The dangers associated with being alive are a fact of life – whether kids use backpacks or not.

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I thought I might write about dandelions today. Since there are so many of them around, it seemed timely. But the nodding yellow puffs on my lawn (and your lawn, and her lawn, and his lawn, and everyone’s lawn) will have to wait – because something else caught my attention: school security policies. A few years ago, a man with a sawed-off shotgun entered a school in Buckingham (not far from Ottawa), threatening to kill everyone. He wandered the corridors for about fifteen minutes, while the school was in lockdown mode, and the secretary called 911. The incident ended well, with nobody hurt and the gunman apprehended by police. This resulted in a change in security protocol at the school Fiona and Bridget attend. People used to be able to wander in and out at will. The doors are now locked at all times. There is a buzzer that you press to alert the secretary to your presence, and she unlocks the door for you.

According to this article, students at one Long Island, NY, high school will now have to carry all books and belongings in clear plastic bags – backpacks are no longer allowed. In addition to this, they are locked out of their lockers for the rest of the school year. For a little while, all but one washroom for each gender had been shut down, and students had to sign in and out to use the toilet. This restriction has been eased a little: there are now four washrooms open to the students (yes, four toilets for over a thousand students), which will be monitered, but nobody will have to sign in or out. These measures have been adopted in response to a recent rash of threats, including at least one reference to a bomb.

I read a blog post about it, called “You will understand why this high school banned backpacks”. Know what? I don’t understand it – and I wouldn’t accept it. It’s nothing but a placebo, a sugar pill to calm the screaming masses. As one commenter put it, it’s “security theatre”.  The buzzer on the front of my daughters’ school won’t stop anyone from entering. Mr. Coo-Coo with his gun and his plan won’t be daunted by having to press a button, and will probably be able to bluff his way in even if he’s questioned (which he likely won’t be until he’s in, at which point it’s too late). As for the Wantagh High School, banning backpacks and sealing lockers isn’t going to do a whole lot to make people safer, either. Kids can pack heat anywhere – not just in their backpacks. Why don’t we make them wear see-through clothes? How about x-rays and cavity searches before each school day? Oh, and an armed security guard in each classroom – and two in the gymnasium, of course. While we’re at it, why not re-think the concept of school altogether? Instead of making our precious lambs leave their bubble, why not have them take their courses online? Since it’s unlikely that we’ll all agree on a line, let’s not have one. Let’s just go all the way to Crazy Town, together, in a high-security, unmarked, windowless, peanut-free bus.

The thing is, there is risk everywhere. Leaving your house elevates your risk of being robbed, beaten, run over by a car, eaten by a bear, attacked by a dog or a rabid raccoon, stung by a bee. Driving around is dangerous. Walking instead of driving is dangerous. E.coli and listeria lurk in our bagged salads and deli meats. You could talk to other people, but what if they’re stalkers or sociopaths or sales reps for Tupperware or Avon or Lia Sophia? Escalaters, elevators, stairwells – tripping, falling and dying hazards, all. Shall we tear off the top six / eight / twenty-five floors of every building, and have everything at ground level? You could go to the library or a park to hang out, but germs! Never mind waterslides or amusement parks or ziplining – many parents don’t even let their children go to public washrooms by themselves until they’re into the double digits. Our society has become ridiculously risk-averse, even though we’re safer than we’ve ever been – and it’s disturbing.

Yes, terrible things happen – sometimes, with no logic or even warning. A bomb threat at a school reaches into every parent’s heart and strikes at their deepest, darkest fears. But we have to rise above our hysteria and really think about our response …. We cannot live like rabbits, frozen or running scared at every rustle and twig snap. How much freedom are we willing to leverage to feel safe? Because that’s really all we’re doing – we’re changing how we feel. We shouldn’t pour time and money into things that won’t help anybody just so that we look like we’re doing something. Doing nothing is better than that.

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”  – Benjamin Franklin

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Avoid joining the list of animals who eat their own young, even though you’re stuck in a car with them.

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This family drives alot. Five days a week, we shuttle between home, school, work and daycare. We spend every second Christmas and Easter in Ryan’s hometown of Stoney Creek – along with several other holidays and just-because weekends (that’s about a thousand kilometres per round trip). Every Thanksgiving, we spend a lovely four days in the picturesque town of Collingwood, on Georgian Bay. It’s further away than Stoney Creek. And we do road trips …. Do we ever do road trips!

Since the arrival of our darling daughters, we have been honing the craft of road trips with children. Fiona was about six weeks old on her first Thanksgiving in Collingwood. Our car looked as if the baby section of Walmart had vomited all of its newborn inventory into the back seat and trunk, and Ryan and I were reeling from the sleep deprivation inflicted on us by our new life with our bundle of joy – but we made it there and back, and we enjoyed our long weekend away. She was eleven months old when we drove to El Paso, Texas, and back. She was almost two, and Bridget was almost out, during our trip to Oregon. The following summer, we spent three weeks on the road with our toddler and baby in tow. There’s been at least one road trip every year since. We’ve changed diapers in pastures and vacant lots, on filthy floors from here to California and back, and on the hood of our car. Ryan has driven under conditions that would challenge the focus and reflexes of a fighter pilot. He prefers it that way, probably because he’s watched passenger-me spend hours dangling over the back of my seat, doling out bottles and snacks, settling disputes and delivering justice. All that experience has to count for something, right? In this post, I’m making it count by sharing what we’ve learned ….

1) Get your kids used to travelling. Many people who know our travel habits say things like “I can’t believe your kids will put up with that much time in the car – I can’t even take mine to the grocery store”. They not only put up with it, they love it. It’s not because they are different from other kids – it’s because it’s what they know. It’s how we roll – and, since birth, they’ve been rolling along with us. You can’t feed your kids hot dogs and potato chips for every meal of their life, and then expect them to like spinach when they turn seven. You can’t stay within a half-hour radius of your house for years, and then expect your kids to deal with a six-hour drive when they hit full-day school. Don’t wait for them to be older / mobile / sleeping through the night / easier to deal with. Travel now – and travel often.

2) Don’t over-pack. This is a lesson Ryan and I have learned after years of cramming the car full of things the girls don’t need or even want, then having to dig through it all to find anything – including, at times, the kids themselves. Also, no matter how many diapers, wipes, pacifiers, jars of baby food and biscuits you pack, you will run out and need to shop for more. Accept this, and pack only what can comfortably fit in the car. Likewise, toys. Pack a few favourites, and accept the fact that they will get tired of everything you’ve packed, and need to find new sources of entertainment. This is good for them; it sharpens the mind and fuels creativity.

3) Speaking of packing …. Don’t pack things that make noise, unless they come with headphones – because you will be forced to listen to the obnoxious drone / whine / chatter / “music” all the way to wherever you’re going and back. This might not seem like a problem in a large room in your house. When it’s only a few feet away, and you are tethered to your seat, you will want to set it (and possibly yourself) on fire. Baby Tad came with us on our trip to Texas in 2006. He haunted our waking hours with his relentless cheering and singing, and when he ran out of batteries he scared the cheese-and-crackers out of everyone with his horror movie demon voice. Also …. Don’t. Bring. Children’s. Music. Just don’t; your spawn will beg for it over and over. Not because they like it, but because it’s theirs. Children’s music is a marketing ploy. Kids don’t need nursery rhyme lyrics, repetitive tunes or whiny falsettos to enjoy music. Give them a taste of whatever you like, and they’ll be singing along in no time. Also, you will not feel the urge to climb out the sunroof and throw yourself from your moving vehicle into the path of the one behind you. You’re welcome.

4) Manage your expectations. The kids will slow you down. Their active little bodies need to run around more than you do. They want to look at everything, because everything is amazing when you’re little. They will want more snacks than you because they burn calories faster than a hummingbird. They will need to pee every seventeen minutes. If you have more than one kid, they will not be on the same pee schedule. On the first day of our first road trip, Ryan and I logged a thousand kilometres – from here to Sandusky, Ohio. One day in 2004, we drove from Marathon to Ottawa, an even longer drive. We’ve had a few very long days on the road with kids, too, but those have not been the norm. We stop when anyone needs to stop, because everyone’s happier that way.

5) Use the facilities every time you stop anywhere. Your kids will probably tell you they don’t need to pee when you point out the washroom and suggest they visit it. Bullshit. Tell them to go anyway. Otherwise, about five minutes after you hit the road again, they will ask for a pee break. I guarantee it.

6) Get out and look around! Stop at the rest area that has a wonderful view, stop at the roadside fruit stand, stop at the flea market selling tat you’d never look at back home, stop at the ridiculous monument (from Easter eggs to nickels to smiling potatoes to monster moose, Canada’s full of those). Don’t chain yourself to routines and destinations. Spontaneity is fun for everyone, particularly kids. It’s exciting to have no idea where you’ll end up next – and it keeps kids interested.

7) While you’re looking around, grab opportunities to have fun. Stop and run around the playground you’re about to pass – it’s great for grown-ups to be kids again, and it’s novel for kids to see their parents swinging, spinning and sliding. You didn’t know there was a petting zoo or mini-museum or aquarium in the town through which you’re driving? Now you do; stop and explore it. Check out a local restaurant – and order the most ridiculous dessert they have, plus several spoons.

8) Be flexible; throw your comfort zone and expectations out the car window, along with the words “always” and “never”. Give the kids food they’ve never tasted; see what they think. Let them try things they’ve never done. Don’t assume that what they do at home is all they can, or want to, do. On our road trips, both girls pick up bugs and animals they’ve only seen in books, eat food with gusto that we were sure they’d detest, explore spaces that look nothing like anything they’ve ever seen before. Fiona spent her sixth birthday on the road. We decorated our motel room with birthday signs after she fell asleep the night before. She had a deep-fried pastry filled with cinnamon and cream from a Mexican restaurant instead of a birthday cake. She opened her presents and went for a swim at a Motel 6 on a Navajo reserve that evening. The next day, we checked out a wolf sanctuary in the middle of nowhere as part of her birthday celebration. Bridget learned to swim because her floaties broke one evening last summer. It was too late to go shopping for replacements in the one-horse town where we had ended up at the end of that day’s driving, and nobody felt like getting out of the pool anyway – so she learned to paddle around without them. She’s also the only kid any of us knows who wears a gator tooth necklace that she bought in a swamp in Mississippi.

Our road trips have given us wonderful memories, and experiences we never knew existed until we encountered them at random. We’ve been forced to improvise, and learn and grow, because of them. When you’re in the car together for hours every day, and the distractions of work, school and socializing are eliminated, you get to know each other better and appreciate each other more. I hope my list of tips and tricks will give road trip rookies a smoother ride …. Now, hit the road (and take lots of pictures)!

Are pictures still special?

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I attended a wedding over the weekend. (Congratulations, Derek and Dianna!) I wasn’t just a guest, I was a bridesmaid – and wife of the best man, and mother of the flowergirls. So, I made it into alot of pictures. Thanks to the miracles of digital photography and social media, some of these pictures were available for viewing by anyone with an internet connection even before the big day had drawn to a close. Several wedding guests have already created and shared whole digital albums with all their e-friends (including me) – and the pictures keep coming. Some are beautifully arranged, with clear lines and true colours. Others are blurry and askew, streaked and dotted with mysterious flashes of colour. In fact, I have a few of my own to share – of varying quality – whenever I get around to uploading them.

Clicking through all these pictures got me thinking of …. well, pictures. Over my lifetime, I have taken thousands. I received my first camera for Christmas when I was ten years old. It was a Safari 35mm Accushot:

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I loved that camera, and spent most of my allowance on film and development. I took pictures of everything and everybody around me. I have albums filled with sneaky shots of unprepared people looking odd, and follow-up shots of angry people who have just had a goofy-looking picture taken of them by a giggling brat. Painfully posed groups of people waiting with glassy smiles while the same brat fiddled with the settings on her camera, accidentally turning it off, then imploring everyone to stay right there while she turned it back on and aimed again. Ok, everyone – smile! Oh, you’re weren’t looking – let’s try it again. Say “cheese”! Aw, come on, just this one picture …. One more. My friends making funny faces, my many invariably red-eyed pets, grudgingly captured images of my little brother because he begged me to take a picture of him. When a roll of film was finished, I posted it, and some cash, to a photo development company, and waited for pictures to arrive in the mail. In the meantime, I’d wonder if any of my pictures were duds, and I’d think of that one special picture that just had to turn out right. When I discovered walk-in, one-hour photo huts, I was very excited – though I rarely chose the more expensive one-hour option, at least I didn’t have to trust the postal system with rolls of film and wads of money anymore.

I didn’t jump on the digital camera bandwagon right away. I liked the anticipation of waiting to see my pictures in print rather than peering at a tiny screen, deleting, rearranging, retaking. Then, in 2004, Walmart lost all thirteen rolls of film from an amazing road trip. Ryan and I tented all the way to the Grand Canyon, then crashed Vegas for a couple of crazy nights, then tented home. I cried when I found out that we wouldn’t have a single picture to show for it. Derek gave us a digital camera for Christmas that year. We’ve used one ever since. I’ve become accustomed to checking pictures to make sure they’re good, and retaking when they’re not. I don’t mind taking five pictures to try to capture just one moment. I also know that when I take a picture of Fiona or Bridget, each girl’s automatic reaction is to say “lemme see”, and wrench the screen toward her face. They’ve never known a time when they had to wait to see a picture.

Digital photography is a good thing in many ways. You don’t have to waste time, money or paper on pictures that don’t do what you want them to do. You can instantly share any moment, event or expression with your dearest, even if they’re not-so-nearest – and these days many families and groups of friends are scattered across the globe, their only connection being the internet. You don’t even have to carry around a camera to take pictures; you can take them with your phone (although it must be said that most phones take shitty pictures). On the other hand, digital photography has cheapened pictures. Ok, ok – the reams of pictures I took with my little Safari were not high-quality. They weren’t even that good. But I couldn’t wait to get that bulky envelope in the mail, rip it open and pore over each image twice, maybe three times, before lovingly pasting it in an album. I still have them, and I’d probably cry if I lost them.

Pictures from the years before that were even more precious. I liked to look at me as a baby, a toddler, and then a big sister gripping my new sibling with an evil – I mean, er, loving – smile. I relished pictures of my parents before I was born – grainy, brown-tinged images of them as children, teenagers and then newlyweds. When I stumbled across black-and-white photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents, I felt like an archaeologist discovering a lost civilization. Because pictures were so rare and expensive, each subject was carefully arranged in their best clothes, with a solemn expression and a steady gaze. They knew these pictures would be framed and given pride of place in the family home for decades – these pictures would be their legacy to descendants they would never meet. These pictures were special.

I still have pictures printed, but I’m one of the few people I know who bother. Fiona and Bridget like to look at our albums, and so do we. Because printed pictures cost money and take up space, only the best images are selected for print. Years from now, will their children or their children’s children experience even the mildest flush of excitement over flipping through our albums? I suspect not. They’ll already have seen dozens of selfies, twosomes, crowd scenes – and my entire wardrobe. They may not ever meet me in person, but they’ll have seen every smugly displayed, carefully captioned culinary achievement since the mid-2000s. Great-Grandma Beth will be as accessible to them as pictures of themselves, and they’ll be bored of her grinning mug. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing – but it is definitely banal when compared to my childhood relationship with cameras and pictures.

Irresponsible sex, an abortion and a video of the procedure will always be special memories …. ?

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The video and story of Emily Letts are making the rounds of the internet right now, so you probably already know all about her. If not, let me fill you in. Emily is a sex educator and abortion counselor at the Cherry Hill Women’s Center in New Jersey. She had a surgical abortion with local anesthesia at the Women’s Center, which she filmed and submitted to the Abortion Care Network’s Stigma Busting video contest. The video has gone viral.

She also wrote an article for Cosmopolitan, explaining why she filmed her abortion. She says she did it in an effort to combat the notion that all women who have an abortion are emotional, guilt-riddled messes. She also says that she wanted to bust the myth that an abortion is a dangerous, scary procedure by showing women exactly what it’s like to have one, while it’s happening. If you’re interested, you can read her article here.

I am not writing this to argue for or against the practice or legality of abortion. Those cats been let out of the bag, and they can’t be stuffed back in. A raft of rhetoric swirls on both sides of the debate, and we’ve all heard it all. I’m not trying to add to anyone’s load of guilt, or frighten anyone. However, I have alot of issues with Emily Letts’ experience and her treatment of it.

For starters, in the article, she admits that she wasn’t using birth control when she got pregnant. Really? You’re a sex educator and abortion counselor, and you weren’t using birth control? That is not only irresponsible, but incomprehensible. It appears that Ms. Letts has been an avid student of human reproduction and birth, and an abortion advocate, for quite some time. She has seen many women come through the doors of the Women’s Center whose lives are in turmoil because of unwanted pregnancy, and yet she didn’t feel the need to protect herself from the same situation? “The guy wasn’t involved in my decision”, she says – but she doesn’t say whether he was informed, either. She claims that, shortly after scheduling her abortion, she decided she needed to use it to help other women who are facing the same decision. Her recounting of the situation is unconvincing. My first question, which is still floating around in my mind, is whether this was an actual accidental pregnancy or a set-up for a provoking video and a whole lot of attention.

Then, she goes on to describe her abortion experience ….

“I remember breathing and humming through it like I was giving birth. I know that sounds weird, but to me, this was as birth-like as it could be. It will always be a special memory for me. I still have my sonogram, and if my apartment were to catch fire, it would be the first thing I’d grab.” She later says “every time I watch the video, I love it”. Vacation videos, wedding videos, birth videos, abortion videos …. All equally precious and uplifting, I guess? Emily’s gushing about a video of herself having an abortion is disturbing – and, frankly, insulting to women who take their choice seriously and can’t describe it in such airy, glowing terms.

Emily is right – there are lots of women who have abortions with no regret, or even a second thought. To these women, it is an easy solution to an undesirable health issue. However, I doubt that they consider their terminated pregnancy to be a special memory. If conception and subsequent abortion are no big deal, why does she still have her sonagram and count it among her most precious possessions? Does anyone other than me find it bizarre and repugnant that she adores the image of a baby she had killed by doctors? I know, I know – to supporters of abortion, it’s not a baby, it’s a clump of cells. But that’s not how Emily herself sees it. In her video, she says “I am in awe of the fact that I can make a baby, I can make a life”.

No, Emily. All the mothers out there who are raising and nurturing their children every day, all the mothers who cannot be with their children but chose to give birth to them all the same – they made babies. They made lives. You had the opportunity to make a life. Instead, you chose to end life, and use the footage as a publicity stunt.

Note: A complaint I’ve read frequently is that pro-life publications use photos of nearly full-term fetuses to add to the guilt of women who have had or are considering having an abortion, when the majority of abortions are performed very early in pregnancy. So, the image above is not anywhere near that. It’s an embryo just six weeks after the sperm hits the egg. It’s past the stage where it’s shaped like a cocktail shrimp, and now resembles an alien. But nobody can look at it and deny that it is human. Until now, I wouldn’t have thought that anyone could find its destruction to be a triumph worthy of filming and fond reminiscing. Then came Emily Letts.