Archive for the ‘Thunder Bay’ Category

You. Me. Zoe. Pride Literary Event. Tonight.

Greetings on this frigid morning — of course my kids wore mittens on their commute to school today. Didn’t yours?

I’m told by my telephone that it will warm up this afternoon, warm up and brighten up, too, just in time for tonight’s Pride Literary Event. Which is pathetic fallacy at its finest. If you’re in Thunder Bay, head on over to Westfort (I learned the phrase “Westfort tune-up” last night, by the way, and now will be tempted to work it into all manner of conversation just to see who knows what I’m talking about) and the Mary J.L. Black library for a night of fabulous storytelling with Rachel Mishenene, Ma-Nee Chacaby, Ray Moonias, a couple of young readers from The Other 10% youth group, headlined by Zoe Whittall. (I’m reading, too, a piece that involves me keeping all my clothes on and that doesn’t reference my mother and/or cancer. Even once. Branching out here, people.)

See you tonight!


Don’t touch the nature!

A different hike, but still red and blue.


We took the kids on a hike a few weeks ago, a five-kilometre loop through the woods on what turned out to be the last mild weekend of the fall. Well, mild-ish: the leaves were mostly down, the marsh and puddles covered with thin skins of ice, and I was glad for my hat.

We’re not quite as outdoorsy as my idealized version of my family is. When I was pregnant with Rowan, I devoted a ridiculous amount of energy to finding just the right baby backpack hiker on eBay, imagining me and Rachel meandering outdoorsily through the boreal forest with a snoozing baby on my back. But the carrier hurt my shoulders and the baby never really slept and we used it maybe a half-dozen times before selling it to some other idealistic mother-to-be on kijiji.

Still, now that we have two mobile children, we’re getting better at packing them into the car and insisting, over their protests, that we are going on a walk. In nature. Goddammit. Because this is what we do; we will get out there and march around the forest. And we will like it. And even though they are often disgruntled in the car, every time we release them onto the trails, they are happy and engaged and it’s always worth it. Even if we have to feed them mini M&Ms at regular intervals as part of the deal.

This particular hike, though, Rachel and I were — how shall I put this? — a wee bit grouchy. We’d arrived in the woods a bit later than planned, because the kids started playing with the neighbour kids in the driveway and one thing led to another and we were a bit concerned about getting stuck in the woods in the dark and dying slow, cold deaths. You know. Also, perhaps the effort of finally rounding them up and shoving them into booster seats had left us a bit grim, a mood that seemed difficult to shake in the fading light.

What we lacked in good cheer, though, we more than made up for in determination.

And so we rushed them along, worried, the worry translating into frustration with these two boys in their red and blue winter jackets who wanted to bash open skins of ice with great long sticks and wander and dawdle and carry fallen saplings and yell into the echoing trees and point out every mushroom and talk about fairy houses. In other words, they were on a nature walk, while we were fleeing the Nazis over the Swiss Alps in some kind of forced Gulag march for our lives (yes, I am mixing metaphors and desecrating the image of The Sound of Music). I swear I may have told Rowan to use “an inside voice.”

Fortunately, somehow, we managed to pull it together and come to our senses. Rather than grousing at Rowan to be careful about tripping me up with the 20-foot stick he insisted on dragging through the woods, I finally let him go ahead, trying to breathe as I watched him pretend to kayak, totally at home in his surroundings. And as Isaac begged and begged to smash the ice on each puddle I did a small double take and called out to Rachel, “Bashing the ice is the most exciting thing in the world to him.”

“Oh my God,” she breathed. “It is.”

And so,for the final third of the walk, we actually managed to stop chivvying them along. I held on to Isaac’s coat so he wouldn’t fall through the thin ice into the marsh as he whacked and whacked and whacked at it, blissful, making his difference in this vast world. We piggybacked, handed out M&Ms, watched the blue child and the red child do what we’d actually meant for them to do all along: be happy outdoors.

And then, at the very end of the hike, just before getting back to the car, we saw a beaver. A real beaver, sitting placidly in the midst of a little bog, chewing away on some wood, calm as could be. Like a little reward, or maybe a reminder: chillax, ladies. Enjoy the show.


You know that you’ve really come round to the fact that you live in Thunder Bay when…

Ladies and gentlemen…




I present to you…




my new…






Sorel boots.

Rated to -40 F! Utterly waterproof! Unbelievable treads! Removable ThermoPlus™ InnerBoot! I don’t even know what that means! But it’s exciting! I saw these, and my heart did a little flip-flop, the kind of flip-flop that urbanites would more likely reserve for boots like this. I would say that these boots are a sign that you really can take the girl out of Toronto, but for the fact that I bought them at the corner of Hip & Happening also known as Queen West & Spadina in downtown Toronto. But there, I suspect (or, at least, I like to believe in order to keep my northern cred) that my sweet, sweet Sorels would be considered ironic. Here, they are utterly earnest.

Let it snow.


If you’re reading this, the lights are back on

“This is the worstest night ever,” said Rowan as I tucked him into bed on Friday night.

He had a point. We’d driven home from a potluck dinner in the rain, high winds whipping raindrops across the road. As we drove up the street, I halfway noted the Hydro truck parked across from the house. Really, it was difficult to miss, what with it being outlined in reflective tape and the message splayed across its back: “HIT THE BRAKES, NOT US.” But I was focused. Focused on getting two tired children to bed without the aid of their other mother, out of town at a conference; focused on the myriad of tiny details — shoes, snacks, teeth, blankie, pajamas, dishwasher — involved in achieving that goal. Focused on achieving said goal (get them to bed get them to bed to get them to bed get them to bed) while being a decent host to Elizabeth, our entirely accommodating houseguest, herself the mother of a small child and, thankfully, wise in the ways of small children’s bedtimes and general behaviours (a confession: I likely would not have extended the invitation to stay had she not been). Focused enough to be blinkered against the truck’s blinking lights, focused enough not to notice right away the note taped to our front door, focused enough to wonder why on earth my next-door neighbour was out in this weather, focused enough (get them to bed get them to bed to get them to bed get) to be momentarily confused by the fact that both he and the Hydro guy seemed to want to talk to me, about a tree, the tree, our tree, down in our backyard, the tree that had ripped out our power and telephone lines and something about live wires and… “We’re shutting you off in a few minutes. Then it might be safe to go inside.”


We all trooped back to the car for a minute while I tried to regroup. The kids listened, wide eyed, as I told them to under no circumstances go into the backyard because they could get very badly hurt.

“Or even die?” asked Isaac.

“Or even die,” I said, and his lower lip just started to tremble.

“I could drop you somewhere else for the night,” I told Elizabeth, panics, apologetic for the inconvenience, for at that point being the last possible thing I was sure she needed — “a hotel, or a friend’ s. You could get a good night’s sleep, not have to deal with this.”

“No.” She looked at me like I was insane. “No no. I’m sticking with you guys.”

 I exhaled, got us indoors, got a flashlight, got some water into pitchers and candles in candlesticks and children, miraculously, into pajamas. Greg, our saintly next-door-neighbour, ran an extension cord over from his house and offered to hook up the fridge and freezer. The Hydro guy came to the front door to tell me to call an electrician (“I’m not supposed to do this,” he said, naming the name of someone good and available and preapproved) and then call them back when the line was securely fastened to the house. Elizabeth read Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing with Rowan by flashlight (he’d wandered into my room as I lay in the dark (of course in the dark) with an overstimulated Isaac and asked if he could read with us. “I just want… to be with… with people,” he said, softly, and she scooped him off to read in his bedroom, laughing at all the funny bits.)

The kids got to sleep — Rowan with a tea light twinkling on his bookshelf and the promise that I wouldn’t blow it out until he was “really, really okay.” The electrician came over and charged me approximately infinity dollars an hour to repair the lines (in my estimation, worth every penny as he worked from 7:30 until midnight outside in the howling wind), and then Hydro came by (at 8 the next morning, after I dozed on the couch all night assuming they’d show up any second and need to me to let them in) and charged approximately the same amount to hook up our power early the next morning. (It would have been free, they told me, if I wanted to wait until Monday, but the prospect of single parenting with two children on a chilly weekend while hosting a houseguest without electricity: well, what would you do? Exactly. Exactly my friend.) Elizabeth and I made tea via extension cord, and sat up until midnight wrapped in blankets, catching up on several years’ worth of experience (births, deaths, books, loves, houses).

The worstest night ever? “It’s been a wonderful night,” I told my six-year-old, naming off all the people looking out for us, helping us, fixing our house even as we spoke. I talked about his warm, dry bed; the candles twinkling in the darkness; our intact bodies; the food in our bellies and the love around us. And the fact that Elizabeth had a cell phone. “It’s been a great adventure, and a great, great night.”

And, you know, sure: I was talking parent-speak, making the scary manageable for a scared kid. But really, I meant every word. 


Dear Rowan,

We’ve had some work done on the house recently, including repairing the living-room ceiling, which has been a mess for just about as long as you have been alive. I remember sitting on the couch, nursing you as a tiny infant, when the brown, water-stained mark on the drywall just above us opened in a slow-motion horror show and released a stream of dirty, icy liquid onto the floor.

I was alone with you. You were new. I was a new parent, a new homeowner, in a new city where I knew practically no one. I had lost my own mother eight months earlier. It was the coldest winter on record and I hadn’t slept in weeks AND THEN THE CEILING WAS CAVING IN.

And I knew I was totally fucked.

I was, shall we say, a little unstable for a while after you were born, convinced that we would make one wrong move and break you. You might look okay, but I knew that the cumulative effect of all my individual parental imperfections would out eventually, a series of drops running together into a stream of ruin that would demolish you, taking me out in the process. And it would be all my fault.

Thankfully, that feeling didn’t last.

Our neighbours came over and climbed up onto the roof with hatchets and shovels and cleared away the ice dam (now there’s a Thunder Bay term) that had forced the water underneath the shingles. The next summer, we got a new roof. And now, just as you turn six years old, we have finally managed to insulate the attic and, for good measure, clear away the peeling, stuccoed mess of the ceiling, plastering over it with white. It looks good.

And so do you, kid, even with that blank spot where your first tooth used to be.

How is it that six years have passed between then and now? I’m no longer new to this parenting gig, no longer new to this city with its wonderful, generous people. I’m no longer a new homeowner. And yet I don’t feel like I’ve changed all that much, not counting the exponential increase in grey hairs and the lines around my eyes, clichés though they may be.

But then there’s you, almost too heavy to lift, nothing all like that big-headed baby who knew nothing of his own — or his mother’s, or his mothers’ — newness. And you still don’t, you still — mercifully — have so little idea of how often I feel like I am just making this up as I go along, the way I make up silly songs and bedtime stories about a magic boy and his magic little brother and their magic backpack full of coloured Cheerios (Eat a red one and sprout wings! A green one will make you invisible!). At least now I have enough perspective, and just barely enough sleep, to understand that that’s just what parents do: the best we can, with what we have.

Last year I wrote about how parenting you as a four-year-old felt, much of the time, as though someone had cut off my thumbs and I barely had a grip. Over the past year, they’ve started to grow back, those thumbs — paradoxically, just as I’m learning to let go a little more, to let you make your own way in the world. You started first grade in September, and it was a battle those first few weeks to make sure you were awake in enough time to get there. “I want my own alarm clock,” you finally told me, and once you were in charge of your own wake-up time, the issue faded. At first, we set your clock for 7:30 AM, and then you decided 7:15 would be better, because then we’d have some dedicated time for cuddling. And then, after one too many fight about getting dressed, I came up with a new strategy: I would get my own self dressed, and you would be in charge of you. It’s working. Most of the time.

I put on skates for the first time in 15 years this past weekend and went out with you on the ice, where I, happily, remembered how to propel myself forward, if somewhat shakily. Rachel and Rob and I took turns guiding you and your brother, new to this icy medium, around the rink, and I got to marvel at you learning to walk all over again, at how game you were to keep trying. “It’s so much fun to learn how to do this with you,” I kept saying, and you nodded, grinning. “I don’t know how, and you don’t know how,” you said, “and we’re doing it together.”

Yes, we are.

Six years in, the ice doesn’t feel so treacherous. You move forward, you fall, and you get up, and you don’t break. And neither do I.

Happy birthday, Rowan.




“Did you miss them?”


Part of me sighs inwardly — maybe even, I will admit, outwardly — as Rowan props himself up on one elbow and opens his eyes to ask yet one more pre-sleep question. I’m tired. He’s tired. There have been lots of questions already.

“Yes, sweetie?” But I’ll humour him. Because this is the time of day — cuddled up in bed — where he is sometimes most conversational, most able to engage in the back-and-forth of real dialogue as opposed to his usual running-roughshod monologue and random series of segues.

“What did you do after you were borned?”

My mind struggles to process the question. Does he mean the first-breath minutes after delivery? The shift from womb to air and from umbilicus to bottles? (Confession: I was not breast-fed, and still managed to grow to functional adulthood.) From infancy to toddlerhood and so forth?

And then I think I might understand what he means.

“Well, I lived in my house with my parents — your Bubbie Ruthi and Zaidie — and with Uncle Jeff, and I got bigger and bigger and I learned to talk and walk, and I went to school and I grew up.”

Rowan is silent, so I continue.

“And then,” I say brightly, “I got my own house” — actually, a tiny, attic apartment with sloping ceilings, just north of College Street near Dufferin in Toronto’s west end — “and then Rachel and I got our house together. And we moved to Thunder Bay, and had you! And Isaac!”

That’s the gist of it, more or less: my life after I was borned, give or take a few apartments and a couple of degrees and so forth. But it will do at 8:15 on a school night, I think.

“Did you miss them?”

Did I miss who? Again, it takes me a moment to figure out what he’s asking. Oh!  

“Do you mean did I miss Bubbie Ruthi and Zaidie and Uncle Jeff when I got my own house?”


“Well,” I say, hedging a bit — not quite sure how to explain to him that my brother and I (Hi, Jeff!) developed a healthy regard for each other mostly after we both left home, or that leaving the suburbs of suburban Toronto for McGill University and Montréal’s plateau neighborhood was the best possible thing I could have done, not because home was a bad place, but because the plateau was just so good, so necessary for me as a sheltered, bored, somewhat morose 18-year-old “well, sometimes. But whenever I missed them I could always phone them or go visit them. Or they came to visit me. I left when I was ready to.”

Rowan’s eyes are large, liquid. I’m talking and watching his jawline soften, melt, still racing to keep up with his thought process and wondering what he’s getting at when I finally figure it out.

“Are you worried about missing us when you leave home?”

He nods and gulps and the tears spill over. “I don’t want to miss you and Rachel and Isaac! I want to live with you forever!”

Let me be clear: there are no plans afoot for Rowan to move out, no plans for everyone to live anywhere but here. Rowan lets us know at regular intervals that he intends to live with us, in this house, for his entire life — even after he has the seven children he is planning to have. He would like to marry me, or Rachel, or, in a pinch, Isaac, and we explain that this is not possible, that marriage, should he choose to embrace that particular institution, is about making families bigger, adding to them, bringing in new people to the mix. We tell him that he may change his mind and choose to live with his spouse and their seven children in a different house, and he says, “But you’ll come live in that house with me.” And we say, maybe. And then he says, again, “I’m going to live here forever.” And we say, again, “Of course you are, for as long as you want.” And then he says, “But do I still have to follow the rules?” And I say, “Yes,” and he says, “Even when I’m 12?” And I say, “Yes,” and he says, “Even when I’m 50?” and I say, “Mister, if you’re living in my house with me when you’re 50, you especially have to follow the rules.”

“Sweetheart,” I say, pulling him to me, “nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s leaving for a long, long time.”

“I don’t want them ever to,” he wails, shuddering.

And we go on like this for a little while, him calming down slowly, until he is near sleep, until I can leave his bedroom, lights dimmed, and go downstairs to shrug my shoulders and shake my head, bewildered, at Rachel, as we try to process Rowan’s advance grieving.

Which is why I’m slightly ambivalent about reading Nicola I. Campbell’s Shin-chi’s Canoe with him. Because here’s a book about the unthinkable, a true story about boys and girls taken away — before they’re ready, before they’re old enough — from their homes, their siblings, their parents. The book tells the story of Shin-chi and his older sister, Shi-shi-etko, as they are taken from their families and communities; from their bedtime stories and language and food; from their names and their games and the arms of their parents to Indian residential school: a cold, foreign, hungry world designed to annihilate them under the guise of saving them.

Rachel has ordered the book and it has arrived and we have put it with all the other books. Waiting until the right moment, which means waiting until Rowan takes it out one day and asks to hear the story. I don’t want to tell it, not sure he’s ready for it or will be able to handle it, especially given his fears of leaving home. But I don’t want the story left untold. And I don’t imagine there’s ever going to be a convenient time to tell it.

I let Rachel do the reading, because she has read it already and imagines that she will be able to stay (fairly) calm, whereas I know I will begin to weep immediately, unstoppably, the moment the story begins. Which I do, as the siblings sit with their parents and grandmother and baby sister, waiting for the cattle truck to appear. Which I do through the cutting off of their braids (Shi-shi-etko asks her grandmother to cut their hair to avoid the indignity of having it hacked off by the nuns and priests at the school), through the end-of-summer journey through familiar landscape to, a hard, new, unfamiliar place of hunger and prayer to foreign gods. I weep through the spring and the return — temporary — home to their families and a dugout canoe of their own. The story is beautifully told and spares us the worst details, the outright violence and assault of the system. But it’s brutal enough, even geared towards children.

Rowan is confused. “Why did they do that?” he keeps asking. “The people who took the children away — why did they do that?” And, “what happened to them because they did that?” When he asks where, we tell him, here, right here. On this land. Not any more, but not so very long ago — as the book tells us, the last government-operated residential school in Canada did not close until 1996. And he says, “I don’t want them to do that here! I want them to do that somewhere else” — and he thinks of the place he imagines is furthest away from him — “in … in China! Not here!” And (as my mind flashes to the thousands — millions? — of baby girls given up in that country, other countries) we try to explain that we don’t want children to be taken from their parents, anywhere.

This is a child who has never known hunger, whose parents have spent all of three nights away from him his entire life, never more than a cell phone call or short flight away. And yet who is so spooked at the thought of leaving us that he can’t fathom that this happened all the time. And why should he? That kind of thing — it won’t happen to us, right? We’ll all get to live together in our house, until we’re good and ready not to?

Probably we will. But my son, my sons, need to understand that their own human rights — and sometimes, their lack thereof — have a long history in this country, and that the horrors perpetrated in Indian residential schools have an important, ongoing, chapter in that history. They need to know that their story is tangled up in those of the First Nations in this country; that important, horrific injustices were perpetrated; and that one way to prevent further injustice and possibly further some form of healing is to learn the history, tell the stories. Everyone’s stories. No matter how much they hurt. They need to know that no one is safe unless everyone is safe.

So, we can all — my two kids and their two moms —  live here together, forever? That’s what I tell my kid as I tuck him into bed after the story. Mostly, I believe it’s true.



My dulcet tones…

… can be heard today — talking about (what else?) And Baby Makes More — on CFUV 101.9 FM. That is, they can be heard on the radio for those of you lucky enough to actually be in Victoria, BC, today, where I’m guessing that the illusion that it’s still fall is being perpetuated. Tune in between 1 and 2 PM Pacific time. For those of you elsewhere, you can listen in online at

It’s a good thing “Women on Air” didn’t try to interview me last week, because the interview would have been punctuated by coughing fits and extended nose-blowing sessions. So sexy. Yes, hot on the heels of H1N1, the dreaded, month-long sinus infection with the bonus pack of hacking cough has returned. I’d like to think that the germs have rendered my voice appropriately Kathleen Turner-esque, but really I sound like Harvey Fierstein just inhaled some helium.

Speaking of Harvey, if I hadn’t already given away my right thumb to the past year, I would give it away now to go see him play Tevye in the production of Fiddler on the Roof currently touring North America but — surprisingly — not stopping in Thunder Bay. What, David Mirvish, the 30-odd Jews up here weren’t a big enough draw? I guess I can’t blame you when the local Santa-meter is already pushing 11. Exhibit A.: my son’s PUBLIC SCHOOL senior kindergarten curriculum, which seems to have emerged intact from the 1950s. It’s all decorated with pictures of Santa and Christmas trees and reindeer and the like, and filled with chirpy instructions to “Decorate your tree and bring it to school this week!” “Write a letter to Santa!” “Practice your holiday songs and teach them to your family!” “Count the days until Christmas!” “Put out milk and cookies for Santa and a carrot for his reindeer!” (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. I did add in those exclamation marks.)

Discussion with the school is ensuing. Wish us luck in convincing the powers that be that it’s time to break with, as Tevye would say, “Tradition! Tradition!” in favour of some December activities that feel just a wee bit more, oh, multicultural. Inclusive. You know — something that makes me feel less like I’m living in a ghetto.

School of hard knocks

In last week’s episode, our heroine was left wondering whether her son would ever go to senior kindergarten without dissolving into a little puddle of profound unhappiness.

In a word: yes. Wednesday evening treated us to a series of conversations in which Rowan ping-ponged back and forth on that very question. “I’m not going to that school ever again,” he would say, and then, immediately afterwards, “And I’m going to play with the marble run!” followed by, “But I’m not going to school,” followed by, “And there are going to be balloons for Avery’s birthday!” And so on.

Thursday morning, I still wasn’t sure what would happen. My guess was that he wanted to go, but couldn’t quite bring himself to fully admit that — and that any hint of sentimentality or moment of doubt would set him off. So when he said he wanted to ride his bike to school, I jumped on it — until Rachel reminded me that his bike was in the shop. “I want to go in the car, then, “ said Rowan, and, a hot minute later, I had him buckled in the backseat and we were off. Like a prom dress.

I was so on the ball, in fact, that we were the first kids to arrive. We wandered into the senior kindergarten courtyard and hung out for a while until the teacher’s assistant, Mrs. T., showed up. I met Mrs. T. approximately, oh, infinity times last year during Rowan’s tenure in JK, and yet, every single time we meet her, he feels the need to introduce her to me.

“That’s Mrs. T.,” he’ll say, and then be genuinely shocked and puzzled when I explain that I know who she is. “But how do you know her?” he says, and I explain, patiently, that I have met her before, right here at school. And he looks both impressed and doubtful.

In any case, this being a new year and all, Rowan obviously felt some justification in introducing me and Mrs. T. again.

“Mom, this is Mrs. T.,” he said. “And this is my mom. One of my moms. I have two moms. And I also have a dad, Rob. But he doesn’t live here.”

He said this all, characteristically, while walking in a circle waving his hands, as he is wont is a to do when he explains things to adults. Mrs. T. and I nod and smile — she’s heard all this before. Rowan talks about his family, like all kids talk about their families — at least, when they’ve never been given a reason not to. The four-year-old daughter of my friends Fiona and Jen has been telling supermarket cashiers that she has two moms since she could put words together. Another toddler-daughter-o-dykes I know recently shouted at the corner of a busy downtown Toronto intersection, “No Dadda! More mamas!”

Which is fantastic. And not necessarily because we’re not ashamed of our queer families (which we aren’t), or because were proud of them (which we are), but because we exist for the most part in a world where we can exist, where we can talk openly about our two moms or our two dads, or our donors, and the like. We’ve never explicitly explained to Rowan that there is anything unusual or different about his family. He simply has two moms, and a Rob, who doesn’t live here — and an entire network of biological and chosen family to support him. No secrets, no shame, no worries.


So, tell me this: how am I going to explain to my sons how this:


becomes this

outside a gay bar in downtown Thunder Bay last Friday night?

I don’t know Jake Raynard, the gay man who was savagely beaten gay with bricks by a crowd of young men. The man to whom police took more than an hour to respond when the employees at the fast food restaurant called them to report his distress. The man with 15 fractures to his cheekbone, a broken palate, a broken eye socket, and a broken jaw. I don’t know Jake, but I know the daughter he helped my two friends here conceive. I know he has a supportive community in this city, who have organized a rally this evening in order to support him to welcome him back into the community, and to send the message, in their words, that our response to this action — and not this action — will define our community.

We are going as a family to the rally tonight. I suspect it will be an emotional event, a conflicted event, an event that has the potential to be healing but that could also pit community against community if we aren’t very careful. And I’m not yet sure how to answer the questions that Rowan might ask about why we’re there and what’s going on.

These are lessons way beyond the scope of senior kindergarten. And yet, our kids have to learn them, now.

“How will I dance now?”

Rowan has been growing his hair. He wants to grow it long, and even though he’s currently suffering from a condition known as, in family parlance, “wide head,” and even though my fingers itch to just touch it up a little bit, to even things out, I haven’t. And I won’t.

In the realm of bodily functions and day-to-day hygiene, I make my kids do lots of things they don’t really want to do. I insist on diaper changes for Isaac, a certain amount of handwashing, toothbrushing, nose wiping, fingernail cutting and the like. I’m pretty clear about daytime clothes versus pajamas, although what Rowan actually wears tends to be what he picks out

But the hair? Now that he’s no longer a recalcitrant toddler, that’s his prerogative, a line I can’t cross.

There’s just something about the idea of forcibly cutting his hair that feels wrong to me. Whether it’s the fact that all I ever wanted as a child were Cindy Brady–pigtails, the Samson overtones, the risks inherent in wielding scissors in front of an unwilling child’s face, or — just maybe — the unnecessary insult to his sense of autonomy and self-identity, it feels viscerally unacceptable.

Which is perhaps why this report of a Thunder Bay elementary school teaching assistant forcibly cutting the hair of a seven-year-old First Nations boy is so upsetting. According to reports, the child wore his hair long because it was important to his traditional dancing practice. The boy told his mother that the teaching assistant lifted him onto a stool, put the scissors to his forehead, and told him not to move. Which he didn’t, because he was too scared. Too scared.

Too fucking scared.

And then she cut his hair in front of his classmates. And then she stood him in front of a mirror and said, “Look at you now.”

What the kid looks like now, according to his mother, are the pictures of his relatives after they were given forcible haircuts at residential school. The boy is upset and ashamed, and heartbroken at the thought of what his shorn hair means for his dancing. “How will I dance now?” he asked his mother. “How will I dance?”

The teacher has been suspended, but the police and the Crown are refusing to press charges of assault. Enough said. This is the city I live in, and its inability to deal with difference — cultural, racial, gendered, religious — has implications for us all. If this boy isn’t safe, then my kids aren’t safe. No one’s are.

I wonder what happened to this kid’s hair. Probably swept into the trash. Because isn’t that how we deal with so many First Nations issues around here? If I could restore it to his head, I would. But if I had a strand of it, I would twine it round my fingers, put it (with his permission) in a locket, wear it next to my heart. Dance, baby: dance your heart out.

The right tool for the right job

Every so often, I veer into slightly dangerous territory with my neighbour. It happened again on Saturday. We both drove up to our respective driveways at the same time, got out and waved at each other, and then I dropped the bomb.

“Greg,” I said, “I have a question for you about drill bits.”

In fact, I had two, related, questions about drill bits. Our house was lovingly built by master plasterers sometime in the 1950s, which is wonderful in terms of structure but a bitch when you want to hang a picture and can’t sink a nail into the wall. In desperation, I tried to drill a hole into one the other day. Barely made a dent. And then, I tried to put a latch on our new back door, in order to prevent the children from opening it during blizzards: again, not a dent.

So I figured that maybe I was using the wrong kind of drill bit. And I knew that Greg would know what kind of drill bit I needed. I knew this because Greg is the kind of guy who, on his summers off from teaching high school, does little household projects like, oh, single-handedly PUTTING AN ENTIRE SECOND FLOOR ON HIS HOUSE. I know: I watched him do it. The following summer, he insulated and sided the whole thing, and then landscaped his front yard.

Greg spends afternoons and weekends putting siding and a shingled roof on his garden shed, or rotating the tires on his truck. Or re-sodding his backyard. Or renovating the kitchen. If there something handy to be done, and a particular tool with which to do that handy thing, Greg knows how to do it, and by God, you can be sure he has the tool.

I am in awe of Greg’s abilities. I kind of covet them. (And the tools, too.) I mean, I’m handy, but in a kind of “I can install a dimmer switch or clean out the dishwasher trap” kind of handy. I can put together an IKEA bookcase with the best of them (admittedly, somewhat like this), install childproof latches and baby gates. I paint walls. One fateful weekend, I even sanded and refinished the floors in the ground-floor apartment Rachel and I rented just off Queen West in Toronto — I inhaled a lot of varathane fumes that day and ended up hallucinating about communing with my peasant Russian ancestors on the steppes. Mere hours before I wrote this, even, I finally got round to replacing the missing shelf in the built-in bookcase in my office, a task that involved visits to two different hardware stores, and the use of a drill, a level, a screwdriver, and a mallet. Lots of my projects end with mallets.

Because the thing is, I’m also a Sagittarius, which means that three-quarters of the way through any largish (or smallish) project, I get impatient, clumsy, frustrated with my lack of expertise and the inherent chaos that inevitably comes when tools are involved. Which is why only six of the eight holes for the screws that hold the bookshelf to the brackets actually have screws in them. Which is why so many of our ceilings look like this:

And our walls like this:

Still, things need to get done. And while I have finally succumbed to Rachel’s begging and of late agreed to hire someone to do many of the things I normally would have — disastrously — insisted upon trying myself (she once said, as we contemplated getting a new roof, “I really, really, want to hire a professional to do this,” as though I would actually attempt to replace the shingles myself), some of them are just too small or too mundane to outsource. Hence my question to Greg about the drill bits.

On the one hand, it was innocent enough: I needed to know what kind of bit to buy, and he could tell me. On the other hand, asking Greg a question related to home improvement is a bit of a calculated gesture, because the man just cannot stand the thought that something might not be done right. In a jiffy, he was over, cordless drill and bits (for wood and concrete) in hand. He inspected my latch and the guide holes I had marked for the drill. “I think you’re a little close to the edge of the doorframe here,” he murmured. “You think?” I said — and, ten minutes later, our latch was installed. Perfectly. As though by angels. “Who was that masked man?” I thought as he glided off back to his house.

This kind of thing happens fairly frequently. When we first moved in, Rachel and I attempted to hack away at the neglected, Gothic moss garden of overhanging Manitoba maple branches that made up our backyard. Within minutes, Greg showed up with a ladder and a chainsaw. He and his oldest son, Greg Junior, not only trimmed back all the trees — which had kept the sun from reaching their backyard — but then tied up two truckloads worth of branches and hauled them to the dump. Rachel and I stared out the window, flabbergasted. This was not the kind of thing that happened to us in Toronto.

The next summer, when I decided to do something about the overgrown hedge separating our two properties, Greg was on it like white on rice. I was timidly trimming the tops off the branches; he drove stakes into the ground ran a string between them, and used his hanging level to make sure the string was plumb. And then we spent a couple of hours hacking six feet off the top and shaping it into something respectable. Once we got everything tied up, he drove the branches to the dump. For days, I just stared out the window at the hedge, happy.

If there’s a blizzard, Greg’s snowblowing our driveway, as well as that of the neighbours on the other side. When our roof leaked because of an ice dam, Greg climbed onto it with a hatchet and a shovel. Toddler turn on your headlights so you need a boost? Greg has a charger and will plug your car in for you. Good fences make good neighbours — and good neighbours make good fences. I know this, because Greg rebuilt our fence when we decided to take down the most offensive of the Manitoba maples.

And then Rachel and I bake cookies and Bundt cakes and take them over, with our undying gratitude.

Every so often, I’m tempted to say, all casual like, “Hey, Greg, do you know anything about taking down garages? Cause the insurance people think ours is a big liability”, and then count down the seconds until he’s on the driveway with crowbar and a Bobcat. But I bite my tongue. One doesn’t want to take advantage. Of a very, very good thing.