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The struggle of virtual life

Can we talk about virtual life? I don’t know about you, but I’m over it. So over it!

We are very lucky if we don’t have to put ourselves in danger doing essential work in-person, yet virtual work has its own special kind of crazy-making.

Few of us in 2017 had even heard of videoconferencing. Then the first work-from-home virtual disaster happened, thanks to a hapless BBC financial reporter and his adorable family.

Now of course with the pandemic, many of us spend all day in virtual life. Working, socializing, schooling, worshipping, yoga takes place virtually at home. Those first few online meetings when Council came back to a full schedule were brutal.

It took me about three months to figure out getting a decent light and a tripod is not for vanity. It’s just far easier for your fellow meeting participants to pay attention when you don’t have a blinding glare across your forehead. At first, none of us had realized the need to be extra-prepared when you no longer have the luxury of moving about council chambers networking and building consensus.

Months later, we successfully debated the entire budget at Council by calling one another and texting back and forth as surprise motions kept pouring in. It's always been my practice to fully read the agenda items of importance, but these days you need to mark it up with a highlighter and draft any questions you want to ask and prepare amendments you want to move in advance. If our Centre-Table clerks sound exasperated at Council or Committee meetings, it's because we politicians submit a lot of very roughly drafted motions. They will ordinarily look over our motions and run over to our desk if they have questions. Now these miracle workers have to call the rest of us at home mid-meeting to correct and wordsmith our rough work. When you hear us shouting thanks to them at the end of a meeting, it’s heartfelt.

Just a word on mishaps. This virtual world is not ideal and we are all just trying to keep the world revolving. I move from virtual meeting to virtual staff check- in to virtual constituency meeting all day long, occasionally turning off the camera to hit the washroom or make another coffee. Hopefully, I remember to mute my microphone during all of those personal moments.

We are all human. I’ve seen a spouse saunter into the background of an online meeting in skimpy pyjamas to rummage through the laundry basket. I’ve heard a toddler go completely berserk in the next room. It’s all part of our less than ideal situation.

Last week was a perfect example of the challenge of virtual life when my colleague Councillor Paula Fletcher voted on the City’s budget while driving. To get to her studio space - set up for streaming a development meeting with her residents - Paula knew she had to arrive earlier than usual. Virtual meetings always start on time - or residents disconnect. Paula also knew residents expect her to vote on the annual budget.

This is the kind of scrambling we have to do as virtual councillors. But we don’t complain because it doesn’t hold a candle to the risks frontline workers face when they go to work in person.

Paula is my dear friend and colleague of many years. She has loyal staff happy to hold her phone to vote and get her safely to where she needs to be for her residents.

I laughed and made a quip or two as Paula drove along last Thursday. It was such a capper to a full year of virtual madness. If you don’t laugh about it once in a while, you will most certainly cry.

Early in the pandemic, my team and I had regular virtual town halls about the COVID-19 response. Nowadays, it seems like one development consultation after another brings us together virtually. Between you and me, I think the development sector is thoroughly enjoying this period of time when they don’t have to hold community consultations in packed school gyms.

You may have noticed that there are suddenly a lot of applications for development coming at us in Don Valley North. If you have attended one of these online consultations, you will probably agree this is where the virtual universe lets us down most.

I find myself at virtual meetings constantly reminding folks the questions they're asking of developers will receive a much different answer if posed to the city planner who's also on the call. It is darn hard for community listeners to keep track of who is answering and what it means to your future in your own neighbourhood. In those meetings, we are all just tiny faces in virtual tiles.

That is why my team and I always offer to meet virtually with smaller, more manageable groups after big virtual consultations. We have a hunch you have 10 more questions after the virtual host says good night. Consequently, I am meeting with as many groups for follow-up as possible.

We have organized virtual meet-ups with condo residents at Singer Court about the very large building application right beside them at 1181 Sheppard Ave. E. More consults are scheduled for neighbourhoods surrounding the development proposal at 630 Finch Ave. E. That needn’t be the end of it, either. All of this virtual strategizing can continue in person when the weather gets warm.

As soon as spring has sprung our cabana tent, coloured Line 4 pink, will pop up in parks again. In summer 2020 when virus transmission was down, we set the tent up one weeknight and one weekend afternoon for every single week. It was getting quite popular by the time the days started getting shorter.

We hope by spring the COVID-19 infection numbers are significantly reduced, as vaccinations ramp up, so you will feel comfortable visiting us in person at your local park. We’ve even had a request to pop up on the private grounds of a condo development. Not a problem for my great team. Have masks and gloves (and hand sanitizer), will travel!

February 25, 2021


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