I Am Joe’s Blog:

December 31, 2022 • 7:10 PM

The Obligatory End-of-2022 Post

Last year around this time, I wrote a long post here describing why and how my family and I had moved from San Diego to Canada, and in particular, the challenges our special-needs son created for us. I’ve had a lot of inquiries about how we’re doing now, so an update is in order.

tl;dr: We’re fine. It was definitely a good move, which is not to say everything is perfect.

And once again I must point out that what follows is unreasonably long; caveat lector. Only a glutton for punishment would actually read all of it, though I’m sure most people will find a thing or two to nod vigorously about.

 

Let me begin by commenting on my mental health, using (of course) a tech analogy.

My web server has a dashboard with gauges that tell me the current CPU, RAM, and disk usage. When the gauges are below 50%, they’re green; between 50% and 85%, yellow; and over 85%, red. Those colors are a quick indication of how much stress the server is under. It’s fine for the values to be in the red zone for a while when the site’s getting a lot of traffic, and even spike to 100% now and then. But if the gauges are red for long stretches of time, and especially if they’re maxed out for more than a minute or so, I have to take some action to reduce the load or the server’s going to crash. Crashing is very, very bad.

When I was living in San Diego, my metaphorical stress gauge was always in the red zone. On a really good day, it might dip briefly into the yellow zone. But days like that were rare. The baseline of stress was just always worryingly high, and when additional stresses came, I had no way to deal with them. This took an enormous toll on me.

Here in Saskatoon, a bad day means I’m in the yellow zone, with maybe brief spikes into the red zone. A bad day is when someone in the family is sick, or the car breaks down, or we have a plumbing problem, something like that. Bad days happen, of course. But because my baseline of stress here is comfortably under 50%, well into the green zone, I usually have plenty of “system resources” left to deal with those spikes. I am never, ever worried about crashing.

That was pretty much the point of moving here. We wanted to have other resources to draw on—primarily, Morgen’s large extended family—to bolster our waning capacity to cope. Having a much lower cost of living, a larger house, and a yard also help tremendously. And living in a country where we’re not constantly worried about the government imploding is a nice bonus.

So, whatever else may be true of this new life (good, bad, and otherwise), feeling as though I can generally manage to keep it together is huge. As far as our primary objective was concerned: mission accomplished.

 

Life here in Canada is also indisputably better for both of our kids. Soren, our 12-year-old, is doing great in school. He has made several close friends, and they even hang out together at our place from time to time—something we could never accommodate in our tiny San Diego house. He has started playing both clarinet and piano, and is weirdly enthusiastic about both. He can solve a Rubik’s cube in under 28 seconds. He has learned to ski and skate, though he reminds me frequently that he’s not a fan of the cold. He is, however, a big fan of poutine. He’s rarely bored.

Devin, our eight-year-old son, is doing better too. At first he was attending our neighborhood school, which assured us they had the resources and skills to handle him, though as it turned out, not so much. But he transferred to a school for kids with special needs, and he absolutely loves it. He gets the sorts of attention, support, and sensory input he needs there, and he’s actually learning, not just existing. His teacher is hopeful that he’ll soon be able to move on to a program for more advanced kids at another school.

We were also able, after some initial hassles, to get him hooked up with a pediatrician who really knows her stuff and has been able to meet his medical needs much better than our U.S. HMO could. Because doctors here don’t have to work under the restrictions of what health insurance will or won’t cover, they can order any tests or procedures they feel are actually essential for the patient’s health, and as a result, Devin has received treatment that will improve his quality of life but that never would have been suggested under our old health plan.

As for the yelling that I described in some detail last year, well, it still happens, but not constantly. Sometimes there might even be an hour or two of relative quiet. And there have been periods of weeks or months when he’s been generally calmer. It’s still hard to cope with, but not as bad. Think of the difference between being outside on a brutally hot day in direct sunlight versus in the shade.

All the other stuff, like the aggressive and self-injurious behaviors, poor sleep patterns, and being unable to speak, is still there, and still troubling for both him and us. But, I mean, progress is progress. We’re working with his teachers to make 2023 the year of potty training. Wish us luck.

 

On the topic of health, although we have been scrupulously careful and fully vaccinated, the whole family got COVID in September after Devin picked it up at school. A few weeks after we recovered, we all got sick again with a different, unspecified upper respiratory virus that was even worse. Between those two illnesses, we feel like a month or more of our year was erased. And nearly everyone we know has been through something similar. We’ve had other medical things come up this year, too, but nothing serious, and we are incredibly grateful for a health care system that doesn’t zap both a third of every paycheck and our will to live.

 

This past year the economy was rough everywhere. Inflation, ongoing supply chain issues, a temporary surge in gas prices, weird and irritating stuff happening with interest rates and mortgages and investments and so on. All that is as true here as anywhere else. And yet, my prediction before we moved here that our overall cost of living would be vastly lower, and our economic stability much better, turned out to be completely accurate.

To be sure, the low real estate prices in Saskatoon compared to most of Canada were a significant contributing factor. If we were living in Vancouver or Toronto or Montréal, say, we’d be telling a different story. But the point of being here, as opposed to anywhere else in Canada, was to reduce our stress, and not having to worry so much about money is a big part of that.

Even though groceries and gasoline are more expensive here than in California, most things are cheaper, including utilities, most professional services, and even things like car maintenance. But what really delighted me was, of all things, taxes. Conventional wisdom says that taxes in Canada are quite high, and of course as U.S. citizens we also have to file U.S. taxes (though a tax treaty means we’re not actually double-taxed; we end up owing just a little extra to the IRS). But raw top-line tax rates don’t tell the whole story. Depending on your income, dependents, and other factors, taxes can be a lot less here.

We had our accountant prepare a rough draft of our 2022 Canadian and U.S. taxes based on the first 11 months or so of the year, just to get an idea of how much we’ll owe. Long story short, we were pleasantly surprised. Our total taxes, taking everything into account, are way lower than they were in California, and also way lower than I was expecting.

More importantly, I feel like we’re getting an amazing value for those taxes, considering everything from health care to services for city residents. For example, one evening our sewer backed up, and having been through multiple rounds of crazy-expensive sewer repairs in San Diego, all our internal warning bells went off and we were braced for considerable pain. But then I called the city’s 24-hour customer service hotline, and the next morning a highly competent crew came out and cleared the blockage (which turned out to be tree roots) and did a video inspection of the sewer out to the city line in the street—all for free. Just like that.

The health care system, too, takes some getting used to. When we go to the doctor’s office or lab, no one asks us for money. It’s all just…covered. We paid zero for health insurance in 2022, as well as zero in copays. That is all so weird I can’t even wrap my brain around it. At least they let us pay a little bit for prescriptions.

But those sorts of things, and I could offer many more examples, are de rigueur here. People expect a lot of their local, provincial, and federal governments, and my experience so far is that we’re getting our money’s worth.

 

Work (meaning running our business, alt concepts, which publishes Take Control Books) has been a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, our much lower expenses have meant that we don’t need nearly as much monthly income to break even, so on paper, we’re still solidly in the black. On the minus side, our business income took a considerable hit because I had too little time to write, edit, and do various other required business tasks. That means we are WAY far behind on updates and promised improvements to our website. And even though that doesn’t cause immediate cash-flow problems, it does impede our ability to save for college and retirement.

Basically: On a weekday when school is in session, I have a maximum of six quiet, uninterrupted work hours available. Weekends, summers, school holidays, days when I’m sick (or one or both kids are sick), and days when there are appointments or errands that have to be completed during the school day, may have as few as zero available work hours. And that’s just not enough. I can and do squeeze in other work time here and there when conditions permit, but even if I’m not actively on kid duty, I must still be available to intervene in a crisis on a moment’s notice, so actually concentrating on something complex is challenging at best.

I wish I could say there’s a solution to that problem on the horizon, but I don’t foresee one. I’ve tried getting up early and staying up late, but I’m getting too little sleep as it is. Unfortunately, there are no modular tasks that can simply be handed to someone else without a pretty huge investment of time up front to train and explain, and so hiring someone else (or even taking on an unpaid intern) would actually make things worse rather than better. I asked Santa to bring me more time, but there was some miscommunication and all I got was a large jar of herbs.

 

I mentioned a year ago that our family situation makes it nearly impossible to have friends. I’m sorry to say that I’ve made zero new friends in the past year, though it was sort of inevitable under the circumstances. However, I have gotten to spend lots and lots of time with a bunch of family members who are a real joy to be around, and that has helped. On a couple of occasions I cooked a big dinner for a crowd, and that’s something I was never able to do in our previous life.

From time to time, someone babysits so Morgen and I can go on a date. That’s very nice. Still, I long for even a small amount of time that’s not occupied by work or family demands, during which I could socialize, spend time on hobbies, or even just enjoy a few hours of doing nothing at all.

 

It’s impossible for me to distinguish life in Canada from life in Saskatoon. That is to say, my immediate environs affect my perceptions much more than the country as a whole does. So let me say a few words about what that’s like, especially as it compares to life in SoCal.

Even though this is not my first (or second) time living in another country, and not even my first time living in Canada, I had the idea that life here would be more different than it turned out to be. I mean, yes, there’s the weather, about which I have more to say in a moment. But nearly all the day-to-day differences strike me as trivial. To wit:

  • Canadian English is sort of a hybrid of American and British English. American(ish) spellings and pronunciations are predominant, but Canadians insert a u between o and r in such words as behaviour, colour, favour, honour, and neighbour. They also swap the e and r in words like centre, fibre, and litre. The word shovelling has two L’s. (Note: foreshadowing.) Also, restrooms are washrooms, parking garages are parkades, knitted ski caps are tuques, powdered sugar is icing sugar, sneakers are runners, and gutters are eavestroughs.

  • Hardware stores have hardly any Phillips head screws; Robertson (square head) screws are the norm here.

  • We use SI (metric) units here, which is fine, except that people always state their height and weight in feet/inches and pounds, respectively, which seems odd. (There are a few other cases in which imperial units show up—for example, the farmland here is measured in “quarters,” meaning a quarter of a mile on each side, where one quarter is equivalent to 160 acres. It’s also 64.75 hectares, but nobody uses that term.)

  • Auto insurance in this province is not just required but also included with your annual car registration fee. (You can buy extra, private insurance on top of what the province provides, and most people do.)

  • Standalone post offices are uncommon in cities; you see them mostly in small towns. More frequently your local post office is inside a supermarket or pharmacy.

  • Not only are contactless payments ubiquitous, but I can go months at a time without having any use whatsoever for cash. Exception: you have to have a loonie (a one-dollar coin) in your pocket to unlock the shopping carts at the supermarket.

  • People send money to each other, and to businesses, via a national e-transfer system that uses the Interac network. It is ridiculously quick and easy to use, and has no fees. It’s how we pay our plumber, electrician, landscaper, and so on. And, when one of our kids had a school fundraiser, relatives who participated sent us money this way, and then we made a joint purchase online.

  • Speaking of joint purchases, every third business is a cannabis shop. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

  • A “double double” here is a Tim Horton’s coffee with two creams and two sugars. In California, it’s an In-N-Out burger with two patties and two slices of cheese.

  • With Amazon Prime, most purchases probably maybe arrive in a week or two, give or take a week or two.

These kinds of differences, and many others like them, are fun to talk about, but they’re so small and unimportant that they barely register unless I stop to think about them. McDonald’s is still McDonald’s (though they serve poutine here, as do all other fast-food restaurants, because come on). Starbucks is still Starbucks, Walmart is still Walmart, and 7-Eleven is still 7-Eleven.

Here’s what does register: people. You’ve heard all the jokes about how unfailingly polite Canadians are, how they apologize to you when you step on their toes and all that. Let us be perfectly clear that Canada has its fair share of miscreants, ne’er-do-wells, and run-of-the-mill jerks. Nevertheless, I find that the proportion of genuinely nice people here is vastly higher than anywhere else I’ve lived. More often than not, people are friendly and helpful to strangers. Saskatoon motorists stop at crosswalks when someone nearby looks like they might be thinking about crossing in the next five minutes. If your car gets stuck in the snow, half a dozen people materialize out of nowhere to liberate it. (I know; I was one of those people.) The woman next door baked us cookies just to thank us for being good neighbours (see what I did there?), and another neighbour uses his snowblower to clear the driveways and sidewalk for everyone on the block. Halloween was nutso; my kids got far more candy (and compliments) than they ever dreamed possible.

Saskatchewan is sort of the Texas of Canada. (Fun fact: Walk in a straight line due south from Saskatoon and you’ll hit El Paso.) It’s almost as large as Texas (though much more sparsely populated), and there are a lot of farms, ranches, and cowboy hats. A good chunk of the economy is built on fossil fuels. Politically, it’s one of the most conservative places in the country, though just as Texas has Austin (a university town that’s a blue pocket in a deep-red state), Saskatchewan has Saskatoon (a university town that’s a pinkish pocket in a deep-blue province, because in this country, the colour blue is associated with conservatives and the colour red is associated with liberals 🤯).

It would be fair to say that I’m not a fan of the current (extremely conservative) provincial government. If and when I become a Canadian citizen, I will vote accordingly. That said, however, the whole political vibe here just isn’t anything like in the United States. People are, of course, passionate in their views, and in particular, Justin Trudeau’s liberal federal government is not well-liked in this province. But even if you find yourself on the other side of the political fence from your neighbour, you’ll still (for the most part) be civil and respectful toward them, as they will be to you. And although Canadians may be very unhappy about some new law or Supreme Court decision, there’s a lot less at stake here, because of the way the constitution is written. We’re not facing existential threats at every turn.

 

Let’s talk about the weather. We had our first big snowstorm of the year less than a week into November, and several more in rapid succession. By early December, we had some days when the high temperature was –23°C (–9°F), and before long it’ll get down to –40° or colder. We will probably not see our lawn again until April.

This is not what we were accustomed to in coastal southern California. On the other hand, it’s not at all unfamiliar; I grew up in western Pennsylvania and have been driving in snow and ice since I was 16. I have to wear warmer clothing, but it’s really not a big deal.

I like to go for a walk every day, but being outside is not fun when the wind chill is –50°C and you can get frostbite within seconds. So on the coldest and snowiest days, I walk inside on my treadmill. It’s fine. I have also been doing a lot of shovelling, and hey, it’s pretty good cardio.

Everything here is well adapted to cold and snow. The infrastructure was designed to handle it, and everyone is used to it. So, sure, a blizzard might keep most people off the roads for a day or two, but apart from that, pretty much everything functions normally pretty much all the time.

The mention of blizzards, however, reminds me of something that was hard to get used to. The DQ nearest our house, where I have purchased an embarrassing number of Blizzards, is open only seasonally; they closed for the year at the beginning of November. (Other DQ locations in the city are open year-round.) There is no weather condition whatsoever that would make me disinclined to consume frozen dairy products, but now I have to trudge slightly farther to obtain them. Oh yeah, winter life is harsh here.

 

A year in, what baffles me the most is why I was so resistant to the idea of moving to Saskatoon for so long. It’s fine. It’s better than fine. There’s plenty to do, the people are nice, and the cost of living is excellent. My life is significantly better here in a dozen different ways, and maybe slightly worse in two or three. But on the whole, I feel like immigrating to Canada, and moving to Saskatoon specifically, was one of the best decisions of my life. I’m happy to be here.

Maybe 2023 will be the year in which I get caught up on work projects. Maybe Devin will turn another corner and become a bit easier to handle. Maybe we’ll wrap up some important home improvements and get those college and retirement savings accounts into a better zone. Maybe I’ll make some friends. Maybe I’ll increase the frequency of blog posts to, like, twice a year. Or maybe none of that will happen. Maybe we’ll face challenges we couldn’t even imagine. We’ll see what the future holds. But it will be OK, or at least considerably more OK than it would have been in our old life.

Comments

  1. Erika Ensign
    January 7th, 2023 | 3:09 pm

    As a fellow US-Canada immigrant (and word-nerd), this was a delight to read. (Our mutual pal Jason Snell pointed me toward your post.) On a road trip this summer from home (Edmonton, AB) to “back-home” (Madison, WI), we stopped in Saskatoon for only the second time, and as before, I found the city charming as heck. Last time I bought a D&D battle mat at a small gaming store, and this time I had one of the best burgers I’ve ever had (arugula and Sriracha mayo — who knew?!) Any city that can provide both those things is a winner in my book.

    I would definitely love to get “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” (a song we listened to several times on that trip) again next summer just for the hell of it. Even more now that I know it’s been such a swell landing place for you and your family.

    If you’re ever in the other “Austin” (Edmonton) of the other “Texas of the North” (AB), let me know; I’d be thrilled to show off our own little red/orange oasis in this very blue province!

  2. Joe Kissell
    January 7th, 2023 | 3:17 pm

    We were just in Edmonton a few days ago! It was my first time there. We liked what little we had time to see, but some family stuff cut our visit short. Another time, perhaps!

  3. Angela Iezzi
    January 9th, 2023 | 7:08 am

    You are such an eloquent writer!

    I understand, somewhat, your desire to leave California. I lived, for 3 long years, post high school in Pittsburg. Couldn’t wait to “come home”, back to Pennsylvania. Where I have stayed and raised my family.. The only time I have ever been in Canada was with the Social Studies Sojourner Club in high school. At least I can say I got to see some of the beauty of the country. Hope some day to venture north and see more.

    I will keep you informed as best I can through email of our class reunion next year in hopes you will be able to come. Can’t believe we are nearing 40 years post high school! I have espoused the each day is a blessing approach to life more so as the years go by. Time definitely does not stand still does it!

    Many blessing to you and your family in the coming year. All my best to you and yours Joe!

  4. Karen (Govanucci) Linscott
    January 9th, 2023 | 7:45 am

    Happy Birthday to you! Glad to hear things are going in the right direction for you and your family. All the best in the new year — Karen

  5. David Drucker
    January 9th, 2023 | 9:15 am

    Welcome to Canada! We met years ago during on of the last MacWorld Expos (and in the small world department, I know Morgan from her work with The Walden School). We experienced much of what your have described (except for the weather; we moved to Vancouver from Boston in 2005). Yes, there are some adjustments (they were worse back then when there wasn’t much streaming content save a tiny Netflix catalog ) but overall we stand by our decision to do what you did (and I know of only a handful of people who returned to the US after it sunk in that you can get a better quality of life here). Hope you can get up to Vancouver some time, as we love giving tours to friends and family.

  6. Carolann
    January 9th, 2023 | 10:40 am

    Hi Joe, Happy Birthday! You DO have friends you know…maybe not ones who are close enough to grab a coffee or a beer, but that might also be arranged, maybe in the summer. I’m glad to hear that you are all settling in in Saskatoon, I keep up with Morgen on FB, so I know some of what is going on. We’re just a phone call or a chat window away if you ever just want to waste a few minutes of your day.

  7. January 9th, 2023 | 1:41 pm

    @Angela Thanks! I’d love to stay in the loop about the reunion. Thing about California was, I liked the place just fine, but it didn’t have the people I needed. (And the cost of living was too high.) People here thought I was strange for moving from San Diego, and when they asked why, I said, “There just wasn’t enough snow there.” Then they KNEW there was something wrong with me!

    @Karen It always warms my heart to hear from you. Thanks for the kind wishes!

    @David Thanks! I remember you (a little!). We lived in Vancouver from 1998 to 2001. I do hope we’re able to get back for a visit some day, but traveling with Devin is extremely challenging, so we’ll see.

    @Carolann Thanks, and I appreciate your kind thoughts. As I told David, Vancouver is a bit of a hike for us, and Devin can’t fly, so unknown if or when we’ll get back there, but I hope we can do so at some point.

  8. Jeneen
    January 9th, 2023 | 2:28 pm

    Wow, you have seen and been through a lot. I really enjoyed reading your journey and life’s happenings. What a beautiful way to share all you have done and been through. Glad to hear you’re feeling grounded a bit. A place called home. You’re children are blessed to have a father who keeps on going and finds the brighter things. Take care hope to see you at our reunion.

  9. Lex
    January 9th, 2023 | 3:29 pm

    I love your writing and loved this update.

    Maybe this a dopey question, but is there a friend path involving maybe a support group for parents of other special needs kids? So many of our local friends came from relationships we built bonding over kids. I feel like if you can find other special-needs parents, they would understand things in a way others don’t, including things like last-minute cancellations of plans.

  10. Joe Kissell
    January 9th, 2023 | 4:42 pm

    @Jeneen Thanks very much and we’ll see what happens. I have always been far away when past reunions have been held, but it would be great to find out how the past few decades have been for everyone.

    @Lex In fact we have some neighbors here who are part of an informal support group for parents of special-needs kids, and we’ve been invited to hang out with them. The challenge is that basically all interaction with other adults must occur either during school hours or after 8 PM when Devin’s asleep (and here at our house so we’re available when he wakes up in a crisis, a not-uncommon occurrence). We can’t take him anywhere that conversation is expected and babysitting is quite tricky (though not impossible). So, not a dopey idea, it’s just the implementation is very difficult.

  11. Caroline Rose
    January 10th, 2023 | 5:52 pm

    Beautifully written, as usual, Joe! I very much enjoyed reading it. Thanks for posting.

  12. January 10th, 2023 | 6:58 pm

    @Caroline Thanks for your kind words!

  13. Pamela McGinnis
    January 11th, 2023 | 11:57 am

    Happy Birthday, Joe! Enjoyed reading your post. I’m sorry about the hard times, life can be brutal. Finding your way and trying new things is inspiring. I wish you the best in 2023 for you and your family.

  14. Joe Kissell
    January 11th, 2023 | 12:32 pm

    @Pamela Thanks very much!

  15. Snaggy
    January 12th, 2023 | 9:57 am

    Joe! A fantastic read, one that made me smile many times. So glad you are here in Canada and finding it’s a reasonable place to exist. :-)

    Saskatchewan is of course the home planet of our health system… thank you again Tommy Douglas, the greatest Canadian. 🧡

    (The requirement to have a loonie held hostage while you shop is intolerable for this Canuck! Arrrrrrrg! 😤 Luckily, the grocery stores I shop in have now gone back to loonie-free carts.)

    Cheers my friend!

  16. January 12th, 2023 | 10:03 am

    @Snaggy Thanks very much. I’m happy to be here. It’s ironic and sad that the home of the health system is now having so much trouble recruiting and retaining medical professionals…and is flirting with more privatization. Most of the supermarkets around here have loonie-free carts, but not the Superstore that’s a 5-minute walk away.

  17. Walter Willis
    May 2nd, 2023 | 3:23 pm

    Hi Kissel,

    Just seeing this. Sounds like you made a great move. I enjoyed reading this. It’s interesting because I have a couple Canadian employees and they are almost dying to come live in the US.

    It’s funny how the grass is always greener – until you have to mow it! :)

    Take care of yourselves. The Take Control books have been so helpful.

  18. May 3rd, 2023 | 6:51 am

    @Walter You can call me Joe :-). I can’t speak to anyone else’s needs or preferences, but this was definitely the right move for us.

    Glad you’ve found our books helpful.

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