January 1, 2022 — Flashing Back to the Urban Walk of [Winter] Life
New Year’s Eve — not dressed up, and nowhere to go. But maybe this year will be better than the last? (We ask ourselves, yet again. I quote Counting Crows, yet again.)
Once again I think that — at least in the context of the pandemic situation — surely it could hardly fail to not be, given the current COVID-19 stats. The year limped to an ignominious end in Ontario, with an unprecedented and astounding 16,713 new cases reported on December 31, a number more than ten times higher than the provincial seven-day average of only just over two weeks earlier, when I last wrote. The off-the-chart 1,500 new cases confirmed yesterday by Ottawa Public Health exceeded the mid-December provincial weekly average case count.
Provincial testing capacity and contact tracing are now overwhelmed, meaning that the reported case counts are, more and more, only rough estimates of the community spread of the Omicron variant rather than accurate counts. In response, the provincial government controversially announced that publicly-funded COVID lab tests will only be available for high risk individuals — others with symptoms are being told to assume they are infected and to self-isolate. Reporting of COVID cases by school boards was suspended altogether. The moves were justified by Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, as necessary to allow the province to preserve its testing resources for those at highest risk of severe illness.
With this fluid situation as the backdrop, ‘this is not the time’ (that damn phrase again) for wild revelry, though Jessie did join her friends for an evening of fireworks and games. Henry and I ended the year with a night at home, with a just-announced two-day Christmas break extension for him and a 95th consecutive week of working from home for me on the horizon. A silver lining of sorts for me, I suppose, as the winter commute to the Quebec side of the river has few redeeming qualities. But seeing that amazing number of office-less workdays indicated on the calendar did make me reflect back 5 years, to my final winter at my previous job, located a 30-minute walk from my house.
I enjoyed those walking commutes so much that at the time I wrote about the experience. Rereading the piece, and reflecting on all that has since transpired, both personally and collectively, it now does seem quite a long time ago — the years are short, especially during the time-limited time of childhood. Hand me now my walkin’ shoes… you do the walk, you do the walk of life… (Talk about the years being short — the Dire Straits hit was released 37 years ago!! — let’s just not speak of the excessively twangy 2007 outlaw country cover version by Waylon ‘Shooter’ Jennings…)
The nearly $900 monthly cost of childcare for our two primary school-aged children during the school year served, last summer, as a powerful incentive for my [then-] wife and I to rearrange our schedules to eliminate this significant household expense. Most logical, given the location of our respective offices, was for me to shift my working hours: by leaving home much earlier, I could finish my workday in time to be at my kids’ school for their 3:30pm dismissal time.
It was all fine and dandy through the fall — a quick 12-minute bike ride took me from my workplace to the school, and through November the weather remained, for the most part, atypically mild. But then, with Christmas approaching, came the first major snowstorm of the season. A glance outside confirmed that the predicted 7–10cm accumulation was likely to prove a significant underestimate.
The view out my window in December is lit only by moonlight when the 6:15am alarm goes off, though more often my initial wakeup comes earlier, landing beside or literally on me, in the form of my 7-year-old, animal-obsessed, indifferent-to-personal-space son Henry. “Are cheetahs solitary?” he demands to know, fixing me with a wide-eyed, six-inches-from-my-nose stare as I attempt to peel a second eye open. “I think so,” I mumble, fumbling for my clothes and desperately hoping that we have not run out of coffee beans.
In Ottawa, in this season, the early morning CBC radio commentary never fails to repeatedly circle back to two topics: temperature (invariably negative, it’s only a question of how many degrees), and wind chill. In combination, they can provide a powerful disincentive to leaving one’s heated maison, especially well before daybreak, while temperatures are at their daily nadir. Chalk up another entry on my lengthy list of “Things You Will Do That They Don’t Tell You About Before You Have Kids.”
Dressing for the weather, when walking in winter, is not simple or quick. Layers, certainly, but how many? Too few, and the 35-minutes outside are a trudge of misery. Too many, and I’m well and truly overheated by the midpoint of the march. On a typical pre-dawn, I settle on two quick dry t-shirts (short and long-sleeve) and a wind-breaking polyester shell under a parka with liner, along with corduroys sandwiched between windpants. Add thermal socks, hiking boots, fleece toque, full coffee cup and (zipped into the shell, three layers in) my ipod… then out the door, in something other than a flash.
It takes a few blocks to stretch out and hit my stride, though a long gradual slope as I pass the kids’ [former] school propels me forward. On mornings following major snowfalls, the earliest birds are already outside, extracting vehicles from the drifts in which they are entrapped. I eye them from the street, where travelling is easier, and wonder how long it will take for the sidewalk plows to come by. On other days — in particular after brief thaws and bracing overnight cold snaps — the sidewalks are layered in ice: in patches, in extended sheets, even, on occasion, in three-dimensional ice sculptures, layered like flowing sundae toppings. Beautiful to look at, and fully treacherous.
Trudge, crunch, trudge, crunch… the sound and movement brings to mind The Snowy Day, the Caldecott Medal-winning 1962 children’s picture book by American author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, which follows the neighbourhood explorations of a young boy after the season’s first snowfall. An uninterrupted half hour of time to think is a pleasant luxury given my daily existence with small children. Did I respond to that semi-urgent email? What does our household have on-the-go this weekend? Have D and H separated for good? Eyeing the fancy infill mansions from the street, where travelling is slightly easier, I enjoy imagining their inhabitants’ SUV rearview mirrors being unceremoniously sheared off and left, mangled and partially buried, in gigantic snowbanks by a passing plow. But most pressingly, given a sleepy and clearly misguided promise to investigate the matter: are cheetahs solitary?
Halfway to my workplace, and my pace has quickened. The music helps. I’ve loaded a wintry mix — created for my [ex-] wife, in a light-hearted, if ironic, effort to reduce her distaste for the season — onto the ipod. Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating” kicks off the playlist, which of course leads me to wonder when the Rideau Canal will open. The blocks drift by with the songs — The Coldest Night of the Year, Snowed In, A Cold Road, Driftin’ Snow, The Snowmobile Song… as Gilles Vigneault famously expressed, “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.” I doubt that the metaphor is appreciated by those who aren’t aficionados of the chilliest season, though [my ex] did delight in putting one track from the mix (“F-‘sharp’ I Hate the Cold,” by Cowboy Junkies) on repeated play, and even took a genuine shine to The Burning Hell’s “Last Winter,” in all likelihood because of the song’s suggestion that “There’s no need to ever go outside if we make the right decisions now / We could stay in here all winter and let the city bring the plow…”.
Arriving at the office, now fully awake, I experience an odd satisfaction by being the first in my hallway; colleagues trickle in after my thermos of coffee is long-emptied. Computer on, googling — “cheetahs are typically solitary animals… unless females are looking after cubs, and unless males are living in a ‘coalition’ of brothers or even unrelated males.” Like most other aspects of life, nature is full of shades of grey.
While my weekday morning hikes began as an experiment, a means to the end of cutting the after-school childcare cord, I’ve found that I now cannot imagine not leaving the office early to obtain those precious extra hours with my kids. There have even been unexpected benefits — like the beauty of seeing the orange and pink sunrise through the branches of the large elm on Sherwood Avenue — along with the positive impact on our family budget (immediately reallocated, alas, into household renovations).
So… 3:30pm, at the school, and out troops, in glorious disarray, a gaggle of grade twos. I smile, and wave to catch Henry’s eye. Seeing me, he immediately frowns and looks pouty. I approach — what perceived injustice could be troubling his young mind?
“Da-ad… do we HAVE to walk home AGAIN?”