First days in Kingston (July 19, 2005)

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Arriving in Kingston

There is an elaborate transportation plan for Kingston in the next 25 years, which is supposed to transform the city into a bicycling/pedestrian/public-transit Shangri-La.  It is lovely to contemplate, but in the meanwhile -- and in the absence of dedicated funding the Lord will return and the stars will tumble into the sea in this meanwhile -- Kingston public transit is a dismal thing to behold.  We arrived at the Kingston train station in the late afternoon, we had to confront a grumpy bus driver, who did not like having to deal with travelers carrying a lot of luggage, and definitely did not like having a child in a stroller.  "You have to take her all the way out of that thing," he commanded, leaving us to contemplate what half-measures he was trying to forestall.  We would happily have taken a taxi, but that would require carrying a child safety seat on top of everything else.  Very few taxis are equipped to carry children.  The bus then travelled a space-filling path from the bus station to downtown Kingston, turning the 3-mile trip into something more like a 10-mile odyssey.


What would seem to be the most desirable housing in Kingston, the old brick or stone houses between the Queen's campus and downtown Kingston, are largely the province of students.  In fact, we have seen one sign on an available rental, "Students only".  Other landlords range from hostile to quizzical about a respectable family wanting to move in.  Presumably, students are seen as easier to push around, and less likely to complain about substandard conditions.

Downtown Kingston house

Downtown Kingston house


Is it inevitable that competent childcare is in short supply everywhere in North America?  It seems like a tremendous market failure.  In Berkeley, full-time daycare costs about twice as much as it does here, but it has in common that there are long waiting lists and the daycares are staffed largely by poorly paid time-servers, with just enough occasional child-oriented geniuses, working for love or charity or desperation, to make the overwhelming incompetence and lovelessness all the more apparent.  What is constant is that people are willing to pay truckloads of money for daycare, but they are not willing to pay much more than a starvation wage to the people taking care of their children.  Where the money goes I can hardly imagine.  As someone at the top of the education hierarchy, I benefit from the prejudice that treats teachers as more valuable and qualified who teach older and more advanced students.  Taking care of infants and toddlers is just -- not to put too fine a point of it -- women's work.  Because the special temperament and intuition that make an excellent preschool teacher are hard to measure and even harder to train, they are ignored entirely, and we would rather those people become bankers if they're worth their salt.

The situation is worse in Kingston.  Not only is the market tight, there do not seem to be the alternative solutions, such as the delightful childcare coop that we joined last year.  Back in March or April, we put ourselves on a slew of waiting lists for daycare in Kingston, and none of them came through by July.  There was one, Old MacDonald, which was able to guarantee that they would have space in September.  I was not terribly taken with the name or the brief description available online, and my expectation was that it would be mediocre, but we were short on options, and were willing to have a look.  Our first meeting with the director, on July 15, was quite reassuring.  The snacks seemed nutritious, the director seemed thoughtful, competent, and on top of things, there would be plenty of time to play outside, no drills.  The two computers in the corner caused some concern -- we don't see that computers are much good for small children -- but she told us that the children only get 30 minutes a week each to play innocuous games.  Ditto the television, which (she assured us) would be used only in extremis, when there were weeks of rain and snow, and then violent and frightening fare such as Disney would be taboo.

On Monday July 18 I got to take Chaya in for a real trial morning.  As it happened, the director was off on vacation that week.  I don't know if it was a case of cat's-away-mice-play, or if the director was lying to us, but the practice looked very different from the nurturing theory.  The practice looked more like a warehouse for children.  First of all, the assistant director cancelled both the planned walk and all outside play, because it was too hot outside.  Of course, that meant that they spent a lot of time yelling at the children for being too rambunctious inside.  Still, most of the children -- little angels, really -- managed to play peacefully (on their own, with neither assistance nor encouragement from the teachers, who seemed mostly too busy with their own affairs), but the assistant director had to break it up by announcing, "Who wants a turn on the computer?"  The result confirmed my vaguely-formed notions about the negative influence of computer games.  One might think, they would allow children to play counting and alphabet games at their own pace, without taking up a teacher's time -- if you think learning the alphabet is an important goal.  Instead, you had one child playing, one teacher at his elbow helping him play, and five other children huddled around passively watching.  It would make a lot more sense to ditch the machine and have the teacher play an alphabet game with the children.  Except, I never saw the teachers play any games with the children. 

The coup de grace came at "circle time", which was not a circle, but formed like a classic lecture, with the teacher in front haranguing the children that if they didn't be quiet "you'll have to leave my circle".  They sang one welcoming song with everyone's name (except Chaya, who they seemed to overlook until I made a fuss about it), which is usually a warm up, but here that was all there was for singing.  Then there was reading a book, except the teacher couldn't be bothered to read a book, so she just held up a book while a cassette read the book.  I was shocked.  Chaya was shocked.  And again, you could see how the technology was just getting in the way.  The sound quality was poor, so no one could really hear what was being read.  The teacher wasn't really engaged, so the children weren't engaged (and isn't part of the point of reading to children that they learn about the process of reading?), they chatted, got yelled at, but the story kept going during the yelling.  It was a draining and degrading experience for all involved.  Julia had another try on Tuesday, which, she reported, was even worse, and made it clear that Chaya could not go to that daycare, not even temporarily.  Which was a real shame, since Chaya is starved for the companionship of her peers, and wanted to keep going.  We are left contemplating a year of trying to work with no daycare at all.

Canadian Environmentalism

In some respects, Canada is a far more depressing country than the US for someone who cares about the fate of the natural environment.  In the US, you feel like you're pounding on a padlocked door when you try to convince people of the need to preserve resources and the planet itself against human ravages, and it's a matter of speculation whether anyone is even home.  In Canada, environmentalists are pounding on an open door.  Everyone agrees on the need to conserve the forests, and energy, keep the air and water clean, they sneer at the US rejection of the Kyoto protocol and take the "one-tonne challenge".  Whereas you can still hope for improvement in the US, in Canada you can see how meager the results are, even in the best case of a substantial change of heart.  The rivers are still being dammed, old-growth forests are being logged, even the Canadian spotted owl is not faring as well as its US counterpart.  While nearly everyone I meet here in Kingston leads off praising the city with "you don't need a car", I have hardly met anyone who actually doesn't have one.  And those few are over sixty, so purely from a demographic perspective they most likely do not represent the rising cultural wave.

Health care

To a dedicated leftist like myself, Canada is, above all, the land of socialized medicine.  Canadian medicare is the foil to the capitalist food-fight that is US health insurance.  We delight in telling people that high-quality medical care can be obtained at a far lower price, by eliminating the private-sector middleman.  As measured by formal health outcomes -- infant mortality, say, or life expectancy -- Canada beats the US.

I was chastened, then, to be informed here repeatedly that it is nearly impossible to find a pediatrician or family doctor here.  Ditto for dentists.  It's nice that everyone has a right to free medical treatment, but without a doctor there is not much that you can do with that right.  It seems that the authorities miscalculated the number of physicians that they would need to train.  (Part of the problem is the one that led East Germany to wall off Berlin, the instability of a socialist system with an open border to a richer capitalist neighbor, particularly one which speaks the same language and accepts your credentials.  Canadians -- and even many Americans -- are quite happy to obtain a subsidized medical education in Canada, and then practice for a free-market salary in the US.  Similarly, one of the first newspaper articles I read after arriving in Canada was about flu vaccine: There is none for Canadians this year, because the Canadian manufacturer sold all of its stock to the US.)  All you can do is to get checkups at the hospital's family-health clinic with whichever resident is doing his or her three-month rotation.  Continuity and a good relationship between doctor and patient are generally acknowledged to be essential for good primary care.  I have to say, too, that the apparent elimination of pediatrics here, in favor of "family medicine" does not sit well with me.  The one time we had pediatric advice from a family doctor -- a doctor who was treating Julia, and tried to advise us on the effects of medication on breastmilk -- the advice was off the wall.  It was fortunate then that we had a competent pediatrician to turn to.  It sounds good to say that you treat the family as a unit, but the effect is inevitably that the special needs of children are an afterthought, covered in a supplemental unit.

Adding to this disquiet was the story I heard of a colleague with a painful injury that took a year to get diagnosed, and then it was only because he shlepped himself to a doctor in the US, and paid out of his own funds.  Diagnosis in hand, he could get an appointment in Canada for the required surgery: four months later.  Again, shades of the GDR, he used connections to get himself an immediate appointment at a private clinic in British Columbia, which he had to pay for out of his own pocket.

A German postdoc who I met told me that his then six-month-old son developed persistent diarrhea shortly after he arrived here.  After ten days of this, he brought the boy to a clinic, and was told, basically, shit happens.  As it happened, his neighbor is a pediatrician, and agreed to see him for a private fee, that the postdoc's German insurance was willing to pay.  (I'm not sure if this is legal.)  After measuring the child's weight loss from one day to the next, the doctor had him taken to the hospital immediately.  Once he was in the hospital the boy was well taken care of, which is about the only positive thing that I have yet heard about Ontario health care (other than "it's free").

Just recently, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that Quebec's ban on private clinics is unconstitutional, because the government has failed to maintain the public system at a tolerable level.  The decision only applied immediately to Quebec, but no one doubts that the same would hold for Ontario.

Cafe culture

Kingston is a long way behind Berkeley in the transformation of cafes into computer labs with refreshments.  The wave rolled through Berkeley several years ago, and is now complete.  In Germany, I was used to cafes being open late on weekends, but in Berkeley, particularly right around the campus, they close early on Friday and Saturday.  I would be the first to admit that I do not understand the economics of the restaurant business -- you multiply the number of customers by an average bill, subtract the cost of food and rent on the location, and you conclude that the owner must be living off table scraps.  The cafe business is even more mysterious, but I can't see that wireless internet could be any good for them: it encourages people to linger and occupy tables, but not necessarily to spend any more money.  It's like smoking: It's a nuisance for the restaurateur, but they'll defend it to the death, because they're afraid of losing business to someone else who allows it.  It's unlikely that lawmakers will do them the favor of imposing a blanket ban on wireless internet in cafes, though. It may be that they have settled on a Canadian compromise: A number of cafes seem to have wireless internet setups, which they decline to advertise, and which seldom or never work.

We found one lovely independent vegetarian-countercultural cafe, The Sleepless Goat, right in the middle of downtown.  In Berkeley, there are numerous such institutions, in Kingston there is just one of everything.  But that is probably enough.

At the Sleepless Goat, they found it absolutely hilarious that I put milk in my iced tea.  I mean, really inexplicable.  "You're a funny man," the lady at the counter said to me, and as I walked away I overheard her discussing with her colleague, "I guess I've put milk in herbal tea...," trying to make sense of this outlandish behavior.

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