Barred owls

Barred owls

I’ve been married now for over 21 years and last spring I fell in love. My marriage is safe, however; the objects of my devotion live in Indiana and I’ve never seen them in real life. One day into my Twitter feed came a tweet about a barred owl camera, I clicked on it, and that was the end for me. This year I was delighted to discover that the same owl parents were using the same nesting box. The three eggs have not yet hatched.

Last spring the nesting box was inhabited by a mother owl, her three owlets and the shadowy figure of the dad, who made occasional appearances with crayfish and worms in the dead of night. When I first met this family, two owlets had hatched and the third egg was still sitting there. When the mother owl left briefly to hunt, the tiny white owlets snuggled up to the sibling egg and slept. Then, on April 10, very early in the morning, the smallest owlet was born.

In those early days, the mother owl stayed with her young almost all the time, leaving only briefly to hunt. I left the owl cam open on the computer, with the volume up, so that I could hear if anything were happening. As I went about the house, I could occasionally hear the “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” hoot of the owl, in response to her mate. They would chat briefly, with the female puffing up her feathers every time she called, and then she would settle her wings carefully around her owlets and resume her rest. 

Barred owls are mainly nocturnal, so much of her hunting took place at night. Tiny owlets need frequent feeding, so she and her mate would stock the larder overnight and then she would feed them about every 3 hours all day with the rabbit, or frog, or fish that lay in a corner of the nesting box. She snoozed much of the time, but occasionally would have her gorgeous huge dark brown eyes open. She changed position from time to time, allowing me to admire the lovely fluffy white feathers that are usually hidden under the stiff striped feathers of her tail.C9ovjVXXoAMsR95.jpg

It turns out it’s actually pretty loud inside a nesting box 30 feet up a tree in Indianapolis. The day shift is busy outside, with the jays calling, the woodpeckers hammering and the male cardinals singing enthusiastically to their modest brown mates. I already hated loud landscaping equipment, and when I heard the sound of a two-stroke engine as it is experienced in a nesting box,  my rejection of such machines was confirmed. That this poor dedicated mother, trying to snatch a nap in between feeding sessions of her young, should be so disturbed!

I was much taken by the beauty of the birds: the striped softness of the mother, the white down and tiny winglets of the infant owls, and now their brown and white fluffiness. The facial disk so characteristic of many owls, in which the feathers are arranged circularly around the large eyes, were evident even when the owlets were tiny. It has been a pleasure to see the daily activity of animals so close up.

But it’s not just a question of beauty and biological observation for me. I realized as I watched this mother that I was experiencing profound fellow-feeling with her.  I was remembering my experience with my babies as a physical experience, as a creature. After she fed her tiny owlets and preened them carefully, she settled her wings around them to provide warmth and shelter, and closed her eyes. (Click on the link for an adorable video). I remembered sitting in the nursing chair, nursing my infant, both our eyes closed and peace all around and between us. We were warm and dry and fed, and nestling together was all there was to do.

I saw the owlets, usually huddled together when the mother is off hunting, hear her approach. They stretched their wings, often almost toppling over, shot out their necks and generally got terribly excited. I was reminded of walking up the stairs to get the baby out of bed, after a nap, and hearing a sudden rustling in the bed clothes and shaking of the crib against the wall as the child wriggled in joy at my impending arrival.

I saw the frenetic motions of the owls as they eat, and the stillness of their bodies as their mother preens their tiny feathers, and I remember one day when my youngest was one or two. She was profoundly upset, her body shaking and hot, and I opened my arms to her. She came into them, pressed her trembling body against mine, and was suddenly quiet and still. I thought, “Only I can do this. Only I can be her mum.”

I saw how busy this mother owl was. When the owlets are about three weeks old, they are much more active in the nest. They eat much more, and she and her mate spend a lot of time hunting, leaving the owlets alone. As they have done from the beginning, they snuggle up to each other to keep warm. The smallest owlet is often jammed between the elder two. As they sleep, they sway on their feet trying to keep their balance. Often they lose the battle, flop over and then right themselves. This swaying motion reminds me of nothing more than graduate students trying to stay awake during an afternoon seminar. The mother is so careful with them, and takes such good care. This reminds me of the incredible amount of energy it took for me to care for my human babies. Sometimes it was hard to put their needs above my own. The mother owl spent a long time feeding her young one rainy day with the feathers on her own head wet and bedraggled. Once they were settled, she preened herself.stretched out

I admire this barred owl mother so much. She shows me that I am an animal mother too, and that my focus on the children to the virtual exclusion of all else when they were very young is natural. It makes me feel better about my extreme discomfort at leaving my babies for longer than a few hours when they were very small, and my reluctance now to have them away from me now for much longer than the length of a school day. When they come home, although they are all so much older now, they each want a hug and a cuddle and some quiet time. We all like to be near each other.

It makes me feel better about my initially astonishing lack of desire to pick up my intellectually-based ambitious busy life after the children were born. The physical reality of motherhood is more profound than I had ever dreamed. Thank you, barred owls.


Sourdough Bread

Sourdough Bread

We have a new favourite loaf around here. It’s homemade sourdough, made from a starter. I am even more committed to baking my own bread after the recent price-fixing scandal here in Canada, which originated with what has been called the Emporium of Bread-Swindling. It’s also another way to ensure zero waste: bake bread, wrap it in a tea towel, done.

I use the recipe in my trusty favourite, Nancy Baggett’s Kneadlessly Simple. She gives instructions for a “cheater” starter; a small amount of yeast is added to the flour and water mixture, rather than relying on the ambient wild yeasts floating around. I have no objection to this sort of cheating, so I mixed up my starter on January 31. A day later it looked like this as the fermentation had already begun. 20180201_164633.jpgYou can see the bubbles forming as the yeast consumes the sugars and starches and releases carbon dioxide. The children were rather fascinated that yeast poo is what makes bread rise.  This whole project turned into a bit of a science experiment. The process lasts several days, at a few minutes a day.  It’s too much for me to think about when I’m teaching  undergraduates, but it suits me well when I am properly in the slow lane.

As instructed by Nancy, I fed the starter daily for the next ten days and then baked my first loaves. I’ve made two batches so far. My test subjects report that the taste is tangy and delicious, the crust crisp and delightful. The loaves certainly smell divine. I need to practice slashing the top; at the moment my loaves are a bit lopsided. Every time I feed the starter and put it back in a warm place on the counter next to the stove, or bake with it, I remember my first time reading By The Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mrs Boast comes to visit and gets a little baking lesson.

“But how do you make the sour dough?” Mrs. Boast asked. “You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.” “Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water.” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put a clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it in its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use whenever you want it.” 



Get some distilled water from the supermarket, or put some tap water in an uncovered jar and leave it over night so that the chlorine can evaporate. People with wells don’t need to do this. Then cover it until you need it.

In a glass jar or bowl, put

1/2 cup white flour
1/8 tsp instant or bread-machine yeast

Mix in about 1/3 cup of your water, until the slurry is about the same consistency as gravy or pancake batter.

Cover with a clean cloth and set aside until the next day.

On days 2-5, and days 7-10, add 1/3 cup of flour, and enough water to keep the same consistency as at the beginning. As needed, top up your jar of water so that you have enough low-chlorine stuff to keep going.

On day 6, discard about one third of the glop before adding the usual amount of flour and water.

After about ten days, your starter should smell pleasantly sour and have visible bubbles on the top and visible through the sides of the jar.

About 4 hours before you want to mix up your dough, discard 1/3 of the starter and add 1 cup of flour and 1/2 to 2/3 cup water. Cover and let sit for at least four hours until it’s very bubbly.

The bread itself (for two boules)

7 cups white all-purpose flour
1 heaped tbsp salt
1/2 tsp instant or bread-machine yeast
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/3 cups sourdough starter
3 cups cold water

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix liquid ingredients in a large measuring cup or glass bowl.

Combine the two until you have a stiff dough, At this point I divide the dough into 2 smaller bowls for rising, since my largest bowl is not big enough to proof this much dough. I do long for one of these….mason-cash-about-us

Cover the bowls and let sit overnight. I usually mix up the dough in the afternoon before the kids come home from school, and then bake before supper the next day. Last night Little made borscht, a perfect companion to homemade bread. 20180221_180134.jpg

Oil two Dutch ovens liberally. Take a stiff spatula and fold the dough in from the outside of the bowl towards the middle, turning the bowl as you go. The dough will deflate a bit and you will have a neat circular mound in the middle of the bowl. Add 1/2 cup of flour to the dough, and pat it in, turning the dough over as you do so. If the dough is still sticky and slumps a bit when you let go of it, pat in more flour. When the dough is quite stiff, make the dough into a smooth ball, tucking the rough bits underneath. Put it in the Dutch oven, and brush more oil on the top. Using a serrated knife or kitchen scissors (my rather ragged efforts are with the scissors), cut 3 slashes in the top and then 3 more perpendicular slashes, so that it looks like a tic-tac-toe game.

Put the lids on the pots and allow the dough to rise for up to 2 hours. It tends to rise rather slowly, so don’t rush it.

Preheat the oven to 450°C. Spray the loaves with water and put the pots in the oven. Turn down the temperature to 425°C and set your timer to 45 minutes. If the edges are browned, remove the lids and let bake for another five minutes to brown the tops. If the edges are still a bit pale, keep the lids on for another five minutes, and then brown the tops for an additional five. Executive summary: total baking time 50-55 minutes.

Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove bread from pan. The crust tends to brown quite deeply because of the oil, but this does not mean that you have burnt your loaves. 20180220_171321.jpg

So now you have two loaves of bread, and leftover starter. Stir  1/3 cup of flour and about 1/4 cup water into the starter, cover with a clean cloth and refrigerate until the next time you want to bake, preferablywithin a week. If left for too long, starters can become too sour and may have to be discarded. I will be baking sourdough again next week. So there, Emporium of Bread-Swindling.


Teaching Kids to Cook: Stir-fry

A nine-year-old made this: Baked tofu, rice and stir-fried baby bok choy. It was delicious. She was very proud of herself. These recipes are of course perfectly suitable for adults to cook too. Here’s how:

Simple Baked Tofu (based on the recipe in Moosewood Restaurant New Classics) and known in our house as Tofood, thanks to toddler pronunciation

1 package extra-firm tofu
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp soy sauce or tamari
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 375°C. Cut the tofu into bite-size cubes, and toss in a 9×13 baking dish or a cookie sheet, with oil, garlic and soy sauce. Bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring about every ten minutes. We like ours really chewy so we turn off the oven and leave it in there while the rice is cooking. It is delicious and moreish and one of my sisters calls it crackfu.


Boiled rice, as taught to me by my dad, who remained convinced, even after he had five children, that one cup of rice would always be enough. He is otherwise a completely marvellous cook.

Use 1 cup of rice for every three people. Add two cups of water for each cup of rice, and put pot on high heat. When the pot boils, turn it down to low. Check it after about 15 minutes. Once there are holes in the surface of the rice and no water is visible, turn it off and leave the lid on.

So, you see where this is going? Two out of the three parts of this meal can sit happily and wait while the stir-frying takes place in all its splattery goodness.

Stir-fried greens in oyster sauce, from the Young Thailand cookbook. Young Thailand is a restaurant in Toronto and going there was one of our favourite treats when we lived there. I have not been able to find gluten-free oyster sauce, so I just use soy sauce instead.

A bunch of any kind of greens, such as bok choy. We used 6 baby bok choys and doubles the sauce quantities for five people, one of whom hates cooked greens.
5 tbsp vegetable oil
1-2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tbsp cold water (As you mix it, you and the child can talk about how it’s a non-Newtonian liquid in that the pressure of the spoon causes the liquid to act like a solid for a few second. Newtonian liquids, like water, don’t do this).

20180130_181700.jpgChop the greens into a size you would like to eat. Heat oil until very hot in a wok or large frying pan. Add garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds, making sure it does not darken. Add greens and water and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes until the greens are starting to wilt. Add the sauces of your choice and cook for about 1 more minute. Add your non-Newtonian liquid and cook briefly until the veggies look shiny and you have a little sauce around them.

Serve your masterpieces!

Our younger two (nine and twelve) started learning to cook in January. The teenager started cooking one meal a week when he was ten. He has always been interested in food, and he started complaining that my cooking was getting boring. “Be my guest,” I said. It would be inaccurate to say I taught him to cook. I prevented the occasional conflagration, but this is a child whom it has always been difficult to instruct. He wants to puzzle out everything for himself. In the early days, while he was figuring out that recipes gave quantities for a reason, we ate some odd meals. The Japanese noodle salad with a whole package of dried seaweed in it, instead of a quarter of a cup, lingers in my memory as one of the saltiest meals I have ever eaten. He persisted, and last week he made homemade macaroni cheese based on a beautiful cheese sauce. When I’m ill, I know he can step in and make sure the household is fed. And that’s the goal. Yes, we want the children to be able to look after themselves, but what they really need to is to be able to look after other people

It’s a different story with my younger children. They relish the idea of cooking lessons. Little has hers on Tuesday and Middle’s is on Wednesday. We start at 4;30 at the latest, for a 6 pm dinner. Cooking takes a lot of time for beginners. I’m trying to teach them useful menus to have up their sleeves, as well as the art of making what it is in the house. Little’s first meal was chicken noodle soup, made from homemade stock and leftover chicken from Sunday dinner. I showed her how to serve it with chopped vegetables, herbs, lime juice and hot sauce in little bowls so that everyone could make it to their own taste. After struggles with the garlic press, she exclaimed, “I didn’t know you had to be a body-builder to cook.” Once the meal was ready, she professed surprise at how hard on the legs cooking is, and how tiring. I concurred, remembering the joyful days of bathing the toddler, putting the baby to bed, and getting supper on the table, all by 6 pm. That first week, Middle made meatloaf and baked potatoes and broccoli. Once we were sitting at the table eating their meal, each of them had an expression of delighted disbelief: “I made that, and it’s good.”

Cooking has made them notice the work others do in the kitchen, and appreciate it more. It’s one thing to be vaguely aware that there is activity in the kitchen that results in a meal, and quite another to produce the meal yourself. It’s like watching Olympic snowboarding and then trying to snowboard on your local hill. It has made them think about food differently. Middle, always, shall we say, a discerning eater, decided to try out the lettuce he had torn and washed himself, and he actually liked it. He was completely thrilled to be using the salad spinner all by himself. He also suggested a lesson on roast chicken so that when he was a grown-up he could invite people over for dinner and cook it for them. One Sunday his dad taught him how to do it, along with the roast potatoes for which the spouse is renowned.

The rules in our house are simple. Don’t complain; you only have to do this once a week. Cook from scratch; opening a jar and calling it spaghetti sauce does not count. Whatever you serve, we have to eat. Right down to the saltiest noodle salad in the history of the world. But mostly it’s a joy for all of us.

The Scar

Middle has a scar on his cheek. He got it in the spring, when he had a fall biking home one evening from soccer. Sometimes when I look at it I find myself back on the road, biking with the spouse and Little in front of me, and Middle behind me. Then I hear a crash and a scream, and I brake my bike swiftly, and look around to see him lying on the road. I get off my bike, but my limbs seem to be moving through water and it takes seemingly hours to disentangle them. I run back to him, still lying next to his bike, and as I run, I see a car approaching him from behind. My heart leaps in my throat. The car has time and room to pass, and I lift my boy and carry him to the sidewalk. The spouse runs to get the bike. Middle sobs on the sidewalk. There is blood on his cheek and his leg, and he is clutching his arm.

We get into coping-parent mode, and decide I will take him to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario for X-rays, in the car-share car. Luckily there is a Vrtucar parked about 200 m from the accident. I stop off at home, for snacks and drinks and books and a blanket, because I am experienced in the ways of CHEO and know what I will need in the emergency room. We get to the hospital, he is registered, and finally I can sit with my arms around my boy and the blanket around both of us. Then the images come back, and I am seeing him on the road again, with the car bearing down on us, and I’m trying not to cry. What if? What if that car had been right behind him when he fell?

His arm was not broken and neither was his cheekbone. The scrape on his cheek didn’t look deep at the time, but still it left a scar. The doctor who examined him asked me several times whether he was wearing his helmet. Yes, yes, of course, but that is not the question, I kept thinking. The question you need to ask is, what sort of infrastructure was he biking on? That would yield you some useful data. But I didn’t say any of this.

He was biking on North River Road south of Montreal Road. There was little traffic and there was no collision with another vehicle. His wheel hit something in the road a bit askew and suddenly he was off his bike. There is no painted or segregated bike lane there. Usually on the way home from soccer we would all be biking on the Rideau River Eastern Pathway, a National Capital Commission multi-user path. It’s a lovely safe route right along the river, well away from the road over most of its length, and the children have been cycling there since they learned to ride. It’s our route to the wider world spring, summer and fall.

It was a very wet spring in Ottawa, and the path was closed because of flooding. Earlier that day I had seen lots of bike traffic on that stretch of road, including our very own city councillor biking to work. I thought to myself then that it might be a good idea to put out some pylons to make a temporary separate path for the cyclists on the road. All over Ottawa this spring, while the MUPs were flooded, so many cyclists were forced onto roads. I don’t think temporary segregated lanes were provided on any of those roads.

I recently read that a (segregated, protected) cycle track along a road is one ninth as dangerous for cyclists as a road with no marked cycle lane at all. That statistic is one good reason to keep asking for safe transportation infrastructure for all, including children. A lot of my motivation for bike advocacy is based on statistics. There is a good solid evidence-based case for why safe cities are better, and cheaper, for us all. But now, in addition, I remember that feeling, the feeling as I looked up and saw 2 tons of metal bearing down on my own child.

I didn’t cry at the hospital. I held it together and took my boy home and was in bed by 1 a.m. Then I cried. I wept my fear and terror into the spouse’s shoulder. I know now that I did not weep it all out that night. Every time I see the scar on Middle’s cheek, the fear is back. Please make the city safe for all. Please.

Back-to-school Baguette

Back-to-school Baguette


I’m spending part of this Labour Day baking baguettes. It’s a cool and rainy day and tolerable to have the oven on. I’m glad to have a bit of baking therapy to help me get over the back-to-school anxiety pervading the house. And this way the sandwiches on the first day of school will be amazing.

On our summer holiday this year we spent a few days in Quebec City. One day we walked all over the Plains of Abraham, the fort and the old city. (Thank you, National Battlefields Commission, for such an informative website about the whole struggle for Quebec, and not just the battle on September 13, 1759. And I learned a new word: justaucorps, the long fitted eighteenth-century coat.)

We paused for lunch in the glorious Jardin des Gouverneurs, overlooking the St. Lawrence, with a big monument to Wolfe and Montcalm, the victor and the vanquished.

20170817_124101We bought our lunch at a little grocery store nearby. The non-celiacs had baguette with ham and cheese, reportedly absolutely delicious. I promised the family then that I would make baguette in time for the first day of school. This week I stocked up on ham and Jarlsberg, and here I am baking the bread.

One piece of specialized equipment can be used here: the baguette pan. You can also make your own out of several layers of aluminum foil (more relaxing handwork) or just bake the loaves on a cookie sheet lined with a silicone mat. They will spread a bit that way, but still be delicious. 20160422_143831

The recipe is from my old favourite, Kneadlessly Simple. As with all the recipes in that book, you start the day before by mixing up the sponge so that it can rise overnight. The dough could not be simpler to mix up. Then, the next day there is a certain amount of forming and shaping. This is where the anxiety-calming occurs: sprinkling a handful of flour over the pieces of dough, forming rectangles, folding and rolling, and finally slitting the narrow loaves with a sharp knife. I’ve made this bread enough times that I can feel when the dough is the right texture and it’s somehow comforting to know this with my body rather than my brain.

Here is the basic recipe. I always double it since the children can eat a batch in the wink of an eye.


3 1/4 cups white flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp instant or bread machine yeast
1 1/2 cups cold water, or a bit more


Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add water and mix (with a wooden spoon or dough whisk) until spongy but still quite firm. Add a bit more water if the dough is too floury. Cover with a silicone mat and leave overnight to rise.

The next day, the dough will look quite wet with little bubbles on top. Scatter a handful of flour over the top and massage it into the bread. As the dough becomes less wet, start kneading it with one hand (leaving the other hand clean for touching your tap or knives or whatever). When it feels dry and squishy and springy, dump it out onto a silicone mat with a little flour dusted on it. Cut the lump of dough in two and leave it alone for ten minutes. This will allow the gluten to relax and make shaping easier. 20160422_143827

In the meantime, oil your nifty french bread pan or whatever pan you are using.

After ten minutes, start shaping your dough. Push it into a rectangle about the shape of a piece of paper and fold it in thirds as if you were folding a letter. Then make it into the same size of rectangle, but this time roll it along the long side so that you have a sort of snake. Pinch the edges well together and continue rolling your snake until it’s the same length as your loaf pan. Put the snake in the loaf pan and slash the tops diagonally three or four times with a serrated knife. Admire the professional effect.


Allow to rise for 45 minutes to two hours, whatever works best for your schedule. About 20 minutes before you want to bake, put a broiler pan or cookie sheet in the bottom of your oven and turn it on to 500°F.

When the oven is hot, spray the loaves with water and put the pan towards the back of the oven. I use the middle rack, but a lower rack may work better in your oven. Carefully pour 1 cup of cold water into the hot pan on the floor of the oven. Shut the door quickly to capture the steam. Turn the oven down to 475°F.

Bake for 7 to 9 minutes, and then remove the pan from the oven. The loaves will look somewhat solid and slightly coloured. Using a palette knife or thin spatula, loosen the loaves and slide them onto a cookie sheet lined with a silicone mat. Put back in the oven for 6-8 minutes, then turn them over and bake for a further 4-6 minutes. These times are a bit approximate and will depend on your oven.

Then remove your glorious loaves and allow them to cool. I will guard mine until it’s time for the lunches to be made.





Screaming bloody murder about the Ottawa Carleton District School Board

Screaming bloody murder about the Ottawa Carleton District School Board

The OCDSB has, in two recent decisions, decided to sentence all high school age children in Overbrook and Vanier to a bus commute to a suburban school, Gloucester High School. On March 7, the board voted to close Rideau High School, after vigourous opposition from the community. This decision ensures that all children in the English stream in Overbrook and Vanier would be sent to Gloucester High School. I wrote a letter after their initial vote and attended the meeting at which the final vote was taken. An excerpt from my letter:

I am writing to you to express my disagreement with your vote to close Rideau High School, and to urge you to change your vote the next time around.
Rideau High School serves a very special community within Ottawa. It has a high number of indigenous and Inuit students, as well as a high proportion of new Canadians. The programs that are in place there work well and there is no compelling argument that setting them up again at a school that is further away will provide any improvement. 
There is significant evidence to suggest that students in need do better at smaller schools. A growing body of research shows that it is particularly important for students in high school to have physical activity built into their day. Walking or cycling to Rideau High currently provides at least part of that. Gloucester High School is not at all a pleasant place to cycle to, and putting high school students on buses will not improve their mental or physical health. 
I understand the point that Rideau High School is underpopulated at the moment. I have seen no evidence of creative problem-solving on the part of the board to deal with this issue. Closing the school seems to be a very blunt instrument; in recent years, Viscount Alexander was also under threat of closure and has seen something of a Renaissance once a French immersion program was introduced there. 
Last night saw me again at the headquarters of the OCDSB on Greenbank Road. (I booked a Vrtucar; because I got home at 10, the spouse returned it so I wouldn’t have to walk home in the dark. How jolly it will be to book a car every time I need to get the children’s high school: read on).

Our school trustee made the following motion:

Trustee Ellis has given notice that he intends to move as follows at the Committee of the Whole meeting scheduled for 21 March 2017:

Therefore be it resolved:

A. THAT starting in the school year 2017-2018, grade nine students residing in the York Street Public School grade 7 to 8 English attendance boundary east of the Rideau River, and south of Beechwood and Hemlock be directed to LisgarCollegiate Institute (see attached map);

B. THAT starting in the school year 2017-18, grade nine students residing in the Manor Park English attendance boundary (see attached map) be directed to Lisgar Collegiate Institute; and

C. THAT starting in the school year 2017-18, Lisgar Collegiate Institute will accept grade nine students to the Gifted Congregated program if Lisgar Collegiate Institute is the closest high school offering that program to where the student resides. (This will create space for students from the above areas.)

I spoke in favour of the motion, noting that we live in Overbrook, 2.4 km from Lisgar, a safe and pleasant walk or bike ride for our grade 9 student.  Sending the children of Overbrook and Vanier to Gloucester would take them away from this reasonable commute and send them on to a very unsafe bike lane on Ogilvie, or more likely, the bus. We have no interest in sending our children to a suburban school, 5 km from our house, along an appallingly unsafe bike route, unprotected from vehicular traffic.  Here is some video of the bike lane on Ogilvie. The OCTranspo quick planner tells me that the route from my house to Gloucester High School involves 3 buses and would take 45 minutes (on good days when the connections work, of course).  There is also a two bus option taking 56 minutes. Friends in Vanier, living over 7 km from Gloucester High School, have a number of options, ranging from 38 to 56 minutes and two of those options involve 3 buses. My child can ride his bike to Lisgar in 10 minutes.
Several delegations spoke at last night’s meeting, and all were in favour of the motion. The board then voted against the motion. I am appalled that the board did so and now proposes to send all students from some of the poorest areas in Ottawa to a suburban school. Two other high schools are closer to my house than Gloucester: Glebe and Hillcrest.
Study after study has shown that the best outcomes for children occur when active transportation is built into their day. Further studies have shown that walkable neighbourhoods have more social capital. The school board seems to be disregarding recent social studies research in its decisions, to say the least. I thought the Prime Minister said when he was sworn in that we were in a new age of evidence-based decision making. The PM has no sway at the OCDSB, of course, although if his children went to high school in that board they would be going to Lisgar.
We bought a house about 3 km from Parliament Hill so that we could raise our children in an urban environment. We have endured the bussing during elementary school from our house to Manor Park PS with the expectation that there would be light at the end of the tunnel come high school. The board’s decision ensures that no child in French Immersion living in Ottawa or Vanier can walk or bike to school DURING THEIR ENTIRE SCHOOL CAREER FROM JK TO GRADE 12. I am enraged. Please excuse the yelling.
My fury is not abated by the fact that a neighbourhood significantly further away from Lisgar than ours, Lindenlea-New Edinburgh-Rockcliffe Park, continues to be able to send its children to Lisgar. Lisgar is much more my neighbourhood high school than it is theirs. If I lived in Lindenlea, my house would be about 4.8 km from Lisgar and an 18-minute bike ride. I can only conclude that the school board continues to draw its boundaries along class lines.
I turned to the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study for more information. Their website notes: We are a team that brings together the University of Ottawa, the City of Ottawa, local Community Health & Resource Centres, Ottawa Public Health, United Way/Centraide Ottawa, The Champlain Local Health Integration Network, and other community-based partners. Our goal is to better understand the neighbourhoods in which we live, work and play in order to offer evidence about the dimensions that are important for community health and well-being. We also provide the City of Ottawa, health service providers, social service agencies, community organizations and residents with information on 107 neighbourhoods in Ottawa in order to help them to identify what is working well, and where community development is needed.
The survey provides the following information. The percentage of the population in the bottom half of the Canadian income distribution is 61.9 % for Overbrook-McArthur; 53.9% for Vanier North; 22.4% for Rockcliffe Park; and 25.6 % for Lindenlea-New Edinburgh, according to the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study. The average percentage for Ottawa is 35.3%. Furthermore, median income after taxes is $25117 for Overbrook-McArthur; $28848 for Vanier North; $43788 for Rockcliffe Park; and $46050 for Lindenlea-New Edinburgh. The average median income for all of Ottawa is $35554.90.
I am not arguing that the residents of Rockcliffe Park etc. should stop sending their children to Lisgar. The bus routes from those neighbourhoods to Gloucester High School are similarly daft. I am pointing out the injustice that the children of  Overbrook and Vanier,who live much closer to Lisgar, and whose families are much less able to weather the extra expense and strain of having children attending a school much further away, are being shifted before those in wealthy neighbourhoods who live further away from Lisgar.
The school board is using the French Immersion children of Overbrook and Vanier in order to bolster an already bad decision to close Rideau High School. The board needs to show high levels of enrolment at Gloucester for next year in order to be able to pronounce the closure a success. This is a face-saving, self-serving exercise and is bad for the children of my neighbourhood.
Overbrook and Vanier children need to be able to use active transportation to get to school, and would benefit immensely from the Lisgar environment. The school board appears to be set on a series of policies (the closure of Rideau High School and now this) that would hollow out an up-and-coming urban neighbourhood that needs all the help it can get. This is not the way to plan for a successful future for our community.
The reason that the board is drawing the boundary this way is that residents of wealthier neighbourhoods have better contacts, more social capital, more time to spend on activism and are more adroit at navigating administrative systems. The poor cannot do this so well. The OCDSB does not want a posse of Lindenlea parents screaming bloody murder. I am an Overbrook resident with a lot of social capital myself, so watch me: BLOODY MURDER.

Car-free Family: Party like it’s 1928

Car-free Family: Party like it’s 1928

It’s a chilly day in February and about a year since we adopted a life without owning a car. This morning Little and Middle put on snowsuits, boots, ski mitts and balaclavas and went off to catch the schoolbus, chatting. The spouse and I walked together as far as the Rideau Canal (a bit over 2 km) and then I kissed him and walked home again. As we were walking, the teenager passed us, cycling on the winter bike, on his way to high school. Just another normal winter day.

Last week the wind chill was -28 and on Sunday 28 cm of snow fell here in Ottawa.It was this part of the year that most made us hesitate when we were considering giving up the car. It can be brutal.

But it turns out that it really is not difficult at all, and we love having no car.I am delighted every time I see the empty driveway and realize once again that oil changes have no power over me any longer.

Just because we have no car doesn’t mean we never drive. It’s just that driving is now for special occasions and there is a faintly festive air to it. We joined a car-sharing service about a year ago and if I need to do errands that take me far away or to places that are dangerous to bike to, I book a car and walk to the car-sharing station to pick it up. This is the first part of the new normal that makes me think of 1928; novels of that vintage are always having the manservant garaging the car, often in a rented space in a mewsnearby, and then getting it out again when the master wants the motor. Bunter did it for Lord Peter Wimsey, for example. The difference for us is the sad lack of servants in the slow lane.

The closest car-share station is about 1 km away, which initially I found a bit far to go to get a car. It’s about a fifteen minute walk. I got used to it quickly and now I love that there are two walks built into every car journey. The children are quite accustomed to the walk as well and recently Little remarked that we were lucky that the car was so close. Our nearest car is a Toyota Yaris; it’s a very nimble little car and reminds me of our late lamented Tercel. I can park in the tiniest space and the trunk space seems enormous, especially in comparison to a pair of panniers, my usual cargo solution. We booked an SUV for the trek out to the countryside before Christmas to cut down the tree. Now that was luxury, and the tree farm was gorgeous.


Friends and family sometimes offer us their cars when they go on holiday, to our mutual benefit. Their car gets driven occasionally, keeping the battery topped up in our vicious winters, and I am spared the chilly walk to the carshare.

For camping holidays  and to visit family in Toronto we rent a car. The first time we rented we had our eyes opened by the incredible luxury of modern car design. USB plugs! Heated seats! Backup cameras! Back when we bought out last car in 2007, such things were not available, or at least not in the Mazda5.  The best van for camping was a Chrysler Town and Country; we got three tents and associated junk into it without much effort. Note to self: the Ford Flex is a reverse Tardis. It looks huge on the outside and is a beast to park, and the interior has strangely little useable space. When we rent a vehicle, we enjoy the treat of the tons of room and millions of cupholders and return it with thanks at the end of the holiday. camping

The other solution that involves driving is to have things delivered, instead of us running errands in the car. Our pharmacy, in Old Ottawa East, makes deliveries. We get our vegetables from a local supplier and those too are delivered. This is an especial blessing in the winter when lettuce fetched on foot is liable to freeze. Online grocery-shopping in Ottawa is not that useful yet. It tends to be expensive and to offer foods that I never actually buy. Having food and medicine delivered seems delightfully old-fashioned and reminds me of accounts in novels, again, of the butcher’s boy coming on his bicycle or the milk float arriving early in the morning. Remember Father Christmas encountering the milkman in the Raymond Briggs book? Of course all these literary references to a less car-dependent time are grounded in actual fact.

A sort of delivery that in no way is reminiscent of 1928 is e-commerce. More and more I am liable to order things online. Instead of making the trek out to Westboro I can get Mountain Equipment Co-op to deliver for free if the order is over $50. I just save up the order until it’s that much. I try to buy local as much as possible, but sometimes that doesn’t work, as with the recent hanky purchase.

Now to the nitty-gritty. Even with all this renting and car-sharing, we spend less than we would if we owned a car. The total cost of car-share last year was $878.39. Gas is included in the per kilometre charge we pay. Insurance is covered by our credit card insurance. That was with me not skimping, getting a car whenever I thought I needed one, and frequent drives on orthodontist days out to Orleans (about a 40 km round trip). The amount spent on rental cars and gas last year was $1,382.25. All that driving occurred on vacation. Along with the car-share that means auto costs for 2016 were $2260.64. The amount spent on the car, car insurance  and fuel in 2015 was $4136.06. That is a difference of $1875.42. This year I am more used to being car-free and aim to reduce my use of the car-share. Mercifully the orthodontist visits are over for now.

Of course, one of the reasons that had us giving up owning a car was that the Mazda 5 was starting to show its age. Expensive work on the suspension was looming. Buying a new car was just around the corner. If we had bought another Mazda 5 GT in January 2017, and we did like it as a car, that would have cost us about $28, 000. Another car loan — no thanks.

Often we feel like we are cheating and not really doing the genuine car-free thing since our access to a car when we need one is so easy. If we were really hard-core we would never drive anywhere. That’s not quite possible for us in Ottawa yet. More on that later….