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GiveLife.ca

    

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Gender expectations and today's kids
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, June 30, 2017 – Page L1

'I was told that my behaviour was inappropriate, that it was unladylike to make so much noise and especially unforgivable to take off my shirt. I was confused and asked why my brother could do these things but I could not, and I was told, quite simply, 'You are a girl.' "This from Yetide Badaki, the Nigerian-American actress, in a recent essay on gender expectations for the online magazine Lenny.

Her essay gave me pause, not just as a woman but as a parent.

As a mother of boys, I take a particular interest in gender expectations and the subtle ways in which we place them on our children.

I have written in this space before about how I enrolled my son James (now 4) in ballet lessons because he went through a phase of rejecting all things "girlish." A number of readers wrote in directly (in some cases rather angrily) to say they felt this was bad parenting on my part.

In rejecting dolls and cleaving to Nerf guns, James was just being a normal boy, these readers told me. As a mother, I ought to let him be and stop tampering with "nature."

I don't buy this myself. Time and time again, science has disproved the popular idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. There is little hard evidence to suggest that men and women have strong innate psychological tendencies to assume one circumscribed role or another.

In fact, multiple studies have shown that when it comes to behavioural impulses, males and females are far more similar than different, despite popular mythology to the contrary.

Gender stereotypes can influence beliefs and create the impression that the differences are large, Zlatan Krizan, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, told ScienceDaily in 2015. His study on psychology and gender difference, one of the largest of its kind, looked at the behaviour of more than 12 million people through various aggregated sources.

What he and his fellow researchers found was an almost 80-per-cent overlap for more than 75 per cent of psychological traits, "such as risk taking, occupational stress and mortality." In a nutshell, while men and women might well experience life very differently indeed, our underlying psychology is not so very different at all.

What is wildly different, of course, is what the world expects of us - and this usually applies from birth. There is a reason why most small boys seem to go through a phase of endless showcasing and making jokes about their genitals in public, and most little girls do not.

It's not because little girls are any less interested in or predisposed to be proud of their own bodies. It's because we give different signals to boys and girls about what's acceptable (or even "safe") behaviour in a social setting. We might do this subtly, even unconsciously, but we are still likely doing it even when we wish we were not.

There is also a reason why, just the other day, I watched James choke back tears after a massive wipe-out on his scooter.

His knee and elbow were bleeding, but he kept saying "I'm fine, I'm fine," and breathing through the pain. Two minutes later, however, he flew into an absolute rage because I wouldn't buy him an ice cream.

In that moment, I saw that, despite all my best intentions, somewhere along the way my boy had learned one of the central tenets of masculinity: That anger is safer than vulnerability, which must be hidden at all costs.

Obviously, I'd never said this to him (what self-respecting parent would?), but nevertheless he had picked it up. Ballet lessons, it seems, are no match for the power of playground social conditioning.

While we've seen enormous social progress over the past couple of decades, including samesex marriage and growing recognition of the rights of transgender and gender-variant people, in other ways we've become more conservative as a society when it comes to gender expectations and children.

Consumerism is where you see this most clearly. You can't buy a baby bonnet on Amazon these days without selecting an appropriate gender category first, and even disposable diapers come in blue or pink. What has proved a boon for toy and garment merchandisers has been decidedly less amazing for children. Responsible parents might try our best not to project gender expectations on our children, but our consumer choices tell a different story.

And when we try to buck the trend, the results are telling.

I took my nine-month-old out in a pair of hand-me-down pink bloomers last weekend and was asked several times if he was a girl. When I responded "nope," most people either laughed or recoiled in surprise. One man was visibly disgusted.

And this was in a park where same-sex couples are unremarkable and biracial families are almost the norm. A park where men and women sunbathe topless beside others praying toward Mecca. A park in London, one of the most tolerant, diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world.

Personally, I find it amazing that a male infant in pink bloomers still has the power to shock, but there you have it, folks: Progress works in mysterious ways and gender expectations die hard - especially when we don't think we have them.

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Beware Gwyneth and the post-truth world of woo woo
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, June 23, 2017 – Page L1

In a world in which "wellness" reigns over health and empirical facts are continually being dethroned, I am beginning to feel sick about the rise of all things woo woo.

What exactly do I mean by "woo woo?" It's short-hand for anything slightly silly, trendy and/or new-agey that exists for the primary purpose of making people (almost always privileged white women) feel better about our bodies and minds.

Crystals are woo woo. As is aromatherapy, colonics and Reiki.

Astrology is woo woo, as is faith healing, fasting, acupuncture and fecal transplants (yes, it's a thing). I'm not saying these things are bad per se, I'm just pointing out there's no reliable science to back them up.

I've actually tried many of them with predictably mixed results, though not that last one.

For most of my adult life, I have availed myself of the woo woo in much the same way many middle-class women acquire unnecessary numbers of shoes and handbags: A lymphatic massage here, a sound bath there, what harm could it do? It was all just a bit of fun in the service of that most abused concept: "me time."

But increasingly, such harmless nonsense is offered up and sold en masse without an iota of irony or pause. Whether it's Gwyneth Paltrow evangelizing about leech therapy at her recent week-long Goop festival in Culver City, Calif., or Donald Trump expressing his view that exercise is actually bad for you, bad science has gone mainstream.

As the wellness trend has taken hold, so have a number of medically baseless ideas of newage healing. One of the most foundational and persistent is the so-called "Law of Attraction," a notion made popular by the massive self-help bestseller, The Secret. The idea behind this apparent lost law of physics is that in order to get the things you want in life, you must "attract" them first by drawing them to you with the force of positive energy.

On face value, there is something to this. People who are upbeat and energetic tend to get more stuff done. If you never declare your ambitions, it's unlikely you'll succeed in them. This isn't magic, it's just common sense.

What's pernicious is the implication that we are all entirely in control of our own successes and failures - and that people living miserable or impoverished lives are wholly where they are because of their inability to "attract" a better one.

The Law of Attraction is to poverty as faith healing is to cancer - a cure that conveniently blames the sick person when it fails.

This is true of most woo woo things, whether it's jade eggs, cold-pressed juices or freezedried placenta tablets. When the mystical curative powers of such things work, it's almost always for people who fervently believe in them to begin with: What makes them effective is the human psyche's well-documented predisposal to cognitive bias, our tendency to accept evidence that supports the convictions we already hold and refute that which contradicts it.

Cognitive bias is, of course, inextricably linked to the placebo effect and, in many ways, explains why it is so powerful and well documented. Did that acupuncturist really help my shoulder pain in 2004? It seemed like it at the time, but actually, it's impossible to tell since, a) you can't prove a counter-factual and, b) the placebo effect is for real.

Pushers of new-age cures embrace the placebo effect as proof that they work, but good science tries to do the opposite.

Instead of trying to prove the things we already want to believe, science tries to disprove our most fervently held assumptions.

This is why we need to make a clear distinction between medicines and remedies that have been scientifically proved (chemotherapy) and those that haven't (an alkaline diet). It's also why we need to hold leaders - whether celebrities or politicians - to account when they begin spewing non-truths, which also happen to confirm their own heavily biased world view.

Sensible women, listen up: We need to stop reading horoscopes and having our energy manipulated and eating our ruddy placentas. We need to indulge in less woo woo and hold firm to the facts as we know them - not as we feel them - to be.

The woo woo might seem silly, a harmless dalliance for the privileged few, but it is clearly more dangerous than that. The woo woo will lead us down the rabbit hole of our own confirmation bias, deeper into the post-truth world, a place we must resist going at all costs.

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A sound bath meditation session at In Goop Health, a one-day wellness summit in Culver City, Calif. Such new-agey nonsense is increasingly being offered up en masse as bad science goes mainstream.

AMY DICKERSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES


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Does your child have bad eating habits? Blame dad
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, June 16, 2017 – Page L1

To the University of Guelph this week, where just in time for Father's Day researchers have found that fathers are significantly more influential than mothers when it comes to determining the long-term eating habits of children.

The Guelph Family Health study, which is published in the June issue of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, reveals that children are more likely to mimic their dads' eating habits than their moms' and that, as a result, obesity in fathers is far more likely to be passed down.

Is this for real? A study blaming fathers instead of mothers for something food-and-parenting related? Surely it's a rogue bit of research, a one-off finding, an academic hoax that will be soundly debunked by the time you finish reading this column.

No, turns out it's actually a repeat finding that's consistent with several other reputable recent studies around the world.

The most widely reported one was conducted in 2011 at the University of Newcastle in Australia and followed a group of eightand nine-year-olds over four years. Those researchers found that children with an obese father and a healthy weight mother were a staggering 10 times more likely to develop obesity over the long term compared with children who had two healthy weight parents. And - this is the crucial bit - children with a healthy weight dad and an obese mother did not have the same outcomes.

Health experts have offered the typical bromides in response to the finding. Wayne Hartrick, president of the Canadian Men's Health Foundation, said in a statement this week: "It's important for men to take a leadership role in their health and in that of their children. This research suggests if a dad eats poorly, his children have a higher risk of having poor nutrition and weight issues, so we want to men to understand that being a good dad also means being a healthy dad."

Thanks Wayne, but what I want to know is how come?

Why on earth would it be that dads - who statistically still shop for, plan and prepare fewer meals on average than moms - end up having more behavioural influence over their children's eating habits at the end of the day?

The answer, it seems, is a complex and multipronged one, and actually not half as depressing as you might think.

While in most households mothers still do the lion's share of childcare and housework, in recent decades dads have really stepped up their game. The average dad today spends far more time with his kids than his father likely did a generation ago and the same goes for his father before that. So that's all good, right?

Well, kind of.

Because with increased time spent, comes increased influence. And with increased influence comes increased responsibility. And with increased responsibility comes something that mothers, throughout the ages (or certainly since the advent of modern psychology) have come to understand and that is: the burden of blame.

"We need to say to dads, 'You are important, kids see what you eat, and they model your behavior too,' " said Dr. Jess Haines, associate professor of applied nutrition at the University of Guelph. The associate director of the family health study, she told me in an interview this week that she believes that the results are, at least in part, because of the growing influence of fathers as active parents.

For many dads, who are in the grand scheme of things, still relatively new to this whole "hands-on-parenting" business, spending time with kids can seem like an excuse to indulge - and why not? Kids love to be indulged.

But we all know what happens when an occasional indulgence becomes a habit.

According to a 2011 nutritional family study by Texas A&M University, mothers (regardless of their weight) tend to take children to fast food restaurants less often and when they do it is usually for reasons of need (i.e. a lack of time or money or both). Whereas when dads do the same it's presented as a treat and a celebration.

As Texas researcher Dr. Alex McIntosh said when his study was released: "For a long time fathers have been told that they need to spend more time with their children. But often when this message is being transmitted, the message is 'you should be having fun with your children.' " Now, obviously there's nothing wrong with Daddy Fun Time.

Just like there's nothing wrong with the occasional greasy burger. But what works for a dad who's responsible for dinner once a week won't be the same solution for a dad who's responsible for dinner three nights a week, or seven for that matter.

So hey hands-on dad, we love you but ... fun time can't be all the time. Fun time all the time is bad for your health.

This weekend, however, we'll make an exception because it's Father's Day. Take the kids out and eat all the greasy burgers you want. Gorge yourself silly and pass out on the sofa like Homer Simpson in a sugar-fatbeer coma.

You're not perfect and, just for today, we won't blame you for it.


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Mommy nearest: Why I deleted hot apps for finding a friend
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, June 2, 2017 – Page L1

There's a turf war going on in my neighbourhood. It's a battle of the apps.

Peanut and Mush are two new matchmaking apps out of London. Both are pitched as "Tinder for Mums," designed to help lonely female parents hook up with attractive "matches" who live nearby.

Mush, co-founded by two "mom-preneurs" who met on a windswept playground while on maternity leave, launched just over a year ago and has since had over 60,000 downloads. Peanut is the new kid on the block, and was co-founded by Michelle Kennedy, formerly the deputy CEO of the dating app Badoo.

It's a canny business idea. New motherhood can be fantastically isolating for all the obvious reasons (geographic, social, professional). But it's also a slightly heart-sinking notion for any woman hoping to retain a sense of her former social life (or self) after giving birth. The message of such apps seems to be: You're a mom now. Time to trade in your former drinking buddies for a bunch of banana mashers. Enjoy.

Such misgivings aside, both apps have received a flurry of press of late and are now locked in a battle to determine which will establish the majority market share.

Peanut launched in February in London and New York and is pouring significant resources into an analog ad campaign (i.e., posters around city parks and primary schools). Mush, on the other hand, is so far only available on my side of the Atlantic. The question as to which will ultimately prevail depends on whether you believe a critical mass of new mothers are willing to resort to online matchmaking in order to expand their social networks.

But the people who could genuinely use such a service (mothers who, like me, are shy about making friends) will naturally be loath to use it.

I'm a pretty sociable person, but I found making "mom friends" a real challenge. After my first son was born, I spent years wandering around aimlessly with a stroller listening to podcasts wishing I had someone to meet for coffee.

I'd see other mothers hanging out in little groups, giggling and gossiping over picnics and wonder: How did they get so lucky?

It wasn't until my son went to nursery at 3 and another mother took pity and added me to a WhatsApp group that I made any "mom friends" to speak of.

Now that I've been plunged back into babyland for the second time, I've been similarly remiss at making local mom friends with same-aged babies. I know it's essential for all sorts of reasons (sensory play, information-gathering, general sanity), but I'm not inclined to chat up other women in the playground and too busy (read: bored senseless) to bother going to baby music classes.

Clearly, I am the perfect candidate for Tinder for mothers, so I decided to try them both.

First, I downloaded Mush. Filling in my profile took about 15 minutes and was fairly straightforward, although I was slightly flummoxed by the bio section.

Am I a "C-section sista," a "baby-led weaner" or a "routine parent"? All of the above, sort of, but why would I want to hang out with other women based on such unremarkable characteristics?

In the end, I describe myself as a "gentle parent" who enjoys "eating out" and "chatting," which makes me sound tragically dull.

Creating a Peanut profile, by comparison, is even simpler. In an effort to present my best self, I describe myself as a "worldtravelling bookworm fitness freak." This is a hefty set of exaggerations - but this is online dating, after all.

Then I get to do what I've been waiting for, which is check out the other moms.

Mush tells me there are 8,836 other moms who want to meet up nearby, which is a bit daunting. But on closer inspection I notice most of my "matches" are either pregnant first-timers (too green) or live several miles away.

There is one woman who has two similar-aged kids and lives around the corner, but she's only 33. Is that too young? I agonize over whether to "match" with her but ultimately have an attack of shyness and decide to check back later.

Peanut is less fruitful. The app is oddly buggy. It keeps freezing up and I have to delete and download it twice. There aren't many moms in my area on it and the ones that are all look as if they might judge me for letting my nine-month-old watch TV.

In the end, I match with no one. A week later, I delete both apps from my phone to free up memory space.

Verdict: It's likely both apps will survive for a few years if only as a valuable exercise in data collection.

What baby/child-focused service or company wouldn't want access and information on all the local moms and their children, broken down by age and gender?

But I suspect both apps will ultimately fail - while Tinder for mothers might work, it's not for the sort of mothers who actually need it, like me.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to push a stroller while listening to a podcast.

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Motherhood can be isolating - and some mothers are not inclined to chat up other women on the playground.

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Fidget spinners: The latest craze is already almost over
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, May 26, 2017 – Page L1

Last weekend, my four-year-old son, James, spent the morning running around the house collecting spare change. When he'd turned over every sofa cushion and scoured the dusty underside of all the beds, he sat on the kitchen floor painstakingly counting the contents of his pockets.

"Is this five pounds and 60 pence?" He asked me urgently. "I need five pounds and 60 pence."

(About $9 Canadian.)

Windfall confirmed, he dragged me out the door to "the shop near the bus stop," where there was a toy he desperately wanted to buy.

Normally, I'm pretty stingy about indulging his desires (as with most kids, he measures out his days in Kinder eggs, Vaselineflavoured soft-serve ice cream and any cheap toy sold in those maddening coin-operated dispensers), but in this case his determination was so urgent, his market research so complete, I decided to roll with it.

He led me to the shop and went in alone, pockets jingling with anticipation, while I waited outside with the baby. When James emerged, he was carrying a small box that contained a curious three-pronged red plastic widget with little round metal weights on each end. He pinched the middle bit and spun the toy between his thumb and forefinger, staring at it in a sort of hypnotic trance.

"What does it do?" I said.

"Nothing!" he said, beaming wildly. "Isn't it cool?" Those of you with school-age children will already have recognized the source of my son's delight as a fidget spinner - the latest, weirdest and most decidedly analog craze to rip through playgrounds around the world.

And if you've not yet heard of fidget spinners, allow me to divest you of your ignorance.

Suddenly and for no apparent reason, fidget spinners are everywhere. In most big cities today, they are like rats: You might not notice them, but chances are you are never more than three feet from one at any given time.

Where did these little gizmos come from and why now? In the past few weeks, as the craze swept the hearts and minds of kids around the globe, baffled parents have begun to ask why.

It turns out fidget spinners are as insidious as their origins are mysterious.

While some media outlets (including The Guardian and The New York Times) reported that the toy had originally been invented by an Orlando engineer and tinkerer by the name of Catherine Hettinger in the nineties, other sources insisted the gadget was a fiddling toy to help children with autism or ADHD let off steam while trying to focus in school. There were other reports: That it had been conceived of in Israel to stop Palestinian children throwing rocks at tanks and also that it was a brainchild of an exhausted stay-home mother.

Much of this confusion centred on Hettinger herself, who happily gave interviews implying she'd conceived of the toy when, according to a recent investigation by Bloomberg news, she didn't. After two intellectualproperty experts read Hettinger's original patent, they concluded her toy was distinct from the one driving children mad on the playground today. As to the real inventor? "It's not clear which patents, if any, would cover the current fidget spinners. If the toys have a true inventor, he or she remains in obscurity," Bloomberg's Joshua Brustein wrote.

What's certain is that someone, somewhere (or more likely many people in many different places) is getting very rich very quickly as a result of the fidgetspinner craze. The toy's popularity began to rise last month, with Google searches for "fidget spinners" spiking drastically for no apparent reason. By the first week of May, it was reported by various outlets that fidget spinners occupied the top spot on 17 of Amazon's national bestseller lists for toys around the world.

It's astonishing how accelerated the playground trend cycle has become: Within just a couple of weeks, the backlash had begun. While hula hoops stuck around for most of the sixties and Rubik's Cubes dominated the first half of the eighties, fidget spinners penetrated and saturated the market so completely they were over almost before they began.

Legions of parents were griping on social media, and in the pages of various newspapers, "experts" debunked the supposed stress-relieving curative effects of the suddenly-ubiquitous gadget. The dubious "science" behind them was decried as false and by the middle of May, fidget spinners were banned in many schools on both sides of the Atlantic.

In fact, last Monday morning, when I suggested James take his fidget spinner to school for show-and-tell, he looked at me as if I was the saddest person on Earth. "Why would my friends want to see my one when they all have their own?" he asked, looking crestfallen.

Well exactly, little man. And that is the problem with crazes.


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How not to hate a working mom's lot in life
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Domestic dissonance on who does the chores makes great grist for books. Sadly, the intended audience - men - isn't reading
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Friday, May 19, 2017 – Page L3

There's this new book out called How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, and I'm reading it, obviously. Not because I hate my husband but because, like many working mothers, I often feel as if I'm drowning in the quicksand of domestic life while my partner somehow manages to float above it all, Scotch glass and newspaper in hand - a dapper Cary Grant to my whinging Edith Bunker.

Whether this is strictly and empirically true is a subject of robust debate in my home, as it is in many others. To say most married heterosexual mothers are obsessed with the issue of the chores gap (it's like the pay gap but with laundry) would be an extreme understatement. It's a constant preoccupation. If we are not talking about it, we are probably thinking about it.

And if we are not thinking about it, we are probably asleep.

After human reproduction takes place, the minutiae of daily housekeeping suddenly multiply in a way that's both unforeseeable and breathtaking.

Women, for reasons of crude biology, are usually the ones at home, physically attached to a baby and experiencing this seismic lifestyle change firsthand.

Or as Jancee Dunn, author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, eloquently puts it: "The effort required to keep a tiny new being alive is bizarrely immense - and, at least when it comes to child care and housework, women are bearing the brunt of it.

More than a quarter-century ago, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild called this disparity the 'stalled revolution,' and it still holds true: While the lives of women have radically changed, the behaviour of their mates has not changed quite as much."

This issue of women doing more at home, despite the fact we now make up roughly half the work force, has been thoroughly documented, but what's new in Dunn's book is exploration of the corollary effect of this widespread social imbalance: female rage.

Women are doing the bulk of domestic work - and we are not happy about it. We are talking about it.

We are reading about it. We are writing books and magazine articles and endless Huffington Post blogs about it.

But for the most part men aren't doing the same. They are not sharing our blogs or reading our magazine articles or books.

Even a book such as Stephen Marche's very thoughtful The Unmade Bed - about how men fit into the domestic equation - will be bought and read by mostly female readers.

Men - most men - are just ignoring the conversation. And why wouldn't they? Unless you are in a rage about the issue all the time, it can be pretty dull.

Pick up a copy of GQ or Esquire and you'll see pieces on sports and politics and art and fashion and food.

You will see interviews with up-and-coming actors and models. What you will not see - I guarantee it - are any articles along the lines of "How to Stop Your Wife Hating You by Being More Helpful Around the House."

This domestic dissonance is the reason books such as How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, while entertaining and cathartic, are ultimately unlikely to effect a social shift.

When all your advice boils down to strategies for getting men to change but men are not actually your readers, this presents a major problem.

Instead, it seems, women are meant to cajole men into doing more. As if we don't already have enough to do! The advice boils down to this: "Sit down with your partner and have an open conversation, map out a schedule and stick to it, make an appointment with a therapist or couples coach etc."

Dunn consults with various experts who advise such headexploding strategies as "present the task in the spirit of negotiation. Say 'Here's a list of five things that need to be done - you can pick three.' " But here's something I've learned myself from years of therapy and marriage: It's pointless to try to change another person. It doesn't work. The only person you can change is yourself. And even that is mostly pointless.

So what to do if your husband is an otherwise loving, intelligent, supportive, cool, fun guy who's never going to learn to cook or scrub out the lasagna pan or change the kids' bedsheets every two weeks? What should you do then?

I have thought a lot about the issue and have come to the conclusion that the average middleincome working mother in this situation has exactly four choices: 1) get divorced, 2) lower your standards and live in filth, 3) throw money at the problem and make the necessary material sacrifices or 4) do everything and stomp around in a rage all the time (which is really just a circuitous way to end up back at option 1).

My family has chosen option 3, which means that when we do argue it's about money instead of laundry, but it also means I'm a lot less angry and exhausted than the mothers I know who do everything and work full-time.

It's an expensive business, not hating your husband. But someone's gotta do it.

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Baby boomers are living in sin, happily
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Friday, May 12, 2017 – Page L1

Remember the generation gap?

Perhaps you don't, so passé has the notion become. But allow me to refresh your memory. The generation gap is the idea that as one generation comes of age, shamelessly shimmying its miniskirt and breaking cultural taboos, it will naturally come into conflict with the generation that came before it, whose members are settling into the calm but turgid embrace of social conservatism, the logical conclusion of old age. In other words: Youth equals progress and old age demands adherence to social convention.

'Twas ever thus, yes?

Not any more. Ironically enough, it seems the same demographic cohort that invented the very notion of the generation gap is now determined to do away with it - at least as far as longterm relationships are concerned.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Pew Research Center, a growing number of older people (i.e., those in the so-called baby boomer generation) are opting to live together instead of getting married. While the marriage rate is dropping across the board, the aging boomers lead the pack in choosing co-habitation and, in 2016, four million U.S. adults ages 50 and older were cohabiting - up from 2.3 million in 2007. Here in Canada, the trend also holds true, though the data are less current.

According to the most recently published census results, from 2011, there was a small but significant increase in the number of Canadians between the ages of 50 and 59 choosing to co-habit longterm instead of marry.

In 2006, 9.1 per cent of this cohort were shacking up compared with 10.8 per cent in 2011.

Add to this the emerging Canadian social trend of more and more seniors choosing to "live alone together" (i.e., in long-term relationships but with separate residences) and an interesting new demographic picture of long-term living arrangements emerges. The baby boomers, it turns out, may be the first generation in history to eschew marriage the older they get, rather than instinctively cleaving to it.

But why would this be? Don't most people naturally yearn for the kind of safety and security that marriage offers, especially as their hips begin to give out and their appetite for nightclubbing wanes? Well, sort of. Like everything that massive social cohort known as the baby boom does, the reasons for individual actions are complex and multitudinous and resist simple explanation.

While the baby boomers were certainly one of the first generations to question the legitimacy of marriage, it's important to remember they didn't do so outright. The crude Canadian marriage rate among the eldest baby boomers actually went markedly up between 1961 and 1971, although yes, it has fallen pretty much steadily after that.

What the baby boomers did do that was very different from the generations before them was get divorced en masse, often multiple times. The Canadian divorce rate spiked in the mid-1980s when the government made no-fault marital dissolution legal and, for a while, some 50 per cent of marriages bit the dust. Since then, it's levelled off to a fairly steady one in three.

According to the Pew study, the number of older cohabitants who have never been married or are widowed are in the minority.

The majority of those choosing to shack up instead of getting hitched are divorcees: This is instructive, since it stands to reason that a person who has been through divorce might want to avoid going there again and the best way to avoid it is not to get married in the first place.

It also stands to reason that many older cohabitants choose not to marry for the very pragmatic (and decidedly unromantic) reason of estate planning.

Skipping the wedding, after all, is certainly cheaper and less stressful than drafting a prenup.

(By the way, and contrary to popular belief, so-called "common-law" unions do not carry the same automatic legal entitlements as marriage in most Canadian provinces. There is some legal precedent that rights can be fought for and won in court, but overall, common-law exes are out of luck when seeking restitution.)

I personally know dozens of people cohabiting in their 50s, 60s and beyond: Conducting a casual survey of a handful of these unmarried-but-committed friends this week, I found their reasons for living in proverbial sin were as fascinating and funny as they were wide-ranging.

Explanations they gave me included, but were not limited to, "a lingering countercultural suspicion of the outdated institution of marriage;" disdain for the unnecessary fuss and general silliness of weddings; and a pervading sense of "Meh, we're too old now, why bother?" But the thing I find most striking about the baby boomers' new aversion to marriage is just how counterintuitively romantic it is. Big weddings have always been the province of the young, just as big divorces are the province of the middle-aged. The idea that contented, drama-free cohabitation might be the province of old age is immensely appealing. Here's hoping the baby boomers are on to something.

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No special day for stepmoms - just say hi
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As both parent of another woman's child and daughter of my dad's new wife, I know full well the 'very fine line' of that relationship
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, May 5, 2017 – Page L5

Mother's Day is approaching, and with it my usual sense of unease.

As a mother, I want to love this occasion (don't worry, you've still got time) of badly drawn cards and three-course brunch specials. But as a stepmother I just can't commit.

I'm not saying this with any bitterness, you understand. I'm just stating an unvarnished fact: Stepmothers miss out on Mother's Day, and it's not entirely fair because we do an awful lot of mothering in the form of school pick-ups, play-date facilitation and the production of endless pots of spaghetti Bolognese.

And yet I will be the first to admit it: Stepmothers are not mothers.

There is a crucial difference, and it has nothing to do with biology - as my adoptive mother friends can attest.

I can say this about stepmothers because I am one (to Freddy, 8) and I have one (her name is Mary Jane and she's the best).

I love my stepmother but I have never, not for a moment, mistaken her for my mother - nor do I think she'd want me to.

I think (hope?) my stepson feels the same way about me.

As a stepmom, you may do all the motherly stuff, but it doesn't make you The One.

There is a reason entire religions have been founded on the worship of the Mother.

It is an almost mythical role - one that cannot be filled or encroached upon by the woman your divorced dad met on eHarmony and decided to marry.

We stepmothers, on the other hand, have a mythical status of our own - and it's neither flattering nor fair.

We are the interlopers, the homewreckers, the lady monsters in yoga pants who stake our territory through merciless redecorating. To love us seems a betrayal of The One.

This is nonsense, of course, but it brings us to the bigger issue: What, if anything, do stepmothers actually deserve on Mother's Day?

The question touches the emotional disconnect at the heart of many blended families.

In a recent national survey by Ipsos, 53 per cent of stepchildren said their stepmom is not as important to them as their biological mom.

Stepmothers profoundly disagreed. Eighty-seven per cent said they felt their stepchildren are just as important to them as their biological children are or would be.

Given this emotional imbalance, the vast majority of stepmoms feel underappreciated in their roles.

In many ways, the stepmother's role is a raw deal - the ultimate parental double bind. You get all of the dish duties but none of the biological benefits.

You will be subjected to all the hassle, worry and social judgment of motherhood with none of its attendant payoffs - no flowers, no breakfast in bed.

Just ask Sarah Paterson, the Toronto-based founder of a new website, socialstepmom.com, which provides advice and a networking platform for stepmoms all over the Englishspeaking world.

When Paterson married her husband, Scott (an investment banker), a few years back, she found herself stepmom to five kids - toddlers to teens - from her husband's two former wives.

Paterson has since had two children of her own but says her role as a stepmom is the one she finds most challenging - mostly because there's no road map or support.

"Stepmoms walk a very fine line," she said. "We aren't allowed to make mistakes in the same way regular moms are, and because of that we feel a lot more guilt."

She uses the example of showing up late to a kid's birthday party. As a frazzled mom, it's no biggie, right? But as a stepmom, it's not a good look.

"When I had my own kids, I realized how many resources there are out there for new moms," she said. "And then I thought: If only I'd had these same resources when I became a stepmom. It was so much trickier!"

To avoid any Mother's Day stress, Paterson and her family celebrate their own private Stepmother's Day (last year her husband and five stepkids made her a music video, which she loved). The idea seems to be that an official day for stepmothers would mitigate the thanklessness of the role without forcing kids to divide their loyalties.

That also may be why Google (or at least its calendar) has designated Sept. 16 as International Stepfamily Day - although I've yet to see an Instagram feed of cute pics marking it, as people do with International Puppy Day or Siblings Day.

As a stepmother myself, I must confess I'm not wild about the idea. Just the thought of having another "day" on the calendar fraught with social and familial expectations makes me want to slip away and lie down in a dark room. I find that the fewer expectations I have of my family, the happier I am - not the other way around.

So here's my suggestion for what to do about your stepmother on Mother's Day. It's a little bit crazy and untraditional, but it just might work: Give her a call. Or send her a text. No need to hire a marching band and a hot air balloon. Just say hi.

I guarantee you she's not expecting it, but it's a nice thing to do for someone who probably did some nice things for you. She's not your mother, but she still deserves your thanks.


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The new - and violent - social media
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The Internet belongs to humans, so we must pressure providers to better police its content and keep it safe
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Friday, April 28, 2017 – Page L7

Do social-media providers bear a responsibility to police their own content? Or are their platforms just public spaces and, as such, as blameless as the air into which obscenities are shouted?

Long a point of fascination for media nerds everywhere, this niggling issue has been pushed to the forefront of public consciousness by a number of recent stories. The most famous case is that of the so-called Facebook killer, Steve Stephens, who came to instant global notoriety after he murdered an elderly man for no apparent reason.

After posting the video on social media, Stephens vowed he would continue his killing spree until apprehended by police. He later killed himself in a McDonald's parking lot.

The video stayed up on Facebook for a couple of hours and was later addressed at a panel discussion by Mark Zuckerberg. "We have a lot more work," the Facebook chief executive said, "and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening." But since then, Facebook Live has streamed a Thai man murdering a baby, and a Swedish court has convicted three men who used the service to broadcast a sexual assault in January.

Last week, a viral YouTube video put this question to the test in a different but no less pernicious way. The offending clip was from a popular channel called DaddyOFive, which chronicles the life of a Maryland family of seven.

The channel began a couple of years back as a prank video blog - a widely populated YouTube genre - in which the parents, Mike and Heather Martin, play pranks on their five school-aged children, Ryan, Jake, Alex, Emma and Cody.

The video in question involved the parents pouring fake ink on Cody's bedroom carpet and then falsely accusing him of making a mess: This doesn't sound so bad, but the madness is in the method.

Within seconds, Cody's parents are verbally abusing him - screaming, yelling and swearing - and the child becomes hysterical at the injustice of being falsely accused, in obvious terror of being punished.

The emotional pitch is so alarming that the video is unbearable to watch. When the prank is revealed, the father bellows his signature tagline ("It's just a prank, brah!") and Cody is left bereft and isolated, a small child wound up and knocked down for his parents' selfish amusement and profit.

The pattern repeats itself on the channel regularly: One of the children is cruelly antagonized into a state of extreme emotional distress by the parents and then blamed and ridiculed for his or her "overreaction."

Early last week, after the Internet blazed with criticism, the Martins posted a 20-minute response titled "Blocking All the Haters," laughing off the content of the videos. They distanced themselves from the more disturbing elements by saying much of the drama was staged or scripted.

This refusal to acknowledge any blame while many viewers continued to insist it was straight-up child abuse resulted in YouTube pulling the channel's ads as well as some of the more objectionable content. (When I contacted YouTube, I was given a boilerplate statement confirming the above.)

Once smacked down by their platform, their livelihood threatened, the DaddyOFive parents quickly changed their tune.

They've since taken down all video content from their blog and replaced it with a single apology video in which they weep and remonstrate, saying they've made terrible mistakes as parents and are seeking family counselling and the advice of a life coach.

Perhaps the DaddyOFive parents really have seen the error of their ways or maybe they just know which side their digital brand is buttered on - we'll probably never know. But the world they created for their children was a terrifying one and we only glimpsed a small part of it.

Cody, the youngest and most vulnerable child on DaddyOFive, is at one point mocked by his father for compulsively scratching himself until he bleeds. It's an act of self-harm and a textbook coping technique in the face of abuse.

The lack of empathy displayed by his parents is startling, but what's even more startling is that YouTube (and its viewers) provided this family with a platform - and an income - for as long as they did, unchecked and unfettered by moral standards or oversight.

The Internet is not the air.

Humans invented it and it belongs to us. Because of this, we must pressure social-media giants to create the necessary systems to police it. Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) will lose revenue in doing this, but they can afford it.

We might even have to end up paying something for the content we watch and read, but we can afford that, too. What we can't afford is any more live, consumable online violence, whether from Facebook killers or DaddyOFives.


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As malls die, so does a way of life
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Not so long ago, hanging out at the galleria was frowned upon. In hindsight, it seems so positively quaint
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Friday, April 21, 2017 – Page L3

Canadians love malls. Of course we do. We've got a stable economy, a mostly miserable climate, an aversion to walking anywhere we could drive and an insatiable appetite for Cinnabon. It's a match made in an April blizzard.

But the sad reality is, these are hard times for the gallerias and indoor fountains of our youth.

Once seen as the insidious consumer scourge of the suburbs, the soulless retail equivalent of urban sprawl, the mall as we know it is now deeply under threat.

In the United States, the situation is truly dire. As Americans abandon indoor retail meccas in droves for the irresistible allure of online shopping (one click, baby!), malls are keeling over like the hypothermic dinosaurs lumbering into the ice age.

Instead of neat skeletons, what they are leaving behind is millions of square feet of hollowedout retail space - a mass epidemic of spooky "zombie malls" that will indelibly change the landscape of suburban America forever. If you want sickening proof, check out the blog deadmalls.com in which selfdescribed "retail historians" Peter Blackbird and Brian Florence provide a comprehensive state-by-state breakdown of all the mighty-but-fallen retail monoliths now littering the American landscape.

It's as fascinating as it is depressing. For example: "The Omni International Mall of Miami was perhaps one of the most unique megastructures in the U.S. completed in the late 1970s ... today the mall space is still empty, all gutted out to make way for failed businessspace ideas that never got off the ground." And so on.

And yet, I remember when malls had a bad reputation, and were touted as the end of civilization. Growing up in smalltown Ontario in the 1980s, we blamed the new suburban shopping centre for killing our quaint Victorian main street (not that it stopped us from going there - they had a Gap!).

But as today's malls close, they take millions of jobs with them, as well as vital community meeting spaces. Over all, U.S. department stores alone employ a third less people than they did at the beginning of the century.

With big box "anchor stores," such as Macy's and Sears closing, the writing is on the wall.

Soon enough, the great American mall will be entirely extinct - replaced by vast private warehouses and delivery depots for online retailers such as Amazon.

Or maybe only Amazon.

Malls in Canada do seem much better off - especially the fancy upscale ones in big cities. An analysis earlier this year from the Retail Council of Canada showed that Canadian malls were reporting significantly higher sales per square foot annually than malls in the United States over all.

But these good news figures don't tell the whole story. Being Canadian, we're not going to change our habits overnight - why we're a constitutional monarchy, not a republic - but that doesn't mean things aren't changing, particularly in small towns and suburban outposts.

According to a report late last year by the commercial real estate agency Colliers, online shopping sales growth can be blamed for vacancy of roughly 14.8 million square feet of mall space between 2012 and 2014. If current trends continue, the centre cannot hold.

At present, Canadian malls are doing okay because Canada is behind the curve when it comes to online shopping. While Amazon is now the No. 1 apparel retailer in the United States and online sales account for between 10 per cent to 12 per cent of overall sales, in Canada we're still at about 6 per cent. But that's up from 4 per cent two years ago. I suppose it's possible this whole online shopping thing could be a silly fad that blows over in a few years, but that's what we thought about e-mail back in the 1990s.

What amazes me most about the eventual (if not imminent) death of malls is the way creative destruction changes the way we view cultural institutions.

Things like television and shopping malls are magically transformed, almost overnight, from cultural evils to objects of intense nostalgia.

In my hometown, the main street did suffer for a few years after the mall showed up. But then the town grew more prosperous and managed to regenerate its waterfront, pulling in tourists and plenty of new small businesses as well. Today the downtown strip is booming again and it's the mall that's suffering - judging by the number of vacancies.

Watching TV and hanging out at the shopping centre were the two things my parents nagged me incessantly not to do. Now the idea of my own future teenagers chatting in person with their friends at an Orange Julius followed by a sitcom-viewing sounds so spectacularly wholesome it's like the 2017 equivalent of a square-dancing competition.

So which is it: Were malls actually not so bad to begin with or are we just predisposed to miss all the things that capitalism destroys in its wake? Are we hopelessly nostalgic or just a culture of unrepentant complainers?

It's unclear. But I do know this: When all the malls are dead and gone, we'll still have Cinnabon. Even if we have to order it via an app for drone delivery.

Associated Graphic

BCBG Max Azria, once found in Toronto's Eaton Centre, is closing all of its Canadian stores.

CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS


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The march of the immortalists
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If the pursuit to overcome death seems unsettling, the kind of people driving this quest are even more so
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, April 14, 2017 – Page L3

James, age 4, has started asking about death.

"When am I going to die?" he'll say, just as I'm creeping out of his room at night. "Does everybody die?" And, worst of all, because I can see how much it genuinely worries him, "Are you and Daddy going to die?" I know it's fashionable to be honest with your kids these days, to treat them as little adults capable of absorbing difficult information, but on this occasion, I've resorted to what I assumed was a convenient lie. "Don't worry," I tell him. "The scientists in America are working on a way to make us live forever."

But it turns out that by trying to shield my son from reality, I was accidentally exposing him to a far more unnerving truth. By the time James grows old, scientists may well have come up with a way to make death optional.

I am not talking about cosmetic companies shilling creams with human growth hormone as a two-bit "anti-aging solution." I'm talking about billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Sergey Brin and Larry Page investing the combined GDP of a mediumsized country in biotech-research firms, all with a view to either extend life indefinitely or do away with death altogether.

We can all empathize with a small child frightened of death - but many rich and powerful men are still driven by this fear. And instead of trying to accept mortality, they are now determined to overcome it. It turns out, according to a terrifying recent piece in The New Yorker, that in the very serious scientific quest to extend life there are basically two camps, the "healthspanners," i.e., those who are looking to extend life by a few more "quality-adjusted life years," and the "immortalists," who are hoping to do away with death altogether - or at least delay it indefinitely.

The healthspanners are a fairly reasonable bunch. They are people like you and me, by which I mean people who are having a fairly nice time at the party and would like the option of hanging around a little longer, especially if staying on means more time with loved ones or finally doing that dream trip to Bhutan. (Personally, I'd like to tack on a few more years in the hope of being able to enjoy my grandchildren - because if my children wait as long as I did to procreate, it's looking pretty dicey.) After all, what reasonably well-adjusted person wouldn't want to live a few more years if it could be done in good health and a state of relative financial security?

But the immortalists are a far more unsettling group. They can be subdivided into two schools of thought - those who believe we can all be rejigged by replacing failing parts as we rattle on forever like restored vintage Model T Fords, and those who believe the path to eternal life will be a biological merger with machines, either through shiny new robot physiques or a digital collective consciousness. So when you're looking at a realistic solution to death, it's either an eternal future of Frankenstein-style transplants from a vast bank of genetically engineered organs ("First let's just update those raggy old eardrums, then get you set up with a fancy new liver!") or we all turn into RoboCop.

And if that sounds depressing, there's an even bigger problem.

And that is that the kind of people who seem to be driving this quest to end death - the powerful billionaires and preening celebrities, the full-time residents of the bubble world of the rich and famous - are exactly the kind of people you really wouldn't want to stay on past their natural sellby date. Can you imagine a future in which Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump could find a way to hold on to power for 1,000 years? Or even just one in which Kate Hudson could have a centuries-long Hollywood career? Can you conceive of what it would mean for the Earth's resources - not to mention opportunities for the young - if the richest and most powerful among us were able to stick around on the planet as long as they wished?

You might assume that immortality would be a good thing, a chance for ordinary people to live extraordinary lives, but I rather doubt it. Instead, I foresee a new kind of class system in which the privileged few live on, endlessly enriching themselves and their families, while the masses continue to succumb to dust. The interesting thing is, it's impossible to envy them - the billionaires and dictators and movie stars who would choose to live in that expensive and tedious netherworld of immortality.

Like all narcissists, they will find themselves endlessly yearning for something - the promise of love - just out of reach.

Because what's the point of existence if it simply goes on forever?

If the clock isn't actually ticking, it's hard to see the point of doing anything. Why seize the moment when the chances for redress are endless?

Death might seem frightening to a small child on the brink of sleep, but do you know what's far more terrifying when contemplated in a serious way? The painful and expensive tedium of an empty eternal life.

Associated Graphic

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Going grey, the modern way
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, March 17, 2017 – Page L1

Last week, I strolled into the salon for my regular spring highlights and got to chatting with the receptionist, a stylish wisecracking young gal sporting a punky magenta rinse in her unstyled platinum-silver hair. I told her she looked like Debbie Harry circa 1984 and she smiled.

"Thanks," she said with a sigh.

"I'm aiming for that just-rolledout-of-a-skip look. Do you think it's working?"

I assured her it was and murmured something about wishing I could be a silver vixen myself, but after 40 it seems too unironic. Despite being well acquainted with all the other signs of middle age, grey hair is the one I've been mercifully spared. Wouldn't it be a kind of sacrilege, or just plain weird, to thrust it upon myself - a bit like administering wrinkles in an act of reverse Botox?

On the contrary, my new hipster BFF said, going grey is what all the kids are doing - an act of youthful hair rebellion. Similar to wearing pleated slacks or carrying a vintage handbag or riding a creaky Dutch bike, grey has become the bastion of cool kids and no-nonsense grannies. On the other hand, she said, playing it hair safe is the single most obvious marker of middle age, and that's a look that no one wants - especially if you are middle aged. Which, obviously, I totally am.

Grey is the new blond, I thought to myself 21/2 hours later as my colourist, Samantha Cusick, swivelled my chair around and passed me a mirror to look at the back. Then she rushed me over to the special lighting area where she documents her work for social media.

(Samantha, who is about 12 years old - actually 27 - has more than 52,000 followers on Instagram and is about to launch her own YouTube channel of instructional videos. She also owns her own salon.) When I got home, Rob, who is on the way to becoming a silver fox himself, was flummoxed.

"I don't mind the grey," he said, "it's just the pinky tinge - is it permanent?" I told him it was just a rinse and would come out in a week.

"But I might do a purple rinse for Easter."

He took a long sip of gin. "Just promise me you won't turn into Quirky Mummy okay?" "Huh?" "You know Quirky Mummy - does the school run in leopard print leggings, teaches art parttime, grows her own pot, forced her kids to meditate, runs off to Ibiza once a year with her #girlsquad. Don't be her, okay?" "I have no idea what you're talking about," I said, and made a silent mental note to cancel James's kiddie-kundalini class.

He's overscheduled as it is.

Look, I won't pretend I'm ahead of the curve on this. (I'm rarely ahead of the curve on anything these days, apart from the latest baby-weaning advice.) You probably know silver and grey has been a growing women's hair trend in recent years and it shows no signs of abating.

Silver locks have been rocked in recent years by the likes of Lady Gaga, Rita Ora, Kelly Osbourne, Kylie Jenner and Rihanna.

But for women of any age, going grey is an act of defiance.

Unlike blonde (sexy), brunette (serious) or red (dangerous-andpossibly-a-bit-unhinged), grey hair says "I don't give a crap about aging, I just like myself."

Like refusing to wear high heels or growing your armpit hair, it is both stylishly bold and perfectly sensible, by which I mean men do it all the time and no one bats an eye. The fact that I'm not actually "going grey" in the natural sense of the word makes my grey all the more subversive.

Or at least that's the way I see it.

So what was the final verdict on my new hair - was I a feministstyle renegade or cringeworthy Quirky Mummy? When James got home from capoeira that evening, I put the new hair to the ultimate test: the unforgiving eyes of a four-year-old.

"So what do you think?" I asked him, fluffing my new salon-fresh silver waves.

"You look like a witch," he said.

"But the kind who uses her powers for good."

And there you have it, folks.

The ultimate compliment from the mouth of a babe. Works for me, I'll take it.

Associated Graphic

Leah McLaren shows off her new look. For women of any age, going grey has become an act of defiance.


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Women's rights are human rights, and even men have noticed
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Friday, March 10, 2017 – Page L1

Last weekend, I hosted a table at a UN Women's breakfast in London to promote the launch of the 2017 HeForShe campaign in honour of International Women's Day. My hus...

band was working, so I fobbed off the older two boys on friends and took the baby with me. The organizer was wonderfully gracious about it, declaring "it's absolutely in the spirit of the event."

But as soon as I arrived, I regretted it.

The breakfast was in a fancy hotel ballroom with elegant round tables set with bone china and pots of chia oats decorated with edible flowers. Table hosts were meant to facilitate a discussion and then speak for two minutes in summary. When the baby woke up from his nap and commenced grizzling, I realized to my horror I'd accidentally worn a dress.

This meant instead of unbuttoning my top to breastfeed I had to pull the whole thing up, drape a napkin over my midsection and sit there semi-exposed in my tights from the waist down while giving the blighter his snack. Such are the humiliations we women endure in the pursuit of gender equality and work-life balance.

HeForShe, you will have heard by now, is the United Nations' campaign to promote gender equality by engaging men and boys in the global fight for women's rights.

It launched with a bang three years ago when Emma Watson (Hermione of Harry Potter fame) gave a glorious speech in a smoking white pantsuit at the UN headquarters.

At the time, Watson's oration went viral, getting millions of views on YouTube and bringing the house down with her insistence that it was "time that we all see gender on a spectrum, instead of two opposing sets of ideals." The reaction was partly owing to the fact that no one could believe how allgrown-up Harry Potter's friend was (such as Miley Cyrus but without the bad music or twerking) and partly a sense that a fourth wave of feminism was about to crash over us, tsunamistyle, with Watson surfing the whitecap. And so it has come to pass, a new and more inclusive kind of feminism, a movement as easily and variously embodied by Beyoncé and Caitlyn Jenner as it is by Angela Merkel and Theresa May. The main and best point about HeForShe is that many key problems that have long been ghettoized as "women's issues," such as affordable child care, reproductive freedom, sexual violence, the pay gap and body image, to name just a few, are in fact human issues, in that they affect everyone at all levels of society, even if women do bear the brunt.

Just like men, women are multitudes. It is no longer acceptable for politicians to drive around in pink buses appealing specifically to "female voters" on the campaign trail as if we all thought with one mind.

A welcome addition to the conversation is Stephen Marche's new book, The Unmade Bed,

which looks at the issues of work-life balance and gender equality from a male perspective. Marche hedges his argument, and cleverly so, with wry footnotes from his wife, Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford. Like HeForShe, Marche makes the point that women's issues are everyone's issues and that most couples don't sit around agonizing about identity and gender politics when deciding who'll make dinner or take the kids to soccer. The problems of families, just like the problems of countries, are largely economic, Marche rightly points out. Gender discrimination still exists on a large scale, of course, but few women drop out of the work force because we want conform to tradition. We drop out (or at least most of us do) because we feed babies with our bodies for months on end and then, in a haze of exhaustion, find out that sending them to daycare is going to cost 80 per cent of the salary for a job we hated anyway.

If Marche's fresh insights are an example of how genderinclusive campaigns such as HeForShe might well be shifting things in the right direction, then Piers Morgan is the flip side of the cultural equation.

Earlier this week England's lantern-jawed troll wrote a column in the Mail Online in which he called Emma Watson a "feminist fraud" for doing a semi-nude photo shoot for Vanity Fair.

Dredging up an old interview quote from Watson's teens in which she expressed discomfort at the spectre of feminist pop stars who then put themselves on sexual display, Morgan used his platform as he so often does, to attempt to cut down and humiliate a woman in a position of influence. (See also Twitter spats with Rihanna and J.K. Rowling for details.)

Speaking of women of influence, back at the UN Women's breakfast, things went from messy to worse.

As the feminist seas parted and Christiane Amanpour (a.k.a. the Meryl Streep of journalism) got up to speak, my infant son suddenly pulled his face away and began to shriek, causing half the room to turn and stare at my exposed and leaking boob.

As I sat there half-naked and dying, it occurred to me that the situation I was experiencing highlighted the problem with introducing males into discussions of women's rights. One way or another, they manage to dominate the conversation. Even at five months old.


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Neither true nor fake, but clicking makes it so
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Powerful interests can, and likely do, avail themselves of tools to manipulate cognitive bias on a mass scale through social media
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Friday, March 3, 2017 – Page L3

It has probably occurred to you by now that the truth as we believe it to be, is sometimes very different from the truth as it actually is.

This idea - that human biases in perception can create an illogical and highly subjective state of "reality" - has been well explored in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics. Most recently, of course, there was Michael Lewis's fascinating new book The Undoing Project, about the long-time friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

These two Israeli psychologists, the former a Nobel Prize winner, first identified and put a name to cognitive bias - the brain function that prevents us from seeing the truth as it is, in favour of seeing the truth as we'd like it to be.

When political commentators talk about a "posttruth world," what they are really describing is a world in which reality as we know it is formed primarily by the cognitive biases of the people in power.

Case in point: The U.S. President repeatedly describing The New York Times and CNN as purveyors of "fake news," because he doesn't find their stories about him flattering. If we assume Donald Trump actually believes the things he says, his is a mind utterly at the mercy of its own cognitive bias. He appears to see reality not as it is, but as he wants it to be.

But here's something much more frightening and new: What if I told you Trump and his rich and powerful allies have found a way to make their own self-serving cognitive biases become reality - in the sense that a common perception, once collectively held across a culture, can become a kind of alternate reality that obscures any objective sense of "truth"?

What if I told you Donald Trump and men like him are finding ways to get inside your head and to affect how you feel, which will (as we know from reading behavioural economics) become how the world is for you and your friends and future generations to come?

You might say I sound like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and while I admire your healthy skepticism, I'd also like to present you with some deeply unpalatable facts. Not alternative facts. Just regular, off-the-rack truths. According to a feature story in last weekend's Guardian newspaper, a U.S. hedge-fund billionaire by the name of Robert Mercer is the tangible link between Donald Trump's astonishing presidential victory and Britain's Brexit campaign - those two monumental and surprising populist victories of last year.

Mercer, who happens to be Trump's largest single donor (he contributed $13.5-million (U.S.) to Trump's campaign) is also the money behind Breitbart, the right-wing news site formerly run by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Mercer, who trained as a computer scientist and started his career developing artificial intelligence for IBM, has another interest close to his heart: mass propaganda via social-media algorithms.

In addition to his so-called "altright" media properties (with their not-so-covert aim of undermining the mainstream media), Mercer is reported to have a $10million stake in a small data-analytics company called Cambridge Analytica - an off-shoot of a larger British strategy firm called SCL Group. Cambridge Analytica, according to its website, specializes in using big data sets to "identify influencers" and to achieve corporate and political outcomes "by showing organizations not just where people are, but what they really care about and what drives their behaviour."

Cambridge Analytica worked for Trump as well as the proBrexit campaign.

Mercer is reported to be "good friend" of Nigel Farage, Britain's far-right Brexit champion, and reportedly offered Cambridge Analytica's services free of charge, though Farage did not declare these services as a campaign donation. So what exactly does a company such as Cambridge Analytica do? According to one key Brexit strategist, it teaches political campaigners how to scoop up vast amounts of user data through Facebook and then follow and monitor people, tracking their "likes," and using artificial intelligence to spread through their network of friends and, eventually, target them through advertising and customized content.

This data can then be harnessed to influence not just how we feel, but what we believe to be true. While Cambridge Analytica and Mercer are keeping quiet in the face of increased media scrutiny (saying only that the company abides by international laws and regulations), Facebook itself has already admitted to actively tampering with the emotional states of its users. In 2014, Facebook published the results of a study in which the socialmedia giant admitted to experimentally manipulating the news feed on 689,000 users' home pages: some readers got more "uplifting" stories in their feed; others saw sadder posts. Facebook found this could affect people's moods (as evidenced by the tone of their posts and comments) through a process of "emotional contagion." In other words, social media can, and likely is, being used to manipulate our collective cognitive bias on a mass scale to reflect the desires of men such as Trump and Mercer.

If you think all this sounds like the outlandish plot of a dystopian futuristic sci-fi novel, think again. According to Professor Jonathan Rust, director of the Cambridge University's Centre for Psychometrics who spoke to The Guardian, it's nothing short of mass brainwashing - and it's happening. "The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear.

With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It's what the Scientologists try to do but much more powerful ... It's no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. People don't know it's happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs."

So there's the truth as we believe it to be and the truth as it actually is. In the age of social media, will it soon become impossible to tell the difference?

Associated Graphic

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Tuesday in Washington. Trump's meteoric rise in popularity, and eventual election victory, in recent months can be attributed in part to the manipulation of mass psychology through the Internet.

CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS


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Peak Paleo, and the art of joyless living
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The science is in: utralow-carb diets and high-intensity exercise are the most efficient way to keep fit, but at what cost?
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Friday, February 24, 2017 – Page L4

There is a scene in Curtis Sittenfeld's last novel, Eligible (a modern update of Austen's Pride and Prejudice), in which our heroine Lizzy Bennet comes face to face with the insidious fitness trend that has come to dominate our age.

"Lydia pointed toward the roll on Liz's plate. 'Don't carbs make you feel sluggish?' 'Everything in moderation,' Liz said. There were many reasons she found her sisters' enthusiasm for CrossFit and the Paleo Diet irritating, including that Liz herself had been familiar with both long before they had, having written an article about CrossFit back in 2007.

Another source of irritation was that her sisters looked fantastic; they had always been attractive, but since taking up CrossFit, they were practically glowing with energy and strength."

In this, as in most things, I am with Lizzy Bennet - a clever young woman with an appetite for dinner rolls and sensible distaste for cultish body fads. But the CrossFit/Paleo paradigm and its lean army of evangelical proponents is inescapable these days.

As Lizzy points out, it's been around for a while now but, in recent times, we have hit peak Paleo.

Just a quick primer for the uninitiated: Paleo/CrossFit is a diet and exercise regime that broadly subscribes to the notion that, in order for humans to achieve optimum fitness, we must live the way our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors did. This means no processed foods, legumes, dairy or grains. Activity must come in short, fast bursts, as if we were running from a sabertoothed tiger.

If it sounds a bit crazy and extreme, that's because it is. And yet, it's everywhere you look.

Many restaurants now offer "Paleo salads" featuring great bowls of spinach and hazelnuts and chicken dressed astringently with oil and lemon. There are Paleo cocktails (a fancy term for straight vodka) and Paleo burgers (beef patties wrapped in iceberg lettuce, hold the cheese and ketchup).

At the gym near my house, where I've started reluctantly dragging myself a couple of times a week, there's a whole new system in place. Instead of having a monthly membership, you pay per half-hour-long class.

But here's the catch: Most involve high-speed circuits of vomit-inducing tuck jumps, burpees and jumping jacks that make you think murderous thoughts at 6 a.m. Gone are the days of lady-like Swiss ball crunches or prancing on a treadmill for 30 minutes and chalking it up as a workout. These days, it's all about high-intensity interval training. Which is basically the same idea as CrossFit, without the brand name. When it comes to exercise, hard and fast and painful is in; long and slow and pleasant is out.

Unlike most fitness crazes, there is good science to back this one up. The Paleo Diet is essentially an ultralow-carb diet, which prompts the body to burn fat by putting it in a state of ketosis. During ketosis, the body runs out of sugar, so it starts to burn fat. You might think of it as the first phase of long-term starvation.

This is why Paleo enthusiasts are generally very thin and bad tempered - in essence, they are semi-permanently starving.

No surprise there.

More counter-intuitively, there is a mounting pile of research to suggest that high-intensity interval training can get you much fitter faster than the sort of prolonged gentle exercise one might actually do for pleasure, such as jogging, swimming or cycling.

The One-Minute Workout, a bestselling book by McMaster kinesiology professor Martin Gibala, outlines how he and his team, over a period of 10 years of research, were able to prove definitively that a person could perform an interval workout containing only 2.5 minutes of high-intensity exercise three times a week and reap roughly the same fitness benefits - or more - than the same person working out at moderate intensity for 4.5 hours a week. This staggering result has been replicated widely in studies all over the world and, in essence, it's the reason why the system at my local gym has changed. You may not enjoy high-intensity interval workouts, but the fact is, they work.

I know this because I've been doing them now for a few miserable weeks and the results, as they say in late-night diet commercials, are astonishing. After a second pregnancy and birth that left me weak, tired and well over my ideal fighting weight, I've been able to lose fat, gain muscle and feel mostly human again just by doing two or three hard, fast workouts a week. I stopped having a cheese and mayo baguette every single day for lunch, which also may have helped.

I can't say I'll ever actually enjoy doing 15 fast burpees to thumping hip hop, but the efficiency is enormously appealing.

Where I used to work out for hours every week and not see any change in my strength or appearance (I ran a marathon and gained weight), now I can suffer briefly and reap ample rewards.

Paleo/CrossFit is the most pervasive fitness trend I've seen in a lifetime of fitness-trend watching. The reason? Unlike most diet/exercise regimes, it actually works. But it's also joyless, miserable way to live, which why its long-term, obsessive proponents are as tedious (albeit fabulously fit) as Lizzy Bennet's younger sisters.

You'd be boring, too, if you'd learned to enjoy eating a diet of chicken and seeds. Or if you liked doing tuck jumps.

But no one could actually like tuck jumps. That is a scientific fact.

Associated Graphic

The Paleo Diet is essentially an ultralow-carb diet, which prompts the body to burn fat by putting it in a state of ketosis. During ketosis, the body runs out of sugar, so it starts to burn fat instead.

ISTOCK


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While Trudeau was making nice in Washington, where were his political principles?
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Friday, February 17, 2017 – Page L1

I know what you're thinking: Justin had to do it. He had no other option. Our economy depended upon it. Jobs depended upon it. Obviously Justin loathes the Donald - just look at his body language, the rictus grin during all that talk of "shared values," the way he refused to be jerked forward by Donald Trump's weird handshake-domination move. Or the way he paused, for one split second during the news conference, and regarded Trump's limp little hand before doing the required thing and giving it a hearty squeeze. These memes were passed around obsessively on social media Monday as if they proved something apart from the obvious: That our selfdeclared feminist leader, a man who has stood weeping and embracing refugees in airports as the cameras clicked and whirred, is also happy - or at least entirely willing - to shelve all his highminded political principles when necessary and dance with the devil.

These are the things we do for trade deals. And by "trade deals," I obviously mean jobs and by jobs I mean the economy. This is why Justin Trudeau's visit to the White House was politely applauded in Parliament Hill circles as a success. But you don't have to be a naive undergraduate to feel depressed or irritated about what happened on Monday.

It was a toe-curling embarrassment for anyone who has taken our Prime Minister (as I did) at his word on issues such as cultural diversity and women's rights.

It was the same way with British Prime Minister Theresa May, only worse. The way she rushed in to be first - zipping over on her Royal Air Force plane and doing her best Margaret Thatcher impersonation in a red dress while Trump creepily insisted on holding her hand on the long walk down the colonnade.

May's eager desperation to pay court to a leader whose basic values she and most of her fellow citizens detest was sickeningly palpable. But she needed to secure a trade deal, postBrexit, so off she went. The premature invitation for a state visit to Britain, when heartily accepted and followed up on by the White House, must have made the Queen want to chop off someone's head.

Canada doesn't have any royal palaces or pretty princesses to entice Trump for a visit, but Trudeau did present the U.S. President with the finest substitute he could manage: A photograph of his father, Pierre, listening to Trump speak at New York's Waldorf Astoria in 1981.

The implicit message here isn't one of inclusivity or openness or diversity or any of those ideals that Justin Trudeau is always assuring us are dear to his heart. The photo says exactly the opposite: My dad was in your club and now I am too. It was a tacit endorsement of Trump's aggressive and open brand of nepotism and an acknowledgment that power is handed down through the generations by rich white men in well-tailored tuxedos. It also nicely paved the way for the next photo op of the day, which involved Trudeau sitting at a boardroom table with a bunch of women entrepreneurs, flanked by first daughter Ivanka, trumpeting empty pro-female rhetoric while conveniently ignoring the fact that Trump himself is an alleged serial sexual assailant whose much-trumpeted views on gender equality and reproductive rights are entirely at odds with Trudeau's own.

I'm not clear on the behindthe-scenes machinations that go into arranging a visit such as this, but was it really necessary for our feminist Prime Minister to make such an utter mockery of women's rights (which are under real threat in the United States at the moment) while he was on a social visit to casually secure broader points of the North American free-trade Agreement? Couldn't they have played a round of golf at Mar-aLago instead?

I'm not saying Trudeau shouldn't have gone to Washington, but I am saying he should have planned his visit more cleverly. He might, for instance, have avoided becoming a prop in Trump's cynical attempt to rebrand himself as "pro-women" and taken the opportunity to call the President out, on his own turf, on some of the fundamental principles on which the two men disagree. Trudeau could have shown the world that while he is prepared to continue a mutually beneficial trade relationship with Trump, he does not condone Trump's racist, sexist and fascist tendencies. Instead, it was all "sunny ways," which didn't feel so sunny.

The political pragmatism on display in Washington this week makes the debates of other liberal-minded democracies seem almost innocent by comparison.

Take the Trade Minister of Sweden, who was recently criticized in parliament for compromising her feminist principles by wearing the hijab while on a trade mission to Iran. Given that it would have been illegal not to, she shot back, the only other option would have been to send an all-male trade delegation, which didn't seem very feminist at all. Now that's what I call a healthy debate about how to balance the need to trade with countries that don't necessarily share our cultural values.

What happened in Washington this week? That was something different.

Associated Graphic

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in Washington on Monday.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS


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Dads aren't special snowflakes - they're just parents
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Friday, January 27, 2017 – Page L1

There's been a lot of talk recently about the dangers of overpraising children. Too much vague encouragement, many experts say, can give a child a surfeit of self-esteem and result in "special snowflake syndrome" (not yet included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but give it a year or two).

On the other hand, many parents simply don't praise good behaviour often enough or effectively. Allow me to boil about 20 years of parenting research down into one rule: If you want your kid to succeed, it's about quality and specificity of praise, not quantity. Praise effort over performance. Mention precise details to show you are actually paying attention (warning: this requires actually paying attention to your child). So instead of "Wow, this drawing is so brilliant it's blowing my mind!" say, "I really like your use of shading here. Why did you choose this green?" And for Pete's sake, don't tell little Tallulah she's going to the Olympics for doing a cartwheel. Just don't.

But now on to a much thornier and potentially marriage-imperiling issue: How should we best praise men?

There's no doubt men - and dads in particular - have gotten better in recent years. Men do more child-rearing and domestic work than ever before - most of the dads I know change diapers and cook the occasional cheese omelette while managing to hold down a steady job. But, as we all know (and as all major studies indicate), women generally still do much more - even though we all went out and got jobs around 1982, so the only reason for this is sexist horse poop! This double standard has resulted in an irritating cultural quirk: our tendency to overpraise dads for doing everyday domestic tasks that moms are generally expected to do. Tasks like getting on the bus with a stroller. Or taking a day off work to stay home with a sick kid. Or feeding a baby in public. If a mom does these things, whevs. But if a man does them? Awwwww.

An amazing example of this can be found in a recent New York Times article, which ran this week under the headline "How Vital Are Women? This Town Found Out as They Left to March."

The piece, written by Filip Bondy, chronicled the weekend endured by the men of Montclair, N.J., an affluent suburb of New York. After the women left for the Women's March on Washington, the dads of Montclair were left to parent on their own.

What is surprising or remarkable about this - apart from the fact that millions of American women marched in support of women's rights? Nothing.

But that didn't stop the Times from covering the absence of the mothers of Montclair in a breathless tone usually reserved for communities rocked by natural disasters.

"In their wake, [the women] left behind a progressive bedroom community with suddenly skewed demographics.

Routines were radically altered, and many fathers tried to meet weekend demands alone for a change. ... Usually, these chores and deliveries were shared by both parents, in a thoroughly modern way. On this day, many dads were left to juggle schedules on their own."

The piece prompted much contemptuous hilarity on social media ("Alt headline: Area men spend time with own children," tweeted one reader), along with comparisons to a retrograde genre of anti-suffragette cartoons that featured beleaguered fathers coping with babies and housework while their feckless wives marched for the vote.

To the paper's credit, both The New York Times editor and the reporter responsible for the piece apologized within hours of its publication.

"We blew it," admitted Metro editor Wendell Jamieson. But this doesn't erase the fact that even a bastion of progressive liberalism such as the Times can fall prey to ludicrously sexist notions - like the idea that men taking care of their own children is grist for a major news feature.

The truth is most of us are guilty of overpraising men in this way. I remember meeting my husband at the station after he'd taken a two-hour train journey alone with our then-fourmonth-old baby and toddler.

"How was it?" I asked. "Amazing!" he said. "Everyone was so kind and helpful. They gave us free snacks. I'm tempted to take the kids with me everywhere now."

And then, at the beginning of the school year, while I was in the hospital giving birth to our youngest son, Rob took James to his first day of junior kindergarten.

"The teachers said, 'Oooh, it's amazing he made it!' and then they practically lined up to kiss him," one mummy spy told me later with a laugh.

(Rob, it should be said, disputes this version of the events and insists "they were just very friendly, as they always are." But this might be his surfeit of dad self-esteem talking.)

In any case, we overpraise dads - and it's got to stop. So the next time your special snowflake partner puts in a load of laundry or picks up the kids from school, just be cool about it, ladies.

Say "Thanks, hon" - and leave it at that. Just act like everything is normal. Hopefully, in due course, it will be.

Associated Graphic

The double standard that women are the child-rearers has resulted in an irritating cultural quirk: our tendency to praise dads for doing everyday domestic tasks that moms are generally expected to do.

ALDO MURILLO/ISTOCKPHOTO


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Women's March: This is what the child of a feminist looks like
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Friday, January 20, 2017 – Page L1

O n Saturday I'm taking my four-year-old son James to his first feminist march. It's the London version of the Women's March on Washington, in support of people marching on Capitol Hill to protest the inauguration of U.S president-elect Donald Trump.

A bunch of the mums from my son's class are going. The march has become so de rigueur in my London postcode - the highlight of the January social calendar, blowing out the bake sale and the rep cinema "baby and carer" screening of La La Land - that my husband, Rob, has started gently mocking it from the sidelines.

When I showed him the brandnew "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt I'd bought for James to wear, he snorted. "What are you going to chant? We want smashed avocado on gluten-free toast! We want free Pilates!"

I rolled my eyes and stomped out of the kitchen. I had some important placards to make with my glue gun on the craft table.

But seriously folks, it is an important march. And I'm bringing James because I want him to know that. Also, I just can't help myself. I have plenty of friends who seem to want to shelter their children from the messiness of politics, but I am certainly not one of them. One war correspondent I know makes sure his iCloud account is cleared in case his six-year-old daughter might glimpse any carnage photos. I, on the other hand, have been trying to get this same war correspondent over to our house for months to explain to James and Freddy that war is not, in fact, just a video game. "Look kids," I want him to say, "war is real and dangerous and terrible and it tears families apart in the most appalling way." I want my kids to look at my friend's carnage photos and get upset and angry and then I want them to do something.

It's no secret where I got the urge to indoctrinate my kids with progressive politics. As a geneticist might say, I didn't lick it off a brick. I inherited it from my mother - a woman who is, right at this moment, spearheading the "Stop Kellie Leitch" campaign in her village of Creemore, Ont., which also happens to be in Leitch's riding. The Conservative MP is running to be her party's leader on a platform that includes screening potential immigrants for undefined "Canadian values."

Outside my mother's house there is a sign saying "Leitch: Not my MP." She started a Twitter hashtag of the same name, which trended nationally.

When Leitch didn't join the Santa Claus parade in Creemore this year (presumably for fear of being booed by angry constituents sick of her divisive, farright rhetoric), my mother considered it a personal victory.

During my childhood, Mum was much the same.

She took me to various meetings and consciousness-raising groups and lectured me endlessly about the importance of feminism and the dangers of nuclear arms.

I have a very clear memory of her giving a sharp tongue-lashing to a small-town bank teller who dared to suggest that what the famine victims in Ethiopia really needed to stop the cycle of poverty was a good dose of birth control. In Zadie Smith's new novel Swing Time, the main character's mother is recognizable - a pushy, ambitious young woman intent on improving herself and her recalcitrant child through the world of books and ideas. "I was used to my mother's speechifying," she writes.

"I tended to tune out whenever it was happening - and I was familiar too, with the way she would drop whatever she happened to be studying into ordinary conversation."

"Oh God," I thought when I read it, "that's my mother."

And then I had a second, more terrifying thought: "That's me."

Mortifying as I found it at the time, my mother's progressive bombardment worked. As an adult and now as a mother myself, I hold all the same basic convictions she did.

How did that happen?

Because she relentlessly drilled them into my head.

The fact I also happen to believe they are factually and morally correct is almost beside the point - they are the inescapable moral soundtrack of my childhood.

In the same way some children grow up with their mother relentlessly applauding their tap dances or criticizing their hair, I have the sound of my mother's voice lecturing me on the importance of multiculturalism and the evils of income inequality. And now my boys will have the same experience in turn.

When he's older, James will either sign up for Trump Youth to spite me, or submit to that moral soundtrack in his head.

For now, this is what a feminist looks like: A four-year-old boy in an oversized T-shirt at a women's march. What could be more hopeful?

Associated Graphic

Diana Angus brandishes a homemade sign before the start of the Ohio Sister March in Columbus on Sunday.

BROOKE LAVALLEY/ASSOCIATED PRESS


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Defeating thoughtless meat consumption
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Swearing off the flesh is less an attempt to make a 'good' choice than a conscious rejection of the power of collective delusion
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Friday, January 13, 2017 – Page L3

It's January and as usual everyone is on some idiot regime.

We're all going dry and getting rehydrated, resting our colons and manifesting our best intentions. We're upping the antioxidants and downing probiotics, meditating, masticating and engaging in empathetic mediation.

The parents I know are pledging that this year they will stop snapping at their children (snapping is the new yelling, which was the new spanking, didn't you know) and my single friends are swearing off sex with random strangers online (they meet the strangers online; the sex happens in person). Honest working Joes everywhere are relinquishing pleasures small and large and submitting to thrice-weekly sessions of self-flagellation at the nearest CrossFit gym.

Are we all engaging these abnegations in the hope that it might make us, well, better? Nah, not really. People might think their self-improvement regimes are an attempt to improve the self, but this - I have come to discover after engaging in a countless number of them myself - is just an illusion. We deny ourselves pleasure only because we are hopelessly, pathetically addicted to it. Self-improvement is attractive precisely because it cancels out overindulgences past and entitles us to overindulgences future. That is, if you consider gluttony, promiscuity and the pursuit of wild oblivion a form of filthy overindulgence. I don't, but that's just because I have the soul of an unreformable sybarite.

I might look like the lost cast member of the new CBC show Workin' Moms, hoofing it down the street with my BabyZen stroller and my flat white, but don't be fooled. On the inside I'm like an overfed goose, liver bulging, eyes agog, dreamily drowning at the bottom of a bottle of vintage champagne. Most of the time, I deny myself nothing.

But this year I have been forced to make a reluctant concession, a life-change you might call it, and here it is: I've stopped eating meat. Not all the time (it's not a religion people, it's a lifestyle choice) but almost all the time, with fish being the only exception.

It's not that I care in any deep emotional way about my health or the environment or the feelings of animals. I've never cried about dolphins or lamented the plight of baby seals. It's not that I'm trying to economize or localize or energize my best self through the wonders of a plantbased diet.

It's just that I began to find it impossible to ignore the truth. I might feel nothing about these things, but that is no longer an excuse for doing nothing. Eating meat is unnecessary. And if you really think about it logically - if you force yourself past the dangerous process of mental abstraction most carnivores rely on to keep on swallowing our ham baguettes - it's just flat-out wrong.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you this, but factory farming, in particular, is unhealthy in every way.

Unhealthy for the animals, unhealthy for those who eat the animals, unhealthy for the planet, and unhealthy for the profits of small-scale farmers. The one upside of factory farming is that it provides miserable jobs for low-wage workers in Brazilian slaughterhouses - and no one ever bought a KFC Bargain Bucket because of that.

Oblivious meat consumption is something I've thoughtlessly participated in my entire life. Last year, post-Brexit, post-Trump, I began to feel strangely uncomfortable about it. What is the connection, you ask? I wasn't entirely sure. All I knew was that I finally looked down at my Christmas plate of bloody rare roast beef and thought: Right.

That's enough of that.

I'm not telling you this in order to make you feel bad about your own meat consumption (or to make my vegan friends feel smug - let's face it, they already are), it's all just to say it feels good to make a decision, albeit a small and personal one, based not on self-serving emotion but the incontrovertible truth.

In Januarys past, I've based my so-called self-improvements on bad science and magical thinking to exactly zero lasting effect. My swearing off the flesh is less an attempt to make a "good" choice than a conscious rejection of the power of collective delusion - in this case, the willful blindness it required to go on thoughtlessly eating meat.

In the era of post-truth politics we must all make a profound decision: Are you going to go with your gut? Let your vague inclinations and anxieties, as cemented and reinforced by the silo-thinking of social media, guide you?

Or are you going to search out the facts and act on them? By relinquishing my burger, I am making a concession to the truth. Not the truth as I feel it (because eating the burger is what I'd very much like to do and I have a thousand plausible-yetbiased arguments for why it might actually be fine) but the truth as I know it to be - from the careful study of expert authorities and fact-checked news sources. Provable facts: the unicorns of our time.

If last year was the year of unsettling seismic events, then perhaps this will be the year of small changes. In the face of massive uncertainty we can, at the very least, focus on the little things. We can shift our bodies and ourselves incrementally in the right direction - not by going on temporary, up-ending idiot regimes but by making small and lasting changes. If last year was the year of how we felt, let's make this the year of what we actually know.

Associated Graphic

Pigs gather in a sty in Spain in October, 2015. Factory farming is unhealthy for those who eat the animals, for the planet and for the profits of small-scale farmers.

DENIS DOYLE/GETTY IMAGES


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Mommy, why does he look so happy? And why do you look so sad?
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Leah McLaren on how to talk to your children about president-elect Donald Trump
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Friday, November 11, 2016 – Page L1

'How am I going to explain this to my kids?" This was the question echoing in the annals of middle-class Western social media yesterday as politically minded parents the world over awoke to the news of a Trump victory. Our house was no exception.

"We'd better tell him before he goes to school," my husband, Rob, said as I came downstairs. We both looked at James, our four-year-old, who was on the sofa, naked and wrapped in a sheepskin, watching his 86th Team Umizoomi episode since waking up. "Listen, mate, we need to tell you something," Rob began.

"Mmm hmm?" said James, not tearing his eyes away from the screen.

"A bad and crazy man has been elected the leader of the free world," Rob continued.

James took this in then shrugged. "Okay Daddy, let's kill him," he said.

Rob replied that that wasn't an option. I looked down at the baby in my arms, just eight weeks old, and felt sorry for him for being born in the same year Donald Trump came to power. Then I thought, "Well at least he's a privileged white male." Just what the world needs.

Later, we watched Trump's victory speech live on the laptop as James ate his porridge. He looked confused by all the clapping and toothflashing and hair-flipping going on among team Trump.

"If he's a bad man, why is he saying nice things?" he asked.

"Because he's a very happy bad man," I said.

Here's the thing: When parents ask, "How do I explain this to my kids?" about Trump, what we are really saying is "How do I make my kids not understand this? How do I make them know that in a reasonable world, Donald Trump is not what an American president should look like? How do I stop them growing up with the notion that angry, dangerous, racist bullies end up on top?" Because the real problem is that, in the mind of child, a leader such as Trump is not difficult to understand. In the mind of a child, President Trump makes perfect sense.

After school, by pick-up time, James had completely lost interest in the news. He was more concerned with the question of who would win in a fight: A giant tarantula or a poisonous scorpion? It wasn't that he didn't grasp the notion of a cartoonish half-mad super-baddy in a position of power. It's that his brain is so full of such notions it just seemed sort of ... normal.

Just as Fran Lebowitz observed that Trump is "a poor person's idea of what a rich person should look like," so, too, is Trump a child's idea of what a grown-up Boss of the World should act like. If you told four-year-olds that a loud angry man who became famous for yelling "You're FIRED!" on TV had just assumed the highest office in the land, they would not be surprised.

Children don't automatically understand the underpinnings of democracy, the importance of diplomacy, statesman-like conduct, tolerance and ruling by consensus. These are values we, as adults, have to teach them.

Children, by contrast, tend to see the world in stark hierarchical terms: All battles are epic, all bosses are tyrannical, all rich, powerful people look like the Trumps - shiny, plastic, spraytanned. Good parenting, in many ways, is the process of chipping away at these simplistic and dangerous convictions and replacing them with a morally nuanced grasp of reality.

This goes for both privileged white kids such as mine as well as those who have more to fear from a Trump presidency. Yesterday, I was walking home from my son's school when I ran into another mother, my friend and neighbour Aida, who is Muslim and originally from Turkey.

As our laughing sons zoomed ahead on their scooters, she sighed in disbelief. "My mother said to me this morning, 'What does it matter that he won? We don't live in America!' " she said. "But I told her of course it matters. It matters that this man who hates us is now president.

It matters because my son will one day understand that. It will affect his childhood and his future no matter what I do to protect him from it." I wish I could have said something comforting, but there was nothing to say. Aida and I stood for a while watching our boys play. Then we hugged goodbye and went inside our separate houses to watch the news all over again.

Associated Graphic

Following Donald Trump's shocking win on Tuesday, many politically minded parents in the Western world will be forced to address the question of how to explain the election to their children.

AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

Children don't automatically understand the underpinnings of democracy, the importance of diplomacy, statesman-like conduct, tolerance and ruling by consensus. To them, Donald Trump makes total sense in the role of Boss of the World.

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES


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Fight for your right to work
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Leah McLaren on why Gretchen Carlson's $20million settlement from CNN for sexual harassment is hardly cause to celebrate ... Inequality in the workplace may be more subtle than in the Mad Men era, but women say it's just as pernicious as ever
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Friday, September 9, 2016 – Page L1

You'd be forgiven for thinking it's been a banner week in the fight against sexism in the workplace. On Tuesday, after all, it was announced that a U.S. court ordered Rupert Murdoch's Fox News to pay former anchor Gretchen Carlson $20-million (all figures U.S.) in a settlement after she sued the network for sexual harassment. For years, Carlson claimed, she was harassed and intimidated sexually and professionally by network chairman Roger Ailes, one of Murdoch's closest lieutenants.

Ailes resigned as network chairman in July after more than two decades at the helm of America's noisiest rightwing network - about 20 other women had come forward with similar complaints in the wake of Carlson's suit. At least two of those women have also settled out of court for undisclosed amounts. Ailes, who has since taken a role advising Donald Trump, remains unrepentant, insisting all the claims are bogus and proudly pointing out that Fox paid out the damages, not him.

Carlson's settlement is undeniably a lot of money compared to most settlements of its kind. The New York Times reported it as being "among the largestknown settlements for a singleplaintiff sexual harassment suit" in U.S. history. Unlike racial discrimination suits, many sexual harassment cases in the United States are subject to financial caps imposed in the 1990s. The result, according to a recent report by the publication ThinkProgress, is that for the tiny minority of women who end up taking their employers to court and then winning, the payouts are generally quite small - on average about $30,000.

Carlson's settlement was far richer than the norm because she is a highly paid public figure at a multibillion-dollar network. Her abrupt departure - her contract was not renewed in June - and embroilment in the Ailes scandal have caused untold damage to her reputation, career and future earning power. Sadly, a long list of Fox News female anchors lined up to dismiss her claims against Ailes earlier this summer, including Greta Van Susteren, who is leaving the network herself. Carlson's perfect response to her female colleague's criticism? "They're still being paid by Fox." Exactly.

But what's frustrating about Carlson's case is not the fact that she's a unicorn in the world of workplace sexual harassment suits. It's the reality that the powerful man who harassed her was effectively paid double the amount she got in a golden parachute deal with the network. Yes, that's right, Roger Ailes received $40-million from Fox after Carlson brought her suit, twice the amount Fox was ordered to pay her for having been subject to his harassment. So where's the justice in that?

And although all the dollar figures in this story might seem staggering, broadly speaking, it's important to remember that sexual harassment suits are not a significant liability for most employers today. Why take measures to guard against something that rarely happens, and when it does, it won't cost you much if anything?

Carlson spent months collecting recorded evidence of Ailes's unapologetic sexual threats and bullying, but the fact is, for most women in the workplace, sexual discrimination is much more subtle and insidious - if no less pernicious.

That's why American author Jessica Bennett is urging a new generation of young professional women to take matters into their own hands. In her recently published book, Feminist Fight Club, Bennett tells the story of how she and group of 20- and 30-something girlfriends working in New York started getting together to vent about sexism at work, even.

tually forming the loose organization after which her book is named. "Recognizing sexism is harder than it once was," she writes. "Like the micro-aggressions that people of colour endure daily - racism masked as subtle insults or dismissals - today's sexism is insidious, casual, even friendly. It is a kind of can't-put-your-finger-on-it behaviour that isn't necessarily intentional or conscious. Sometimes women exhibit it, too. None of that makes it any less damaging."

Today's office sexism can be nearly invisible or simply laughed off as jocular good fun - such as the assigning editor who once advised that I "wear something lowcut" when offering me the assignment to interview an A-list male celebrity because "I hear he likes blondes." (Not because, you know, I might have been the best journalist for the job.) Women - and young women in particular - put up with untold amounts of subtle, sexually undermining behaviour that often wreak havoc with their professional confidence. And in the face of all these nearly invisible put-downs - being talked over in meetings, being dismissed or ignored by superiors, or subtly discouraged away from taking on more serious or challenging work - ambitious young women are encouraged to be extra nice since, as Bennett writes, "Men gain professional status when they act angry, viewed as 'passionate' about the job, while women lose status."

A book such as Feminist Fight Club, with it's funny, upbeat tips for recognizing and constructively combatting subtle workplace sexism, is a helpful handbook for young female professionals navigating in a brave new world. But in a landscape where powerful predators such as Ailes are still far more handsomely rewarded than the women they are guilty of harassing, it's hard to celebrate.


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The return of my pint-sized Jekyll and Hyde
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Friday, September 2, 2016 – Page L1

The first day of school is fast approaching and I for one could not be more excited. With it comes the return of my other child, the child I reluctantly said goodbye to last June and whom I have missed dearly in the intervening weeks and months (has it actually been years?) since school ended. That child, whom my husband and I call School James, is the apple of my eye and the light of our lives - he is exactly the kid who, back in my delusional 20-something fantasies of motherhood, I imagined I'd have.

Quiet but confident, outgoing but attentive to others, helpful, diligent, creative, enthusiastic, consistently cheerful and an excellent listener, School James, according to his nursery school report card, "always follows the rules" and "is a delight to have around." He trots about in cute little outfits, smiling at everyone, puts on his own shoes and coat, eats his lunch with relish, says "please" and "thank you" unprompted, goes to the bathroom and washes his hands unassisted. Most notably, he never, ever whines, picks his nose, makes a mess and refuses to clean it up or demands a spoonful of Nutella at 3 a.m. Obviously, I adore him.

The problem is, apart from a few fleeting encounters at the school gates, I've never actually met the kid. That's because he is the alter-ego of my other son, Home James, whom I also love dearly but who is (how can I put this delicately?) a child who enjoys testing boundaries wherever possible. By which I mean he can be - and regularly is - an absolute bloody nightmare.

For example, Home James and I had this conversation at 10:45 p.m. recently after what must have been my 25th attempt to put him to bed.

James: Mummy, when everyone is sleeping, do you know what I do?

Me: Tell me.

James: I fly out my window and swim under the sewers to Kidworld where I have my kid job.

And do you know what my kid job is?

Me: No idea.

James: I'm the boss of the entire city. I make all the rules and everyone else has to follow them. Everyone. Even you and Daddy and all my friends and teachers at school.

Me: That must be exciting.

James: It is. Now get me a spoonful of Nutella and glass of fizzy water in the green cup.

Me: But, darling, we talked about this, Nutella is not for bedtime - James: Mummy, just do it. Otherwise I'll start to cry again. And you don't want me to cry. You know why?

Me: Why?

James: I can tell from your forehead wrinkles you're very tired.

This is life with Home James: Unpredictable, emotionally arduous and funny when it isn't maddening.

The best thing about the Internet, in my opinion, is the way it can put the universality of your own little problems into perspective. Type "My child is an angel at school and a devil at home" into Google and you will get endless anguished parenting blog posts and chat rooms of anxious mothers gathering to share their horror stories under handles such as "MamabearPhilly1977."

But instead of hanging around in those anonymous echo chambers of anxiety, I contacted my go-to parenting expert Andrea Nair, founder of Connect Four Parenting - a woman I respect because she is sensible, human and not overly chirpy.

A former teacher and psychotherapist, she is starting her own independent school in London, Ont., based on her positive-parenting techniques.

Turns out James's Jekyll and Hyde routine isn't so special at all - it even has a name. "It's called After School Restraint Collapse - it's a thing!" Nair responded immediately, directing me to a recent blog post (yummymummyclub.ca) she'd just written on this very phenomenon. She encouraged me to view James's split personality sympathetically and humanely. "You might see this in your partner or even yourself," she pointed out. "You conduct, orchestrate, produce, think, smile, keep things in your inside brain that you wish you could say out loud, then walk in your front door only to turn into a snarly, crabby person."

Hmm, I thought, responding graciously to an e-mail from an editor before turning to snap at the kids to turn down the TV, I have no idea what she's talking about.

As adults, we develop coping strategies for soothing the effects of After School Restraint Collapse. We have friends or wine or yoga or parties for helping us to let loose and test the limits of our "other selves" - the honest, free, unvarnished people we'd like to be all day long but can't be, for fear of getting fired, unfriended or arrested. But for James, he only has Home James - the emotional, irascible, sometimes downright hideous persona he slips into like a pair of comfortable jogging pants after a long day of being School James, his alternate, upstanding and exhaustingly well-behaved better self.

Nair, of course, also offers a bunch of tips for mitigating your child's after-school personality switch. These include offering healthy snacks, limiting their extracurricular activities and even reducing household clutter and noise.

But mostly, as with all aspects of parenting, it really just comes down to two principles: kindness and consistency. If you can succeed in being kind and consistent with your kids most of the time, I really do believe you can't screw up that badly. Even if you're dealing with two kids in one little body.

And when in doubt, try a spoonful of Nutella. Like most parenting advice, it's cheap and full of crap, but occasionally, it does the trick.

Associated Graphic

After School Restraint Collapse is a phenomenon that affects children and parents alike. You work hard to conduct yourself appropriately at work or school, 'then walk in your front door only to turn into a snarly, crabby person,' parenting expert Andrea Nair says.

CHRIS YOUNG FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL


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No more birth shaming
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Why equating 'natural' with 'normal' is harmful, not helpful, to many women
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Friday, August 26, 2016 – Page L1

Last week, Jools Oliver, the designer and wife of celebrity chef Jamie, gave birth to the couple's fifth child. Shortly after, her husband tweeted what has now become goldstandard information in social-media birth announcements - not the name and weight of the baby (today, those are considered private information to be released later at the parents' discretion) but the method and process of birth, as performed by the mother in question. "He arrived safely," Oliver tweeted.

"Mum was really, really amazing, unbelievably composed, natural birth."

So add Jools to the long list of celebrities and privileged women the world over (from Gisele Bundchen to Jennifer Connelly, Julianne Moore and Jessica Alba) who are proud to have given birth in what has become, over the past couple of decades, the only truly socially sanctioned and celebrated method of modern baby delivery: A straightforward vaginal birth without pharmaceutical pain relief. In other words, to use the language of midwives, doulas and prenatal yoga instructors everywhere, a "natural" or "normal" birth. As opposed to the other kinds of birth (involving drugs or, worst of all, surgery), which are considered, by extension, unnatural, abnormal and (the most feared term of all) medicalized.

I'm expecting my second child in just over a month, and while I planned for a non-medicalized "natural" home birth the first time around, this time, my only plan is to have no birth plan at all. Why? Because despite what you might read on Twitter, or learn in your hypno-birthing yoga workshop or from a Ricki Lake documentary, most birth plans aren't worth the maternity-ward clipboards they're written on. More to the point, the growing industry and cult of natural birth, lactivism and attachment parenting (all offshoots of the so-called "natural way" when it comes to the ideals of women's reproductive health and mothering) are not just scientifically unproved in their supposed benefits, they are also detrimental to many women, particularly those of us who wish to work or simply maintain an identity outside motherhood.

I am not saying unmedicated birth is bad - a woman should be free to have triplets while somersaulting in a field of daisies if she wishes, so long as it poses no undue risks to her or her child - but what is bad is exaggerating the benefits of a birth method (and later a way of feeding and caring for a baby) that is often impractical, unpleasant and impossible for many women. Especially when there is little hard evidence to recommend that method, apart from a yearning nostalgia for the Stone Age (hardly a golden era for maternal health or infant mortality, by the way). But this is what the natural birth industry has done over the past 30 years: lied to women, shamelessly and for profit. Natural birthing, breastfeeding and attachment parenting are, for the growing number of people who work in this field, big business - and this is why the claims of their benefits have, over the past couple of decades, been grossly and, indeed, irresponsibly overstated. This strategy has worked enormously well because, guess what? It's easy to guilt an anxious new mother into feeling she ought to be doing the "right" thing.

Of course, like many covertly pernicious movements, the push for natural birth started from a place of real need. In the 1950s, most women in North America gave birth unconscious, under general anesthetic, and fathers were not even allowed in the delivery room. But with feminism came the popularization of organizations such as La Leche League (originally a Catholic women's organization) and Lamaze (a program of breathing techniques that was inspired by methods used in lieu of prenatal anesthetic in the cash-strapped Communist State).

According to Amy Tuteur, M.D., OBGYN and author of the recent book Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting, the natural childbirth movement made great gains in the early second half of the last century. "By the mideighties they'd pretty much accomplished everything they needed to. They should have congratulated themselves on a job well done, packed up their placards and headed home," she told me in a phone interview from her home in Boston this week.

"But instead, they moved them into an area that was not supported by science. They went from saying 'Women should have a choice in how to give birth,' to 'Anything other than natural childbirth is dangerous,' which is simply not true."

If you are pregnant and/or a new parent hoping to be a competent carer whilst maintaining your life and sanity, consider Tuteur's mandatory reading. Here are just a few surprising - and empirically incontrovertible - facts you will learn from it:

1) There is absolutely no scientific evidence to show that pain relief (in the form of an epidural) slows down labour, raises the likelihood of caesarian section or interferes with infant bonding or breastfeeding after the fact. Withstanding labour pain is just as medically beneficial as withstanding pain during the "natural" passing of a kidney stone.

2) The vast majority of medical interventions during the birth process are neither unjustified nor injurious to women, nor are they responsible for raising the maternal or infant mortality rate.

History shows that precisely the opposite is true: Most medical interventions during birth can be classified as preventative medicine.

3) Breastfeeding has some real short-term health benefits, but for babies in countries with reliable clean water supplies, those benefits are trivial. The most exhaustive landmark study on breastfeeding published in 2014 found that there are no proven long-term benefits to breastfeeding.

4) Attachment parenting (i.e., the popular child-rearing philosophy that recommends mothers practise extended breastfeeding, carry their babies rather than place them in strollers and cosleep with their children instead of "sleep training" them) has no scientific basis and was invented and popularized by an evangelical Christian couple (William and Martha Sears) who fervently believed a woman's place was in the home.

For Tuteur - a woman who has seen thousands of women give birth during her career in obstetrics and has four children of her own - the modern obsession with natural birth and child-rearing has "very little to do with birth, babies or parenting and everything to do with the way we view women, motherhood and women's reproductive function as something to be carefully controlled and dominated." In other words, when it comes to the current fashion for natural birth and child-rearing, the matriarchy has simply replaced the patriarchy as the force that says, "Good girls do it this way. Now submit, obey and sublimate your own desires - or else."

For my own part as a mother, I have taken a very long and circuitous route to come to the rather obvious conclusion that when it comes to birth, outcome (i.e., delivering a healthy baby) is far more important than process. In the lead-up to James's birth four year ago, I spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on how wonderful and empowering my birth experience would be rather than taking a cold hard look at the risks of undergoing a firsttime home birth on an untested pelvis. In retrospect, this was the ultimate bourgeois indulgence - and one that could easily have cost my son his long-term health or even his life.

Here's how my birth plan went: 1) First stage of labour - bounce gently on Swiss ball as husband inflates birth pool and aids in hypno-birth breathing techniques. 2) Second stage - home birth midwife arrives. Slip into the birth pool and enjoy her excellent massage techniques whilst moaning deeply into the lavender-scented water and preparing to meet my baby. 3) Give birth and experience a deep sense of joy and pure love as my child latches and nourishes himself at my breast as nature intended.

And here is what actually happened: 1) First stage of labour - wake up in the middle of the night from escalating contractions and spend the next five to six hours crying, screaming and vomiting from spectacular pain far beyond anything previously known or imagined. 2) Somewhere in the searing hurricane of medieval horror register the terrified face of the midwife saying something about "undetected breech" and that "for urgent safety reasons" she is calling the paramedics. 3) Experience the deep joy and pure love that is receiving an epidural and having a healthy perfect baby boy delivered via emergency caesarian section in a country with state-of-the-art universal health care. Ahhhh.

So it all worked out - except for my own unresolved expectations, which left me feeling guilty and bereft for months over the fact that I had failed to give birth in the socially sanctioned way.

These feelings of inadequacy were not helped by the midwife who, in a follow-up appointment, said sympathetically that she wasn't surprised I felt badly, since in her view, I hadn't actually "given birth" at all.

I now see that what I once mourned as a failed natural home birth was in fact a successful C-section that may well have saved both my son's life and mine. For my next birth, my plan is simple: Follow the doctor's advice, focus on the outcome and hope for the best. With any luck, I'll get the same result.


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Summer camp wasn't meant to be live-tweeted
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Friday, August 19, 2016 – Page L1

This summer, our boys went to camp for the first time.

When I say "camp," what I mean is that they spent a week swimming, running, singing and carving sticks into spears in the Canadian wilderness from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the exception of Thursday, when they had a onenight campfire and "sleepover."

To say they both loved it would be an understatement. They arrived home each day to their grandmother's house in Creemore, Ont., filthy, moderately sunburned, with their bathing suits on backward, clamouring to go back. From the first day, Freddy, who is now 8, begged to stay over every night with the rest of the sleep-away campers.

My husband had to be eased into the idea of summer camp (as an English man, he is understandably suspicious of any institution that cheerily promises to instill "spirit and character" into one's children in exchange for boarding fees).

But by the end of the week, he was a convert. It helped, of course, that the camp gave us access that would have been completely unheard of in my day as a camper. They let us wander around the grounds after dropoff, peeking in the cabins and checking out the dining-hall menu. We met all the counsellors and shook their sweaty 16-yearold hands. And during the week, they e-mailed us several photos of the boys, including a particularly sweet one of James being serenaded around the flagpole on his birthday.

But compared with many camps, this was nothing.

In addition to disclosing food allergies and emergency-contact numbers, a regular part of summer-camp registration today is signing the obligatory child-photo waiver. One girlfriend of mine who last summer sent her son to two weeks of sleep-away camp for the first time confessed that she had become unhealthily addicted to the camp's picture gallery and spent time out from her busy job each day logging on to the private server and squinting over group photos to see how often her kid popped up in the group photos, learning a basic d-stroke or making a lumpy pottery mug.

Add to the daily updated galleries the camp's secure, password-protected server CampMinder, the Facebook page updates, Twitter feed, private Instagram account and nightly peppy e-mail blasts from the camp director detailing the day's activities and events, and my girlfriend found herself suddenly more in touch with her son's daily life than she had been during the school year.

She was understandably divided about this, since one of the main benefits of camp (in addition to initiating generations of middle-class Canadian children into the cultish half-feral, halfmilitaristic ways of institutionalized wilderness survival) is to give exhausted parents a muchneeded summer break.

"Despite myself, I keep checking all these channels ['refresh,' 'refresh'] for pictures of my kid, blowing up each image 400 times to see if the little man in the baseball cap is him or some other nine-year-old kid," she confessed. "But I wish I didn't have access to all that information. Holy fishbowl."

Most of the bigger camps in Canada now have social-media directors who spend their days photographing, updating and managing the camp's daily activities and refining the online marketing strategy with a regular churn of inspirational quotes and "visual memories."

In addition to helping summer camps boost enrolment numbers and establish a brand and legacy, this can fuel some unhealthy parental anxiety. A couple of summers back, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about one American mom who made a pact with her young son that he would give a thumbs up in every group photo to indicate to her that he was having a good time. She subsequently woke each morning at 3 a.m. to check the camp website and assuage her worst fears.

Other parents I know actually complete the circle of social media by taking to Facebook to publicly share their anxieties over their kids' camp photo appearances. "After days of checking the camp gallery this picture of Lily finally appeared," one mother friend recently worried on my feed recently. "Does it look like she's having fun to you?" And then, a couple of days later, after the camp posted photos of her daughter smiling and laughing: "Now this is more like it!"

The supreme irony of my generation stalking our children at summer camp through social media is that part of the reason we send them into the woods in the first place is to ensure that little Rufus and Tallulah have at least a couple of weeks each year that are "screen-free," in which they are forced to communicate with their friends and family via spoken language or - weirder still - handwritten letters posted in the mail.

Most summer camps have strict "technology detox" policies for kids that are enormously alluring for parents concerned about Pokemonaddicted preteens and their dopamine-addled brains. But this anti-tech, pro-analogue DIY philosophy is nothing new. Back when I was at camp in the late eighties, we weren't even allowed to take books on canoe trips (only blank writing journals) because any form of outside entertainment was thought to interfere with our sacred ability to commune with nature.

Today, summer camp still offers an escape for children, but not for most parents. That's a shame since the benefits of temporarily disconnecting are not age-specific, especially for my generation of helicopter-proneattachment moms and dads. We fret about our kids being unable to detach and lose themselves in the responsibility-free bliss of summer, but it turns out, as usual, we are the guilty ones in the end.

Associated Graphic

Summer camp traditionally offers an escape for children and adults, but the advent of social media makes it harder for parents to take that much-needed break.

DANIEL HURST/GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO


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The battle for our names
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Forcing women to declare their marital status seems so 19th century
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, July 29, 2016 – Page L1

Just as Queen Bey predicted, girls are now running the world. Or at least NATO and the G8. If and when (God willing) Hillary takes the White House, it will be official: Women leaders will be in control of the most powerful Western democracies on Earth. The flinty triumvirate of Merkel, May and Clinton will sweep us into a new frontier for equality - well beyond what many of us thought possible in this lifetime.

Or should I say Mrs. Merkel, Mrs. May and Mrs. Clinton? For this is what we shall call them.

They will be known, as most married women of their generation are, by their husbands' surnames, introduced with a gendered honorific denoting marital status.

In Mrs. Merkel's case, her surname doesn't even belong to the husband she is currently married to but a man she divorced in 1982. How very odd it must be for Ulrich Merkel, a retired physicist, to hear his own name relentlessly bandied about on the evening news because of a brief first marriage in his youth.

It's not difficult to understand why these three women (and indeed many female professionals) choose to take their husbands' names and be called "Mrs." They do so for the same reason women leaders often wear heels, pearls and skirt suits instead of, say, comfortable shoes and loose trousers. It helps to reassure people that they are women who value traditional notions of family, even if their personal and professional lives don't entirely reflect that. Taking your husband's name, for many strong and otherwise empowered women, is a bit like wearing a little sign that says, "Calm down people, I might be tough and in control here, but I'm not trying to break the whole system, okay?"

A 2000 study of recently married women across Canada found that, within the first three months of marriage, 46 per cent took their husband's name, 8 per cent chose to hyphenate and only 7 per cent chose to retain their maiden names. (The remainder were undecided, though we know that many more married women eventually take their husbands' names once children come along.) In Britain, a study by the polling group Eurobarometer found that in 1994, 94 per cent of British women took their husband's name, whereas in 2013 that proportion had fallen to 74 per cent - a significant drop but still an overwhelming majority.

Presumably because most married women still do it, public perception of women who choose not to take their husband's name is still markedly negative. According to a 2014 YouGov poll, 50 per cent of Americans still believe women should be legally required to take their husband's name and 10 per cent believe women who didn't change their name were less committed to their marriage. On the other hand, a 2010 Dutch survey found that women who did take their husbands' names were less likely to be perceived as professional, hardworking and ambitious - so the gender stereotype cuts both ways.

My question is, why pander to stereotypes at all? Did you know it's actually illegal for women to officially take their husbands' name in many countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Greece and France? This also applies in the province of Quebec. I'd take this legal precedent one step further and require that the honorific "Mrs." apply not just to married women but all women over the age of 18 regardless of marital status. That way women could, officially speaking, be on equal terms with men who are traditionally "Master" in their youth and officially graduate to "Mister" on coming of age.

The term "Ms." which is the one I use, reluctantly and on principle, has become a pejorative term because it feels politically loaded. It was invented to correct a problem it has not exactly solved, i.e., the conundrum of what to call grown women who find "Miss" juvenile and "Mrs." outdated. It bothers me that it suggests that a) I'm likely not married and b) even if I am I don't want anyone to know. The point is, women, like men, deserve an entirely neutral term, one that doesn't come loaded with unnecessary baggage.

I find it supremely ridiculous that women are routinely asked on every form and application, in countless social and professional situations, to effectively declare our marital status when ticking off our preferred honorific, whereas men are not. You might argue that these sort of semantics are not terribly important, that today's feminist activists have bigger fish to fry - rape culture, female genital mutilation and the pay gap among them - and that the issue of gendered honorifics and maiden names is not a major one facing our sex. But I disagree, mainly because when it comes to social progress, symbols are powerful. The fact that May, Merkel and Clinton choose to use their husbands' surnames sends a strong message to young women everywhere, which is essentially: "Let's just stick with the old way, ladies." But the fact is, if we did that, women would not have the right to vote or own property, let alone rule the world.

Lucy Stone, a 19th-century U.S. suffragist and abolitionist, shocked the world in the mid-1850s by signing all her official correspondence with her maiden name "Lucy Stone [only]," and waged a long, heavily publicized legal battle to be allowed to buy land without using her husband's name. When she won, her friend and fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote to her, "Nothing has been done in the woman's rights movement for some time that has so rejoiced my heart as the announcement by you of a woman's right to her name. It does seem to me a proper self-respect demands that every woman may have some name by which she may be known from cradle to grave."

How quickly we forget the lessons of our foremothers.

Associated Graphic

If Hillary Clinton, left, is elected president of the United States, she will join a growing group of female world leaders, such as Theresa May, Britain's Prime Minister, and Angela Merkel, Germany's Chancellor.

GETTY IMAGES


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Don't let global tumult stop your kids from travelling
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By LEAH MCLAREN
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Friday, July 22, 2016 – Page L1

There are three questions I constantly ask myself as a parent. 1) Why for the love of God is he not asleep? 2) Where is the lid for the stupid water bottle? and 3) What do I risk by not allowing my child to take this particular risk?

Earlier this year, after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, several secondary schools across Canada announced they were cancelling school trips to Europe. The Peel District Board of Education, which encompasses much of the suburban belt around downtown Toronto, announced it would be cancelling all trips to abroad for the year including student tours of France, the Czech Republic and Austria, Italy and the Netherlands.

For Europe in general and France in particular, this is just a fraction of a much larger problem. France is the world's leading tourist destination in the world. Roughly 85-million people visited last year alone and for good reason: From the food, the wine, the art, the landscapes, the beaches, the skiing and the architecture, France has it all. But according to the European tourism consultancy, MKG, visitor numbers to France have been down significantly since the Paris attacks last fall and are expected to decline further - a 30-per-cent reduction in tourism is expected for August.

It's no secret why this is happening. People are scared. Terrorism is doing its job, unravelling its tendrils of anxiety into the minds of otherwise sensible travellers.

But here's the thing: Even after the recent attacks in Europe, the threat of terrorism remains a negligible risk and one that is almost impossible to predict. You've heard the the old consumer-safety truism that the average person is more likely to be crushed by a falling television than killed by a terrorist? Well, it turns out to be true. As Phil Sylvester of the travel insurance website World Nomads told Conde Nast Traveler last week, "Everywhere in Europe is the same risk of terror attack today as it was two weeks ago. We're just more aware of it today, feeling the hurt and the fear."

So what are we risking if we won't risk let our children travel? In my view: Virtually everything. If not life itself, certainly life worth living.

When I was 16, my best friend and I spent the summer bumming around Europe on a train pass. This would probably never happen today, but the idea that supervised school trips are now also being cancelled because of this irrational "better-safe-thansorry" parental thinking is utter madness. In an effort to keep our kids safe, we risk turning them into unadventurous, unsophisticated Pokemon addicts. What do we really risk when we deny our teens their first taste of unpasteurized cheese, first glimpse of a great painting or first peek at a topless beach on the Riviera? In an effort not to gamble with their future, we are ensuring they will end up bored and restless rather than energized and impassioned by life.

The question of risk is particularly on my mind because I'm pregnant.

Pregnancy is a time when women must constantly weigh the health of an unborn baby against our own selfish desire for coffee, wine, sushi, Tylenol, cycling or skiing (all of which I continue to indulge in, with careful moderation, while many others do not).

And these mental gymnastics only get more complex as children grow older. Should you let your toddler eat unsliced grapes? Ride a scooter without a helmet?

Hop in the back of a taxi without a car seat? All these things are perfectly legal but do post a certain undeniable risk.

On an instinctive level, I get it, but risk is not something that can be easily measured or contained, especially not by the clumsy machinations of the average parental psyche. Insurance companies do a pretty good job of it (if you want to figure out the odds of your house catching fire or car crashing, just look at the price of your insurance policy), but modern parents are an irrational bunch. We constantly worry that our kids are going to die, which would in turn destroy us, so we do everything in our power to avoid that possibility, no matter how remote. The problem is, we make logical mistakes. In guarding against one highly unlikely risk (the threat of a terrorist attack), we give into another very likely one (the risk that our child will be denied an enriching cultural experience).

When I was three months pregnant, a magazine I work for sent me to Brussels to report on the terrorist attacks. My editor didn't know I was pregnant, nor did I see any reason to tell him. I accepted and completed the assignment without a second thought. Two months later, however, I was invited on a trip to a remote part of Africa that involved visiting patients in clinics treating drug-resistant tuberculosis. In the end, I decided to sit it out. My reasoning was simple: There was a much higher chance of me contracting drugresistant tuberculosis in Madagascar than there was of me being caught in a second terrorist attack in Brussels, a city on military lockdown during a national state of emergency. In terms of statistical risk, there was simply no comparison. It was the difference between, say, getting struck by lightening or getting hit by a car. Both are conceivably possible every time you leave the house, but which do you actively take precautions against?

Similarly, while there is a remote risk that you or your child might get killed in a terrorist attack while visiting Europe, it is pretty much certain that by not travelling to Europe you or your child will not travel to Europe. Is that a risk you're really prepared to take?

Associated Graphic

What do we risk if we won't let our children travel? If not life itself, then certainly life worth living.

SISKA GREMMELPREZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES


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Playing dirty
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Leah McLaren celebrates new research that shows filthy kids fare better on the allergy front. All the more reason, she writes, to avoid ever wiping them down
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, July 15, 2016 – Page L1

There's lots of stuff I care about as a parent; some of it is genuinely important to my kids' survival (like nutrition, exercise and sleep), while the rest is decidedly not (table manners, cute pyjamas and grammar).

But there is one seemingly important thing I just can't get interested in as a parent, and that is personal hygiene. Cleanliness may well be next to godliness, as the old saying goes, and by that standard my children are going straight to hell. They have dirty habits and are filthy most of the time and here's the truth: I don't care. Like, at all.

I've always felt mildly ashamed of this and have tried to compensate for my children's slovenliness by cultivating alternative domestic arts. I bake on the weekends and grow my own vegetables and my house is surprisingly tidy and full of fresh flowers. And while I hate the sight of a crumb-strewn counter, I can't be bothered to chase my kids around with a damp cloth.

Unlike countertops or porcelain sinks, children stubbornly resist my attempts to wipe them down. This is extremely annoying.

And now - hallelujah, praise the heavens - an exhaustive new study has been released that shows my high tolerance for grubby fingers might be the key to my kids' continued good health. According to researchers in New Zealand, children who either suck their thumbs or bite their nails between the ages of five and 11 (thus imbibing far more bacteria and microbes than non-biter/suckers) are significantly less likely to exhibit allergies or asthma later in life. The study looked at a test group from age five to 38.

These findings seem to support an older scientific theory called the hygiene hypothesis. This holds that exposure to a crosssection of germs in early childhood immunizes kids to certain allergies and illnesses later on.

I've heard parents dryly pay lip service to this idea, but judging by the amount of hand sterilizer and anti-bacterial wet wipes at the playground, few of them seem to believe it.

As Robert J. Hancox, one of the researchers, and an associate professor in the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at Dunedin School of Medicine, told The New York Times: "The hygiene hypothesis is interesting because it suggests that lifestyle factors may be responsible for the rise in allergic diseases in recent decades. Obviously hygiene has very many benefits, but perhaps this is a downside.

The hygiene hypothesis is still unproven and controversial, but this is another piece of evidence that it could be true."

I'm counting on it, if only so I can pass off my schleppery as maternal vigilance.

If you're imagining my children look and smell like the wildlings in Game of Thrones, I assure you it's not quite that bad. With the rare exception of camping holidays or days when my husband and I are both hungover, they are more Dothraki-meets-outdoorcat in their general comportment, by which I mean they are decidedly scruffy but not entirely feral.

I do the bare minimum required to escape side-eye from their teachers. I comb their hair and brush their teeth and chuck them in a warm, apple-scented bubble bath when they get that appalling scalpy smell (maybe once a week?), but apart from that I'm not fussed. I don't make them wash their hands or remove their outdoor shoes unless they are covered in mud. I don't wipe their noses unless they can't breath or worry if there's glitter glue in their ears. I don't care if they draw pictures on their bodies or use their belly buttons for sand storage. If they drop a fork or food on the floor, right back into their mouth it goes.

Their clothes are covered in permanent juice stains and their fingernails are perennially black.

By the end of the summer their little feet look like those hightech black sock/shoes barefoot marathoners use. Last weekend James spent an hour-long car ride snacking on stale furry trail mix he'd found on floor of the back seat. Did I mind? Not in the least.

I hate waste, after all, and the car floor is a magical camp tuck shop of nutritional possibilities.

And here's something that might really shock you: I've never even once attempted to sterilize a baby bottle. I wash them on high heat in my state-of-the-art, German-engineered dishwasher. The fact that most people do otherwise has always seemed strange.

For instance, how did the human race profligate for centuries before they invented those cumbersome bottle sterilizer thingies? A few major epidemics aside, we did just fine. Just as we did just fine before salad spinners, keyboard wipes and vaginal steaming. And so we shall continue, a planet of filthy, hapless mammals spawning our way into an uncertain future. I, for one, am glad of it.

Associated Graphic

Researchers say children who suck their thumbs or bite their nails are less likely to develop allergies or asthma later in life.

KATHARIENA/GETTY IMAGES


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RECIPE FOR A PERFECT SUMMER
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Unstructured time is overrated, writes Leah McLaren. Kids today can't wander around whiling away the hours like they used to
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, July 8, 2016 – Page L1

With the end of the school year comes the flood of articles decrying the "overstimulation" of our children and imploring modern parents to embrace the joys of unstructured time for kids during the summer months.

"Let them outside to play!" we like to holler at this time of year, and while the sentiment is well-intentioned, it's also an elitist cultural fallacy.

Most parents of young children today grew up in the 1970s and 80s, a time when Canadian kids, outside of school hours, ran freely in the streets, parks and backyards of small towns and big cities, climbing trees, skipping rope and happily tormenting one another free from prying adult eyes. Today however, for a range of cultural reasons, this is no longer the case. You can let your eight-year-old "out to play" this summer, but chances are, if she ventures beyond your property she will have no one to play with and you will be lucky if a well-meaning neighbour doesn't call Social Services if they see her wandering alone in the park.

I'm not saying this is a good thing (obviously it's not) but it is reality. We all talk about "helicopter parents" as if these people are not us - but guess how many of my parent friends would let their first grader walk to the corner store to buy a Popsicle alone? Not one.

The upshot is that when we talk about the "importance of boredom for kids" (Google this phrase and you will get hundreds of results from Huffington Post to BBC News to countless parenting blogs) we are often confusing the freedom of the past with the confinement of today.

For the vast majority of Canadian children, being bored all summer is just that: boring. It means sitting indoors in a hot apartment with no backyard or swimming pool to splash around in, no expensive summer camp to spend long days canoeing on a lake, no glorious summer cottage to while away the days reading on the dock. For most kids, boredom is real and contrary to the "experts" on your social media feed, unstructured hours and empty days are not a magical portal into a nostalgic landscape of summers past. Having no camp, cottage or summer activities planned and paid for means endless hours of screen time because the local library is 10 blocks away and books and movies tickets are expensive. It means cereal poured from a box for breakfast, lunch and dinner while Mom and Dad commute back and forth to work.

I spent a large portion of my own preadolescent summers in a state of sweaty, restless boredom.

After my parents divorced my mother moved around a lot, working as a split-shift reporter at local papers in Southern Ontario.

When my sister and I went to stay with her, in whatever temporary apartment she happened to be living in, we were often left alone for hours on end with little or nothing to do but watch Three's Company reruns and wait for her to come home from work. Occasionally there would be enough money to go see a movie, but not always. Usually there would be food other than peanut butter and crackers, but not always.

There were plenty of books and we devoured them (I remember reading Erica Jong's Fear of Flying and Marilyn French's The Women's Room at the age of 10 and being unable to speak for about a week). My mother did her best as an overworked, overwhelmed single parent but let's just say summertime wasn't a panacea of glorious creative development and I was immensely relieved when school started back up in September.

The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once wrote that the "capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child. Boredom is a chance to contemplate life, rather than rushing through it." And while this might be true for privileged kids, the opposite is often true for the idle offspring of stretched working parents.

What we mean when we say our children need to "learn to be bored," is that children need to learn to amuse themselves without structured activity being provided for them. But reading a book or doing a puzzle or even happily gazing at the clouds is not the same as being bored. Boredom, true boredom and inertia, is awful. It's getting past boredom, to a state of independent engagement or flow, that's the real trick.

And flow is a learned behaviour - one most kids today pick up from passionate teachers or counsellors and engaged parents who are willing and able to expose them a wide range of skills and opportunities.

As for those summer activities we do organize for our kids - the city art camps, team sports, swimming lessons, music practice, coding school, off-season ski training and overnight nature camps - they are an enormous privilege, afforded to the lucky few and not something to be sneered at. Kids who engage in these activities are more likely to be physically and emotionally healthy as well as socially and academically engaged.

So this summer, please don't tell me my kids would be better off bored at home than busy at camp. As a formerly bored kid I can tell you which is better, and it's the option with tennis, sailing and canoes on a lake. Surprised?

You've clearly never spent a summer watching Three's Company reruns.


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Friendships fuelled by wild nights are Absolutely Fabulous
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A trip back to a beloved British sitcom uncovers the life-affirming madness - and enduring sanity - of long-lasting female bonds
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Friday, July 1, 2016 – Page L3

A bsolutely Fabulous, the longawaited feature film, is finally out in London this week. (Canadians will have to wait until July 22.)

This major cultural event for sybaritic fashion-hounds everywhere also comes just in time for the international season of gay pride, in which marvellous, drunken, gender-bending renditions of Patsy and Edina will take to the streets of cities across globe - man-size Louboutins staggering under the weight of diamante water pistols and magnums of Veuve.

I was never, oddly enough, a huge fan of the series, which peaked in the mid-to-late 1990s just as Sex and the City began to heat up. I say "oddly" because to look at my unofficial résumé, you'd think I'd be the ideal viewer: worked for years as a fashion journalist, spent most of my 20s and 30s traipsing around to cocktail parties, lived intermittently in London, hung out with lots of gay men and the kind of women who prefer the company of gay men, drank too much, smoked too much, ate too much, dieted too much, travelled too much, worked too much and went to bed with a lot of men I probably shouldn't have. You know, the regular twentysomething urban trip before hipsters appeared and started making artisanal cheeses and wildflower ink for fun.

But rewatching some of the classic early episodes this week (the one in which they go to Morocco and the one in which Patsy tricks Eddie into drinking her own pee, particularly stand out), I suddenly understood why it must have once seemed so fresh and biting against the cable network backdrop of glossy ensemble cast sitcoms like Friends. Ab Fab, after all, was one of the first great shows about the life-affirming madness - and enduring sanity - of prolonged female friendship.

When I look back now - aged 40, and more than halfway through my second pregnancy - I think the fuel that carried me through the best part of my young adulthood was not sex or work or romance but the energy of girlfriends.

And it's a rich, free and renewable energy because almost without exception I am still good friends with the women with whom I shared all that hilarity, melodrama and pain. I talk to them, scattered around the globe, every day. And while the stuff we spent our time agonizing about has long passed and ceased to matter - men, work and men, in that order - our passion for each other's company has never abated.

And let's be honest, most of my best girlfriends are a little mad - if not totally off the rails, they are the sort of women who almost without exception have done one or all of the following: 1) had a passionate and totally ill-advised affair with someone 20 years outside their age bracket, 2) stolen a car, 3) quit a stable job with a pension plan impulsively by sweeping out of a meeting in a cloud of swear words, 4) had a full 1980s-style "nervous breakdown," complete with Valium prescription, 5) drunk their own pee on the advice of their yoga instructor, just to see if it cured their hangover (it didn't and it won't - you're welcome).

These days, given the mindnumbingly sober, slow moving, fetus-incubating sanity of my life, I am living vicariously through my mad girlfriends as never before. Take my girlfriend Dee who lives in New York. Having recently vacated a bad marriage to a bad man she is on a tear extraordinaire and we regularly have text exchanges that go something like this.

Dee: Last night was INSANE.

Me: Do tell! After which follows an account of a night/morning of such startling pansexual hedonism and devil-may-care amorality it would make Lindsay Lohan blush. Now Dee is not a bad girl, nor is she a mad girl, nor is she actually even a girl - she's pushing 40 for heaven's sake - but this is just the way she needs to be for the time being.

And I, as her very conventionally married and pregnant girlfriend, fully support it. Because it was only a few scant years ago that Dee was the one in the happy, seemingly stable marriage and I was the one texting her tales of my broken relationship from the dance floor in Ibiza while she punched the air in "You go girl!" support.

In the new Ab Fab movie there is a funny moment when Edina complains to Patsy she is "now officially fatter sideways than I am front on," and Patsy says, "Darling, let me be your mirror."

Edina smiles, then asks Patsy how she looks. "FABULOUS," she intones in that husky drawl, then proceeds to walk straight into a wall.

This moment, ludicrous as it is, sums up everything I feel about my maddest, baddest, bestest girlfriends: Cock-eyed and halfdemented as we are, we are still each other's best mirrors. We are the force that's left - cigs, wine and loving words at the ready - when all else around us has failed.

Associated Graphic

Jennifer Saunders's Edina Monsoon and Joanna Lumley's Patsy Stone, the stars of Absolutely Fabulous, draw on the hilarity of our best female friendships.


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Kids of working parents: good luck with that sleep thing
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Friday, June 24, 2016 – Page L1

If shouting is the new spanking, then sleeping is the new exercising.

This is the exhausting message from Canada's recently released ParticipAction Report Card, which last week informed tired, stressed out parents everywhere that the children of the nation are not only weaker and lazier but, increasingly, they are sleep deprived as well. In a report titled Are Canadian Kids Too Tired to Move? the non-profit organization cited a "creeping sleepidemic" as the reason Canadian kids have scored so poorly on the physical activity portion of the report yet again this year. According to ParticipAction, only 37 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds play outdoors for more than two hours each day and over 75 per cent of all kids exceed the daily guidelines for allocated screen time. This, according to their research, greatly contributes to the rising number of children who receive either too little or poor quality sleep at night, with more than a quarter of Canadian kids currently sleep deprived.

It's a vicious circle, of course, since what do exhausted people of all ages like to do with our free time? Let's just say climbing trees and frolicking in meadows is not top of the list. Instead, we like to lay on the sofa, eat processed carbohydrates and binge watch Amazon Prime. As an exhausted working parent, I should know.

And I blame my own exhaustion on the fact that I have kids. Just last night, for instance, my three year old was woken up by a nightmare at 3 a.m. and then, after being soothed back to sleep, bounded out of bed at 5:30. We can blame our kids for making us tired but who do we have to blame for our kids' exhaustion?

Only ourselves - and the crazy world we live in.

It's an impossible parenting conundrum, this problem I have come to call the Sleep Thing, a debilitating issue right up there with other riveting topics of parental conversation, which include the Child Care Thing, the Eating Thing and, later on, the Homework Thing. But the Sleep Thing deserves a special rank since a significant lack of it will very quickly wreak havoc on your physical and emotional stability and unravel any sense of sanity you cling to in order to just slog through the workweek.

This is, of course, especially true for very young children who are naturally unreasonable to begin with. For toddlers, a lack of sleep just makes the day-to-day insanity that much more deranged.

Parents, it seems, are at a loss when it comes to the Sleep Thing and so the well-intentioned gym teacher types at ParticipAction have come up with a new set of firm guidelines for parents in an effort to solve the problem. But realistically these guidelines will be very challenging, if not impossible, for many working Canadian families to meet. Unlike nutritional rules, which parents can follow simply by shopping and cooking accordingly, sleep is subject to the vagaries of the spacetime continuum. For instance, say you are a working couple with two kids aged two and four, one in daycare and the other after school care until 6 p.m. each weekday. And say your kids wake up, as is pretty standard, around 6 a.m. in order to get ready and out the door in time for school/ daycare at 8-8:30 a.m. If you are this family (and a great many of us are), you would need to get your kids fed, bathed, read-to and asleep within one-two hours maximum of arriving home each weekday in order to meet the absolute bare minimum health standard for sleep. It's actually a miracle that nearly three quarters of Canadian families apparently do manage to do this.

I consider myself a bit of a drill sergeant when it comes to bedtimes and so-called "sleep hygiene" (no sugary snacks or screen time just before bed or in bed et cetera) and I rarely manage to meet the minimum recommendations, let alone make sure my toddler gets 13 hours sleep a night. I wish. The truth is, if he did, he wouldn't see enough of his father, who works long hours during the week and races home from the office each night hoping I've been derelict enough in my bedtime duties that he can steal a goodnight kiss from both boys. Often, though not always, the youngest is already asleep.

So what does my three year old gain from that extra half-hour of oblivion weighed against missing out on an evening snuggle from his hard-working dad? It's impossible to say, but this is the sort of crazy-making math all parents must do when it comes to the Sleep Thing. It's a lot trickier than just puréeing vegetables into a meat sauce or kicking your kids outdoors to play. As public health issues go, sleep is affected by the limited number of hours we have in a day or a week.

Unless we all start magically working less or loudly demanding more (more flexible work arrangements, more parental leave, more help for working parents everywhere) nobody's going to be getting a better night's sleep any time soon.

Associated Graphic

ParticipAction has devised some guidelines for parents in an effort to promote good sleep hygiene.

ISTOCKPHOTO


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A closet mentality is the real threat
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Friday, June 17, 2016 – Page L1

Was Omar Mateen a semicloseted, self-hating gay man?

This is the troubling question at the heart of America's worst mass shooting in modern history and one currently under investigation by the FBI. Multiple witnesses have told the media that Mateen was a regular at Pulse, the Orlando gay nightclub in which the weekend shooting occurred. A former male friend from the police academy claims Mateen asked him on multiple dates. Mateen's ex-wife, who told reporters he was abusive and mentally ill, also said she believed he had "homosexual tendencies." And it's been widely reported that he solicited dates on the gay dating apps Jack'd and Grindr.

Other reports have characterized Mateen as a homophobe (a logical conclusion judging by the horrific and targeted nature of his crime). Both his father and a former colleague remarked on his habit of making angry antigay comments, in addition to racist and sexist ones. In Mateen's father's case, he posted a video the day after the attack saying how saddened he was by his son's mass murder, which was unnecessary since "the issue of gay punishment ... is up to God and God punishes them for what they do." This gives us some insight into the views on homosexuality Mateen would have been brought up with - and the kind of internal struggle he might have felt.

But it's hardly an unusual struggle. I know many gay people who grew up in socially conservative families, whether for religious or cultural reasons, and none of them has committed mass murder. In fact, almost all are now living free, open, joyful (and often conventionally married) lives as a result of the social progress that's been made by the LGBT community in recent decades. The closet, for most of the LGBT community in the West, is effectively a thing of the past - the place where the ghosts of Rock Hudson and Liberace occasionally meet up for a Mai Tai and an illicit disco dance with Ed Koch. And yet, in some families, some communities and some troubled, tortured minds, the closet mentality still persists. For those of us living in the free and easy secular new world, it would be wise not to ignore it. Why?

Because the closet mentality, especially in conjunction with untreated mental illness, has been proven to be both socially and psychologically dangerous.

Long before Omar Mateen planned and executed his act of anti-gay terrorism, there was evidence that sexually motivated hate is often deeply linked to the suppression of desire.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that respondents who were most hostile toward gay people and held strong anti-gay views were also far more likely to have undercover same-sex desires. Anti-gay prejudice, the study revealed, was also strongly linked to authoritarian parents with strongly homophobic views.

At the time, co-author Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, said, "If you are feeling that kind of visceral reaction to an out-group, ask yourself, 'Why?' Those intense emotions should serve as a call to self-reflection.

Sometimes people are threatened by gays and lesbians because they are fearing their own impulses, in a sense they 'doth protest too much.' In addition, it appears that sometimes those who would oppress others have been oppressed themselves, and we can have some compassion for them too, they may be unaccepting of others because they cannot be accepting of themselves."

The idea that repressed (or simply hidden) sexuality is linked to hatred of the self and others isn't just a theory; it's been illustrated throughout history. The most obvious example is the United States' infamous "lavender scare" of the 1950s, a lesser known corollary to the well-known "red scare" in which Senator Joseph McCarthy embarked on a crusade to purge communists and communist sympathizers from all levels of U.S. government and positions of social influence. Gay people were also viewed as dangerous "subversives" at the time and over just a couple of years nearly 425 State Department employees were fired for allegations of homosexuality, and countless more persecuted. The key architect of the lavender scare was a lawyer named Roy Cohn, who became chief counsel on McCarthy's congressional subcommittee. Together with the enthusiastic support of the FBI, then headed by J. Edgar Hoover, these men embarked on a homophobic witch hunt of staggering social proportions.

Cohn and Hoover, it has since emerged, were secretly and actively gay all through the years they worked tirelessly to make life miserable for men like themselves. The presumed psychological reasons for this sort of behaviour are counterintuitive, if not entirely surprising: When we feel conflicted or ashamed, the desire to take out our pain on others can be intense. Torturing those in whom we see our most hated selves reflected can, for some, offer an obvious kind of sadistic pleasure.

Cohn died of AIDS, a disease he insisted was liver cancer, in 1986. His demise - and twisted closet mentality - was dramatized in Tony Kushner's play Angels in America. Hoover, who died of a heart attack in 1972, was eulogized by then-president Richard Nixon for a lifetime of "magnificent achievements."

Since the lavender scare, the United States, and the religious right of the Republican Party in particular, has seen a long string of scandals involving (almost exclusively white and male) politicians who were revealed to be secretly gay while actively campaigning to curb gay rights.

Omar Mateen might have been a self-hating gay man, but he is hardly the first to have terrorized America.


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What not to say to parents who don't have 'one of each'
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Friday, June 10, 2016 – Page L1

According to most major economic and social indicators, we are soon to be living in a post-gender world. In the West, being born with a penis or a vagina is no longer a barrier to wearing certain clothes or doing certain jobs - at least not officially. It is not even a barrier to changing gender and the biological accoutrements to match. Obviously sexism and stereotypes still exist, but we agree that such things are retrograde. Like single-sex schools, men's only golf clubs and Femfresh Intimate hygiene wash, they're out there, but not for long.

At least that's what I thought until I got pregnant with another boy. Five months gone now and I find myself amazed almost daily at the stuff otherwise liberal people say to me about my unborn child.

Did I mention I'm having a boy? A second one for me, biologically speaking, and a third for our family with my stepson.

In superficial terms, this means that our gang is about to join that most pitied subcategory of middle-class breeders: families with three or more children of the same sex.

In practical terms, it means that there will be a lot of pee on the bathroom floor. And walls. Occasionally even the ceiling. I get that. But here's the thing: I don't need to be reminded of it at a cocktail party. Especially when I can't have a cocktail.

Earlier this year, a viral blog post on the U.S. site Scary Mommy, titled Ten Things Never to Say to a Mom Expecting Another Boy, nailed it. As soon as I announced we were having another lad, people said stuff like, "At least you won't have to buy new clothes/toys," or "Were you disappointed?" and, my personal favourite, "So do you think you'll try again for a girl?" (Um, yeah, I'm a 40-year-old working mom about to have three small children. Obviously getting pregnant with a fourth in the hope of "winning" the genetic lottery is the first thing on my mind - thanks for the awesome suggestion!) For the first while, I gamely played along. "Clearly God hates us," I'd say, or "Don't worry, we're planning to bring him up as a fully transitioned male-tofemale transsexual anyway." I was joking - clearly - but often people did not seem to get it.

Most people, even today, cleave to the notion that boys and girls are fundamentally different, not just in body but spirit. Of course, there are broad differences, but as far as I can see, we are guilty of reinforcing them (if not creating them in the first place) with all the stuff we project on kids from such a young age. Little boys, we say, are born noisy, feral animals while all girls are inclined to sit in the corner glitter-gluing crafts.

Later, we insist that teenage boys are "easygoing," while adolescent girls become makeup-obsessed banshees half-demented with hormones.

This is not something I accept.

Even if these gender stereotypes are broadly true, it doesn't make them "natural," and I see exceptions to them everywhere I look.

Marketing and pop culture are designed to convince us that males and females are essentially different (and thus predisposed to buy more and separate stuff), but when I think of all the sensitive and thoughtful little boys and wise unflappable teenage girls I know, these stereotypes don't stand up. And this is especially true for newborns, who are, let's face it, virtually indistinguishable.

Most of us accept this, ideologically speaking, and yet there remains a disconnect in the way we talk about babies. People who ostensibly believe in gender equality will happily tell you that boys need to eat more or girls are better sleepers, even though not a scrap of evidence exists to suggest this. They'll tell you your morning-sickness symptoms are caused by the boy you're carrying, or that it's got to be a girl because of the particular shape of your bump. It's all a bunch of superstitious nonsense and yet we insist on sharing it.

Here is the truth: There are penises and there are vaginas, but even these are only loosely connected to the ephemeral, constantly shifting concept that is gender in 2016. My son will be born later this year, and I'm not putting much stock in his sex.

Just like the religious background of his family or the colour of his skin, it means far less than it did 50 years ago - and that is a good thing.

So when people tell me he's going to be "a handful," I do get a bit weary. I'm not just sick of the implication that boys are somehow more difficult. I am sick of otherwise intelligent people perpetuating the kind of stereotypes that lead to practices such as sex-selective abortion and the wage gap. I am sick of sexism in all its forms, starting with the way we talk about the unborn.

So if you're looking for something to say to a woman pregnant with yet another boy, here's a suggestion: "Congratulations!"

It might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how rarely she may have heard it.

Associated Graphic

Even socially progressive people still seem to cling to the notion that boys and girls are fundamentally different.

ISTOCKPHOTO


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Puff Daddy
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Nobody blinks when moms joke about 'wine o'clock.' So why, Leah McLaren asks, do stay-at-home dads who light a doobie during playtime get accused of crossing the line?
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Friday, June 3, 2016 – Page L1

The first stoner dad I met was my neighbour, Joe.

Joe is in his mid-30s, lives with his wife (a checkout clerk at our local grocery store), and is the primary carer for their two-year-old daughter.

Most mornings, after Joe's wife leaves for work, he sits in the backyard while his daughter plays, drinking a mug of coffee while languidly smoking a large, pungent joint. The smell wafts in through my office window, but Joe - who, in his dungarees, goatee and trucker cap, looks like something out of a Cheech and Chong movie - has never done anything to hide his morning weed habit.

If I catch his eye over the garden fence, he just smiles and waves, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to be hauling on a fatty while singing The Wheels on the Bus at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning.

At first I judged him. But after observing Joe for more than a year, I must acknowledge he's a great dad: attentive, cheerful and engaged without hovering or being anxious. His daughter, a smiling, confident little chatterbox, does not show signs of being the neglected child of a chronic drug user. In fact, she seems closer to her father than most kids that age.

Watching her flourish under his benevolent, weed-baked gaze has made me wonder: Is marijuana is the new Mother's Little Helper for the emerging generation of stay-home dads?

Since meeting Joe, I've spotted stoner dads everywhere.

The guy on paternity leave, loping down the street, pushing a buggy with one hand and smoking a doob with the other. Two dudes on the park bench overseeing an afternoon play date and passing a pinner. A group of fathers at a Sunday afternoon backyard barbecue, sharing a joint on a picnic blanket before dispersing to change diapers or jump on the trampoline with the kids while their wives drink wine and chat over the grill.

Statscan doesn't track numbers of pot-head parents in Canada (funny that), but it has tracked the rising number of stay-athome dads in Canada in recent decades. In 1976, dads stayed home in only 2 per cent of couples with at least one child under 16; by 2014, that number climbed to 11 per cent. As well, one-fifth of Canadians stated in a recent phone poll by Forum Research that they smoked pot last year, and 59 per cent said they support some form of legalization.

Matt Austin, a Toronto-based writer-director and father of a toddler and an eight-year-old, said he sees no harm in using pot to relax while tending to his kids at the end of a long day.

"When I'm a little stoned, I'm thinking less of all the things in my life that cause me anxiety, and I'm able to be present and creative with my children," he said. "For me, it's an end-of-day thing, when I know I don't need to be on full parent and responsibility alert."

Then there's my friend Kevin (not his real name). Kevin and his wife moved to Los Angeles from London last year after she got a job in a new design firm.

As Kevin waits for his American work visa to come through, he's become primary carer for the couple's five-year-old daughter - a job he unapologetically combines with the occasional (read: almost daily) mid-afternoon joint around the backyard pool.

"It sounds a bit wanky to say," he said, "but it helps me get right down to her level and play, like I did when I was her age."

Kevin added that he's always conscious of his intake and that, after years of pot-smoking, he knows how to moderate his dose for maximum effect. "By the time bedtime rolls around, my buzz has worn off and I'm back to nagging her to brush her teeth like any boring parent."

Plenty of mothers smoke pot, too, of course, but many do it at adult parties, on the sly or after the kids have gone to bed. For mothers, the stereotype has long been "mommy juice," the cheeky bottle of chardonnay, cracked open at the end of the after-school play date or during the preparation of buttered pasta before dinner. That or the soul-calming effects of antianxiety pills such as Xanax and Lorazepam.

The difference with some of these pot-enthusiast dads is that they don't view their drug of choice as a mere escapist crutch.

In moderation, they see it as an effective aid in the difficult and often emotionally taxing job of being a parent.

"The fact is, weed makes playtime more fun, suppertime more delicious, bathtime more relaxing and storytime more interesting," one Toronto-based pot-smoking father of two who wished to remain nameless told me in a phone interview this week. "What's not to like?" Given that pot is now legally used in a medicinal capacity in many countries in the world, including Canada, it is no more taboo than alcohol consumption where parenting and daily life is concerned. And yet, old social habits die hard. If I saw a group of parents standing around at a toddler's birthday party sipping mimosas, I'd applaud (and probably reach for one myself). If they were passing around a bong, however, I'd find it hard to conceal my horror. This isn't because I don't smoke pot (it makes me queasy), but because I associate it with illegality.

But with the Liberal government keen to decriminalize or even legalize pot completely, that view seems soon to be outdated. After all, most of us shamelessly drink around our kids, and yet excessive alcohol consumption is strongly linked to all sorts of dysfunctional behaviour and social problems (domestic abuse, child neglect, excessive verbal conflict, to name a few). According to a report by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, the main social problem caused by chronic cannabis use is increased professional absences and decreased productivity and work performance. Which raises the question: Outside of an office environment, could small doses of marijuana actually help parents relate better to their children?

Writing in The New York Times a couple of years back, the art dealer Mark Wolfe argued that since receiving a prescription for medicinal marijuana, his back pain and insomnia had improved and, surprisingly, so had his parenting: "I swear I am a more loving, attentive and patient father when I take my medication as prescribed."

Cannabis, he added, enhances the user's ability to relax, slow down and perceive beauty in otherwise mundane aspects of life. This mood-altering effect, he wrote, "can be enormously salutary to the parent-toddler relationship. Beyond food, shelter and clothing, what do small children need most from their parents? Sustained, loving, participatory attention."

Canadian doctors aren't yet prescribing pot lollipops for parenting-related stress, but the future for ganja enthusiasts is looking bright. In the meantime, on the back decks of the nation, Daddy's Little Helper persists. As Austin points out, "Why is it okay for moms to joke about 'wine o'clock' but we can't talk about taking the edge off with pot?" You've got a point there, dad.

Now pass the PB&J and stop harshing my mellow.

Associated Graphic

About one-fifth of Canadians interviewed for a recent Forum Research phone poll said they smoked pot last year.

KEVIN FRAYER/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Saturday, June 04, 2016
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Overcoming the Expectations Gap
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Avoiding unrealistic ideas about the bliss of married life may lead to a happier - and healthier - relationship
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Friday, May 27, 2016 – Page L8

Another wedding season, another study showing that marriage is a raw deal for heterosexual women.

Last month, University College London and the London School of Economics released a joint study that found men who married were far less likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome - a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity - than their unmarried counterparts. For married women, the same health benefits simply did not exist.

It's just the latest in a towering wall of research illustrating that the much-touted benefits of marriage are, in fact, a gendered proposition. The phenomenon, known in sociological circles as the Marriage Benefits Imbalance, has shown consistently that while married men enjoy increases in health, wealth and happiness over their singleton brothers, married women tend to be less financially stable, more depressed, less physically fit and more vulnerable to violence and abuse than their single and unmarried female counterparts.

And yet traditionally speaking, women are the ones in our culture who get excited about marriage, whereas men (so the stereotype goes) are often not as keen.

Part of this comes down to the nature of weddings, which are geared toward celebrating the bride over the groom. Even this is confounding, since the bride is the one, according to tradition, who is being transferred as chattel - a.k.a. "given away" from one man to another. The bride is, quite literally, the Thing - as in a subjugated piece of property being celebrated in an economic and social transaction.

No wonder so many modern brides end up so disappointed once the cake and rose petals are cleared away. A natural corollary of the Marriage Benefits Imbalance is that women tend to be far more likely than men to initiate divorce. A recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons of 1,147 middle-aged divorced men and women found that 66 per cent of women reported they were the ones who wanted the split.

We know that women work longer hours for less pay and do the lion's share of domestic labour in most households. So it stands to reason that wives put more effort into marriage and reap fewer of its spoils. No wonder so many of us end up so deeply annoyed.

What's truly fascinating, however, is that one can't simply put this trend down to a simple war of the sexes - e.g., the inherent selfishness of men vs. the inherent selflessness of women. The problem with marriage for women seems to have something to do with the institution itself, rather than the nature of committed heterosexual relationships. A paper last year from a Stanford University sociologist found that while women initiated roughly twothirds of breakups in heterosexual marriages, this much-documented trend only held true for legally married couples. Women in other forms of long-term committed relationships did not report the same levels of dissatisfaction, nor were they more likely than their partner to initiate a split.

So what's the real problem here?

My best educated guess would involve yet another nifty sociological term: the Expectations Gap. This is the idea that the sort of women who tend to marry are often the sort of women who tend to have - shall we say - untenable expectations of the benefits their union is going to provide. I'm not just talking about deluded contestants on The Bachelor who think some guy putting a big sparkly ring on it is going to lead to a life of eternal, softfocus bliss. I'm talking about myself.

I was once a young woman who very much wanted to be married, and for all the wrong reasons. I fervently believed - insane as it sounds now - that marrying a man with whom I shared few-to-zero important life goals would make me feel safe and centred, a sensation I craved the way a vampire craves blood. Not surprisingly, binding my life to someone with whom I had little in common (apart from an agonizing seven-year on-off relationship) had the opposite effect.

I felt anxious, miserable and more frightened about the future than ever before. So I got divorced and eventually married someone else - this time because we had a child and wished to reside in the same country. I am now what you might call a reluctant wife in that I never would have married again if it had not been forced upon me, legally speaking.

Having said that, I'm very happy with the way things turned out. And so is my husband - I hope.

In any case, it is from this rather haphazard vantage point that I offer the following piece of advice to any young woman thinking of getting married this summer, or ever: Be realistic in your expectations and understand that marriage, for most of us, is not the panacea our culture promises it to be. Respect yourself. Respect your partner.

And if you really want to be safe, just don't get married at all.


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Cutting to the heart of Sophiegate
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Friday, May 20, 2016 – Page L1

The controversy swirling around Sophie Grégoire Trudeau's lifestyle choices reached a deliriously unhinged denouement this week. First, she was pilloried in Parliament and by the conservative press as being an ungrateful whiner with pathetically middle-class problems.

Next, she was defended as a bullying victim in the liberal media before, finally, the Guardian newspaper held her up to the world as an international feminist icon for "challenging the fairy tale that women can do it all."

Sorry, have I missed something? Are we talking about the same Sophie Grégoire Trudeau - devoted mother of three, yoga enthusiast, wide-eyed placer of hand-on-heart and inoffensive donner of delightful frocks - or is there another, more controversial, strident and divisive woman out there who is getting people so het up? Nope. It's just our Sophie - a former entertainment news reporter who has chosen to be a mom and helpmeet to her husband's admirable political project of injecting some humanity and good cheer back into Canadian politics.

Don't shout me down on Twitter, I'm on Team Trudeau! I might roll a jaundiced eye at all the push-ups and the pseudospiritual babble about higher consciousness. But the occasional Saudi arms deal aside, the Trudeaus seem like a super-nice couple trying to do good things.

The "Sophie debate" exhausts me, though, in part because I can see both sides and neither is as mutually exclusive from the other as it would like to pretend to be. Both camps are increasingly hysterical and needlessly entrenched - not to mention taking up valuable air time that could be better served by public debate about actual issues that matter to Canadians (yes, this column included).

Before I go on, let's just make one thing crystal clear: Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is neither an entitled, whinging princess nor a feminist hero. She is, rather, a seemingly earnest, wellintentioned woman who's been thrust into a position that's simultaneously enviable (sweet digs, round-the-world travel, access to fascinating people and the chance to effect lasting social change) and pretty thankless (endless scrutiny being the flip side of public veneration). In other words, she's a normal woman in an extraordinary situation who's struggling, like the rest of us, to simply keep it together.

Public proponents of Team Sophie have insisted she is being outrageously and hideously bullied - especially by other women, who, apparently envious of her prettiness and popularity, belie their own feminist principles in daring to criticize her. But the notion that it is inherently misogynistic for women to be critical of other women is almost as ludicrous as the idea that it is offensive to the poor and beleaguered for middle-class people to complain about their problems out loud.

And as a middle-class working mother, I get Sophie's problems.

Trust me, I do. "I'd love to be everywhere, but I can't," she said, "I have three children and a husband who is Prime Minister. I need help." When I read those words I was like, PREACH IT, SISTER. Don't we all need more help? Pour me another glass of Chablis and let me tell you about my day. But she lost me when she added, "I need a team to help me serve people."

It was a comment that made me think of the many moments I've been sitting at a girlfriend's kitchen table and one of us says something that sort of oversteps the boundaries of logic or reason and reveals how wildly privileged our lives actually are. Comments such as, "If I had to choose between my husband or the cleaning lady, now that would be an easy one." Or, "I'm so bloated and disgusting. I need to do a juice cleanse, stat." Or, "My house is a dump. What I really need is a new kitchen." All of which I have uttered in the past two years and none of which are remotely true.

So when I read Sophie's comment about needing a "team" to "help serve people," my immediate reaction was: inward eye-roll, pass the exhausted working mother another glass of Chablis, she's clearly had a rough week.

Or, put another way, empathy without actual agreement.

The only interesting thing to come out of the silliness of Sophiegate is the very real discussion about what we, as Canadians, expect the role of prime minister's spouse to be. Do we want her (or him, dare to dream) to be a silent, behind-the-scenes helper or a public celebrity with her own set of interests and causes?

Or do we think she should simply do her own thing and ignore the ill-defined "role" completely?

As I've written in this space before, I respect the former but admire the latter as the most truly trailblazing option. The notion of anyone, no matter how popular and pretty and charming, assuming an important public role simply by accident of birth or marriage is undemocratic and retrograde in principle. And I say that while admiring both the Queen and Michelle Obama.

In a funny way, Grégoire Trudeau's comment proves itself: Clearly she does need a team - in particular a press secretary, or at least someone wise and trusted to pull her aside and say, "Listen, Sophie, if you need to complain about the very real pressures of your otherwise comfortable life, best not to do it in front of a reporter."

That, after all, is what girlfriends and kitchen tables and bottles of fine Chablis are for.

Associated Graphic

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wife of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is a relatable figure for many middle-class moms.

CLIFF OWEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS


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A teachable moment from the Donald
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Friday, May 13, 2016 – Page L1

'Look! It's the bad man who wants to keep the Muslims out of Europe. Why is his hair so weird?" This from my seven-year-old stepson, Freddie, in response to the televised spectre of Donald Trump, bathing in shameless, spray-tanned glory after becoming the presumptive Republican nominee last week.

My husband and I stared at each other in the kind of mute, bemused panic parents share when their kids start saying jaw-dropping things gleaned from the playground (roughly age three). The trick here, I have learned, is to gently correct the child without revealing that you are in any way annoyed or offended by the statement he's just thrown out there. The challenge is to maintain a suave Obama-like grace under pressure and to guide your offspring effortlessly, with a touch of irreverence, into the open arms of reason.

But with Trump, I was stumped - and rendered speechless by the alarming realization that our boy now believed it was normal for a mainstream politician in the Western world to spout racist invective.

At this point, Rob jumped in, initiating a calm and casual discussion about the dangers of xenophobia and political fearmongering in the public sphere.

It all made perfect sense and seemed to resonate. Freddie, who regards Trump as a kind of cartoon baddie come to life, was receptive to all this good liberal logic save for one key fact: He persists, against all evidence to the contrary, in believing Trump is British. At first this baffled me, but then I remembered he has, at various times, expressed the same fervent belief about Superman, Batman and, more crucially, Lex Luthor and the Joker.

Since then, I've learned from talking to other parents that Trump's brand recognition with children is instant and utterly pervasive. All the kids are talking about Trump on the playground.

He is the Taylor Swift of politicians. Both our boys whoop if they see his face on TV. They recognize his villainousness, but this only enhances the pantomime effect. It does not stop their eyes from lighting up or their small bodies vibrating with excitement when presented with his image. Trump's charisma, viewed through the epic lens of childhood, makes total sense: The zombie apocalypse is coming, let's build a wall! What selfrespecting kid doesn't see the rationale behind that?

In a recent talk he did at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, Jon Stewart summed it up when he said of Trump, "I'm actually not even sure he's eligible to be president. That's not a birther thing, and I'm not a constitutional scholar so I can't say, but are you actually eligible to run if you are a man-baby?" It's funny, but it's also absolutely central to Trump's success - not only with kids around the world but with many disgruntled Americans. The feelings that most kids struggle with throughout childhood are not unlike the set of emotions driving many voters toward Trump. That sense of general frustration, loss of control, fear of the unknown and willingness to say whatever the heck pops into your head no matter how offensive or fantastical - these are normal characteristics of a healthy child's brain.

In an adult, however, they are distressing. And in a president?

Let's not even go there.

There is a viral essay going around this week on Facebook entitled An Open Letter To My Children About Donald Trump.

In it, the writer advises his two kids Stella, 7, and Truman, 4, not to think about Donald Trump as a man but as "a way of thinking about the world."

"Being Donald Trump means you are afraid," he writes, "You are afraid of people who are not like you. ... You are not Donald Trump."

It's good, well-intentioned advice, and I agree with the sentiment, but here's my problem: Donald Trump is a man. A man who is running for president.

And I really don't want my kids to know that.

Which brings me to my carefully considered parenting advice on how to talk to kids about Donald Trump. While normally I'd recommend being open and honest on all fronts, I think the era of Trump calls for desperate measures. Specifically, flat-out denial. Join me in pretending to your kids that Trump is not a real person running for president, but a bad guy in a semi-scripted reality show that everyone happens to be watching this summer. If he wins, then the show was a hit and continues for four more seasons. If he loses, no harm done.

If you're uncomfortable with tricking your children, consider this: If Trump becomes the leader of the free world, the already frayed distinction between truth and fiction in American public life will all but cease to exist. The lying truthers will have won. The birthers will be reborn. Our only hope then will be Batman, who as we know is a British citizen.

Let's keep Europe safe for Muslims. Down with the cartoon baddie Trump.

Associated Graphic

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican U.S. presidential candidate, has a long reach - apparently all the way to the back corners of elementary school playgrounds.

JIM URQUHART/REUTERS


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Too much homework stifling your kids? Give them permission to just say no
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Friday, May 6, 2016 – Page L1

Homework is a bummer, almost everyone agrees, but most parents shoulder the burden without even thinking. We sit our kids down at the kitchen table and "supervise" as they writhe and moan, gnaw at pencils and eventually slide off their chairs like limp rag dolls who have been exorcised of all imagination, natural curiosity and will to live.

When I complained about this daily torture on social media recently, an overwhelming number of parents agreed. But one Kingston-based mother, Dawn Livicker Quelch, got in touch to share her own innovative personal strategy. "My house is a homework-free zone," she said. "At the start of the school year, I send a note to the teacher indicating that in our family the value of work-life balance is highly prized and homework-for-the-sake-ofhomework will not be accommodated.

"I make it clear that if my daughter needs remedial help or if it is a time-management issue that is leading to incomplete classwork, then I'm fine with that," Quelch continued. "But photocopied worksheets are returned uncompleted with a sticky note from me that reads 'We talked about this, remember?' " Quelch hasn't had any major pushback from teachers, but her daughter is only in Grade 2.

It's no secret that homework has increased in recent decades.

Talk to anyone who grew up in the 1970s or 80s (including most parents of school-age children) and you will find that, prior to middle school when complex math and grammar really kick in, they barely remember doing any homework at all.

Homework, in those days, was a burden for pre-teens and older students. And that, as it turns out, was exactly as it should be.

There is simply no scientific evidence to back up the commonly held view that more homework makes young kids smarter or more hard-working.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that for children in primary and elementary schools, the opposite is true - that large amounts of homework can have a detrimental effect on learning and intellectual and social development. And yet for the most part, our pushy homework culture still exists. The question is why?

The reason, mostly likely, is misinterpretation of the existing data - in particular the assumption that what's good for older kids must also be good for their younger counterparts. And, by extension, that more of a good thing is obviously great.

Harris Cooper, a neuroscientist at Duke University and author of the bestselling book The Battle Over Homework, has established a name for himself as North America's reigning homework research guru. His argument, in essence, is that a moderate amount homework is good (it's linked to higher achievement) for students at a high school level.

Before that, however, he has observed there simply "is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students." In fact, he writes, too much homework for small children can actually put some kids off education - as any parent who has ever argued with a raging and recalcitrant sevenyear-old over the need to practice times tables on a sunny day can attest.

Cooper's analysis is extensive, conducted over multiple decades and involving hundreds of thousands of students. He compiled 120 studies in 1989 and then went on to analyze another 60 studies in 2006. His findings have been widely written about and discussed, except that most North American public school boards still ignore them, handing out homework to kids as young as six.

Slowly, however, this is changing.

Last school year, Collège de Saint-Ambroise, an elementary school with 339 students in the Quebec's Saguenay region, made headlines across the country when teachers restricted homework for all students in Grades 1 to 6 as part of one-year pilot project. Since then, several other Canadian schools on the socalled "alternative model" have followed suit.

In the United States, some schools have adopted the practice of "no homework nights" to give students a break. A few years back, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik led the charge, along with a small group of concerned parents, to have homework reduced at their kids' elite Manhattan private school.

Here in Britain, a handful of state primary schools have adopted "no homework" policies that ban the practice outright for students under that age of 11.

The Toronto District School Board's official homework policy for kids at the "late-primary" level is gentle in rhetoric, if not always practice. Homework, it says, should be "clearly articulated and differentiated to reflect the unique needs of the child."

Perhaps the most surprising change is the way some parents - like Quelch - are simply taking matters into their own hands and putting their young kids on voluntary homework strike. It's a revolutionary approach - so liberating, so humane, so sensibly rebellious.

Now that spring has sprung, I might just might drag my poor kid out from under the kitchen table and try it.

Associated Graphic

There is evidence to suggest that giving young children large amounts of homework can have a detrimental effect.

ISTOCKPHOTO


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Understanding 'helicopter parenting'
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Friday, April 29, 2016 – Page L1

This week, in the lead up to Mother's Day, I've been thinking a lot about Jacqui Kendrick, the Winnipeg stay-at-home mother of three who was recently in the news after Manitoba Child and Family Services paid her a visit following a complaint that her children were playing by themselves in the backyard.

It seems a concerned (read: annoying and interfering) neighbour complained that Kendrick's children, aged two, five and 10, had been spending a lot of time amusing themselves on the family's swing set and slide in their private, fenced-in yard. Kendrick, for her part, told both the CFS and CTV News that she was home the entire time, watching from the kitchen window. But that didn't stop CFS from creating a file on her, or insisting on checking where the children slept and how much food was in the cupboards for them to eat.

Now let me just say that I am not one to take a hard line on the subject of so-called "helicopter parenting." Compared to the incredibly relaxed standards most of us were brought up with, most parents today seem like raving neurotics.

I walked a kilometre by myself, in the rain or deep snow, to kindergarten at the age of five - a journey my parents thought nothing of. And yet I wouldn't dream of letting my seven-yearold stepson walk to the corner store on his own - for good reason.

It's not that my parents' generation was innocent of the possibility their kids might be hit by a car or abducted, they just thought we were sensible enough not to cross the road without looking both ways/not to get in the van if a stranger offered us candy (we were actually coached on both these scenarios in elementary school). And while it's flattering how much credit they gave us kids, I think parents in the seventies and eighties were a little overly chilled-out when it came to child supervision and safety. In fact, the statistics bear this out: Child injury and accidental death rates have plummeted since the midnineties, when so-called helicopter parenting became the norm.

Part of this has to do with revised safety standards on children's car seats and playgrounds, as well as seat-belt laws, and part has to do with a shift in human behaviour. We are just a lot more careful where our kids are concerned, and in many ways it's paid off.

But I do draw the line somewhere, and this week that line is the treatment of Jacqui Kendrick.

Mothers are more often the ones in charge of small children and, because of this, we are more prone to the colossal amount of guilt, frustration and startling social judgment that comes with the task of caring for them. As much as Kendrick clearly knew CFS was being ridiculous in questioning her, she was reduced to tears by the implication that she was somehow negligent in letting her children play outdoors.

This is something I think almost any mother can understand, and an emotion that goes back to the initial feeling of utter shock I felt the first time I was called a mother.

Leaving the hospital the day after my son's birth I was so dazed I pushed the baby out the neonatal-wing doors in one of those wheelie carts with the plastic basin on top they let newborns sleep in. A midwife chased me out to the parking lot and called out, "EXCUSE ME MUM! Could we please have the cart back?" At first I thought she was talking to my own mother, who'd flown over from Canada and happened to be standing beside me at the time. Then I realized she meant me. Me - a mum! I looked down at my son, his sleeping face like a tiny pink fist about to punch a hole in my life, and had one clear thought: "You poor little thing. What have you done to deserve getting saddled with a know-nothing wreck of a mother like me?" Things got better after that.

Much better. But boy, did I feel different. I still do.

All of this is not to say that having kids is the holy grail of human experiences - it is utterly amazing but also a spectacular amount of boring, hard work.

And it undeniably reorders your life inside and out in a way that is almost indescribable to those who have not been through it.

We produce these small creatures and then we are responsible for them and that, in itself, is colossal, transformative and scary. So start planning for Mother's Day now, whether that means making reservations for brunch or simply remembering to call her up and say the one thing that makes it all okay: I'm alive. You did your best. Thank you.

Associated Graphic

The story of Manitoba mom Jacqui Kendrick, who was reduced to tears by Child and Family Services, is understandable for many mothers.

ISTOCKPHOTO


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You can't just put it out there. Just saying
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Friday, April 22, 2016 – Page L1

'Just saying" has become the verbal tic of year. But the phrase is more than just a bit of soon-to-be-extinct vernacular flotsam. It's also a slogan for the strange times we live in - an era in which the transmission of information between humans has never been so efficient, lightning-fast and, because of this, more morally fraught. We share, we connect, we reveal. If other people don't like it, whevs. Just saying.

Well, no. You are not "just saying" any more than you are just sharing or connecting or revealing. The messages that we transmit - whether it's verbally or digitally - are powerful and as such have serious potential implications. There is no such thing as "just putting it out there" (to use another annoying modern phrase) in an absolutely neutral way. When we share, we need to accept that there can be moral consequences to our disclosures.

A case in point is the story of Elton John and David Furnish, who are currently engaged in an epic battle with the British courts to keep the details of their private life private in their home country, despite already having had them splashed across the digital universe.

The story, which appeared in the U.S. magazine National Enquirer, included details of the couple's apparently open marriage, some consenting adults and a wading pool filled with olive oil.

The case is hopeless of course, since despite their initial injunction preventing the British media from discussing the case (struck down in the High Court this week), the couple have already ensured that any sentient person possessed of an Internet connection and the vaguest interest in celebrity gossip will have looked online to see what all the legal fuss is about. But that is not the point.

The point of the legal battle, apparently, is to protect the couple's school-age children from having to read or hear about their dads' private trysts on the playground. "But we were just saying!" the British tabloid media cried to the courts this week. "We were just putting it out there! Like everybody else!"

And the courts agreed by striking down the gag order.

The judge's argument was that once a story becomes common knowledge, it seems a bit daft to make it illegal for anyone - including the media - to repeat it. (Under the current system, it is still technically illegal for any British media outlet or citizen to write or even tweet explicitly about the Elton John extramarital romp until the court decides whether to hear an appeal.)

What the whole case certainly highlights is the increasing ludicrousness of media injunctions in the "just saying" digital age.

As cantankerous British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson observed in 2011 after lifting an injunction preventing his exwife from writing about his personal life, "Injunctions don't work, they're completely pointless and unbelievably expensive."

Well, yes. Except sometimes "just putting it out there" can carry heavy moral and legal penalties.

In another high-profile case, an Ohio teen was charged with colluding in the kidnapping and sexual assault of her friend after she livestreamed the rape. Marina Lonina, 18, pleaded not guilty last Friday to multiple charges, including rape, kidnapping, sexual battery and pandering sexual matter involving a minor. A judge set bail at $125,000.

The teen is facing almost as much potential prison time as the 29-year-old man accused of attacking her friend (whom both girls met together the day before at the local mall) mainly because she livestreamed the attack on the social media app Periscope.

I haven't seen the video, nor would I wish to, but, according to court reports, Lonina could be heard giggling off camera as her friend screamed for help.

However, her lawyer says she was filming the attack "for evidence" and that the reason she didn't stop and try to help her friend is that she simply "got caught up in the likes" as she watched the positive responses roll in.

Bracketing for a moment the issue of what sort of friends one would need to have to get multiple "likes" from a live rape post, the story does have one vindicating detail for the human race: A male student at the girls' high school was the one who contacted the authorities after seeing the live stream.

It's impossible to know Lonina's true intentions of course, but in the age of "just saying," it's possible that she simply thought, "Wow, the crazy thing is happening, I'd better share it."

This is the danger of not actually being present in our own lives, of having all our experiences mitigated by a screen - we can start to lose touch with the information and events that are taking place right before our eyes. Instead of reacting to them, we simply pass them on.

We put them out there. We share, we connect, we reveal. We just say.

But we don't actually feel or do anything. And that's a problem.

Associated Graphic

The British High Court struck down a gag order on a story about the private lives of Sir Elton John and David Furnish.

JONATHAN BRADY/PRESS ASSOCIATION


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Why I'm signing my son up for ballet
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There's something sexist, even covertly misogynist, in the way we only seem to discourage boys away from pretty things
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Friday, April 15, 2016 – Page L5

The other day I was sitting in the park with James, 3, when I picked a dandelion and handed it to him as a present.

"No way, Mummy," he said, pushing away my gift. "Flowers are pretty and I'm a boy."

And I thought: That's it. I'm signing him up for ballet.

Until recently, I've been quite happy to be surrounded by boys in all their stereotypical boyishness. I don't have to struggle with what most parents of girls I know refer to, shudderingly, as "the whole princess thing." And frankly, from an aesthetic as well as political perspective, I have always been glad of it.

Thank god for boys, who just muck about in their saggy track pants, smashing up toys and teaching each other to belch the alphabet (Freddy, 7, can now get all the way up to "K" in one breath). Sure, they'll destroy the furniture building forts, but at least they won't fill your house with plastic engagement rings and insist on wearing hideously flammable poly-blend prom dresses for five years straight.

Boys loathe that stuff, and as a feminist mom so do I - so we're on the same page then, right?

Wrong.

As James gets older and begins to discover himself, I realize that he is being guided just as much by what he vehemently rejects as what he genuinely loves (zombies, magic, ice cream, dogs and dancing). Some of the things he now pushes away he truly seems to dislike (yogurt, itchy sweaters, going to bed), but other things he is starting to turn on for reasons of obvious cultural conditioning.

James isn't entirely sure who he is yet, but he definitely knows what he's not, and that's 1) a baby or 2) a girl. Lately, anything that falls into either of those two categories is verboten to him.

When his older brother complained about having to watch Frozen because it was "girlish," James instantly struck it off his list of favourite movies and now refuses to play Elsa and Anna even when his best nursery school girlfriends insist.

You might think this is no big deal, that my son is just behaving "naturally," but I'm automatically wary of notions of biological determinism. When he hands me back a flower because pretty things are for girls, I think, what's next? Kindness? Decency? Dancing?

Jerramy Fine is an American expat in London and what you might call a professional princess advocate. She's a royalist by trade and nature and her latest book, In Defense of the Princess, is an unapologetic argument in favour of letting your daughter drown herself in plastic tiaras and fairy-tale fantasies.

In her view, "second wave princesses are headstrong and independent. They engineer their own fates and believe that respect is a precursor to love.

And if there is one thing any of the modern princesses are not doing, it's sitting around waiting to be rescued."

I've known Fine for years, and the whole time she has been trying to convince me of the inherent value of princess culture and all things pretty, sparkly and "feminine" (her term - and one I automatically reject). She even dragged me to the Princess Diana biopic after I made her come with me to see Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher.

Both movies were pretty bad, but if I had to pick a role model, I'd still choose the Iron Lady over the people's princess (subtract the union busting of course).

But as I watch my son reject flowers and dolls and even pink Popsicles - all things that until, very recently, he adored - on the grounds that they are "girlish," I have come to see Fine's point. There is something inherently sexist, even covertly misogynist, in the way we discourage boys away from pretty things while telling girls they can have it all.

This sort of messaging is a bad thing for boys because it's culturally limiting, but in the broader sense it's even worse for girls. Because what it is saying is this: Boy stuff is universally cool and girl stuff is silly and worthless.

"Encouraging boys to reject princess culture is dangerous because what other traditionally feminine concepts are they in turn going to reject later on?," Fine pointed out the other day.

"Will they see romantic love as abhorrent? What about parenting and housework? Or even just being polite?" Much as I dislike the idea of anything being categorized as inherently feminine or masculine, it's hard to explain poststructuralist gender theory to a three-year old. For James, the world is pretty much binary at the moment, and trying to shift that perspective - little by little - has become my pet project.

It's also a window into what a strange place the world must be for transgender or gender-nonconforming kids.

If I want my son to love and respect women, I am going to have to teach him to embrace - and ideally appreciate - "girlish" things. That's why I'm weaving him a dandelion crown and signing him up for ballet.

I'm going to turn the little alphabet belcher into a proud princess whether he likes it or not.

Associated Graphic

If pretty things become verboten, are kindness, decency and even dancing next?

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES


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Resentment in middle-class hoods is on the rise
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Friday, April 8, 2016 – Page L1

The most uplifting thing about the Panama Papers leak this week has been the media strategy taken up by Ramon Fonseca, one of the founding partners of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which is now at the centre of what is being hailed as the biggest financial leak in the history of journalism.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Fonseca dismissed the story as a "witch hunt," and gave his personal guarantee that "there is more dirty money in New York and London and Miami than in Panama." And then he said to Bloomberg News, "The cat's out of the bag, so now we have to deal with the aftermath."

An aftermath that he doesn't believe will lead to "one single legal case," despite the leak implicating several world leaders (including the Prime Minister of Iceland, who has since stepped aside, at least temporarily), political despots, royalty, captains of industry, celebrities and professional athletes. As Fonseca outlined in his detailed explanation of how international tax law works, "It's like if you buy a car and sell it to a dealership and it sells it to a woman who kills someone - the factory isn't responsible."

He is right about one thing, of course, and that's the prevalence of so-called "dirty money" (also known as untaxed cash) in cities such as London, New York and Vancouver - or any of the metropolises where the world's small-but-powerful flock of global superrich have chosen to alight with all their trappings.

It's well known that wealth stratification is more extreme than ever before. A recent report issued by the charity Oxfam shows that half of the world's wealth is controlled by just 62 billionaires.

In China, the biggest economy in the world, a third of the money belongs to just 1 per cent of the population. This group of financial stakeholders is, unsurprisingly, extremely canny when it comes to finding ways to protect and shore up its assets. A small city of people works in London's financial-services industry, many of them helping to do just that.

We've all read the articles and watched the salacious reality shows about how this other 0.0001 per cent actually lives. In Vancouver you've got the fuerdai, the second-generation offspring of ultrarich Chinese, recently chronicled in the New Yorker.

Here in London, there are the rich Saudis, Qataris, Russians and the newly minted African and Indian billionaires. There are neighbourhoods full of "iceberg houses" - enormous city mansions whose owners have opted to dig down and out, often several storeys down, in order to house their swimming pools, movie theatres, fur-coat storage units and luxury cars.

Most of the owners of these monoliths are people known as non-domiciled residents, or simply "non-doms" in London parlance. What this means is that they don't actually live here and are thus not required to pay tax on their worldwide income.

In this way, cities such as London and Vancouver have become land banks, places where the global superrich choose to park their money, and sometimes their kids, by way of real-estate investments.

This is hardly surprising for anyone acquainted with the effect of high-end foreign investment in modern urban realestate markets. This rise, combined with stagnant wages, has been squeezing out Vancouver's middle class for years. In London, I have seen many educated professional friends with good jobs (lawyers, journalists, architects and teachers) priced out of the outer boroughs. I have a friend who moved his family to Spain and commutes each week via easyJet to his architecture practice in London because that way his kids can have their own bedrooms.

When the superrich pounce on a particular city - even a specific neighbourhood - the effect can be felt for many miles around.

The rapidly rising tide of realestate values means that many people I know in London can boast that their homes "earned" more than they themselves did in the last year. It sounds funny but it means that previously affordable neighbourhoods can become out of reach to regular working people almost overnight.

Among the dwindling number of middle-class people who do manage to dig in their claws and stay in cities such as London and Vancouver, resentment of the tiny, but influential, billionaire club is becoming increasingly palpable.

For years we have been told by our politicians and business leaders that we desperately need the money of foreign investors to keep the wheels of industry churning. But in the historically seedy yet quickly gentrifying neighbourhood where I reside in North West London, businesses on the main street are struggling. Independent cafés, bakeries, clothing shops and hardware stores have all closed down in recent months, and what has opened in their place? Almost without exception: new real estate agencies and boutique interior-design firms. When your neighbourhood becomes so "desirable" that the only thing you can buy there is a $3-million house, you know that something's well and truly broken.

Given this state of affairs, I think the very least the superrich could do is pay their fair share of taxes. And by "fair" I don't mean "virtually nothing thanks to an offshore legal loophole." By fair, I mean at least the same percentage that everyone else pays. Given that Canada's highest federal tax bracket tops out at 33 per cent for earnings over $200,000, that doesn't seem too much to ask - especially if your take-home package was in the tens or hundreds of millions.

In short, I think Ramon Fonseca is wrong. If the woman driving the car ends up killing someone because there was a fault in the system to begin with, then the factory is most certainly to blame. Sue the manufacturer, I say. Or just take the factory apart and build a new one that actually works.

Associated Graphic

In cities such as London and Vancouver, the wealthy choose to park their money, and sometimes their kids, in real estate.

LUKE MACGREGOR/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Friday, April 15, 2016

Correction

A Friday Life & Arts column on resentment in the middle-class incorrectly said a recent report by the charity Oxfam shows that half of the world's wealth is controlled by just 62 billionaires. In fact, the report shows the wealthiest 62 people own as much wealth as the poorer half of the world population.


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BEYOND THE VERDICT
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The Ghomeshi case shattered misconceptions about sexual assault and harassment. That's why, as Leah McLaren explains, the judge's decision may not be the most important outcome of the trial
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Friday, March 25, 2016 – Page L1

By the time you read this column, we will know whether Jian Ghomeshi has been found guilty - and while in many ways this should be the crux of the whole miserable business, in other ways it hardly seems to matter at all.

How can a verdict not be the most important thing about a trial? In a case as high-profile as this one, the noise around the event became so deafening that it almost succeeded in drowning out the evidence and legal arguments themselves.

But in the year and a half since the story first broke, the Ghomeshi case evolved into something much larger than the sum of its parts. This was not just our biggest homegrown celebrity scandal and criminal trial, complete with a dramatic "fall from grace" story arc - it also shed new light on an issue many Canadians (particularly those who include themselves in the "liberal urban elite") had tacitly assumed we were somehow culturally immune from: misogyny.

I knew Jian as a friend for many years, just as I knew some of the alleged victims, both public and anonymous. When I heard the women's accounts, I believed them. I still believe them today. But I can't say I would have convicted him based on the evidence brought forward in court. (The outcome of a second trial, which will take place in June, remains to be seen.) In many ways, this trial was almost secondary to the broader narrative at play.

Ghomeshi - the man, the voice, the celebrity - became a cultural symbol of the hypocrisy and disingenuousness infesting so much of our institutional liberalism. His story exposed our smugness, our preening, self-declared feminism in the face of entrenched institutional sexism (Justin Trudeau and CBC executives, take heed).

Ghomeshi's initial downfall was not just great gossip - it was a cultural catalyst for Canada as a whole. His story was and will remain, if not a watershed moment, then at least a great blasting open of the debate around sexual assault and harassment. It was, without question, the moment when many women across the country stood up and said, "You know what? I'm sick of this crap." And that, in itself, is powerful.

In an attempt to take something positive from the dispiriting mess that is Ghomeshi, here is my attempt at a round-up of the most important things we have learned so far.

1) The burden of proof is extremely high in sexual-assault cases, and that is as it should be.

You or I might believe a person to be guilty, but that should not be enough to secure a conviction in a court of law. Courts must convict on hard evidence, and where there is little or none to go on, that's a big problem - usually for the Crown.

2) Victim credibility is important - but it's complicated.

Victims of sexual assault don't always behave the way we think they ought to. They make their rapists breakfast and send flirty texts and accept dinner invitations from men who have previously hurt them. Many victims love or are infatuated with their attackers; others just want to pretend that the abuse never happened.

So while the court must assess the credibility of the person making a complaint - especially if it's serious and the defendant denies it - it's important to remember that there is no one right way for a victim to behave, before, during or after an assault.

3) Ghomeshi's is one case in a system that sees thousands of similar cases a year. As such, it is not particularly interesting or instructive except in the way it illustrates the vicious circle at work when it comes to sexualassault trials in Canada. In Ghomeshi's case, more than 20 women spoke to the news media, but only a small handful ended up pressing charges. In order to increase the fairly abysmal conviction rate in Canadian sexual-assault cases, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service need victims to come forward more often and sooner.

But given the abysmal conviction rate - not to mention the ordeal of going through a trial - it's no wonder that more don't.

How many of the women who did not press charges against Ghomeshi are now wishing they had been part of a trial? I'll hazard a guess: nary a one.

4) The beleaguered old CBC is a strange and psychologically troubled beast. From the stories of how management handled complaints internally to the vicious top-brass response to Linden MacIntyre's banal observation that big name hosts like Ghomeshi are allowed to "bully and abuse" their staff, the scandal gave us a window into the culture at our public broadcaster, and, frankly, what we saw wasn't pretty.

5) Beware the peril of hubris.

It's worth remembering that before his jaw-dropping Facebook post, the CBC had parted ways quietly with Ghomeshi after a leave of absence on the heels of his father's death. Had he never taken to social media to pre-emptively defend himself against the emerging allegations, the Toronto Star probably wouldn't have followed up with the story triggering a chain of events that led to the trial itself.

If it weren't for Ghomeshi's own hubris, the whole thing probably would have been swept under the rug and been long forgotten by now. So in a way, the circus is a spectacle of his own making. There is, I think, something oddly fitting about that.

Associated Graphic

The court system sees thousands of cases similar to Jian Ghomeshi's each year.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS


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Floating in a sea of vapid online trends
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Since most news in the post-website era comes from social media, is filtering Khloe Kardashian out too big a dream?
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Friday, March 18, 2016 – Page L4

I recently read an article on the death of news websites. Once a truly cutting-edge media format, they are now, apparently, outdated and verging on extinction like a modern woolly mammoth.

Not only are they cumbersome and difficult to maintain, they are also fast becoming obsolete, and like the printed product itself are expected to hang around only in legacy form (i.e., as special products for old people) in the not-sodistant future. The majority of literate young people don't get their news by "visiting a website" any more than they do by strolling down to their local newsagent and spending a dollar (or whatever it is that papers cost these days - I confess I have no idea).

Nope, most of us get our news and information from that endlessly unfurling, murky river of politics, gossip and kitten videos known as social media. And that brings us to another, more pressing problem altogether: How can we filter out all the crap?

Last month in Britain, media owners were outraged to learn that the cellular company Three mobile has introduced ad-blocking across its entire network. That means all of its customers will now be saved the trouble of seeing ads on the Web pages and articles they view on their Three phones or tablets. Publishers were outraged, of course, since ads are a big part of what pays for the content in the first place. But Three also had a point: Why shouldn't it have the right to shield its customers from extra data consumption and save them money and irritation at the device level? Apart from the fact that it would spell the end of the industry I work in, I applauded the idea as a consumer. But what I really want to know is this: When will I be able to block out Khloe Kardashian?

In the old days, it was reasonably easy to be a thoughtful person inured to cultural garbage. All you had to do was keep to the basic cable package, listen to public radio and buy lots of good books and periodicals. That's what my mother always did and still does and what my grandparents did before her, and so back through the generations until you hit whatever illiterate ancestor originally emigrated to Canada during the Irish potato blight. But today, in what I now rather alarmingly think of as the "post-website" era, I am finding it increasingly difficult to shield myself from the distraction of stuff I really have no interest in - and am, in fact, if I pause to think about it, actually enraged by. The situation has become so dire that I've jotted down a list of Content I Must Actively Ignore For My Own Mental Health From Now On and taped it to the wall above my desk. My current list includes (but is not limited to): Khloe Kardashian, liberal pundits taking the mickey out of Donald Trump, tearful reunions between people and their long-lost animal friends, before-and-after shots of wildly expensive "kitchen transformations" and dubiously sourced toddler and infant health-scare stories.

When Facebook invents a button to "block all related content" I will be truly overjoyed, but of course they'll never do that. It would be a bit like soon-to-beextinct newspaper websites blocking their mobile ads. Annoying crap, it seems, is what keeps the media afloat and perhaps 'twas ever thus. Now more than ever, it's our job as thoughtful consumers to self-filter where possible.

Another inventive way to selffilter is through sheer, profanityladen outrage. The popular British Twitter feed Get in the Sea, which I have been following for some time now, is a funny, foulmouthed compendium of all the things its author, a grumpy guy from Sunderland called Andy Dawson, absolutely loathes on the Internet (and subsequently in the world). He's just released a companion book, Get in the Sea! An Apoplectic Guide to Modern Life, that is very funny, especially if you enjoy extremely inventive uses of bad words as applied to idiotic modern social trends, which I confess I do.

The idea behind the whole thing is simple. Most modern trends are vapid, pointless and in no way advance our evolution as a species. Therefore, the worst of the lot should go back whence they came: Into the cold, dark and unfathomable depths of the sea.

Dawson hates ludicrous consumer trends (crisp sandwiches and cat cafés) and is particularly disenchanted with cultural memes like "no-makeup selfies" and the now-thankfully-deceased "ice-bucket challenge" that litter our feeds with attention-getting stunts and precious little information. "Everyone is desperate for content," he said in a recent interview, "so as a result more and more people are coming up with this crap."

As traditional publishing models sink back into the primordial muck, the swirling-whirling chaos of social media takes over our collective consciousness. Let's just hope some of the good stuff floats and we don't all get swept out to sea with Khloe Kardashian.

Associated Graphic

Pundits mocking Donald Trump and anything to do with Khloe Kardashian is noise, not news, writes McLaren.

LAYNE MURDOCH JR./REUTERS; RICHARD SHOTWELL/AP


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Take a time out, breathe deep, and count to 10: The kids are going to be all right
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Experts say we're ruining our children with attention, validation - and too much rope. Leah McLaren says that's just not true
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Saturday, March 12, 2016 – Page F1

Have you heard about the crisis in modern parenting? The story goes like this: The kids have taken over the candy shop, and modern parents, cowed by their own wish to please and appease their spoiled offspring, have allowed it to happen. We are, according to a small army of self-proclaimed experts, a generation of parental pushovers, so desperate for validation from our own "special snowflakes" that we allow them to rule the roost, thus destabilizing their very sense of self, and sentencing them to a lifetime of anxiety and lack of impulse control. As Leonard Sax, psychologist and author of the recently published bestseller The Collapse of Modern Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, writes: "Over the past 30 years, a major shift has occurred in our culture: the transfer of authority from parents to children. ... Children today often choose what's for supper; they choose which social media they will engage; they often choose their bedtime and sometimes even their school."

These factors, Dr. Sax argues, have had a significantly deleterious influence on both family life and the younger generation itself. Emma Jenner, the British nanny who wrote a 2014 socialmedia post that went viral, 5 Reasons Modern-Day Parenting is in Crisis, backs him up: "The children we are raising," she maintained, "will grow up to be entitled, selfish, impatient and rude adults. It won't be their fault - it will be ours."

Or as Dr. Sax puts it, our children are "less resilient, less physically fit, and more likely to become anxious or depressed - and far more fragile - compared with kids from the same demographic 30 years ago."

Dr. Sax, along with many contemporary experts, is a critic of overscheduling - the notion that kids today are so hyper-itinerized that they have lost the ability to play freely and amuse themselves. It's a common sentiment, and one echoed in many recent articles in the popular press. The concern, in general, boils down to this: As a generation of parents, our tendency to worry runs in inverse proportion to our ability to positively shape our kids. We are striving for excellence and failing as a result.

But what if I told you that, broadly speaking, Dr. Sax and every other expert who has made similarly sweeping condemnations of modern childcentred parenting in recent years (think of books like All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior or Drop the Worry Ball by Alex Russell and Tim Falconer) - are simply empirically wrong? There may be a general feeling of a "crisis" in modern parenting, but if you look at the numbers, across the board, there has simply never been a better time to be a middle-class child in Canada.

And yet the notion that we are ruining our kids by giving them our time and attention persists. Take the popular notion of helicopter parenting and the idea that parents who are involved in their kids' schooling end up damaging their academic outcomes. It's simply not true.

According to a 2012 report from the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD), kids who reported that their parents were "always ready to help" with school-related projects tended to do better at school, and have much higher personal aspirations. Not surprisingly, kids with involved parents were also far more likely both to attend, and graduate from, a postsecondary institution.

Another apparent scourge in the so-called parenting crisis is the trend of children being "chronically overscheduled." But statistically speaking, there is surprisingly little evidence to support this. According to the same report by the CCSD, middle-class kids at the beginning of this century did no more activities than did kids a decade earlier. Youth today participate in fewer unorganized sports, but rates of organized activities have stayed roughly the same.

The alarmists are right about one thing - over the past 30 years, there has been an enormous shift in the way kids are parented. Middle-class people with the time and resources to do so, tend to think much more carefully about how we bring up our children - and, over all, that has been an enormous social good. We are, by any standard, more committed to the project of "parenting" than any generation before us. We spend more time with our kids, and when we do, we talk to them more and take their concerns seriously. We shout less, and most of us refrain from hitting them altogether. Earlier this year the Liberal government announced it will repeal Canada's controversial "spanking law," allowing our nation to join the 48 other countries around the world in which corporal punishment for children is illegal.

We are, as the numbers show, a generation of parents more earnestly concerned with the issue of child welfare and development than any before us, and almost all major social indicators confirm the benefits of our increased levels of awareness.

Over all, Canadian kids are safer, healthier, smarter, more likely to stay in school and less likely to become addicts or commit crimes than they were just a couple of generations ago. In short, we're not perfect, but whatever we're doing, it's working.

Sound and fury

Despite all this good news, no generation of parents has ever been more broadly scrutinized and publically criticized. The irony of the alarmists is that they are perpetuating exactly the sort of parental anxiety they purport to dispel. "You're all doing it all wrong!" they shout, while pointing to the freewheeling 1970s and eighties as the golden age of childhood: a time before seatbelt laws, school-cafeteria nutritional guidelines, second-hand-smoking regulations or playground health and safety rules. But were kids happier, healthier and better off back in the old days?

Not really.

Take the cultural debate that's occurred over the subject of parenting and child safety over the past two or three decades in Canada. While many proponents of the notion of a parenting crisis would have you believe increased health and safety regulations combined with the rise of helicopter parenting is ruining our kids' lives, the numbers don't bear this out.

According to a report from the CCSD, in the decade that ended in 2004, the childhood-injury death rate in Canada dropped an astonishing 37 per cent, and hospitalization rates for accidental injuries dropped 34 per cent. In roughly the same period, pediatric playground hospitalization rates dropped dramatically as well (though since 2006 they've crept up slightly). These broad positive changes can, at least in part, be directly attributed to new guidelines adopted by the Canadian Standards Association governing car seats and playground equipment.

Looking at those figures, could any reasonable human being conclude that adopting new safety standards constituted a moral panic, or was a waste of public money? And yet, the chorus of those experts decrying all that our children have lost with the decline of "risky play" shows no sign of abating, even as we can point to the reality of fewer dead and injured kids.

Broadly speaking, our children have never been happier, healthier or safer.

Take a gander at most parenting magazines, or worse, the Internet, and you'd think our kids were on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown.

'Kids today are far more emotionally open'

The trend toward happier and smarter kids has been a long time in the making. According to the CCSD, from 1993 to 2012 the nation's children and youth did better in school and were more likely to enroll in university or postsecondary education than any generation before them. They committed fewer crimes, fewer violent crimes in particular, and were less likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Teenagers were more likely to be active in community life, and less likely to tolerate being bullied or abused. In early childhood development, 70 per cent of children scored on the normal range of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (a standardized test that measures verbal aptitude in children ages 4 and 5) and the proportion of those who scored as "advanced" grew while those who were "delayed" went down.

According to the most recent results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canadian students tested significantly above average in almost all areas (reading, math and science), and our mean score in literacy was one of the highest in all 65 PISA participating countries.

Nora Spinks is chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family, a research organization founded over 50 years ago by Governor-General Georges Vanier and his wife, Pauline. Last year, she and her staff embarked on the National Families Listening Tour, in which they crossed the country and spoke to hundreds of parents and children on a range of issues. Ms. Spinks agrees that there has never been a better time to be a child or a parent in Canada. All the broad social indicators - childhood mortality, literacy, and juvenile crime rates - are better for children than they've ever been.

Not all the news is good. Our government's declared intention to "eradicate" child poverty by the early part of this century was a failure, particularly in First Nations communities, and, as in most Western nations, the family-income gap is growing. Childhood obesity is up, although our rate is much lower than that of our neighbours directly to the south. And Ms. Spinks says that, from an economic perspective, the landscape has improved for poor kids, too. "The number of children living in abject poverty is significantly down from decades past." She adds that the less parents are struggling financially, the more time they have to devote themselves to secondary or tertiary concerns, such as compassionate parenting.

Ms. Spinks explains that, in the past, early-childhood education was seen as glorified babysitting, whereas today it is the subject of rigorous academic and scientific debate. "In the eighties and nineties, we started to realize that there is actually some science behind this stuff," she says.

With the advent of early-childhood education came increased interest in parenting advice that was based on good science and solid numbers rather than what Spinks calls "moms talking over the backyard fence."

Of course, as she points out, there is an instinctive skepticism and conservative nostalgia for the "good old days" when it comes to how we view children and childhood. "Every subsequent generation thinks that their kids are far more badly behaved than they were, but that's just because our only frame of reference is our own childhood. So, for instance, people often say, 'I walked to school on my own, but I turned out okay!' " Yet, the bigger picture is more complicated. According to the Vanier Institute's research, kids today are far more emotionally open and connected to their parents. Families, says Ms. Spinks, are generally able to communicate better, which means we can identify problems instead of sweeping them under the carpet. "Anxiety disorders in children have gone up but, in a large part, that's because kids are now able to communicate their anxiety," she says.

"Health-care providers have learned so much about childhood mental health and vitality in recent years, it's incredible."

Ms. Spinks points to strategies such as mindfulness and "calming classes" currently being used to help some of the potentially traumatized children of war refugees from Syria. "The fact that teachers are bringing that kind of brain science into the classroom is a huge change."

The shift away from behaviourism

So, if our kids are improving, what is it that we, as modern parents, are doing better? It's hard to pin down to any one specific thing, but if I, as the parent of small children, had to choose one, it would be this: We aren't afraid to let our threeyear-olds have tantrums in restaurants.

I know what you're thinking.

That's insane. It's just rude! Sometimes kids just need to be reined in, don't they?

The answer, increasingly, for parents of my generation, is: Not exactly. And there are a number of good reasons for this.

There was a time, not long ago, when children who misbehaved in public were hissed at, threatened, shouted down, furtively smacked, and eventually thrown over adult shoulders and whisked out of the room. And, of course, that still happens. But more often than not, what I see in restaurants today (and parking lots and jam-packed airplanes and grocery stores) is parents attempting - with admirable levels of self-control and patience - to reason with their children. I understand this can be rather annoying to childfree people trying to eat their eggs Benedict in peace, and the public frustration shows. Last year, when Darla Neugebauer, owner of Marcy's Diner in Portland, Me., shouted at a four-yearold who'd been crying for 40 minutes and the story went viral, the world applauded.

But most parents I know (including those of the four-yearold in question) did not. The truth is, what we gain as a society by not smacking, threatening or ostracizing our kids when they misbehave is worth the price of your peace and quiet.

I'm not saying we should simply ignore bad behaviour in children: On the contrary, we need to meet it with compassion and reason and connection, even when what they're giving us is full-on freakout. Modelling reasonable behaviour is the very minimum we can do as good parents. And sitting with your kid through a public tantrum is part of that.

It wasn't always this way, of course.

Like most children born in the seventies, I was brought up by parents who believed (without actually knowing it) in behaviourism - the philosophy of infant- and child-rearing which essentially holds that the job of parents is to instill strong moral and behavioural boundaries and to train a child to adhere to them, usually through a strict system of punishment and reward. My parents didn't have a name for what they did, of course; it was just what they knew to be right - a watereddown version of their own, 1950s upbringing. They weren't particularly strict, but there were rules and, if we crossed the line or "acted out," consequences were administered.

This included a lot of counting to 10, sending us to our rooms, and threats of being spanked with a wooden spoon (although I don't remember anyone ever following through on that last one). My mum was a bit disorganized, and could easily be ground down to her breaking point, while my dad was one of those types with a long fuse who was calm until he suddenly wasn't. Even now, I feel excited by how spectacular it was when he finally blew his lid, like watching a werewolf morph at the full moon.

Were my parents effective?

Judging by the way my sister and I turned out, they did just fine. But the main thing was, they loved us - a fact they demonstrated explicitly and implicitly throughout our childhood in almost everything they did. It was this abundance of love - rather than the threat of the wooden spoon - that I know to be the determining factor in my sister's and my turning out to be reasonably well-adjusted and high-functioning adults.

At some point at the end of the last century, behaviourism began to be widely supplanted in child psychology circles with a new theory, commonly known as "attachment parenting." Initially conceived by British psychologist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, and later popularized by American pediatrician William Sears, the attachment model is based on the precept that a sensitive and emotionally bonded parental relationship is the most important aspect in forming a child's socio-emotional and developmental well-being.

While proponents of behaviourism believe that discipline should be administered externally - often through threats and punishment - proponents of attachment parenting propose another way: that by teaching our children empathy and selfregulation, we can encourage them to grapple with their emotions and have genuine respect for the feelings of others. Essentially, the debate between behaviourism and attachment parenting boils down to the ageold question of human nature: Are we essentially wicked (and consequently need to be tamed by outside authority) or essentially good (and thus primarily in need of love and connection)?

While the debate over behaviourism vs attachment parenting still rages in restaurants (even if most parents don't call it that), for the most part the argument for compassionate, child-centred parenting has won out in diagnostic circles. We can see this most obviously when it comes to the shift in the way we care for infants.

Until the end of the last century, it was commonplace for newborns to be placed on strict feeding and nap schedules the moment they were born. But today, most new mothers in Canada are advised by doctors, nurses and midwives to try to breastfeed "on demand," and not let their infants cry, in an effort to "train" them. We used to see it as our job to bend babies to our will; today we are encouraged to respond to their needs in a more open and fluid way.

While many of the more extreme aspects of attachment parenting (such as co-sleeping, all-day baby wearing, and extended breastfeeding into toddlerhood) continue to be controversial, most of the basic tenets of this philosophy have been widely accepted. This childcentred approach to infant care is part of a larger, widespread cultural shift that places children and children's needs - rather than the needs of parents and society - at the centre of how we choose to bring up our kids.

This is not say that our kids are the centre of our universe (although many critics would beg to differ) but that, in our effort to bring them up to be good citizens, we are, first and foremost, attempting to see the world from their point of view.

The compassionate brain

Which brings us to the subject of neuroscience. In the past several years, we have learned a great deal about the human brain - and by extension, the developing brain of the child.

Science's new understanding of how the brain evolves in early childhood (a process called neural plasticity) has radically changed the way many experts - and, by extension, parents - look at toddler behaviour and how best to regulate it. Many child psychologists and parenting coaches have incorporated this research - as evidenced in such books as The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids by Dr. Laura Markham and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish - into their theories of how to raise kids in a more empathic and mindful way. One of the key pillars of this new research upends centuries of inherited notions of what works when "disciplining" a child: that systems of punishment and reward (as evidenced in the behaviourist model) are effective.

Vanessa Lapointe is a child psychologist based in Vancouver and an avid proponent of mindful parenting. Her latest book, Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up, made waves recently with its recommendation that parents should chuck out their star charts and time outs, and instead try to shape their kids' behaviour by simply being present, consistent and communicative. There are no rigid systems in mindful parenting, Dr. Lapointe explains, only opportunities to learn.

"One of the things about discipline is that it's not solely about the behaviour of the child; it's about our own behaviour and how that forms the child," she told me in telephone interview.

"Many people have imbued the behaviour of small children with this moral flavour. The judgment is that, when a child is 2 and having a tantrum, that child is being naughty or bad and, if the child is bad, then the parent is bad by extension. In reality, we now know that the frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to actually develop. And how we respond to our children in those situations has a serious impact on how their brains are formed."

Dr. Lapointe references the work of American developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, and his landmark 1975 Still-Face Experiment, which found that infants responded in a negative and distressed manner when interacting with a mother who was expressionless or non-responsive. It is one of the most replicated findings in infant psychology, and it backs up the notion that parental facial expression - as well as tone and volume of voice - has a significant impact on the neuroplasticity of children's developing brains. "If what you are trying to do as a parent is to bring up an adult who can manage their impulses, those neural pathways are being formed in the small child's brain from day one. If every time they get fired up or angry or sad, that is met with compassion, you can literally see their stress levels go right back down again."

So what we are trying to teach our kids, in other words, is not simply "Behave this way, or else," but that there are ways to self-regulate emotions without repressing them, and that learning this skill will allow them to exist harmoniously with the other humans they meet. "As a parent, you want to think of yourself as your child's 'external co-regulator,' " she explains. The long-term gain is that your children will have the neural architecture to deal with what life is going to throw at them, rather than a rigid sense of good and bad that may or may not translate in the real world.

Unfortunately, when your toddler is freaking out in public and you are patiently encouraging her or him to breathe deeply and "name the feeling," anyone unfamiliar with the practice of mindful parenting is going to look at you as if you are a pushover at best and a simpleton at worst. Ineffective and potentially damaging as we now know it to be, stern talk, shouting and immediate threats are still seen by many people as the best way to bring small unruly children into line. Dr. Lapointe isn't saying there shouldn't be consequences for kids' behaviour - just that we'd be wise to consider what these consequences should be: Are they real moral and emotional learning experiences, or are they simply gratifying our own impulse to dominate and punish kids for ruining everyone's brunch?

Rules that help parents rather than kids

There is no easy trick to mindful parenting. It simply involves consistently connecting with your children and trying to encourage them to understand, reflect upon and take responsibility for their actions in an empathetic and conscious way.

If it sounds time-consuming and difficult, it is. But according to Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist and parenting educator based in London, Ont., there is mounting research to show that it also works. "I always tell parents there is no magic, four-step process to bring up good kids. You can't put human behaviour in a box that way."

Like many advocates of nonauthoritarian methods, she is quick to emphasize that compassionate parenting is not about having no boundaries, or about letting kids simply do whatever they want. "It's mainly about teaching them that freaking out is not an effective communication method."

Compassionate parents aren't afraid to let their kids cry and melt down in the face of a firm "No." The main thing is that parents shouldn't melt down or freak out themselves (which is often where shouting or spanking come in) and that kids understand that they have permission to have emotions, even if those emotions are negative. Ms. Nair talks about the importance of "naming the feeling" and having a "calm-down plan" so that your small child can try to self-regulate their frustration, sadness or aggression rather than simply be punished for it - which incurs only resentment and more frustration.

She acknowledges that this new form of engaged or "conscious" parenting may appear to older generations (or a behaviourist like Leonard Sax) to be overly permissive or lacking in boundaries, even if, in fact, it's anything but. Consistency and firmness are possible to administer without time outs or shouting. "Our generation of parents needs to have an honest conversation with our own parents, and say, 'My parenting looks a lot different than your parenting, but I need you to trust me not be to a doormat, okay?' " The sad irony of the so-called crisis in modern parenting that it is built of the very thing it purports to attack: middle-class anxiety. To say that our kids are suffering from their privilege, when in fact they largely are succeeding because of it, seems the most wildly entitled position of all. If we should be worrying about any kids in Canadian society, it should not be the children of mindful parents - let alone the offspring of tiger moms and helicopter dads. By any logical predictor, those kids are going to do just fine.

It's the poor kids who are being tended to by parents who are truly struggling and stretched - parents who simply don't have time to agonize over their kids' music lessons and fine motor skills because they are too busy trying to pay the rent - that we should be worried about. As family-income inequality in Canada grows, so does the achievement gap, and it's the kids at the bottom end who deserve our concern, not the lucky children of the parents who have the luxury of "trying too hard." By any standard, all that trying is paying off.

Leah McLaren is a columnist with The Globe and Mail.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY TARYN GEE FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL


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Earlier this week, Twitter exploded with the news that Kim Cattrall had been mistaken for Margaret Trudeau in a photograph with Trudeau's late ex-husband, featured on the news program 60 Minutes. The mix-up was immediately put down to the fact that Americans, even reasonably clever ones, seem to know squat about our country.

Far more malodorous was the whiff of old-fashioned sexism at play - the unspoken implication being that any young woman on the arm of a powerful man is essentially interchangeable. Political wife, Porky's starlet - what's the difference, eh?

I felt a surge of hot indignation on behalf of Margaret Trudeau, whose startlingly candid interview in last week's Sunday Times magazine is still fresh in my mind. In it, she talks about how creepy it was to return (as she recently did) to 24 Sussex to go swimming with her grandchildren. She is the opposite of sentimental, calling the house "toxic," a place that was for her "the Crown Jewel of the federal penitentiary system."

Her memories of her late husband aren't particularly rose-tinted either, especially for anyone who clings to the notion of Pierre Trudeau as the great Canadian liberalizer and champion of equal rights. He was, Margaret reminded us, a workaholic who believed in equality everywhere apart from in his own home. "He wanted a good wife, barefoot, pregnant, in the kitchen," she recalls. When Gloria Steinem sent her a copy of Ms. Magazine, PET was appalled. "'Oh my God, what kind of garbage are you reading?' " he said.

Today, we have a brand-new, shiny Trudeau power couple to recklessly idealize - all scrubbed and glowing and just as full of contagious optimism as Maggie and Pierre were back in 1971. And luckily for Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau (also a bit of a hippie in her own yoga-loving way) much has changed half a century on when it comes to the role of political wife.

9 Abortion is now completely decriminalized, gay people are free to marry, there is gender parity in cabinet and our Prime Minister's wife is no longer expected to be a pretty, welldressed stay-at-home mother who does charity work and the occasional cover interview for Chatelaine.

Wait, no, that's wrong. In fact, nothing has changed at all.

This week, our spiffy new Trudeaus fly to Washington for their first state dinner with President Barack Obama and the first lady.

Presumably, Michelle will share a few words of wisdom with Sophie on the subject of how to completely sublimate your own ego and professional ambitions for the better part of a decade in the prime of your working life because that's just what "the role" requires. Don't get me wrong, Michelle Obama is a fantastically impressive woman, her lengthy résumé speaks for itself.

But I always found it slightly incongruous that her approval ratings soared during the first half of her husband's first term when she seemed to spend most of her time weeding communal gardens with inner-city school children in pink sweater sets and pearls.

Like Hillary Clinton before her, Michelle's only gaffes have come in the form of wry political observations that made me, personally, like her more. Remember when she had the audacity to admit she'd lacked pride in her country prior to her husband's election? The response was almost as bad as the repercussions from Clinton's cookie-baking comment, which dogs her to this day.

The good news is, on the rare occasion that a woman does manage to clamber up the greasy pole and into political office, she'll get to look forward to being pampered and complimented by her own devoted political husband. Oh wait, that's not right either. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's husband is a quantum chemist and tenured professor who doesn't do public appearances. Stephen Kinnock, the husband of former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, worked as a director at the World Economic Forum during his wife's time in office and is now a sitting British MP who visits his wife and daughters in Copenhagen on weekends. The couple insist they are still very much together, just equally devoted to their respective careers. Can you imagine such a scenario being publicly tolerated if the genders were reversed?

I'm not criticizing these first men for continuing to pursue their professional lives, I'm just sad it's so seemingly impossible for their female counterparts to do the same despite the fact that - as our PM keeps reminding us - it's apparently 2016. Perhaps the answer is choice - that most women, even high-powered ones, will sacrifice their own professional goals for the sake of their family (especially when children are involved) when faced with the conundrum of how best to grapple with suddenly becoming the spouse of a world leader. It could be that. Or it could be a sexist double standard at work.

Probably it's both.

The one truly marvellous thing all this thwarted female ambition has given rise to of late is the proliferation of a new narrative genre I like to think of as first lady revenge drama. Think of heroines such as The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick and Claire Underwood in House of Cards. These are women who've spent so long suppressing their deepest desires for the sake of their husbands, that when they finally do unleash themselves on the world, all hell breaks loose.

Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House is a first lady revenge reality drama. Say what you will about her voting record, the idea of Clinton sitting in the same Oval Office where her husband got himself impeached with an adulterous blow job is almost too delicious to contemplate. If only for the sake of Margaret Trudeau, I really do hope she wins.

Associated Graphic

Will Michelle Obama share with Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, right, advice on sublimating her ego?

RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS


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Friday, March 4, 2016 – Page L1

Marie Kondo, Japan's Queen of Clean, has almost nothing to say on the subject of children.

It's spring-cleaning time and I've been re-reading her two bestselling books for inspiration: The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up and the sequel Spark Joy, in which she advocates that readers take each object in their house and hold it close to their body to feel whether it "sparks joy" or not. She is very keen on throwing things out but conspicuously circumspect on the topic of how to cope with the most disorganizing life experience of all: choosing to spend one's life with small irrational beings with zero respect for radical minimalism and Zen-like order.

In the new book there is one paragraph on the importance of teaching children to fold and another on what to do with all your kid's artwork ("thank [the artworks] for helping your child to grow and discard them guiltfree"). Otherwise, she has nothing to say on the value of children themselves, never mind their tendency to be mollified and delighted by objects that could not possibly "spark joy" in any sane person with even a fraction of good taste.

Given this void of advice, I have taken it upon myself to adopt her voice to create a new set of rules I think of as "the KonMarie Method for Parents."

1. Commit yourself to the project of ignoring your children.

"From the perspective of the larger entity that is your home, your things and everyone else's things are all equally its children."

I would add one major exception to this rule and that would be actual human children, who unlike joy-sparking objects such as a white china tea mug or the perfect square flower vase tend to be loud, unpredictable and difficult to store in drawers wrapped in tissue paper.

2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle.

In your mind's eye, you are a tiny, flawlessly dressed Japanese woman living alone in a 600-squarefoot Tokyo apartment who eats a small bowl of fish and seaweed each night before retiring in silence to her tatami mat to count her enormous book royalties on a paper-thin smartphone. If caught in close proximity to children, you press your lips together and breathe deeply through your nose until the feeling of panic subsides.

3. Discard any offspring.

I know it sounds extreme, but I cannot tell you how many clients have thanked me profusely after I persuaded them to finally get rid of the children destroying their dream of having a tidy home.

Despite my assurances, most skeptical parents will initially object to this advice by saying, "But Marie, what if they come in handy at some point? After all, I put so much work into raising them this far, don't I deserve some kind of payoff?" This kind of thinking is taboo and, moreover, a sentimental hold-over from our outdated and utterly useless instinct for biological continuity.

The truth is, children disrupt tidiness from the moment they appear (wailing, sticky, on their own schedule). From that moment on, they do everything they can to keep us from effectively tidying up, whether dumping Cheerios on the floor or destroying a painstakingly arranged seasonal shoe storage system.

Therefore, finally getting rid of your children is your payoff for raising them. Don't be afraid to reward yourself in this way. After all those years of chaos and disorder, you deserve a break! (There are many charitable organizations that will take spare children, see back of the book for details.)

4. Tidy kid stuff by category, not by location.

Once you have successfully discarded your children, the hard work is done. It's time to get rid of the ugly crap they brought into your life - all of it! Collect all the assorted brightly coloured junk from every corner of your house (be sure to check behind sofa cushions and under beds) starting with the clothes, followed by papers, toys, toiletries, snack food and eating utensils.

Finally, only when you are fully committed to your task, approach "sentimental items."

Keep a couple of baby pictures if you must, but only by scanning them and storing them on your home computer. Do not give in to the temptation to spend hours mooning over baby booties or pressing your face into a SpiderMan pillowcase whilst sobbing inconsolably. These are the amateur mistakes made by those who lack the stamina and spiritual fortitude to be truly tidy, inside and out.

5. Rebirth.

At this point you might be tempted to give your former child's things to charity, for apparently there are "needy" children out there (no doubt living in hideously unkempt homes) but in my view this is insufficiently cleansing for the soul. What you need now is a grand ritual to celebrate your new child-free self being reborn from the ashes of kid crap.

Take the mound into your backyard or nearest park, douse with gasoline and light with a match.

Stand back and experience the calming joy of watching a vomitencrusted IKEA high chair swallowed by the flames.

6. Enjoy your new tidy life.

Now that your house has been successfully purged of disorder and chaos, walk through each room and pick up the remaining objects - all of them neatly arranged and dust-free - and ask yourself whether they "spark joy."

If you feel a terrible, roiling black emptiness in the pit of your stomach accompanied by a ringing in the ears, do not give in to the urge collapse in a heap in the middle of your immaculate kitchen screaming for your lost child like a dying animal. Instead, take a single white china mug from the cupboard and thank it calmly for the service it provides. Fill with green tea and drink.

Associated Graphic

Children disrupt tidiness from the moment they're born.


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A new doc on young women and drinking gets it all wrong
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Friday, February 26, 2016 – Page L1

B inge drinking, you may have heard, is an epidemic among young Canadian women. According to a new CBC documentary, Girls' Night Out, women attending universities across the country are drinking more than ever before and suffering an alarming array of social, emotional and physical consequences because of it.

These young women are, apparently, putting themselves at risk of cirrhosis of the liver, memory loss and cancer. A recent Maclean's feature with the headline "The Alarming Rise in Binge Drinking Among Women" backed up the trend; the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse announced the launch of #RethinkTheDrink, a year-long campaign to encourage young women to cut back.

Except here's the thing: This so-called "epidemic" is complete nonsense.

Young women aren't drinking more. They're actually drinking less. Significantly less, if you believe Statistics Canada. According to the most recent numbers from Statscan, the number of women aged 12 to 19 who reported having four or more drinks at one sitting at least once a month in the past year (the fantastically stringent guidelines for what Health Canada classifies as "heavy drinking") dropped nearly 16 per cent from 2010 to 2012.

There were similar though slightly less precipitous drops in heavy drinking among women under 35 as well. The age groups for whom drinking actually did rise, according to Statscan, were 35- to 44-year-olds and over-65s - the onset of middle age and old age being the presumed reasons to take to the bottle.

And that's not to mention that, on average, men drank far more than women in every age group, and middle aged men were the most committed boozers of all.

Over all, the stats say heavy drinking in Canada is marginally up, but young women are certainly not the culprits. So why are they being blamed?

The answer is a dispiriting blend of cultural puritanism mixed with irresponsible journalism and the CBC's shameless attempt to boost ratings with dramatized footage of college girls in skimpy dresses doing body shots in nightclubs.

Vaguely based on the book Drink: The Deadly Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston, the documentary takes a complex and multilayered topic and reduces it to an episode of Girls Gone Wild narrated by church ladies.

Girls' Night Out is a patronizing, fact-adverse travesty, the broadcast equivalent of TMZ's neverending gallery of D-list actresses staggering out of nightclubs, lipstick and bra straps askew.

This sort of sexist voyeurism cloaked in the guise of moral shock is nothing new to the celebrity tabloid press, but the producers manage to take it one wobbly, retch-inducing step further into outright misogyny. The deeper thesis of Girls' Night Out comes in the form of old-fashioned victim-blaming - a disturbing message coming from the CBC, particularly in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi trial.

According to the documentary, "alcohol is involved in nine out of 10 sexual assaults" - a misleading statistic since alcohol is likely involved in nine out of 10 social activities of any kind involving university students, whether it's a romantic date or a frosh-week scavenger hunt.

But the makers of Girls' Night Out ignore nuance as they hammer home their point: Girls who get drunk also get raped. Tearful testimony from several recovered alcoholics to whom "bad things" happened in their misbegotten youth drives this dangerous message home.

If you want to get wasted, the filmmakers seem to be saying, you run the risk of becoming human garbage. And really, ladies, whose fault is that? The faceless male rapists in this documentary (presumably drunk themselves) don't even merit a moment's reflection because, for men, drinking or behaving badly apparently isn't an issue - it's just a given.

The real victims here are the female undergraduates who agreed to participate in this documentary, presumably on the assumption it was a clear-eyed look at the drinking habits of students rather than a moral condemnation of their personal choices.

We are encouraged to judge these girls for their keggers and drinking games, and yet anyone who has ever known a 19-yearold will recognize their experimental behaviour as utterly common. Moreover, as "shocking" documentaries go, it's a snooze. The girls get hammered, have a blast and wake up safe and warm in their single beds the next morning. In the end, all they seem to be guilty of is having a good time.

The morning after the night before we get a lingering shot of a university student rolling over in her single bed and pressing snooze on her alarm in the morning. The horror! Yes, alcohol can be a slippery slope, but it's important to remember the vast majority of its female users manage to drink responsibly.

Young women are drinking less, not more. It's the middle-aged moms and dads, sitting in their renovated kitchens cracking a second bottle of wine over dinner, who are truly cause for concern. But who wants to see that?

There's no need for the CBC to let facts get in the way of a good documentary. When in doubt, blame the girls.

Associated Graphic

While media reports have raised concerns about young women drinking, Statscan data suggest it's older people who are the real boozers.

WHITE PINE PICTURES


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The terrifying truth: Sometimes our children are unknowable
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Friday, February 19, 2016 – Page L1

Sue Klebold's son Dylan was one of two teenaged gunmen at Columbine High School in Colorado who, in 1999, killed 12 students and a teacher and injured 21 others before turning his gun on himself.

At the time, the massacre was the largest school shooting in U.S. history. It sparked an outpouring of public grief and anger that would affect many families, including the Klebolds, who had their own discrete tragedy: Having unwittingly raised a killer, they also lost a son.

Klebold's new memoir, A Mother's Reckoning, is her attempt to sift through the ashes of this unspeakable experience. As misery memoirs go, it is conspicuously lacking in self-pity or wallowing regret. In simple terms, it is an account of the days and months after the massacre and her efforts to make sense of an almost incomprehensible situation while remaining embedded in the community where the tragedy struck.

Official medical reports have suggested that, while the other Columbine shooter, Eric Harris, was a psychopath with sadistic tendencies, Dylan Klebold was a depressive teen with suicidal impulses. Together, their pathologies combined to make the perfect storm.

What is striking about Sue Klebold's memoir is how little she knew of her son's profound darkness even though, in some ways, she feels as though she understood him very well.

The ultimate message of the book is actually quite terrifying.

As psychologist Andrew Solomon writes in his introduction: "you may not know your own children, and, worst yet, your children may be unknowable to you."

Klebold's account of her son's childhood contradicts every stereotype of the "angry young man" we generally ascribe to school shooters. Neither a loner nor a superficially "disaffected youth," Dylan was a good student with many friends who, the weekend before the shooting, danced until the wee hours at his high-school prom. His family nickname was Sunshine Boy, "not just because of his halo of blond hair, but because everything seemed to come easily to him," she writes.

Dylan had been accepted to the University of Arizona and the week before the shootings spent hours poring over the floor plans of various dorm rooms with his father, trying to work out the ideal set up for his freshman year.

None of this behaviour is incompatible with the broken logic that drives the suicidal brain, but it does fly in the face of the isolated, enraged and frankly deranged sort of mind that we normally imagine conceiving of and committing carnage such as the massacre at Columbine High.

What is most compelling about Klebold's book is the fact that she doesn't try to make pat logical sense of her son's actions as an attempt to face up to and accept them. She writes of her profound disagreement with those who put her son's crime down to "the work of Satan" or simply dismiss him as pure evil - a creature unconnected to the engaged and thoughtful boy she loved.

As Solomon puts it, she does not "try to elucidate the permanently confused borderline between evil and disease."

Amid her unwavering rationality is one moment of magical thinking. She writes of Dylan's calm and uneventful birth, followed by the moment she first held him quiet in her arms.

"I experienced a deep and unsettling sense of foreboding, strong enough to make me shiver. ... Looking down at the perfect bundle in my arms I was overcome by a strong premonition: this child would bring me terrible sorrow."

Klebold's account of her son is that of a boy who was easy to love but impossible to know. A "perfect bundle" with strange and unfathomable aspects - in a sense, a child like any other. For what mother, holding a newborn, hasn't felt that ominous and magical sense of touching the void?

The process of parenting, and motherhood in particular, is really a kind of parting. From the very moment your children are born, they become, quite literally, less one with you and more entirely themselves. In a way, having a child is a process of unlearning - the more we get to know our children, the less we are meant to fully understand them and the more the multitudes of their character deepen and evolve.

And all of this is perfectly normal, of course, since the point of raising children is not to draw them closer, but to ultimately set them free.

Our children will naturally become less and less fully known to us until (with any luck) we die long before they do. It's a strange trip, but one that many of us are compelled to take.

If there is an overarching moral to Sue Klebold's story, it would be that we must try to know our children to the extent that we can in the short time that we have. For Klebold, this is no longer possible with Dylan, but even in her grief, she urges us to try.

Associated Graphic

In April, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and a teacher before shooting themselves at Columbine high school in Colorado.

ERIC GAY/AP


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Twitter is doomed by the yuck factor it failed to address
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Friday, February 5, 2016 – Page L5

As the dust settles in the aftermath of Canada's first high-profile digital-harassment case, one thing is obvious: The party is over for Twitter.

Last month, a Toronto court found that Gregory Alan Elliott was innocent of criminally harassing three women on the social-media platform. The Crown's case, unfortunately, was not a strong one. It centred on a number of tweets the defendant wrote to - and then, after he was blocked, about - the complainants over the course of two years. (Elliott would comment on the women on popular hashtags where he knew his accusers would be active, which is a bit like the digital equivalent of writing nasty things about someone who refuses to talk to you on the high-school bathroom wall.) Although Elliott appeared to be an angry guy with a creepy fixation on the complainants, his actual tweets were pretty tame by trolling standards (as a columnist who writes on women's issues, I'm something of an expert on this). The judge found him innocent on the grounds that the three complainants couldn't reasonably have feared for their safety as they insisted they had.

So, is the case a victory for free speech or an "all clear" signal for online abusers everywhere?

Probably neither. What it is, in all likelihood, is the tip of a virtual iceberg. In Britain, police reported a 21-per-cent surge last year in reported crimes involving social media. This, in part, is because of a landmark case in which a feminist activist and an MP were subjected to a deluge of threats and insults after winning their campaign to get Jane Austen on the back of the £10 note.

Two of their online harassers were sent to jail for several weeks, and rightly so. When you threaten someone with "worse than rape," as one of the British harassers did, there ought to be legal consequences.

But perhaps the more significant development lately is that social-media users are voting with their fingers. As Twitter becomes an increasingly unpleasant place to be, fewer people are going there - and that, for any social-media platform, is a major problem.

While just a few years ago Twitter seemed a panacea for ignorance and loneliness, a place where you could find out anything about everything that interested you and hang out, joking around with your funniest friends and mouthiest celebrities, today it feels more like an after-hours club where the bar's closed down, the DJ's packing up, and a sad handful of holdouts are pacing the dance floor, anxious for the night to go on.

One of those places where, if you hang around too long as a woman, someone will invariably say to you after something bad happens, "Weren't you asking for trouble just being there in the first place?" Twitter's number of new users has been dropping for several years now and in the crucial U.S. market the join rate has been flat for the better part of a year.

Facebook, which has worked hard to sort out its kinks and policing policies, is a monolith by contrast, and Twitter also has countless upstarts nipping at its heels. Instagram and WhatsApp now have more users than Twitter, and the teen-friendly SnapChat is not far behind. All this has led to a collapse in Twitter's share price, which has sunk to half its value since last fall.

The big problem, beyond the sheer faddishness of the socialmedia marketplace, is that Twitter's beleaguered management has failed to make the platform a place where people feel happy and safe and engaged. Its last CEO, Dick Costolo, was forced by the board to resign last year after a leaked memo in which he allowed: "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years. It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day."

Now, Twitter has hired back its original CEO and creator, Jack Dorsey, to sort out the company's problems, but it's probably too late. The party has moved on.

The funny mistake people often make about the Internet is in thinking of it as something beyond our control. In fact, we made it, we operate it and it belongs to us. It's not some kind of digital Wild West in which death threats and unsolicited dick pics must be endured as a matter of course. If social-media sites don't clean up their act and protect the innocent, we can simply go elsewhere - and as the decline of Twitter shows, we will.

At the risk of overextending the party metaphor, Twitter is a lot like the pernicious logical conclusion of the old-fashioned masquerade ball. The idea that polite, repressed people might be encouraged to have more fun if their identities were partly concealed is a good one. But throw the doors open, fire the bouncers and offer every guest a complimentary balaclava and dagger? Well, then, I suppose it's true - you are just asking for trouble.


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Fine, I'll be a nagging piano mother
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Friday, January 29, 2016 – Page L3

My parenting style is a haphazard mixture of blind instinct and willful redress. I mostly just do what my parents did, except when I go out of my way not to repeat what I perceive as their mistakes. Signing my three-year-old son James up for Suzuki piano lessons was a mission born of the latter impulse rather than the former.

My mother never took us to piano lessons because she couldn't be bothered to nag us to practise. Now that I'm a mother, the body of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of nagging your kids to practise is so vast, it's overwhelming. Study after study by respected international neuroscientists show that small children who creak away on their mini-violins daily reap astonishing benefits.

The most recent study - published this month by researchers at the University of Vermont - analyzed the brain scans of 232 healthy young music students.

They found that the more the child practised, the higher his or her levels of "cortical organization in attention span, anxiety management and emotional control." Which explains everything you need to know about my cortical organization skills.

Becoming that nagging mother can be difficult. I've tried everything, including cajoling, pretending it's a game, bribing him with Jelly Bellies, but James's resistance to the ritual of daily practice seems to be almost innate.

"Piano is bum bum!" he declared the other day as I tried to persuade him to sit still and play the first three notes of Hot Cross Buns with his right hand, to no avail.

"So you practise with him every day?" asked Ivana, his pretty, cortically organized Serbian-born teacher with a skeptical arch of her finely plucked brow.

"Maybe not every day," I said.

"But most days. Or at least some days." In truth, we practised on the days we were not late for nursery school, which lately had meant zero days. But I wasn't prepared to tell Ivana that. I was paying her too much.

"He needs to practise every day," she said firmly. "And you need to practise with him. Otherwise there is simply no point."

"Of course," I agreed, thinking of the information I'd gleaned from the website of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, which has an early childhood music program designed at an inhouse research institute led by a world-renowned neuroscientist.

In recent years, researchers there have been able to find out all kinds of new things about the brain through advances in techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), which allow scientists to see how our brains react to stimuli, i.e., what makes them go zzzzz or light up like a switchboard.

Aside from longer attention spans and the rest of it, they've also discovered that musical study can actually stave off dementia and improve hearing loss.

It all happens through a process called neuroplasticity, which basically means if the brain were a set of muscles, playing an instrument would be the equivalent of the Tracy Anderson Method. This made intuitive sense to me, because trying to persuade a recalcitrant three-year-old to practise Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star each day felt very similar to that Tracy Anderson exercise where you jog on the spot and make teeny, tiny circles with your arms extended.

At first you think, "This is cool."

But after five minutes, you're, like, "KILL ME NOW." Stick with it, however, and your child's brain will have the supple tone of Gwyneth Paltrow's fortysomething butt.

One Conservatory infographic, entitled "Benefits of Musical Education," showed two cartoon brains, one grey and one bright yellow.

The yellow "musical brain" belonging to a stick man playing guitar had a list of benefits beside it, including "more grey matter, improved brain structure and function, better memory and attention, higher IQ."

The grey brain belonging to the stick man with no guitar had nothing written beside it. That, I realized with shame, was my brain. But it didn't have to be my son's.

And so, armed with my compelling new research, I did something I've rarely done in my life: I formed a new morning routine and stuck to it. For almost a month now, I've made James sit down at the piano after breakfast.

After a while, he stopped fighting it. He resists as a matter of principle, but ultimately, he knows it is futile.

At his lesson last week, Ivana and I were amazed as he played the first three notes of Hot Cross Buns unprompted. We praised his efforts as if he'd just surprised us with a Chopin nocturne. Brimming with maternal pride, I thought of his improved neuroplasticity and magnificently developing cortex. "Are you proud of yourself, my darling?" I asked.

He asked for a jellybean, which I produced from my pocket. "Bum bum," he said and popped it in his mouth.


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A champion for redheads re-emerges
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Anne of Green Gables, she of fiery tresses, returns to TV and just in time - a whole bunch of carrot tops need acceptance
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Friday, January 22, 2016 – Page L4

Anne of Green Gables is back on the small screen - a madefor-TV movie will air on YTV in February and CBC has just announced a new miniseries to be shot later in the year. Both adaptations promise to provide a fresh take on the plucky, frecklefaced orphan and, judging by the creative choices, a darker one.

The TV movie has Martin Sheen (star of Apocalpyse Now, father of Charlie) in the role of Matthew Cuthbert (thankfully, Lindsay Lohan was unavailable to play Anne). The CBC series will be penned by a writer from Breaking Bad and co-produced by Miranda de Pencier, who played the villainous Josie Pye in the original Sullivan Entertainment TV adaptation of the 1980s.

Given that Anne is getting a new lease on her fictional life, it's important to ask: What will it mean for her people? Back when Megan Follows played her in 1985, we didn't have gay marriage or lobby groups for overweight people or a prime minister who liked greeting refugees at the airport.

Back then, we were an ignorant, unenlightened bunch.

Today, there are activists urging us to recognize that Anne is part of a minority that only accounts for a fraction of the population of Canada and yet takes an undue share of mockery and abuse. No, I'm not talking about the good citizens of Prince Edward Island, proud and noble tribe though they are (thanks for the spuds, guys). I'm talking about members of the bullied and beleaguered minority historically maligned with an unmentionable word.

Are you feeling confused? Perhaps that's because you are a good, colour-blind Canadian and have never noticed that our dear Anne is actually - I'm just going to put it out there - a ginger.

There, I've said it.

I have been advised that the term "redhead" is more politically correct, while "carrots," Gilbert Blythe's schoolboy nickname for his future wife, Anne, is utterly unconscionable.

Let's hope the new adaptations address the pressing issue of why any proud, fiery-headed young woman would eventually submit to the attentions of an unrepentant gingerist, handsome and twinkly-eyed as he was (RIP, Jonathan Crombie).

You think I'm joking, don't you? And I am. But for many people, the issue of gingerism is a very real one.

In the past, redheads have been burned at the stake as witches.

More recently, the satirical TV show South Park popularized anti-redhead sentiment with its Kick a Ginger campaign in 2008.

Here in Britain, where the redhaired gene is much more predominant than in other parts of the world (all of Asia and Africa pop to mind), you'd expect there to be less gingerism, not more. In fact, the opposite is true.

In the very British Penguin Guide to Superstitions, gingerism is identified as a "general prejudice that red-haired people are devious, cruel, lascivious, unlucky and generally untrustworthy." And violent attacks on redheads, if not a common occurrence, still happen with unfortunate regularity. In 2012, 23-year-old redhead Alex KosuthPhillips was brutally beaten outside a Birmingham pizza shop on his birthday for the colour of his hair, causing national soulsearching on the topic in the press. This included the argument that gingerism should be enshrined in law as a hate crime like any other, made very seriously in the New Statesman by the redheaded writer Nelson Jones.

"Anti-ginger bullying may be a particular problem in schools, but few schools make it a priority, guided by the law and codes of practice to concentrate their efforts on tackling racism, homophobia and disability prejudice," Jones wrote. "Indeed, unlike hatred based on race or sexuality, however, there is no legal recognition that anti-ginger prejudice exists ..." In Canada, my redheaded friends agree they are still teased at school or in the office, but the issue of enshrining their protection in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms hasn't yet been seriously raised. I suspect that this, in large part, is because we are just a saner, calmer culture with fewer drunken louts throwing sucker punches outside pizza shops.

But I also think it's at least a little bit because of Anne.

I had two fictional idols as a child: Anne of Green Gables and Little Orphan Annie. Both were poor, misbehaved orphans with bright red hair and freckles. As soon as I was old enough to go to the drugstore and buy a box of Flirt, I dyed my hair Christmasball red to match my idols. It looked terrible, of course.

To my mind, growing up in culturally tolerant Canada, red hair was synonymous with a kind of spunky, outspoken chutzpah that I sought to emulate rather than mock or disparage. I wanted to be different and test the boundaries of acceptable girl-child behaviour like Anne, and in this I latterly succeeded, though let's just say it wasn't by floating myself down the river and reciting The Lady of Shalott.

The point is, Anne Shirley is a role model of difference in a society where difference is largely respected and less often persecuted. This is Canada, a country where carrot tops rule.

Associated Graphic

Sara Botsford, Ella Ballentine and Martin Sheen appear in a new TV movie of Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic, Anne of Green Gables.


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A lament for the loss of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad kids' lit characters
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Friday, January 15, 2016 – Page L1

If only children were as omnivorous in their literary consumption as they are voracious.

At any given time, my son James only seems to want two or three books in rotation, ad nauseam, until we are both so sick of them mummy needs to bring her wine upstairs for bedtime.

Lately, mercifully, these books have been oldies but goodies - Where the Wild Things Are, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and even a dog-eared copy of Winnie the Pooh from my own childhood library.

I first noticed James's peculiar interest in depressives and grouches in his growing fixation on Eeyore. ("Is he disappointed?

Why does he never feel better?") And similarly with Max, the naughty, melancholic protago.

nist of Maurice Sendak's classic fantasy tale who ends up colonizing a kingdom of yellow-eyed monsters after his mother sends him to bed without dinner.

James is obsessed with this detail ("Can I have no dinner?") and also with Max's mental state, which vacillates between rage, guilt, homesickness and an imperialistic need to dominate every creature around him. Max is an irascible little git in a pyjama suit and James, being a three-year-old bird of a feather, identifies wholeheartedly.

Same goes with Alexander - perhaps the most spectacular misery-guts in the history of children's literature - and a character for whom James reserves nearly boundless amounts of unconditional love.

In case you haven't read the book lately, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is about a boy who has a dull and dispiriting day in which every bad thing that could happen to him does. No major tragedies, just a lot of crappy little irritations, and the cumulative effect is to make his bad mood worse. It's a classic, they even made a movie a few years back.

What strikes me most about these books is how they refuse to conform to the current vogue for children's stories about characters triumphing over adversity through the power of positive thinking. Much has been written over the years about the sanitation of children's literature, most notably the lucrative gloss-over Disney did on the ghoulish Brothers Grimm. But there is another janitorial force out there and that is the insidious rise of positive psychology, with its glib emphasis on happiness (as opposed to lessexciting-but-more-sustainable contentment) and mind-overmatter thinking. Nowhere is this irritating, happy-faced scourge more apparent in our culture than the stories we tell our children.

From The Gruffalo to Frozen to Peppa Pig to that ghastly dinosaur who can't control his bowels, the plot of nearly every single hit children's book, TV show and movie in the past five to 10 years can be boiled down to the following synopsis: The hero has a mission.

The mission encounters a problem. After a struggle, our hero manages to accomplish his mission by harnessing his inner reserves of optimism and courage.

I've got nothing against optimism and courage - I admire the bluster of the little brown mouse walking along through the deep dark wood and having the cojones to make up a bunch of guff about a monster just to scare off his predators. Go mouse! But I think that the reason James's literary tastes have turned a bit retrogloomy demonstrates that the Oprah-anointed Disney/Pixar prototype, while superficially effective, doesn't resonate on a deeper level with kids.

Today we have the sanitized versions of these icons of grumpiness - the chubby blue sniveller from Inside Out springs to mind or the old man in Up - but for the most part these characters serve as mere plot functions. Rather than being fully formed characters, they are the adversity over which the key characters must triumph in order to succeed.

James, like most small children, spends a lot of his day feeling frustrated and sick of people tell' ing him what not to do - an occupational hazard of being a curious child living in an adult world - and so he responds quite naturally to characters who are generally out of sorts. I don't mean people like Queen Elsa, who have to overcome their crippling fears in order to grasp the power of epic love. I mean kids like Alexander, who end up crying because the elevator door just closed on his foot after the dentist found a cavity and his brother pushed him in a puddle.

So much of life is just getting on with stuff even when you don't feel like it. Growing up, in large part, is making your peace with that. James is attracted to characters who make him feel a bit better about life's daily tribulations, not worse.

When I was a kid in the late 1970s and early eighties, there were all these characters whose sole purpose was to make kids feel okay about being in a foul mood. Think of Oscar the Grouch, Mr. Grumpy, Statler and Waldorf (the hecklers in The Muppet Show) or even Archie Bunker from All in The Family - yes I know he's not a kid's character but there were only a few channels back then so we had to make do. These guys (and it's interesting, even instructive, that they were all male) were so much more vivid to me than their cheerful, upbeat counterparts because they transmitted a sort of emotional veracity I just couldn't get from the likes of Kermit and Mr. Happy.

Maybe it was just because I had a mother who sat around smoking cigarillos and listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue, but I feel real nostalgia for those little beacons of darkness. In many ways they made the exquisite frustration of childhood bearable. And for my son they still do.

Associated Graphic

Max (from Where the Wild Things Are), top, and Alexander having a 'Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.'

Will Eeyore ever have a good day?


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Should women be paid for emotional labour?
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Friday, January 8, 2016 – Page L5

It's January, a dark, sluggish month I think of as "thank you-card season" - the time of year when emotional debts, avoided or accrued over the holidays, must be settled.

And let's be honest: They are mostly settled by women.

On the same morning I sat down to write this column, I also composed and mailed seven notes of gratitude for Christmas gifts and parties, posted happybirthday wishes to two old friends on Facebook, ordered anti-nail-biting solution for my anxious toddler on Amazon, spent an exhausting half-hour consoling said toddler because, yes, he will have to go to nursery school again today, before seeing my husband off to work with instructions to pick up a birthday present of one our son's school friends.

My husband is always happy to pitch in and help, but sometimes the reality of being the one who always remembers and honestly cares about this stuff can be enough to drive a woman half-mad with resentment.

Unpaid emotional labour is being hailed as the next feminist frontier. In the weeks leading up to the new year, there were various reports on the subject on both sides of the Atlantic, everywhere from the Guardian and the BBC Radio 4 program Woman's Hour to several prominent feminist blogs.

Outlandish as it might sound, there is a growing feeling that women ought to demand acknowlegement - and possibly even financial compensation - for our voluntary contributions to the larger social order.

Beyond the bourgeois expectations of domestic wizardry and formal social etiquette many women admittedly place on themselves, unpaid emotional labour is one of the ties that bind families, friends and colleagues together. These small acts of kindness and concern, performed tirelessly by women around the world, are part of what separates us from the animals.

Like sexual power, emotional labour is one of those cultural contradictions that is simultaneously celebrated and dismissed because it is viewed as inherently female. Why are we the ones who go around office collecting money for a colleague's going-away gift? Why do we remember the names and genders of our friends' babies?

Or that Joe is gluten-free? More to the point, what would happen if we didn't?

I'm really not sure, but I do know this: I'd give my eyeteeth to be totally oblivious once in a while. Even in the most stressful times, I cannot seem to block out the urgent little voice that says, "Excuse me, Leah, I know you're on an important deadline, but have you arranged any play dates for the weekend? Play dates are an important part of early childhood socialization.

Also don't forget to send Rachel a condolence e-mail about her cat."

It's not that these thoughts bother me; it's that there seems to be a distinct gender imbalance in the propensity of women to have them. In an era in which domestic and professional labours have become far more evenly split, why do the acts of remembering, worrying and just giving a you-know-what about the feelings of others still disproportionately fall to women?

The issue of emotional labour is, in fact, one that sociologists have been studying for decades.

Originally coined as a term in 1983 by the sociologist Arlie Hochchild, emotional labour has since inspired an outpouring of research, much of it focused on how subtle gender bias in the workplace often sets an unspoken expectation on women to be kinder and more considerate, and generally to do things unprompted for others. When men are considerate, it's typically seen as a bonus, whereas for women, being kind, courteous and interested in the feelings of others is a baseline. If that baseline is not met, a woman's reputation, both personal and professional, suffers.

Last year, the American writer Jess Zimmerman made the controversial argument that if women really want to close the pay gap, we ought to start demanding compensation for unpaid emotional labour. The obvious, eye-rolling retort, of course, is that no one explicitly asks women to do all this extra stuff.

There is some truth in this (no one held a gun to my head and told me to bake fresh scones for my extended family on Boxing Day), but at the same time, the urgent compulsion women feel to care for everyone around them is largely a socially constructed expectation rather than the result of us just being "nicer." It's not just feeling that, "If I don't send the thank-you note, no one else will." It's also, "If no one sends a thank-you note, that's rude and the rudeness will all be on me."

Just think of the character MacKenzie McHale in Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom or Olivia Pope on Shonda Rhimes's series Scandal. Both are high-powered women in positions of authority who nonetheless spend half their days running around the office organizing other people's marriage proposals. The implication seems to be to be that if they didn't do this extra girly stuff, viewers would find them unlikeable - and maybe that's true.

On balance, I think emotional labour is a lot like housework - it's important in the sense that, if everyone suddenly stopped doing it, we'd all become filthy barbarians within a week. But it's also utterly devalued because women have been in charge of it since time immemorial. Maybe, just maybe, if women everywhere started doing a little less, the best men would naturally move to fill in the gap, just like they have with the laundry.

There will be fewer thank-you notes and more shop-bought scones in the interim, but I suspect humanity will somehow stagger on. So that's my resolution. P.S. Sorry about your cat.


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Taking Santa out of the line of fire
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My holiday wish is for a world with fewer firearms, whether of the toy or automatic variety
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Friday, December 18, 2015 – Page L4

When my seven-year-old stepson Freddy presented me with his list for Santa Claus this year, I was relieved. Lately I've noticed a premature adolescent jadedness creeping into his mannerisms, and I'd been worried he might take it upon himself to disillusion his younger brother James who, at 31/2, is still a fervent believer.

"What a sweet surprise," I thought, unfolding the list. It was written in festive red cursive and read as follows: 1. An AK47 2. A catapult (life size) 3. Another Swiss Army knife (Daddy packed the one I got for my birthday in the wrong bag and the MEANIE security man took it away at the airport.)

4. Nerf Zombie Strike Flip Fury 5. Nerf Elite Rhino Strike Blaster 6. More bullets (infinity) 7. A lifetime supply of mint chocolate chip ice cream This list wasn't Freddy's way of having me on - it was a unilateral declaration of war.

My stepson was a toddler when we first met, and he regarded me with a mixture of guarded affection and well-founded suspicion. One of my first, idealistic moves as his new liberal Canadian stepmother was to confiscate his substantial collection of toy guns and hide them in a shopping bag at the bottom of the laundry hamper.

Oddly, he didn't seem to notice. Nor did his father, who like most British men of his generation has a distinctly laissez-faire attitude toward toy firearms.

Britain, despite having much higher rates of petty crime and alcohol-related street violence than Canada, has only a fraction of the firearm-related deaths.

Most police here aren't even armed. Because of this, toy guns are just part of the regular landscape of childhood, right up there with gendered Lego and Cowboy and "Indian"-themed Halloween costumes. (Don't even get me started.)

By contrast, many middle-class Canadian parents I know regard gun toys (save the occasional water pistol) with the same wariness we reserve for candy cigarettes and padded bikini tops for girls. This liberal anxiety is the natural result of our proximity to the deranged powder keg of the United States, a country whose relationship with mass shootings can be summed up by a headline in the satirical U.S. news site, the Onion: "'No way to prevent this,' says only nation where this ever happens."

At first I thought my domesticdisarmament policy was working, but after Freddy's last birthday party, I realized my mistake.

After opening the enormous haul of military battleships, supersoaker water pistols and light-up laser guns that his friends' parents see as perfectly acceptable birthday presents, he threw himself across his pile of gifts and wailed, "Please Leah, let me keep my killing toys!" In retrospect, I wonder if I should have listened. Perhaps if I had, his obsession with weaponry might have waned. (Confession: I confiscated and regifted the worst of the lot.)

As it stands now, both boys in my house talk more or less constantly of killing. The more my husband and I earnestly try to impress upon them the real-life horrors of terrorism, mass shootings and the carnage of the ongoing missile attacks on Syria, et cetera, the more their murderous little eyes widen and their hunger for make-believe violence grows. Their blood-thirstiness seems to flourish in inverse proportion to the number of anatomically correct dolls, toy kitchens and gender-neutral non-conflict-based games I press upon them. Just last week, my three-year-old told me that when he grows up he wants to be "a flying soldier with loads of guns and a cricket bat for killing zombies who try to eat my brain."

Gazing down at his chubby cheeks, I thought of that notorious family Christmas card sent out by Nevada Republican Michele Fiore, which featured her entire extended family - including her five-year-old grandson Jake - posing in festive red tops and holding guns. I consoled myself with the thought that, right now, little Jake is begging his grandma for an Easy-Bake Oven and a 3-D jigsaw kit.

When I try to introduce progun-control arguments to my kids, their instant response is the same kind of fact-allergic, closed-loop thinking favoured by NRA supporters in the United States. "Santa doesn't bring kids guns for Christmas because in real life guns are dangerous and kill people," I told Freddy the other day.

He looked at me like I was a long-haired bleeding heart naively chaining myself to a redwood pine as the logging trucks moved in. "But what are we supposed to do if aliens come from outer space and try to kidnap us?" he queried. "WHO'S GOING TO PROTECT OUR FAMILY THEN?" The sort of apocalyptic, fearbased thinking that leads so many Americans to defend their right to bear arms is like the funhouse-mirror reflection of the intergalactic zombie battles that drive my kids' desires for a full metal jacket. Except that kids are kids and adults have the ability - in theory - to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Looking at the Fiore Christmas card, however, one begins to wonder.

Luckily enough, this house isn't controlled by Republicans.

So far Santa's response has been to get them a carpentry kit, a guitar, two Irish knit sweaters and a pile of classic children's books.

Let the battle rage on.

Associated Graphic

The Christmas card sent out this year by Nevada Republican Michele Fiore.


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Why the Donald is dangerous
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Friday, December 11, 2015 – Page L4

I interviewed Ivanka Trump a couple of years ago and she was clever and funny, and surprisingly human. The 34-year old has a degree in economics from Wharton, founded a successful jewellery and lifestyle business and is now executive director of the property side of her father's billion-dollar business empire, as well as a wife, mother and feminist campaigner.

According to people who know her privately (including her close friend Chelsea Clinton), she really is terribly impressive. Because of this, I've spent most of this past week wondering: "What must Ivanka be thinking?" Judging by her Twitter and Instagram feeds - both constant streams of promotional fluff for her lifestyle brand and the Trump hotel collection - the answer is, as little as humanly possible.

Imagine just how much more embarrassing Donald Trump would seem if he was your actual dad. It was bad enough when he came to your high-school graduation looking like a tanorexic with a bleached ferret on his head, but now he's mocking reporters with disabilities and being compared to Hitler. "Oh god, Dad," I can imagine Ivanka thinking, "Shut UP!"

In this sense, we can all identify with poor Ivanka (and yes, I'm sure she'll find a way to survive - the children of billionaires have a funny way of doing that). But it's important that we don't allow our collective embarrassment at the Donald, our suspicion that he really is just someone's ludicrous, racist, old relative ranting drunk at the dinner table, to delude us.

Donald Trump might be ridiculous, but he's also dangerous.

His deranged proposal that Muslims be banned from entering the United States has already significantly shifted the international debate on Islam, terrorism, Syria, the refugee crisis and just about everything else on the current political slate. Thoughtful readers of this publication might roll their eyes at Trump, but his wild assertions give other, more cleverly concealed bigots the chance to air their views.

The question "Should Muslims be banned from entering the United States?" is now a serious topic of discussion. The other night, I saw Joel Erands, chairman of Veterans for a Stronger America, on BBC's flagship news program Newsnight. Erands remarked that Trump's Muslim exclusion policy "voices a lot of the frustration but also a lot of the resolve and determination Americans have to stop terrorism." Take the time to listen to a radio call-in show out of Iowa, as I did online this week, and you will find that this is absolutely correct. Many, many Americans agree wholeheartedly with Trump - it's just that, until recently, they didn't feel comfortable saying so in public because it sounded, well, racist.

And, of course, his views are racist. Not to mention fascist and Islamophobic, too. But now, like it or not, they are also part of the mainstream public political discourse - and because of this, more crafty conservative politicians can use Trump to make themselves look good. Carly Fiorina called Trump's remarks a "dangerous overreaction" and Jeb Bush dismissed them as flat out "unhinged." This despite their own well-honed record of less than entirely sane remarks: Fiorina recently accused Planned Parenthood of engaging in an "organ harvesting" plot to sell human body parts, while Bush tweeted serious accusations that Trump was planted in the race for the Republican nomination by Hillary Clinton.

What Trump has effectively done, not just this week but repeatedly over the past few months is to grab the Republican Party and drag it over to the antiimmigration, xenophobic far right. In this, he's tapping into a distasteful trend across the Western world. Your Facebook friends might think Trump's views sound hilariously stupid, but I bet Marine Le Pen of France's National Front doesn't think so; nor Nigel Farage, the head of Britain's nativist UKIP.

Trump is not just a crackpot.

He is forcefully and very successfully reframing the American political debate. Whatever his political future, he is winning the race to get his message out and, given the extreme nature of what he has to say, that victory is a powerful one. The Overton window (i.e. the list of acceptable subjects of public debate) has now expanded to include ideas that are blatantly fascist, racist - and with which many people agree. Trump's fans, and indeed the man himself, have argued that he can't possibly be a bigot with such an overwhelming groundswell of support, but one need only look to the recent history of genocide to see that's patently incorrect.

In recent days, I have heard liberals cheering on the Donald, arguing that his deranged hate spewing can only serve to make the rest of the world think more reasonably. In fact, the opposite is true. Trump is dragging us all down with him. His remarks are bad for the left, bad for the right and especially bad for Ivanka, who has a lifestyle brand and a hotel collection to promote.

Maybe she'll convince her embarrassing dad he ought to shut up.

Somehow I doubt it.

Associated Graphic

What must Donald Trump's kids - especially Ivanka - be thinking about his xenophobic outbursts?

ROBYN BECK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES


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Are nudie pics the new first base?
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Friday, December 4, 2015 – Page L3

I was at a dinner party recently and a man showed me a picture of his vagina. Okay, not his vagina, but a vagina with which he was intimately acquainted.

He was flicking through photos of the new woman he's dating - a woman I've never met - and her vagina came up by accident.

"Here she is at her birthday lunch," he was saying. "Here she is in Barcelona, and - ah! - here's her vagina. Lovely, isn't it?" He grinned and laughed as he flicked past. I tried to look relaxed but my smile was rigid. I felt like I did when I was 12 years old and a kissing scene came on while I was watching The Love Boat with my dad. Basically, I wanted the room to swallow me whole.

Then I realized that I wasn't 12 and this man wasn't my dad (thank God!). So I said, "Shouldn't you delete that?" He looked perplexed and seemed genuinely confused.

"Why would I? She sent it to me. It was before we'd slept together. It came on a text with the caption, 'Someone's looking forward to meeting you.' " "She calls her vagina 'someone?' " "Don't you?" he asked.

"No!"

"Look, what I'm trying to say is, she's not shy! She's 26 for Chrissake - it's perfectly normal."

"I'm sure it is perfectly normal," I pointed out, trying (and failing) not to sound like the village church lady collecting money for a new tin roof. "But I'm sure she didn't intend me to see it."

He looked defensive. "It's not like she Snapchatted it. She WhatsApped it, which basically means she doesn't mind who sees it.

Besides," he made a little-boy pout, "I like to look at it sometimes when I miss her, you know?" No, I don't know. I have spent the past five years in a relationship. Because of this, I haven't done much dating (by which I mean any) since the rise of smartphones. And smartphones are the reason why sexting is now - as my friend emphasized - a perfectly normal part of the sexual discourse. It's foreplay, basically. A bit like heavy petting without the sweaty palms and tangled bra straps.

A casual poll of my single friends revealed that everyone who is dating is either doing it, has done it or has been asked to do it. As one recently divorced girlfriend of mine who keeps a library of hot, topless selfies of herself on her phone just for this purpose observed, "It's not really that big a deal."

She means the act of sexting itself, of course. The selfies themselves are a very big deal, and she admits, rather sheepishly, to working for hours to get just the right lighting and angle to accentuate her rather Kardashian proportions. She showed the pics to me and I have to admit they look amazing. I'd totally Tinder her (if that's a verb).

The point is, sending and receiving naked selfies of your whole self or even certain parts of yourself is no longer the practice of perverts and sex addicts. It turns out Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, despite being crappy husbands and political hypocrites, were pretty much normal.

As sexting creeps into the mainstream of sexual etiquette, there are a number of important things to pause and consider. Legality, for one. In Britain recently, a former schoolteacher was fined nearly $50,000 in civil court for sexting one of his former students while she was still a pupil.

Apparently the young woman (who is now 23) was traumatized by her former teacher's penis tableaus and aggressive demands for naked photos in return. And who can fault her? If any of my highschool teachers had sexted me, even verbally, I'd still be throwing up in my mouth today.

And herein lies the problem: Sexting functions at a necessary remove, which leads people to misuse and abuse it - and by extension risk doing harm to the people they are sexting with. Take my friend, who was sure his new girlfriend wouldn't care if I saw her vagina. Does he know that for sure? I doubt it.

I can't help but feel that a violation has occurred in my seeing it without her permission, but maybe that's just me being a bourgeois church lady. Is using WhatsApp rather than Snapchat - which "disappears" your photos after a designated time - really implicit consent to have your private photos shown in public? I don't think so. But like I said, I'm a bit clueless in this new digital erotic Wild West.

I do know this: Unlike most things we do sexually, sexting happens without the other person in the room, which means consent is even more tricky to determine given the lack of eye contact, body language and, most crucially, explicit verbal communication. And of course this is all the more true if you happen to be sexting after a few drinks - which I hear is a thing as well (thank you, single friends).

I get why sexting is sexy (I'm married after all, not dead). But I also see how sending or requesting naked pictures from someone you've just met carries a set of moral complications that go far beyond those presented by a drunken snog in the back of the cab, i.e., old-fashioned foreplay.

I'm not saying keep your vaginas and penises in your pants, ladies and gents, but I am saying to consider carefully who might be seeing them once you press send.

Associated Graphic

ISTOCK


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Single brown man doesn't equal "terrorist"
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Friday, November 27, 2015 – Page L5

Of all the head-shaking stories of Islamophobic attacks in recent days, there was one that actually made me smile. That was the story of Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad, two Philadelphia residents of Palestinian descent who were stopped and questioned before boarding a Southwest flight in Chicago last week after some of the other passengers reportedly "became nervous" when they heard the men conversing in Arabic.

Once the flight crew was satisfied that they were not going to blow up the plane, the two men were grudgingly allowed on the flight. But once on board they were again accosted by the same anxious passengers, who demanded that Khalil open and reveal the contents of the ominous white box he was carrying. He did - and then generously offered to share the baklava inside with all the passengers on board.

It's nice to know that some people can find it in their hearts to be sweet to folks who have just racially profiled them, isn't it? I say "racially profiled," but the discrimination faced by Khalil and Ayyad was more complicated than that. As two men travelling together, they would have probably been perceived as doubly threatening because of their gender.

Would they have been so mistreated had they been women or children or accompanied by either of the above? Unlikely. But this is how discrimination works: Our reptilian brains generate fears based on generalizations, such as that a single brown man speaking Arabic = terrorist.

It's the job of our leaders, our laws and ultimately our enlightened selves to override this ugly instinct and make sure discrimination doesn't get embedded in our minds and institutions. But the Liberal government is failing at this. Or, to be specific, they are extending an offer of help to some of the world's most vulnerable people while simultaneously reserving the right to treat them in a discriminatory fashion for self-serving political purposes.

In its plan to bring Syrian refugees to Canada for resettlement, the government will screen out single men who are not accompanied by their parents or part of the LBGT community: Priority will be given to women, children and men with families, apparently because of security concerns. By "security concerns," the government might as well say "discrimination" because that's what such a policy is - flat-out, straight-up sexual prejudice.

The fact that 60 per cent of Canadians polled still oppose the plan to bring in the refugees is presumably key to the government's sexist caveat. I get that the Liberals want to appear tough on security, but they might have found a way to do so without undermining their own screening process.

Is it really so flawed they must rule out entire categories of claimants prima facie?

During his short time in office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has communicated in big ideals: Openness, egalitarianism and fairness are apparently top of his agenda. The difficult thing about principles is that in order for them to work, they must be fixed and tested. A decent leader must adhere to his principles even when they aren't particularly convenient or popular. Openness and equality works both ways. You can't say, "We're going to open our doors to refugees except the ones who we don't like the look of."

Canada is not a swingers club where single men can be viewed as a predatory or a threat to the existing clientele. All refugee claimants must be judged according to the same measure. Married men and single women don't have a special claim on vulnerability, especially in light of the horrors wrought by the Islamic State. As NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked earlier this week: "Will a young man who lost both parents be excluded from Canada's refugee program? Will a gay man who is escaping persecution be excluded? Will a widower who is fleeing [IS] after having seen his family killed be excluded? Excluding them in advance is not the Canadian way."

The bitter irony, of course, is that it was fallout from this very issue that eventually tipped the scales in the Liberals' favour during the election campaign. The Conservative government's hard-hearted response in the face of the death of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, combined with its determination to use the niqab as a wedge revealed a level of political cynicism that Canadians ultimately couldn't stomach. And yet here we have a new government playing by the old government's rules.

The worst thing about the single-manexclusion policy is just how deeply cynical it is. I believe Mr. Trudeau wants to welcome refugees openly and without unnecessary prejudice, and yet here he is pandering to the sort of people who might complain about two men speaking Arabic on the plane just because they think they look like terrorists.


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Providing shelter, minus the dreaded Allen key
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Friday, November 20, 2015 – Page L3

There is no place more poignant than Ikea. It is the place - and brand - we find ourselves drawn to, inevitably, when our lives are in transition. From that first trip to furnish student digs with white laminate bookshelves to fulfilling the decor needs of cohabitation, marriage, pregnancy, breakup and empty-nest downsizing, middle-class Westerners return to the Swedish mecca of cheap, simple design when our lives are at their most liminal. Forget the old adage that Ikea is "Swedish for divorce" - Ikea is Swedish for life change.

And nowhere is life more changeable at the moment than for the nearly 60 million displaced persons who have fled their homes because of war, conflict or persecution and are now living in refugee camps around the world. And so it seems fitting - stunningly obvious really - that the Ikea Foundation has come up with a Swedish-designed refugee shelter that is changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons.

The project is the brainchild of Johan Karlsson, an industrial designer based in Hallefors, Sweden, just outside Stockholm. In 2010, Karlsson did some volunteer work with Sweden's Refugee Services abroad and provided what he describes as "incremental modification to existing refugee shelters." During this time working in camps in the Middle East and Africa, he noticed how poorly designed many refugee shelters are - most are cramped, lightless, damp and often made of flimsy materials such as plastic tarpaulins strung over twine.

They blew over, flooded and regularly just fell apart. What was needed, Karlsson decided, was an economical, lightweight and simply designed solution to what seemed to be a growing problem: life in a refugee camp. With this in mind, Karlsson took his idea to Ikea. The board turned it down as a business model but passed him along to the Ikea Foundation, which is the humanitarian arm of the Swedish design conglomerate.

With seed money and the backing of the foundation, Karlsson founded Better Shelter. He subsequently partnered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to provide quality temporary shelters where they were most needed. At first they shipped primarily to camps in Iraq, Lebanon, Chad and Ethiopia, but they were soon overwhelmed with demand. Today there are Better Shelters in camps in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, as well as many others.

"The average stay in an UNHCR refugee camp is 17 years," Karlsson told me in a phone interview from his office last week. "The tents fall apart after a few months so they needed something that was built to last. Our shelters last three years at minimum.

Obviously the situation is complex and goes far beyond shelter.

This is just a tiny part of humanitarian aid, but it's an important one when it comes to allowing displaced people to live with dignity." The shelters themselves are extremely practical - simple selfstanding, modular white structures with small peaked roofs, high enough for a man of average height to stand up in. With a floor area of 17.5 square metres, they are built to accommodate an average family of five and are made of lightweight plastic and metal and ship easily around the world.

Karlsson and his team designed them with special attention to transport volume, weight, price, safety, health and comfort. Conveniently, they can be assembled by hand in just a few hours and require no additional equipment or tools to do so - not even the dreaded Allen key. The houses can then then be disassembled and reused when needed. There is also a solar-powered energy system affixed to the roof, which provides energy for the supplied LED light or for charging a mobile phone. As homes away from home go, it certainly isn't luxurious, but it sure beats a leaky, windswept plastic tent.

With a maximum production capacity of 2,500 units a month, demand has been far outstripping supply for many months now, said Karlsson. The thing he and his team did not know when they began five years ago is the way the refugee crisis would affect Europe - nearly half a million displaced people have entered in 2015 alone and that number is growing.

"What started as a humanitarian project for people far away in distant, war-torn countries is now right on our doorstep. We are building camps in Germany and Switzerland, even in Sweden."

In fact, he tells me, only 20 metres from his office just outside Stockholm they are now planning a refugee camp. "I could never have imagined it," he says.

"None of us could have predicted it. Shelter is one small part of the migrant crisis, but it's an important one."

In times of crisis, you've got to hand it to those clever Swedish designers at Ikea.

Associated Graphic

These temporary homes can be assembled in hours.

HUSSEIN MALLA/AP


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To breed or not to breed
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Once you've had a child, everyone around feels free to ask when you'll have another one
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Friday, November 6, 2015 – Page L6

The news last week that China will discontinue its one-child policy is a major victory for human rights in a totalitarian state, but it's also a pain in the behind for indecisive people everywhere. Just imagine how many of the 90 million eligible Chinese couples are, right at this moment, rolling over to each other in bed and asking with a sigh, "So should we give the little blighter a sibling or just ... leave it at that?"

My husband and I have had many versions of this conversation in the past couple of years since James was born. People always say you "just know" if you want to have another child, but our position on the matter has been one of genuine ambivalence (him) and anguished vacillation (me). The debate in our family, if you can even call it that, goes something like this:

Me (holding a friend's perfect powder-scented newborn at some lunch party): "Oh, wook at de widdle cabbage. Come on, darling, let's have another baby, shall we?"

Husband (raises eyebrow, coughs, turns to host): "Do you have any whisky?"

A few hours later, at home, as James and my stepson Freddy are shrieking and punching each other in the head while sloshing water all over the floor during bath time:

Husband: "So, do you still want another baby then?"

Me: "Hmm. Ermm."

The fact is, once you've actually experienced the reality of new parenthood, it's very hard to justify entering into it again unless one or both of you is driving the agenda with relentless urgency. It's true we could just "let nature take its course," as many people do, but neither of us is particularly fatalistic and willfully recusing yourself from a decision like that just seems a bit daft.

Interestingly, China is not bracing for a massive baby boom as a result of lifting the one-child policy. Less than 2 per cent of Chinese parents say their decision to stop at one was the result of state policy. I say this slightly facetiously, of course, since even the tiniest demographic shift of the needle is seismically colossal if it happens in China. But populationists are predicting that while lots of families will have second babies, many more - in particular, educated, urban members of China's emerging middle class - will choose to be done at one.

And why wouldn't they? Small families are infinitely easier and cheaper for those on decent but not unlimited budgets pursuing a certain quality of life. As the old axiom goes, two kids isn't twice as many as one - it's chaos squared.

Canadians seem to know this. The fertility rate in Canada is one of the lowest in the world, hovering around 1.5 (that's live births on average per fertile woman), well below the population replacement threshold of 2.1. It's even lower than in Europe, where the overall rate is about 1.6 (though it's a much higher 1.94 in France, where increased maternity and child-care benefits have encouraged more working couples to expand their families in recent years).

As these statistics illustrate, the issue of when, if and how many children to have is so complicated and prone to variables that it's really impossible to talk about in general terms.

When I was in my 20s, I asked an older woman I admired when she thought was the best time for a woman to have a baby. She smiled wisely and replied, "Ideally, right after the waters break."

The same logic applies for how many babies to have. Given relatively the same income, relationship circumstance and number of bedrooms, different people will make different choices (and so the right to that choice, whether in China or Canada, is essential).

There is no right answer. And yet we persist in asking the question - of ourselves and everyone else.

One of the more surprising things I've found about becoming a parent is the way it opens you up to bald-faced queries about whether you'll have another child. Most of us have got the message by now that it isn't polite to ask single and/or childless people when or if they plan to get married or pregnant, but apparently this rule doesn't apply to breeders. Once you've crossed that Rubicon, it seems, you are fair game. When I tell people that my husband and I are ambivalent - that a part of us would love another baby but that we also really don't want to drive a big ugly car or forgo two years of sleep - they look at me as though I'm being horribly unromantic. Perhaps that's true, but it's a foolish person who fails to consider practical realities when it comes to the matter of children.

At least, as a stepmother, I'm spared the annoying question of whether to "give my child a sibling." But I find it strange when people talk about the decision to have a second child as though they are doing it purely for the sake of their first. In truth, most toddlers would much prefer a Nerf Super Soaker to human competition in the form of your biological issue.

I turned 40 this week so I suppose soon nature will make the final decision for my husband and me. That, in a funny way, is something of a relief. I'm aware that there's an invisible totalitarian government ruling over my ovarian follicles and that one of these days it will issue a final decree. I imagine a tiny dictator hollering the official announcement up my fallopian tubes like a bullhorn: "Aged Mitochondria of the Party Faithful: Put down your tools! The shop is now closed!" And that will be that. My own private one-child policy. So be it.

Associated Graphic

Canada's fertility rate is 1.5 (that's live births on average per fertile woman), lower than in Europe and well below the population replacement threshold of 2.1.

ISTOCKPHOTO

Saturday, November 07, 2015
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Trudeau is 43. What did I do with my life?
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Canadians put our generation - sandwiched between Generation X and the millennials - in charge. What were they thinking?
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Friday, October 30, 2015 – Page L5

Currently topping my lengthy list of "middle-class problems" - right up there with "depilate more assiduously" and "pay car insurance" - is the issue of how best to deal with the fact that Justin Trudeau, a man only 31/2 years my senior, is about to become Prime Minister of Canada.

I'm not sad about it. I'm delighted - for my country, for him, for the beautiful, beaming Sophie with her yoga-sculpted curves and wavy hair in a fashionable shade of "bronde" (half brown, half blonde). I'm happy for their three kids - the girl, the boy and the cherubic, bright-eyed baby. I imagine them all in their sunny kitchen on a Saturday morning, making oat-bran pancakes and chatting in a perfect blend of French and English about all the things they are going to do that will astonish people. Things such as: laughing and smiling with conviction, having an open dialogue with the media, letting cabinet ministers say what they want and just generally being nice.

At some moments I feel about Justin Trudeau the way Truman Capote felt about the socialite Babe Paley: "She had only one flaw: She was perfect - other than that she was perfect."

The issue isn't Justin's perceived flawlessness. The truth is, Justin Trudeau bothers me slightly because, well, he makes me feel old. Or, if not exactly old, just unaccomplished. And exhausted.

And desperately in need of a blow dry.

For those of us on the cusp of our thirty-tenth birthday - the biggest birthday of all after the first one, since it happens smack in the middle of the action in an average life - the election of Justin Trudeau poses a serious problem, which boils down to this: If a guy my age is now Prime Minister, then what the hell am I doing with my life? Our generation - mine and Justin's, the one sandwiched uncomfortably between Generation X and the Millennials - has just assumed the mantle of power. We are, or at least one of us is, running the country. The Canadian electorate has just put us in charge.

And I ask you this: What on earth were they thinking? Can't they see we're still just a bunch of hapless kids, play-acting at being grown-ups with careers and marriages and children? Can't they see it's still just a rehearsal?

Except of course it isn't. There is no denying the crushing realness of this stage of life we're in - that period when your children are small and you're in the prime of your working life - the do-ordie period, when everything is meant to happen and yet it often feels like nothing can because you're so perennially exhausted that it's hard to see straight.

I had a little cry when I saw the election results, not only because I was happy and relieved for the country but because, looking at the beaming face of the man my own age we had chosen to run it, I realized that life had just got very, very real.

At a Toronto wedding recently, I ran into an old friend who works in television. We got to talking about politics and I reminded him that about a dozen years ago he introduced me to a friend who was in town for a party: one Justin Trudeau. We were all just starting off in our first jobs back then, and Justin was a former schoolteacher famous for nothing apart from being handsome and delivering his famous dad's eulogy.

"Do you remember how we said, 'What on earth is Justin going to do with his career?' " I reminded him. We had a big laugh and then stood there a bit uncomfortably. The TV producer and I are still doing the same jobs today (me writing for this publication and him producing an entertainment news show) whereas Justin, well ... he's had a wee bit of a promotion.

And that's okay! It could be worse. I could be my mother, who only ever saw one Canadian prime minister her own age, and that was Kim Campbell, who became Canada's first female leader in 1993, when my Mum was 42. "I didn't even get a chance to have a midlife crisis over it, she was in and out so fast," she grumbled to me recently.

For my generation, Trudeau seems to be the opposite of a letdown. If anything, he's a reminder that we need to raise the bar, to do better, or at least give our wildest dreams a shot. Life, after all, just got very real. And if all else fails, we can all take up boxing.

Associated Graphic

Justin Trudeau picks pumpkins with his wife Sophie and their children.

PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS


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Oprah weighs in on the diet industry
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Friday, October 23, 2015 – Page L7

This week, I was surprised and heartened to see that Oprah Winfrey, Empress of Everywoman, has purchased a 10-percent stake in Weight Watchers, the flailing U.S. weight-loss program. Remember Weight Watchers, the Alcoholics Anonymous of dieting? Flogged by both Sarah Ferguson and Jessica Simpson, the brand was the purveyor of processed foods and branded candy bars the size of your finger. It also worked - mostly by getting overweight people to commit to eating less and moving more.

Despite its historic success, Weight Watchers has fallen out of fashion in recent years. Profits are down and its popularity is waning among the nutritionally enlightened minority. The community-meeting aspect - once so revolutionary - has been supplanted by online fitness apps, such as Fitbit, that allow friends to contrast and compare the details of their diet and exercise regimes all day, every day.

Perhaps more important, the program's guiding nutritional ethos - that weight loss is primarily a matter of calories in and calories out (as evidenced by its infamous and punishing "points system") - has been largely discarded by the body-conscious public.

The fact is, diets are horrifically out of fashion. I can't remember the last time I heard anyone admit that he or she was on one.

These days, if urban professionals need to lose a few pounds, they tell everyone that they are "cleansing" or "detoxing" or "eating clean." I know people seeking to "alkalinize" their bodies and others who claim to be intolerant of gluten, yeast, wheat, fermented foods and nightshade plants. We live in a world in which cauliflower rice, zucchini pasta and black bean brownies have all but replaced the original sugar and starch.

Food writer Michael Pollan is the Moses of the real-food movement, with his commandments etched on a tablet of handchurned heirloom butter: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Processed anything is verboten and "real food" is king.

Farmers' markets are the new superstores.

It's all a bit much, these paleo lifestyle zealots with their healthy-eating mania. But, generally speaking, I am all for it. As someone who grew up watching my mother lose weight on crash diets of Tab, olestra chips and cigarettes, I think it's a form of social progress that my children will grow up in a world in which trans fat and aspartame are viewed as the true evil.

It's slightly delusional, of course, but humans have always been prone to collective delusion when it comes to food. Just a couple of decades back, it was the low-fat craze. Before that, everyone seemed to be lactoseintolerant. The Victorians ate tapeworms and drank tumblers of vinegar in pursuit of slim waists and good health.

But Oprah - now there's woman who has run the dieting gauntlet over the years. In 1988, she pulled a wagon full of 67 pounds of quivering fat onto the stage to show what she had lost on a liquid diet. Then she ballooned up to 200 pounds after a thyroid malfunction, before running the Marine Corps Marathon at a healthy zaftig size. Today, she looks great. Not thin, but healthy, robust and happy. In Oprah, we can see our own collective weight struggles writ large.

This week, she said in a statement that she bought into Weight Watchers because she believes in the company, saying it has "given me the tools to begin to make the lasting shift that I and so many of us who are struggling with weight have longed for."

But the big O must realize that the issue of obesity has shifted in North America since Weight Watchers' heyday. As the obesity epidemic widens the gap between the rich and thin and poor and fat, weight is increasingly linked to class. Multiple studies have found that increasingly in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Canada), there is an inverse relationship between weight and wages.

The reasons for this are multifold, including the high cost and limited availability of healthy fresh food, and the fact that poor people can't afford gym memberships and rarely have time for Pilates.

But statistics show that the cause and effect between fat and income actually runs both ways.

According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, "Lower wages may make it harder to maintain a healthy weight, but obesity also has a significant negative effect on wages, particularly for white women."

So being poor makes you fat, but, conversely, being fat can keep you poor. Oprah Winfrey, who started off poor and became the most powerful woman in American media, has experienced the weight/class spectrum from every possible perspective.

In an increasingly divided world, in which the affluent obsess about buying local and the state of their lower intestinal tract while the poor get off their double shifts to double down on a cheap, tasty supersize meal, Winfrey is in for a challenge. Will Oprah walk around disadvantaged neighbourhoods, waving her mighty finger and proclaiming, "And you get a farmers market! And you get a farmers market!"? Or will she find an even more compelling way to persuade the burgeoning masses to trade in the pleasure of fast food for the rigours of old-fashioned dieting?

Associated Graphic

Oprah Winfrey has purchased a 10-per-cent stake in Weight Watchers.

PATRICK T. FALLON/NYT

Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, left, and Jessica Simpson previously endorsed Weight Watchers.

VICTORIA AROCHO/AP; MEDIAPUNCH/REX


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It's time to re-open the loop
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Friday, October 16, 2015 – Page L5

For those of you still deciding how to vote, I urge you to read British journalist Matthew Syed's new book Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success. It presents itself as one of those thinky self-help manuals in the Gladwellian vein, but is in fact far more surprising and instructive than that. Black Box Thinking explores the reasons why people and organizations so often fail and fail repeatedly, only to turn around and fail in the same way again.

The answer, which is terrifyingly obvious, is it is exceedingly difficult for any of us, particularly in hierarchies, to learn from our mistakes. As humans, we will do virtually anything to avoid admitting that we are wrong. This includes flying planes into the ground, letting patients bleed out on operating tables, invading countries where there are clearly no WMDs and pushing the broken elevator button over and over and over again until we start to curse and weep in public.

Syed's book looks at the way failure denial insinuates itself into our minds and institutions like a creeping, corrosive virus.

The more we rely on its false wisdom, the deeper we dig ourselves in. The deeper in we get, the more trapped we become.

We've all been there: committed to an idea, a partner, a political party or a way of doing things that is clearly making us miserable and having the opposite of its intended effect. In retrospect, we should have stopped and tried another tack ages ago, but instead what do we do? We keep on trying to make it work because we have committed to it and therefore it must be right.

It's called closed-loop thinking and since becoming alert to it, I see evidence of it everywhere.

Take Stephen Harper's third re-election campaign. Now there's a loop about as closed as a wagon circle in the dust bowl.

The Conservative Party's strategy over the past few months has boiled down to this: Start off dirty and negative, attempt to starve out the competition, and when that's not working try to find a wedge issue and hammer it home. Figure out what people's fears are - perhaps xenophobia, fear of the other - and play on them. Still not getting anywhere? Launch misleading attack ads targeted at immigrant communities topped up with a factually irresponsible economic sideshow. When in doubt, just say "hard-working Canadians" a lot and wave around wads of cash like a demented Eva Peron without the ball gown.

It's foolproof! It cannot fail! It won't because it can't.

Except, increasingly, it looks like it will.

In 1954, a group of researchers at the University of Minnesota led by a psychologist named Leon Festinger decided to infiltrate a Chicago religious cult in order to study how humans cope when their firmly held ideas are irrefutably disproved.

The cult was led by a Christian housewife named Dorothy Martin who claimed to have a telepathic connection to a celestial God and had amassed a small following of true believers. In other words, she was a Tom Cruise of her time.

Martin had prophesied that the world would end in a terrible flood before dawn on Dec.

21, 1954. On the eve of the predicted apocalypse, her followers - including Festinger's researchers who had been accepted into the cult - sat in her living room praying and weeping. Martin's husband, who was a non-believer, went to bed early and slept through the whole ordeal. As the day progressed, the cult members became tetchy. They kept looking out the window for signs of alien visitation or an approaching tsunami, but of course there was nothing. When the clock struck midnight on Dec. 22, they were understandably put out.

But in the hours that followed a fascinating thing happened.

Instead of abandoning her, Martin's followers became more entrenched in their beliefs.

They simply took the clear evidence that her prophecy was nonsense and reframed it in their minds. As Festinger recounted in his 1956 book on the study, When Prophecy Fails, they instinctively redefined their failure as a success. "'The godlike figure is so impressed with our faith that he has decided to give the planet a second chance,' they proclaimed. 'We saved the world!' " Instead of abandoning the cult, they went out on a recruitment drive.

They were jubilant.

Harper, in case you hadn't guessed this by now, is our fearmongering prophet of doom. We are the cult in his living room.

We've been sitting here a long time now. It's getting rather stuffy. The corn chips and ginger ale have long ago run out.

When, inevitably, the flood doesn't come and the apocalypse doesn't appear as promised, I wonder how we are all going to react. Will we fall down in prayer for the supreme leader who has spared us, or will we calmly stand up, put on our coats, steel ourselves to the chill and bid the man good night?

Associated Graphic

A cult led by Dorothy Martin, right, believed the world would end in a flood on Dec. 21, 1954. When the clock struck midnight on Dec. 22, they were put out, but somehow became more entrenched in their beliefs.

ASSOCIATED PRESS


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Culture fights not worth social divisions
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Friday, October 9, 2015 – Page L4

Watching Canada's niqab debate from my current perch in London, I find myself alarmed at the way such an issue can hijack an election and divide a country. Alarmed - but not surprised.

I live in the borough of Brent, North West London, a fast-gentrifying but still-scruffy district of the British capital. It's the same neighbourhood in which Zadie Smith set both White Teeth and NW, her two acclaimed novels about the fault lines of British multiculturalism.

To say my neighbourhood is diverse would be an understatement. The mix around here is primarily people of North African, South Asian, Middle Eastern and West Indian descent. At my son's state nursery school, the few kids from white European backgrounds are a blend of Australian, Canadian, American, Greek, Spanish and Italian. The white British are in a distinct minority - in large part because many of the middle-class ones around here send their kids to private school.

The Muslim population of Britain has roughly doubled in the past 10 years, a demographic shift that has brought the rise of the niqab and its face-revealing sister, the hijab. My borough has a large, practising Muslim population of nearly 20 per cent, with Arabic being the dominant second language spoken after English.

My son's school reflects this. Roughly a third of the women (and we are almost all women) doing drop-offs and pick-ups every day are wearing headscarves. The vibe at the school gates is friendly but segregated, with the veiled and the unveiled chatting and laughing together in our separate social clumps. Apart from the odd nod and shy smile, there is minimal contact. There is no hostility in it. That's just how it is.

The veiled mothers at my son's school have different beliefs than the unveiled. I know this from listening to their concerns at parents' meetings (primarily to do with religious holidays and religious dietary concerns) and from talking to a couple of them myself.

One practising Muslim neighbour, whose son used to play regularly with my stepson, told me the story of how her family fled Sudan for Dubai during the civil war over tea at my kitchen table. She stopped returning my invitations for playdates after my then-five-year-old stepson repeatedly whipped down his pants and mooned her children as a joke.

The issue wasn't so much that he'd done it but my reaction when she marched him back to our house. "Oh sorry," I said with a chuckle. "We're a bit of a naked house." Now we wave across the street and leave it at that.

The veiled and the unveiled might have different values but we all want the best for our kids, which is why we find ourselves colliding at the same public-school gates. Sharing that value alone - the importance of education - is something I find heartening across the cultural divide.

At the junior school down the road there is an angry debate raging after an active member of the PTA circulated a petition questioning a recent decision to make halal meat the default menu option for school lunches, which are free for all students. Her objection is not the slaughtering practice (in the past, some halal butchers bled live animals as part of the killing process, but now for the most part it is humanely done) but the fact that the policy caters to a religious minority.

A non-Muslim mother at the school told me she is troubled. On the one hand she doesn't mind her daughter eating any sort of food as long as it's ethical and healthy. On the other, she is concerned about Muslim religious ideology taking over a secular school. "What if my daughter came home one day and said she wanted to convert to Islam?" she said, eyes wide with panic. I assured her it was very unlikely, which of course it is. (Her daughter is 4 and more interested in reciting the scripture of Frozen than the Koran.)

The issue at stake is a real one: In a secular, multicultural society, how much should the majority be expected to cater to minority religious requirements? The answer is: up until the point those religious freedoms begin to trample other dearly held freedoms. Say, equal rights for girls and women. Or the rights of children to receive an honest and healthy sex education.

By whipping up this public debate in Canada over the niqab, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is engaging in the sort of anti-immigration, dog-whistle politics that have been employed by the right in Britain for years now. (Hardly surprising, given that Prime Minister David Cameron's former strategist, Lynton Crosby, has been employed to salvage Harper's campaign.)

These culture-war fights aren't worth the social divisions they stoke. When nearly a third of a school has religious dietary restrictions the rest could easily fall in with, it just makes practical economic sense for everyone to eat halal. Similarly, allowing Muslim women who want the right to wear a niqab while taking citizenship vows is a religious freedom that harms no one.

Saturday, October 10, 2015
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Thirtysomething parents face housing discrimination
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Bad enough that a cohort is caught in a bleak job market, worse still that landlords are passing over young families for 'mature couples'
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Friday, October 2, 2015 – Page L6

All my life, I've watched people get married, have children and, in most cases, buy a house. Breeding and acquiring real estate used to be what the majority of my peers did as they got older in politically stable, economically productive countries such as Canada.

Today, though, not so much.

The younger members of my generation, friends who are in their early 30s, are not buying homes as easily or as often - if ever. For many young adults, home ownership is the missing piece in an otherwise conventional middle-class dream.

The statistics bear this out. In 2006, Statistics Canada found that a whopping 79 per cent of Canadian adults between 25 and 39 who were married and had children owned their own home.

Since then, average age of home ownership keeps rising, while the percentage of young owners has dropped.

In 2014, a Bank of Montreal report found that 60 per cent of potential first-time home buyers have delayed their plans to buy, with close to 40 per cent of those people citing the increasing cost of real estate as the main reason. This backs up a 2013 study by TD Canada Trust that found millennials were having a much harder time buying their first homes than older generations. There were three main obstacles that weren't as much of an issue for their parents: the ability to save for a down payment, housing prices and insufficient salaries.

Low- to middle-income bracket first-time buyers are struggling, especially in large Canadian cities. Even for those whose careers are progressing and have found stable relationships (and even had a child or two), home ownership has simply fallen out of reach, the result of the twin hydra of the real estate boom and the 2008 economic meltdown, which helped to slow the job market and then prevented wages from keeping up with the cost of property.

I have watched friends go to remarkable extremes in order to realize their dream of ownership, from taking on staggering debt to squeezing their families into tiny condominiums. Many have moved to the suburbs or smaller, more affordable towns and cities.

And then there are the holdouts.

For those who want to stay in the city, the solution is something that would have been unthinkable to their middle-class, baby-boomer parents. Today's young families like cities, and they want to stay. So, they've given up the home-ownership dream (for now, maybe forever) and taken on the label "Generation Rent."

We owe them a huge debt.

Without this critical mass of young, often creative, middleclass professionals willing to rent indefinitely, most Western cities would soon begin to resemble Daytona Beach at spring break - playgrounds for the old and rich and young and unencumbered.

Nothing but early-bird specials and Ed Hardy crop tops as far as the eye can see.

We need Generation Rent in our cities, and we should be encouraging them to procreate and nest here. But a recent report by CBC News revealed that insult has been added to injury for young renting families today: In Toronto, a number of landlords are violating Ontario's Human Rights Code and landlord and tenant legislation by advertising their rental units as suitable for couples or singles only.

Rental sites such as View It and Kijiji feature plenty of listings for two-bedroom apartments described as "suitable for a quiet couple" or "adult only" (and presumably not in a porny way either).

Generation Rent has had a hard go of it already. Coming to terms with the fact that you might never own your own home despite fulfilling every other middle-class expectation (i.e., university degree, career, relationship, children) is no easy feat. In Britain, sociologists have dubbed the phenomenon the "expectations gap" and are examining how this shift has affected the psychology and outlook of the generation of people born in the late seventies and early eighties - a cohort that has come of age within a very different economic reality from the one they were brought up to expect.

The big problem for Generation Rent is that the housing market is fast becoming a closed loop. Private landlords drive up prices by buying up a vast amount of new housing stock and then have no incentives to rent to young families who - as we've already established - are noisy and apparently less preferable to "mature couples." As vacancy rates go down, rents rise, as does competition for the best units.

The vast - and growing - number of families with young children who are renting today in Canada are doing so not out of choice but circumstance. In a landlord's market, tenant discrimination is already rife. Now that the members of Generation Rent are opting to become parents, landlords should be shamed (and indeed prosecuted) for exacerbating this predicament.

Associated Graphic

l Cities, such as Vancouver, need bright, young people to keep them vital. p Increasingly, though, home ownership is out of reach.

DARRYL DYCK/CP


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Friday, September 18, 2015 – Page L4

Did you know the road to hell is paved with baby carriers?

More specifically, it's paved with the good intentions of thousands of middle class Western parents, who have banded together online to donate their ring slings, Baby Bjorns, Bobas, Caboos and Pottery Barn kid carriers to the wave of mostly Syrian refugees moving across Europe.

A quick Google search will show you countless shout-outs from well-meaning organizations who are, bless them, collecting used slings to send to Hungary, Greece and France. These ad-hoc groups have names like Aussie Babywears For Refugees, Ring Slings and Baby Things for Syrian Refugees, Canadian Slings for Syria and Ireland Slings for Solidarity.

Why is this happening? Is it even helping anyone? Who the heck knows?! The point is it's making people like us feel good.

And feeling good is what matters most when we know lots of other people are feeling bad, especially when that bad feeling comes from the fact that, having left their homes in impoverished and often war-torn countries and spent weeks migrating across land and sea, these refugees find themselves in dire need of ... a used organic cotton Ergo original (never mind the spit-up stains).

As a grassroots movement, it all seems so darn sweet. But talk to anyone in the charitable sector - especially aid workers on the ground - and they will tell you straight-up: NGOs don't need your used stuff. It's not helping. It's impossible to process and the hassle of bringing it to the people who supposedly need it is simply not worth the effort in the face of other pressing issues, such as food, water, shelter, medical care and emotional support.

If you don't believe me, take it from Francine Uenuma of Save the Children (which, along with other seasoned and credible NGOs such as Plan, Oxfam and Unicef, is doing exceptional onthe-ground work in this complex humanitarian crisis).

"Please, please, don't send us your slings," she implored on her phone from the SerbianHungarian border this week. Last Tuesday, Uenuma and her colleagues helped about 200 families camped out in a no man's land between the two countries get access to food and drinking water.

The day before, she was in Greece on the Isle of Lesbos, where she helped a family who'd washed up on the beach in a dinghy get medical help. "The grandmother had a bent ankle and there was a baby who was cold and listless," Uenuma said.

She and her colleagues drove them to the nearest hospital and made sure they received care.

How did Uenuma do all this without a baby sling? It's hard to know. Wait, actually, it's not. She did it with funding from her NGO, a registered charity, by which she is paid a salary and travel expenses. Because that's how we help refugees in far away countries: by sending our best-trained people out to see what they actually need and helping them fund and deliver it.

Not by mailing our old pacifiers, sippy cups and Bugaboos to Kos.

"I don't want to be too blunt about it but the fact is unless you live locally, the best thing you can do in this crisis is donate," Uenuma said. She added that of course the refugees she's working with need stuff, but they are getting all the clothing and supplies they require from local groups who are every bit as concerned as those of us who live across the Atlantic - probably more so, since it's happening where they live. Don't forget this is Europe.

They've got lots of used baby slings in France, Greece, Hungary and Serbia. They even have Baby Gap.

I'm hardly the first person to broadcast this message. Just last week, Unicef, the World Food Programme and the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella fundraising body for aid charities, launched a fresh public appeal for funding instead of material items. Charities are being flooded with tents and baby blankets while facing a massive shortfall in funding for food, health care and education.

Related use of the handy Twitter hashtag #SWEDOW("stuff we don't want") has also kicked into high gear.

But are the mommy and daddy groups listening? Nope. Instead, I've heard reports of social media spats when the ludicrous impracticalities of the sling drives are pointed out. Some concerned citizens just don't want to bother themselves with practical questions like "Am I actually helping anyone?" Which brings us to the thorny question of where our strongest charitable impulses come from in the first place. The truth is, it's much easier to feel charitable toward the dispossessed when they are far away, ideally in a barbed-wire camp across the ocean, rather than in our own communities. Yet that is exactly where we should be off-loading our lightly used cribs, change tables and designer high chairs.

The irony of privileged parents sending our useless baby stuff halfway around the world when there are families struggling down the street is head-shaking.

Of course the urge to give ultimately comes from a good place.

But if your best and most noble efforts are having the opposite of their intended effect, you are, in essence, doing a disservice to the very people who need your help most.

If you really want to help the refugees, it's simple: Find a registered charity and give them your money.

And if you don't have money to give, take your old stuff, sell it on eBay and send the cash to an organization that has good people on the ground - people such as Francine Uenuma.

Associated Graphic

Refugees in camps across Europe need shelter and food, not your used goods.

ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES


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More than a year ago, David Walker's body was found in the jungle at Angkor Wat, weeks after the Canadian expat mysteriously disappeared. Leah McLaren travels to Cambodia to find out what happened and why Ottawa allows so many deaths abroad to go unexplained
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By LEAH MCLAREN
  
  

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Saturday, September 12, 2015 – Page F6

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA -- On the morning of Feb. 14, 2014, a 58-year-old Canadian named Dave Walker rose late and left his room at the Green Village Angkor guest house in this city of 175,000 in northwestern Cambodia. After eating at his usual spot, the Five Sons noodle bar on Sok San Road, he walked back to the hotel, stopping to pick up his clothes from a laundromat, before returning to his room around 1 p.m. When one of the housekeepers knocked on Mr. Walker's door to clean the room, he grabbed his wallet, a bottle of water and his cellphone, and left to give her space, leaving his laptop, passport and other belongings behind. He then returned almost immediately, plugged his phone into a charger, and walked out for good.

Downstairs in the spartan guest house, a few of the staff were having lunch outdoors near the murky, sun-warmed plunge pool. One of them later told investigators that she saw Mr. Walker exit down the garden path, past the pool, and out through the tall metal gates into the street beyond. The time was approximately 2 p.m. Despite the sweltering dry-season heat, Mr. Walker - a man with an eclectic résumé, from soldier and police officer to movie-set driver and nascent documentary filmmaker - was wearing his typical attire: a black T-shirt, baggy jeans and a pair of New Balance trainers.

He would not come back.

Dave Walker went missing for 11 weeks, until May 1, when a group of children scavenging in the jungle inside Angkor Wat found his severely decomposed body. The famous temple complex is roughly a 15-minute drive from Mr. Walker's guest house.

The corpse was discovered on the forest floor, just off a narrow footpath, not far from the temple's notorious Death Gate, which many locals refuse to use for fear of bad luck. Ancient Hindu armies once marched prisoners through it before executing them.

Mr. Walker was found wearing the same clothes he had on when he disappeared. Judging by the crime-scene photos, as well as accounts from sources who were at the site, the skin on his face was blackened with rot, his eye sockets hauntingly empty.

He was found supine, limbs splayed, his head tilted back in a position that some witnesses claim looked as if his neck had been broken.

Two autopsies were conducted.

The first was done by the Cambodian police; the second was commissioned privately by Mr. Walker's closest relative - his cousin Tammy Madon, a bank teller in Edmonton - and was overseen by the Canadian embassy in Bangkok, where the body was shipped several weeks after being found.

Canada has no embassy in Cambodia. Since the Harper government closed it in 2009, diplomatic relations have been handled through the embassy in Thailand. In response to interview requests, officials there redirected this reporter's e-mail to the Ottawa media-relations department of Foreign Affairs, which said that, due to privacy concerns, "an interview will not be possible."

More than a year after Mr. Walker's disappearance and death, there are still more questions than answers. But one thing seems obvious: Neither Cambodian authorities nor the Canadian government will do much more - if anything - to determine whether Mr. Walker was murdered, and, if so, who killed him.

Officially, the Cambodian constabulary considered Mr. Walker just a missing person. When his body was discovered, the file was effectively closed. In an interview with local media at the time, provincial police chief Sort Nady said of Mr. Walker's body turning up in the jungle: "There is not enough fresh air in that forest and it is easy for people to fall unconscious."

A year later, various police sources in Siem Reap told conflicting stories to The Globe and Mail. One officer said that the autopsy verdict was "heart attack." Another, Chao Mao Vireak, who is the head of the local immigration police force (which handles all matters pertaining to foreigners), said the investigation was so sensitive that it had been referred up the chain of command to the military police in Phnom Penh because "both the Prime Minister Hun Sen and the King took an interest." There appeared to be no ongoing investigation on the ground in Siem Reap.

What does the Canadian government owe Dave Walker?

Legally speaking, almost nothing. Most Canadians don't realize that the government is absolved of any real legal responsibility to defend the rights of Canadian citizens the moment they enter another sovereign nation. This is not true of fellow G8 nations such as Germany and the United States, which long ago passed legislation binding them to help their citizens abroad.

Canada, however, has an archaic principle handed down from the Commonwealth known as "Crown prerogative." In practice, it means the government can choose when to intervene.

The Supreme Court controversially upheld the principle in a 2010 ruling in the case of Omar Khadr.

According to Gar Pardy, a former diplomat and retired head of the Canadian government's consular services, Crown prerogative effectively allows the government to fail its own citizens in cases where it might be politically expedient to do so.

"Everyone should be treated exactly the same, regardless of your situation or what country you're in," he says. "And in my experience, in the absence of someone at a high level pushing politically for the government to get involved, there is not a hell of a lot that can be done to get them to act if they don't want to."

Mr. Walker's story is about the troubling death of a Canadian citizen abroad, but it's also about the sort of corpses both authorities and the media pay great attention to, and those they ignore - or at least give up on quickly.

In many ways, Dave Walker was as enigmatic in life as he is in death. An eccentric loner who kept his many friends carefully compartmentalized, he was a man who often baffled those who knew him best. We may never fill in all the gaps in his story or understand the reasons behind his troubling demise. But this murkiness does not alter the principle of justice. If Dave Walker was murdered, his killer is out there.

Why do some deaths and disappearances resonate for years while others fall to the wayside?

It has been nearly a decade since Woodbridge, Ont., residents Nancy and Domenic Ianiero were found murdered in their hotel room on Mexico's Mayan Riviera.

At the time, the RCMP joined forces with the Mexican authorities in the case, which made front-page news for months. In England, an entire unit of the London Metropolitan Police is devoted to solving the 2007 abduction of three-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal.

As for Dave Walker, friends and family around the world tried to keep the case alive, and a Toronto-based criminal historian and blogger named Peter Vronsky - a close friend of Mr. Walker since the early 1990s - continues to compile an exhaustive account of his death and the subsequent investigation. But in Cambodia, the Walker story is just another enigma in a society that's full of them. As one Canadian official put it, "Westerners always want answers, empirical truth. But you have to remember, this is Cambodia. Some things here just need to remain a mystery."

A brush with CSIS

Dave Walker was born in Edmonton - or "Deadmonton," as he called it - in 1955 and lived much of his adult life in Toronto, a city he also disliked. His distaste for bourgeois social convention was matched only by his loathing of Canadian winters and his love of exotic travel, and in his 20s he developed a lifelong passion for Southeast Asia.

He was a mass of contradictions: a former Toronto cop, albeit for only three months, with a degree in filmmaking from York University; a folk-music obsessive and regular pot smoker who didn't touch alcohol or cigarettes; a Teamster who worked as a driver on film sets, and who'd seriously considered joining the Hells Angels in his 50s. He'd served as a British soldier in Northern Ireland during the troubles of the early 1980s, taking a bullet to his thigh that left him with a limp.

According to a report in Journal de Montréal last December, Mr. Walker did some intelligence work for CSIS in Cambodia in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when there was an influx of Cambodian refugees to Canada in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. His heavily redacted e-mail correspondence with the agency was released after the newspaper filed a Freedom of Information request last year. CSIS has the right to censor documents that reveal, among other things, "intelligence efforts undertaken to detect, prevent or stop hostile or subversive activities in Canada."

It is not clear from the documents whether Mr. Walker had any recent association with CSIS before his death, and he does not appear to have been a contracted employee. But at minimum, the Journal de Montréal report revealed that he was part of the agency's human-source program - in other words, a casual informant. (He confided in Mr. Vronsky about his intelligence work, and the latter says he followed up, meeting with a CSIS agent who asked him not to reveal Mr. Walker's history with the agency to anyone, including Foreign Affairs and the RCMP.)

Mr. Walker also wrote. In 2008, he co-authored Hello, My Big Big Honey! - a book about Thai bar girls and their correspondence with Vietnam war vets in the U.S. His marriage - to Praiwan Jhaket, a sweet-faced, mild-mannered Thai woman - failed but the two remained close. Now Praiwan Sevenpifer, she lives in Stoney Creek, Ont., with her new husband and a cross-eyed pug, and in an interview, recalled him fondly, saying they were "like sister and brother."

In the last few years of his life, Mr. Walker didn't date, his friends say. The one constant was his obsession with Southeast Asia, where he'd lived and travelled extensively. Several years before his disappearance, he'd come into a small inheritance from his mother and settled permanently in Siem Reap, the bustling capital of one of Cambodia's poorer provinces.

There, he set up a small filmproduction company, Animist Farm Films, with a friend named Sonny Chhoun, and was pursuing his dream of becoming a screenwriter and filmmaker. The two, Mr. Walker had told friends, were planning to make a film from a script Mr. Walker had written called The Poorest Man - based on the true story of "Cambodia's Oskar Schindler," a man who co-operated with the Khmer Rouge to save his village during the genocide of the late 1970s.

They intended to finance it by becoming farmers - in the year before his disappearance, Mr. Walker spoke excitedly to friends in Canada about the idea of an emerging market in Siem Reap for organic free-range chicken.

According to Mr. Chhoun, the pair leased land with Mr. Walker's inheritance money, but the plan didn't pan out: In the end, no chickens were raised and the farm went bust.

"I gave up," Mr. Chhoun, a local fixer and tour guide, recalled in an interview. "It didn't work. I don't go out there any more.

When I go there, I just feel sad."

On the day of his disappearance, Mr. Walker was due to meet Mr. Chhoun, who says they planned to go out to the temple complex at Angkor Wat and attend an annual festival that features singing, dancing and plays. Just two hours after Mr. Walker left his hotel, witnesses at the guest house say, Mr. Chhoun showed up in an "agitated state" and began asking after his friend's whereabouts. Mr. Walker had apparently not returned his calls and texts, and Mr. Chhoun was so worried that he demanded that hotel staff let him into Mr. Walker's room to make certain he wasn't there.

It was Mr. Chhoun who alerted the Cambodian authorities to Mr. Walker's disappearance - although not until Feb. 18, four days after he had raised the alarm at the guest house. By this point, Foreign Affairs in Ottawa already knew: Peter Vronsky had contacted the Canadian government the day before, after hearing the news through friends on Facebook. In the hours that followed, he also filed reports with the RCMP and CSIS, and contacted Tammy Madon, who had not yet heard of her cousin's disappearance. Back in Siem Reap, missing-person posters were plastered around town, carrying Mr. Chhoun's cellphone number.

Back in Canada, after Mr. Walker's death, Mrs. Sevenpifer went through the small storage bin of possessions he'd kept in her basement. Among the photos, movie stubs and pieces of abandoned winter clothing was a note in Mr. Walker's loopy scrawl. "I want a Tibetan Sky funeral with flagellants beating themselves to song," was all it said.

Dave Walker's body was turned over to Mrs. Sevenpifer's family and, on Sept. 15, 2014, cremated in Bangkok. His ashes were interred in Surin, her home village 450 kilometres east of the capital and a place he had visited many times and loved.

A reverance for secrets

Even just after sunrise, on an April morning the heat at Angkor Wat is enervating. Like most of the lesser-known corners of the temple complex, the Death Gate is half eaten up by the jungle. Over its entrance looms the crumbling face of Naga, a fierce ancient serpent god.

A few metres past the gate runs a footpath through the jungle to a road where the forensic team and police set up camp shortly after Mr. Walker was discovered. The rainforest floor is made up of dead leaves and rot, jungle ferns sprouting everywhere under a tangle of banana and durian trees. In the soupy heat, the persistent chorus of cicadas becomes an ear-ringing roar.

Just beyond the path, on the road, is a canteen selling cold drinks and souvenirs. A group of teenagers hangs about and a policeman in military uniform lounges under an umbrella. A confident, smiling teen says she remembers the day the body was found: "The police were here for a long time. Just over there. I can show you the exact spot."

Just as she is about to strike off, the police officer says something sharp and short to her in Khmer. When she turns back, her demeanour has changed. Her shoulders droop and she looks at the ground. "Don't go there," she says quietly and quickly. "You can't go. It's a very big problem.

And dangerous." She walks away.

The police officer sits, tipped back on his red plastic chair, pressing a beaded can of Coke against his throat.

Dave Walker is not the only Westerner to die in mysterious circumstances in Cambodia in recent times. Last year, 82 deaths of foreign nationals were reported in the Cambodian media, though the actual number is suspected to be much higher.

According to a recent report from the Ministry of the Interior, deaths of foreigners rose 50 per cent in 2013 from the year before.

The most common cause reported was "heart attack," followed by "unknown" and "suicide."

According to a recent story in the English-language Khmer Times, poor record-keeping, as well as a lack of toxicology reports and proper forensic techniques make police investigations in Cambodia notoriously untrustworthy. Because of the importance of tourism, local media complain there is a general tendency to sweep the suspicious deaths of foreigners under the carpet.

"On balance, the Cambodian authorities are more incompetent than they are corrupt," says a former British consular official in Siem Reap, on condition of anonymity. "But in any case, they don't want any sort of light being shone on their process, and try to shut down anything sinister involving foreigners as soon as they possibly can."

Even clear-cut cases of murder often seem to go virtually uninvestigated, even (perhaps especially) when they involve foreigners. In September, 2013, Katherine Grgich, a 55-year-old American, left her guest house on the Cambodian tourist island of Koh Rong for a hike; her body was found a week later near a jungle path. At first, police reported the death as an accident, but when the U.S. embassy intervened, they revised their assessment to aggravated robbery and murder. A suspect was identified and an arrest warrant issued, but the subject fled to Thailand; the murder remains unsolved.

In 2012, the bodies of Laurent Vallier, a French widower living in Cambodia, and his four young children were found in a car on the bottom of a pond near their home in Kampong Speu province, in the country's interior.

Local police declared the case a murder-suicide, but when French forensic authorities arrived on the scene, they revised it to a murder. (Mr. Vallier's skull and bones were found in a suitcase in the back of the car.) Still, no suspects were named.

Last July, William Glenn, an American teacher in his early 40s, was found strangled in a garbage dump outside Phnom Penh. His murder remains unsolved, and his estranged wife, who lives in Thailand, has complained to the media that the Cambodian authorities have done little to solve the case.

Whatever the realities behind them, these cases cannot be divorced from historical context.

Like much of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has many beaches, lush vegetation and citizens who tend to be achingly polite and socially conflict-adverse. And yet it stands out from its neighbours - Thailand, Laos, even Vietnam - because not so long ago the worst autogenocide in human history happened here. Pol Pot's violent regime of forced "agrarian socialism" reigned from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge army, trained and radicalized in the jungle with the aid of the Viet Cong in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, killed roughly a quarter of the population - some estimates peg the number as high as three million people.

That horrific background makes Cambodia a country with startlingly few old people. It is also a culture racked with collective trauma, individual loss and pain. At least in part because of this, it is a nation that has a particular reverence for secrets - a deep cultural understanding of the need, under certain extreme circumstances, to simply let things lie.

Dave Walker was fascinated by Cambodia's dark history. He dabbled in journalism and once interviewed a former Khmer Rouge baby-killer while the man dandled his own toddler on his knee. Before he died, Mr. Walker was trying to raise $3.2-million (U.S.) to make his film about Cambodia's Oskar Schindler. Was this controversial project somehow connected to his death? Some have suggested that it was, although it's hard to see precisely how.

Accusations of a cover-up

Peter Vronsky is an amiable yet slightly gruff fellow with a closeclipped grey beard who until recently lectured at Ryerson University and writes books about serial killers. (His latest, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka: The True Story of the Ken and Barbie Killers, came out in May.)

For several months, while others who pressed authorities for a murder investigation have gone silent, he has devoted himself with terrier-like tenacity to a blog called DaveWalkerCase.com.

The raw reportage is impressive, yet dizzying to read: It veers off on personal tangents, and spends an inordinate amount of time detailing the intense personality conflicts and power struggles that ensued in the weeks after Mr. Walker disappeared.

This is one of those cold cases that attract a kind of cult-like Internet following, and Mr. Vronsky admits he's obsessed, perhaps unhealthily so. "People keep telling me to just drop it and walk away," he said over lunch in Toronto. "Everyone says I should just move on and get a life. But for Dave's sake, I just can't give up. I won't."

Mr. Walker's family has also been tenacious, at times, in the quest to get answers. Part of the explanation for why Foreign Affairs dropped the case so quickly may have been internal reaction to a press release dated May 8, 2014, and signed by Mr. Walker's cousin, Tammy Madon.

The lengthy statement claimed that the Canadian government had engaged in a cover-up. It also stated that, in the days after his body was found, Mr. Walker's family had arranged for an eightmember specialist forensic team from the Ministry of Justice of the Royal Thai Government to take control of the medical investigation - and that "their official formal, written preliminary report included the conclusion that Walker 'did not die of natural causes.' " The Canadian government, it continued, "is in possession of the documents which unambiguously show that all the evidence of the preliminary medical professional determination suggests that Walker was murdered."

Privately, a senior government official familiar with the case dismissed the allegations - adding that, while the Canadian embassy in Thailand sent over several people in the wake of Mr. Walker's death, including an RCMP officer, Cambodian authorities did not welcome their assistance.

"We did everything we could," said the official, "but in the end, Cambodia is its own country with its own laws."

Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan, Thailand's leading forensic-science and crime-scene investigator, confirmed through a translator that the Canadian government dispatched a forensic team to Siem Reap on May 1, 2014.

According to a source close to the Walker family who claimed to have seen the report, the team concluded that Mr. Walker's neck had been broken and there was "clear evidence of foul play."

Ms. Madon's press release accusing the government of a cover-up was forwarded to all major Canadian media on May 8.

But a few weeks later, Ms. Madon recused herself from the ad hoc investigation team, saying in an e-mail to Mr. Vronsky that she just wanted to "turn the page."

She also refused to be interviewed for this story, citing privacy concerns. (Sources