Happy Thanksgiving Canada! Enjoy your long weekend, call your friends and family, and celebrate COVID-safely. Here are some tips from the BC public health service.
More little scenes observed on my walks …
Walking in our neighbourhood, I passed a house where the owners had decorated a small tree with smiley-face balloons on a tree and then added a row of little multi-coloured windmills. It was their response to COVID-19, to brighten things up. I smiled as I passed by, just as a guy rode past on a bike and I heard him mutter “too much plastic” as he went by. Party pooper, I thought. And then, damn, he is right. But still.
Three young men are sitting in a park, talking as I pass. One says, with the total conviction that comes of experience, “If you walk into a room like you own it, I don’t care what you’re wearing, if you have swag, then if there are 10 women in the room, 3 of them will want to [have intimate relations with] you”, (or words to that effect). And I think, how do you know that? Are you the guy who walks into the room, or are you the guy who watches the guy who walks into the room? And then, why do guys tell each other what women want? Why don’t they just ask the women?
Walking through Rosedale, I come round a corner and practically bump into someone. I look and realize it’s Geddy Lee, of Rush fame. He’s working his phone and looks trim and fit for a guy who must have 10 years on me, and still a bit like the skinny bass player I saw on stage in Detroit about 40 years ago – unlike myself. And afterwards I think, I should have said something cool.
Walking round and round the garden, I run into the next door neighbour. “I’m in COVID quarantine”, I say. “Oh”, he says, and raises his hands and backs away. “I was in Ontario”, I say, apologetically. And he backs away further. I’m the plague guy now.
Ever since COVID-19 hit, I had a feeling that there would come a day when I would be locked in for a 14-day quarantine. That day has come. Our son is attending university in Halifax NS, and the Canadian Maritime provinces have imposed an Atlantic Bubble. This means that anyone coming into the bubble from outside (like from Toronto) has to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Since we wanted to spend Thanksgiving with our son, we came out at the end of September and are now in lock-down.
Because we knew we’d have to go through this, we rented a place in downtown Halifax that’s about 10 blocks from his university and close to lots of restaurants and grocery stores that deliver. We found a cozy home that has a small yard, and is also on two floors.
That means my daily walking routine consists of a series of micro-walks. It’s about 60 steps for me to circle the garden, so if I do about 15 laps then I cover just over a km in about 10 minutes. My goal is to get 30 minutes of walking in per day, and 15 flights of stairs, so every hour I get up and do some laps around the house and up the stairs, and once a day I go outside and circle the garden for 15-20 minutes. Over the course of the day I can get in around 6000-7000 steps.
As I write this, it’s only day 4 of my 14 and when this is published I’ll still have a week to go. I’m also taking advantage of the enforced sit-in to catch up on some reading and to do a little armchair learning. I’m just hoping we don’t have a solid day of rain, because it would be really tedious circling the garden in mud, but so far so good.
The reward, of course, is that when this quarantine ends we can have a family meal and celebrate. Till then, I’ll be going round and round, and round and round, and round and round …..
There are days when you have a plan, and days when that plan gets changed. Sometimes that change leads to what I think of as lucky walks. This week had one of those.
I had booked our car for a service, and was expecting that it would be an hour or two, enough time to go for a short wander nearby and grab some breakfast. When I dropped it off, however, I was told that it would actually be 6-7 hours. What to do?
Since it was a lovely early autumn day, I decided to walk home and come back for the car later, giving myself about a 10 km walk. I took a wandering, back-streets path through Leslieville and Riverdale, Cabbagetown and Rosedale. It was wonderful, seeing the leaves coming into colour, hearing kids laughing in playgrounds, smelling the autumnal tang of turning leaves.
And in walking, I couldn’t help thinking that I was a really lucky person. Lucky to have the time to wander like that. Lucky to have the opportunity. Lucky to live in a great walking place like Toronto. Lucky to have my health to enjoy it.
Someone famous once said (Edison perhaps?) that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, and I do think that to some degree we make our own luck that way, by being prepared. So while I wasn’t thinking about a long walk when I dropped off the car, on that day, in that place and time, I got lucky and took advantage of it.
Those lucky walks are probably the most fun of any of the walks that I do. They happen when I’m not looking for them, when a window of time and chance presents an opening, like the hint of a path in a forest, and I just have to take it.
I like that. Life gives you lemons, we know, but life also gives you luck. Take a walk and embrace it.
For the past several months now, I’ve been starting off most of my posts with this:
Hey Toronto, remember to practice Physical Distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic! Also be aware that some of the amenities, parks, or services listed below may have limited availability. Please check the links included below for up to date information on what’s open and what’s not.
And after 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m wondering if I need to keep saying that. Don’t we all know this by now?
You hear people talk about “the new normal”, and the idea that what we have become used to with COVID-19 is what we’re going to have to keep doing for the foreseeable future. We all hope there will be a vaccine soon, but in the meantime we just need to keep doing the right things to manage the epidemic.
wearing a mask where physical distancing isn’t practical, like shops and indoor public spaces
washing hands and avoiding contact points
cheering each other up with sidewalk chalk art
While that’s become mundane, at least for me, what’s also become part of my new normal is the way I’m walking these last few months. For example, I’ve stopped thinking or planning for long multi-day out of town walks. The Bruce Trail is out right now, partly because sections are closed, partly because the Bruce Trail Org is actively discouraging through-hikes, and partly because I’m reluctant to book B&Bs or hotels right now.
And then, within the city, my routine has changed. In the Before Times, I would take public transit to some end point and walk home. Now I don’t want to use those the bus or subway, and since the City has closed many public washrooms in parks and has shut off public water fountains, I need to plan my routes carefully around pit stops while carrying extra water with me.
All of that means much of my walking has been local, 1-2 hour forays around nearby neighbourhoods. Thankfully, we live in mid-town and there are many quiet, shaded backstreets to chose from, so most days I ask Siri to just randomly pick a direction – North, East, South, or West – and head off that way.
With tricks like this, and some others I’ve learned, my new normal COVID-19 walking routine is helping me to keep sane.
COVID-19 Walking Hints and Tips
Walk on the left when you can. This means you’re facing the traffic if you have to step into the street briefly to give space on the sidewalk to someone else
Backstreets have less foot traffic. On busy streets like Yonge, I sometimes feel like I need to wear a mask because of the density of other pedestrians. On side streets, there’s hardly anyone about any day of the week, and it’s quieter so I can hear the birds.
Plan your route. Like I said, washrooms and water can be tricky. I can carry water, and I guess I can pee in the bushes if I need to, but that only works in forested parks and ravines. The neighbours don’t take kindly to pits stops in their hedges.
Planning ahead also means both hydrating before I leave as well as emptying the bladder.
Avoid bike trails, especially on weekends. Toronto has many multi-use trails, like the Don Valley Trail, and they are mostly too narrow to allow 2m of physical distancing from cyclists. Weekends are the most congested with would-be Tour de France pelotonistes, so I look for walker-friendly options.
Take a picnic. With many coffee shops and restaurants still limited in seating, and requiring mask-usage if you do go in, it’s easier to just take some snacks and have a bite on a park bench somewhere.
Skip parks with off-leash dog runs or playgrounds. Parks like this usually mean more pedestrians and less physical-distancing, which should mean more mask-wearing, and I don’t like to wear a mask outdoors, so I just don’t go near those parks.
Look for big, natural settings. Toronto is blessed with a wonderful system of ravines, trails, and parks that are big enough to offer lots of trails and fewer people for lower density, especially during mid-week.
Look for quiet neighbourhoods with lots of windy streets. Toronto has many areas that feature beautiful homes, lots of shade, and little traffic. Often these are quiet any day of the week so you can go for walks when the weekend-warriors are clogging the parks. Personal favourites include:
Cedarvale / Wychwood
Rosedale and Rosedale Heights
Forest Hill and Upper Forest Hill
Check out the cemeteries. I’ve written many times about walking through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and Mount Hope and Prospect Cemeteries are favourites too. They’re quiet, shaded, and usually free of cyclists, and this time of year I can fill my water bottle at one of the taps around the grounds. That said, please do remember that first and foremost these are places of memory and quiet contemplation.
The worse the weather, the fewer people about. If it’s raining or really hot/cold, you can avoid crowds by using the weather to keep crowds down. Remember – there’s no bad weather, just poor clothing choices.
And probably most importantly, remember that we’re all in this together. We’re all missing something, we’re all a bit inconvenienced, and we’re all impatient to be able to get back to whatever it was we thought was normal before.
Out for a walk recently, my mind wandered as it usually does and on this day I was singing a song to myself to set my pace, a Janis Joplin tune called Mercedes Benz.
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all drive Porches, and I must make amends
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
Copyright Sony Music Entertainment
As those words revolved in my head, my train of thought moved on to the materialism that the song parodies, and that brought me round to the idea of “stuff”. Why do we have stuff?
A few years ago, I was flying home from a business trip to Madagascar.
My fellow passengers were mostly like me – businessmen in suits and jackets and ties – so I couldn’t help but notice a guy wearing bush shorts and a bush shirt, with thick woollen socks and heavy hiking boots. He was a bit older than me, perhaps late 60’s, yet with a healthy energy and a tanned outdoorsy complexion. He stood out for what he was wearing, and also for what he was carrying – an old-fashioned canvas rucksack and a little folding luggage cart to which was strapped a small crate full of hardcover books.
I watched him board and take his seat, and then as I took mine, I briefly noticed he was across the aisle from me, before I disappeared into my flight routine, taking out my headphones and book and settling down for a 4 hour hop to Johannesburg.
Partway through the flight, I looked up from my book to see that he was reading it over my shoulder along with me. When he saw me look up, he asked if I liked it – I think it was a James Clavell novel, Shogun or something – and we got to chatting. Over the remainder of the flight I learned a bit of his story.
He was a woodworker and carpenter, from outside Guelph in Ontario – less than a hundred km from Toronto, though we met on the other side of the world (how do Canadians always seem to find each other?). He lived on his own, though he had grown children. He liked to travel, and each winter he’d work for a few months and when he’d saved enough he’d head out somewhere. He’d just spent a couple of months in Madagascar, bird-watching and wildlife spotting, and was trying to decide where to head next once he got to Johannesburg. North he thought, maybe Morocco.
Other than bird-watching, he loved to read, hence the crate of books. He’d pick up any English-language books he could find and trade them with other travellers along the way. Sometimes he’d sell a few, or spend a bit of time teaching people to read in English to make a few dollars. Other than that, he had a few clothes, his binoculars, and a simple lifestyle, staying in hostels or crashing on people’s couches. He could spend 6 months travelling for a few thousand dollars, most of which went on airfare, and when his money ran low he’d head back to Canada to work for a few months and make enough to travel some more.
When we got to Johannesburg, I offered to buy him a coffee, but his next flight was going off through one terminal and mine through another, so we shook hands and wished each other safe travels.
I can’t remember now what his name was – Jack or Bill or something like that. But I think of him now and again, because I envy him, and that Janis Joplin song brought his image back to my mind.
When I’m walking, I’m usually just doing that – walking. I might take a water bottle or a small knapsack with some snacks, perhaps a rain jacket. That’s about it. I like walking because I can do it with so little.
And this is what I what was going through my mind as I thought about “stuff”. It was tied up with a recent family dinner conversation, my wife and son and I. We were talking about the homes of some of my son’s friends, which to be frank are considerably larger than ours, and moved on to stuff in general – the cars, smartphones, clothes, and other everyday things that people buy that can be outward signs of affluence. My son said that one of his goals was to be able to buy a nice house, and we talked about what “nice” meant and what you need in order to be comfortable – where the line was between comfortable and luxury and what “stuff” was a luxury, what was a necessity, and what was in between.
On my walk, that conversation muddled and mingled with my recollections of my long-ago fellow traveller, and the words in that song. His stuff was minimal – a few clothes and some books, and not much else. Janis was singing about materialism and mocking it. And as I walked I realized that I was meandering around Lytton Park and Forest Hill, relatively upscale neighbourhoods in mid-town Toronto.
And parked in their driveways, I’d often notice expensive cars (Mercedes Benzs and Porches amongst them, which is probably what triggered the memory of the song), and other conspicuous displays of consumption – fancy bikes, electric scaled-down cars for kids, and so on. Smug thoughts drifted through my head. What a wasteful carbon footprint.
And then I thought about my walks, and the recent series of posts that I’ve been doing about my gear. My pile of walking stuff is actually bigger than I’d like to admit – walking poles, knapsacks, water bottles, hiking boots, rain gear, and exercise clothes, not to mention the other stuff I’d like to buy including a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a bigger pack, a cook stove, and cooking gear.
As I mentally checked off the stuff on my so-called minimal list, my smugness faded. Is my footprint really so light? My stuff may feature eco-friendly, recycled polyester fleece, merino wool and ethically-raised duck-down, but does that make my stuff virtuous and their stuff vulgar? Who decides whose stuff is bling and whose is basic? At the end of the day, it’s still stuff.
So as often happens, if I walk long enough I come full circle in my thoughts. On my way home, I mulled over the idea of “unstuff”. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve told myself that I don’t need much. By the standards of many in Toronto, we live relatively modestly. I go for walks. I armchair shop for hiking gear. We drive a basic car. And while I’d like to think of that as unstuffing my life, if I’m honest it’s more a case of “less stuff” than it is “unstuff”.
I’d like to say I can step away from stuff, and walk lightly. Whether I can do that honestly – well, there’s a new thought to mull over as I walk.
You are probably getting bored with me starting off a post by saying, “I was out for a walk in my neighbourhood” and I am getting tired of going out for a walk in my neighbourhood, but given COVID-19 is still hanging about I’m trying to do my part by sticking close to home.
At any rate, a recent walk took me I past an older home that I’ve always assumed had a story behind it, but I didn’t know what it was. Right now, there’s this sign out front, as they do work on the house.
As I learned, it’s known as the Snider House after the original owners, and it dates back to 1820, one of the oldest houses in Toronto.
I had seen that it had sold a year or 2 ago, and then in the past few weeks the dreaded construction hoarding went up. Too many times, this is a cue for imminent destruction. Fortunately, it’s a designated Heritage property which avoids:
I see these signs all over our neighbourhood. On one street nearby, in a 100m stretch there were 3 houses that have been demolished with new infill underway.
I’m happy that Snider House is being restored. It’s beautiful example of Victorian architecture and it’s a reminder that Toronto actually has a history, something we keep trying to erase every time we tear down a perfectly good though older home to replace it with something new.
I get it, on one level. In our case, we spent several years and hundreds of thousands renovating our last house, a 1920’s detached 3-bedroom in mid-Toronto, and in the end we still had a detached 3-bedroom home. Had we knocked it down, for not much more than we ending up spending on renovations, we could have had a larger 4-bedroom that would have been worth at least 25% more than what we eventually sold at. If you want all the latest modern wiring, heating, plumbing, bathrooms, kitchens, energy efficiency, and comforts it’s often cheaper to start with a blank slate.
And yet, when that happens up and down a street the character starts to change. Many mid-town Toronto neighbourhoods date from the 1920-1940 period, and were originally quite uniform with a mix of detached and semi-detached 3-bedroom 2-story homes along with some 2-bedroom bungalows. That characteristic look lasted for the 1st and 2nd generations of owners, into the 1970’s and 1980’s, but by the time the 3rd and 4th generation came along, the urge to modernize and extend became too strong to resist.
And so we have today’s streets, where many of the original homes, to my eye charming red-brick well-proportioned places, have been replaced by larger boxy stucco-sided 4-bedroom houses that loom over their neighbours. There are now so many that that they’ve started to blend together, but even so, to me the proportions of the homes have lost something. They are more spacious, more open, more energy-efficient, and just more. But do we need more? Can’t we renovate and improve without replacing?
Near the street with the 3 new houses, there’s another home that’s undergone extensive reno’s and is now just about finished. I’m sure it was pricy to renovate instead of tearing down, but I’m glad that they resisted the temptation to tear down a perfectly charming, functional place that just needed to evolve into the 21st century.
Reduce, reuse, and recycle are supposed to be our environmentalist mantra. Use less, use it longer, and then hand it on for other uses. On my way home from my walk, I passed a toddler toilet seat that had been outgrown (proudly I bet) and left out for someone to claim and use for a new toddler. It seemed an apt metaphor – poop happens. Learn from it.
On Thursday this past week, our son turned 18, and on Friday he graduated from high school. It prompted a different kind of walk, memories instead of miles.
My wife was pregnant and fighting bouts of nausea that we thought were food poisoning before we learned it was morning sickness, on the morning of September 11, 2001. And now, at the other bookend of his 18 years, our son is graduating into COVID-19.
Both events have changed the world, and it only begs the question about what the next 18 years of his life will bring. We had been planning to head to Halifax in the autumn to deliver him into the arms of university life at Dalhousie University. Now, that’s on hold – he will still start classes in the fall, but online, with dorm life at the residence of Mom and Dad. Not what he or we had expected, but the new normal for his fellow graduates.
So what do you do with these kinds of situations? You learn from them, I think. In many ways, his journey through life till now has had more emotive and socially-changing events in it than I remember experiencing at his age, and I can only see more on the horizon.
It also means that the plans my wife and I had are changing too. We won’t get to walk the Gaff Point Trail this autumn, as we had planned, but we’re hoping we can do it next year. Maybe he can start in residence in Halifax in January. Maybe it will be September 2021. But in the meantime, we learn and we grow and we move on. All roads come to a fork sooner or later.
Happy Birthday Rowan. And congratulations. Now comes the fun part.
Walkers walk. Walkers of dogs let pets take them for walks, a significant difference.
My preferred routes often take me through the local streets, parks, and ravines of Toronto. While many of these parks have off-leash dog run areas, I grew up in a small town in rural Southern Ontario so when I was young everywhere was an off-leash dog run area. Today we fence in our pets, and designate park plots for pooches to poop.
Don’t get me wrong, I do like dogs. It’s just that I cannot always say the same for walkers of dogs, aka dog owners. I do make an exception for dog-walkers, aka the pro’s. In my neighbourhood there are lots of families that own dogs and who employ professional dog-walkers to exercise Fido during the day. Generally speaking, these folks are just that, professionals, and keep their charges under control. Sharing the path with them and 4-5 bounding terriers is tolerable.
Walkers of dogs, however, are like amateurs in many things – long on enthusiasm and short on technique. In normal times, on weekends there would be the unleashing of the hounds as the walkers of dogs came out, families with their pets. In today’s COVID times, this is a daily occurrence. In many cases, these non-professional dog walkers fall short of the standards set by their workaday employees. Let me count the ways
Poochie is precious; all my attention must be on him
Poochie is rambunctious; isn’t he cute!
Poochie is curious; ooh, what have you found in that man’s shoe?
Poochie is poopie; over there Poochie, poop over there!
Poochie is ignored; can’t you see I’m on my phone!
Poochie is in my way
Come on folks – share the space and smile at your neighbour. Poochie and just want to walk.
One of the great things about walking, whether it’s in my neighbourhood (maybe especially in my neighbourhood), elsewhere in the city, or just out in the country on a trail, is that you continually see little scenes that register mentally but somewhat unconsciously as I wander along.
You can be in a kind of tuned out zone, just walking and not really aware of what’s happening around you, and then some little detail will catch your eye or your ear. These little scenes fascinate me. Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, so I think of these as life’s little paragraph plays upon that stage, unconnected on one level and yet part of the world-weave that includes each of us.
I keep meaning to write down these scenes as the impressions register, but it’s a pain to type them into my phone as I walk and when I get home I’ve often forgotten them. Occasionally, something will jog that hidden memory, and over the past few months I’ve been collecting these little postcards until I had enough for a post. Et voila.
I overhear a woman as she gets out of her car and goes into her house, keys jangling as she gestures with one hand while talking into a phone held with the other: “I told you, that’s too much”. And I wonder, what is too much?
A squirrel runs down a tree to the edge of the road, and hesitates, hesitates, hesitates, and then dashes part-way across, sees me coming, stops, turns, turns about again, hesitates, and then sprints the rest of the way to climb a tree, spiralling so that it says hidden from me as I pass. Do bold squirrels live longer, or is it the cautious ones?
I’m walking by the lake, in winter, and there is a thin skim of ice just formed along the shore. As a light breeze disturbs it there is a faint crunch as the ice breaks up, and an almost imperceptible squeak.
I walk past a magnificent magnolia in bloom, just as a gust of wind cascades pink flowers across the sidewalk. Spring snow.
A woman pushing a stroller walks past, oblivious to me and to the child as she talks into her phone, and the child looks over at me and smiles, unnoticed by its mother.
A little guy riding his bike with his mom says “I’m sooooo tired” as he passes me, in just the tone that brings the image of our 3 year old instantly to mind.
On a little side street, 3 gardeners in a row are lined up like life-size gnomes with their colourful gloves and hats, each kneeling and digging amidst their early spring flowers and each oblivious of one another, and of me as I pass.
On side streets all round my neighbourhood there are little monuments, signs, and tokens. COVID-19 has people hunkering down, and at the same time looking up for once, to see the many people who work day in and day out to do the little things – stock grocery store shelves, clean hospitals, prepare and deliver food. I think, when this is over, will new-normal mean old-normal for the cleaners and the shelf-stockers – out of sight and out of mind?
I’m walking on one of the first nearly hot days of late spring and a young woman jogs past – early 20’s perhaps. I see the literal bloom of youth on her cheeks, long legs and easy grace, and think to myself, youth is beautiful. Can I appreciate that she’s gorgeous, purely on an aesthetic basis, now that I’m old enough to be more than her father? (Don’t say grandfather!) Like the girl from Ipanema, she doesn’t see me. And then the moment passes – steady on Nabokov, I think. Don’t get purvy.
Walking in Glendon Woods, my mind goes back to when I attended the school and walked these same paths. There are new leaves and shoots all around me, and the only sound is the West Don River mingling with the birds. It’s warm but not hot, earth-rich scented. There’s no one around. I could be alone in a forest 1000 km from here. Where did 40 years go?
I guess the title of this post has two meanings. When will I stop walking? Will it be because I get sick? Will it be because my wife or son or someone I’ve been in contact with gets sick, so that I have to go into self-isolation? Will it be because the province or city completely locks everything down?
And then the other meaning is broader – when will this epidemic end? When will restrictions lift, and some normalcy return? When do I have to stop criss-crossing the street, doing the the covid dance to keep my 2m separation from anyone else?
So which comes first – me being shut down or the epidemic ending? It’s what everyone is thinking. It looks like we’re talking months for all restrictions to be lifted, and probably at least a few more weeks here in Toronto before even a slight loosening. Recent briefings from the Ontario government talked about being prepared for 2nd and 3rd waves that stretch out 18 or even 24 months from the start this past March, and for a gradual, step-by-cautious-step return to what we hope is the old normal over that time. We’re in this for a longish haul it seems.
So when you look at it like that, a certain fatalistic, carpe diem attitude is likely. Remember that Bobby McFerrin song? – Don’t Worry, Be Happy
And can I just take a moment to remind you about some dos and don’ts about walking while we’re in the middle of this:
Do – keep 2m apart while making space for others by stepping into a driveway or off the curb onto the roadway if you need to
Do – try to walk on the left side of the street so that if you have to step into the road you can see the traffic coming towards you
Do – give extra space for someone who might be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19
Do – smile at your neighbours and fellow walkers 😉 – we’re all in this together
Don’t – walk about in 2s, 3s, and 4s crowding others off the street
Don’t – forget to look up from your smart phone
Don’t – ignore the birds, flowers, sunshine, and SPRING! now that you can actually hear, smell, and appreciate them
Don’t – be that person who’s so self-absorbed that they actually think this epidemic is all about them and how they’re the only ones inconvenienced by it all
And oh by the way, let’s hope we keep that idea once this finally settles, because waiting in the wings there’s climate change to be tackled, not to mention paying back the $billions borrowed to fight COVID-19. We’ve got a challenging decade in front of us. If the 1920’s were known as the Roaring ’20’s, then this coming decade may come to be known as the Pooring 20’s, or better yet the Soaring 20’s as we not only get back on our feet, we use our new-found resolve to face even bigger challenges. Humans are smart, resilient, toolmakers – 5 million years of evolution have seen to that.
In the meantime, embrace the little things – like a box of Rice Krispies when that’s what you crave.