Back-to-school is not for everyone – but I’m trying to see the other side of the coin.

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Where, oh, where has summer gone? There’s less than two weeks left! Yes, I hear you, gotta-be-right windbags: summer doesn’t technically end until late September. You probably also like to remind people that black is not actually a colour, and that “I can’t get no satisfaction” really means that you can get at least some. Whatever. We all know summer’s over when the kids go back to school.

Most of the items on my summer bucket list have been crossed off. I’ve watched all the flowers come and go in our garden. Having lived in this house for a couple of years now, I know there are more to come, and I’ll be watching for them, too. I’ve enjoyed several sun-drenched happy hours on one of our plastic chairs with a book and the buzz of cicadas and crickets all around me. I’ve made three or four different kinds of popsicles, lemon cream, blueberry-cinnamon-Greek-yogurt, blue raspberry and peanut-butter-chocolate-pudding (new this year). We’ve had a few picnics – on a sunny, breezy day, packing a bag with sandwiches, pickles, cheese, fruit, cookies and juice (or, if you will, vodka), and heading for the park is lovely. We’ve had some barbeques, and dined al fresco both at home and at various restaurants. We’ve spent the odd lazy afternoon at the beach. I took Fiona and Bridget to Mont Cascades for a day. Fiona and I kept pace with each other as the daredevil half of the family. Bridget faced up to a few of her fears and enjoyed some of the tamer water slides – and surprised us by riding Mammoth River with us twice! We went to the Capital Fair, where we all enjoyed the ferris wheel and the Wacky Wurm (which, after a unanimous verdict by Facebook friends, was declared to be, in fact, a caterpillar). Ryan and Fiona had a go at the bumper cars, and Fiona challenged for my Queen of the Thrill Rides title with the Cannonball. I saw her Cannonball, raised her a Pharoah’s Fury, and won that particular hand. There was a musical instrument petting zoo, and a regular petting zoo, and both were great fun. Food trucks galore …. Ok, this post is starting to become an advertisement for the Capital Fair. What was I talking about again? Oh, yes: my summer bucket list. We went to an outdoor concert, Earth, Wind & Fire, and enjoyed some good music and a summer sunset. The girls enjoyed a few nights in their itty-bitty tent. It’s technically a two-man tent, but I think the two men would have to be very close …. In fact, they might have to know each other in the biblical sense to share this tent.

Of course, our summer hasn’t been entirely idyllic …. There were sunburns, mosquito bites and stings of the wasp and bee variety (one per child). There were days so disgustingly hot and humid that the make-up melted down my face as I was getting ready for work. These were usually followed by nights of tossing and turning, peeling the sheets off our sticky skin and gasping in the direction of the open window, craving even the lightest puff of fresh air. There were deluges, accompanied by the awesome power of thunder and lightning. There were skinned knees, and a nasty episode of motion sickness after twisting around on a tire swing way too fast and long (Bridget doesn’t get on those now). There is a dead chipmunk in our yard, foul and festooned with insects, which is taking its not-so-sweet time to return to the bosom of Mother Nature. And there is one thing left on the list: our big summer road trip! We’re leaving tomorrow, but we still don’t know where we’re going. Which is just how we like it. The day after we return, though, is the first day of fourth grade for Fiona and second grade for Boo.

I know many parents are giddily soft-shoeing down the back-to-school aisle of their nearest department store, daydreaming about the moment the be-backpacked backs of their offspring disappear down the street to the bus stop. I know a few parents who would have school go year-round if they could. I am not one of them. In fact, I might even be the opposite of those parents …. I’m really not feeling the rigid mornings, packing peanut-free lunches, tripping over backpacks stuffed like Thanksgiving turkeys, spending whole evenings hunched over the kitchen table trying to work out what in the name of deep-fried butter the teacher wants from the kids (there’s that fair sneaking into the post again). I don’t want to wade through the drama of who-said-what and who-didn’t-sit-with-whom. And head lice! I. Can’t. Even. with the head lice ….

I don’t want to sink too deep in the Pit of Despair-and-Fundraiser-Hatred, though, so I’m going to try to come up with some positive things about sending my girls back to school.

There will be order in their days again. Structure is good for kids, and I honestly couldn’t be arsed to provide it during the lazy-hazy-crazy days of summer. Sometimes, that shows in their attitude and behaviour. Rules and schedules will return to two little people who really could use them. Their nutrition and general hygiene will improve, as schools like children to be fed properly for learning and bathed regularly. Ring-around-the-mouth is not a game we’ll be playing anymore for the next ten months. No whipping hair into a braid so no one can tell it’s been dragged through orange juice, ice cream and licked lollipops, then rolled in playground sand and slept on. No more scraggly fingernails with whole flowerbeds of dirt under them. No longer will the sniff test be used to determine whether something can be worn in public.

They will be using their brains for more than pondering how SpongeBob can die a dozen deaths and still be fine at the end of an episode. Yeah, we’ve taken them to the library a couple of times, and we answer their bazillion questions and toss in the occasional intelligent thought of our own – but homeschoolers we are not. We pay taxes so that somebody else will do the eju-ma-catin’. They will be able to see their friends without me having to see their friends (or their friends’ parents). A few of their friends are lovely, with lovely parents, and they’re no burden to have over or hang out with. Most of their friends, though, are other people’s kids – and, by definition, teetering somewhere between mildly annoying and simply atrocious. Usually, it takes awful parents to make awful kids – and, if you’re not sufficiently hard-hearted to ignore your child’s pleas to see their friends because they havn’t seen them all summer long, you might even end up hanging out with the entire rotten tribe. When school starts, though, they’ll see their friends every day, and it will require no effort or forbearance on my part.

I’m sure there are more good things about back-to-school, and I’ll rediscover them when September comes. In the meantime, though, I’ll treasure these last few days of summer. Starting with hitting the road tomorrow!

I’m not impressing anyone today, because I’m wasting lots of precious minutes being sick.

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I am severely plagued by …. something. I started experiencing the standard symptoms of a cold – fever, aching head, snuffly nose, sore throat – two weeks ago. The sore throat is a particularly bad one – every time I swallow, I feel like a chunk of cactus is working its way down my gullet. I saw my doctor about it over a week ago. He did a swab and said it’s not bacterial, which means it must be viral, so there wasn’t anything he could do for me. I would just have to wait it out. I’m still waiting.

I googled “sore throat remedies”, and came up with a number of things. Everything from the usual gargling with salt water (ew) to the never-heard-of-it eating marshmallows (um, ok). Take lots of liquids …. check. Try a painkiller like ibuprofen or acetaminophen …. check. Have a spoonful of warm honey …. check. Rest your voice …. have neither the fortitude nor even the inclination (uncheck). Unwilling to sing through one more splash of salt water, tired of microwaving ramekins of honey, and knowing that there are only so many painkillers one should take in one day, I decided to try something else. (No, not marshmallows! I’m ill, not addled.) I bought this:

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Halls has been around a long time – it’s a trusted brand for many people, myself included. It comes in so many great flavours. For just a little while, it takes away the feeling that rusty nails are rattling around my uvula. I had probably yommed half a dozen of them before I noticed that the wrappers were cheering me on. Each Halls wrapper sports two inspirational messages (in English and French, of course, this being Canada, The House That Bilingualism Built). Some are gentle nudges, sympathetic and encouraging:

Keep your chin up.

You’ve survived tougher.

Go for it!

Others are corny, and somewhat vague:

Impress yourself today.

Elicit a few “wows” today.

Inspire envy.

Don’t give up on you.

Don’t waste a precious minute.

Then, there are the aggressive ones:

Let’s hear your battle cry!

March forward!

I didn’t mind the crinkly, medicinally scented pep talk at first. It’s a nice idea – and who wouldn’t want to feel like someone understands what you’re going through and really cares? By the time my lozenge consumption had reached double digits, however, I was no longer enjoying the messages. In fact, at this point, I find myself ripping the wrapper off as quickly as I can to avoid reading them. My chin’s still up, because I know there are much worse illnesses with which I could be contending, and this will go away in time. And, yes, I have survived tougher. But that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling a bit low. Forgive me, but I don’t think I’ll go for it today. Today, I’ll go for doing only what’s necessary, and give myself a break. I doubt I’ll impress myself, and I’m fairly certain no “wows” will be elicited. This will, of course, fail to inspire envy. Oh, well. I’m not sure what it means to give up on me, but I do plan to occupy the couch for most of the evening – or at least until my head stops pounding. Is this wasting precious minutes? Possibly. But sometimes coming down with a cold is your body’s way of telling you that you need to do just that …. Feeling the way I do right now, I don’t even have a battle cry – though I might have a whimper or moan to demonstrate. And I’m marching nowhere. Why should I? I need rest to repair myself. We all do.

I’m sure whoever came up with this pushy campaign meant well. Positive thinking and determination have been proven to help people recover from various illnesses. He or she is probably also enjoying a juicy bonus or promotion – reaping the benefits of all that going for it, envy inspiration and forward marching. Not to mention the efficient use of precious minutes …. However, I’ll bet I’m not the only one feeling annoyed by the relentless paper cheerleaders – and the many other products trying to convince us that we need them because we don’t have time to be sick. Very few of us are working on a cure for cancer, performing brain surgery or spoon-feeding starving orphans. Even those of us who are doing these things aren’t the only ones – we’re not irreplaceable. How about slowing down when our stressed systems start to flounder, rather than muffling our body’s messages and pushing ourselves so hard? What are we pushing for, anyway – and is it worth the toll it’s taking on us?

Where I live should meet your vacation needs?

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Another tempest in our obesity-ridden, unfulfilled teacup …. Holly Chabowski, of England, and Nanna Sorenson, of Denmark, are very disappointed with Canada. They came here on a vacation, and toured Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal, Quebec City and Halifax, along with some naturally scenic areas, such as Algonquin Park, the Bay of Fundy and the Gaspé region. They, apparently, did not enjoy their trip. They wrote an open letter to a few Canadian politicians, including Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, colourful Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, denouncing Canada’s cars-first culture, pollution and fat people. Oh, and also, the “unfulfilled communities”. Their overwhelming impression of Canada is “great oceans of car parks”. Downtowns, which were “quite pleasant”, were surrounded by “this sea of Tim Hortons and McDonald’s and Walmarts and another Tim Hortons”. Poor Ms. Chabowski and Ms. Sorenson say they had to “fight” their way through to get to the nice stuff. Ms. Chabowski, although she cycles to work every day at home,”wouldn’t have cycled in any of the cities in Canada”. You know, all five that she visited …. In talking to like-minded people, they found a few choice sound-bites to bolster their argument, and away they went.

Chabowski admits European cities are built differently, most cities having been designed with pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages in mind rather than cars …. and therein lies the rub. Canada is over two hundred times the size of Denmark, and did alot of its growing during the golden age of the automobile. The infrastructure reflects that.

As citizens of Ottawa, we work with what we have. It’s fine for tourists to complain that public transportation is not given enough emphasis; they don’t have to use it every day to get somewhere on time. If they did, they might understand why people use cars. In most parts of Ottawa, taking the bus doubles your time in transit. Yes, it’s true, we have alot of parking lots. However, Chabowski and Sorenson were probably shopping for, at most, a few souvenirs and an emergency tube of toothpaste. If I’m shopping for my family’s groceries, plus the bulky packages of toilet paper and tissues, liquour, back-to-school supplies and perhaps even furniture, I’m not lugging it all on the damn bus. I’m taking my car, and I need somewhere to park. I might even be doing this shopping on my lunch break, or during rush hour, which means I need to take the fastest possible way: my car. Have they considered the fact that many people’s trips include small children, the elderly or mobility challenges? Or do they assume that most of us are couch-surfing twenty- and thirty-somethings with nothing to think about aside from ourselves, and all freakin’ day to gaily cycle wherever we want?

And then there’s the issue of the type of establishments the two Europeans encountered …. On a vacation, I can spring for expensive coffees, products and services. In my everyday life, I rely on the rock-bottom prices offered by places like Tim Hortons and Walmart – and so do most people I know. Yes, Holly and Nanna, go ahead and enjoy the delightfully twee upscale shops found in the downtown of many cities – you should. You’re on a holiday. But bear in mind that, if I pay those prices for my morning joe or my household goods every day of my life, I’ll be in the red fairly quickly. I, and other ordinary people, need these big-box eyesores to get by. Since you had to soil your eyes with them for less than a week of your entire precious lives, perhaps you’ll forgive us.

In short, I live here, and I need it to be liveable. Yes, public transportation could be improved – and we’re working on it. Yes, we need to get around the almighty car to explore other modes of getting from point A to point B. In the meantime, though, we’re doing our best to deal with what we have. And we really don’t need condescending drivel from people who spend about three days in our city as visitors, then bitch off back to Europe to whine about how the city we live in doesn’t suit their fancy. The people who have to deal with the city day-in-day-out are the ones who should decide what happens in that city – not tourists.

As an aside …. What does “unfulfilled community” even mean, anyway? And how in the name of cufflink fasteners did they come up with that verdict?

Maybe poor people aren’t stupid. Maybe they’re simply overwhelmed.

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Months ago, I read an article (I forget the source) stating that people who live in poverty have a lower IQ than middle-class and wealthy people. The article didn’t contain any proven reasons behind this, but there was some speculation. Poor people work long hours for low pay in menial jobs, and when they get home they’re too drained to feed their head even if they have the opportunity to do so. Poor people can’t think as clearly as the rest of us because their nutritionally bankrupt whatever’s-on-sale diet doesn’t allow for brain growth and development. Poor people don’t value education, and are more likely to buy a gigantic TV than spend their scant leisure dollars on books or classes. Poor people didn’t do well in school because their parents didn’t value education, either, and didn’t support their learning efforts. Poor people are lazy and don’t care to improve their lot by studying or encouraging their children to study. The author was careful to assure readers that not all of these things apply to all poor people, and that more exploration of this issue is needed.

I confess that I mentally yawned, and moved on. “Poverty” is an important word with deep, wide meaning – but, like “injustice” and “climate change”, it has been used to the point of desensitizing many of us. Yes, we know we should care – and we do – but sometimes these words make our eyes glaze over. I had Christmas shopping to do, we were expecting weekend guests and the house needed cleaning, it was time to pick Fiona and Bridget up from school. The article was forgotten for the moment. The next week, something happened that rattled it back to the forefront of my consciousness: a water main broke on our street. It went down on a Monday afternoon, and was fixed by Wednesday night. During this time, sediment built up in one of the pipes leading to our washing machine and jammed it. Our hot water tank burned out. So, first we were without any water at all. We were buying water to drink, brush our teeth and cook. We were bringing in buckets of snow to flush toilets, and wash dishes and ourselves. Then, we had water, but no washing machine or hot water tank. So, I hauled about four loads of laundry to a local laundromat to wash, then hauled them back home to stuff into our dryer. Washing alone was $9; drying would have made the cost double. I boiled about eight pots of water on our stove to fill the tub a quarter of the way so Fiona and Bridget could have a warm bath. Ryan and I got cleaned up at work, since there’s a gym and accompanying showers in the basement.

The whole experience was tiring and stressful. Do we have enough water to drink? Should we wash these dishes now or wait til there’s a bigger pile? Hope nobody at school makes fun of the girls for being a bit funky …. Oh, I’m out of clean underwear – better load up the trunk and head for the laundromat. What? It’s only open until five today? The hot water tank guys can’t get here til Friday. I guess we could shower at work. We’re not supposed to unless we’re gym users, but my hair’s too greasy even for a trip to Walmart. We had everything else we needed, and we knew that the water, washing machine and hot water tank were coming back in a matter of days. Yet all I could think about the whole damn week was water.

Imagine if I not only had to scramble constantly for water, but also for food, clothing, toiletries, electricity, heat, medicine, and school supplies – and there was no end in sight. If this was my life. What brain cells would be left to consider my financial options properly, or relax with a book? What energy would be left to help my children with their homework or cheer them on academically? What energy would be left to educate myself? How could I value education if I was being crushed daily by tough, nobody-wins choices: I can bring Fiona to the dentist and fix her cavity, or we can buy groceries for weeks. I can buy excema cream for Bridget or I can buy her new boots, because the ones she’s wearing are letting in water. I can have heat, or I can skip a trip to the food bank and buy fresh vegetables for once. I need milk, cereal, bread, aspirin, shampoo and laundry detergent – but I can only buy two of those things right now. I think that winter coat will have to wait a few more weeks.

Maybe poor people are not less intelligent than the rest of us. Maybe their minds are just completely taken up by the struggle to get by. Perhaps they need stability and reassurance that their needs will be met before we toss IQ tests at them and tut-tut-tut over the results from our seat of comfort and plenty.