My secret sanity spot in a pandemic

May 18, 2020

We have a lab. Labs like to swim. We have a cottage. When the ice melts on our neighbour’s pond, our dog swims there. But in obedience to the instructions of public health authorities, we have stayed away from our cottage this spring.

My therapist meets me Friday mornings at 10 a.m. in a lowrise office building at Spadina and Bloor streets. The pandemic has closed her office.

This confluence of factors led me this spring to discover a lovely, wild place in Toronto. Circumstance can be the engine of discovery.

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Bay Street Ghost Town

April 24, 2020

The other day I went for a bicycle ride to the epicentre of Toronto’s financial district. I wanted to experience that particular spot, about a month into strict government pronouncements asking people to maintain social distance to defeat the novel coronavirus.

It’s a great time to ride a bike downtown: the streets are deserted. It’s pretty incredible to see what a virus can do the pulsing heart of Canadian capitalism. There is absolutely nobody around. The streetcars are vacant. The taxicab stands, normally clogged with cabbies looking for fares, are empty.

I went to First Canadian Place, the home of the Toronto Stock Exchange. At first I thought the security guard at the big white marble front desk would stop me, but he didn’t look up. I stood there, on a Monday at lunch hour: the sole human in the vast lobby with 10-metre ceilings. The Bank of Montreal bank machines stood glowing against a wall, but had no customers.

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Pouring cement in a pandemic

April 23, 2020

Odd detail about this pandemic: Most of the economy is shut down. My office is closed. I have to work from home. At the hardware store yellow caution tape prevents customers from browsing. Yet despite all these restrictions, apparently Toronto needs an unincumbered and continuous flow of cement.

This came to my attention on Friday when I went to drop off our car for an oil change in the east end. I sailed through empty streets, passing shuttered shops and schools and deserted playgrounds. At the garage, all the doors were locked. A mailbox contained envelopes. A sign asked motorists to fill in their name, phone number, the car’s odometre reading, and check off the service required. I left the key in the envelope and slipped it all through a slot.

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Nothing but blue skies

April 16, 2020

I woke up in a grouchy mood. Can’t leave town because of coronavirus, can’t see friends, newspaper full of bad news about the stock market, the spreading disease, the more than 100 deaths overnight across the country. My sweetie asked me at breakfast to list three things I was grateful for; I growled before I answered.

Then the dog and I went out for a run. We waved to the letter carrier. Morning sun glittered in the crystalline, still, clear sky. The blue air tasted clear as the Arctic circle. No planes buzzed. The roads are empty; it is rarely worth it to wait for a light to change. My spirits quickly brightened. We ran east into the morning sun and then down through Trinity Bellwoods Park. We waved to couples and their dogs.

Running towards home, we bumped into a young woman we know because her dog, Zeus, was for a long time a friend to our dog. Zeus died a couple of years ago. We have remained friends, though we now rarely cross paths. She is a tall woman with long black hair, and wore an a stylish black wool coat on this chilly spring morning. She works as a property manager at CityPlace near the CN Tower, and said she was walking in to work.

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Maple syrup mayday

March 23, 2020

At about 3 p.m. on Friday, March 21, 2020, a sunny afternoon in our sugar bush in Madoc, Ontario, with the temperature hovering at about -3C (and well over 100 C in the evaporator pan) I put in the call for help.

For the past few years I have boiled my sap in a pan about the size of a stovetop and as deep as a sink, placed on a couple of iron bars over the u-shaped ruins of an old syrup-making installation in the bush. The technique involves a certain amount of risk. I fill the pan with sap and make a fire under it. I boil it down a lot, then add more sap, pack the fire with as many logs as will fit, and go to bed. In the morning I find a layer of golden sap concentrate, cold and thus easy to handle. I can then leisurely transfer this concentrate to a smaller pot and complete the boiling to syrup, on my camp stove or barbecue.

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Chapter 3: Son of a dancer

January 25, 2020

The VW Beetle buzzed down the street in La Jolla, California, past rows of palm trees. My mom was driving and I sat in the passenger seat. I was four, but who had heard of car seats or booster seats (or even seat belts) in 1966?

The car stopped in front of a school. My mom took me by the hand and brought me in. She told me she would leave me there with all the other nice little kids in the nursery school.

“No!” I shouted.

“It will be fine, Peter,” my mom said.

“No! No! No!” I shrieked. I lay down in the schoolyard and pounded my curled-up fists into the ground.

Finally my mom gave up. She put me back it the Bug and we drove away. I never did go to nursery school.

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Chapter Two: The Unwanted Shoes

January 5, 2020

Born in 1934 and raised in Bilthoven near Utrecht, in Holland, my father is the third of 12 children of Magda Van Rees and Louis Kuitenbrouwer. (In this photo Paul is in the middle between his brothers Otto and Joost.) Louis, my grandfather, was a newspaper columnist who wrote under the pen name Albert Kuyle.

Paul Kuitenbrouwer immigrated to Canada in May, 1954, aged 19, sailing aboard the Groote Beer (The Big Bear). He and worked in Alberta and British Columbia, then returned to Holland in 1957 for his eldest brother Otto’s wedding.

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Hippie Kid

January 3, 2020

Fifty years ago this year, on Dec. 28, 1970, the United States Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Service deported my father, Paul Kuitenbrouwer, on United Airlines flight 388 from San Francisco to Vancouver. The plane took off at 9:15 a.m. and landed at 12:23 p.m., PST. My father’s escort delivered him into the custody of the Vancouver RCMP, who wanted him on narcotics and hit-and-run charges.

In 2011 the National Post published my series of stories about my childhood. The stories centred on my father’s arrest, with five children (including me) in his car, in Healdsburg, Calif., in August of 1969.

I have long wanted to turn these stories into a book. So far, that has not happened. My new year’s resolution for 2020 is to publish here an expanded and improved serial of the events of my early childhood. These stories will knit together to form a book.

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Real Christmas trees

December 23, 2019

The other night my wife and I curled up on the couch to watch A Miracle on 34th Street on CBC Television. Then an ad came on that really pissed me off.

The ad shows a father and daughter, bundled in coats, hats, scarves, mittens and boots, walking through the snowy, wintery woods. He carries a bowsaw. A Christmassy song plays. The ad is wordless. He sees a tree and reaches down to cut it, for a Christmas tree. The little girl sees a squirrel in the tree, and stops him. They walk up to another tree. This time, the girl sees a bird in the tree. The little girl shakes her head again. She finally tugs her dad’s hand and leads him out of the woods.

The last scene shows father and daughter decorating a plastic white fake tree. The message is clear: the girl, a regular little Canadian Greta Thunberg, has saved the natural world by insisting that the family buy a plastic tree at Canadian Tire.

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The voice of the streetcar

December 19, 2019

There are lots of things I like about Toronto’s new Bombardier streetcars. They are low-floor. They have marvellous windows, and if you are lucky enough to get a seat, you get a picture window view of the cityscape as you travel.

The female computer voice that announces the stops, however, is an abomination. The voice sounds cold and heartless and aloof and just generally like she is from out of town. We inhabit a world full of machines and web interfaces and online shopping. Most of us spend our days staring at illuminated screens that give us more stress than joy. Is it too much to ask that, as we stand pressed cheek by jowl on the overcrowded transit system, we have a warm, human voice calling out the stops along the route?

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