Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Wonder

Almost two thousand years ago, a remarkable child was born. But even before he was born, his mother was told by a heavenly visitor that her son wasn’t going to be a normal human being—he would be the son of God. There were supernatural signs surrounding his birth and as a child, he showed himself to be a prodigy. In later years he performed miracles to demonstrate that he wasn’t a mere mortal and his followers believed him to be divine. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. Eventually, his enemies tried him before the Roman authorities because of his subversive ideas. Some people claimed to have seen him alive after he’d ascended to Heaven, and this convinced them that there was life after death. Some of his followers went on to write books about him.

His name was Apollonius of Tyrana.

Professor Bart D. Erhman, New Testament Scholar, and head of Religious Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaches about this pagan philosopher—a worshiper of the Greek gods. Apollonius and Jesus lived during the 1st century of the Common Era, each having followers who thought the other was a hoax. As strange as such events sound to us today, people in the ancient world were familiar with stories about divine men who had a connection with the divine realm.

Tom Harpur, theologian and former religion editor of The Toronto Star, has a radical take on the subject in his controversial book The Pagan Christ. He claims there was no such historical figure as Jesus Christ and that his entire existence is a fabrication, based on Egyptian mythology. Harpur writes, “The compilers of the New Testament missed the point entirely that the whole thing was meant allegorically.” He goes on to say, “What all of this means is that the manger of the Christmas story existed in Egyptian mythology as the birthplace of the messiah, or anointed one.”

How do these insights affect people’s beliefs about the birth of Jesus?

Harvard graduate, Christian author and pastor, Dr. Mark D. Roberts, says in his blog series The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?, “If I didn’t think this really happened, if I thought that the early Christians invented this crazy idea, then I wouldn’t be able to preach the good news on Christmas Eve, or at any other time either.” He continues, “This isn’t just a nice story made up by some creative early Christians. It’s the true story of what God has actually done “for us and our salvation.”

There are over a billion Christians in the world today, many who believe in the literal virgin birth along with the angels, the wise men, and the star of Bethlehem. Every Christmas the Nativity story is presented in all its glory at church pageants and on stages like Radio City, where live animals feed into the spectacle. Priests and Ministers preach about the birth of Jesus, often conflating the accounts of the Gospels, which tell different and sometimes conflicting versions of the story.

The former Prime Minister of Britain and devout Catholic, Tony Blair, recently debated the prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens in Toronto about whether religion is good for society. Tony Blair claims religion inspires people to do good. Hitchens says it’s all bunk and very destructive (but he does have a Christmas tree in his home).

Whichever way we look at it, we cannot deny that Christianity has influenced Western Civilization more than any other religious or political institution in the world. Whether we believe that an anointed child was born in a stable that day, or that the seed of a new religion was planted around that time, we cannot avoid the message that the Christmas season brings—peace, love and goodwill to all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kindles for Kids: will they read more?

Some kids love to read. Some kids hate it. My two teenage sons fall somewhere in between. Electronics, on the other hand, engage them more than a book ever could.

Give them the internet, their iPods, and video games, and they are as alert as a hungry fox eyeing its prey, but give them a novel, especially one that’s been assigned to them at school, and they suddenly become weary like they’ve just had a long, hard day.

The fact is boys are generally less avid readers than girls, particularly when it comes to literature. This is not a good thing and it definitely will not help them get into university or college.

According to a study on Canadian Adolescent Boys and Literacy “Boys are often disadvantaged in academic literacy as a result of current curricular emphases, teacher text and topic choices, and lack of availability and acceptability of texts that match their interests...they don’t like to read, some don’t read very well, and a growing percentage of boys are “failing” at school.”

How can educators and parents encourage boys to read more books? Providing them with more gender appropriate choices definitely helps as does letting them make their own selections.

But will boys go to the library or a book store and sift through various titles before they find one that appeals to them? Not likely. Would they peruse the choices available on an electronic reader? Much more likely, I think. Many of the books are free and some new titles cost less than $5.

Not everyone can afford an eReader. And I’m sure it would not be at the top of a teenager’s Christmas wish list. Considering how quick parents are to fork out Christmas funds on other electronic gadgets and video games (the new Call of Duty game for Xbox costs over $70, including tax), would it not be expedient for them to make the extra $70 investment in a device that might inspire reading rather than raging in a war game?

Some people may not agree. The novelty will wear off and the teen will end up losing it, misplacing it, or breaking it, objectors might say. But cell phones and iPods are more likely to meet such a fate.

A skeptic could also argue that kids who don’t read books will not start to read now simply because they have a new way to do it. I’d argue that with over 750,000 books in the electronic library, even a stubborn non-reading teenage boy would find something of interest.

Almost everyone would prefer to have an iPad. You can download books as well as use the internet, watch YouTube videos, TV shows, and podcasts. Given a choice between the various applications, we can guess where a boy’s attention would be directed. And the price—almost $800 can be a deterrent in itself.

Back to the eReader. The price of the Amazon Kindle has already come down from last year’s US $189 to $139 while its Canadian counterpart, the Kobo, sells for CAN $149. The Sony Pocket Reader, another alternative, but more pricey, costs CAN $179.

I asked two of my fourteen-year-old's friends when they last read a book outside of school. One said a few years ago, the other said in the summer. (To be fair, they were all playing scrabble when I asked them this.) Would they read more if they had an electronic reader? They both said yes...they think so.

Teachers may be restricted by the curriculum, but if parents are pro-active and make reading choices more accessible to their kids, perhaps it will show up in the grades. And who knows, before long, we may see eReaders in the classroom (with text books costing $100 each, the thought is not a huge stretch).

If it takes a Kindle to kindle an interest in reading, I say, forget those video games or latest gadgets and invest in an eReader for your son. By the way, I’m sure the girls would be happy to receive one too.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In Conversation with Maurizio Bevilacqua

Maurizio Bevilacqua, the new mayor of Vaughan, has big plans for his city. With 64% of the vote in October’s municipal election, his constituents have given him their blessing to take the reins and make things happen. Situated just north of Toronto, Vaughan is one of the fastest growing communities in Canada.

Mr. Bevilacqua brings 22 years of federal political experience to the table including several cabinet posts, and he is no stranger to landslide victories. Now 50, he’s gathered plenty of tools throughout his career to help him build the city he envisions.

“Politics is my calling,” Mr. Bevilacqua says. “It’s a people business. Whether I’m working as an MP or mayor, everything is are a manifestation of all the experiences that you’ve had, negative or positive.” Whether he’s bringing experiences from the soccer field or from the federal cabinet, he intends to use all that he’s accumulated in his new role. “People are the same wherever you go, they are just motivated by different goals and objectives. In city building, you bring in the collective, you analyze what they need to do, and then you drive it hard.”

Why leave a successful federal path to manage a city with a population of about 280,000? “To go to the place where my skills would better represent the people that I serve,” Mr. Bevilacqua says. “There was a need in the city of Vaughan for new leadership—there was a void in leadership—and I felt I could fill that void given my experience.” He believes that people feel closer to the mayor than to their Member of Parliament, who sits in Ottawa and deals with issues that may not directly relate to their constituents.

Another factor that influenced Mr. Bevilacqua’s decision to run for mayor is the declining role of the federal government versus the cities. With greater decision making authority having been passed on to the provinces in recent years, an MP does not have as much control over the future of their constituency as in the past. But the mayor has increasing influence over everyday life and Mr. Bevilacqua’s role will be “more proactive”; for example, getting transit into the city, bringing in new business, creating jobs, and building infrastructure.

“Cities have become more and more important to regional economies,” he says, and he wants to exercise a role in the greater Toronto area. The city of Vaughan is his priority, but he also intends to establish the GTA as a very important regional economy in the North American context.

Mr. Bevilacqua thinks that the strengths of Vaughan have been overshadowed by the allegations of corruption and infighting, and it is now time to highlight all the good things about the city. For example, Vaughan is ten minutes away from the international gateway (Pearson Int’l Airport), it has a strong manufacturing base, the population is highly educated—well above the provincial average, it is an affluent and generous community, there is a high level of employment, it has one of the highest reserves per capita in the province, and the standard of living and quality of life are phenomenal. According to Mr. Bevilacqua, most Torontonians know little about Vaughan, and what they do perceive is unfavourable due to the negative distortions reported by the media.

One of his main priorities is to show the world what Vaughan is all about and to get rid of the negative preconceptions. He is on a mission to rebrand and to create a world class city. By 2031 the population is expected to have grown beyond 400,000 and he sees the goal of bringing Vaughan to a world class level as “the ultimate reality.”

What does this mean? He says there are three realities in life: a distorted reality, an objective reality, and an ultimate reality. “A distorted reality about the city of Vaughan is that it is ‘a city above the law’; the objective reality would be that there are newspaper articles that actually indicate that and endorse that; my ultimate reality is that the city can become a beacon of character and integrity. In my first term, if I can transform the image of the city within Canada, first and foremost, then I’ve done a great job for the people.” He will start by delivering his state of the city address to Toronto. “You’ve gotta go where you want to change the image,” he says.

As far as leadership goes, Mr. Bevilacqua plans to bring positive energy to his new role. In his campaign he did not resort to attacks on his opponents, which is why he thinks he won by such a landslide. He refused to talk about what went wrong with the city in the past and he never attacked a single candidate. “There are certain universal laws that are eternal truths,” he says. “Human decency will always be repaid. The energy you emit is the energy you get back.”

Mr. Bevilacqua brings a different tone and a different approach to council and though he recognizes that he can’t change the culture overnight, he is up for the challenge.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Stopping that Gravy Train Might Not be so Easy

What did he say? “We have to stop the gravy train?” Or was it, “We have to stock the gravy train?” Rob Ford uttered those words so many times over these past months that sometimes they sounded blurred. But he had one message throughout his campaign for mayor and he stuck to it: “End the wasteful spending, lose the perks, cut the taxes.”

If he isn’t careful, he’ll end up “stocking” the train rather than “stopping” it. And if he doesn’t deliver early on, he won’t be back after four years. “The party with taxpayers money is over, ladies and gentleman,” Ford declared during his victory speech. “We will stop the gravy train once and for all! We are going to get the city back on its financial feet.”

There is no end to the clich├ęs; the words spill out of his mouth like a song he can’t stop singing.

61% of the Toronto voting population came out to vote on October 25th—the largest turnout the city has ever seen. And with over 50% of the vote (he was declared mayor ten minutes after the polls closed), Ford has a clear mandate to put his plan into action. But first he has to make some friends on council. He may have a few already, but he’ll have to scratch a lot more backs if he wants them to jump on his bandwagon. Let the politicking begin!

Forty-four councillors with forty-four different platforms. These leaders may have some concern for city-wide mandates but, at the end of the day, they are there for their own ward, and that’s who they’ll be fighting for. As respected Toronto businessman and former candidate John Tory said, “Rob Ford has his work cut out for him to get his agenda implemented. He has the pulpit, but not necessarily the power.” Tory’s advice: “Do a careful excavation and build on strength as opposed to cutting things down.”

Spending cuts sounds great in theory, but two billion is a lot of cash. Adam Vaughan, city councillor for Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina, said, “If Ford chokes growth there will be adverse consequences. You need to make big changes to come up with that kind of money.”

The unions may create further roadblocks. Ford says he’ll negotiate in good faith with them, but he is going to open the gates to full, transparent competition. They didn’t like him to begin with so it will be interesting to see how this not-so-warm-and-fuzzy relationship unfolds. Both sides will have to move their backs away from the wall if there is any chance of conciliation.

After Ford’s win, unions like the The Central Ontario Building Trades, representing over 60,000 Toronto construction workers, are reeling. Six days before the election they threw their support behind Smitherman (abandoning Pantalone because his chances of winning were near impossible), but to no avail. They were Miller supporters all the way and doing battle with their nemesis will likely end in deadlock.

Ford’s message was clear, concise, and well-communicated. But sounding good isn’t the panacea to Toronto’s problems. Now that he has jumped on the tracks, we’ll be watching to see if he has the ability to slow the train down let alone stop it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Highway to a Heart Attack

Weary, stressed, and often late. This is the common plight of Toronto drivers. Contending with multiple routes disrupted by construction, or roads closed because of events such as parades and marathons, motorists are losing their patience and clamouring for action—before a heart attack happens at the wheel. Make sure you have your health card handy in case you need to make a detour to the hospital.

What to do? Call a city councillor, elect a new mayor? The mismanaged roads in Toronto are a travesty. We think of ourselves as a world class city, but our road infrastructure is about as leading edge as our dysfunctional subway system. As I write this, my husband is trapped on the Gardiner once again, inching his way home after a twelve-hour work day. He called an hour and a half ago to say he was en route; the drive should have taken thirty minutes from downtown to our west end home—I’m keeping his chicken warm, but maybe he’ll be too stressed too eat it.

My husband could have taken the subway to work instead this morning, but since it broke down yesterday, he thought he’d take the car. Seems that the better way is just as bad. But the TTC is a whole other story.

How long can this go on? People’s lives are being impacted adversely almost every time they commute. A half-hour drive should not turn into a ninety minute road trip each time we travel in and out of the city. The Jameson bridge midway across the Gardiner has been under construction since the spring of 2010 and will not be ready until the fall of 2011. The closed exit and the reduced lanes are the source of constant gridlock. Funny that whenever I pass the site, the workers are nowhere in sight; maybe they’re busy fixing the subway.

Driving-induced stress is no small concern. I’d like to see a study on how many accidents occur because of highway construction and reduced lanes. I’d like to know how many people have heart attacks or strokes or anxiety attacks because of the increased stress caused by traffic congestion. Studies show that our blood pressure goes up while we’re stuck in traffic. What is the impact on healthcare costs? And how many working hours are wasted while trying to get to our jobs.

Sure, the city needs to maintain roads and highways, and to allow for recreational activities like marathons, but perhaps it’s time to review the pitfalls and benefits of how these things are implemented in our city. Does one section of a major highway really require eighteen months to be repaired? Must we use downtown streets for marathons? Do two important highways need to be closed at the same time?

Play some music and relax while you’re stuck in traffic, a therapist recommends. Think of something positive; imagine yourself on the beach. Make eye contact with other drivers and smile, a well-intended website suggests.

Solid solutions are not straightforward. They require consultation, collaboration and communication—and perhaps a municipal shake-up. For now, how about investing in more expedient highway repairs, which can only help the economy through increased employment and ultimately, a more productive workforce. And as far as road closures are concerned, a little planning goes a long way. Shutting down two major thoroughfares on one busy Saturday does not make sense. Let’s get all our ducks lined up and figure out a plan.

This city tries to heal and repair our traffic problems with Band-Aids and knee-jerk fixes rather than make the investment and perform the crucial surgery that’s required. But the Band-Aids keep falling off and the operating costs become greater as the injuries get worse. In the meantime, drivers are at risk of becoming road-weary and sick. As the city population continues to grow and our citizens continue to age and rage, we’ll need more than a few Band-Aids to keep our roads and our drivers from breaking down altogether.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A New York Jaunt, an Intriguing New Film

My friend Trish and I flew to New York City last weekend to attend the feature film premiere of my actor cousin and her writer/director husband’s debut movie, JIM. I’d heard about this work in progress during intermittent visits over the past several years and was always intrigued by the latest developments. I recall our conversations about the screenplay as it was being written, the production plans, and the film shoots, which took place in St. Louis, New Jersey and NYC. Produced by the husband and wife team Jeremy and Vanessa Morris-Burke, the indie sci-fi film drew a large crowd on its opening night.

Jeremy Morris-Burke, who wrote and directed the movie, is a talented and tenacious entrepreneurial type, with a diverse theatre background and a highly creative imagination. Once he had the story in mind, there was no stopping him. My cousin, Vanessa Morris-Burke, is a New York stage actor who has performed in various productions and has worked as a theatre producer.

Playing the cancer-stricken wife of the soon-to-be widowed Jim, Vanessa takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. We’re devastated by her prognosis, encouraged by her near-recovery and then bludgeoned by her sudden demise. Her dying scene is so authentic that her mother (the executive producer of the film) cries every time she watches that scene. A review in the New York Times noted that Vanessa’s work “stands out” in the film.

Notwithstanding my 'cousin' status, I was immensely proud watching Vanessa's dramatic performance. My friend Trish, perhaps a less biased critic because she’d never met Vanessa before, was equally impressed. The lead actor, Dan Illian, also making his film debut, came across a seasoned screen actor, immediately drawing us into his character’s miserable plight. The rest of the acting, the music composition, the special effects, the filming and editing, all came together in a seamless way, engaging the packed theatre for the full hour and forty minute duration.

After the movie was over, we were treated to a Q & A session, where the producers and some of the cast and crew provided insights about the making of the movie. When Jeremy was asked, “What’s next?” he said he needed to focus on the film’s distribution and then take a breather, but I got the feeling from talking to him later that he’s also itching to move on to his next project.

Here’s the plot as described on the film’s website

‘Jim’ is a new science fiction drama that juxtaposes a seemingly inevitable near-future of genetic commercialism against a distant post-human dystopia. A desperate, unemployed widower seeks to salvage his legacy by hiring Lorigen, a biotech firm specializing in genetic wares, to create an enhanced child in memory of his wife. Meanwhile, a corrupt industrialist presides over a dead planet awash in genetic inferiority. Nature intervenes and these two worlds converge through an impossible shared dream which will make or break humanity for the long haul…

The film offers a powerful vision of the difficult choices that advancements in science and technology will be forcing people to make in the not so distant future.

Click on the above website if you’d like to see the trailer and if you want to learn more about the movie and the people behind its creation.

As a writer, I know how difficult it is to make headway in the cash-strapped, competitive, ever-struggling world of ‘the arts’; it often takes years of doggedness to finish a project and then additional years of tough slugging to get your work out into the marketplace. You also need really thick skin to withstand the slings and arrows of rejection and criticism. To put things in perspective, Stephen King wrote five novels before he finally got published (Carrie was his break-out novel).

My hat goes off to Jeremy and Vanessa, the production team, and all the cast and crew who joined forces in making this movie a reality. JIM just may be the precursor of the blockbuster waiting to emerge. The Village Voice, the first and largest alternative newsweekly in the U.S., says, “His (Morris-Burke’s) technical virtuosity and thematic ambition mark him as a filmmaker of promise.”

What a thrill to partake in this occasion and to experience the palpable excitement surrounding the opening of a new film. If you happen to be in LA this week, or in any of the places where the film will be playing in the next few months (see the website calendar), be sure to check it out. You will see a mass of young talent who are sure to reappear in other great projects down the road.

JIM is playing an extended run at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village until Oct. 21.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Reading into the Future

As an avid reader and writer, I am always interested in new technology pertaining to these disciplines. But as someone in, dare I say it, midlife I am sometimes torn between familiarity and innovation. Communication technology has exploded in recent years and it can be difficult to keep up—psychologically and financially. We used to have telegrams and telephones to communicate, but now we can email, text, tweet, Facebook chat, blog, Skype, video conference, or simply call each other on our cells.

A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend for coffee at Starbucks. While I waited for my latte, I scanned the large room and noted how quiet it was. Then I realized why. Almost every table was occupied by a customer sipping a drink while working on a laptop or texting on a cell phone. My friend, who had arrived before me, was immersed in her book, which she was reading on her Kindle. I found the scene ironic given the fact that coffee shops used to be places where people convened to talk face-to-face, whether for business or pleasure.

The world is changing quickly, as it always has. We can embrace these changes or we can resist them. When I’m a senior, I hope I’ll become a person who gets excited by innovation, especially if it will make my life easier and more pleasant; but at the same time, I understand the seniors of today who don’t have the patience to learn how to use yet another gadget, or the desire to spend their retirement income on the latest technology.

Just as I’m starting to think that I’d like a Kindle or an iPad, there’s talk of a new kind of book (still in developmental stages) that allows you to read, research and interact all at the same time. Have a look at this video clip to see what I mean: THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK.

New communication technology offers new tools, which are meant to facilitate our lives. For the most part they do; however, one of my greatest grievances is not that I have to learn something new, but that there is the potential for more cords, wires and plugs in my house. Everything needs a charger and every charger needs to be plugged in. We already have a web of wires that seem to emerge from each socket in our home, required to charge all our electrical gadgets such as cell phones, portable phones, iPods, laptops, eBooks, Gameboys and PSPs, digital cameras and recorders, portable DVD players...and the list goes on.

Technological innovations certainly enhance our lives but they can also cause aggravation, which includes complicated and time consuming instructions and many, many wires. I’d like to see a computer chip that can be plugged into our brains while we sleep to download instructions, and a super charging device that would allow us to charge every single gadget out of sight and in one place—under the bed perhaps. Oh, and how about implanting anti-theft, anti-breakage software into the product, or in us? That could save some aggravation too.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I'm Back

Dear CarlaVista readers,

I’m sorry for disappearing on you for a few weeks. I’ve been preoccupied with finishing my novel and also fighting a nasty, somewhat debilitating summer cold. The novel is now complete (apart from the never-ending task of revising) and my cold is almost gone.

I’ve begun querying literary agents, which means sending out tailored proposals, but the competition is fierce and the work of writing a book almost pales next to the work required in finding a literary agent. Many agents receive thousands of submissions a year and only take on one or two new, unpublished authors as clients. Of course, it helps to be plugged into the industry (which I am not), so even getting someone to read my submission is a small triumph. Please keep your fingers crossed for me as I tackle this seemingly hopeless endeavour. And if you have any insights to share or any connections in the publishing industry, please pass them on!

Now that summer is almost over and my book is complete, I will soon be in job search mode, as writing novels isn’t the most lucrative of professions (unless you’re a Stephen King or James Patterson). Any help in the employment realm would also be appreciated (marketing/business communications is my focus).

All that said, I will be resuming my blog writing, but not with the same regularity of the past. Please check in from time-to-time and continue to send me emails ( or leave comments at the end of the post. I’m always interested in what my readers have to say and happy to receive feedback.

On to today’s article:

                                        A Bad Apple

I’m going to share an excerpt from my father’s mother’s memoir, which I am currently editing at my father’s request. This memoir, written in Hungarian just before my grandmother’s death in 1952, was later translated into English by my mother, further enhanced with pictures and comments by my father, and is now being fine-tuned by me.

My paternal grandmother was of Hungarian heritage but born in Slovakia (which was part of Hungary before the First World War). She shares my birthday and was left-handed like me. Her name, Marica, is my middle name, which I’d actually have preferred as my given name. She was an avid reader and enjoyed writing—another commonality. Sadly, I never met her because she was trapped behind the iron curtain and prohibited from leaving the country. My father, having escaped across the border into Austria when he was nineteen years old, never saw or spoke to his beloved mother again.

In her memoir, my grandmother takes the reader through a rich heritage by describing in detail the sprawling estates and ancestral portraits regally displayed in the family’s manor homes. Sadly, few of the portraits and heirlooms survive today, a tiny fraction of which were smuggled out, eventually making it across the ocean and into our homes in Canada. Since her grandchildren would never experience or witness the splendour of her pre-communist life, my grandmother decided, on her deathbed (at the age of forty-five), to take us on a journey of our forebears’ history by means of her remarkable memory and beautiful prose.

There are tales of military conquests, political feats and business accomplishments—in a world where men received great educations and opportunities, while women stood in the background prodding them on (however, these women were no shrinking violets!).

My father took my siblings and me on a family pilgrimage to his homeland back in 1989, soon after the fall of iron curtain, and the images we saw were nothing like those described in my grandmother’s memoir. The lavish homes, confiscated by the communists, had fallen into disrepair, and the lush and fertile farmland that my grandfather had owned and managed had become barren and desolate. Once a thriving agricultural community, set in the beautiful High Tatras (the Alps of Eastern Europe), the natural beauty was tarnished by the surrounding poverty and dilapidation.

An old farmhand, who had once worked for my grandfather, recognized my father in the village and could not contain his excitement. “Are you coming back to reclaim the land and bring us back to prosperity?” he asked. When my father said no, that we were only visiting, the old man shook his head with sadness. “Our lives were ruined after the government took away your father’s land,” he said. “This place is a disaster now, nothing grows here anymore.”

So much for communism.

But I digress. The excerpt from the memoir that I want to share is something that stopped me cold when I read it. My grandmother relays an anecdote about one of the ancestors, a shocking betrayal that I think would make for great fiction. Here it is:

Probstner Andras Sr’s wife died early and soon after the sad event, his son informed him that he would like to marry the lovely Fuchs Johanna. Probstner Andras Sr, who by that time was a rich mine owner and had a great fortune, was not satisfied with his son’s choice because he had ambitious plans for him. To make his son forget his love, he sent him abroad for a year’s study (circa 1815). What a horrendous surprise it must have been for the young man when, upon his return, he saw his great love again…as his father’s wife! (He was 35 years older than her and they had six children together.) Soon after this the son married the younger sister of Johanna, but this marriage was not a happy one.

Can you imagine the scandal that would erupt today if some prominent figure did this to his own flesh and blood? After feeling great sympathy for the emotionally wounded son, who never recovered from the betrayal, I came to the realization that my father happens to be one of the descendants of the guilty couple. If it wasn’t for that union, he wouldn’t have been born, and neither would I for that matter! Well, I still feel sorry for the son.

I shouldn’t dwell on the one bad apple among the large cast of characters in this memoir, because most of my grandmother’s stories speak of valiant and noble deeds performed by upstanding people. But I found this to be an interesting lesson of legacy. This particular ancestor was not highlighted in my grandmother’s memoir for his great achievements, but rather for his immoral and shameful treatment of his son.

I guess there will always be a bad apple in every barrel of good ones.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Matter of Oil and Death

Recently, I’ve been researching Kenyan slums for the novel I’m writing. I learned some harrowing facts about the impoverished state of that country. Over 50% of the population lives in abject poverty, existing on less than $2/day, and 40% of the people are unemployed.

Kibera, which is about five kilometres from Nairobi City, is the most densely and highly populated slum in Kenya, with between 800,000 and a million inhabitants—one of the biggest in the world. It is a microcosm of most of the slums in African urban centers and it exemplifies the appalling living conditions for many in the cash-strapped continent.

Like many of the urban slums, Kibera lacks basic services such as infrastructure, sanitation, a sewage system, and a clean water supply. As a result, diseases like malaria, cholera and typhoid are highly prevalent; and with no public healthcare, there is little hope for the sick but to languish and die under dire circumstances.

Charitable organizations have set up health-care clinics and schools, and are trying to alleviate suffering; but their efforts are often impeded by gang warfare and political tensions. Since the last election in 2007, crime and violence have increased, including the torching of dwellings and indiscriminate violence.

Basic human needs such as food, clean water, sanitation, health-care, security, and education are not even close to being met. If a woman gets gang-raped on her way to the latrine, ten minutes away from her shack, there’s no point going to the police because they may have been involved in the rape themselves.

HIV/AIDS is another major problem. A woman has virtually no control over her body and is forced to submit to her mate’s desires despite his multiple exploits. Once infected, treatment is difficult to obtain and many young parents soon die, leaving their children orphaned and abandoned.

When I see the pictures and read about the lives of these people, I can’t imagine a more horrible existence.

Yesterday the media highlighted the state of Haiti, still writhing from the devastating earthquake, six months ago. Not much has changed for the people there, despite the billion dollar pledges of public and private aid from concerned citizens and organizations everywhere.

Simply scanning the paper, we see articles about misery and suffering every day, sometimes provoked by man, sometimes by nature. The BP oil spill (the quintessential manmade disaster), is an example of extreme capitalism gone wrong. I am a capitalist through and through, but I have concerns about multi-billion dollar mistakes that destroy the environment and cause economic havoc.

Having just read that the cost of the BP oil clean-up will cost an approximate thirty billion dollars—that’s $30,000,000,000 (including clean-up costs and liabilities) See Globe and Mail article: Spill costs to cut BP tax bill by $10-billion—I can’t help but think about our impoverished global neighbours and their dismal lives.

For many of us, it’s the luck of the draw that we were born in North America. Either our ancestors or our parents made the wise decision to travel to this land in search of a better life. We are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices. Is it therefore not incumbent upon us to live up their hopes and dreams and to also help others less fortunate?

When thirty billion dollars (which is probably a conservative estimate) goes into fixing a corporate mistake, I am sickened and saddened—for the people who are directly affected, and for victims of poverty at home and abroad, who could have used that wasted cash to build better quality lives. Thirty billion dollars would go a long way in helping impoverished nations with food and clean water, sanitation, infrastructure, schools, healthcare facilities and security—the things we take for granted in the west.

The BP shareholders are suffering financial misfortune, much of their investments gone down the tubes (or to the bottom of the sea). Perhaps in hindsight they should have invested their money in NGOs (Non Government Organizations), whose product is improved human lives. The big picture shows that the greatest returns are best measured in human terms. This may not be the strongest argument for investing in third-world countries, but I know if I’d lost a chunk of cash with BP, I’d have wished that I’d sent that money to Haiti or Africa instead.

I wonder if Bernie Madoff’s clients, who lost billions to his ponzi scheme, would also have preferred to use their cash for more constructive purposes than lining that crook’s pockets.

We cherish our free markets and our individual freedom, but clearly there is a continued negligence when it comes to oversight, transparency and accountability. Governments need to enforce stronger regulations and individuals should be more discerning when it comes to investing.

Maybe I’m naive and idealistic, but I do believe that the global community is getting smaller and that our interconnection is getting closer. We still have to look after ourselves, but we can’t forget our global neighbours.

And when we help our neighbours, we help ourselves.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Thank you to Ann Kristoffy for passing this message along. We don't know who wrote it, but we like the wisdom in the words!

Carrots, Eggs & Coffee

A carrot, an egg, and a cup of coffee... You will never look at a cup of coffee the same way again.

A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to boil. In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil; without saying a word.

In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she asked, 'Tell me what you see.'

'Carrots, eggs, and coffee,' she replied.

Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted that they were soft. The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it.. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hardboiled egg.

Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma. The daughter then asked, 'What does it mean, mother?'

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.

'Which are you?' she asked her daughter. 'When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?

Think of this: which am I? Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do I wilt and become soft and lose my strength?

Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Did I have a fluid spirit, but after a death, a breakup, a financial hardship or some other trial, have I become hardened and stiff? Does my shell look the same, but on the inside am I bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and hardened heart?

Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you. When the hour is the darkest and trials are their greatest do you elevate yourself to another level? How do you handle adversity? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?

May you have enough happiness to make you sweet, enough trials to make you strong, enough sorrow to keep you human and enough hope to make you happy.

The happiest of people don't necessarily have the best of everything; they just make the most of everything that comes along their way.

The brightest future will always be based on a forgotten past; you can't go forward in life until you let go of your past failures and heartaches.

When you were born, you were crying and everyone around you was smiling.

Live your life so at the end, you're the one who is smiling and everyone around you is crying.

You might want to send this message to those people who mean something to you; to those who have touched your life in one way or another; to those who make you smile when you really need it; to those who make you see the brighter side of things when you are really down; to those whose friendship you appreciate; to those who are so meaningful in your life.

May we all be COFFEE!!!!!!!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Life is a ‘Dog’ Walk in the Park

Every evening, starting at about 5:00, our Havanese dog Taffy reminds me to take her for her walk. During the day, she gets intermittent walks around the block; otherwise she goes out whenever she wants, having in-and-out privileges through the back door. She’s a small dog, ten pounds, so she doesn’t have the same 90-minute exercise needs as do many of her peers. Nonetheless, she lives for those evening walks and by 5 p.m, she begins following me around the house with her guilt-trip stare.

So off we go on our regular half-hour route, which she knows by heart. If I sent her off on her own, she’d likely do the circuit and come straight home. Her favourite part of the excursion is our romp through the park, where she connects with her friends and sniffs to her little heart’s desire. Last night, after a stifling hot day, the entire neighbourhood seemed to be walking their dogs at the same time; the park a bustling doggy retreat.

Like a United Nations of canines, it seemed like every breed was represented, with a few mixes and mutts to round out the crowd. There’s Nessy the 40-pound sheepdog puppy, Bernie the Bulldog, and George the Porgie, not to mention the Rhodesian Ridgeback, the Wheaten Terrier, and the German Pointer (I can’t remember all their names; name tags might help). When Taffy arrived the dogs ran to greet her as if they’d been waiting for her all day. Oh, to be so popular.

After sniffing each other in salutation they usually run off to play, a new dog bringing fresh excitement to the games. The owners, like their dogs, come in all shapes and sizes, happy to talk and share stories of everyday life. During these 5-20 minute gatherings, we cover topics like the G20, the recent earthquake, the oil spill and the upcoming Canadian Open, which will take place at the golf club just a block away.

Last night a woman told my husband and me that she’d spent the weekend at the cottage, where it was oppressively hot, the bugs were atrocious and the drive home a four-hour traffic jam, taking twice the normal time. “I’m so happy to be back in the city,” she said. “But at least the dog had fun up there.” While we talked, our two dogs seemed to have their own conversation through sniffs and starts and simultaneous rolls in the grass.

Without Taffy, I’d have no idea how friendly our neighbourhood was, given that most people jump in and out of their cars for work, for sport and for play. Always on the go, there is little opportunity to stop and say hello. The dogs slow us down, push us out the door, and force us into social interaction, creating a community that might otherwise stay hidden.

I’ve yet to meet a dog person in our neighbourhood whom I haven’t liked. And if the dog is rude, the owner is quick to apologize. For instance, heading back home after our walk last night, we came across the ugliest dog I have ever seen. Bearing its teeth at Taffy as we passed, the couple graciously smiled and said, “So sorry. He’s friendly, but not toward other dogs.” Perhaps he’d been bullied by the more attractive dogs when he was a pup.

One of my favourites in the neighbourhood is my cousins’ Woodle (Wheaton and Poodle mix). Like a forty-pound teddy bear, Crosbie is a huggable beast. Her way of guarding the house is to jump up with pleasure when she sees you and to throw herself onto her back for a tummy rub. I think it's true that nice people often beget nice dogs.

An old friend, who was visiting from Nova Scotia this weekend, suddenly became the caregiver for two dogs—her daughter's 4-pound teacup Pomeranian and her parents’ 40-pound Golden Retriever. “I can’t believe that, on top of everything else I’ve got going in my life, I now have these dogs to worry about,” she said, as she lovingly showed their pictures. Then she told me that she totes tiny Ella around in her purse.

We love our dogs: they are our babies who don’t grow up. They teach us patience, bring us joy, keep us fit, socialize us, relieve our stress and make us nicer people. They even love us unconditionally—and who really deserves that? Okay, so they cost us a lot of money, but in my mind, a dog in the home is worth all our electronic gadgets put together.

They say “It’s a dog’s life” but, the reality is, “With a dog, it’s a better life.”

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Quiet Time

I thought I’d have a quiet day today—a writing day. With one teenage son out of town on a school trip, the other one enjoying the beginning of his summer break (which means sleeping), and my husband at the office, I’d set aside the day to work on my novel.

Two hours into my writing, Matt’s band “HOF” began to arrive. “We have to practice for our gig tomorrow night,” he said. “Oh, I thought you’d practiced enough on Tuesday when my bridge group was here.” I have to admire their diligence.

My peaceful day was soon infiltrated by the pounding reverberations felt and heard through the basement ceiling. Drums, saxophones, trumpets, bass guitars, and aggressive vocals combined to entertain with their lovely Indie punk rock melodies.

Working at the computer in the kitchen, I was soon visited by band members requiring snacks and drinks and offering congenial conversation. The 15 to 17-year-old boy (and one girl) band take their music seriously. They play, they break to eat, drink, and chat for a few minutes, and then they play some more. Three hours of live Indie rock music in the background while trying to write fiction makes for an interesting writing challenge, my characters likely saying and doing things they wouldn’t normally have said or done.

But how can I complain? Was it not me who convinced Matt to have the band practice here instead of at his friend’s, so we wouldn’t have to continually schlep his drum kit back and forth? I’ve always enjoyed having our kids’ friends at the house and this musical entourage is particularly interesting. An eclectic group who dance to their own beat and have their own style, they come with Mohawk haircuts, long rocker tresses, blond curly locks, and preppy coifs. Polite, good-humoured, talented and smart, I must say, these kids are a pleasure to have around despite the interruption to my Chapter Sixteen.

After attempting to write amidst the background (or should I say, underground) entertainment, I decided to try my luck in the backyard, where I anticipated the sounds of birds chirping, the feel of the breeze blowing, and the sight of our dog and rabbit happily—and quietly—romping around the grass. Most of all, I looked forward to stealing away for a few hours of peace and quiet on a perfect summer day.

None of this was to be. Here I sit, on my comfortable deck, reclined in the chair, listening to our next-door neighbour’s incessant barking dog, our back-door neighbour’s screaming children, and the piercing drilling and sawing noises from another’s home renovation. I’d be a hypocrite to complain without acknowledging my own past offenses. I once had screaming children (who now don’t scream, but play loud musical instruments) and a barking dog (who barked so much that the neighbour yelled across the fence, “Give your dog a valium, will ya?), not to mention a noisy construction project or two.

The G20 Summit is here in Toronto and I just got off the phone with my husband who is working downtown. “It’s a ghost town here,” he said. “Only about 30% of our office came in, probably more than most—driving was a breeze and parking was half price.”

Maybe I should have left the suburbs and trekked downtown for my peaceful day of writing; I might have had better luck finishing Chapter Sixteen.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

How Busy Are You?

“Hi! How are you? Seems so long since we last talked.
Yes, it’s been ages. I’m good. Busy though.
Me too. I can’t believe how fast time is flying by. We’ve got to get together to catch up.
Absolutely. Let’s connect via email.”

And so the conversation goes. Have you ever had one like that? Did you actually email each other and make plans to meet for coffee or lunch? And not cancel the day before?

Life is busy. We’re all busy. Sometimes too busy to see family, connect with friends, walk the dog, or pick up the phone.

A while ago I read a clip in a magazine about busy people. It said that when we tell others how busy we are, it’s really a type of social bragging. Of course we’re busy. Who isn’t? But when we say it, we feel important. Like we have so much to do and so little to say, except that we’re busy.

People like to compare notes. We like to say how much we crammed into our day. Some busy folks will start with their morning routine: “I took the kids to school, walked the dog, had a bite, grabbed the paper, drove two miles, forgot my cell phone, drove back home to get it,” and then follow with the rest of their day:

“I got to work, had meetings, did some damage control, ripped my nylons on the metal part of the boardroom chair, had to run to the store to get a new pair, made sales calls in the afternoon, found out my daughter had her school music recital that evening, had to be home by six to make supper and drop her off by 6:30, whipped home, drove my son to soccer, returned to the recital and circled around for twenty minutes looking for a parking space, was late for the concert as was my husband, who was supposed to meet me there, got home at 8:30, cleaned the kitchen, threw some laundry in the machine, reviewed my notes for my presentation the next day, and out of sheer desperation for mindless diversion, watched The Bachelorette until 10:00, at which time I fell asleep without brushing my teeth.”

This is not exactly my life, but an example of a working person’s typical day. If you asked this fictional character how she was doing, she’d probably say, “Busy.” And she wouldn’t be exaggerating.

Tuesday’s Globe and Mail reported that Canadians are so busy these days that they barely have time to eat with their kids. “The hours that Canadians spend refreshing their minds and their bodies through leisure and cultural activities – and moments shared with family – are being condensed and it’s affecting their well-being,” the article states. Furthermore, “Canada has become a society operating 24 hours a day and, as a result, more people are working odd hours...That has cut into the time they would normally spend with their spouses and their children and doing the things they really like to do. And that can lead to burnout.”

My very good friend Karen McKnight is a Life Coach and an Executive Coach at Transitions’ Edge in Toronto. She helps people achieve better balance in their lives. She herself is one of the busiest people I know. I don’t know how she does it. Her schedule is not dissimilar to the one outlined above, multiplied by two...or three. I’ve often said that she is like two people packed into one.

Karen says, “People need to be clear about what they want from the particular stage of life they are at – and also have a clear vision of how they want to ‘be’ – how they ‘show up’ in terms of all the roles they play in life. It is also vital for people to know what ‘centred’ feels like – and this is a very individual thing. The more awareness someone has about their particular version of balance, the quicker they are to notice if they have been knocked off and thus the quicker they are to ‘right’ themselves...and then just when you figure out what balance means, chances are a variable will change in your life that means a redefinition of priorities, which then impacts how you allocate your time.”

For Karen to feel like she is functioning optimally, she prefers for all her energy quadrants (physical, mental, emotional and intellectual) to be in full gear and to know and feel that she is contributing in a variety of different ways in the world around her. When she gets depleted, which feels like a ‘crash’ to her, she knows it’s time to pull back, regroup, and recharge. Then, when she re-enters, she can approach things with full energy again. “The key,” she says, “is for people to take the time to learn about their preferences and their relationship to ‘busy’ and what makes for a fulfilled life (at this time).”

Most of us like to be busy, and we like making a contribution. Busyness can be of our own making or imposed upon us. Particularly upon those who are working hard, raising children and caring for elderly parents all at the same time. And not everyone has a partner to share the burdens with.

When I look at my life schedule, it’s relatively packed. I’m constantly trying to re-jig my priorities so I don’t feel so tired all the time, and it’s a challenge. Is my life any busier than yours? I doubt it. In fact, it’s probably a day in the park compared to some of your schedules.

My point is this: we are all busy. We all have responsibilities and we are all doing our best to live balanced lives. Let’s take that B word out of our conversations and instead of answering the question, “How are you?” with the proverbial response, “BUSY,” how about taking a deep breath and sharing a smidgeon more about our lives. And the next time we say, “We’ve got to get together sometime,” let’s pull out our BlackBerries or calendars and make an actual date…that we keep.

And if you catch me saying the B word, please call me on it!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Leading From the Grave

To lead from the grave is a remarkable feat. Martin Luther King Jr. still speaks to us with his "I had a dream" speech, and no one can forget John F. Kennedy’s statement “Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Christians consider Jesus to be the greatest leader of all time, and his instruction to “Love your neighbour as yourself,” the quintessential directive for mankind. These leaders walked their talk, which gives their teachings credence. They sent out a call to mission and for many, their powerful words and actions will always resonate.

The story that I want to share is about a leader in my life, who died forty years ago—my grandmother. If there is any one person who has influenced me personally from the grave, it would be her. My grandmother never led a large group of people to action, but she led her family to survival. Her courage and determination became an inspiration to all who knew her. I was only eight when she died, but what I remember about her and what I came to learn about her later in life have often spurred me on during tough times.

My grandmother was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1909, into an affluent and highly respected family. During her early years she had a governess and went to the best schools; the family had maids and cooks and they entertained lavishly. Budapest was a beautiful city, a cultural and intellectual hub of Eastern Europe, and there was no shortage of cultural diversions for them to enjoy. Attending the symphony, the opera, the ballet and society balls was part of their regular lifestyle.

In her late teens my grandmother attended university, uncommon for women in Hungary at the time, and obtained a degree in education. Women in her social class did not work in those days (in or out of the house) and despite her university degree and her intelligence, there were few opportunities to develop a career. But she had a strong moral and social conscience; a good and honest person, she treated others with respect, regardless of social status. In her early twenties, she married my grandfather, a professional engineer, and kept busy with social activities and philanthropic work and began a family. Life was good.

Before long everything changed. The Second World War began and by 1944 chaos reigned. Budapest was bombed, food became scarce, businesses shut down, and properties were destroyed. Their own house was bombed but fortunately, no one was hurt. The family scattered and the children went to live in the country with my grandfather's parents.

But the countryside was not much of a haven. When the Russians advanced they had to return to Budapest, where the family was assigned living quarters. Bombing continued and every day brought new fear. Gas and food were scarce and the best hope for survival was to flee to Austria. My grandfather was able to get the family out of the country despite difficult circumstances. After packing a few belongings and as much food as possible, my grandmother said good-bye to her beloved Hungary, not knowing when, or whether, she would ever return.

At age 36, my grandmother became the main caregiver of her children and her in-laws. She was responsible for their safety, shelter and sustenance, while my grandfather separated from them to work. In the beginning they camped out in a boxcar at a railway station and after three months of cramped living, moved into a small apartment nearby. My grandmother had to be resourceful in finding food; to get by she bartered rationed items like sugar cubes and silk stockings for milk, butter and other necessities. She spent her days visiting refugee camps in different parts of Austria, looking for her own parents, who she hoped had managed to leave Hungary as well. For several months, she didn’t know if my grandfather was dead or alive.

In 1948, my grandfather followed his brother-in-law to Sweden and eventually brought the family over from Austria. With no knowledge of Swedish, they all had to find work to survive—my grandmother labored as a seamstress, my grandfather as a draftsman, and my young teenage mother had various summer jobs. My great-grandparents cared for my uncle, who was a young boy at the time. Again my grandmother was left at the helm while my grandfather tried to make arrangements to immigrate to Canada.

In 1951 they came to Toronto and put a down-payment on a small house, using the proceeds from the sale of my grandmother's most expensive piece of jewelery. The family took whatever jobs they could because they could not speak the language. Even my great-grandmother, a woman of gentility, eventually found work as a housekeeper because she didn't want to be a burden. When their English was proficient enough, my grandfather landed a good engineering job in Montreal designing grain elevators, and my grandmother found work teaching sewing in a high school. After a few years of working very hard, they were finally able to enjoy a decent standard of living.

I’ve always been amazed at how my grandmother coped with the hardships—especially when she was on her own in a foreign country and solely responsible for the welfare of her children and in-laws. When I knew her, she was working full-time and loving it. She sewed her own clothes and always looked sensational. I remember a loving and joyful woman who embraced life with passion. I never heard her complain or lament about the privileged life she’d left behind. Not once did I hear her say anything about ‘the good old days.’ She loved everything about Canada—the forests, the countryside, the lakes, and the people. One of the few things she took issue with was sliced white bread, which she considered tasteless and soulless (Hungarians love their food!).

She died at the age of 62 of a brain tumor. The fact that she never had a chance to enjoy her retirement saddens me; her dream was to travel and reconnect with old friends, many of whom had dispersed to various foreign countries. But judging from the attendance at her funeral you’d never know that she was so far away from her homeland. The church was packed with family and friends, students and colleagues—people whom she touched with her love, her courage, her vitality, and her determination.

My grandmother never gave up on happiness and through her positive attitude, strong will and hard work, the obstacles she faced were not insurmountable. She showed that despite setbacks, challenges and hardships, there is always a way forward. Walking her talk, she demonstrated how great legacies are created. As is the case with the illustrious historical leaders, my grandmother’s spirit will undoubtedly live on for generations to come.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where the Heck did I Put my...?

Has anyone seen my glasses, my cell phone, my wallet, my keys?”

These questions can be heard in many households around the globe. Especially in households containing people over the age of fifty. Make that forty!

Thanks to ‘middle-aged’ brain syndrome (my own terminology), once we hit that particular stage, our lives and minds are never quite the same.

This week, when shopping at Costco, I filled my cart with the usual staples and then added several impulse purchases. Pressed for time, I got to the cash register with few minutes to spare before picking up my son at school. After scanning all my items, the cashier passed me the contraption to scan my debit card. To my shock and horror, I couldn’t remember my password.

“Do you have cash?” she asked.

I checked my wallet. $25 would definitely not cover the contents in my cart. “No,” I said. “Let me think for a second.” Well aware of the long line behind me, I racked my brain, practically causing a hemorrhage.

“We have an ATM over there,” the woman said.

I smiled. “That’s not going to help if I can’t remember my password.” I closed my eyes and thought some more. How could I forget? I’d been using this card for years, albeit not that frequently. “Do you take Visa?” I knew they didn’t but thought I’d inquire for good measure.

The only way I could explain this memory lapse to myself was that since Visa recently began requiring passwords, the place in my brain where I stored my debit card code had been taken over by my new four digit code. Not to mention all the other passwords floating around my brain competing for storage space.

The cashier had to reverse all but $25 worth of my purchases and another employee had to put everything back on the store shelves. I was so mortified that I couldn’t look at the people waiting in the line.

As I headed to my car, annoyed and frustrated, the forgotten password popped into my head. What a nasty trick!

Since I haven’t even reached the age of fifty, this is disturbing. And how many times have I walked into a room and forgotten what I was going there for? How often have I struggled for a person’s name when introducing them to someone? Such senior moments are not supposed to happen to me. Not yet.

I read, write, do crosswords, play scrabble and bridge, and even tackle Sudoku from time to time. Aren’t these activities supposed to keep our brains alert? Sure I have a million things going on in my life, including helping manage the lives of my kids and husband, but don’t we all?

Several years ago I read a Margaret Wente (Globe & Mail) article about her own struggles with forgetfulness. After removing her debit card and receipt from an ATM machine, she left without taking the cash she’d just withdrawn. Funny that I’d remember that story, which I’m sure I read more than five years ago.

Recently, I heard an interview on NPR (National Public Radio) about the aging brain: The Surprising Strengths of the Middle-Aged Brain. I have to admit, I fall right into the profile. Barbara Strauch, the health and medical science editor at The New York Times, writes about this very topic in her new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.

According to Staunch, the bad news is “Our brains do decline as we age” (no surprise), but "What [scientists are] starting to do is sort out what is normal aging [and] what is pathology and leading toward dementia — and they now know that dementia is not inevitable, and that basically this 'normal forgetting' is part of normal aging. And in many ways we can — if we keep ourselves healthy — actually improve our brains. We can live out the rest of our lives with pretty sharp brains if we're lucky."

The good news is this: “not all is lost in middle age. There are certain cognitive functions that improve as a brain grows older. Strauch points to studies that indicate that a sense of well-being peaks — across all occupations and ethnicities — as people reach middle age. In addition, she says, certain studies show that an older brain can solve problems better than a younger brain.”

Last night my husband and I went out for dinner. When he handed over his Visa to pay for the meal, and was given that little machine asking for his security code, guess what? He couldn’t remember it. Good thing I had my Visa card with me and I knew my password. Problem solved.

I guess if you put two aging brains together, the chances of someone remembering something are much improved!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

High School Reunion Revisited

This weekend I attended my high school’s 60th Anniversary reunion in St. Lambert, Quebec. As opposed to my years’ 25th, this gathering included multiple generations. I applaud the organizers of such events for their devoted efforts and hard work—a job that is surely under-appreciated or, at the very least, under-acknowledged.

Our reunion weekend included golf tournaments, soft ball games, walking tours, meet & greets, dinners, barbeques and dances. Some graduating years organized special activities like go-carting and watching the semi-final NHL hockey game at a downtown bar (a depressing outcome for Habs’ fans).

Regardless of age or graduating year, each person arrived with their own package of pre-conceptions, expectations, and personal experiences. My brother, who graduated two years before me, looked forward to re-connecting with his high school buddies, many of whom he’d known since early childhood. As the kid sister, I knew them all in varying degrees. Tagging along with my brother, we started our weekend visiting with this group at the childhood home of one of ‘the boys.’

The polite salutations were soon followed by sketches of youthful misdemeanours and wild escapades, including playing pranks on students and teachers. I’m sure the tales were tempered for the sake of the three women in the audience, including the host’s mother. As a mother of two young teenage boys, I brace myself as our sons launch into their own high school experiences. But I am reassured by the fact that my brother and his friends have all grown into accomplished, good-mannered and genial middle-aged men.

For my part, the highlight was seeing my oldest childhood friend and her four siblings. They came from many directions, including Switzerland, to attend the CCHS reunion. We grew up four doors down from each other and the three eldest of the brood used to baby-sit my brother, sister, and me in the sixties.

Such sibling gatherings are rare and since this clan is like family to me, I was thrilled to partake in their own reunion. As we sat in Alison and her husband Jimmy’s dining room having brunch, I pictured their father at the head of the table, carving the roast as he had done many a Sunday dinner. The Bruce kids' deep sibling bond is a testament to their wonderful parents, who raised five very fine people.

At the school functions, only about twelve from my graduating class attended, which wasn’t too surprising given the fact that we’d had our own reunion in 2004. Re-connecting with friends from the other grades was a bonus, and we had the opportunity to make new acquaintances. A few teachers showed up too; when I called Mr. Praw by another teacher’s name, he was not impressed. “Mr Howe is dead,” he said, “and I don’t look anything like him!” Oops.

Walking along those infamous Chambly County HS corridors, we found them unchanged except for fresh-painted walls, new floors, and updated lockers. A state-of-the art gym had been built on one end of the school in addition to a renovated industrial-type kitchen and a new cafeteria. Still a relatively small school with 500 or so students, the intimate space suggested a positive learning environment—as was the case ‘back in the day.’

Speaking to some of my old classmates, I learned of a few recent divorces (including our high school sweethearts) and I felt bad for them all. But sometimes change breathes new life into unanticipated situations, and hopefully these folks will find renewed happiness along their separate paths. A few people spoke of early retirement, having done well in their careers, and others talked of mid-life career changes. Several of my classmates’ parents are deceased, a few after having barely retired. I’m grateful that my own parents are still full of verve and in relatively good health despite their senior years and minor ailments.

Before heading back to Toronto, my brother and I drove back to our old house and took a stroll through the neighbourhood. Looking at the past through a new lens, we both commented on how small the houses seemed and how short the distances had become. We snuck into our backyard and were pleased to see my mother’s forget-me-nots in full bloom.

High school reunions are not for everyone. One woman told a classmate that she had no interest in coming because she hated those years; why would she want to relive them? As for me, I didn’t love my high school years, nor did I deplore them. But they were five years of my life that were influenced by the people and culture around me and they contributed to the formation of my worldview. I guess I’ll always feel a little nostalgic for the people and experiences from my youth that played a part in my own life story.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

High School Recall

In 2004 I attended my high school graduating class's 25-year reunion. I come from a quintessential middle-class, homogeneous, Wonderbread enclave in Montreal, where not much has changed over the years. I graduated from Chambly County High in 1979 when I was seventeen, and moved to Toronto after university in 1985, returning occasionally for visits.

When I’d first received notice about the reunion I was ambivalent. What was so great about those years anyway? We were just a bunch of teenagers awkwardly weaving our way through our youth struggling to fit in, hanging out, pushing the boundaries, and dealing with insecurities and volatile hormones. My years were filled with sports, parties, and lots of babysitting.

I wish I could say I was greatly inspired by a particular teacher or that I discovered my true calling through some life-altering teenage experience, but nothing about high school left much of an impact on me. The good news is that I passed through my teen years unscathed, an accomplishment in the eyes of some parents.

Despite my apathy about the reunion, I began to feel a sense of nostalgia. With a relatively small graduating class (about ninety-five students) the names and faces are hard to forget. What had become of them? Had they left Quebec like me to pursue a career in a more hospitable environment? Or did they choose to make the beautiful city of Montreal their life-long home?

After completing my degree at McGill, I couldn’t wait to escape the political tension and the separatist angst. With a boyfriend in Toronto and a good job offer in hand, I didn’t think twice. As is often the case, hindsight creates history, and from time-to-time I’d think back on the old days, missing Montreal and wondering how my classmates had fared.

Still, I was reluctant to attend the reunion. The reviews of others who’d attended their high school reunions tended toward the negative:

“The big shots are still full of themselves and the jerks are still jerks.”

“No big surprises except for the men. They’ve really gone downhill with middle age. The women aren’t so bad.”

“Beware of the drastically transformed. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes.”

After trading emails with a few old friends, I decided to go, regardless of the bad press. Why not? I’d consider it an adventure into the past.

The experience overrode my negative expectations. The men were handsome in their suits and ties and the women were radiant. Beyond appearances, I found the group to be affable, charming and fun. Conversation was mature and intelligent and I connected with people I’d barely spoken to during those years. I chatted with the guy I’d had an undisclosed crush on in grade eight, and laughed at myself for having avoided him that entire year.

Were these the same people with whom I shared five years of classrooms, lunchrooms and infamous dances in the gym? As I sipped my wine in that very same gym, my mind wandered to the days when "Stairway to Heaven," the last slow dance of the night, often clinched the deal between newly formed couples.

About 50% of the class had stayed in Quebec, a much higher proportion than I’d expected. The rest were scattered across the continent, many having settled in Ontario, but few in Toronto. A few had married their high school sweethearts and were still together, despite the negative odds (Quebec has the highest divorce rate in the country).

There were no brain surgeons, nuclear physicists or CEOs of large corporations. But there were accountants, engineers, salespeople, small business owners, teachers, and stay-at-home mothers and fathers. No criminals or derelicts, as far as I could tell. I listened to stories of family challenges, unpleasant divorces, and circuitous life journeys. I was impressed by those who showed up despite lousy life circumstances. One man, whom I’d remembered as a gregarious type, explained that his gaunt appearance was the result of his current “divorce diet.”

I’d expected some divorces, second marriages and blended families; and I’d expected a few wrinkles and grey hair, and a wayward character or two; but the high percentage of people suffering from serious health issues shocked me.

Yet there they were, cheerful, courageous, and uncomplaining. The camaraderie, the positive energy and the caring amongst the crowd were truly inspiring. A man in his last stages of colon cancer was friendly, conversational, upbeat and outgoing—the antithesis of his frail and sallow appearance. I hope he felt the compassion and admiration of his peers. Sadly, he passed away soon after.

Who would have thought that by age forty so many from our class of ‘79 would be dealing with such challenges as cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis? As members of the sandwich generation, caring for young children in addition to aging parents, who can afford to get sick? One of the take away lessons for me that weekend was never to take good health for granted, or let a day pass without appreciating the gift of wellbeing.

My classmates and I were all born around the same year, grew up in the same community, and were educated under the same roof, all with dreams of copious amounts of joy and adventure gracing our futures. For some those hopes were dashed too soon. Illness, death, divorce, unemployment, disabilities and depression played havoc with their dreams. But the spirit fights hard and life plods on; we do the best we can, hope for the best, and wish the best for others.

This coming weekend I’ll be back for another reunion, encompassing all graduating years since the school’s founding sixty years ago. I’m bracing myself for some sad news, but I also look forward to hearing some happy news replete with new beginnings and second chances. I don’t know if I’ll return with any revelations, but I look forward to another snapshot into the past and a renewed glimpse of the present.