Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saturday Bingo

I am late getting to Ann's room, so she is getting ready for Bingo on her own. Slumped forward in her wheelchair, she is trying to attach the footrests.
"I didn't think you were coming," she says.

"I'm sorry I'm late." I attach the footrests and then ask if she needs anything else before going downstairs to the common room where Bingo is held each Saturday at 2:00.

"I think I should use the washroom," she whispers. Ann, who is in her 90s, has Parkinson's and in addition to robbing her of most of her mobility and sight, this disease is taking away her voice. I have to lean in very close to hear her words. Her hearing is also failing, so conversation is limited.

I wheel her into the washroom and pull down her pants and underwear so she can use the toilet. As she has grown increasingly weak in the last year she has become almost indifferent to the assistance she needs in performing what most of us take for granted as a very private task. I have become accustomed to, but never unaware of, the pale flesh hanging in loose, wrinkled folds on bone-thin legs, the monstrous plastic underpants, the way her legs dangle when she sits on the seat...

After this task is finished, I fix her sparse but silky-soft grey hair into a thin clip at the back of her head, fetch her small purse and we are ready to go down for Bingo.

It is busy today; over a dozen residents, many accompanied by family. I take Ann to her regular place and greet the others at the table - the sharp-witted German lady who plays four cards and watches everyone else's to make sure they don't miss a number, and Mr. D, the other senior I visit on Sundays.

I search through the stack of Bingo cards for Ann's lucky numbers - 8 and 13 and in the upper left hand corner. (I'm not too fussy about the cards I take for myself, but I must have picked right today since I win the first game.)

The man who calls Bingo is a volunteer who has been spending his Saturdays here for years. He has a thick German accent, but enunciates clearly and speaks slowly into the microphone, so everyone hears him. Each game is played in the same order each week, but he never fails to remind us which game we are playing - one line any direction, full card, four corners, little fence around the house...

To play a card for an hour costs only 25 cents, so this is not expensive entertainment. Neither is it fast paced. I keep an eye on Ann's card and point out numbers she misses - but she usually doesn't need my help. As I wait for our numbers to be called, I look around the room.

...A man with and baseball cap on long, greying hair, thick sideburns and a burly chest holds his mother's hand and helps her cover the numbers on her card.

...A woman is sitting beside her elderly mother on the other side of the room. Several times during the hour mother leans toward her and says loudly, "I love you".

"I love you too," her daughter always replies and I always smile to hear them and watch the elderly woman lean toward her daughter with a full, childlike smile and the daughter place her arm around her mother's shoulders.

After the last game has been called, Ann agrees to stay for tea and crackers, so I fetch two cups and a plate of soda crackers and processed cheese from behind the bar. She forgot to put in her lower dentures, but still manages to eat a couple of crackers. She doesn't eat much these days and I don't know how she can afford to lose any more weight, so I am glad to see her eat even this much.

When she is done I take her back upstairs to her room and make sure she is comfortably in her reclining chair before leaving. So many times I have said good-bye to Ann at the end of a visit and wondered if I would ever see her again. She tells me often that she wants to die, and yet her disfigured body refuses to give up. All I can do, today as any other day, is to say good-bye, tell her I will be back next week. She thanks me for taking her to Bingo; I tell her it was my pleasure. It really was.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

getting ready for spring

"So we should start our garden soon," she says.

"What? Winter is just beginning," says he.

"Winter? There is no winter. Look outside, the grass is green. Squirrels are still running around our backyard. I'm sure the trees will be budding soon."

"Stupid climate change."

"That's okay. I bought you a composter." She says this as if composting is the most exciting thing you can do next to hang-gliding off the Peace Tower. "You can put in in the backyard. I'll fill it with my coffee grinds and grapefruit rinds. And then what fun we will have this spring with our lush compost dirt."

And so here he is, on December 20, putting a composter in the backyard. Just in time for the first day of spring.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

give a pig or polar bear this year

There are few things that make me so grumpy or tire me so quickly as shopping. Especially in a mall. Especially in December. If I was to decide to live off the land in some remote cabin, it wouldn't be as much about preserving nature as it would be fleeing big box stores and giant parking lots.

But what is tolerable for 11 months of the year now becomes unbearable. The endless christmas pop bopping distractedly in every store, interrupted for customer announcements or price checks... the crowds of impatient shoppers... the line-ups... the sticky hot feeling of sweat forming on your back when you have three layers of winter clothes on because it is -20 outside but tropically warm in the store...

In case there are any of you out there who share even partially my aversion to all things mall-like in December, but have some people in their lives they would like to give presents to, I have found some solutions you make like.

What's great about these is not only do you avoid the malls (your purchases are mailed right to you or to the recipient), but these are extra warm and fuzzy gifts since they do good things besides just making someone happy.

For example, check out Gifts that Matter, of Plan's Gifts of Hope , both of which suggest things you can buy on behalf some someone to benefit communities around the world - things like seeds for Vietnam or Zimbabwe, a goat for a family in Zambia, or a bee-keeping kit for people in Egypt. These gifts usually come with a certificate and card that you can give to someone - perfect for the person who has everything.

But if you still want a little something to give besides the feel-good of a good cause, World Wildlife Federation has the cutest stuffed toys that you get when you adopt an animal. My mum gave us a panda last year who sits on the bookshelf in the bedroom. The year before I had given her a surprisingly docile and floppy Bengal tiger.

Of course, there are always the on-line stores I have resorted to when looking for that hard-to-find book or cd, and there I can avoid the malls and line-ups too, but this year, since so many of the special people in my life are also scaling back from the consumerism of the season, I'm giving education and livestock. And buying these has made me neither grumpy or tired, in fact I feel pretty good. Rather unusual for a post-shopping trip.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

did it work?

The question has been asked - has pushing the bones back together actually worked?

I'd say the answer is mixed. If we are actually dealing with a Grade 3 (see images showing the gradations of AC separation) - a sign of which is the raised bump on the shoulder - then I am not so sure that simply pushing on my bones is going to fix this. As perhaps is understandable, I have lost some faith in my physio. I would really like to get a second opinion.

Admittedly, after she pushed on my shoulder, it did seem to fall a bit lower (it had been noticeably higher). Also, while with my left hand I can reach behind my back up to my shoulder blades, with my right I could not get past my waist. Now I can force my hand halfway up my back. It's not pretty, it's not painless, but supposedly is a sign that things are on the mend.

I don't know how long it will be before I am back to normal however. But at least I can study, write papers and exams and read... that's about all I have time for these days anyway.

Thanks for the concern!

I'm paying for this?

Did you know that you can shift the position of your bones by pushing on them? Apparently you can - it's been done to me.

That migraine I wrote about in September was actually a misdiagnosed pinched nerve - which explains the jerking of my arm and the tingling in my fingers. I went to a physiotherapist who diagnosed me with thoracic outlet syndrome, which is basically a pinching of nerves from compression of bones or ligaments around the spine. The physio's solution for this was to manipulate my shoulder by pressing, tugging, turning, taping... to open it up so it would stop pinching the nerve that weaves through these bones. In three painful sessions she tried to shove my shoulder into "the right place".

Physiotherapy is not only painful, but expensive, so after a few of these sessions I told her that I would work on the exercises she gave me and perhaps come back to see her in a few months. On our last session she used super-tape to pull my shoulder down.

Foolishly I went to a yoga class that night, with my taped up shoulder freshly raw from the physio's pummeling. Half-way through the class I was unable to lift my arm above my head or support any weight with it.

That was almost 2 months ago. Since then I have been in almost constant pain - often it seems like hot knife blades are stabbing my shoulder. The weight of my small purse is too much for that shoulder. Reaching back to put my arms in the sleeves of my jacket is torturous.

But I went to 2 doctors, one of which told me (and I kid you not, I am quoting here) "Sit down and shut up... I don't care about your pain." Another one said it was a rotator cuff injury and to come back in 6 months if I still had pain. Sigh.

And I sit around getting fat since even going for a walk is too jarring. Yoga is out of the question, as are any of the other fitness classes I was doing. Dropped out of curling. No to volleyball invitations...

I was reluctant to go back to the physio who did this to me in the first place, but yesterday I finally went to see her, figuring that at least she knows my history and may listen to me...

So it turns out that she had been successful in pulling down my shoulder. Problem is - the collarbone didn't go with. She now thinks I have a separated shoulder - yup, that's the kind of injury that sidelines pro football players.

See where the clavicle is supposed to touch your shoulder? Well, mine doesn't. It's sticking up like there is marble tucked under the skin of my shoulder. Technically, I have an acromioclavicular joint separation, or AC separation.

The brilliant solution? Push them back together! I'm not kidding, I lay on my left side while she pushed on that painful tip of clavicle that's poking up. She alternated this with ultrasound to try and keep the swelling down.

Yes, first she pulls my bones apart, now she is pushing them back together.

And I'm paying for this??

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

handy knits

I began knitting about two years ago and have always seen it as a little nerdy. I defend it adamantly and call it my yoga, but admit that it may not be the hippest thing around.

So it was nice to discover that other people seem to enjoy something I knit.

I first made myself a pair of funky fingerless mitts about a year ago and found them so useful and cozy. They were great for fall and spring weather, and even in the winter I put them over another pair of mitts to keep my hands extra warm.

In September a friend of mine complained of cold hands after curling for a few hours, I lent her these mitts and she didn't take them off for the rest of the night. The next day she was wearing them again and I insisted she keep them - it was nice to see something I made being enjoyed by someone else.

I made myself another pair, but gave those to a friend on her birthday in November - they warmed her hands and showed off her lovely manicure.

The mitt shown in the photo above is of my latest pair, a thick, warm set of blended wools. Now that is quite chilly out, I've been wearing them everywhere - and have been picking up compliments... so I've decided to see if I can go into business. I'm going to make up little business cards and next time someone asks where I got my mitts, I can pass them a card and tell them I take orders. $25 a pair, of $15 if they want to provide the wool. I've already set up an email account at where I can take order - handy.knit.

So if you know of anyone who has cold hands and likes some funky handmade handy knits... pass this on.

(above photo is of a winning scrabble game and the first of these mitts I made)

Monday, November 06, 2006


No time to blog these days.

There are balls to chase, socks to fetch, kibbles to eat... a nap to be had by the fireplace.

And there are those darn feathers to catch.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

back to school

I am aware that my blogs all over the place - birds to headaches to pirates... this reflects my life. I swing between topics, between passions, between jobs and crises. I'm constantly coming up with new projects - many of which fall by the wayside as new ones take their place.

It was partly because of this swinging, this tendency to have too many irons in my weak fire, that I decided to narrow my focus for the next couple of years.

Each September, as leaves turn gold and red, the breeze chilly, I would turn envious of the students going back to school. Even in my university years, I never got over the thrill of starting a fresh notebook - knowing it would fill with ideas and knowledge. I loved that sense of a new beginning.

I thought I had had my fill of school when I finished in 2000. But every fall I would be looking at university programs, considering schools to apply for. I did LSAT trial tests, I studied course outlines...

And so I'm back. Last week I started the masters program in Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University here in Ottawa. It's exciting to be back in school, even though I am at times overwhelmed by the amount of reading I have to wade though. Conflict studies is not, as I sometimes joke, about learning how to box or fight. It's a bit of a misnomer really - what I'm doing is studying conflict resolution. This is a new field and there still aren't many texts, so a lot of our reading is cobbled together from various sources. But it's exciting to be in a field that is still developing - and developing with a sense of urgency as international conflicts affect everyone in the global village.

It looks like it's going to be a really interesting fall - not just for the class work, but also for the classmates I'm studying with. There is a soldier from Tanzania who was highly trained in the military but had a change of heart while stationed at a refugee camp - he realized that war is what had made these people homeless and displaced. There is a girl from Burundi who wants to understand how two groups of people (Tutsi and Hutu) who have so much in common could grow to hate each other so much. There is also a beautiful girl from Somalia and a young man from Ukraine - both of whom want to apply their studies to conflicts in their own countries. The Canadians come from a wide variety of backgrounds - sociology, psychology, political science and humanities.

At St. Paul's I am surrounded by professors and students who are all interested in resolving conflict and bringing solutions for peace to their sphere of influence, however small. As much as I might moan about my readings and assignments in the coming months, I really don't think I could ask for a better place to be.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Avast maties!


International Talk Like a Pirate Day it be. Ye wenches and landlubbers, all hands on deck.

Be ye lustin' to spout stories of yer bucanneerin' fame? Boast o' yer booty? Well me hearties, today is the day.

Raise yer mug o' grog and drink to the wealth o' the seas, the beauty of wenches and the victuals in yer galleys.

But avast, perhaps ye be in need of some instructioning. Refer to this here site for hearty tips from hearty men.

Or ye jezebels, ye might tire o' knot-tyin. Then tis time to knit. Make straight fer

And me handsom' laddies out there... how'd you like to scrape the barnacles off of me rudder?

More on


Thursday, September 14, 2006

at least it's better than the alternatives

So I have apparently experienced my first migraine. As I explained to the TeleHealth nurse over the phone, then to the triage nurse in the ER, then to the first nurse to see me after waiting over an hour, then to the two doctors who subsequently saw me - what started as a headache in the early evening turned into excruciating pain which woke me around 1 a.m.

In the next half hour, I think I took 800mg of Advil - 400 of which was liquid gels. But steel claws were gripping my temples and the pain went all the way to my toes. Dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing, tingling sensation... I had the works.

I woke V around 1:30 and that's when he phoned TeleHealth. I felt like I was dying, but the nurse still made me give my address, postal code, telephone number, date of birth, etc before asking about my symptoms. She recommended I go to an emergency. "Do you understand my recommendation?" she asked.

"Yes," I breathed.

"Will you go to the emergency?"


I thought I would throw up or pass out on the drive there, but the cool breeze from a window open onto a rainy night helped a little. There was still a vice grip on my head and now my right arm and leg had started twitching and shaking. By the time we got to emergency, my right hand felt like it was asleep (and it hasn't completely woken up since).

Emergency wards are such dreary places. Not at all the drama of tv's ER. A nonplussed triage nurse took my blood pressure and temperature, asked me a few questions and told me I was "textbook". Whatever that means.

The room was large and harshly lit. Most of the rows of chairs had curved bars between each seat which prevented lying down. But after an elderly couple left, V and I were able to get the only 4 seats without where I could lie my shuddering body down with my head on his lap. Fear Factor was playing loudly from the tv suspended from the ceiling. Doors opened and closed, people walked or shuffled by. We waited.

It was about 4:00 a.m. by the time they called me into a small examination room. So close to another room, I heard every detail of the complaint from the woman in the room next to mine. She had come in because she was concerned by a blood pressure reading of 175 and likely waited as long as I did only to get told that in the emergency ward they really aren't going to do anything for you if it's still under 210.

The 800 mg of Advil were finally taking some effect and my headache came in waves instead of the unbearable pressure. I was expecting to be similarly dismissed. As usually happens when I start to recover after complaining a great deal, I feel sheepish and almost guilty that the pain is no longer so severe, my symptoms no longer intense.

But the first nurse to see, a young man with a non-hurried, gentle manner, listened carefully and then fetched me a hot blanket to try and stop my shaking. Another 20 minutes or so later - which I spent lying on a too-short exam table in a narrow room with cold bare walls around and neon lights above - a young female doctor came in. Immediately she asked if I would like the lights dimmed. Thank you!

I was starting to feel like a warped record, but she listened carefully, asked quite a few questions, checked my reflexes, my neck, my head, sensation in my hands, my grip, etc... She seemed uncertain so she fetched the attending. He was a short man with a huge grey beard and closely cropped grey hair (by this time I was finally opening my eyes). He checked my balance, my eyes, my hands, etc. I was impressed with the concern both he and the young woman still hovering nearby showed.

They consulted with each other and after awhile the young doctor came back to tell me I was free to go. It is not uncommon for women in their 30s to start developing migraines. Now I just need to figure out the triggers. What sucks is that besides trying to guess the triggers, there is little I can do. But still, I was relieved with this diagnosis since it was better than the other possibilities they had been checking for - like a stroke or meningitis.

We got home around 5:30 in the morning. If it was summer, the sun would have been coming up. The headache was fading and pure fatigue was taking its place. V deserves a medal for sitting up all night with me - and still getting up for work in the morning.

As for me, I'm just laying low today. My mind is dulled with sleepiness and the lingering ache between my temples. Outside it's a grey, cold rainy day. If I can stay awake I will try to make a dent in the masses of reading I now have as a grad student...

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

for the birds

Check out that bird!

This is the coolest thing - a couple of creative people have created the site - and they will make you a bird of your own if you replace at least one of the lightbulbs in your house with a compact flourescent (CFL).

If you scroll around the bird page, you will see my bird there with the others - mouse over it and you'll see my name.

What I love about this - not just that I get my own bird - but that there are people out there putting themselves out to try and encourage others to make small changes for our environment. As their site says about Rosemary, the artist, she "would reduce atmospheric CO2 with her bare hands, if only she had magic hands."

I know that desire to have magic hands. Sometimes it seems as if my own hands are so powerless. But it encourages me when I see others with small hands doing big things.

If you would like a bird, check out their site and then post a comment so others can see your bird too. Each little bit helps to reduce pollution - and make the air cleaner for us and for the birds.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Saint John, NB, Act II, Scene 3

"Psst, can I tell you someting?

"There is this guy I really like... He brought me out here to Saint John... pretty city, really - despite the drifting stink from the pulp mill. And you guys have the biggest seagulls I've ever seen...

"Anyway, this guy, he's really cute.

"Have you ever been in love? Why do you sit here all day staring out at the harbour? Did your love run off with a sailor? Are you in love with a lobster fisher?

"Oh, shhh! Here he comes!"

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Grand Manan, NB

"This whale watching is for the birds. Nothing to see but sea.

"Wait... What's that? A whale?



Monday, August 07, 2006

Saint John, New Brunswick

"Excuse me, sir. When is the next ferry?

"We are stuck in Saint John. I need to get out of here. Soon.

"My girlfriend, she don't like the smell of the sea.

"Please don't stare at her. She is very shy.

"Sir, please. Don't stare.

"You're scaring me sir.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

crafts & knitting

This collection of bold-coloured knits is my long overdue donation to the Red Cross.

Last March I responded to a post for volunteer knitters. The Red Cross provided the wool, which I was to turn into things that could be used in shelters and hospitals.

With such colours as I was given, it was hard to be inspired. But it was fun trying different patterns of mittens and toques, even though some were utter failures - like a toque the size of tea cozy!

I still have some wool left - and a few thumb-less mittens lying around. (Attaching the thumb is my least favourite part). But as we are cleaning house and getting ready to move, I have finally bundled this all up and will drop it off at the Red Cross today. Will they remember who I am? Will they be disappointed with my sad offering?

I have admittedly become a bit of a knitting junkie. One of the reasons I decided to volunteer knit was that I could get all this free wool and have someone to knit for. My own scarf basket is already overflowing.

But in our recent heat wave, it has been hard to pick up the heavy mohair poncho I am currently working on. Still, on Sunday evening I convinced a friend of mine to go with me to a craft and bingo night. It wasn't an easy sell... "Um, we'll do crafts and play bingo. And there will be d.j.... and it's in a gallery".

She is sweet and said she'd give it a try. She brought a craft she has had lying around for a few years - a picture frame and seashells she collected in Peru. I brought my mohair poncho. We didn't know what to expect and were prepared to leave early.

The event was a blast! Held in a funky downtown gallery - whose current exhibit is titled 'The Museum of Bad Art' - it was cool and hip and all the things you wouldn't expect crafting to be. It was bad art indeed that hung on the wall - reminiscent of pictures found in elementary school hallways or amateur art schools. But this was freeing and humourous. Art felt accessible and fun.

The crafts we had brought were quickly abandoned as we were invited to make our own bad art. Canvases were provided, as were heaps of craft supplies. It was like being at summer camp. We rummaged through buttons, crayons, paint, play-dough, glitter! and sequins. There was fabric, lots of glue, old photos, magazines... And with our only objective being to create bad art, we let our imaginations wild.

While we made bad art - and mine truly is bad - (The lady beside me said it reminded her of scrambled eggs and hash browns) a man named the Chinadoll, wearing denim drag and a hat like a pineapple perched on his head, called out bingo numbers and a d.j. put out funky disco beats. Chinadoll would interrupt his calls every so often to do some impromptu karaoke.

Who knew the craft crowd could be so hip? As a knitting junkie, I have new hope.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

on the bright side...

It is sweltering in Ottawa these days. Trying to work in this sticky heat is like trying to push boulders through sludge. So as the current heat wave nears record levels, our energy consumption soars. When I open the windows at night to try and get some cool air, all around I hear the whir of air conditioners. And even though I hate doing it, we've had to turn ours on a few times.

It's not on the coldest days of the year that we burn the most fuel, it's on the hottest. The government optimistically says it hopes to avoid rolling black outs, but if the heat continues, I don't think we should be surprised if we exhaust the energy grid.

Gloom and doom. I'm just finishing Jared Diamond's Collapse - and if I wasn't already depressed about the state of the environment and global warming, I certainly am now. We are not only exhausting our energy sources, we are destroying our forests, our oceans, our air, our water, etc...

But this is why, in the middle of all this pessimism, when we find something to cheer about we should make sure to cheer extra loud.

Stopped at our local Loeb grocery store on the way home Sunday night. A small sign on the door said the store was reducing its energy consumption by using only half the interiour lights. Not only is this great news from the environmental perspective, but it was also much more pleasant to shop under gentle lighting - instead of the usual harsh glare of grocery and department stores.

Wouldn't it be great if more stores adopted a similar policy? Switched to energy saving bulbs and turned off half their lights? Sometimes I feel like my small measures of turning off lights, recycling garbage or washing dishes by hand become worthless compared to the big box stores with 24-hour bright lights and overflowing garbage bins.

So I wrote to the Loeb today. Raised a little hurrah and congratulated them. I hope that they make this a permanent decision. I hope other stores follow suit. And I hope we all cheer them on when they do.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

something nice each day

'Treat others as you would have them treat you.' It's an adage I was raised on.

We were taught early on to be nice to each other. We learned that rude and selfish behaviour is punished, good deeds are praised.

I can recall specific instances when I thought, 'that is how I want to treat other people' - such as a woman I met who loved to bake and always made extra. She would give the extra loaves, buns or cakes to whomever happened to be around - guests, neighbours, her friends or her children's friends. She also had a way of asking questions and listening, really listening to what you said in reply.

I have friends in town who, when I was struggling to make ends meet, would take me out for dinner or a drink and insist they pay. Their generosity was humbling, but appreciated.

I have been inspired by people who give of themselves, and their possessions, selflessly. Also by those who do those few extra little things to make you feel really welcome, really appreciated. Although I know I fail, I could say that I am always trying to live in a way that is more generous and considerate of others.

So it was a bit of a shock when I was told to stop focusing on others and try to do something nice for myself. I am seeing a psychiatrist who has a no nonsense approach and seems to see her job as shattering all my assumptions.

"If you were to write me a cheque for 1 million dollars to feed all the hungry people, that would be very nice," she said. "I'm sure it would make you feel very good.

"But if I tried to cash that cheque, it would bounce. You don't have a million dollars."

"You can't give to others what you don't have."

She said she honours my intentions to help others. But she wants me to learn to help myself. She asked me what I do for myself that is kind. What do I give to myself?

Not an easy question to answer.

She has challenged me to do one nice thing for myself each day. Treat myself as if I were my own friend, a friend who was struggling though some tough times and needed some extra kindness. Is it strange that it's only when I think of treating myself as someone else that I get ideas of what nice thing to do?

She wants to see my list next time I visit her. A list of something nice each day.

So on Tuesday I went to Bridgehead to get a coffee on the way to the office. But instead of taking it to go, I asked for it in a mug then sat in the coffee shop, looking over work notes and planning my day instead of rushing in to it. That was nice.

Yesterday I finished most of my work in time to make popcorn and watch France beat Portugal at the World Cup finals. That was very nice. (-:

Today.... well, it's early. I'm still working on it.

For anyone reading this, I invite you to join me in this challenge.

Let's treat ourselves the way we want others to treat us.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

lapses (& Bingo)

Isn't it odd? The longer there is a silence, the harder it is to fill. Like sitting beside a stranger in a small room. If you don't make conversation quickly, it becomes almost impossible to do so the more that time goes by.

I keep waiting for something profound to happen in my life that I could write about. Or perhaps come across some interesting news item. A funny story to tell... But days pass and the silence is harder to drown out.

What to say? I played Bingo today at the seniors' centre. Usually my elderly friend has another friend who takes her down to Bingo each Saturday. Today her regular Bingo partner couldn't make it and called to see if I could fill in.

She was waiting when I arrived, her teeth on her lap. Without them she looks 50 years older and I was worried she was having a bad day. But she insisted she was up for it. A few minutes later, teeth in and $0.50 in hand, she was ready to go.

I found her two lucky cards - one with the 8, the other with the 13 in the top left corner. (For myself I chose two with 11 in that spot - figured I would either double my luck, or un-luck that way.) My friend seldom wins, but faith in her cards is unshaken.

Perhaps it was these cards (though I'd like to think I brought her luck today) - she won a game. I called out Bingo! for her since today she could barely raise her voice above a whisper. I don't think I've ever won a game of Bingo in my life, so it was nice to get to shout it out.

Afterward we had tea, crackers and cubes of cheddar cheese. I saw her looking at the snack dispenser nearby and asked her if she wanted anything. We both agreed that Mars bars are much too sweet. She likes Oh Henry!, but there weren't any. I suggested M&Ms, since they are easily shared. "No," she said. "I don't want to put on weight" - coming from a woman practically paralyzed with Parkinson's who is in her 93rd year, the idea that she still worries about her weight makes me laugh with pleasure. How tightly we hold on to our ideals of self, despite everything. That she is still concerned about gaining weight tells me she has not given up all hope yet, no matter what she may say some days.

I'm sure there are feminists who would be appalled to hear that an elderly, wheelchair-bound woman is still concerned about such idealized vanities as a slim form. But I love that she still thinks about her figure - though masked under plastic underpants and ill-fitting dresses. I love that she is trying to grow out her hair, so white and fine it is a like a thin gauze on her pink scalp.

I wonder what things I will still be worrying about if I should be so lucky, or un-lucky, to live to 92.

Monday, May 29, 2006

statistical blunders

I have not written much lately. Nor have I read much, exercised much, ate much or slept much. Who knew when I took the job with Statistics Canada that it would become so consuming?

Census 2006 was 13 days ago, so one would think we would be wrapping up our work and congratulating each other on a job well done. Not quite.

I have been working in the part of Census that deals with collectives - which is any dwelling where several people live together and share some facilities, such as hotels, nursing homes, group homes, convents and rooming houses. I have about 150 collectives which I am responsible for - in the west end of Ottawa and in a few towns north-west of the city.

Obviously we couldn't be everywhere on May 16th - and in fact the enumerators working for me have a schedule they are to follow which tells them on what days they should be enumerating each type of collectives. And this is where the mind-boggling logic of the Census process really shines.

For example, on Census Day we were supposed to enumerate every rooming house in our listing (which is my case was 14). But unlike nursing homes, hospitals and group homes where we only need to know the gender, date of birth and room number of each resident - people living in rooming houses were expected to complete a long census form. If any of you have every completed a long census questionnaire, you know that it asks very personal questions about employment, health, and income. And if any of you have spent much time in rooming houses you may also know that this is not a segment of the population who would want to tell a nosy government rep about such things.

Trying to contact residents of rooming houses (the most transient population after hotels) and then get them to fill out a lengthy form has gone beyond being frustrating. It borders on com├ędie noire.

True, we do get the occasional person willing to cooperate. One of my enumerators, a pretty young woman with a friendly face and manner, got stuck for over half an hour with a man recently out of jail. While not wanting to answer her questions, he wanted to keep her in his company as long as possible. I interviwed an elderly man who suffered a stroke in March and was equally grateful to have some company.

And as frustrating as the process is, the experience is sobering. We knock on rickety doors in dirty hallways of run-down buildings, meet people fighting to eke out a living, and others who have given up and resigned themselves to television and cigarettes in a small room on a noisy street. I am embarrassed for my intrusion.

In other collectives though, we get a much different welcome. "I felt like a rock star," said one of my enumerators. He went to a seniors residence where a table had been set up so he could enumerate the residents. They didn't wait for him to get settled before they crowded around him, calling out their names and room numbers. Some even returned to his table several times, having forgotten that they just completed the form 10 minutes ago.

I was scolded at one seniors home for not being there sooner. Again, in the baffling logic of the process, nursing homes - which are the most eager to be counted - were not to be contacted until after the 16th. By the afternoon of the 16th - when media across the city was telling the public they could go to jail for not completing their Census forms - we had dozens of homes across Ottawa phoning all the way to head office at StatsCan asking why they had been over-looked. The first week after Census was filled with commands to drop everything and go enumerate a particular home. Squeaky wheel gets the grease and I was, according to my boss, the grease. How flattering.

It's been a hectic, scattered project that continually teeters of the brink of complete chaos. "You will never be on top of everything," my manager tells me. Perhaps my desk will never get clear. Perhaps I will never find my way down from this mountain of paperwork.

Yet for all the stress, it is fascinating to have a chance to peek behind the curtains of so many lives. And when you spend your days collecting information on those whose residence is decided not by choice but by disability, failed health and poverty, you realize again just how lucky you are.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Crisis in Nepal

On Thursday evening I went to a meeting held by a newly formed organization called Canada Nepal Solidarity for Peace. It is a group formed by human rights workers, Canadian and Nepali, who are working to raise awareness of the on-going crisis in Nepal.

The photo here shows Nepalis celebrating the King Gyanendra's promise to restore democracy. While his announcement was certainly cause for celebration, many fear it is little more than words since he has not given up any of his power nor his control over the army.

Millions of Nepalis have participated in pro-democracy demonstrations and general strikes across the country calling for an end to Gyanendra's autocracy. Police and army have responded with bullets and tear gas. At the presentation on Thursday I saw photos of people who had been shot in the back while fleeing the police, as well as photos of people being beaten, dragged and killed.

Having grown up in Nepal, these images were shocking and very sobering. Although I have been vaguely aware of the situation, followed what little I could find in newspapers, I have not realized the gravity of the situations. Hospitals are overflowing with injured, while many others cannot afford treatment. Jails are over crowed with people arrested for participating in demonstrations. Thousands of them are injured and denied treatment. Amnesty International claims Nepal has the highest rate in the world of disappearances.

Yet even all these facts and statistics don't convey the situation. As so often in the face of such news, I feel helpless and discouraged. However, as was often mentioned at the meeting, the Nepali people have come together in a way that would never have been anticipated ten years ago - people from all professions, ethnic groups and castes marching together in solidarity. Women's groups are finding a new voice. And finally the world seems to be paying attention.

Although after September 11, 2001, Gyanendra declared the Maoist political party as terrorists and received $42 million worth of weapons, troop training and helicopters from the USA. That's not the kind of world attention the Nepali people need. International pressure is needed to urge the King to surrender power back to the people in the form of democratic parliament.

I have not in any way done this issue justice in my short blog. If you'd like more information, you can read Nepali online media such as You can also lobby your government to support Nepali political parties in forming a constituent assembly and re-writing the constitution. (Currently the King has veto power over Parliament and directly controls the army.)

I will post new developments on this situation as I become aware of them.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A fan no more, Rick Mercer

So Rick Mercer walks into a bar.

That's not the beginning of a joke. On Thursday night I was in the hip little Elgin Street Freehouse with V when Rick Mercer walked in. Mercer, for those who don't know, is a comedy star in Canada. So popular in fact that in a recent poll 1 per cent of Canadians said he should be the next Prime Minister.

Rick Mercer walking into the bar - how cool is that? I don't remember what V and I had been talking about before he came in. After he was there all we talked about is ways I could get a photo of him on the cellphone camera, or what I would say to him if I could work up the courage to go over to where he stood at the end of the bar chatting with a couple of men.

I didn't want to just go up and say, "I think you're so cool, Rick Mercer. You're such a funny man." Then I remembered the newspaper poll. There's a conversation starter. He's always going on about politics on his weekly 'Mercer Report'. I'm sure he'd have something witty to say if I mention this to him.

My nerves twitching, I take the bill up to the bar and use this as a chance to stand beside Mercer.

"Mr. Mercer," I say. He turns and holds out his hand, which I shake.

"Nice to see you again," he says.

"Oh, we haven't met before. My name's Anita."

"You're sure we haven't met?"

"Absolutely. But I guess I have a dobbelganger out there." The waitress gives me the receipt to sign and Mercer interrupts her to order drinks for the two young guys sitting at the bar who he just introduced himself to.

"Did you hear that 1 per cent of Canadians think you should be the next Prime Minister," I say to Mercer. He mutters something in return.

"I think that's great," I add. "Did you read about that in the Globe and Mail."

"I did."

"What did you think?" Here's where he'll say something really funny, I'm thinking. I've set him up perfectly.

"Buzz off." Mercer says.

I'm so shocked I give a stupid smile and mess up my signature on the bill.

"That's right, buzz off," he says and turns his back to me, turns back to the young men.

I was crushed. Perhaps he thought I was a reporter under cover, some gossip columnist hoping he'd trash talk Harper or claim rights to the Liberal Party. But I was just a fan trying to make conversation.

A fan no longer. Mercer, you stink.

Take that.

Monday, April 17, 2006

book too hot for minister to handle

Not long ago I wrote about the Conservative government axing the environmental One-Tonne-Challenge program. Fifteen Kyoto research programs have also been cut. But it's not just programs being felled. People who say - or write - the wrong thing are being silenced too.

Mark Tushingham, a writer and scientist with Environment Canada, has written a science fiction novel called Hotter than Hell. It presents a scenario in which global warming has advanced and Canada and the US go to war over water resources.

Apparently this is not the kind of bedside reading Environment Minister Rona Ambrose wants people to know about - perhaps since her government is busy cutting environmental protection measures and building treaties with the US which gives them increasing access to our natural resources. So Minister Ambrose shut down the book's promotion event.

Just before Tushingham was supposed to speak at a book launch in Ottawa he got an email from the minister's office warning him not to attend. Officially, he had not followed proper protocol.

Minister Ambrose claimed there was "concern" that since Tushingham works for Environment Canada people may think he is a "government representative" - even though promotional materials for his book just described him as an Ottawa scientist.

If this doesn't raise concerns about censorship, I don't what does.

I've been on a letter writing kick lately. Perhaps I should drop a line to Minister Ambrose. Will her government be trying to silence others who write about potential consequences of irresponsible management of our environment? Will she be screening other book launches in the city? Or only those for books written by government employees? There are a lot of public servants in this city - should they all abandon any writing aspirations for fear that their topic of choice may offend the new government? The new government, I may add, which just passed whistle-blower legislation and has promised more transparency and accountability.

For more info:
cbc coverage
Toronto Star story

Saturday, April 15, 2006

botanical gardens

Last weekend we went to Montreal and visited the botanical gardens. Here are some of the photos V and I took.

Part of the exhibit was "Butterflies Go Free". This Heliconius hecale was so intent on sucking nectar he did not mind me taking his photo.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

a new challenge

The new Conservative government has abruptly dropped funding the One Tonne Challenge, an environmental initiative aimed at getting individuals to moderate their energy consumption.

Sure, the program had its critics. Rick Mercer's commercials - 'com'on, we're Canadian. We're up for a challenge' - may have seemed a little hokey. But individuals and communities across Canada have been signing up. If nothing else, this campaign has emphasized that everyone has a role to play in fighting global warming.

Forty communities received funding through this program to "engage their citizens in greenhouse gas reduction". The EcoAction Community Funding Program also funded environmental projects by non-profit, NGOs like Equiterre. A Google Search on One-Tonne Challenge will bring up sites for these Challenge projects in cities and communities across Canada: Toronto, Regina, Halifax, Waterloo, Whistler... Now all these projects are being axed. Felled like a clear-cut forest.

I admit, I have not done all I could have in the One-Tonne Challenge. I jumped on the band wagon a year ago - even sent out a challenge to all my friends and tried to get a pool going as an extra incentive to join ( I had intended to get everyone to do their second count last September and find our winner.

But here were are in April 2006 and I never did ask people for their second tally. After reading the news of One-Tonne's funding cut, I thought I would send around the site again and get people to quickly count their emissions before the government site goes down.

Too late. The site is already down. I must say, the Conservative government can move quickly.

So apologies to those who responded to my challenge last March. I should have gotten back to you sooner.

But it looks like we have a new challenge now: keeping our government from backtracking on the steps we were taking toward a cleaner environment.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

dog tales

It's been a dog's age since I last wrote. Juggling 3 jobs, plus various other commitments, has proved to be quite time-consuming. It is actually rather invigorating to have to keep so many balls in the air, but by the end of the day I'm exhausted. My daytimer is becoming indispensable as I plan days in advance to try and squeeze everything in.

But of all the things I had to do in the last few weeks, dog-sitting seemed to be the one thing that at times I thought would be the straw on the proverbial camel's back. When the alarm went off at 6:28 each morning, when my hectic schedule had to take doggy bladders into account, I nearly regretted my promises.

And yet, there is something about being greeted by a happy dog - with wagging tail and excited whimpers - that is pretty nice to come home to.

This is Vera - her head cocked to the side in the way she had of looking at me, as if she hoped to find just the right angle so she could understand my human speech. She would also give me this head-tilt at various times as if to say, 'Come on, aren't we going to do that thing? You know, the thing?' Problem was, I could never quite figure out what 'thing' she was referring to.

I lived at Vera's house for 9 days - got up with her early each morning to take her for a walk along a wooded trail at the end of the street. Part retriever, she loved to carry a stick in her mouth on her walks. Once she found a stick she particularly liked in the park, brought it home, and left it (reluctantly) by the door. When we left that afternoon for another walk, she picked it up and carried it to the park. She left it at the edge of the trail, but picked it back up for the walk home. She did the same thing the next morning and for the rest of our walks.

And this is handsome Chester, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. He's an old man - more than 11 now. He's as tall as my waist, but completely gentle. He doesn't bark when I come to his door, just welcomes me with slobbery kisses.

Chester could easily be the alpha dog on the dog run in the park. The current alpha dog of one pack slinks into the trees and tiptoes away when she sees Chester coming. Other dogs freeze in their tracks and stare in horror and the huge beast lumbering toward them.

But he lopes on by, often not even bothering to stop for the customary butt-sniffing. He is real suck for treats though and if he sees another dog-owner handing them out he will get in there and refuse to leave unsatisfied. He will also adopt the last treat-giver as his new best friend and follow that person like a fawning puppy. The only way I could get him to come back to me was to entice him with treats from my (now smelly) coat pocket.

I took Chester for a walk this afternoon - and that is the last of my doggy duties. These last weeks have reminded me of the commitment needed to get a pet - certainly something I am not willing to take on fulltime right now, no matter how much fun I had with Vera and Chester. I will even admit that once I got out of bed, I actually enjoyed our early morning walks with a companion so easy to please. But it is lovely to be back in my own bed again with that extra half-hour of much anticipated rest.

Friday, March 10, 2006

it never rains...

Not that long ago I was scrounging for employment wherever I could find it. I started doing the Multiple Sclerosis Read-a-Thon presentations. I took care of a demanding disabled woman in her home. I went back to the restaurant I had worked in years ago. I dog sat for the neighbours.

One of the dogs I looked after was Vera. Her owner was so happy to find someone available (and likely ridiculously cheap since I had no idea what going rates are but now suspect they are more then $20 a day) that she booked me months ago to watch Vera over March break.

She contacted me last week, asking if I was still available. I'm no longer in her neighbourhood and considered saying no, but I hate to leave people in the lurch or turn down opportunities. I said I'd be happy to.

Her friend and owner of the huge yet friendly ridgeback Chester then called to see if I could also look after him the next two weekends. Well since I'm already back in the neighbourhood... why not?

My old landlords, also going away for March break, asked me to look after their cats. Bring 'em on, I said. The more the merrier.

I give you this story because it not only will make for a very pet-filled upcoming week, but also because it is indicative of the rest of my life.

I have gone from struggling to fill my time and make ends meet to wondering how I will juggle all the commitments I have.

In February I started a part-time job managing a web site. Also in February I finally got paid for a communications contract I was given months before - and was asked if I can do more work for them. I'd love to, I said.

Then I was called by the house manager British High Commission. (Around Christmas I had worked a few events for him - basic serving in a super-classy environment.) He wanted to book me for upcoming events in March.

Around this time I also got the call from said dog-owners.

I got an email reminding me that the next round of Read-a-Thons I had agreed to do begins March 27th. (At least I won't still have the dogs then.)

And THEN I got offered a full-time supervisory position with Statistics Canada for the upcoming census.

So now instead of lying awake at night wondering how to stay afloat, I itemize in my head. Take the dog for a walk at 7:00, then have to be at Stats at 8:30, be back to walk dogs at 5:00. On the morning I'm in at the office for the web job, I have to leave a bit early to be at the High Commission at 12:00. I'll have to find a way to beg off Stats for the other lunch I must work. Then the Read-a-Thon begins!!

Somewhere in there I also have to move the last of my stuff out of my old apartment. And then we were going to rip up the carpet and put in laminate....

It never rains till it pours.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

$ missing, $ taxed

I had that sinking feeling today. A panic that started slowly, but steadily grew.

My wallet was missing.

At least a dozen times I rifled through my shoulder bag, as if somehow I would find in it's pockets something I had not seen on the 11 other searches. I did the same thing with my jacket pockets. The floor of the closet. The floor of my car. The floor underneath the heap of clothes in the bedroom. I even opened kitchen cupboards (I tend to throw my wallet into my grocery bag, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect that it might turn up in the crisper).

But I was not so lucky. The panic grew.

Retracing my steps, I remembered that I went out on Sunday night for dinner with V and a friend he had just driven back from Toronto with. Although our friend generously picked up the tab, I know I had taken my wallet with me. With shaking hands, I looked up the restaurant in the phonebook and left them a hopeful message.

In order to take my mind of things, while waiting for his call back I did my tax return. I had money on the brain anyway, so it seemed appropriate. I've also realized in recent years that there is really no need to strain myself doing taxes. No matter how precise I think I may be, no matter how carefully I enter each amount on each slip, add and subract the various lines - my work is always corrected by some unknown employee of Revenue Canada. Why even bother? Each year I am tempted to simply scrawl a few random numbers on the form, toss it and all my receipts into the envelope and mail it in. Knowing they will redo it anyway takes away any incentive to get it right.

So with half my mind still running over where else my wallet might be, the other half placed a few numbers here and there on various forms and schedules. (Why schedules? It's not a time sheet.) The phone call from the restaurant came just as I was filling in the last lines.

"Unfortunately," he said, "... we do have your wallet."

"I was just teasing you." I twittered a nervous laugh.

So the story ends happily after all. I got my wallet back. And I got my taxes done.

Friday, February 24, 2006

espresso dating

Have you heard about this one? Starbucks has teamed up with Yahoo! Personals in what they call 'Espresso Dating'.

The site includes a dating guide and dating suggestions - and stories of success: i.e. "lingered over lattes... got married in April"!

I tell you, if I didn't have such lovely date myself, I'd be tempted to join - if nothing else then for the $10 Starbucks card you get just for signing up! Even if the dates suck, I'd have at least 5 grande coffees or a couple of fancy lattes.

Yet even the promise of free coffee may not be enough to lead me to cast on-line for my chances at true love. I've always been one to despair about Internet personals - although I do know several people for whom it's worked out quite well.

I did, briefly, put myself up on lavalife. There were a few things I found strange about it: first, it seemed to create a false perception that there were hundreds of matches for me. Scrolling through the photos is like walking up to a buffet table the length of a football field. All this, just for me!!! But all these options actually make people pretty darn picky. You walk past the bagels, which on a regular day you quite enjoy, because you're sure there is smoked salmon and brie farther along. When you meet people in a human setting, such as at a house party, you are one of perhaps a dozen 'options' in the room and actually score a better chance of connecting with someone than when you are one option in a thousand.

The other thing I noticed about online dating - and this leads from the last point about the sheer size of it all - is that it encourages arbitrary criteria. So I'd search for men between the ages of 30 - 35, who were over 5'9" but under 6'2". I could even choose if I wanted someone who was interested in having kids yet didn't have any, who had an income over a certain amount and who lived within a certain radius of my home. Interestingly, V had a lava profile on line at the same time as I and yet in our searches we never came across each other since our ages 'don't match'.

I did get a few hits on my lava profile. A man in Niagara asked if I wanted to meet for a date, but I considered the 6 hour drive a little much. A man in his 50s, with the tag line 'I'm ready!' sent me his photo. (Did it take him 50 years to get ready for dating?) I had one awkward coffee date with man who had lied about his height and his weight.

But to be honest, I found that having a profile up there - while at first an exciting for all the suggested possibilities - was just another source of discouragement. Perhaps for some people, those photogenic ones with a knack for writing witty intros - it's a great ego boost. But for others like me it can just be one more place you feel like you are being sized up, compared to the multitudes of others, and in some way found lacking.

But my profile has been off-line for almost a year now. Thanks to an offer to sub in for a basketball game, I met someone the old fashioned way. And it was even Valentine's Day - so when both of us were willing to go for drinks with the team after the game, it was pretty clear neither of us had someone to hurry home to... and here we are, one year later.

If I had been dependent on lava, I may be dating someone who is the right height, age and proximity to me - yet not the uniquely right match for me as V is.

Monday, February 13, 2006

great canadian wins

It's nice to be able to be patriotic and a couch potato at the same time. Seldom are such opportunities afforded. Fortunately, with Olympics being shown almost around the clock on television, I can cheer for Canadian athletes while sitting on the couch and knitting the day away.

Well, to be honest, I don't actually cheer. I've never been much for yelling at a television. But I'm thinking 'Com'on Christopher, don't let that Korean duo get by you! Skate, Cindy! Skate!'

Admittedly, I know almost nothing about any of these sports (luge, anyone?), but the athletes make it all looks so easy that I can be forgiven for thinking I simply can encourage them to just go that little bit faster, smoother, higher...

Canada has managed two medals so far - both earned by young women from Western Canada. (And the Canadian women's hockey team absolutely pummeled their opponents 16-0 & 12-0!!) I know I have nothing to do with their wins, but somehow their triumph makes me happy. Odd isn't it, how we identify with things so beyond ourselves. I guess that's what patriotism is, or cheering for your team or your local gal. You take on this athlete or team as an extension of yourself, and somehow their wins, or losses, reflect back on you. This has always puzzled me, but this weekend I decided not to worry so much about the psychology behind it and just root on our Canadian team.

But there is one win this weekend that I do feel personally proud of. After a tight race, a come-from-behind shocker and a back-and-forth struggle for the lead.... I managed to pull off a 288-269 win against V in Scrabble. Oh sweet victory!

Here is photo proof. I'm holding the 2 extra points from V.

Okay, you may find a questionable word there - but in my defense I did think it was legit. And V did not contend it. Anyway, I let him have ghats and dis.

You may also notice the stylin' fingerless glove I have on - I had finished it that day. (Watching racing makes me knit faster.) I finished its mate on Sunday.

So all in all it was quite a successful weekend. Sometimes you have to coat-tail on the victories of others. Sometimes you have to celebrate your own small ones: a finished knitting project and (finally) a Scrabble win over my brainy love.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Is this a steak I see before me?

When the doctor's office calls to say you need to come in to discuss your blood work, it's not such a good feeling.

I gave up 4 vials of blood last week - and then on Monday the doctor's office called. She wanted to book an appointment Thursday or Friday to discuss the results.

A feeling of dread. I've never had problems show up in my blood before. Do I have some A serious illness?? I tried not to fret, but there was a dark shadow on my thoughts.

I only recently got a family doctor. Never had one before. This is all very new to me. She actually seems to care about my health, my general well-being. She remembers my name and things I told her on prior visits. She is also no-nonsense and old-school. I have a feeling she would not suffer fools - in her patients or her friends. I like this about her.

"I am assuming something about you," she said as she sat down across from me in her sunny, little office. "You don't eat beef, do you?"

"No, I don't."

She then showed me my blood counts for iron and B12. "Maybe if I show you the numbers, you'll start eating sensibly," she said. Iron should be over 110 - mine is 40. B12 should be 150, mine is half that. These numbers were circled on the print-out of my lab results, like errors on an exam.

I told her that red meat makes me sick and I usually throw it up. She said she had never heard of any medical reason for that. She didn't deny that I might throw up from eating red meat, but she had never heard of a loss of enzymes that wouldn't enable me to digest it. "But I always say I don't know very much," she said with a modest laugh. (I have the feeling she knows very much indeed.) She said the medical field is so vast, that each person can only know a little bit of it.

But, as for me, she wants me to go on iron and B12 supplements and get my blood tested again in 3 months.

Supplements I bought on my way home. Can't wait to start the iron ones tomorrow. The National Institute of Health's Dietary Supplement Fact sheet lists "side effects such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, dark colored stools, and/or abdominal distress". Well hopefully if I can get my iron up quickly so I can stop taking them. But what's this? 3 1/2 ounces of chicken liver has 70% of my daily intake. Love that chicken liver.

I should maybe state here for the record that I have been a mostly vegetarian for years. I'm learning to eat chicken and fish, but I like my them disguised by plenty of spice. I also have a real problem with the texture of meat and can't shake the image of chewing through what was once living flesh.

Yet it seems I am paying the price for my squeamishness. Both iron and B12 deficiency are caused by lack in diet of meat, fish and dairy products.

Still, the B12 lack doesn't seem so serious. Although the NIH Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet warns that B12 deficiency can lead to "anemia and dementia". And I should really try to avoid that dementia thing. There is hope though: 3 ounces of mollusks have 84.1 micrograms of B12 - which is 1400% of my recommended daily intake. Skip the supplements and had over the mollusks.

Is it time to reconsider a vegetarian diet? Am I destined to become a meat eater?

I'll let you know in 3 months.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

one very bad school

Yesterday I did my last presentation for the MS Read-a-Thon winter tour. Thank goodness it was the last and not the first. It almost was enough to scare me off public schools forever.

It had actually been slotted in for the 18th of January. But the presentation was cancelled - not once but twice - due to freezing rain. This was perhaps an omen I should have heeded.

I arrive about 15 minutes before the 1 o'clock scheduled time. The office receptionist tells me to go to Mrs. M's classroom - which is dark and empty. Luckily public school gyms are always easy to find, so I go in and set up my stuff.

After about 10 minutes a lady comes and introduces herself as a volunteer who is going to help with the Read-a-Thon. That's nice, I say. She asks what I'll be doing in the gym and I tell her about the assembly.

"You're brave," she says.

"Why?" I ask. So naively, so confidently, I tell her that I've done assemblies with up to 600 kids. I don't expect the 300 at this school to be a problem. Again, I am not heeding the warnings.

The volunteer then disappears and I do not see her again.

It is now one o'clock and the gym is empty. I go back to Mrs. M's classroom. She is just coming in from outside and suggests I tell the volunteer lady to get an announcement made that the assembly will start. But volunteer lady has disappeared. I wander around the school looking for her till I see teachers bringing students to the gym.

The classes trickle in. A teacher wearing sweats and a t-shirt thinks to take chairs out from beneath the stage for teachers to sit on - something which is usually done before I arrive. But he doesn't want to bother pulling out the whole rack of chairs. He tries to yank out just one chair, but it won't come. So he pulls the rack partly out and tries again. The chair still won't come. Cursing under his breath, he labourisouly bends down to pull the rack out.

I guess he realizes at this point it would be rude to take just one for himself, so he tosses a few others out. No one comes to help - so I take some from him. He does not acknowledge me except to push chairs toward me, scraping them along the gym floor like fingers on a chalk board.

By now the gym is filling up with children and their excited voices. Three little girls in the front row are lying on their bellies, kicking and squirming like frying bacon. Older students are slouched against the far wall.

Mrs. M and her grade-one class are among the last to arrive. It is now about 1:15. At last it seems everyone is here, so she stands in front of the rowdy assembly and without fully quieting them or getting their attention, she says something about Mrs. Grace from the MS Society here to talk to us about Multiple Sclerosis and Reading. She smiles at me and sits down.

I begin as I always do - 'Hello, my name is Anita Grace and I'm here to talk to you about 3 things: Multiple Sclerosis, Reading and how MS and Reading fit together.' Then I lead into my attention-grabbing intro: a rainstorm. "But first of all. It's kind of funny weather today isn't it. Sort of raining, sort of snowing. You know what I think...'

But before I can say that I think we could make a rainstorm inside which might stop it from raining outside, a boy shouts out, "It's foggy!" The rest of the assembly erupts into giggles, laughter and chatter. And they won't stop. I try again, "Well, you know what I think..." But instead of quieting down to hear me, they are getting louder. I try sshh-ing them. No go. I try raising my hand - the age-old quiet down sign. About half the kids raise theirs, the others are lost in conversation and laughter.

I look over to Mrs. M. She comes toward me. Without thinking I blurt out, "They are really bad!" Then I apologize; say I shouldn't have said that out loud.

"Boys and girls," she shouts and finally they hush. "This is not how we behave here. Now I expect you to sit quietly and listen to Mrs. Grace."

She hands them back to me with an apologetic smile. Trying not to let my frustration show, I tell the kids I'll start over and that I will give them one chance to make noise. They make the noisiest rainstorm I have yet heard.

But for the rest of the presentation, they remain inattentive and disruptive. It takes everything I have to keep a happy tone in my voice and a smile on my face. Many time I have to stop my talk just to quiet the worst of them. When I resume talking I can still hear a buzz of whispers. When I ask questions, some kids will raise their hands, but many others will simply shout out answers. I try to still pick the kids with raised hands to talk.

"But that's what I was going to say," a kid shouts at me.

Sometimes, to reward a quiet child with his or her hand up, I ask if there is a question. But these questions rarely have to do with my topic. One girl talks about her mom breaking her collarbone. One boy tells me he has a scar on his forehead. Another boy, with a comic expression and wild hand gestures, asks what's up with God if he is letting stuff like this happen.

"That's a hard question to answer," I say and for the hundredth time try to rein in their attention. By now I am just trying to get through this without entirely losing my cool. When I finally say all I need to, I ask if there are any last questions. But the kids are so loud I can't hear the quiet voice of whatever child I indicated. I give up. Shouting above their racket, I thank them for having me in to speak to them. "If you have any questions you can come and see me... Thank you and happy reading!" I do not say, as I usually would, that they had been a great audience.

Neither Mrs. M or any teacher gets up to thank me. I turn to get my materials together and find myself surrounded by children. The first little boy, with shy stammering and several false starts, tells me he has asthma before slipping away, replaced by 15 or more kids vying for my attention. They literally have me backed up against the stage.

"Are we all going to get prizes?"
"How do you get MS?"
"Someone in my class wants to know - do you have MS?"
"When do we get the prize posters?"
"I'm reading the 5th Harry Potter book."
"Is MS serious?"
"I have a scar on my tummy."
"Can I count a book I am already reading?"
"Your friend Tracy, is that her first name or her last name? Because there is a Tracy who is the author of Pokemon books."
"How many of your friends were born in the 20th century?"

No teacher comes to call the kids away. By the time I have heard from the last one and suggested he go back to class, the gym is empty. No volunteer. No Mrs. M. Again, I go to her classroom - taking the materials she had not yet collected or asked for.

"I'm so sorry about the kids!" she says. "I was so embarrassed. They aren't usually like that."

I'm sure. Anyway, here's your stuff. Thanks for nothing.

Ok - I don't say that, but I am thinking it. I give her the things and leave. As I am signing out in the office, another teacher apologizes for the students, saying they had been unusually bad.

Well thanks for stepping in and helping me out.

I had noticed, while up there like a clown on a dunk seat, that the teachers were mostly young and indifferent - as if they had long ago given up on trying to control these kids who could go to hell in a hand basket for all they cared. A few other teachers were older, middle-aged and large. One man, with pudgy hands clasped around a protruding belly, had old-fashioned coke-bottle thick glasses. He seemed as uninterested in his class as they were in him.

Oddly enough, as I am leaving I notice that on the other side of the playground is the Catholic school that had been one of my favourite schools this trip. There the principal drew her kids attention by holding a rainstick. The students had been attentive, eager and polite throughout my talk.

If I ever had to choose which of these two schools to send my kids to, I think I just found a good reason to convert.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Some people, when stressed, get ulcers. Others get stomach aches or headaches. I get a sore throat. A killer sore throat. The kind that wakes me up in night because it hurts too much to swallow. The kind that make the back of my mouth bright, angry red and has me constantly drinking fluids, sucking on cough drops or mints .... In short, the kind of sore throat really not convenient to have when doing multiple presentations each day.

I started this morning at 8:30 with an assembly of 600 kids. While I wasn't exactly shouting, I had to get my voice all the way to the back of a very large gym. I think it cracked at least 3 times during that presentation alone. From there it was a race to the next school, then a race to another, and another. I was sucking on lozenges between each school, sipping water during the video part of my presentation - and praying that my voice would get me through the day. Thankfully, it did, and now I'm home drinking hot water with honey, ginger and lemon. Aaaaahhh.

I only have 2 more schools tomorrow, then 2 on Monday. While I sincerely enjoy doing this Read-a-Thon tour, it will definitely be nice to be done.

And as it would work out, this was supposed to be my last week at the restaurant I quit, but when I called today to check that I was still on the schedule for tonight - it turned out I was not. So no more of that. Curling up with a book and a hot toddy tonight.

I did want to mention in particular one school I stopped at this week. It was on Monday - in the evening actually, after all the kids had gone home - a little school in my neighborhood. There was a bright yellow sign on the door - a cirle with an X in the middle. Voting station.

I was in Spain the last time we had a federal election, I think in Europe the time before that - so it's been awhile. And I think this is the first time I've actually voted for a candidate who won my riding. With our archaic first-past-the post voting system, unless your vote goes to the winner, it is basically worthless. Well, not completely - after the last election it was determined that each party receiving over 2% of votes will annually get $1.75 per vote. That's how much your vote is worth if it wasn't for the winner. It's not worthless. It's worth $1.75.

We have another minority government - and, if patterns repeat themselves we will likely be back at the polls in 18 months. But I am actually not displeased with the outcome of this election. I think minority governments, while perhaps less effectual in producing laws and passing bills, demand more cooperation among parties and prevent the kind of radical policy changes many Canadians fear.

Newspapers, radio and tv are still full of political talk. Being in the capital, we probably get an even greater share. It is a very political town - we had the highest voter turn out of any major city. 74%. Sad that is our highest, but still glad that we had at least that much interest.

Anyway, enough rambling about politics... there are better informed opinions out there on the web. My 2 cents is really only worth... well, $1.75.

Monday, January 23, 2006

kids, MS & reading

For two weeks, in school gymnasiums across Eastern Ontario, I am up in front large groups of kids talking about the Multiple Sclerosis Read-a-Thon. 15 schools down, 14 more to go.

My job is to get kids informed about MS and excited about joining the read-a-thon fundraiser. It's a great cause and a lot of fun, even if I am losing my voice.

Today I had a grades-7 & 8 group, then a country school of 110 kids in grades 5 - 6. The older the kids are, the harder it is to get them hyped. It is so not cool to show you like reading.

My favourite schools are those where I have rows of kindergarten and grade 1's sitting right in front of me. To start off my talk I get them snapping their fingers, stomping their feet, then clapping their hands to make a rainstorm. They love it. It's also a great way for me to get their attention and lead into how our brains send messages to our hands to make them clap, or feet to make them stomp, etc...

But when you're in grade 7, you're way too cool to make a rainstorm. Luckily a teacher I talked to in a staff room at the second school gave me a suggestion that worked as well as the rainstorm for my segue- and was cool enough for pre-teens. She suggested I do a clap-back: I clapped a brief rhythm and the kids clapped it back. They responded well - and were dead on in their clapping. I felt like I'd been given the inside track to this school and the rest of the presentation went really well. It's easy to spot who are the 'cool kids' in a class. It feels like a real accomplishment to get them participating. At the first school I had this morning I had no such inside track and could tell I had not made it in to being cool in their eyes. I was not deemed worthy of much attention or interest.

Before I started doing these MS RATs, I never thought much too much about the differences from one school to the next. But each year I visit about 50 schools (Jan, Mar & Oct) and there can be huge differences from one school to the next. The age of the building doesn't seem to be factor - old schools can be more dynamic and high-energy then some new, big schools. Rural schools are definitely more white, but some country kids seem keen, kind and less cool-obsessed. But then others are sullen and miserable. I remember one small town school where the teachers had no control of the students and stood with arms crossed and bored expressions throughout my talk. They made it very clear that they were frustrated about being stuck in this town lost somewhere between Cornwall and Ottawa. Their actions and tone of voice communicated this negativity to their students - who of course responded in kind. I could have stood on my head and juggled flames with my bare feet and I still wouldn't have drawn a smile.

I never know what to expect when I'm heading in to a new school. Some inner-city schools are bitter and run-down. Some are great - teachers giving all they have to give these kids a decent shot at life.

I visited one school in the poor east-end of Ottawa last week. It was day of freezing rain and one school had already cancelled on me; I wasn't sure what kind of reception I would get here. Approaching the school, I noticed all the low-income rentals, the shabby duplexes, the run-down apartments. "Most of the fund-raising we do is just for the school," one of the teachers told me in the staff room.

But can I tell you that those kids were the some of the keenest I have met? After I had shown a little video about the RAT, I asked the kids if that looked hard to do. 'No!' they shouted back.

"Do you think you can do that?" I asked.

"Yes!!" they cried. I knew they didn't come from money and that their parents wouldn't be pleased to be asked for a few more dollars, so I emphasized reading over raising cash. But it was really touching to see the kids who have so little be so eager to help others. Wish I could say there was the same positive response in some of the richer schools I've talked at.

It's an old saying, but it seems so true that those who have the least always seem to give the most.

I don't know what kind of school is waiting for me tomorrow. Will my city suburbs school be the rainbow of nationalities I love to see? Will the teachers be keen or tired and grumpy? Will I be able to hold the attention of the youngest for the whole half-hour? Will my voice hold out? (It cracked a few times today - something which perhaps won me sympathy from the adolescent boys.) This is all a little draining at time, but when it works - when the kids are with me, laughing and participating - when I seem to be able to communicate at least the basics about MS and the importance of helping fight this disease - well then it all seems pretty worthwhile.