Thursday, February 24, 2011

In Sickness and in Health

A hernia.

That's it. That's pretty much the extent of my medical woes. And it happened more than 30 years ago. I come from a stock of Long Livers, good Scotch and Irish types who fortified themselves on Red River cereal and hard work. We're an anxious, high-strung, creative lot, but we survive it and we're good.

It's always been pretty boring for me to go to the doctor for a physical or to a life insurance agent. My answer to all their questions about family history and personal history is no.

Most people have way more complicated family and personal medical drama than I do. My kids are pretty healthy. We've had years where we've suffered from cold after cold after cold. We've had influenza and bronchitis, ear infections and peas-stuffed-up-the-nose. But I consider those par for the course.

Last week, though, my husband was felled by his second bout of severe vertigo. Then the rest of my family began vomiting. It's been quite a week. And, whether it's sleep deprivation or not, I've been thinking about a lot of questions related to sickness this week.

Like, how do you care for an adult without treating them like a child?

After the third family member is felled by the stomach flu, it becomes a bit like one of those scenes in a horror movie where you want to scream at the heroine DON"T GO DOWNSTAIRS - except what is "downstairs" in this scenario?

What kinds of illness require vigilance and which ones need benign neglect?

An excellent weight-loss technique is to have family members sick with the flu. The strategy is this: ask yourself, would I want to see that again? Answer: Five pounds lighter in just nine days!

Is there a note in the Caregiver's Handbook that says that the caregiver must keep his/her concerns and fatigue to him/herself, or is it ok to talk to the sick person about it?

When will the laundry end?

Imagination in a caregiver is useful in terms of anticipating needs, but unhelpful in terms of anticipating the worst. The gurgle of a humidifier at 4 a.m., for instance, sounds not dissimilar to someone else getting sick.

I've disinfected, washed, sprayed, scrubbed, mopped, laundered, and washed some more and I think we're through it.

Honestly, there are a number of people in my life - a surprisingly high number - who are actually facing complex and serious medical situations right now. And truthfully, they are facing their conditions with way more grace than I think I would be capable of. I've been thinking of them during these days. They've put my little troubles into magnificent perspective, made me grateful for our general good health and reminded me to pray for those for whom good health is elusive.

Sláinte, the Irish say. It's a toast to health. I wish you that. I wish us that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hot Air Blowing

I love the CBC but other than listening to Stuart McLean and Rex Murphy, CBC stopped being my radio station of choice when we moved here from Toronto. Instead I listen to a local radio station, which lets me know when our school buses are cancelled, tells me about local events and weather. At least, this is what it does early in the morning and late in the afternoon. That tends to be when I listen to the radio most, as I make meals and empty the dishwasher and load the laundry machine.

But between nine and three each day, the station is devoted to talk shows, and the talk shows are devoted to the creation of controversy and inciting callers. Occasionally I listen. My personal policy, though, is that I will NOT call in, no matter what. If I get incensed enough, I have been known to send an email, but somehow calling in is a line I dare not cross. Watching Oprah is another line I won't let myself cross (would lead to watching soap operas and eating bonbons on the couch all day, of course).

But there's one recurring thing that happens on talk radio that I just don't understand. OK, there's probably more than one, but one for sure.

It's climate change doubt. People who get entirely bent out of shape about the allegedly false environmental agenda devoted to getting us to change our ways and to spending our money.

First of all, the evidence is fairly clear. Whether Al Gore leaves all the lights on in his house or not, our planet is experiencing significant upheavals and disruptions. And our actions can make a difference.

What I want to say to the irate callers is simply this: What does it matter if it's real or not - how does it hurt us to live with conservation in mind? How does it really hurt us to make the small changes that add up to powerful results? And what joy do we miss when we don't?

Really, that's all.

Except I'd love to hear what you think.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

tides and seasons

i have a wish - that high tide would last, that low tide would last, that the winter solstice would mean things would stand still and the same in the summer. but it doesn't. it ebbs and it flows, mercilessly, continually. time waits for no man. it never stops moving. good glory. in the winter, i want to hibernate, to stop and be still at the deepest point in the year. i always have a sense when i notice the buds on the trees, that i'm not finished resting, that i've never quite achieved the rest i meant to, needed to, wanted to get. and in the summer, the solstice is perfection - glorious long day, late sunset and i want that to remain too.


of course, i wrote all this more than a week ago, before The Plague invaded my house. my husband had four days of vertigo, and I've spent a total of 17 hours (7 of them after midnight one night) emptying buckets, offering ginger ale and sympathy to two different children. so far.

as much as i want many things to last, this ain't one of them.

Ode to Editing

I don't know what my inseam is. Well, I know what it measures but I don't know the length of my particular legs. All I know is that I love when I find a pair of pants that fit, pants that seem tailored to my body.

It's kind of funny that sewing eludes me as a skill because tailoring is the very best analogy I can think of for what I do when I edit.

A year or so ago, I got a contract where not only was there a word count, but a character count. I had to say everything the client wanted -- in 31 characters including spaces. It was such a fun challenge.

I love editing other people's words, to make them sound more themselves. Their best selves. In my mind, editing someone else's words is quite a bit like making a bespoke jacket. There's the same walking around the person, judging what will fit, measuring and sorting, taking in and letting out. I like being invisible in this, so that one client's words don't sound like another's - or worse, like mine.

I enjoy the process of editing my own work. I haul it all out on the table, the bits and pieces I've worked on, and I make it fit. When it's my work, though, it's a bit different. I can't walk all around myself, for instance, so there are blind spots. That's why I need an editor myself.

It's also a slightly different process with my writing, because what I have to do is listen very deeply to the story and to my own intuition, to see what rings true and what is false.

The image that comes to mind for editing my own work is carding wool. Have you ever done this? Basically, you take a clump of shorn sheep's wool, all tangled and fluffy, and put it on a wide wire brush. You take a second brush and drag it across the first. There is huge resistance between the two brushes and the knots and whorls of wool, but pull through it you must. Then, you do it again. And again. The goal is for all the fibers to line up in one direction, so they can be spun and woven.

When I edit, I go over and over the same bits many times. It all has to line up and make sense, go in one direction. It's intense work. Some days, I think, "Oh, it's good enough" or that I've done my best, and then, the next day, I tinker and pull, stretch and erase, amazed that I ever thought it was even close to done before.

Just as carding takes more muscle than you would think, editing a novel requires my whole brain. I have to keep both the whole story, the chapter, the line and the word in mind, pretty much simultaneously.

There's an old joke that it takes two people to write a novel - one to do the writing and one to shoot her when it's done. Because it's never categorically done. I know the truth of this joke, but this process is different. Like a well-tailored jacket or pants that fit just right, or wool ready to be used, there is something extremely satisfying about this. And it's satisfying along the way, every time I hit on the exact word I want or figure out what the trouble is with a scene.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Picture Paints

I was once on a team in a game where we had to identify characters and situations from 1970s and 1980s television shows. We called ourselves Misspent Youth and we thoroughly trounced the other team.

During the 70s and 80s, I recall many occasions when I would slip into the cool basement of our house and turn on the television - only to be caught once again by my mom and sent back outside to play. I watched every episode of The Flintstones ever made on my lunch breaks (followed by the creepy Uncle Bobby and then The Trouble with Tracy.) Friday nights meant Love Boat, Dallas, and Falcon Crest.

With the advent of the Internet, my three children and my fiction writing, my media habits changed. What went by the wayside was chiefly television watching (and newspaper reading - I always felt guilty about the ever-accumulating, never-read piles of paper wasted on my behalf.)

People reference commercials - "egg management fee" - and I have no idea what they are talking about. They mention characters and shows and I don't get it. Even the occasional show I do like, more often than not, I read the plot summaries on the Internet the next day.

(I did watch the world's most bizarre game show when we were in Italy, but I'm not sure that counts.)

When I was in Florida last month, I saw my first actual footage of the Gulf oil spill. I had seen photos, but this was the first video footage I had seen.

In the last three weeks, the world has been on tenterhooks, watching what's happening in Egypt. I too have been following the story with baited breath and lifted prayers - but not with my eyes.

It wasn't particularly a moral decision to stop watching television, so much as a time crunch. But, I'm thinking I may have been making a mistake in not choosing to spend a bit more time watching television, at least lately.

I don't want to hear about every single crime committed anywhere. I don't need to hear which celebrities burped. I don't need to know what the Leafs' latest plan is to bolster their hockey team.

But, somehow, I feel I've missed out on participating in important events in our world by failing to allow the images of those events to sink into my mind through my eyes.

And so, weirdly, I'm committing to watching more television. To be a better global citizen. And, truthfully, because I do find The Big Bang Theory quite funny.

A friend posted the following on Facebook today. Whether you've watched every moment or not for the last few weeks, you will find this a moving and important collage of images of the birth pangs of a new Egypt.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Blue Valentine

I once broke up with my boyfriend two weeks before Valentine's Day. My close friend was also single and bitter at the time. We called the holiday VD Day. We said it with venom and relish.

A month or so later, I began dating my husband so I've had happy Valentine's Days for more than twenty years now.

But I won't be surprised if this year feels a bit VD Dayish.

You see, last year was our fourth or fifth year of a tradition: every Family Day weekend, we packed the kids and substantial amounts of winter gear and drove to Ottawa to celebrate Winterlude with my brother and his wife. We skated the whole length of the canal and back, laughed ourselves crazy as we tumbled down ice slides and spun on tubes nearly into the river in Hull, bought cold fresh maple syrup, lined mittens and tiny pussywillows at the Byward Market, looked at elaborate ice sculptures, froze our extremities off, ate sweet sunrise Beaver Tails and la tire until our teeth ached and our heads buzzed. We slept on the floor of their little apartment. We stayed in a hotel they arranged for us. We slept in their brand new house. We watched the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics. We laughed and we hung out.

Last year, I brought them a gift for Valentines Day: a red glass candle holder from Ten Thousand Villages. Inside the glass sat a metal canister, perforated with cut-out hearts, holding the candle so that a lit wick sent dancing hearts glowing from the core. It was really them: both sentimental and sweet.

A few weeks after our Family Day/Valentines Day/Winterlude trip, they announced their separation and my heart broke.

I've been reminded more than once that this blog is a public forum and that I should be careful whose stories I tell. I try and I'm trying here to be careful not to reopen wounds that aren't yet healed.

But my heart broke again the other day when I thought of that little lamp and I wondered what had become of it in all the upheaval. It matters so little in the grand scheme of things, but it was a reminder of a time when I thought love burned bright and really what I gave and said might only have served to scorch fingers and blind eyes.

I love my brother dearly and I love the franglais of Ottawa and the funfunfun of Winterlude but we're taking this year off from our tradition. Work intrudes and a great kids' social justice conference for our son. But I'm kind of glad, too, because it would already be different and it might be painful for all of us to try to do the same thing we can never do.

But next year I hope we'll take heart and try again.


Oh Gentle Reader, forgive my absence. Truly, it is not the absence of thoughts and ideas that keeps me from you - but an overabundance, a zucchini-like crop of ideas that overwhelms the little garden of my brain. This post is an offering of random vegetables from the crop.

I quit and unquit Facebook. I quit for all the right reasons and I unquit for all the right reasons too. I'm still tinkering and toying with questions of motivation and performance and technology shaping behaviour, but ultimately it felt deeply antisocial to opt out, and the private notes I got from friends reminded me that I have depth in relationships there, as well as fluffiness. It was good to take a break, to remember what my concerns were, but then to recall the good side too. I'm going to try to participate without indulging my narcissistic tendencies.

My grandma finished rehab and moved home to become a bag lady. She spent a week at home, sleeping on her couch and keeping her clothes in gift bags on the floor. Her sister-in-law (who is only 80) stayed with her. Her brothers tried to persuade her to install a wheelchair lift to the second floor. Six days in, my mom and her brother persuaded her to check out a retirement home. Two days later, she moved in. We are all deeply, deeply relieved and she is surprised how much she likes it.

I took my Big Vocational Questions on retreat a couple of weekends ago. I go to the same place every year and it never fails to be a deeply meaningful time. The place I go has a labyrinth and I always walk it. On the Saturday morning, I roused myself out of bed and walked out to the labyrinth only to discover it was nearly entirely covered in snow. I could see the large stone at the center of the labyrinth and I could see lumps that were the smaller stones making up the shape. I decided I could probably remember the path, more or less, and set out to walk it. Halfway around I realized I was outside the labyrinth altogether, and underneath the shadow of the large wooden cross. You can't walk the labyrinth in this season, I told myself, or was told. But the Cross is still there. I've walked the labyrinth in December and January before, but not this season. The thought was incredibly liberating: I felt a weight roll off my shoulders and instead of Figuring Out My Future Path, I walked, listened to music, skied, escaped a strange whuffling noise in the woods, and wrote fiction.

I finished my book. I finished a crappy first draft in December, but this is a decent first draft, with all its parts covered. There are still revisions to be done, but suddenly last Tuesday, I was done. And pleased with it.

I've had a number of nice closed doors lately, writing-wise. This has been a big part of my angst this winter. I did win Most Improved Client from an editor for hire, and a respected agent read my manuscript in full over the Christmas holidays. Honestly, these are not nothing. But neither are they Something. I'm probably right to be both encouraged and discouraged. Never does the discouragement go to the place where I want to stop writing - that's never in question - but it still takes the heart out of me, some days.

Dave got a new job. Dave is a teacher. This doesn't happen. But it did. Mid-January, he was hired by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics to be a fulltime educational consultant. Due to some hiring issues at his school, this worked out beautifully for the school, so he has been seconded for the semester to work for PI and will return to teaching in September. PI is paying the Board for his salary, benefits and pension, so it's a seamless thing for us. But still unexpected. He started last week. And is getting used to a quiet, sitting at a desk, going to meetings job. Today he met me at lunch.

I'm skiing again. The extreme cold in early January plus a trip to Florida (I know - poor me) meant that I was delayed in getting into my winter rhythm, but I'm now stealing away to the golf course for a quick ski at dusk. It feels nearly clandestine and terribly urgent and satisfying. Even if I am a slowpoke.

Oh, there's more. There's a lot of illness among friends, challenges with church, kids rising to the occasion, sports and life.

But here's what's happening. I'm waking up every single morning, having dreamed exhausting dreams. Last night, I was interviewed by Jian Gomeshi on CBC about my work with a charity I used to write for. The night before I was sorting out a gift basket for a client, to divide between various people. I haven't dreamed about vegetables - yet. There's almost always sorting out going on in my little subconscious mind these days - but when I think about the stuff going on by day, it's really no wonder.