January 2015


The smell of home

By Diane Baker Mason

They say the closest memory-related sense is scent. It is not a sight or sound that triggers nostalgia, but a smell: the odor of mom’s baking bread, or of the hayloft in your cousin’s barn, or of the pine-tree-shaped air freshener that hung from the rearview in your Grandpa’s Chevy. Not the taste of the bread, not the feel of the hay, not the roar of the engine. It’s the smell of these things that takes you home.
Home is on my mind lately, since I am considering moving. One of my boys has moved out, and the other is soon to do so. I have fallen in love with the Beaches in east Toronto, and although I can’t realistically afford to move there, reality has never stopped me in the past, so move I intend to do. Therefore, I have had to take a hard, mean, look at my own condo apartment, which has deteriorated over the last three years to disaster area status. I tend to be away on weekends; my sons were not. Nor were their friends. And I had long ago given up on trying to cajole/nag/train them into doing even basic tidying (which I don’t like to do either). So my condo not only looked awful — it smelled awful, too.
I hired a trio of disaster-area cleanup experts and together with my remaining son, we stripped the condo of debris, and applied paint-stripper-quality cleaning fluids to all surfaces. Even the guinea pig got a “Total Home Makeover,” with a bleach-and-scouring pad treatment of his cage bottom, and cedar shavings. Instant memories of my pet hamsters, from when I was twelve years old: suddenly, with the smell of the cedar, I could feel those tiny soft bodies wriggling in my much-smaller hands.
Despite the cleaning, my apartment still doesn’t feel like home. Maybe it’s because I never saw it as home, but as a place I bought in a panic, to give myself and my then-barely-teenage sons a place to live. I don’t love it the way I loved my other houses or even the bachelorette flat I rented when I left my marriage eight years ago. And despite its professional cleansing (and my remaining son’s sudden, almost-religious conversion to Tidy Clean Person, something for which I’m hugely grateful), I still don’t get that “welcome home” feeling when I walk in the door.
Part of the problem is that the cleaning hasn’t kept the smells at bay. If smells could make a sound, my apartment would be a cacophony. First of all, there is our rancid dog. Licorice is a Lab mutt, and she loves the water (unless it comes in bath format). In the mornings, she prances through the Humber River; in the afternoons, she fords the streams winding through High Park; on weekends she is either swimming in Lake Ontario or sitting (yes, sitting) for hours at a time in the shallows at Bass Lake, hypnotized by the minnows. The problem with all this water is that it leaves bacteria on her underfur, which dies, which decays, which causes my dog to stink like a week’s worth of rotting garbage. I’ve had people get off the elevator to avoid sharing it with her. Baths and deodorant powders help for only a day or so. The only cure is winter, when all that water freezes over.
So there’s the smell of dog. There’s the smell of our musty old furniture. There’s the smell of my son’s cooking (he loves curries and fried corned beef). There are my son’s friends and their beer and cigarillos. There’s the guinea pig’s cage (a mountain of cedar shavings won’t cover the fact that it’s still a guinea pig cage). The place just doesn’t smell like me.
Hopefully there will be an animal-loving, beer-swilling, curry-eating tribe of Visigoths interested in buying a three-bedroom two-bath condo in a park-like setting, to whom it will smell just like the place they grew up. As for me and my bacteria-soaked dog, we’ve got our sights on someplace new. And she’ll either have to learn not to smell like dead fish, or I’ll have to learn to associate that smell with home. I guess anything’s possible.

*** First published in the Nov. 2005 print edition of Women’s Post

Into the trash can with your culture

By George Patrick

In the little town in northern Scotland where I went to school fifty years ago there lived a man who had been a tea planter in India. He supplemented his income by boarding Indian boys who were the products of “mixed marriages” i.e. of British fathers and Indian women. The life of such people in Indian society, as you may know, was not an easy one. Rejected by Indians and looked down on by the snotty whites, these “Eurasians” lived in a twilight world of betwixt and between. Their schooldays in our town provided at least a few years of temporary relief from their (literally) outcaste world. It wasn’t perfect, for most Scots were racists then, as many are today. Scots, like all defeated and colonized peoples, have a huge chip on their collective shoulder, which they sometimes express in straight-from-the-shoulder racial epithets, starting with the English and working their way out around the globe. (On my last trip home, I was bemused by my family’s comments about “White Settlers.” It eventually dawned on me they were referring to English people who bought retirement homes in Scotland. As is often the case, behind the semi-jocular tone lurked something darker.)

Fifty years ago our town was lily white. The nearest to a non-white was my swarthy pal Lammy, who was part-Maori. To compound the error of his existence, Lammy was a (very bad) Catholic in a Calvinist community. As a result, he was something of an outsider, and I was the new boy in town who spoke with a funny accent, and was desperately shy. And so we gravitated towards each other, even though I knew that non-white people were inferior, with all kinds of deplorable moral defects that varied according to their precise ethnic origins. I knew this in the same way that I knew that “poofters” or “queers” were vile, that there was something wrong with Jews (although I had never actually met one and knew nothing about them), that divorced women were bad (but sexually “easy”), that a woman’s place was in the home, and that the male was inherently superior to the female. I held these truths to be self-evident. So although I liked Lammy a lot, I never quite forgot that he was not exactly, y’know, one of us.

The Anglo-Indian boys were very nice youngsters who seemed to mix well at school (much better than I) and appeared to be happy. Then Mr. MacTaggart, the retired tea planter, was persuaded by a Christian mission to take in two more boys. They were sea Dyaks from Sarawak who had been raised and educated by Christian missionaries. Now, I happen to believe that the human race would be much better off without all the god stuff and its multitude of absurd religions, but I must confess that if even a small fraction of Christians were as fine exemplars of their faith as those two young men I would be forced to re-examine my beliefs. I’ve never met any other people who gave off such an aura of sweetness, purity and goodness. I truly felt humbled in their presence. Strange to think that their own grandfathers had taken part in raids on other villages, killing the men, decapitating them and returning home to begin the long business of shrinking the heads to hang about their huts.

I’ve always considered Mr. (Pierre) Trudeau’s multicultural policy a classic example of murky Liberal thinking. It has that lovely warm fuzzy feeling that allows Liberals to think they really are, well, liberal! They get to hug themselves for being so gosh darn tolerant. And — most important — they get to mop up the ethnic vote during elections! The trouble is, the policy is hopelessly wrongheaded. Yes, in the great Canadian goulash of languages and cultures and religions, we should all be tolerant of each other. Few would argue with that. We’ve all learned from history that intolerance has killed more people than tuberculosis, malaria or bubonic plague. Live and let live makes very good sense.

However, encouraging tolerance towards other people and their way of life is one thing, propping up cultures with federal tax dollars is quite another thing. For the stark truth is, most, perhaps all of the cultures that have come down to us from the past are simply not worth preserving or sponsoring. Most of our cultures are rooted in, and many still reek of values that are abhorrent to us — racism, sexism, genocide, imperialism, and so on.

Which, for example, of the cultures from my youth do you think we should celebrate with federal tax dollars? Perhaps the Indian and British cultures that treated their own young as pariahs because they came of mixed races? What about the Dyak headhunting culture? Or maybe the culture that produced me — a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, vaguely anti-semitic young man? I suggest we should shrink from all of them in horror.

The Canadian society in which my children were raised remains, like all human endeavours, imperfect, but in its values it is superior to almost anything else one can find in the broad sweep of history. I am sometimes surprised, and encouraged, by the utter absence in most young Canadians of all the nasty little bigotries that made up the daily fabric of my early life. We are a fortunate people.      I believe the past should be studied for insights into the human condition. I don’t believe the past should be venerated. Most of our cultures are steeped in bloodshed, cruelty and injustice, and imbued with ideas repugnant to all except stupid and ugly minds. They serve only to remind us of what a bunch of schmucks we humans can be. We should cherish the values of our (generally) tolerant, just and decent society — and say good riddance to all that ugly, silly, musty baggage from the past.

Gen-Y-ers, boomers only sort of different

By Barbara Moses

When it comes to work motivation, much has been made in the past decade about how the newest generation of workers is so different from its boomer counterparts. For example, young workers are not cowed by authority, nor do they believe in their boss’s right to ask them to do things that don’t feel good. Their temerity throws many senior managers into a tailspin.

This should not come as a surprise to any boomer managers who have kids of their own. Gen Y-ers are a generation that has never experienced deprivation. They have come to expect comfort as their birthright from indulgent parents. Of course, they think they have as much to say as anyone else, that their feelings count, and that there is no reason to be automatically respectful of authority.

Many also see themselves as the abandoned kids of career-obsessed parents. They saw their parents worship at the corporate altar, only to be sacrificed on it. They have heard parents endlessly complain about what a jerk their boss or client is, and deride their ridiculous work overload. They have seen the price their parents paid for slavishly pursuing career goals. It’s not surprising they are ambivalent about work.

One key aspect of Gen Y-ers’ focus on lifestyle is the strength of their attachments and affinities outside the workplace, including greater allegiances to friends associated with their subculture — whether organized around ethnic background, lifestyle preferences or musical and fashion tastes. In defining their identities, this is as important to them, if not more so, than where they happen to work at the moment. They don’t park these identities at the corporate door.

For twentysomethings, the unwritten contract with their employer is understood at the most visceral level to be: “I rent you my skills, I don’t sell you my soul. In return for my contributions, I expect something back in addition to my paycheque — interesting development, and a work life that doesn’t encroach on my personal life.”

Clearly, managing this new generation presents its challenges. Boomers must recognize that young workers want many of the same things they do — it’s just that they’re more assertive about getting it.

Gen Y-ers may not believe in corporate loyalty, but organizations can leverage their strong peer attachments by fostering identification with colleagues who share similar interests. Consider, for example, the difference between the company seasonal party where top brass stand up and intone about year-end results and company goals, and enabling staff to create their own celebrations in line with personal preferences.

At the same time, organizations need to renew their commitment to work/life balance. Although this is a desire for everyone, Gen-Y workers will vote with their feet if they don’t get it.

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of  Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.  For more:

Will Harper put old grievances back on the table?

By Russell Wangersky


Perched high on Alberta’s Tunnel Mountain, I could look down and see the cloudy green melt-water of the Bow River in summer, see why it was called the Bow, and, climbing down the fossil-filled and up-thrust slabs of what had once been ocean floor, walk up to my ankles in June water so cold that it made the bones of my feet hurt.


It’s a feeling my bones are more than familiar with. Most of the time, I live in Newfoundland, where walking in the ocean at almost any time — along the sandy beach below Cape Pine, or almost anywhere else — makes you feel as if your marrow is fleeing the cold, and pulling painful away from the insides of your bones in the process.


It is a pain so intense that I can almost gather it up in memory, anticipate it, dread it.


Much like the feeling I get whenever anyone starts talking constitution, because, as soon as the words start, I can feel the dark pit opening up.


In late November, 2006, the House of Commons passed a motion proposed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to recognize the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada. It was one of those uniquely parliamentary parlour tricks. Harper was answering a motion by the Bloc Quebecois to recognize the Quebecois as a nation, the Bloc’s move itself a sort of follow-on to proposals within the federal Liberal leadership race.


Since that vote, Harper has gone out of his way to explain that the motion doesn’t confer any sort of additional powers to Quebecers. Fine — but it’s now just the kind of half-measure that has served to rile up everyone in both of Canada’s solitudes.


Those in Quebec felt pandered to, while those outside Quebec felt hard-done-by. And everyone will find a way to be engaged in picking away at old wounds.


I’ve been in the news business for 20 years, and I’ve watched what happens when someone decides we have to have to put old constitutional grievances back on the table. It quickly becomes an exercise in frustration, and the national equivalent of taking a shortcut across the train tracks without ever looking for the train.


I’ve lived for periods of time in five of Canada’s provinces – I know Nova Scotia and New Brunswick more than well, from the high grey maple stands behind Sussex, N.B. to the deep red flats of the Bay of Fundy. I’ve lived in the very heart of the manmade mountain terrain of downtown Toronto — the hard, three-dimensional concrete environment of King and Adelaide — and spent months in the snowy heights of the Rockies on Alberta’s side.


I’ve passed through or stayed briefly in every other province — from urbane downtown Montreal to wintery Winnipeg to the almost-empty flat prairie town of Chaplin, Sask., in the high simmering heat of summer — and there is no part of this country that I would view as anything but part of Canada.


I know we don’t understand each other and often have simplistic views about how others live — I also know that we can turn those views into hardened positions where no one thinks they can afford to back down safely, regardless of the damage we’re doing to our nation and our economy.


One day, I hope to get to Canada’s Territories. One day, as long as there are territories and a country left.


Standing on the barrens looking towards Newfoundland’s Hawke Hills, smelling the complicated mix of ground juniper and peat and Labrador tea, I don’t think of Canada as a bunch of separate nations. I don’t even see the need for declarations about nationhood from the House of Commons.  This is a bad place to be. I feel it in my bones.


*** First published in Nov. 2006