January 3, 2015
One of many reasons that members of our family are unlikely to ever take the world by storm is that our greatest talents really are for leisure—we’re experts at doing nothing, or just enough of something with requisite amounts of sofa-lying for good measure. We often visit cultural institutions such as museums and art galleries but rarely for more than an hour or two at a time, and never without a trip to the cafe AND the gift shop. Going out for lunch is our main occupation, and we always have dessert. We are really very good at enjoying ourselves, and so the last two weeks have been an absolute pleasure.
Two things: first, that I finished things up so that there was no work at all to be done for a week or so, and second, we turned off the internet. For a week, there was no checking of email or twitter, which opened up vast pockets of time in every day for all kinds of things—reading, playing, baking, carol-singing, and doing the Globe & Mail holiday crossword. On Tuesday we bought the newspaper because we were curious about what had gone on in the world, and it was odd to flip through the pages and discover news items we hadn’t heard about elsewhere.
We spent the first couple of days of our holiday trying in vain to kick the cold that’s been embedded in our heads since the beginning of December. On the Sunday, we went down to the Bay on Queen Street to look at the Christmas windows, which were wonderful, and then went into the store and realized that department stores were the perfect way to reconcile our hatred of shopping malls with the joys of Christmas consumption (glittery lights, perfume smells, shopping bags with string handles, and 1 kilo tins of chocolate. Also, I now own tights without holes in the feet). Speeding home on the subway in time for Iris’s nap and for me to meet friends for an exquisite afternoon tea at Dessert Trends Bistro.
On Monday, we went to the library (because holidaying doesn’t always have to happen on a lavish scale) and then had smoked meat lunch at Caplansky’s Deli. I also went out for dinner with my friends and drank far too much wine. On Tuesday, I don’t think we did anything, partly due to the wine. Throughout all of this, Stuart and I were watching movies and episodes of Midsomer Murders in the evening (because we are 85 years old) and Harriet watched How to Train Your Dragon Two during Iris’s nap times. On Christmas Eve, we went to the Art Gallery to see the Art Spiegelman exhibit and had a lovely brunch at the Frank Restaurant, which we save for the specialist of occasions. On the way home, we picked up our turkey, which we fastened into our stroller. That evening, we had chicken fajitas for Christmas Eve dinner for the 10th year in a row, and left a snack for Santa.
Christmas was so good. Not only did we not have to leave the house, but we got to have my mom come and visit! The children got excellent presents and had fun playing with them throughout the holidays. I received great books, nice clothes, and other lovely things, including a La Cruset butter dish I’d been hankering after and new Pyrex. We all also received new CDs (because are 85 years old and like to do 20th century things) and so the holiday has been extra-filled with music—some of which was even made after 1987, which is very rare for us. My mom arrived and played with the children (which was not very difficult—she arrived bearing her present of a trunk full of dress-up clothes) while Stuart and I set about cooking the best Christmas dinner ever. The joys of Skype brought us the company of Nana and Granddad in England, and our adorable Alberta relations.
On Boxing Day, we went to the ROM, and partook in a yummy dinner of leftovers—Stuart makes the best turkey sandwiches on earth. Iris also slept until 7am for the first time in her whole life, which was mind-blowing, but also a bit terrible because when her sleep for the subsequent week was abysmal, I wanted to pitch her out the window. The next day, my dad and his partner arrived, and we all had an excellent time with them. And they played with the children while Stuart and I cooked up another very good meal—the greatest turkey pot pie of all time whose secret recipe was duck fat. The day after that, we drove out to my aunt’s in the West end, stopping en-route to buy ice-skates for Harriet and I, which had the potential to be a boondoggle. And then we had a very fun dinner with the best kinds of relations on earth—cousins.
Monday was the best day—Harriet and I headed downtown to meet our friend Erin and watch the new Annie film, which we’d been looking to after avidly viewing its trailers for the past month AND after watching the old Annie every day last summer. The reviews for the new Annie were terrible and all wrong—the movie was wonderful. (That one of the critics referred to the 1982 movie as “an abomination” perhaps suggests that some people had no business reviewing either movie, both of which were masterpieces, in my humble opinion.) We all had such a good time watching it, exuberantly applauding as the credits rolled. And then we met Stuart and Iris and took the subway to Erin’s new house in Bloor West Village, which is very conveniently located near the new Book City (which was bustling and full of wonderful books.)
On Tuesday, I had to take a certain someone to a dermatologists to have a wart examined, which wasn’t so memorable, except that we got to stop at HMV on the way and buy the Annie soundtrack, a move supported by all members of our household. Iris can now sing “Tomorrow”, which is really something to behold. We also love Sia’s version of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” and the bizarre and catchy “Moonquake Lake”, with its memorable hook—”she’s a fish and he’s a boy.” That night our friends Jennie, Deep and Lilia came for dinner and the best time was had. They were kind enough not to complain about our music selection.
Rumours of boondoggles were averted on New Years Eve when Harriet and I went skating at Christie Pits—Harriet had the best time and loved it, which was good but also troubling as it means that I have to keep going skating. We went again yesterday and both of us were vastly improved. A third jaunt is scheduled for tomorrow. New Years Eve was our traditional chocolate fondue and ringing in the UK New Year before the children went to bed. And then Stuart and I proceeded to play board games (and ping pong, until Harriet came out of her room and asked us to stop because the pinging and ponging was too noisy) until we were done, and then we went to bed and brought in the new year lit by bed-side lamps, turning away from our respective novels for a moment as the clock ticked over to 2015. Which is the best way to ring in the new that I could ever have imagined.
New Years Day was boring—what a wondrous indulgence is that in this day and age? Although we did have our first meal of the year at Fanny Chadwick’s for brunch, which was delicious, and Iris has been transformed into someone who is fairly respectable about restaurant behaviour from all her practice this holiday. And Harriet and I got to play Scrabble for Juniors, which is almost as excellent as spending New Year’s reading in bed. Yesterday we went to the ROM to see the Wildlife Photography exhibit. And yes, more skating. Today we’re doing nothing, which might prove to be a bad idea but feels pretty good from where I sit (on the couch, wearing jogging pants, watching snow falling outside). We’ve kept things a little special with scones with jam and Devonshire cream, because I had a jar of the latter in the fridge and we had to use it up—not the worst task to be charged with.
And I’m writing it all down now mostly so that I can remember it, the holiday we were so desperate for and which so delivered. I’m writing it all down because all these ordinary things (libraries and lunches) are so easy to forget, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to forget either that we’re so blessed with friends and family and each other. If how you spend your days are indeed how you spend your life, then these past two weeks are an indication that we’re doing something right. And it’s something to hold on to as the lights of December fade—let the next few months be something more than just a countdown to spring.
December 3, 2014
My personal belief is that a household can never have too many ABC books, and so certainly there’s room in a city for more than one. I’ve long been zealous in my devotion to Allan Moak’s A Big City Alphabet as the definitive Toronto ABC, but now Paul Covello’s new book has arrived and won me over. Because it’s gorgeous, and so meticulously detailed that it reminds me of Patrick Cummins’ and Shawn Micallef’s Full Frontal TO in its devotion to documenting Torontoniana.
Case in point is the windows on the far left and right buildings from “K is for Kensington Market,” windows which are instantly recognizable as Toronto windows, essential to its architecture:
This is a book that will appeal to children, who are the biggest transit nerds of us all, with its trans and taxis and busses, and Covello caters to this audience in particular with images of TTC tokens and transfers. This same audience will also delight in the image of the dinosaur skeleton on R is for ROM, alongside the mommy and some residents of the museum’s famous Bat Cave (plus a couple of school busses parked outside the museum itself, natch).
It’s a more updated version of the city than Allan Moak’s, though some consistencies remain—X is still for the Ex, and Z is probably always going to be for zoo, and so it should be. But Covello makes D for the Distillery District, which didn’t exist when Moak created his book 30 years ago, and neither did Y for Yonge Dundas Square, and J is for the Junction, which wasn’t so celebrated back in the day.
Covello’s is also much more specific in its locations, with parks and markets identified. He dares to show fish jumping in the Don River in V is for Valley (with a subway going by overhead on the Bloor Viaduct), the city at its most beautiful. He also skips the nude beach on I is for Islands, but gets points for including the tiny cottages on Wards’ and Algonquin Islands.
“I love TO” is the banner being towed by an airplane on the T is for Tower page (on which the book must be turned sideways to take in the full 553 metres of the CN Tower, once upon a time and forever in my heart the world’s tallest freestanding structure), and the reader will not be able to avoid a similar emotion as she flips through the cardboard pages in this durable, beautiful book, which proves as much fun to explore as the city itself is.
- Did you know that our family has been recreating the images in Allan Moak’s Big City ABC since 2011? We’re just a couple of letters away from the entire alphabet.
December 2, 2013
Living in the city and not having a car, we have always brought our Christmas trees home quite conspicuously, carried on our shoulders (which is a bit awkward when pushing a stroller or carrying a baby, but we’ve made it happen in all these circumstances). And that is part of the reason I am so enamoured with the Christmas cards I’ve bought this year, which show another quite ingenious method for bringing home Christmas in the city. These cards are by Wendy Tancock, whose site is here. The image is beautiful and who doesn’t love a streetcar? I’m due to start writing a pile tonight
August 14, 2013
Destination Bookshop is a new feature here at Pickle Me This! Part book-shopping-spree, part city travel guide, we want to inspire you to visit vibrant neighbourhoods all over the Toronto with excellent bookshops as a chief attraction.
Ella Minnow Children’s Bookstore brought us to the Beaches one day in late July. Located on Queen Street East just east of Woodbine, the shop was definitely worth the journey and situated in a neighbourhood with so many excellent things to do.
The Shop: We were warmly greeted upon entering Ella Minnow, and informed that as this was our first visit, we should probably start at the back of the shop and work forward. This was especially exciting because it was in the back that we met the resident rabbit, a white bunny called Marshmallow.
The shop is well-organized, with books for older readers at the back and picture books and those for younger readers at the front. The feel is definitively maximalist, charmingly cluttered even. I love the worn wooden floor. Books are everywhere, displayed facing out and also by spine like a library. Stock is carefully curated for quality, and not a Disney princess in sight. Bewarned that the shop does sell toys, but they’re pretty good ones, and many are bookish tie-ins. I’m always up for a bit of Mo Willems plush.
They’ve got new releases, lovely hardbacks, vintage paperbacks (a wide range of Virginia Lee Burton, I notice approvingly) and a good selection of Canadian authors/illustrators and small presses. After some debate, we settle on Read Me a Story, Stella, the new book by Marie-Louise Gay.
Ella Minnow was a pleasure to explore, and we could have played all afternoon, but there was more to do…
Where to Play: Kew Gardens is a fantastic park just east on Queen Street. The park features an excellent playground with a fun climbing structure, beautiful shady trees, lots of room to rove and explore and so much going on–it’s quite the community hub. We made our way through the park down to the beach on the shore of Lake Ontario, and bumped along the boardwalk. On good days, the beach is great for swimming, though it was more of skipping stones day when we were there.
When you get back to Queen Street, make a wee stop at the Beaches Library, a beautiful building and one of the city’s historic Carnegie Branches.
And of course, there are plenty of fun and interesting shops along Queen Street.
Where to Eat: Attracted by a sign promising free ice cream with lunch sets, we had lunch at Thai House Cuisine (2213 Queen Street East), and it was delicious. Snack-wise, Ella Minnow is well-situated with a Dufflet Cafe next door and even a door between them–great for a cake and a coffee or tea. And don’t miss milk and cookies at Moo Milk Bar.
How to Get There: You can get to The Beaches by transit, on the Queen Streetcar (a [slow] adventure in itself) or by taking a bus south from eastern stations on the Danforth line. We elected to drive, however, as these days we travel with a baby and a ton of stuff. The trick of driving, however, is parking, which is hard to come by in the ‘hood, and also that the narrow, congested streets are busy and traffic is slow. This is one of those rare “it’s the destination, not the journey…” situations.
So what else are we missing? What other great things lie within the vicinity of Ella Minnow? Let us know in the comments in order to make Destination Bookshop all the more comprehensive.
May 7, 2013
Right now as spring arrives and family life moves back out of doors, it is a perfect time to share some books that connect readers to the local and which affirm the goodness of life in the city.
In Lucia’s Neighbourhood by Pat Shewchuk and Marek Cole: This picture book based on the NFB film Montrose Avenue tells the story of “the ballet of the good city sidewalk” (as quoted by Jane Jacobs) in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood. The book opens with the epigraph by Jacobs, and then goes to render the urban visionary’s ideas in a way that a child can easily understand. A fabulous celebration of city life, In Lucia’s Neighbourhood is most remarkable for its illustrations which are so utterly Toronto: streetcars, three-panelled windows and wrought-iron porches. How wonderful to encounter one’s own world within the pages of a book.
Maybelle the Cable Car by Virginia Lee Burton: This one’s not a Toronto book, but in some ways it may as well be. San Francisco’s iconic cable cars are under threat, as Big Bill the Bus explains to Maybelle: “I just heard the City Fathers say/ the cable cars must go…/ that you’re too old and out of date/ much too slow and can’t be safe/ and worst of all YOU DON’T MAKE MONEY./ What they want is Speed and Progress/ and E-CON-OMY…” San Franciscans don’t respond well to the potential loss of their cable cars, forming a citizen’s committee to save them. Petitions lead to a referendum, and the cable cars are preserved. “We, the people, are the City. Why can’t we decide?” And with that, your child’s political foundation is laid.
Jonathan Cleaned Up and Then He Heard a Sound by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko: Another book that seems eerily prescient of the current state of Toronto politics. “Subways, subways, subways!” indeed, and somehow a station has appeared in Jonathan’s house. “If the subway stops here, then it’s a subway station,” Jonathan is told by a TTC conductor who has a relaxed emphasis on customer service and instructs Jonathan to go to City Hall if he doesn’t like it. When Jonathan gets there, the Mayor has run out for lunch. Wandering the empty corridors of City Hall, he comes across an old man crying behind “an enormous computer machine.” Turns out the computer is broken and the poor man behind it is responsible for running the entire city. Jonathan gets him to move the subway station in exchange for four cases of blackberry jam, demonstrating that sometimes civic engagement (and bartering) is the only way to get things done.
Jelly Belly by Dennis Lee: This one is not the most obvious contender for the list, but I happened to be reading it soon after reading Edward Keenan’s Some Great Idea, and noticed some parallels between the two books, absurdest story-telling aside. Lee gives us poems not only poems about garbage men and traffic jams, but also a reference to David Crombie in “The Tiny Perfect Mayor” and another poem called “William Lyon Mackenzie.”
A Big City Alphabet by Allan Moak: I loved this book as a child, and now I love that my daughter is growing up in the very places Moak’s paintings illustrate. City kids will recognize their favourite parks, Kensington Market, the AGO, laneways, variety stores, and other familiar spots. (Hint: A gorgeous print of “I is for Island Ferry” is for sale for $5 at St. Lawrence Market’s Market Gallery, along with other prints from the city’s art collection).
Who Goes to the Park by Warabe Aska: We picked up this book as a library discard, a most excellent find, as used copies are hard to come by. Fortunately, a few copies are still circulating in the library system. In his beautiful paintings which manage to perfectly meld realism and the ethereal (as all the best parks do, really), Aska tells the story of Toronto’s High Park throughout the four seasons, and of all the people and other creatures which are part of life there. (Image courtesy of the Osborne Collection’s online art exhibit).
How to Build Your Own Country by Valerie Wyatt and Fred Rix: Older kids with an interest in politics and civic life will appreciate this multi-award-winning book from the Citizen Kid Series. It’s a step-by-step guide to building a nation from scratch, and also serves as a fantastic illustration of how our society and those of other countries are structured–however precariously.
Watch This Space by Hadley Dyer and Marc Ngui: Another non-fiction book for older readers, this one about “designing, defending and sharing public spaces.” This one is a nice extension of In Lucia’s Neighbourhood, with references to Montrose Avenue and Jane Jacobs, even, but also takes on a global perspective and discusses how public space is used differently around the world. It”s a vibrant and engaging book with all kinds of suggestions about how to employ its many lessons out on the street.
March 16, 2013
This week was our first March Break, which turned out to be legendarily good thanks to Stuart taking the week off too. It’s funny how spending a week with my child and another adult is a vastly superior prospect to just kid and me. We had a very wonderful time and were careful to never travel too far from home. We took care too to spend a lot of time hanging around doing nothing, which isn’t to say that we didn’t get up to some excellent adventures. We are also very pleased to have achieved our goal of going out for lunch every single day.
Sunday was our trip to the Maple Sugar Bush, which was sweet and sunshiney. Monday we decided to go crazy and visit the library (it’s true! I know we sound reckless and wild, but it’s just the way we are) which was fun because Stuart doesn’t usually get to come on our weekly visits. And then we had lunch at Caplansky’s Deli, because all the experts say that pregnant women should ingest giant mountains of smoked meat.
On Tuesday, we had lunch at the new Montreal-style bagel place in Kensington Market, which is so so delicious, and then we walked to the Allan Gardens Conservatory to see palm trees and cacti and other green things. Wednesday morning was devoted to having holes poked in my neck, but things got better afterwards. We had lunch at Fanny Chadwicks (our favourite local joint) and then spent the afternoon on the couch watching Pete’s Dragon.
On Thursday, we visited the Textile Museum of Canada (with our free MAP pass) to see the Marimekko Exhibit, whose designs are right up my alley. (I got a Marimekko scarf!). And then we had lunch at St. Lawrence Market, pure deliciousness. We also visited the Market Gallery and picked up a print of I is for Island Ferry to hang on our wall. And then Harriet had a meltdown because we wouldn’t buy her a painting of horses, and cried on the streetcar all the way home (which everyone else found absolutely charming). Later that afternoon, Harriet cheered up and we all visited the midwives, and were thrilled to hear our baby’s heartbeat and to have it confirmed that Baby is growing well.
And then there was Friday. We had a reservation for 3 for tea at the Windsor Arms Hotel. Afternoon tea is my favourite thing in the world, but we haven’t taken Harriet since my birthday 2 years ago when she kind of ruined it for everyone. But she’s bigger now, and more importantly, our March Break had been excellent training in dining out. And she was an absolute star. Staff looked a bit dubious when we confirmed that Harriet would be having her own tea, that we wouldn’t have her “nibble off our plates” as they advised. And we’re glad we didn’t, because then we wouldn’t have been able to eat anything. Harriet had her own pot of apple-mango tea, discovered that she LOVED tiny sandwiches (and even cucumbers), and was an absolutely delightful afternoon tea companion, consenting to have tiny cakes cut into three so we could all have a taste of each. The scones were wonderful, I was so so proud of Harriet, and we all three had a very good time. I think we might keep this kid around
January 20, 2013
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll inform you that I actually appear as a character in Edward Keenan’s new book Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto. Keenan, a Senior Editor at The Grid, writes in his book about how the Rob Ford spectacle has galvinized a whole segment of the population to take an interest in city politics, of this effect on his own career: “…before, my regular readership consisted largely of insiders at city hall, and political activists. Since Ford was elected, tens of thousands of readers click through online to soak up anything I write about the mayor.” And that’s me, one of tens of thousands. (I’m the one waving.) I didn’t even vote in the 2006 municipal election, the only election I’ve ever sat out since I came of age, but I remember being busy that day, not seeing the point. That election result seemed inevitable, but since Rob Ford took office in October 2010, nothing is inevitable anymore. It suddenly seems worth paying attention to what’s going on around us.
I think I’d be compelled to pick up any book whose author acknowledges that his thinking about Toronto has been influenced by Amy Lavender Harris’s Imagining Toronto. Amy has since become a dear friend, but we’d only met in passing when I fell in love with her book back in 2010, marvelling at how markedly she demonstrates that a city is constructed of stories as much as concrete and steel. Keenan takes this as the premise for his book, whose opening line is, “I have this notion that cities are just a collection of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Near to the end of the book, he writes, “The answers, then, are in the process, just as the themes and lessons of any story lie not in its conclusion but in the unfolding of the plot.” So there you have it: plot. This is not some dry polemic. There is movement here; we get somewhere. Which is exactly what you would expect from a book with a subway on its cover.
Some Great Idea is the history of Toronto since amalgamation in 1998, the story of mayors Lastman, Miller and Ford. Though Keenan emphasizes that Toronto has always resisted being defined by its leadership, so the story goes beyond these three figures. Which isn’t to say that the city hasn’t been marked by personalities, and Keenan selects William Lyon Mackenzie, RC Harris (who was apparently very different from the figure Ondaatje portrayed him as), and Jane Jacobs as three individuals who resisted convention, rebelled against the system and helped to shape the city we live in today.
It’s also the story of Keenan’s own engagement with civic life, in the last ten years in particular (and in this way, Some Great Idea is a nice companion to Samantha Bernstein’s memoir Here We Are Among the Living which documents this same period in Toronto). He’s been in a privileged place, telling urban stories at a time when an awareness of urbanism had taken hold of the city like never before: this was the birth of Trampoline Hall, Spacing magazine, Richard Florida, the Dufferin Grove Park pizza oven, and Keenan ties these factors all together as the story of this place. It’s his place, where he lived in an industrial loft with the woman who is now his wife, where his children were born, where he and his wife became homeowners. It’s a story too that is more complicated than the personas of the men in power suggest–there was a great deal of progressiveness in the city under Mel Lastman thanks to figures on council like Jack Layton; David Miller’s legacy was far more positive than most of us remember; Rob Ford’s “leadership” has engaged Torontonians like nothing before.
Keenan shows that Toronto too is a much larger place than the downtown core highlighted in most civic discussions. He gives the example of Woburn, a neighbourhood within this supposed “city of neighbourhoods”. Except that Woburn isn’t a neighbourhood at all, but it’s the name given to the area where Keenan spent his teen years, near Markham and Lawrence in Scarborough. He has it stand for the inner-suburbs in general. It’s an area that grew up entirely differently than the downtown neighbourhoods, with different interests and priorities, whose populations no longer live the lifestyles the area was so rigidly planned for. You have to understand a neighbourhood like this, its strengths and weaknesses, in order to understand how Rob Ford was elected into office, to understand why someone who lives in that part of the city might see themselves as as taxpayer before citizen, if they even define as citizen at all.
The book’s title is taken from a quotation by Benjamin Disraeli: “A great city whose image dwells in the memory of man, is the type of some great idea.” The peculiarity of this diction, the vagueness of “some” great idea unspecified points to the book’s one weakness, a kind of muddled conception of itself and its purpose. I longed for Keenan to grasp his narrative with more confidence, for less journalistic objectivity. It wasn’t always clear where the story was going, but then Keenan himself was the one who wrote that unfolding not conclusion is the very point. And I will take it.
Because I learned so much about Toronto from this book, its history and its present. Keenan posits diversity as the city’s great strength, and goes on to define a city’s “diversity” as being about so much more than the ethnic backgrounds of its people. He closes with his theory of a city as something ever in the process of being born–“Inventing Toronto”, then, in addition to imagining it. The city as a story each of us is telling every time we stroll, cycle or drive down one of its streets.
Other Toronto links:
-My review of Rosemary Aubert’s Firebrand, “Loving the mayor is a bit like that.”
November 25, 2012
July 17, 2012
We do a lot of documenting and celebrating urban family life here at Pickle Me This, usually through a literary lens. Our family is quite passionate about engaging with the city, which is why we’ve been re-enacting Allan Moak’s A Big City Alphabet for the past year and a half. See also recent post Great City Picture Books and last year’s On urban picture books and concepts of home. We love the city so much that we don’t just live here–we read here too.
Last week, it was suggested that downtown Toronto is not an appropriate place for families, for children to grow up. I don’t actually think the suggestion pertained to leafy residential streets like mine, but we’re still downtown, don’t have a lick of sod (though the front garden is amazing), and we’re removed from the ground. And it’s a good life, with so many opportunities for every-day adventures. Clearly, other parents agree, which is why the Downtown Kids tumblr is such a delight to read. A compilation of letters from people who are raising kids all over the city, the site is a celebration of neighbourhoods, of city parks, storekeepers who know your name, and wonderful things like free-range pianos, museums, ferry-boats and community gardens.
Instead of writing off certain areas for family life, I do wonder how much better off we’d all be if we worked to make sure that everywhere was an appropriate place for kids to grow. I don’t think the kids would be alone in benefitting.