A very moving (and very Toronto) conversation

17 Jun

I am sure it is quite obvious to any followers of my blog that I haven’t done a “Lunch with Mary” lunch in quite some time. But that doesn’t mean that my continued interest in learning has slowed in any way. In fact, one of the greatest things I have learned through this process is an ability to get people to tell me their own fascinating stories. By no means do I consider myself a journalist, but I do think that “interviewing” is a skill and I definitely have been practicing over the years. The other day I had a really incredible conversation with a cab driver that I wanted to share. It was too long to share on Twitter and didn’t seem appropriate to post to Facebook, so I have decided to share it here. The conversation took place last Thursday, June 12, the day of the Ontario election. I’ve purposely left out several identifying details as I wasn’t originally planning on writing this. But I thought it was important enough to share so I am doing so in a way that is anonymous for him.

We were driving up Church Street when the driver began to comment on how many rainbow flags were flying everywhere. I mentioned how the crosswalks were now painted rainbow and that the American consulate also had a huge rainbow banner. I was saying how great it is to see and he agreed.

He then told me a story.

He said the first time he ever saw a gay couple was when he first came to Canada and began driving a cab in the mid-eighties. Two men got in his cab and started kissing. The driver told me he was from a very conservative country where you would never discuss anything like that, much less see it. He kicked them out of his cab. Pretty horrible.

And he got in big trouble, nearly lost his job as the couple (rightly) complained. This was a time, we should all remember, when inclusiveness and acceptance of the LGBT community was no where near where it is today.

But it was what he said next that really showed how far he has come and how far we as a society have come. He told me that today, he voted for a gay woman. And he didn’t hold his nose and vote. He actually didn’t seem to think it was a particularly big deal. He was just pretty happy to continue supporting the Liberals as he always had.

Now whether you are PC, Liberal, NDP, Green or undeclared, I think we can all take something from this story that makes us proud to live where we do. People can learn and people can change and a little bit more understanding about others can go a very long way.

Newly published author Jennifer Hayward

8 Sep

Lunch with Mary 067

Date of lunch:
Thursday, September 5, 2013

The company:
Jennifer Hayward is Harlequin’s newest author. Her new novel, The Divorce Party, was just released as an eBook and will hit stores in paperback later this month. Jen and I used to work together until she decided to take more time to focus on her writing and fulfill her lifelong dream of being a published romance author. And she did it!!! Every time Jen posts a new update on Facebook about her book, I just want to ask her “how does it feel to have your dream come true?” It seems like such a cheesy question but it’s totally sincere. Jen’s lifelong dream has come true! What is that like? I decided to ask Jen out for lunch and find out the answer.

The food:
We ate at Lola’s Kitchen on Church St. It’s really near my work but I have never tried it. Lola’s is delicious and I will totally go back and there are tons of options for people who are gluten-free. I had the California bowl with brown rice. It had tempeh, kale, nuts, avocado and veggies. It was really good, filling but not heavy. Jen had the special frittata with salad and she enjoyed it very much. We each drank water. Total bill was $30 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
While I like to try to keep quiet about anything I start in case I don’t finish, perhaps writing about it here will keep me accountable and ensure I go through it (or not, see podcast). Well might as well spill the beans. I am writing a book. I have said for years I was going to and now I am actually doing it. It’s a young adult novel, takes place in the future and involves aliens. And I hope it will be funny too. The reason I am telling you all this is because I talked to Jen quite a bit about it and she gave me amazing and helpful tips. First we talked about character development. She said you need to make sure that every main character has an external and internal conflict and you need to be overly obvious in presenting them to the readers. Second, I need to have a part in the book where all hope seems lost, where the main character appears to have no chance of overcoming their conflicts. Finally, we talked about outlines. I am currently working on mine and it is extremely detailed as I want to make sure that I know what happens to each character and plot line throughout the book. I am actually using a script outline technique I learned in university to lay everything out. Jen told me that while it’s important to outline the story, you don’t have to include every detail in the outline because a lot of the story comes through as you write and a lot of the outline will change. Jen recently finished a book that she completely re-wrote the ending three times before she knew she had it right. Basically be organized before you start writing but let the natural writing flow come through. Leaving lunch I was even more excited to write.

Jen's book

The lunch:
Jen first submitted a novel to Harlequin when she was 20. Although they didn’t publish it, she did get feedback. They let her know that this wasn’t the right story but they liked her writing and encouraged her to submit a different manuscript. Any feedback at all is pretty amazing considering many hopeful authors only receive a form letter.

Years later, Jen decided she needed to write that new novel. At this point, she was working full time and had a family. She decided to cut back on her hours at work and fully commit to her lifelong dream. She wrote several different stories but it was her entry into Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write contest that got her the publishing deal. The contest has writers submit the first chapter of their novel online and the public votes. Jen made it to the final three, submitted her full manuscript and then won the whole thing. With winning the contest, she received a publishing deal for the book she entered, The Divorce Party. But it didn’t stop there. Harlequin so enjoyed her story, they gave her a second book deal right away. But it didn’t stop there either. As Jen’s dream continues to come true and she continued to submit manuscripts, she now has a six book deal with Harlequin.

As mentioned in the beginning, I wanted to ask Jen what it feels like when your dreams come true. I think that often about Olympians. Like Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir winning Olympic gold at 20. So you’ve worked and dreamed for your entire life to achieve this one goal and you’ve achieved it. So now what?

First, Jen told me the whole thing is still surreal, which is not surprising to hear. I mean how could it not be? Jen says that when the book comes out in paperback is when it will really hit her, when she sees her book on the shelves at Walmart, Indigo, Shoppers and more. I can’t wait to see it myself so I can only imagine what it feels like for Jen.

And then she told me something that was the true answer to my question. When your dream comes true, you make a new dream! Jen has always wanted to see her name on the New York Times bestseller list. Well I hope she gets there. If this six book deal is any indication, I think it’s only a matter of time. Go Jen!

Jen and her books

Jen sitting on a pile of her book!

Meteorologist Claire Martin

3 Mar

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Date of lunch:
Saturday, March 2, 2013

The company:
Claire Martin is the senior meteorologist for the CBC. Her background is incredible. She is trained as a meteorologist, not as a television personality and has insisted in her time at CBC that the News Weather Centre be staffed with qualified meteorologists who understand the science behind weather. But her lack of formal training in television presenting has by no means impacted her abilities as an on-air personality. She has been named the “Best Weather Presenter in the World” three times by the International Weather Festival.

The food:
We ate at one of my very favourite restaurants in Toronto, Pizzeria Libretto on Ossington. I honestly dream about this place. I want another pizza right now. Claire had the mushroom pizza and I had the prosciutto pizza and we each had a piece of the other’s. My pizza was awesome as usual, thin crust, tons of prosciutto and a perfect tomato sauce. This is my go-to order. Claire’s mushroom pizza had rosemary and gorgonzola and it was also delicious, especially the bites with the cheese. I had a coffee and we both drank water. Total bill was $40 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
Claire does amazing work outside of the CBC by traveling and educating people about weather all over the world. Working with the UN’s WMO (World Meteorological Organization), she has travelled throughout Africa, to Afghanistan and other locations and met with locals to teach them about the science of weather and prediction and how it can impact farming, how to sort out insurance for crops and more. In her travels, she often comes across many other people like herself. People with valuable skills, taking their vacation time to travel and educate locals (in weather, law, broadcasting, etc.) and help them to succeed on their own. You often hear about the international aid organizations working in developing countries and their work is extremely valuable (Doctors without Borders being one of my personal favourites) but you very rarely hear about these individuals who are making huge impact all over the world.

The lunch:
When I originally outreached to Claire to arrange this lunch, it was a day or two before Toronto’s big snowstorm at the beginning of February. I always notice when a storm like this approaches, everyone becomes obsessed with the weather. Is it a Frakenstorm? What’s a Nor’easter? Will there be thundersnow? (Okay, maybe it’s only me who asks about that as thundersnow is my fave.) Twitter explodes with nicknames for the storm, Instagram images of snow covered roads, buildings and trees and thoughts on whether Toronto will call in the army. Social media has definitely brought increased interest in weather or maybe it has just illustrated an interest that’s been there all along.

And while observing, talking and complaining about weather often seems like a national past time in Canada, the science behind it is incredibly comprehensive. CBC staffs a team of meteorologists, led by Claire, that work every day to analyze and predict weather. Claire told me the amount of data processed daily by the CBC News Weather Centre is more than the data processed daily by a bank. While Environment Canada provides the images of the current weather systems, the CBC team will work together to analyze its path, timing, impact and what it will mean to regular folks just trying to go about their day. This scientific analysis is why Claire wanted to ensure that her team members were trained meteorologists. She also mentioned that there is an art to the flow of weather patterns and the most successful meteorologists have both the scientific credentials and an artistic side.

I have already shown my love for thundersnow but I wanted to know what type of weather is of most interest to Claire. She didn’t even take a second to think about it: hurricanes. She talked about how this is a weather system that all animals feel, there is a smell in the air, its power is all around you and there’s nothing else like it. Although she wasn’t on-site for Sandy, she has traveled to hurricane sites in the past including Katrina and Wilma. She has seen the destruction first hand and saw it coming in what is likely a clearer lens than most people.

And all of this work and travel has led her to understand climate change like few others. Climate is changing and while human behaviour has sped up the change, climate is going to change no matter what. Although there is continued debate about whether the climate is changing or whether its human behaviour that has caused it, Claire thinks the most important question is not necessarily being addressed – how are we adapting to the new climate reality. Claire discussed how condos are creeping closer and closer to the water’s edge in Florida and destroying some of the natural vegetation that is there to help lessen hurricane damage. She even mentioned Brad Pitt building new homes in New Orleans on stilts. Why is a movie actor doing this and not the government? Building higher levies can’t be the only answer because what happens when those levies are breached? Homes need to adapt to the climate realities.

I left this lunch with the continued bit of regret in my belly that I didn’t study meteorology in university. I think about it sometimes because I do geek out about weather and I was no slouch at physics and math. Ah well, at least I’m able to use my lunch blog to step into the shoes of a meteorologist for a brief moment. The work Claire does is even more interesting that I could have imagined.

A new adventure

23 Jan

Now that I have been doing Lunch with Mary for 4 years (p.s. can you believe it?), I have decided to expand into a new adventure. I will continue my regular lunch guest blog posts but I am also excited to start something new.

This year, I am going to start a Lunch with Mary podcast! I am a long-time podcast lover and the storytelling podcasts have grown to be my favourites. My new goal is to create a podcast of those awesome stories that are told over a meal.

Everyone has their go-to story. The story that you know you can always throw down at a dinner party and get a great reaction. I am going to capture these stories.

As I am setting up the logistics of doing a podcast (this is all very new to me having graduated from RTA a decade ago!), I am hoping some of you may have some great stories that you’d love to share (or know someone with a great story who’s open to sharing). Please get in touch with me if you do: lunchwithmary(at)gmail(dot)com

I look forward to sharing the next chapter of Lunch with Mary with all of you!

Farm Radio International Board Member, Journalist and Former Station Manager of Uganda’s Mega FM David Okidi

7 Nov

Lunch with Mary 063

Date of lunch:
Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The company:
David Okidi is a journalist in Northern Uganda and was the station manager at Mega FM, a radio station in the northern Ugandan region of Gulu. He recently joined the board of directors of Farm Radio International. Farm Radio International (FRI) helps African radio broadcasters meet the needs of local small-scale farmers and their families in rural communities. My colleague’s grandfather, George Atkins, former host of the noon farm radio broadcast on CBC for 25 years, founded Farm Radio International in 1979. My colleague and FRI board member, Sarah Andrewes, has spoken to me many times about the organization and when she let me know David Okidi was in town, I asked if she might be able to arrange a lunch for me with David and she helped to set up this meeting.

The food:
In order to be able to work with David’s very tight schedule while he was in Canada, we met for breakfast instead of lunch. We met at La Prep at Bloor and Church. We each had a small coffee and I had a regular croissant and David had a chocolate croissant. I love all croissants and this one was no different. Very delicious mostly due to butter, but also very flaky and messy. Total bill was $7.63 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
David spoke to me about how radio is used as a peace building tool in Uganda. I studied Radio & Television Arts in university and while I saw the value of radio from a Canadian perspective, I never imagined the power and impact it can have in a place like Uganda. The radio station that David managed was in the northern Ugandan region of Gulu, an area at the centre of the civil war and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The government of Uganda passed an amnesty law in 2002 for rebel soldiers, allowing them to return to the community and not face prosecution. This was especially important given that many of the rebels were children who were abducted and forcefully conscripted against their will, while some were born in the rebel camps themselves and knew no other life.

While the amnesty was extremely important, getting the word into the rebel camps was extremely difficult. David’s radio station became the peace building tool, broadcasting information about the amnesty, often at night between 10 and 11 p.m. when rebels were no longer on the move and more likely to be listening to the radio. And rebels began returning to communities, giving up the fight and taking advantage of the amnesty. As more and more rebels left, the rebel commanders banned radios and threatened to burn down Mega FM, David’s radio station. Soldiers were stationed outside the station and the rebels were never able to stop the broadcasts. And because the rebel commanders still had their own radios, the message continued to get out simply through someone overhearing and spreading the word. Radio can be incredibly powerful and it was truly incredibly to hear this story from David who played such a major role.

David let me know that the amnesty law had been renewed annually since 2002 but was unfortunately not renewed in May of this year, now leaving no attractive option for rebels soldiers wishing to leave the fight and return to the community.

The lunch:
Beyond the incredibly powerful role radio played in peace building in Uganda, David’s work with Farm Radio International is also truly amazing. FRI was originally founded to share best practices for small-scale farming. Farming is completely different in these rural communities than what we see here in Canada and many of the techniques that are used for farming here are not at all practical, feasible or affordable in Uganda.

Prior to FRI, farming radio programming in Africa often touted the techniques used by commercial farmers such as pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides. But small-scale rural farmers were unable to afford these materials and the advice was pretty much useless. FRI was able to provide and share tips and techniques across communities, networking the best practices of other farmers so everyone was able to succeed. David was able to explain many of the techniques that are used in his community and by his own mother, a farmer.

While most farmers do not have access to tractors, rather than ploughing a field with a hoe by hand, a ploughing tool pulled by two bulls will reduce the time it takes to finish a field to two days from ten. For livestock farming, neighbours will get together on a community grazing field. They will then rotate days of bringing the animals to the grazing field and supervising the animals while there to ensure they don’t damage nearby crops, which could be very costly. By sharing the supervision, these farmers are able to focus on other aspects of their farms on their off days. Many farm owners also owned plots of land that were quite scattered and they often spent far too much time travelling between the fields rather than working on the land. Neighbours have since gotten together to split the land in a more practical way, caring for the land nearest to their homes and making the work more efficient.

Much of the farming where David lives is for consumption and not exporting. However, he did let me know that there are now huge food markets in South Sudan that local farmers are beginning to supply – a new opportunity for growth. Speaking to David, you hear a story of hope. As communities rebuild from the civil war and former rebel soldiers re-integrate themselves into the community, farming has become an important way of life and Farm Radio International is helping locals teach each other and grow the community as a whole.

Arts & Crafts Record Label President Jeffrey Remedios

29 Sep

Lunch with Mary 062b

Date of lunch:
Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The company:
Jeffrey Remedios is the co-founder and president of Arts & Crafts, a record label and production company. Its first album that really helped to launch the label was 2003’s Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot it in People, still one of my favourite albums of all time. And beyond the record label, Jeffrey is involved with music in all sorts of ways. He sits on the board of CARAS (Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), FACTOR (Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) and others. And one of his most exciting upcoming projects is co-chairing Operanation, a fundraising GALA on October 18th for the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio that combines live performances by COC’s Ensemble Studio singers and contemporary music artists, such as past performers Broken Social Scene and Rufus Wainwright and this year’s just announced The Arkells and Nelly Furtado.

The food:
We ate at Jules Bistro on Spadina just south of Queen. It’s a pretty bustling lunch spot but we met for lunch at 1 p.m. so it calmed down quickly. Both Jeffrey and I had the nicoise salad. It was a pretty tasty, light lunch. Jeffrey also ordered frites but they never arrived, strange. We both drank water and both had an Americano after our meal. Total bill was $44 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
Music has really defined Jeffrey’s life and he has been able to parlay that into an awesome career, starting working the public relations side at a major label and now with his own label. But the most interesting aspect of his love of music is how it’s constantly evolving. A great example of this is Jeffrey’s involvement with Operanation. He admitted that he didn’t know much about opera a few years ago but was invited to attend a previous Operanation. And then Alexander Neef attended a Broken Social Scene concert on the Island a few years back and they became friends. His interest and appreciation for opera grew from there, adding Broken Social Scene to Operanation the next year. I really appreciated how Jeffrey has so many great indie rock acts on his label but is still open and excited to learn about other aspects of music. Made me realize that as we get older, we can get a little stuck in what we like and maybe stop looking around to experience new things, it’s great to see Jeffrey continuing to want to learn and experience more.

The lunch:
For anyone who is reading this and is totally jealous of Jeffrey’s job, he did offer some advice to anyone looking to start their own label. “Have Broken Social Scene be the first band you sign.” For the first three years of the label, they were able to work with Broken Social Scene, their friends and side projects of band members like Feist, Stars and Apostle of Hustle, who have all achieved great success including Feist winning the Polaris Music Prize just this week.

Overall it was just a really great conversation that flowed from start to finish. Maybe it was the discovery at the end of our mutual love for Ira Glass’ This American Life where Jeffrey pointed out the most amazing app I have ever seen… every This American Life podcast ever recorded. No more saving up the new ones for road trips!

We talked a lot about music, obviously. Jeffrey explained how music has really defined his whole life and even as he became interested in other things like politics, he still finds that music defines these other interests.

I recently attended Jian Ghomeshi’s new book launch as the +1 of RAA’s lovely Amy Cole and I think this event was the perfect combination of so many aspects of Canada, music and culture and sort of played out in real time what Jeffrey was talking about. It was a literary event, The Arkells were the “house band,” Jian Ghomeshi joined them on-stage and sang lead, he talked about growing up in 1982 as an Iranian-Canadian and politicians were even in attendance like Olivia Chow and Justin Trudeau. A real combination of so much that is Canada. I asked Jeffrey if he attended as Broken Social Scene members also took the stage. Well he wasn’t there BUT he did help organize it. Of course he did. He really has his hands in a lot of stuff in this city.

I was a little embarrassed when Jeffrey asked me what bands I listen to because I am 1. not the hippest and most up to date on my music and 2. I never remember bands’ names. But I was able to talk to those special songs that as soon as you hear them, you can totally be transported back to a moment in time. Like that first Broken Social Scene album that I listened to the whole way across Canada back on a crazy road trip in 2003 or Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication that transports me right back to the tenth grade.

Hanging out with Jeffrey not only makes you excited about music but also about Toronto, there is so much going on all the time, so much music and so many interesting collaborations. I really need to take better advantage of everything this city has to offer and so should all of you!

A tour of TTC Transit Control with CEO Andy Byford and Transit Control Centre manager Sean Fuller

17 Jul

TTC Transit Control2

Date of tour:
Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tour background:
As a follow-up to my lunch with TTC CEO Andy Byford and my extreme transit nerdiness that was on full display in my post, Andy invited me for a tour of TTC Transit Control. And I obviously took him up on it. TTC Transit Control is located in the D.L Gunn building at the TTC Hillcrest Complex at Bathurst and Davenport. I used to live just south of Dupont on Bathurst and would hear the rumble of streetcars pass my house every night although we weren’t part of the streetcar route. I always assumed they were going to sleep for the night at Hillcrest.

The tour:
I met Andy at the gates where I was signed in and then we walked into the enormous Hillcrest Complex. The facility is much larger than it appears from the street. Andy pointed out the buildings that hold a variety of TTC departments. He then showed the garage that repairs the streetcars. Given that many of these streetcars are quite old, he said the stuff that is done in this facility in order to keep the streetcars on the road is quite amazing. It even has its own blacksmith who makes new parts.

And then we began our walk to the D.L. Gunn building, the home of TTC Transit Control. I was pretty excited. Andy told me about David L. Gunn. David used to hold the same position as Andy does today and is apparently quite a legend around the TTC. Andy says he never goes a day without hearing his name.

When we first entered the facility, you can see a remnant of the old Transit Control.

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This machine did nothing to prepare me for the craziness of the room I was about to walk into.

Have you ever seen Apollo 13? Houston, we have a problem? That room in Houston is a bit like TTC Transit Control Centre, except that TTC Transit Control Centre is 100 times more awesome. You may have seen the room before with CP24’s live transit updates as they broadcast from the room. Unfortunately, pictures are not permitted in the centre for security reasons but they did let me take the one I posted above from the spot where CP24 broadcasts.

Once we walked into the room, we were met by Sean Fuller, the manager of the Transit Control Centre. He is also a former bus, streetcar and subway driver.

At the front of the room, there is a series of large screens that wrap across an entire giant wall. It begins on the left with the Yonge-University-Spadina line, then the Bloor-Danforth line, then the Sheppard line and the Scarborough RT. Facing the wall are tiered rows of desks. Each row has a different responsibility and Sean was able to walk me through each role.

As a big-time commuter, I sometimes do get frustrated with the TTC but once you stand in Transit Control and see the team at work, you get a first-hand look at how massive the system is and become quite impressed with the efficiency.

Sean walked me through the teams that watch each of the subway lines, making sure trains are on time. You can watch each individual train on the subway line and this team knows at what time each of these trains and each of these drivers need to arrive at each station.

I then met the team that sits at the communications desk. This desk handles the @TTCNotices account, as well as all of the announcements on the system regarding delays, shuttle buses, etc. It was interesting to hear how social media has really changed this role. With riders tweeting about service issues and posting photos of accidents and other problems, the communications desk is able to better respond. Although I did not get into it, I can only imagine some of the tweets this team has to sift through.

Another interesting level of Transit Control is the emergency response team. Sean told me how the TTC is the largest referrer to 911, which makes total sense when you think about it. People run into subway stations when something is wrong and report issues to the booth operator, people flag down buses to report a crime or accident and beyond this, buses and streetcars are out on the road all day and often are the first to see accidents as they drive up to them. The operators call Transit Control and this emergency response team connects with 911 and communicates with the rest of the Transit Control team.

Sean also just told me some fun facts. Because it was so hot today, trains had to slow to 40 km/h when outdoors. Subways will go around 80 km/h on a normal day along the Allen Road route. Also on very cold winter days, the subways are all stored end to end underground in the subway system in order to stay warm and away from the elements. On streetcar routes like the one along Roncy where some streetcars turn and others go straight, drivers are able to control which way they head with a lever in front of them that connects with the wires above. Also if you ever notice that trains hold slightly longer at Eglinton Station, it’s because that is the break station. The drivers get out there for a break and there is a driver who all day simply drives from Eglinton to Finch and back and then switches back with the driver when their break is over.

As I was about to leave, there was a Passenger Assistance Alarm used on a southbound train at Wellesley Station. It was incredible to watch this team in action. The reaction was so fast. First the woman watching the YUS line saw the problem, then the communication desk put out the system announcement regarding the delay, then the emergency response team connected with the train and 911 to determine is an emergency response was necessary. I think all of those things happened in under one minute.

This room was built to expand and handle additional lines and staff and will likely grow as the new LRT lines are built. It was a very cool room and seemed like a really neat place to work. I will now totally over-analyze every TTC moment of my commuting life, wondering what is going on at Transit Control.

TTC CEO Andy Byford

5 Jun

Lunch with Mary 061

Date of lunch:
Monday, June 4, 2012

The company:
Andy Byford is the new (as of March 2012) CEO of the TTC, the Toronto Transit Commission. There was definitely a lot of news around Andy’s appointment as his predecessor, Gary Webster, was fired by a vote of the City of Toronto’s executive committee. Andy was already working as COO with Gary and positioned as his likely successor upon his retirement, so it was quite fitting to have Andy immediately take over once Gary was forced out. Now there are many opinions that can be written about how this all went down but that isn’t what this lunch was about. I am an avid transit user, a daily commuter and a big TTC fan (some would say transit nerd) most of the time. I wanted to hear from the CEO himself about what the future holds for the TTC. Prior to joining the TTC, Andy was the COO of Railcorp in Australia and before that he held many positions with the London Underground including line foreman, customer service manager of a station and general manager of customer services of several tube lines. He does not own a car and is very passionate about public transportation.

The food:
We ate at Grano on Yonge, a few blocks north of Davisville and the TTC head office. It’s a very cute Italian restaurant. Andy arrived earlier than me and spoke with the owner Roberto. On our way out, Andy was introduced to Roberto’s nephew who was on a break from his job as a subway driver. They all seemed to be very happy to meet each other and it was pretty cool to see the interaction. I had the fusilli chicken pasta with mushrooms and Andy had the risotto special. We shared a large bottle of sparkling water. My pasta was absolutely delicious and I ate every last bite. Andy said his risotto was very good but his eyes were bigger than his stomach as he was unable to finish. Total bill was $46 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
Andy told me that he has always wanted to work for the TTC. He said he knew that if he ever got the call from Toronto, he would move. He said there are many amazing things about the TTC that Torontonians don’t realize. He was able to point one out to me that I had no idea was unique. Multi-module hubs. Allow me to explain. At stations like Dundas West, Bathurst, Spadina and St. Clair, you can get off the subway and get onto a bus or a streetcar or in Spadina’s case, a different subway line, all within a paid area. Andy let me know that in other cities, including London, you most often have to leave the subway station and walk a block or so to make the transfer. As someone who switches from subway to bus in a pay zone every single day, I had no idea that this was unique but I do love the convenience of it all. So all of you TTC complainers – here’s something to be happy about!

The lunch:
Andy is really excited about his new role and very excited about transforming the TTC. He has a five year plan and he hopes at the end of it, people really look at the TTC and really see the difference and understand and appreciate the improvements. It is a lofty goal.

Andy’s goal is both internal and external. He wants to improve the customers’ experience but he also wants to improve internal processes and employee morale. One of the first things he put together was a document for employees that includes “10 things to think about.” Number 5 on that list is “Delight customers with quick wins.” And you can see one of those quick wins already with the renovated washrooms across the subway line, including the once disgusting facilities at Bloor Station. Although I am still a bit scared to ever go back into those washrooms, I am happy they’ve been improved.

He’s also instituted a daily customer service report that includes objectives across all areas of the TTC that everyone within the TTC must strive to meet and he has identified key performance indicators, things like delivering a punctual subway service and providing easy access to customers with functional elevators and escalators. Every day the service is measured against the objectives. Seems like a good start.

And one day when service did not meet its objectives was Friday, June 1 when Union Station was flooded. Andy was actually travelling on the subway when it happened and his train bypassed Union and took him right to St. Andrews Station. He got off the train and ran over to Union to see what was happening. Incase anyone was wondering, he said the smell was absolutely awful. But he was pretty impressed that it was cleaned up so quickly. Now his focus is on determining why it happened and making sure it doesn’t happen again.

As mentioned above, Andy does not own a car so he rides everywhere on the TTC and he thinks it’s important that he uses the service. He does say it can be a bit uncomfortable when the subway stops underground between stops and all of the other passengers look at him. But otherwise, he said it has been a pretty positive experience.

Andy is very new to Toronto. His wife is a Canadian (from Ottawa like me) so he’s actually been to Toronto quite a few times but he’s just getting into all that the city has to offer, including sports. He’s a die-hard Plymouth Argyle football fan. It’s his hometown and he’s still a season ticket holder, he showed me his card. As such an avid Plymouth fan, he hasn’t yet quite embraced the Toronto FC but he’s very excited to check out a Jays game and is actually really looking forward to watching the Argos (you don’t hear that every day). His enthusiasm for Plymouth and English football has renewed my wish to get to the UK and watch a game, Andy was actually quite insistent that I do. And although he does play for Manchester United, Andy actually doesn’t mind my favourite player Paul Scholes.

There is a lot of exciting stuff happening with transit in this city, not only with the new LRT lines but also Presto passes that will be similar to the Oyster Card in the UK and the Metrolinx rail line to the airport that will connect with the TTC. I am pretty excited about all of it. And I was pretty happy to have a fellow transit nerd to chat with. Now if only we can get people to stop blocking the subway doors at St. George Station every morning.

Luminato Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt

30 May

Lunch with Mary 060

Date of lunch:
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The company:
Jorn Weisbrodt is the artistic director of Luminato. For those who don’t know, Luminato is an arts festival that takes place all across Toronto and encompasses all kinds of art from music and theatre, to dance and visual arts to literature, film and culinary. This year’s festival, the sixth year, begins June 8th and runs until June 17th. There are exhibits and events that will appeal to everyone, no matter how “arty” you may be. The festival also strives to be extremely accessible with most events free and open to the public. Throughout the festival, Jorn will be introducing several performances and exhibits. Jorn is in his first year as artistic director and just moved to Toronto in January. Prior to joining Luminato, Jorn was executive director for RW Work Ltd.in New York City, representing and managing the work of legendary visual artist, theatre and opera director Robert Wilson. Originally from Germany, Jorn studied opera direction in school and has had an incredibly interesting career that has spanned many forms of art with a definite healthy dose of opera.

The food:
We ate at Swish by Han on Wellington. I have never been here for lunch so I was excited to try it out. We each had the bi bim bap – Jorn had his with mushrooms and tofu and I had mine with chicken. The meal started with a soup that reminded me of miso soup but wasn’t. I didn’t love it. However, we both enjoyed our main. The rice got really crispy on the hot bowl and it was delish. Jorn had a cold mint tea and we both finished our meals with espressos. Total bill was $47 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
The lesson came right at the end of the lunch and will seem quite simple but it really was eye opening for me. I would say that when it comes to art, I am mostly a fan of music and dance. I find other forms of art can sometimes be confusing to me as I don’t always “get it”. I gave Jorn a few examples of performance art that I have heard about that I really don’t understand. He just looked at me and said “stop trying to get it”. He explained that it’s not about “getting it”, you don’t need to understand everything and just enjoy it. As someone who always excelled in math class and not so much in art class, I always thought I had to “get it” and everyone else was in on it except for me. It was a relief to hear that, sometimes, “getting it” isn’t the point. I think this will help me enjoy and appreciate art a lot more.

The lunch:
My lunch with Jorn was very lovely. I really enjoyed our conversation. And he got me really excited about Luminato this year. As a new Torontonian, Jorn asked me what I thought about the city. I told him how I just love the feel of the place, there is always stuff going on and people out and about. And it’s things like Luminato that make Toronto such a great place. You can just be strolling down Front Street and without expecting it, walk into a free concert by Jovanotti, a hugely popular Italian rapper. (Put that one in your calendar, sounds awesome). Or something straightforward like eating dinner ends up being so much more during Luminato as the entire preparation and eating of the meal is an art installation by Austrian artist Rainer Prohaska.

I took the opportunity of this lunch to hear firsthand from the artistic director what he was most excited to check out at the festival. As an obvious fan of opera, he is very excited about the staging of “Einstein on the Beach”, a five-hour opera collaboration between Jorn’s former boss Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass. It hasn’t been staged in twenty years and this is the first North American performance outside New York City. Jorn believes this may be the last staging with the involvement of the opera’s creators. According to Jorn, Einstein on the Beach is fun and beautiful, and can be a great intro to opera for a newbie like me.

Jorn is also excited about an exhibit at the ROM by Jorinde Voigt where she has illustrated a series of 32 Beethoven sonatas. He explained that music is an art form that doesn’t have a “place”, it doesn’t exist visually and this artist has managed to capture the music in a series of illustrations. Sounds very cool.

Since I gave away my love for dance, Jorn also recommended Sadeh21, a modern dance performance by Tel Aviv’s acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company. You can check out some snippets of Sadeh21. It looks incredible.

A big part of the Luminato experience is how you just end up being part of an art performance without even planning it. Luminato continues to have a partnership with the TIFF Bell Lightbox and this year, as people are leaving Luminato video screenings, they will walk right into a magic show in the TIFF Bell Lightbox lobby. Who doesn’t love magic?

For two weeks in June, there will be art everywhere. Before speaking with Jorn, I had no idea how much is really going on and how much is free and open to everyone. As a new Torontonian, Jorn was eager to hear from me about places to check out in the city. After leaving our lunch, I felt a bit like a new Torontonian myself with a whole list of things to see and do. Although I love Toronto, it’s been a while since I have felt like this and I’m excited.

Former Mayor of Toronto David Miller

10 May

Lunch with Mary 059

Date of lunch:
Thursday, May 10, 2012

The company:
David Miller is one of the more well-known people I have taken out for lunch. It is a bit strange when everyone in the restaurant recognizes the person you are lunching with. So if you don’t know who David Miller is, he is Toronto’s former mayor. He was our mayor from 2003 to 2010. He was a Toronto city councilor for many years prior to that. In his life post-mayor, David is Counsel, International Business and Sustainability at Aird & Berlis, as well as Future of Cities Global Fellow at Polytechnic Institute of New York University, where he both teaches and assists in developing programs that connect technology and society to solve urban issues.

The food:
We ate at Mercatto on Bay Street. It is a very bustling place at lunchtime. We both had the soup to start, white bean and ham, and then I had a Caesar-like salad and David had the scallop appetizer. The soup was absolutely delicious, David had high praise for his scallops and my salad was pretty average, although very pretty on the plate. We both drank sparkling water. Total bill was $46 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
I asked David what he misses most about being the mayor. His answer was not what I expected. He said for seven years, eight years when you count the campaign, he was forced to be his very best. And he explained there are very few times in your life when you are forced to always be at your best and you start to simply exist at such a productive level. As an avid follower of Toronto city politics, I do see how long the hours can be and, as my lunch experience today taught me, it’s not like the mayor of Toronto can ever really be off the clock. So you’re always on and you’re always working and always working towards something. David said that was the thing he missed the most in the first few months when he was no longer mayor. However, he said he does now enjoy being able to coach his daughter’s soccer team and plan family vacations less than six months in advance and know that he will be able to actually take the vacation.

The lunch:
I was so nervous for this lunch. But as I was waiting for the Yonge subway to head down to Mercatto, I was just hoping for one of the new trains. Ever since the new subway trains started running, I feel like they are my good luck charm. I know I will have a good day if I catch a ride on a new subway. I may have once (transit nerd confession) completely gone out of my way and changed my entire commute just to stay on a new train for a few more stops. But today was not my day, a new train came heading north but alas, my southbound train was an old one.

But as soon as David and I sat down, I let him know how I was really wishing for a new train but didn’t get it. This got us started on Toronto transit. One of my favourite topics and, David let me know, one of the topics everyone wants to speak with him about. I ride transit to work every day and I am relatively positive about the TTC. Being from Ottawa originally, the subway is still impressive to me in how far a distance you can travel in such a short time. But our first transit topic was St. Clair. I live very near St. Clair and I am a HUGE fan of the streetcar right-of-way. It really bothers me when the route is called a disaster when I have seen first hand how great it is – both in terms of travel time and the noticeable improvements in the community.

This point is something that David feels strongly about. When you invest in a community, such as the $100 million investment in St. Clair, the community will benefit. You see it on St. Clair, you see it on Roncesvalles.

And this brought us to the idea of the “Future of Cities”, David’s fellowship at New York University. I asked him if there were other cities that he sees as great models. He did say that revenue-wise, there are models in Europe that simply are not feasible for Toronto, but he does love Berlin. He says it’s just an incredible city with great transit infrastructure, three operas and in general a lot of stuff going on. He says they want to do something and they just do it. I know a couple of fantastic Toronto artists who have moved to Berlin and have fallen in love with the art scene there. Seems like a place that I definitely need to visit.

We also talked about how I was able to set-up my lunch with David. I did it through a simple tweet. I just asked him, in a tweet, if he’d like to have lunch with me for my blog and he replied that he would. And here we are. He spoke about how Twitter has been such a great way for him to have conversations with Torontonians, both when he was mayor and since. I agree that it is a great tool for having access to people that we never used to have access to in the past. I am glad to see people like David Miller using Twitter so enthusiastically.

I left the lunch feeling that the culture of a city cannot be created by the government, such as, for example, a city’s music scene is often something that exists organically within a city on its own. But, and this is me speaking, investment in communities helps to build this organic growth. And, again this is me talking, a city is not a business – it is a mass of people with incredibly diverse needs be they business, cultural, health, employment, social, housing, transit, etc. – and, it should be noted, Toronto is a pretty amazing mass of people. I do love this place and I hope it keeps getting better.

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