Saturday, June 7, 2014


So… here's a little story.

My 1.6 readers will know that I am a stepmom.  I officially became a stepmom at my wedding three years ago, although I had taken on the duties of a stepmom a few years before that.  I have more than a few blogs that I want to write about my experience as a stepmother.  This one is my first.

But this little story is about my stepdaughter, Abigale, and her first day at "Kids Club."  "Kids Club" is a program that is run by the local YMCA and they provide activities for students at her school from the end of the school day until 5:30, when parents can come and pick their kids up.  Abigale, having not two but four working parents, is almost always at Kids Club until at least 5:00.

On her first day of Kids Club, Abigale was six years old.  The supervisors laid out the rules that all the children were to follow.  Listen to the leaders.  Play fair in the games.  Nutritious snacks will be given out at 4:15.  Ask if you have to go to the bathroom.  And NO TOUCHING.  NO TOUCHING anyone else when you are on the playground.  No playing pattycake games.  No high fives.  Any questions?

Abigale raised her hand.  "Can we hug?"

No.  NO TOUCHING on the playground.  That means NO HUGGING.

And with that, Abigale got up from the circle, wedged herself in the tiny space between the sofa arm and the wall, and cried.

I know this happened because the group leaders told Abigale's mom, and her best friend, who was with her in Kids Club that day,  likes to tell the story because it is an example of how cute Abby was when she was six (she is now ten.)  The story is always told with a smile and a laugh and an "out of the mouths of babes" sort of tone.  Like it was a sad day for Abigale, but that she would soon come to understand that the playground is no place for kids to freely touch or  hug, and that one day she would look back and laugh at her own naiveté.

This story makes me think of two things.  First, this.  But it also makes me think about how adults have, in the last 15 years, begun to try to control the way that kids play, in the name of "safety." The way that the comfortable, wooden-seated swings of my childhood have been replaced by black rubber "butt squeezers" that make it impossible to propel yourself off of the swing, which was half of the fun.  The way that the monkey bars and climbers of my youth have been replaced with candy coloured plastic playground equipment that involves little sense of adventure or discovery.  And most importantly, the way we don't send kids outside to play anymore, telling them to come back home when the streetlights come on.

It seems to me that we, as a society,  have reached a critical mass of stupidity when it comes to how we regulate kids' play (and perhaps even kids' lives in general.)  Gone are the days of unsupervised anything, of getting dirty, of rolling around on the ground.

Last year my family moved to a new home, which backs onto wooded parkland.  There are well-defined paths that all lead you to one of two spots, both of which are within 100 metres of our back door.   There is a riverbank and two open fields to play in.  And since we moved there, my husband and I have encouraged Abby go out and play there with friends.  But finding friends whose parents will allow their kids to play in the park with Abby, unsupervised, is proving more difficult than we thought, and she is too scared to go and play out there by herself.

How did we get here?  And what are the reasons for our perceived fear?  Violent crime is at its lowest point.  Despite what we hear on TV shows like "Law and Order" and "Criminal Minds," the instances of children being abducted by strangers are exceptionally rare.  Most incidences of child abuse are at the hands of a family member or a friend of a family, which means that, statistically speaking, family reunions are exponentially more dangerous than wooded parklands.  And yet, and yet, and yet.  Parents are afraid not only of these rare and improbable outcomes, but also of being judged by other parents, as if somehow the amount of rules and restrictions placed on a child are public indications of the relative amount of parental love.

I was lucky enough to also grow up in an area where I had wooded parkland close to my home.  I remember endless days of playing in the ravine, of packs of kids running from unfenced yard to unfenced yard.  The few yards that were fenced contained pools (which DO have statistically verifiable risks when it comes to unsupervised children.)  There were long, involved neighbourhood-wide games of hide and seek and other epic adventures whose rules are not retrievable and would not be understood by my adult mind.   My husband and I want Abby to have these experiences.  We want her to get out of bed on Saturday morning, grab a piece of toast and run out the back door.  We want her to grow up feeling as comfortable outside as she does inside.  But it's a lot harder to make this happen when her school imposes sweeping rules that certainly will prevent fights and bullying but also playful tumbling and hugs.  It's a lot harder to make it happen when none of her friends are allowed to go out in the woods to play with her.  And we do go out with her, but it's just not the same, playing with your parents as it playing with your friends.  Nor should it be.

I have hope that things are changing.  An excellent article in "The Atlantic", which charts the meteoric rise of "safe" playground equipment, describes a new playground in England.  Simply called "The Land" it is filled with wooden pallets, old tires, a rope swing and donated items from neighbours like plastic chairs, mattresses and a walker.   It is incredibly popular with the kids who walk there on their own, and invent their own imaginative games, using what they find.  There are no rules for play in "The Land," and no candy coloured safety approved playground equipment.  And the kids LOVE IT.  In the two years that it has been open, the most serious injury sustained has been a scraped knee.  Swanson Public School in Australia has abolished all playground rules and let part of the playground become overgrown.  The result has been more active and engaged play at recess, which has led to more focus and better results in classes.  Students are more physically fit and incidences of bullying have gone down, not up as some of the more nervous constituents had predicted at the outset of the initiative.

And Abby's best friend is now allowed to go out and play in the woods with her.  They race out with granola bars and giggles and come back when they want to go for a swim, and we supervise them at the pool, because that's just good parenting.  And I don't know, because I am not there to see it, but I bet once in a while, when the girls are constructing their games in the woods, they have themselves a good hug.

Here's hoping that one day, our kids will be allowed to hug again on our playgrounds, too.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Red Pill

It has been a cold winter in Ontario. A really, really, record-breakingly cold winter.  So it was with great appreciation that I read the OSPCA's press bulletin that urged pet owners to keep companion animals inside when necessary.  The bulletin also made specific mention of pets in vehicles, saying that an empty car acts like a refrigerator, and dogs should not be left there for more than the briefest amount of time.

On the same day that I read the OSPCA's press bulletin, I was driving home from work when I spotted a livestock truck.  The temperature was well below -20, and high winds were causing whiteout conditions, which caused all of us to creep cautiously along the roads, well below the speed limit.  The truck in front of me was full of pigs, and when I pulled up alongside it, I saw that they were huddled together, their pink noses sticking out through the air holes in the huge metal can that housed them.  Some of their noses were bleeding.  And I saw them with my new eyes.

I have wanted to write about my new eyes for some time now, but I have always chickened out.  I don't even know if I'll hit the "publish" button after I finish writing this blog.  It's partly because this topic makes people uncomfortable, and I HATE making people feel uncomfortable.  It's partly because I am worried that I won't be able to live up to the conclusions that I have drawn about my behavior when it comes to animals.  But I can't get those pigs out of my mind, and so today I want to write about animals; the animals we choose to kill and eat, the animals we choose to care for and cuddle, and why I can't look at farm animals the way that I did before.

I was a vegetarian for about four years over the time that I worked at a series of outdoor education centers that had horses and horseback riding programs as well as farm animals.  I was one of the animals' primary caregivers, and I literally lost the taste for meat.  It was not a "political" or even an "ethical" decision - I just never wanted to have it after a long day working with (and smelling) the animals.  After I stopped working with animals and made classroom teaching my  career, I went back to eating the way I always had.

Then, one day, I read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan: a fascinating work that points out the many problems in our food system in terms of health, of economics and of environmental sustainability, among other things.  Pollan is not a vegetarian, and does not advocate vegetarianism, but he does promote buying organic, free-range meat from small family establishments.  My goal became to find the most ethical meat that I could, and to no longer put my dollars towards the factory farm system.   That oughtta do it! I thought.  I am ethical!

And that was the top of a rabbit hole that I have still not found the bottom of.

I had demanded of myself that I find "ethical" meat sources, and as a result I had to confront the ethics of hiring someone to do a job that I could not bring myself to do.  Sure, I wasn't supporting the awful practices that are involved in factory farming, but I was still paying someone to kill an otherwise healthy, juvenile animal. Moreover, I was paying someone to bring an animal into the world for the express purpose of killing it while it was young and healthy.

(NOTE:  We could definitely debate the "healthy" part here.  Chickens are bred to have breasts so big that their legs collapse under them, for example.  But we can't really debate the "young" part.)

Then I started seeing my pets in a new way.  It occurred to me for the first time after I started eating a vegetarian diet that I simply couldn't imagine consuming my pets - but what made me draw this line?  Why is it that I love my dog but I had eaten pigs?  They are both smart, and funny, and nice to be around.  (I actually speak from experience here.)  Why are kittens cute and baby calves delicious?  Why are rabbits BOTH pets and consumables?  Why don't we eat guinea pigs? Our lines here are arbitrary, and arbitrary things should be examined.

So...vegetarian it was.  No problem.  I had done that before.  I would be able to have food I enjoy, and I wouldn't kill any animals!  No animals at all.

And then … I kept reading. (Damn you, reading!) I read about the fact that veal (which the practice of raising is so repugnant that many people choose not to eat veal out of principle) is merely a by-product of the diary industry.  They need girl cows for milk, but if a dairy cow (who needs to be kept perpetually pregnant in order to lactate) has the nerve to birth a boy … well, it's off to the veal crate for him!  The dairy industry and the veal industry are inextricably linked, and if you support one, you support the other.   And, of course, dairy cows don't live out their full lives.  Once they stop producing milk, they become hamburgers.

After that, I about the egg industry.  I read about the cruel ways in which chickens were kept in tiny cages and painfully "de-beaked" so they can't peck each other.  About the way that after they are "used up" for laying they end up in our chicken noodle soup.  And about how those useless make chicks that have the nerve not to lay eggs are "culled" at the ripe old age of 78 hours.  About 200 million of them are culled in the US alone per year.   One of the culling methods is to put the live chicks into giant macerators.   There are gross videos of this on the internet, but you can find them on your own if you want to see them.   The egg industry kills a lot of chickens: all of them, eventually.

I am being completely honest here when I said that these are not answers that I wanted to find when I started down this road.  But I know this stuff now, and I can't "un-know it."  About a year ago I made the decision to go vegan, which has had various times of excellent success and downright failure.   I have not eaten meat in all that time - not even missed it.  I have slipped in terms of eggs and diary - primarily when I was in a rush and craving convenience over an actual good decision.   But I know that it's only a matter of time until I stop consuming animal flesh and secretions altogether, because I am wearing my new eyes, and I can't shut them.

But what about people in other parts of the world who need to eat meat to survive?  People ask me this a lot.   It's a more reasonable version of the What would you do if you were on a desert island and you and to eat meat to survive?   I know that I can only think about this ethical quandary because I am privileged enough to live in a part of the world where this is the kind of thing that can occupy my time. I have bountiful access to all kinds of foods and I have the unique opportunity to choose between them.  My new eyes aren't judging anybody.  They are looking at the animals, not other people.  (I do have to admit that I DON'T spend much of my time worrying about what I will eat if I am stranded on a desert island.  I'll deal with THAT when the situation arises.   I can only hope that the island will be warmer than here.)

These eyes are seeing all kinds of things in new ways.  I don't know what to think about my lifelong love of horseback riding, for example.  I don't think I want to go to the zoo anymore.   I don't know how I feel about animal testing for medical purposes.

I'm kind of scared about what I will think about these issues as I learn more and more about them.  But I would rather know the truth and have my eyes open than go through life with my eyes closed.  I would rather pull off the road so that I can have a cry about the frozen pigs in the livestock truck than drive on by without thinking about them at all.  I'll take the red pill, Morpheus.

You got any almond milk for me to wash it down with?