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Canada

Living Life Bravely

A tribute to the life of Reg Wesson, my father (1928-2012).

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My father, Reg Wesson, died on November 27th of this year. He was 84, and had not been well for the past year. He was admitted to hospital in mid-November, and I flew back to Toronto to be with him and my family. We spent a week together before he passed away.

It is, I will admit, something that I had been both expecting and dreading since I moved to the UK. Moving overseas with an octogenarian parent, I knew at some point I would get that call. As much as you want to pause the hands of time while you are on the road, they keep ticking back home. I most feared a call saying he had died. Every time I spoke to Dad on the phone, I knew that the goodbyes we said before we hung up could have been the last. I was thankful that the call I got allowed me to get back to Canada and say my goodbye in person.

I count myself lucky on two counts, one that I was able to make it home in time to spend some time with my father before he passed, and also that he passed peacefully, without any prolonged suffering.

Me and Dad in 2011 in Florence

Me and Dad in 2011 in Florence

After my father passed, I stayed in Canada for a few more days for the burial and the “Celebration of Life” for Dad.

My dad didn’t want a funeral or a memorial service. “I’ve been to too many god-damn funerals,” he said. “I want a party.” So we planned a celebration, with music and wine and laughter. It was tinged with sadness, of course, but mostly was a great opportunity for people to get together and share memories of my dad.

Despite not wanting a memorial service, we did have a few parts that were memorial-service-like. One such piece was speeches. People wanted to get up and share, either through reciting a poem, singing a song or sharing a favourite anecdote.

I played emcee, and shared a few memories I had of my Dad. I wanted to share some big, life affirming story, but couldn’t really think of anything, so told everyone about the little parts of life I remembered with him. Most of them revolved around trains, actually, which I hope goes some way to explain the recent train nerdiness I have exhibited in the blog. It is (a tribute to / the fault of) my father (pick whichever one you feel best describes your feeling towards the train blog entries).

My sister Jen spoke last, and I was struck by what she said. I paraphrase her here, because (true to my father’s spirit) she spoke without notes and I wasn’t taking a transcript. She said that when she was younger she wouldn’t have described Dad as a brave man. He didn’t especially like heights, and dealt with pain much in the same way I do, by feeling faint and nauseated. He didn’t partake in a lot of physical sports.

Yet as she looked back recently on Dad’s life, she realised her analysis was wrong. As a young man, Dad gave up the safe option of working for his father’s business as he really wanted to work in a bank. Having never been involved in auto racing, he applied on a whim to be part of the Oakville-Trafalgar Light Car Club and took up rallying. Later, he wound up a part of the Canadian Racing Driver’s Association, running Grand Prix and other racing events in Canada. After moving to Burlington, nestled at the edge of Lake Ontario, Dad went out for a walk one day, down to the local yacht club, and though he didn’t have a boat or knew anyone in the club, he joined.

He was a real “give it a go” kind of guy. He was constantly finding new interests, and on finding that interest, he pursued them. He didn’t let the weight of opinion of others influence him, nor the fact he was venturing as an unknown into an area he knew nothing about. He just did it. And in doing so, thrived. For every new club, organisation, interest or career he tried, he became an invaluable part of the group. Often acting as treasurer for groups, or working his way up into the executive. He would immerse himself in his new circle, making new friends, bringing in old friends to his new group, becoming a key part of the social circle.

My dad may not have been physically brave, but he was a brave spirit, willing to put himself out into a new world he didn’t know, and give it a try.

As my sister said this, and I remembered my big, life affirming story about Dad.

It was when I was between high school and university. While in high school I had worked as a waiter at our local Pizza Hut. I was pretty good at it, and saving a good bit of money for university. As summer approached, I decided I was a bit too good for Pizza Hut, and should be working at a more upscale restaurant. So I quit my job without another one lined up. “I’ll quickly find a new job,” I said, confident in my skills.

I didn’t quickly find a new job. I struggled, and even tried to go back to get my old job at Pizza Hut, only to find it was already filled. Desperate, I took a job doing door-to-door sales of … well, anything I could carry – tube socks, books, calculators – this company had the lot.

I hated it. The money was alright, but the job made me miserable. I knew by the end of my first week I wanted to be doing anything else.

My Dad, giving me a ride home from the train station on Friday evening, could see it on my face. “What’s wrong, son?” he asked.

“I hate my job,” I said. “I wish I could quit. It really makes me miserable.”

“You see no way you could be happy at this job, if you changed something,” my Dad asked.

“No,” I said. “I don’t like the sales part of it, and that’s the biggest part. I don’t know what to do.”

“Quit,” Dad said.

“Quit?” I asked. “I can’t quit. What will I do about money? I need money for university.”

“Don’t worry about the money. We’ll figure out a way to make it work,” My dad said. “You can’t keep doing something that you hate. Son, life is too short to spend it being miserable.”

I believe this was the philosophy that drove that braveness my sister had been speaking about. It is about putting aside those things that aren’t contributing to your fulfilment, and taking up those things that you think may contribute.

Obviously that isn’t the only decision point. My father was not selfish in his choices, he took his responsibilities seriously and if he said he would do something, he would try his best to see it through. But his current responsibilities didn’t hold him back from trying something new, and he didn’t feel the need to be chained to something that wasn’t working for him.

Dad always told me how proud he was of me for having taking the step to move abroad. I had never really understood why he used the word “proud,” until I started to look at it in the context of the bravery my sister described. I think he was proud of the move because it was me doing something daring, striking out on my own and taking a new adventure because I was pretty sure it would make me happy, in much the same way he might have done. In my actions are reflected his lessons and example.

So as we enter 2013, I take the next steps in that journey, in becoming a permanent resident of the United Kingdom, and continuing towards becoming a British citizen. More so, I start to think to myself, over and above the paper work, what can I do to become more integrated into my new homeland? To fully immerse myself in this, as my father had done before in the many adventures he undertook. I may not stay in the UK forever, but if I do leave, I want to leave knowing that I threw myself into my life here with all that I could give it.

I will bravely live this life, and in doing so, hopefully reflect some small part of my father, and honour his lessons and example.

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Posted by GregW 08:39 Archived in Canada Tagged travel_philosophy migration_philosophy Comments (0)

Stranger in a Familiar Land

“Everything flows, nothing stands still. Nothing endures but change.” Heraclitus, Greek Philosopher

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Without a way to connect my iPod to the rental car’s radio, I was forced to listen to the local radio. I tuned the radio to a classic 80s station. Wave Babies by Honeymoon Suite came on the radio as I made the turn off from the Queen Elizabeth Way (Niagara bound) to North Shore Boulevard.

If I hadn’t caught a glimpse of my receding hairline and grey-haired temples in the rear-view mirror, I could have sworn it was 1988 again, my teenaged years spent in this same town, driving these same streets and listening to this same music.

But, as Honeymoon Suite sung, just like summer, it is over too fast...

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= = =

I flew back to Canada to visit with my family, and take care of some personal business. I stayed in the town where I grew up, Burlington, which is about one hour outside of central Toronto.

Despite only having left Canada 4 years ago and having been back a few times since, I hadn’t spent much time in Burlington since I moved away 15 years ago (originally to Toronto, and then to London). I had spent a few days, and the occasional overnight, but mostly had focused my Canada life on Toronto.

On this trip I spent 7 days and nights in Burlington, the longest I had been there in a very long time.

It was all so familiar, but at the same time, very different.

I ended up feeling like a tourist in the town I grew up in. A stranger in a familiar land.

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It was partially the physical changes to the town - new buildings erected, old buildings torn down, new roads build. The constant turning of a corner and being surprised by what was there.

That was only a small part, though. When I lived in Burlington, I knew a lot of people. This was, of course, because when you are a teenager you know so many people in your local area. Everyone in your school and the place you work are likely from the area, so you have a wide social circle.

Now, though, I knew no one. In seven days, I didn’t see a single person I knew by chance. Even though I walked through the malls and the parks and ate in the restaurants of the town, I didn’t happen upon a single person who I knew without pre-arranging a meeting.

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Mostly, though, the feeling was driven by the changes in the life of myself and my family. When I last lived here, my parents were both alive and lived in a house on a leafy street. I returned to a place where I have just a single parent, and he is going through the process of moving from his modern, waterfront condominium to a care home. My family is in the process of moving from having parents as caregivers to giving care to our parent.

When I say I was a stranger in a familiar land, there is a double meaning.

Not just familiar because I knew Burlington from my past, but also familiar in the sense "of my family." I am in the place where my family lives, but much changed since I lived here.

New places, new configurations, new structures. Physical, emotional and mental.

All change. Same place, but different.

I am local, and I am the foreigner.

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“You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” - Heraclitus of Ephesus, c. 535 – c. 475 BCE.

Posted by GregW 03:42 Archived in Canada Tagged migration_experiences migration_philosophy Comments (0)

Expensive Beer, but the Bar is Alight!

A trip to North America's best sports bar (according to ESPN mobile)...

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Seeing as I wrote about a bar in the USA, I figured I should write about one in Canada as well.

Real Sports Bar and Grill is a newly opened bar in downtown Toronto, owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment who also own the Maple Leaf NHL team, Toronto FC soccer club and the Toronto Raptors. The bar was recently named the best sports bar in North America by ESPN Mobile.

It sure is big, and it sure is fancy. The TVs are massive! If you wanted to see an important game on a massive screen, Real Sports does seem a good place to do it.

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I hadn't quite filled up on chicken wings at the Anchor Bar, so I ordered them again along with a pint of beer. It is nice being unemployed - if only for a couple of weeks - as it allows one to drink in the afternoon with no shame at all.

While the atmosphere of the place was great, the food and drink is quite pricey. I'd only imagine the bill one would run up if you took a table on Superbowl Sunday and watched all four hours of the game plus the six hours of pre-game show. It would be in the thousands.

So, is ESPN right? The best sports bar in North America?

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It certainly is the prettiest. The prices, though, make me think they might be better places for a pint, a snack and the big game.

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Posted by GregW 07:54 Archived in Canada Tagged food Comments (0)

End of the Big Nerd Ranch, and Return of the Nerd

As an integral part of my computer geek past disappears, my computer geek future reopens!

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Kanata lays low across the landscape, a glass and steel enclave of high-tech fortresses with short, ultra-green grass and small perfectly trimmed trees. Large 4 lane roads run straight like arrows across the cornfields that separate the mirror glass buildings. Satellite dishes and PBX boxes mix into the natural landscape, like a new bred of bush, and soon become the resting place for weary birds confused by all the windows. Artificial ponds spurt water into the air outside entrances canopied by glass pyramids. Parking lots full of new, shining cars stretch out in concentric circles from the fenced compounds called "campuses" by the employees. The buildings are surrounded by small stands of trees, enclosing them in a forest-like atmosphere. The air is clean, fresh, free of the big city problems of smog or pollution. Standing at the farthest parking lot at the MicroStat Technologies "campus," facing the forest, but glancing back to see the full parking lot, and beyond that, the 5 story, black-glass building, I feel like a cowboy, standing on the edge of a new, wild frontier.

HiTech. What a fabulous word, so futuristic. We all speak a new language now, shorter and more direct then the old language my father spoke. We've eliminated the waste, replacing long words and phrases with three letter acronyms, pronounced with implied vowels. We've combined words, creating single words that used to take quadruple the syllables to say. Email, ATM, DOS, PC, HP, CNN, ESPN. It's fantastic, new, faster communication for our new faster world. Sometimes I feel like I am a pioneer of NewSpeak, just like 1984. Except no one drags you away in the middle of the night to room 101. It's all the gain without the pain. I love HiTech.

I wrote that in 1995. It was the opening two paragraphs of a novel I was working, back when I imagined myself the next Douglas Coupland. The novel (which I never finished, and re-reading now what I did complete I realize is pretty rubbish), about a software coder working at a company that created communications satellites, was heavily influenced by my experience working at Bell Northern Research in Ottawa.

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Bell Northern Research was the research arm of communication equipment manufacturer Nortel (also known as Northern Telecom). Nortel was for a time one of the most valuable companies in Canada, and was a world leader in communications equipment. As internet companies became more and more valuable through the 1990s, Nortel, along with other companies that provided the underlying structure of the internet, grew in stock market valuations and in prestige. It was assumed as the internet grew exponentially, the need for the infrastructure that powered it would follow suit.

Two things smashed that vision, though. Firstly, the internet bubble burst, and the underlying need for architecture dried up. Secondly, compression algorithms continued to reduce the amount of bandwidth required to send information through the internet, which meant that telecom companies had projected much higher need for telecoms equipment than turned out actually to be needed. After 2000, Nortel started a long slow slide to oblivion, with the company now in the process of selling off all its business units and hard assets.

Back in 1992 and 1993 when I worked at the Carling Campus of Bell Northern Research in Kanata (just outside of Ottawa), the future still seemed quite bright. The campus on Carling Drive was a huge, set of connected glass buildings that let in tons of natural light, and was centred around a 7 storey atrium, topped with a glass pyramid. The buildings on campus were surrounded by nature, both man-made (including a lake) and natural (like the forested area bordering the property).

The campus had everything a young software engineer could want. A cafeteria with multiple choices for lunch. A small set of shops to fulfil your desire for munchies, drinks or the occasional pharmaceutical need like aspirin or cold remedies. Running tracks, a gym, bike racks and multiple softball fields, along with 5 different softball leagues depending on the level of competition you wanted to face.

Rents in the Ottawa area were pretty cheap, so I had a nice one-bedroom top floor apartment overlooking Crystal Bay and off into the Gatineau hills. I used to ride my bike the 30 minutes to work every morning, lock it up in the many bike racks (patrolled often by campus security), and grab a shower before heading to my cubicle. As all good software companies, we dressed casually. Jeans and t-shirts, or shorts in the hotter summer months. People who wore suits seemed like suckers to me. I felt more like an artist than a business person. Creating software was like snatching ideas from the ether and making them real. Michelangelo had marble. I had Unix and C++.

The Campus had a buzz about it as folks in the hallways discussed topics like optical technology, packet switching and asynchronous transfer mode. So many smart people, talking about smart things. Bell Northern Research – BNR. We called the campus the Big Nerd Ranch as a joke. Deep down, though, I was proud of working there. It wasn’t a nerd ranch, it was at the centre of the communications revolution that was bringing the world together. It was the heart of the global village. The campus - it felt futuristic.

That future was not to be. Not just for Nortel, but for me as well. Just a few years after I wrote the opening lines to my great (to ever be unfinished) novel, already the jobs of software engineers and computer programmers were leaving North America and heading overseas. I moved “up the value chain” and got into management consulting, concentrating instead on how technology could solve business problems, rather than creating the technology myself. Jeans and t-shirts got traded in for shirts and ties. The “art” of creating software became the “analysis” of solving business problems.

I really don’t miss the life of a coder very much. By the time I gave up coding in the late 1990s, I was pretty sick of it. It turns out it wasn’t really art, but more of a grind. Hours were incredibly long, and I started to develop a tick in my eye from all the strain of staring at computer screens endlessly. I also started to feel quite removed from the heart of the companies I was working for. IT was an enabler of the business, but it didn’t drive the business. Moving into areas where I was advising sales, marketing and customer care felt a lot more connected with the company’s goals and vision.

Given that I don’t much miss being a programmer, I was surprised that I was felt sad to read that the Nortel campus was sold this week to the Canadian Government, who are looking to house the Department of Defence on the site. While I haven’t been back to Ottawa in years, my last visit probably occurring in the 1990s, I still imagine that the campus hasn’t changed since my time there. It was – in my mind – an image of an alternate reality where people were still trying to hook up the world and provide a new, glorious connected future.

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- - -

Ironically, as the location of my past life as a computer programmer ends, my future as a tech geek somewhat returns. I have changed jobs yet again (my fourth position now in the UK in the last four years. An unfortunate consequence of the ongoing near recession that we are experiencing). My new job is with a software company, where I will be doing project management. Maybe it won't be the future I quite imagined back in the mid-1990s, as like almost all software companies are development is done offshore, but I'm back in the world of high tech, this time worrying about how to roll out our software across companies with locations around the world. It is a mix and merge of responsibilities I had in my job as a software engineer and that tasks I performed in management consulting. And while I get to return to a life of wearing jeans and t-shirts to work, I won't have to stare endlessly at computer screens all day, so hopefully the tick in my eye won't return.

The future may not be what I thought it would be in the past, but it is here nonetheless, and it isn't too bad.

I've seen the future, and it will be. I've seen the future, and it works.
- Prince, The Future

Posted by GregW 02:59 Archived in Canada Tagged landscapes armchair_travel Comments (1)

Toronto: A Global City or My Home Town

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Writing about London as “a global city” recently got me thinking about Toronto, and why I felt I couldn’t become “an international citizen” while still living in Toronto.

One can’t read much about Toronto before hearing it linked to multiculturalism. The City of Toronto has a webpage celebrating the diversity of the population, and the last census revealed that 49.9% of the population was born in another country. It is a city with a rich diversity, and one can easily hop around town to experience various cultures - from China to Italy to Greece to India all for the price of a TTC day pass.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station

Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station

As an example of this, I recall the fourth of July, 2004. On that day Greece was playing Portugal in the final of the UEFA Euro 2004 football (soccer) tournament. I decided to go and watch the game with folks who had a vested interest in the outcome. The only question was whether I should head over to The Danforth to watch in Greektown, or head over to Ossington Avenue to watch with the Portuguese in Little Portugal. I ended up choosing the larger Greek population, and celebrated with the local Greek population on a closed Danforth Avenue after Greek won one-nil.

Toronto is very multicultural, but frankly so are many cities. What is it about Toronto that makes people equate it with multiculturalism more than other international cities?

Pico Iyer addresses this in the book The Global Soul: Jet-Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home which I read recently. In a chapter on Toronto entitled “The Multiculture,” he writes:

The first time I ever met the word multiculturalism was while reading an essay of Jan Morris’s, about Toronto, from 1984, in which she described meeting the word herself for the first time in a city that seemed to be built around it. The singular promise of Canada, for her, lay in the fact that it was no Promised Land, hand no torch-bearing statue, no vision of a City on a Hill nor constitution guaranteeing the pursuit of happiness. Canada seemed to her a vast and all-accommodating open space, “all things to all ethnicities,” with “Canadian nationality itself no more than a minor social perquisite, like a driving license or a spare pair of glasses.”

I think Jan Morris, whom Iyer quotes, was definitely on to something. The Canadian identity is a bit of a blank slate, without much of the history of European countries, nor the underlying ideology of self-made individualism that defines the American identity. Canadianism mixes the social collectivism of Europe with the Individualism of America. Being Canadian is about being an individual as part of a collective, but allowing others in that collective to be who they want to be. So one can easily come to Toronto from Delhi, and experience both the comforts of India in local shops, restaurants and clubs, and also the international experience that the rest of the city can offer.

I wrote in my recent blog entry “The Global City vs. This Other Eden,” that “I didn’t move to England looking to take on some new national identity, but rather to take on an international identity. I don’t want to be English and Canadian (or British-Canadian, if such a thing exists). I want to be global.”

If I wanted to be global, why then couldn’t I stay in Toronto and do that. After all, there was much opportunity to get out and experience other cultures. There was opportunity to be part of the global world in my work, and even in my personal life. Why did I have to leave to become a “global citizen?”

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The answer, I think, lies in the consciousness with which I was living my life in Toronto. I was born in Toronto, lived there by the accident of birth rather than through a conscious choice to move there. As much as I wanted to see Toronto as the future, as a wide open outward looking place, the fact was Toronto was my history and wasn’t my choice. I was connected to Toronto as a locality, the physical place where I grew up. As global and multicultural as the city was, I was never able to shift my perception of the place as being the place town where I live.

I was unable to see the wider world contained within Toronto from within my own world. 

And so, perhaps unfairly to Toronto, I had to leave Toronto to be able to see the world contained within a city.

Some day I will probably return to Toronto - not just as a visitor but for good. I wonder if I will see the global, multicultural city or if it will still be the town in which I grew up.

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Posted by GregW 15:30 Archived in Canada Tagged books migration_philosophy existential_migration Comments (0)

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