Sunday, September 27, 2009

In the Ditch

Last fall, I landed in the ditch. I’d been up north in ski country visiting a friend who had come from England to spend some time with her ailing mother. We weren’t expecting snow, certainly not in mid November. The trees hadn’t even shed all their leaves. I’d driven up the evening before and planned on returning to the city early the next day. Come morning, several inches of snow had fallen and the barren ski trails had transformed into white ribbons weaving their way down the mountain. The snow was beautiful to look at but treacherous to drive in, as I soon found out.

By the time I left my friend’s chalet, the light snowfall had become a blizzard and the unplowed roads were like frozen rivers. My all-season tires were more like no-season tires and when I put my foot on the brakes at an intersection, my car glided ahead with no intention of stopping. I had two options: crash into the car in front of me or veer to the right, plunge into the ditch, and hit a tree. I chose the latter.

I got out of the car to inspect. Fortunately, the impact against the tree had been cushioned by branches and the damage was minimal. But I was in deep and the only way out was a tow truck. Why hadn’t I joined CAA? Who to call, where to begin? I envisioned waiting hours for relief and I winced at the thought of the expense. The snow continued its assault on the roads and on my uncovered head; I shivered under my flimsy jacket.

That’s when he appeared. Like a ghost out of the mist, a large burly man approached me and jumped into the ditch. He kicked my front tire. “No treads,” he said. Then he beckoned to a pick-up truck parked at the roadside. Two men, no less brawny, emerged.

“Get in the car and put her in reverse,” the guy told me. “When I say go, slowly press on the gas.” Flustered, I followed his instructions and before I knew it, the car was back on the road. The three men had literally lifted the vehicle out of the ditch. I tried to thank them, but sooner than the words had left my mouth, the men were in the truck and on their way. I shouted “thank you” through the dense snow and waved at the flickering taillights quickly disappearing from view. My heart pounded as I reflected on what had just happened. It was if three burly angels had come from heaven and scooped me out of the ditch.

The ditch is a rotten place to be. We feel helpless and vulnerable in there. But everyone ends up in the ditch at one time or another. We can’t avoid it. Sometimes we tumble in, sometimes we get pushed in and sometimes we crash in—head first!

We are in and out of the ditch all of our lives. Each of us, no matter who we are, how much money we have, or where we live, has our moments, our days, our months, and even our years in the ditch. It stinks in there. It really does. It’s muddy and grimy and dusty and dark and lonely. Trapped in the mire we can feel anger, shame, and unspeakable pain. How do we end up in such a wretched place?

When somebody we care for becomes ill or dies.
When our own health is compromised.
When a significant relationship ends.
When we lose our job, our money, our security.

When we see our children suffer.
When we do something bad, or make a terrible mistake.
When we are victims of oppression or violence.
And if we suffer from mental illness, we are in the ditch—a lot.

The problem is...the challenge is...the question do we get out? Sometimes, we feel like there is no way out. Sometimes we want a bulldozer to come along and fill in the crevices with earth, so we don’t have to keep clawing our way to the surface. We may ask ourselves, “Who cares anyway? Would I even be missed?” Despite the bleakness, we can see the sky—and occasionally a glimmer of sunshine. But how then, do we reach it?

These days, with an unstable economy and gloom in the air, it may seem impossible. Many people, perhaps already teetering on the edge, are plunging hard. Did you know that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world? Nearly one hundred people take their lives every day—twice as many as in the U.S. More than 20% of Japanese men and women have admitted to contemplating suicide at one time or another. The number peaks when the country falls into a recession.

When they can’t cope any longer, when the future looks too morbid, many of these people go to Tojimbo Cliffs, where precipices rise about 82 feet above the Sea of Japan. It’s a breathtaking place with expansive rock formations and majestic views; a place that should be a peaceful refuge rather than a looming call to death. For some it offers a way out of the ditch, forever. But when they get there, they may come to find that there is another alternative.

A retired policeman called Yukio Shige often patrols the area, keeping an eye out for dejected faces. He approaches the sad looking souls and talks to them, and when he learns of their deep pain, he tries to reassure them. Most don’t really want to die, but they don’t know what else to do. Sometimes, just talking helps them realize that what they have in mind is not the answer. As part of a volunteer organization, whose mission it is to help those in pain, Yukio Shige lets people know that there is a community who cares.

Sometimes, such a hand is all one needs to get out of the ditch. That hand can belong to a stranger, a friend, a loved one, a care-giving professional, a community, or a force we cannot see. We all have stories about our time in the ditch, and as we think back, we can likely recall a hand reaching down and yanking us out.

Help can appear in the most unexpected ways, and it can pull the darkest hearts back onto safe, steady ground.

Regardless of why we land in the ditch, there is always someone, somewhere, somehow, who cares enough to offer that life-line. And when we emerge from the sludge with our hearts and our bodies and souls intact, hopefully we remember to take our turn patrolling, like our Japanese friend watching for burdened souls at Tojimbo Cliffs...and those angels in the pick-up truck who cared enough to help me on that snowy November day.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dressed to Dazzle

Picture this: It’s 11:30 at night and cold outside. A 16-year-old girl is at Waterloo train station in London, England, clad in a low cut spaghetti-strapped dress, shorter than a pair of gym shorts, and stiletto heels that most of us wouldn’t even be able to stand up in, let alone walk in. Her thick make-up paints an impression of a woman much older, but her cute facial features and firm little body betray her age. Is she out to turn some tricks, to earn a few bucks? No, she is going out to party with her friends, and she could be your daughter. (Thanks for the great role modelling, Britney Spears!)

On our recent trip to London, this was a common sight. After a full day of sightseeing, we’d head to the train station late in the evening to take the train back to Windsor, where we were staying with friends. As we were making our way home, the youth were just coming out, like cats on a nocturnal mission. But that’s no surprise. The surprise was the number of young girls we saw who were dressed like tartlets of the night.

I can imagine them leaving their house in jeans and ponytails, giving their parents a hug, and telling them that they will try not to stay up too late at Susie’s sleepover. But instead of heading to Susie’s with a backpack containing pyjamas and a tooth brush, they go to the train station where they transform themselves into glitzy party girls. In their minds they are doing nothing wrong; they’re not breaking the law and they’re not hurting anyone. They simply want to have some fun. What’s wrong with that?

According to, a website that promotes Islam theology, a woman must wear clothing that covers the entire body, with only the hand and face remaining visible. Why? So that the woman is protected from man’s lustful gaze.

In Afghanistan and other Islamic countries, this law demonstrates how severely oppressed the women are in the Middle East. In addition, Afghani women have to contend with the new controversial ruling that “women cannot leave the house without their husbands' permission, that they can only seek work, education or visit the doctor with their husbands' permission, and that they cannot refuse their husband sex,” as stated in a UK Guardian article: Worse than the Taliban.

A woman in Sudan was recently arrested for wearing pants, God forbid! Her crime? Public indecency. The 43-year-old journalist decided not to pay the fine, but rather spend a month in prison to protest Sudan’s “draconian morality laws” states The Globe and Mail (Sept. 8). The other pants-wearing-women, who were arrested with her, accepted the punishment of forty lashes rather than speak out. But Ms. Hussein wants the law abolished because it defies human rights.

In the west, women are entitled to dress as they please; there is no law against mini-dresses and stilettos. But one fact remains true in all our cultures—men are lustful, and some men will not stop at gazing. I must admit, whenever I saw one of these young girls in London going out on the town, I was worried. Obviously, men are expected to control themselves, and it is incumbent upon them to behave. But what happens when they are rip-roaring drunk and their judgment goes out the window, as we all know it can. Sexy Susie may no longer be mere eye candy and she may land a lot more than a good time and the friendly attention of her ‘crush

Parenting expert Barbara Coloroso believes that parents should empower their children by letting them choose their own clothing. If the choice is neither life threatening, morally threatening, nor unhealthy, let the natural consequence of what the child wears give life to his/her learning, Coloroso asserts. So if Katie wants to wear her summer party dress to school in the wintertime, when all the other kids are wearing pants and sweatshirts, then let her. And if she feels out of place or a little chilly in the classroom, she’ll learn that maybe the party dress was not such a good idea.

However, if Katie chooses to wear a skimpy tight dress and stilettos to hit the bars on a cool September night when she is 16, this is not necessarily okay. According to Coloroso’s guidelines... Is this morally threatening? Perhaps not; Unhealthy? Probably; Life threatening? Could be.

Between Islam rigidity and Western lenience, there must be a middle ground which serves all. How about jeans and jackets for teenage girls, and curfews at midnight?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Another federal election looming...can't wait!

This will be the third election in three years. And the fourth since 2004. I’m not sure why a Prime Minister has a mandate of four years when the true mandate of office seems to be barely one year. Yes, it’s our fault for electing a minority government, but can our politicians not take a break from flying overhead like vultures, waiting for the right moment to strike? It seems that the opposition spends all their time strategizing how to bring down a minority government while the party in power spends all its time contemplating how to hang on to their fledgling support. Who can possibly govern the country in the meantime, and who has the time to keep things on track? Nobody, it seems.

As renowned Canadian commentator Rex Murphy succinctly puts it in his brilliant Globe & Mail article, No better than a moose in a rut, “Our Parliaments are downtimes between campaigns. MPs go to Ottawa to rest up and strategize for the next one, not to legislate. In Ottawa, they frame every issue and incident, every committee and inquiry, with reference to the next plunge to the polls. The Canadian political universe is currently bounded by only one question: When is the best time for an election?”

And what about the cost? In the midst of a recession, can we afford to spend $300,000,000 on an election? That money can go a long way in this country. Is spending it on an election really the best investment? I know of a few financially deprived schools, a few hospitals that are short on life-saving equipment and nursing care, and a few communities with underprivileged, starving people. Perhaps they could use a little financial infusion.

But none of this matters, because when a political party decides to forge ahead, there is no talking reason. The mind is made up, the battle is on.

The opposition is gleefully rubbing its hands in preparation. The attacks are already revving up, even if they are starting with a sputter. When the Liberal party leaked a video to the media this week, in which Harper is giving a private speech to party members in Sault Ste. Marie, the opposition was all over it. How dare Harper say, “Imagine how many left-wing ideologues they [the Liberals] would be putting in the courts, federal institutions, agencies, the Senate.”

As if this was some big hidden fear that is just now coming to the forefront.

The Liberals also took great issue with Harper’s comments that if the Conservatives won a majority, they would continue their crackdown on criminals, abolish the gun registry, and implement more tax cuts and a balanced budget. How shocking, how deceitful, this behind-the-scenes plotting is!

“Now you get to see the real Stephen Harper,” Ignatieff says. Oh, really? Was it the fake Stephen Harper who has been saying the exact same things for the last four years?

The polls indicate that a fall election will result in little change. Once again, we will have a Conservative minority with hands tied behind their backs. But polls can be wrong, right? That’s what the opposition claims...and desperately hopes.

Bottom line—Polls show that Canadians do not want another election. Not now. We want the people in power to use it responsibly and we want the opposition to keep them in check. The day will come when it’s time for a change, but as I see it, there is not one compelling reason to harass the constituents into going to the polls...again...just to end up where we started—with a minority Conservative government.

And when the time comes for a legitimate election, give me policies that make sense, efficient spending, honest intentions, strong leadership, and smart social programs that will not bankrupt the country, and I will vote for you. But if all I see is senseless finger-pointing, voter manipulation, mercenary behaviour, and he said she said rhetoric, I’m not interested.

Unfortunately, once a person gets on the political stage, there is little room for ideology and integrity. The script is written, the characters are cast, and the minute you flub your lines or miss your cue, you’re finished. Because the objective is to fill the theatre and the minute people stop coming, the show is over.

I want Rex Murphy to be Prime Minister. He is the most polite, well-spoken, respectful, and intelligent guy out there these days. He understands people, he has a good head, a big heart, a witty mouth and he’s almost always right! Yes, I nominate him to run this country for the next ten years. Are you up for it, Rex?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

London Blog

I've just returned from a holiday in England with my thirteen and fourteen-year-old sons. My husband couldn’t join us because of work so it was up to me to lead the troops. We embarked on our adventure with loose plans and an open agenda, hoping to find our groove based on the weather and the call of London. Thanks to the generosity of very good friends, we had a beautiful place to stay in Windsor, an easy one-hour train ride from the city.

With expert travel advice from my friend Ruth, and map in hand, we set out every morning for a day of exploring. The boys had never been overseas before and although I’ve been abroad many times, I was a little apprehensive as to how the three of us would fare with our divergent interests. I love museums, Matthew loves music, and Ryan loves interactive entertainment (think laser quest, amusement parks, and video games).

The first day in London, we met up with an old high school friend (whom I hadn’t seen in about fourteen years) and his lovely wife and daughter. Since he’s lived in England for over two decades, I expected a slight accent and a touch of British reserve. Not so. He was the very same Bruce of thirty years past. There’s something reassuring about reconnecting with old friends whose good humour and affable personality shine in the same light as when you knew them so long ago. A lunch at the Crypt by Trafalgar Square and a walk through Convent Garden gave us a chance to catch up and for our families to get acquainted.

From that day forward the boys and I made our way around London using the best method of transportation—our feet. We walked for miles and miles and even burning blisters didn’t stop us from zigzagging our way through the animated streets. (Note to reader: Always carry band-aids when you travel...thank you Ruth for the supply!)

Getting around was an adventure. My map reading skills are not the most proficient, sometimes leading us away from our destination rather than towards it. Unlike New York with its grid system of streets and avenues, London tends to be more like a muddle of dead ends, streets that change names for no apparent reason, and circular loops that bring you back to where you started. And with eyes that struggle with small print, I often had to follow my nose rather than diagrams, which repeatedly led us astray. But none of this mattered because every wrong turn granted us a new perspective and more sights to see!

Unlike a man who would rather walk a hundred miles than ask for directions, I was quick to realize that the easiest approach was to ask for help. People on the tube, in the street, at restaurants, or working in stores went above and beyond to point me in the right direction. In fact, the Brits were so helpful and so forthcoming that I was tempted to throw my map away. I’ve never been in a country where people seem to care so much about a foreigner’s navigational welfare.

After a couple of days, I was finally acclimated to the North and South Banks of the Thames, and familiarized with the focal points of Trafalgar Square and the London Eye. We became tourists on a mission. There was ground to cover, sights to see, museums to investigate, and theatre to attend.

Highlights included the following:
  • The London Eye -built to celebrate the Millennium - nice to look at but we passed on the ride (about $75 CAN for 30 minutes).
  • A boat ride along the Thames
  • Parliament and Big Ben (which refers to the bell, not the clock!).
  • The Tower of London (you can see the exact spot where Anne Boleyn was beheaded.
  • Shakespeare’s Globe and Rose theatres (and a wonderful Shakespeare museum and tour).
  • The Tate Modern museum (winner of the prestigious prize for international architecture, the Pritzker). It is the world's most popular contemporary art gallery. We loved it.
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral (masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren. It was completed in 1710 and miraculously survived unscathed over the years, even through the London Blitz.)
  • The National Portrait Gallery
  • The National Gallery (we ran out of time and didn’t make it inside—my one regret).
  • Theatre—there are over 45 shows to choose from. We bought tickets for half price at Leicester Square and the box office, the day of. Our picks: Stomp, Billy Elliot, and Les Miserables. Sensational!
  • High Tea at The Dorchester—extravagant but worth it.
  • Buckingham Palace-outside only
  • The Imperial War Museum—fantastic exhibits of the First and Second World Wars as well as a deeply disturbing Holocaust exhibit.
  • Windsor Castle (the Queen's weekend residence) and Windsor area. An electrical fire in 1992 burned through many of the state rooms, but they have since been restored to resplendent perfection.
We barely scratched the surface as there was still so much more to see, but there is always next time...
On this trip, we also had the opportunity to visit another old friend whom I met at the University of Geneva in 1982. Now living in Oxford with her family, Jane invited us to come and stay. After determining that we hadn’t seen each other for seventeen years, we launched right into our friendship as if we had barely been apart. Jane’s generous spirit, kind heart, and enrapturing warmth charmed us all, making us feel like cherished old friends. The boys took to her like a favourite aunt and her family welcomed us as long lost Canadian cousins. We were spoiled with delicious meals, great conversation, and comfy beds.

Thanks to Jane, our visit to Oxford and outlying areas included the following:
  • A double-decker bus tour of Oxford (England’s first university town, dating back to the early 12th century).
  • Punting along the Cherwell River, which was like riding a Gondola in Venice. Not such an easy endeavour, so we switched to a peddle gondola instead!
  • A delightful picnic lunch along the river bank and more local sightseeing on the bus.
  • A walk through the historic covered market, where the boys enjoyed a Skittles milkshake (from a choice of about 100 flavours) and Jane had her first real milkshake.
Day two included:
  • A visit to Abingdon, one of England’s oldest towns.
  • The Cotswolds—charming countryside villages with rolling hills, intriguing shops, and very old churches (the one we visited was founded in 1160).
The boys took a break from sightseeing that day and instead went to the neighbouring farm where they plotted their way through a challenging corn maze. They had so much fun that they returned in the afternoon to do it all over again in the rain!

Matthew, our music buff, was thrilled to hear a first-hand account of the "Reading Festival" that Jane’s eighteen-year-old son John had been to on the weekend. About 250,000 people attended the sprawling outdoor event with thousands camping out for three days in a massive field, not far from the stages. The event is the UK's premier music festival and it just about killed Matt to miss it.

I needn’t have worried about finding things to do that would appeal to all. When I asked the boys what they enjoyed the most about this trip, they said, “Everything!” (Although our friends’ cat, rabbits, and dog did get special mention.)

A visit to the UK is a great journey through history, heritage, and culture. But what will remain among the most precious memories for me are the friends we saw, the hospitality we received, and the gracious nature of all the people who helped us find our way.