Saturday, October 31, 2009

Swine Flu - From Rare to Real

A family suffers unspeakable pain, a community grieves. When 13-year-old Evan Frustaglio suddenly passed away on Monday morning from H1N1, shock and disbelief pervaded the city. How could a strong, healthy, vibrant young boy be swept from life so abruptly? Like losing a loved one in a fatal accident, there is no way to come to terms with such a tragedy. The family photo on the front page of the Toronto Star today depicts an image of utter despair, a feeling that will never be wiped from their hearts.

My son is the same age as Evan and they went to the same school for seven years. During their junior years Evan used to come for lunch from time-to-time and I recall his enthusiastic nature and sociable manner—a delightful boy with a wide smile and beautiful brown eyes. His parents were devoted, community-oriented people—always warm and friendly in the schoolyard and no doubt in Evan’s sports world as well. For all who know this family in one way or another, the heartbreaking loss hits home. This could be anyone’s family, anyone’s son or daughter.

When I saw Evan’s father on CTV last night, his pain was palpable. “Evan was my best friend,” he said, trying to hold back tears. “My 13-year-old son was my best friend.” Paul Frustaglio’s life will never be the same and, as much as we would like to stop his pain, there is nothing we can do.

What happened to Evan highlights the reality of this pandemic. In Margaret Wente’s recent article Help! I've come down with Swine Flu Overkill Ms. Wente says that we are far too panicked about the Swine Flu and that we really should get a grip.

“Ever since the spring, when the World Health Organization declared swine flu to be a “pandemic” – after just 144 deaths – SFO has been running rampant. Ordinary pandemics kill at least a million people worldwide. Swine flu has killed around 5,000 people, including 86 in Canada. Worldwide, ordinary seasonal flu kills 700 to 1,400 people a day.”

When I first read the article, I agreed with her. Let’s not get crazy over this, I thought. Let’s take measured precautions like washing hands constantly, wearing gloves, and using anti-bacterial gel as often as possible. I even thought of wearing gloves when grocery shopping since I learned that one of the worst germ transmitters is the handle of the shopping cart. But I wasn’t sure about the vaccine. There has been so much controversy about it that I wasn’t convinced we should get it. Evan’s passing and two other children's subsequent deaths have made me think again.

Given the shortage of supply, the government is now saying that it will take until Christmas for everyone to be vaccinated. Even those in the high risk groups are faced with long waits. Ironically, high risk does not include teens or children over the age of six.

I've come to see the social responsibility of getting the shot (as well as waiting until the most vulnerable have received it). Not only are we protecting ourselves from the virus, but we are protecting others from getting it from us. Evan’s family didn’t have the opportunity because the vaccine was not yet available. To decline the shot and then lose a child to the virus would only deepen the agony, if that’s even possible.

Polls this week indicated that fewer than half of Canadians intend to get the shot despite the current frenzy. The problem is that we can't make an informed decision because we won't know the true benefits and risks until sometime in the future. The bottom line is that we don’t understand this virus. The medical community doesn’t seem to understand it either. Some medical practitioners are getting vaccinated because they have been mandated to, not because they believe it will help.

In the Toronto Star article, Dr. Arlene King, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health is quoted saying this: “The sequencing has been established...clearly the younger people are experiencing a higher burden of illness, but by and large it doesn’t result in serious complications. This (Evan’s death) is rare, this is a very rare occurrence.”

This may be a rare occurrence, but when a child dies so quickly, so unexpectedly, in your neighbourhood, the tragedy is upfront and real. When the person to whom this “rare occurrence” occurred is the precious child of people you identify with, the word “rare” takes on a different meaning. “Rare” becomes “real” and you know the same thing can happen to you or your loved ones at any time.

I agree with Margaret Wente when she says, “the last thing I want to do is wind up in hospital, where MSRA, C. difficile, and other hospital-acquired infections kill around 8,000 Canadians a year. My advice is that whatever you do, stay out of the hospital – or you might get really sick.”

To all my readers: While considering the shot, wash your hands constantly, wear gloves, reduce your stress (at least try!), love your family and your friends, and be nice to everyone—including yourself!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yelling is the New Spanking

I come from a family of yellers. I call us “the hot-headed Hungarians.” We don’t yell at friends, co-workers, or anyone outside the immediate family. We reserve this activity for each other, usually when we’re angry, frustrated, annoyed, impatient, or offended. And we don’t do it in public. I suppose it’s a way of asserting ourselves, expressing ourselves, and unloading frustrations. I don’t know if it’s really a Hungarian thing or whether it’s more about our family dynamic. We’re actually fairly reasonable and well-mannered people, but once the trigger is pulled, there is no way to stop that bullet of anger.

For instance, my sister, my parents and I love playing the card game ‘bridge’ together. We talk, we discuss, we laugh, and we learn a lot about the game when we play. But things can also get a little heated and before you know it, the decibel has gone well above the pleasant conversation level.

“Why did you bid ‘two diamonds?’” my father asks.
“Because of my point count and my suit distribution,” I say.
“Well, that’s not right,” he says. “You should have bid ‘two no trump.’”
“That’s not what I learned at my lessons.” 
“Your lessons have it all backwards,” he says.
“No, I think you have it all backwards!” 

By now, the gloves are off and we’re having a flat-out argument about this particular convention. We are shouting (not quite screaming) and the others have to sit there and listen. Then my sister pipes in, “If you are going to waste all this time arguing then I’m going home.” Her voice is the loudest of all, because she practically has to scream to be heard. Then my mother chimes in and we are one happy hollering family.

At the end of it all, my son, who is working close-by at the computer, quietly asks, “Does bridge always bring out the worst in people?”

But by now we’re dealing out a new hand and talking about the H1N1 vaccine. “What do you mean?” we ask. “We’re having a very pleasant game.” The thing about my family is that we argue, we yell, we stomp our feet and then we move on.

In the New York Times article: For Some Parents, Shouting is the New Spanking (October 21, 2009) the question is raised as to whether yelling is damaging to children. “Psychologists and psychiatrists generally say yelling should be avoided. It’s at best ineffective (the more you do it the more the child tunes it out) and at worse damaging to a child’s sense of well-being and self-esteem,” the article states.

If that’s the case, then I am a damaged person because I was raised in a shouting household. No one likes to be yelled at, and most people don’t enjoy listening to raised voices, but sometimes it’s the best way to get attention or to work through an argument. Even Dr. Spock said that shouting is inevitable from time-to-time.

For instance, if you’ve asked little Johnny eight times to put the blocks back in the box and he doesn’t do it, is a raised voice unwarranted? You’ve asked nicely, you’ve spoken firmly, you’ve looked him in the eye to make sure he’s heard you, and still the blocks lay scattered on the floor; what else can you do? You can put the blocks away yourself (which is even worse than yelling, I believe), you can threaten the loss of a privilege, or you can get his attention with a raised voice.

Teenagers can be even harder to reach. They are notoriously good at zoning us out. I can ask my son five times with a pleasant tone to change his rabbit’s litter box, but only when I yell does he actually hear me. “You didn’t have to yell,” he says. “You could have just asked me nicely.”

The last time I went out for the evening, leaving the boys alone, I asked them to please do their homework, get into pyjamas, brush their teeth, and be in bed by 10:30. “Sure, Mom,” they said, with big smiles. “Have a nice time!” When I came home at 11:00 I found them in front of the TV and computer in their day clothes. The backpacks hadn’t even been cracked open. Does this not warrant a raised voice?

My husband comes from a very polite Canadian family. He never heard his parents argue. His mother never yelled and his father rarely blew his fuse. My husband hardly ever raises his voice and he still gets overwhelmed when exposed to one of my family’s confrontations. Does he elicit more obedience from our kids? Not really.

The New York Times article gives this advice: “Experts suggest figuring out ways to prevent situations that make you most prone to yell.”

Hmm...if anyone knows how to do this, please let me know.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Coaching 101

Previously published in the Globe and Mail Life section, August 2007

Did you know that you can find a coach to help you with just about any concern, problem or challenge? Nowadays, sports coaches must share their title with those who have a shingle of their own to hang up, for almost every subject you can think of.

Are you having trouble training your dog? Call a dog coach. S/he will come to your home and for a fee, will teach you and your family all the necessary tools to transform your unwieldy beast into a cooperative and affectionate canine friend. Having trouble in the romance department? A sex coach will be more than happy to teach you and your partner a few strategies to regenerate your faltering love life.

There’s the ever popular fitness coach (or personal trainer) who will meet with you on a regular basis to make sure you are doing those sit-ups and lifting those weights. How about a gardening coach? If you aren’t sure what to do with your yard and don’t know a thing about botany, you can hire a gardener to instruct you from the ground up in what to plant, how to plant it, and what is required to maintain it. Not a bad idea for wannabe green thumbs.

A life coach will help you kick start a new career, get you on track for that much deserved promotion or help you make a life transition that, without guidance, you’d be too afraid to consider. We all need help with our children, don’t we? A parenting coach will be more than happy to advise you on how to raise obedient, confident, and well-mannered youngsters. From toddlers to teenagers, trained specialists will teach you the best approach to negotiating the psychology of just about every age and stage.

My favourite is the organizing coach—the de-clutter guru who comes to your house armed with boxes and garbage bags, and a team of ruthless thrower-outers, to sift through all the extraneous items that are cramping your space. At the end of the session your residence will be pristine and clutter-free—a clean slate which you can begin to refill with new superfluous paraphernalia. But that’s okay, because you can call them back next year to repeat the process.

I don’t begrudge the coaching profession, nor do I judge those who hire specialists to help them learn a new skill. I myself hired a writing coach to help me with my first novel. She gave me invaluable technical advice as well as chapter by chapter feedback. It could be the best money I ever spent on my education.

But I do have a question: Can we not pick up a book or talk to someone we know who has some direct knowledge in the field—at least in some cases? Can we not figure out a fitness plan, or a gardening plan, or a parenting plan on our own? I’m beginning to wonder if we have lost all confidence in our own abilities. Just because we are really, really good at some things does that make us completely ignorant in all other areas? Is time so precious that we have to rely on the advice and skills of others to help us figure out our next move rather than figuring it out ourselves?

Somehow, our parents and grandparents managed to survive in this world without a personal coach to guide them. If our children see us calling on coaches every time we need some help, will they begin to think that all one needs to solve a problem is a phone number and a credit card? This hand-holding approach to self-improvement might save some time, but it can also limit our connection to the community and hamper our resourcefulness. Perhaps we need to stop to consider what our needs truly are.

If there is one area in which humanity could use a coach these days, I think it is for the soul. A “soul coach” could help us find the answers to those big questions: Why are we here? Why are there such inequities in the world? Why do horrible things happen to good, decent people? Why must children suffer? What kind of God would allow such brutality in the world? What is the point…the point of all the struggle, all the misery and all horror?

Many of us are so busy trying to improve ourselves in the most trivial ways—how about trying to improve what lies beyond us, beyond our self-centered reality? I’ve studied a little philosophy, read a book or two about religion, attended church, and pondered these questions for years, but I’ve come no closer to enlightenment. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I could definitely use a coach for my soul…and perhaps a coach for my spirit too.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Loss of Elegance

There is a lot to be said for “old school” practices. For instance, when a gentleman stands up to greet a lady who walks into the room, or when a young person gives up his/her seat for an older person, I am impressed by the good manners. But there is also an aspect of elegance to these actions. Opening doors for others, helping people with their coats, offering an arm to an elderly person who is getting out of the car or crossing the street, are in the same category. I am heartened when I witness such acts of “elegance.”

Unfortunately, in our self-obsessed, fast-paced, must get-ahead society, people often overlook the niceties, or consider them to be frivolous and anachronistic. Even though we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the fact is that we do. Barack Obama carries himself with a certain elegance…and look where he is now.

How we dress, how we speak, and how we carry ourselves go a long way in making an impression.

One of my favourite images of elegance is Audrey Hepburn. With her simple style—black outfits, black gloves, black shoes, black hat, big sunglasses, and white pearls—she epitomizes refinement. Maybe that’s why my wardrobe is crammed with far too many black garments. You don’t have to be svelte like Audrey to look good; just about any shape or size can assume a chic appearance when dressed in black.

People dress to self-express, but sometimes it pays to leave the jeans in the drawer and to sport something that makes people think, “Doesn’t he look sharp.”

My great-grandmother, who came to Canada from Hungary with nothing, always maintained that one must dress well. She scrimped and saved and eventually had a few beautiful garments made to measure—a dress, a skirt, two suits, a wool coat, and a couple of blouses. Her view was quality over quantity. Buy the very best classic design you can afford and then take good care of it. Fifty years later, my sister still wears Nano’s black wool winter coat and looks fabulous in it. Nowadays, we tend to go for quantity over quality and it shows.

One of my pet peeves is when my two sons answer my calls with a resounding, “Yeah?” To help them break the habit, I now charge twenty-five cents each time they answer with “yeah” rather than “yes.” But it works both ways. I’m not one to swear a lot, but every now and then, a word like “sh@#!” slips out of my mouth—usually for good reason, I believe, but not the most elegant choice of words. So when I do make that gaffe, the boys charge me a dollar. I think we are about even.

Littering a sentence with the word “like” is also unappealing. Like when you try to tell a story and like it’s hard to remember all the facts about like where you were and what you like said to the guy. If Barack Obama answered with a “yeah” when he was called on, if he swore when he got frustrated, or if he constantly used “like” when speaking, would he be President? Not likely. The word “elegant” even sounds elegant.

How we carry ourselves is also demonstrated by our confidence, poise, consideration and composure. People seem to be so caught up in their own world that they often lose sight of how their behaviour appears to others. And some people simply don’t care.

A while back I attended an executive development function where the president of a large corporation gave a speech to an audience of mostly women. He started by casually welcoming everyone to the event and it went downhill from there. He told us that he’d completely forgotten his anniversary and that his wife was none-too-pleased to find out that he was busy that evening. He laughed. I cringed. And to make matters worse, he told us, he didn’t even have a gift for her. The rest of the speech was an unscripted ramble about why his company was a great place to work and how progressive it was in hiring talented women. Where was the leadership elegance?

We want leaders whom we can respect, admire, and who make good role models. Is the “gentleman” (or gentlewoman) a thing of the past? I hope not. But I haven’t seen too many around lately.

In society, people can be impatient, nasty and downright awful. And civility seems to be waning. Sometimes I’m really disappointed in the lack of courtesy, decorum, and elegance in human behaviour. But then I’ll see a young person dressed smartly, speaking eloquently, giving up their seat in the subway for a little old lady, and I am reassured that elegance is not yet a thing of the past.

Time Tested Beauty Tips
(A favourite poem of Audrey Hepburn; it was read at her funeral)

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.

For beautiful hair, let a child run his/her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored,
renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.

Remember, if you ever need a helping hand,
you will find one at the end of each of your arms.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands;
one for helping yourself, and the other for helping others.

The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears,
the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair.
The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes,
because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.

The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole,
but true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul.
It is the caring that she lovingly gives,
the passion that she shows,and the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows!

By Sam Levenson

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How Conrad Black Became a Just a Few Minutes

Conrad Black is something else. In his essay excerpt, How I Became a Catholic, published by the National Post last week, Mr. Black regales us with his spiritual journey from non-practicing agnostic Protestant to full-fledged Resurrection believing Catholic. Mr. Black’s spiritual enlightenment is thoroughly unconvincing. His lofty vernacular is laced with arrogance and self-aggrandisement. Sprinkling his argument with the books he has read, the important clergy people he knows, and the places he has visited does not impress nor address what it means to come to Christ.

When Black’s friend, Cardinal Carter, told him that: “the one point I had to embrace if I wished to enter [Catholicism], and without which, all a fraud and a trumpery, was the Resurrection of Christ,” he considered the point. “If I believed that,” Black says, “I was eligible; if I did not, I wasn’t. What he was asking was not unreasonable, and I reflected on it for a few minutes and concluded that since, as defined, I believed in God and in miracles, I could at least suppress doubt sufficiently to meet his criterion.”

Theologians do PHDs on the Resurrection to better understand its meaning and significance. Lay people and clergy can spend a lifetime trying to come to terms with the power and legitimacy of this alleged event. It cannot be proven and it cannot be imposed as truth. Like belief in God, it requires faith, and faith can be very difficult to experience for analytical minds. So for Black to assert that it took a few minutes to come to his conclusion seems absurd, especially using such mercenary, cold logic.

No matter where one sits on the spectrum of Christian faith, one cannot ignore the fundamental principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Not once does Mr. Black convey a sense of love for humanity or caring for others. The Christian ideals of social justice, inclusiveness, and humility cannot even be gleaned between the lines of his essay. And treating his neighbours as himself seems to him a foreign concept (unless he wouldn't mind being defrauded millions of dollars).

I recall reading an article about Black during the time of his fraud and obstruction of justice trial; it provided an interesting glimpse into his character. The story was recounted across the media and, to my knowledge, never refuted or contested. Conrad Black and his wife Barbara Amiel were hosting a formal dinner party at their home in Rosedale back in their Toronto days--a smallish gathering comprising several big Toronto names. One of the guests, an older gentleman, was without a partner and a young woman who worked for Black was invited by the Black’s to be this man’s date for the evening. The woman was excited to be included and spent a small fortune on an evening gown. When she arrived at their home at the assigned time she was quickly ushered to the kitchen and told that her date had cancelled and she was no longer invited. She was dismissed through the back door.

When I first read the story, I thought there had to be another side. But when I heard it again, from different points of view (her father’s remains clearest in my mind because he was devastated and humiliated for his daughter’s sake), there appeared to be no “other side.” The Black’s behaviour was, in this case, the antithesis of grace and reveals character through action. I read that article a long time ago, but I've never forgotten the rude and insensitive treatment of this woman.

Another vivid image is that of Conrad Black sneaking boxes of documents through the back door of his office, which was caught on a security camera. Before the authorities had a chance to investigate the contents of these boxes, the documents were conveniently shredded.

Since his conversion in 1986, Black says he has “taken the sacraments at least once a week since, and have confessed when I feel sinful. This is not an overly frequent sensation, but when it occurs, I can again agree with Cardinal Newman that our consciences are “powerful, peremptory, unargumentative, irrational, minatory and definitive.”” Perhaps someone can explain to my feeble mind what he means in this last phrase—the words I know, but his point eludes me!

This is a man who sits smugly in his jail cell sharing his journey toward belief in the “Holy Catholic Church.” Here is how the article ends: “Though there are many moments of scepticism as matters arise, and the dark nights of the soul that seem to assail almost everyone visit me too, I have never had anything remotely resembling a lapse, nor a sense of forsakenness, even when I was unjustly indicted, convicted, and imprisoned, in a country I formerly much admired.”

Conrad Black may say he has found the answer to his spiritual quest, but from what I gather, he has barely begun.