Friday, May 30, 2008


The weekend in Chicago was amazing. Amazing partially because not only did I have company (because really you can only do so much on your own) but I was in the company of some of my favourite people. We shopped and walked and laughed and ate. We saw a musical and visited Frank Lloyd Wright's first house and studio. We did architectural tours. We truly indulged in all things Chicago.

Chicago is often compared to Toronto and indeed visiting I could see many of the reasons why. But I have learned that traveling can teach us not only about the foreign place but also about our own home. In comparing Toronto to Chicago, I think that we can learn about how to make our own fair city even better.

Toronto and Chicago are wonderful places. Each city is dynamic and cosmopolitan. It is relatively safe and relatively clean. The people are friendly and generally proud of their city. There is lots of enterprise and great shopping. The sports teams and the productions are both world class. And mostly the quality of life is outstanding.

However, Chicago seems somehow brighter. It has a hugely better waterfront. The attention paid to capitalize on the natural setting has paid off greatly (although it is a given that the river and canal system adds hugely to this). Chicago also seems a little bit richer and a little bit bigger than Toronto. This may come simply from being in the U.S. as opposed to what Robin Williams referred to as 'a loft apartment over a really great party.' North Michigan Ave has all the big stores as opposed to Bloor St with only some of them. Finally, the city has benefited from its strong spirit of architectural adventure; constantly in the vanguard of new and exciting styles and designs. It has fostered this spirit and the reputation that comes along with it. The city is proud of its architectural dressing and has a plethora of attractions to capitalize on it.

Some of these lessons can be learned from Chicago and brought home. There is much we can do with our waterfront, for example (and my hopes are buoyed by the announcement of a development project).

This is not to say that we do not have much to be proud of. But I believe that being proud also involves searching for betterment and never settling. Toronto the Good deserves better.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Great American Roadtrip

Roadtripping is a quintessential American tradition. It's like baseball or capitalism or political sex scandals. It's hard to say why Americans are so into taking long trips in their cars. Maybe it's the sheer size of this country. Maybe it's that the U.S. has so much in it that Americans would rather travel within their country than elsewhere (despite the fact that the latter may actually improve geopolitical relations). Maybe it's their great interstate highway system... or maybe the great interstate highway system was created because of the roadtrip. Hrm.

Whatever the cause, Americans do drive a lot, covering vast distances within their vast country. And it shows. The aforementioned interstate highway system is truly impressive. An intricate criss-crossing of major highways allowing one to travel from Topeka to Denver or Eugene to Reno or Miami to Boise. The even-numbered highways run East-West and the odd numbers run North-South - as far as they can. It is seriously weird to pass the start of a highway (in my case I-80) on the East Coast on which you have once driven 3000 some odd miles away in California.

One effect I believe this has is to bring the country together. It makes everything seem possible, any destination reachable. It unifies the country in a typically American way - a man in his car can go anywhere. It's like the transportation version of the American dream. In a country this diverse, this sprawling, it seems necessary to have such physical links between states, regions, and coasts.

My drive (now totalling almost 7000km on the odometer) has taken me through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, D.C., Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida on I90, I95, and I75. I have also traveled on I10, I20, and I40. And over the past few days I drove almost the entire length of I55, from where it begins in New Orleans, Louisiana, through Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and finally to Chicago, Illinois.

I have seen some incredible things. There is truly a whole industry dedicated to supporting the American roadtrip. Gas stations and fast food joints and easy-in-easy-out roadside motels are everywhere, at almost every highway exit. The highways themselves tend to be lined with advertising - whether for the very luxuries of this roadtrip industry or for other things, most predominantly religion - my favourite in this category has to be "" (Although "1-800-DIVORCE" is one of the overall faves.)

Roadtripping can bring about a lot of things. But the most interesting feeling for me is one of accomplishment. I didn't know what to expect going into this adventure, nor was I without fear. But I did it. I drove and drove and drove. I saw so much. I learned so much. And I think I got pretty good at it. Road trips like this make you feel like you could do anything. I mean, hey, if I could drive from the North to South and then South to the North by myself, I can do anything I want, right?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reflections on New Orleans

Entering the city, I felt as though I was bound to love her. How could you not love New Orleans? I mean, people I love love this city and people all around the world love her too.

I can see why. Even my limited exposure (one evening and morning in the French Quarter) showed me many reasons. This city is full of life. There is something going on at every corner. People practicing every sort of art and music. Shopkeepers plying their wares. Club promoters enticing you in. The city is steeped in character. The distinctively French buildings with their southern-style wrought iron balconies seem to embrace you. You can't help but wonder at the things they've seen while the parade of history has taken place around them.

There are French bakeries, oyster bars, bbq pits, and of course jazz clubs of all sorts. There are antique shops and jewelry boutiques and little art shops with hidden courtyards.

Everyone seems happy.

But I can also see how being loved - as New Orleans is - has damaged her. As happens far too often, the flood of tourists has changed the feeling of this place. It has created a gross patina upon her beautiful surface. There are strip clubs and Cancun/Spring Break style daiquiri bars. There is so much garbage and awful smells. There are many people too who obviously just live on these tawdry streets - and who have not survived it well. Those faring better spend their time trying squeeze money out of everyone around. For where there is money, there will ever follow opportunism. In this way, New Orleans reminds me of Amsterdam; dirty and seedy, leaving me feeling the need to hold my purse close and look over my shoulder, trusting no one.

It's sad actually, because like a beautiful woman with far too much tacky make-up on, the beauty of New Orleans persists but the whole appearance is tarnished.


I spent the weekend in Atlanta. Aka Hotlanta. Aka The ATL. It was my first time visiting "the South." While admittedly Atlanta isn't that southern because it is a fairly large metropolitan city, it is situated squarely in the heart of the South and many consider it to be the area's unofficial capital.

It definitely felt southern to me. A light southern drawl seemed to exist on most residents' lips. There were many signs for fried chicken, ribs, bbq, and grits. And of course Atlanta is the 'blackest' city in the US (i.e. it has the highest proportion of African Americans).

The city itself is sprawling. Indeed everyone needs a car in the ATL. But I'm told that the sprawl is due at least in part to the fact that residents prioritize highly their greenspace. And thus Atlanta is the greenest city in the U.S. (Indeed from my friend's apartment - which her local friends consider to be 'downtown' - it feels like you're in the woods.)

I tried to experience Atlanta to the fullest. I ate shrimp and grits (apparently a southern specialty). I toured the CNN Center (no, sadly no sightings of AC). I sampled some of the 70 different flavours of Coke at the World of Coke. I walked around Piedmont Park (which was absolutely teeming with life and activity). I saw tornado-damaged buildings. And of course went out clubbing in downtown ATL.

I even got a change to go out and explore the far-reaching suburbs and new developments. I stayed with close family friends about an hour outside of the city. A real home-cooked meal and clean bed - what treats! They even had cats for me to get my feline fix.

Overall, I liked Atlanta and its environs. Although I do tend to prefer cities that are at least somewhat walkable (and not overwhelmingly hot in the summer).

Friday, May 16, 2008

A week of friend therapy

We all need it from time to time. It can be hard to admit and even harder to recognize as our lives accelerate and whiz past us at lightning speeds. We get distracted by work and school, family and partners. We see only those things in the now, those things that need immediate attention. And in all this we lose parts of ourselves - not necessarily for good but perhaps they become dormant; they go into hibernation until we are once again ready to pay attention.

These observations may sound strange coming from someone who is spending a year 'paying attention.' Isn't that what a 'year off' is supposed to be? A year of contemplating oneself and one's place in the world? Yes, but even that has its stresses. The planning that goes into these types of trips and the contingency preparations are enormous. There are concerns with every decision and even every day, particularly those spent on the road. And of course life does not stop simply because one decides to take a year off. I've had to tend to other responsibilities and life preparation type tasks.

So this week, amidst a year of what was supposed to be this, I indulged in a bit of a friend therapy. This is a widely used but not widely discussed type of therapy. It involves surrounding yourself with your best friends in a stress-free environment.

The most potent facet of this type of treatment is laughter. And boy did we do a lot of it. The week we spent on the beach in Florida was filled with it. It overflowed with it. We were silly. We were caddy. Witty. Happy. We were ourselves. Just us, trusted friends, together.

We talked and talked and talked. We talked mostly about things that girl friends can't talk about with anyone else. We needed each other for these things.

We cooked and drank and saw girlie movies.

We relaxed and took the time to pay attention to those sometime-dormant things.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mom's Day

Today is Mother's Day. I have thought a lot about my mother today. I seemed to be surrounded by mothers - old grandmothers, overworked mothers, inexperienced mothers, and even expectant mothers. Sadly, I will not be able to be with my mother today, on the day to celebrate her and all that she does for the family. I haven't been with her on this day for some time, as I was usually still away at school over this holiday. As in the past, I have tried to do all that I can to show my mom how much she does mean to me. But really, flowers and cards can only go so far.

My mom is an immeasurably important part of my life. She has influenced me, guided me, supported me, and helped me in more ways than I can likely grasp. Significantly, she was a strong proponent of my taking this year off. A year for myself to travel, have fun, relax, learn, and recharge before the intensity of law school. She knows. She's been there.

And of course, like with so many other things, she was right. This year has been worth it a thousand times over. I have learned and grown more than I ever could have anticipated. And this year is just one of the many things that she has given to me.

The best thing about my mom is that she is one of my best friends. We really share a lot and look to each other for advice. We also have a blast together - sharing jokes that get cookier and cookier as the years go by. My father doesn't even try to figure them out anymore.

So today, on this celebratory day, I celebrate you, mom.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A big drive

I have just completed a big drive. A massive drive by my standards. Yesterday morning I left Cambridge, Massachusetts and tonight I arrived in Ocala, Florida. That is approximately 2000km and somewhere around 20 hours of driving.

I was in the car for about 14 hours yesterday and then another 9 today. Yes, that adds up to more than 20. Tell that to the traffic I hit in Connecticut and the particularly delightful D.C. rush hour. What is almost more amazing than the completion of the drive itself is that I started out not knowing where I would spend the night. I planned to drive until I was tired and then find somewhere to crash. For an admitted control freak, this type of freewheeling is a big step. I ended up stopping in North Carolina, in a little town called Rocky Mount. Wouldn't ya know that I nabbed the last room at the Hampton Inn. Felt kinda bad for the tired-looking woman behind me who had to go somewhere else. But dammit I was tired too.

The drive itself was somewhat boring - I95 S mostly the entire way. I was struck though by the differences between the north and the south. On the trip, I drove through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, D.C., Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and finally Florida. Now I know that I am not revealing anything particularly, well, y'know, new by commenting on the differences between the states north of and south of the Mason Dixon line, but it was new to my eyes.

The north seemed complicated and bustling. The cars appeared to drive as though they were rushing somewhere - some meeting or art gallery opening perhaps. There is obviously a dense population and many urban centers, and the states seem to blend into one another, without proud fanfare at their borders (unless you count the toll booths at the beginnings and ends of the highways).

The south, on the other hand, is rural and expansive. It seems at times like acres and acres of farmland and at others like one great strip mall. While the greenery along the whole coast is beautiful, the southern states have allowed it to be marred along the highways by an absolutely astonishing array of ads. Huge signs promoting mostly fast food. This is not to say that the states down here are not proud of what they have - indeed, each state welcomed and farewelled me with beautiful and prominent declarations. South Carolina's was particularly noteworthy for its section of finely manicured lawns, huge brick gates, and tall flagpoles.

I can't draw many conclusions from these observations. I would just admit that I am amazed that these types of differences still persist in such a physically and virtually integrated country.

I count this drive as a big accomplishment for me - particularly considering how little experience I have with long drives and that I was all by myself.

Well, not entirely by myself. Very wisely, my mother gave me a book on CD before I left. It is a book by Elizabeth Gilbert called 'Eat, Pray, Love'. It is quite popular right now. Autobiographical, 'Eat, Pray, Love' is an account of Gilbert's year of traveling after a very difficult personal, emotional, and romantic period. She spends one third of the year in each of Italy, India, and Indonesia. Her writing is quick and witty. Her metaphors are perfect and her intuition makes you want to exclaim out loud: yes, that's exactly right! She writes about love and romance, friends and family, growing up, growing old, having fun, not having fun, meditating, praying, finding spirituality, and finding herself. Mostly, it is a book about a journey. There is a destination only in the sense that the year itself ends (though sadly no epilogue to tell you what happens next in her life); for the point of the book is to reveal to the reader the lessons of her personal journey - and indeed through the revelations to teach.

For me, most of the way through my own year of travels, it was an obviously poignant book. It made me think about things I had not previously considered and it gave me new perspectives on old thoughts. The author herself read the book and she did a great job.

So in a way, I did have a friend with me.