage” desk.  And all around “one-of-a-kind” pieces repeated themselves in a multitude of reconfigured arrangements.  It was clear I had been disillusioned by contrived authenticity within the catalog.  After a few moments of stunned silence my friend outed the elephant in the room: “You know, I would rather have a home that is ugly and filled with character than one that looks like it’s straight out of the box.”

As a former marketing guru for Herman Miller, I was certain that my friend would insist that his home be filled with the latest pieces from high-end retail chains.  Instead, I entered his condo to find charming, worn looking pieces that had been carefully collected or handed down from previous generations.  A pair of lovely beat up mid-century chairs.  An authentic chest gone missing from mother’s attic.  And my personal favourite: a picnic table dining room with carved signatures of visitors gone by.  His collection reinforced a growing suspicion of mine: paying full retail for furniture is passé.  And all this time I thought I was just being cheap.

I prefer that each piece in my home hold a rich history.  There is a gorgeous antique clawfoot mahogany table in our dining room that we eyed for months, strategizing on how best to talk the dealer down to a steal.  A pair of antique wingback chairs that we negotiated for $300 seats us by the wood stove.  We own a mid-century bedroom set passed down from the in-laws.  Tess’ nursery holds a beautiful used Pottery Barn Kids change table and sleigh crib that I scored from an ad on Kijiji for under $400.   With antique dealers, flea markets, and online tools like kijiji, craigslist and freecycle.org abound, sometimes I wonder why I engage in the unsustainable practice of retail furniture and decor shopping at all.

There are countless innovative and beautiful ideas emerging from designers who base their philosophy on readaptation.  Companies like Urban Tree Salvage in Toronto manufacture products using only local wood from trees that perished due to storm damage or insect infestation.  Similarly, Brooklyn’s Scrapile generates stunning designs based on discarded, recovered and repurposed wood.  A quick visit to Inhabitat reveals hundreds, if not thousands, of designs that contribute to sustainability.

Beyond purchasing furniture and decor, dealers and designers are increasingly capable of incorporating second-hand goods into a remodel.  Reclaimed wood or fixtures from old unused industrial buildings add a unique and impressive touch to residential spaces.  Looking to other people’s remodels may also generate some great finds and reuse centres like Habitat for Humanity’s Restore facilitate these choices while generating revenue for a great cause.  Where salvaged items aren’t an option, there are alternative products derived from renewable resources like cork and bamboo, and materials like VOC-free paints and recycled glass contribute to a much healthier indoor environment.  With the shift to reuse catching on, students of interior design would be well served to start sourcing, developing relationships and specializing in readaptive design.

Whenever I feel romanced by savvy marketers or designers on home and garden television I remind myself that I will not find happiness in an overpriced out-of-the-box ottoman.  As much as I admire page 56 of the catalog, the eclectic mix of pre-loved items make my place feel much more like home.

There are several people in my local community who I find truly inspiring.  One such individual is Erin, the owner of our cloth diaper service.  Erin is a mother who decided to give up her job when she realized she could make a meaningful difference if parents in our community made the switch from disposable diapers to cloth.  There are times when I feel so inspired by her work that I want to switch career paths and join her in her crusade.  Then I remind myself that, however admirable her quest may be, bottom line is she spends much of her time dealing with baby crap (and, as us parents know, that isn’t pretty at the best of times).

Cleaning cloth diapers may not be for all of us.  When we were expecting Tess we considered buying cloth diapers.  Upon further research, I discovered that heat and high-powered cleaning agents would be required to eradicate bacteria.  I was warned by other parents of the massive amounts of laundry I would be undertaking with children.  Plus my husband wasn’t exactly thrilled with throwing a load of work shirts in the wash after a loads of dirty diapers. Luckily, cloth diaper services present an option for parents who cringe at the scale of waste involved in disposable diapering yet are too overwhelmed to wash cloth themselves.

There are advocates of disposable diapers who claim the energy and chemicals involved in cleaning cloth diapers negate any environmental benefits associated with reduced waste.  When I inquired with our service on the merits of these arguments I was impressed that they had done their homework.  Reputable diaper services special order environmentally sound cleaning agents that are powerful enough to eradicate bacteria, then they test the pH of outgoing diapers to ensure they are safe for use on our children.  They are constantly researching and implementing the most efficient way to wash diapers using as little energy as possible.  And they pool their deliveries to reduce gas consumption and GHGs (though I will be even more impressed the day our delivery shows up in a hybrid or electric van).

Our cloth diaper model

Another argument against cloth is the hassle involved, but I counter that hassle is eliminated for those who opt to go with a diaper service.  We leave our dirty diapers out on our porch once per week and these are taken away and a fresh batch delivered right to our door.  Our service offers cloth wipes and all natural diaper ointments, which means I satisfy all of my diapering needs without even leaving my home.  We are not required to rinse the diapers but are asked to dump any solid stool down the toilet (a practice I would follow even if we did use disposables).  The diapers in our delivery are fitted and there are no pins or folding involved.  The only extra step involved in cloth diapering involves diaper covers, which is a waterproof membrane that prevents a soaked cloth diaper from leaking onto clothes (taking only an extra couple of seconds to secure).  Unless Tess exited the womb with an innate capacity to use the toilet, diapering could not be much easier.

Using a diaper service is not cost prohibitive when compared to disposables.  The cost of our service is roughly $20 per week, about the equivalent of buying disposable diapers at a big box store.  Granted buying and washing cloth diapers is a much cheaper option, but the work involved is daunting to many parents (this author included).

Cloth diaper services are an example of solutions that bridge the gap between sustainability and convenience for parents.  If we all resolve to do a little research before we open our wallets, we can find many more new designs and services that reject the unsustainable status quo of baby products.  Luckily, as a society we are rethinking our consumption habits in a way that will facilitate a less daunting climate challenge for our children.  I maintain that eliminating disposable diapers from the weekly garbage pick up is a great place to start.

Is there a more sustainable option than cloth diapering? In Green Baby, Susannah Marriott explains that, in some cultures, parents do not use diapers at all but continually monitor their babies expressions for signs they have to go.  When the signs present themselves, parents rush the infants to a designated latrine.  While I applaud these parents for their conscientious child rearing, I am one of those parents who likes to leave the house from time to time.  I’ll stick with my cloth diaper service for now.

So to Erin and all of the other parents and business owners who are dedicated to making cloth diapering easier for the rest of us, matriarcade salutes you.

Our new bike seat arrived today... here we are on our first spin around the block.