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(Leeay Aikawa for The Globe and Mail)
(Leeay Aikawa for The Globe and Mail)

It's time I get with the metric system Add to ...





As a Canadian, I am embarrassed to admit I don't know our country's official system of weights and measures.

I have always intended to teach myself the metric system, just as I have always intended to organize my sock drawer and sort through my stacks of old photos. Not now, but some day.

Since Canada began to replace the imperial with the metric system in 1970, I have graduated from high school, obtained a college diploma, earned two university degrees and travelled to four continents. I have learned how to drive a car, speak two foreign languages, program a VCR, use a computer and whip up a batch of wicked chocolate brownies. But learn the metric system? Certainly not. I had other more important things to do.

Who knew I was such a procrastinator? I've been dragging my feet on this matter for almost 40 years. For the record, I haven't tackled my sock drawer or sorted through my photos, either. And here's the most embarrassing part: For two of those 40 years I attended university in France, the very country where the metric system was developed, and yet I made no attempt to learn it while I lived there. I was too busy sitting in cafés, pondering the meaning of life.

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I became a metrically challenged person and plenty of other Canadians are, too. In Canada, the imperial system has never gone away. Even though our road signs are in kilometres and our weather reports are in Celsius, we can still buy meat by the pound and fabric by the yard, and clock the speed of our cars in miles per hour. Just as we have two official languages, sometimes we appear to have two official systems of weights and measures - and not everyone is fluent in both.

Over the years, I have managed to pick up a smattering of metric. I know that a kilogram is a little more than two pounds and a metre is approximately a yard. I'm pretty sure a metric ton is about the same as an imperial ton and I know that the metric hectare has replaced the imperial acre, although I have no idea how to convert one to the other.

Nor do I know how a litre and a quart compare and how many litres are in a gallon. I can't calculate my height in centimetres or fathom distances in kilometres. And I am stumped by recipes and food labels that provide measurements in millilitres and grams instead of in teaspoons, tablespoons, cups and ounces.

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As for the weather, I know that above 30 C the temperature is uncomfortably hot, and below 0 C it's cold, but I haven't a clue about the temperatures in between. I do know that at some point well into the cold range the Celsius and Fahrenheit systems converge, but I couldn't tell you where that point is.

I also know that a formula exists for converting Celsius temperatures to Fahrenheit. But when you have a split second to decide how to dress for the weather before you dash out the door to catch the streetcar to work, who has time to figure out a formula?

I'll admit that being metrically challenged is inconvenient at times, but not enough for me to do anything about it. Consider our country's great imperial neighbour to the south, where you can buy milk by the quart and gas by the gallon and get weather reports in Fahrenheit.

I have read that the United States shares with Myanmar and Liberia the distinction of being the world's only countries that have not officially adopted the metric system. If the most powerful country in the world doesn't use it, why should I?

In the popular imagination, metric doesn't always measure up. Give someone an inch and that person will take a mile, regardless of the metric system. We will still come within an inch of our lives and walk a mile in someone else's shoes, and Shylock will forever demand his pound of flesh.

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But there is no denying that life would be easier if I didn't have to puzzle over the serving size on food labels or wonder if I need to wear a sweater in 16 C weather. I never hesitate to learn other things that will make my life easier, say a shortcut for driving to the cottage or a more user-friendly computer program. Why not the metric system? Thanks to the Internet, the information I need is a mouse click away. The only thing stopping me is my inertia.

No more excuses. If Canada has embraced the most widely used system of measurement in the world, so must I. I am finally going to teach myself the metric system - almost 40 years late, but better late than never.

Sheila Rosenberg lives in Toronto.

Illustration by Leeay Aikawa.

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