Monthly Archives: February 2012

Was it Something I Said?


Deep breath, Banshee…

Even casual conversations about health care are a dicey business.  I know that.  And being an ex-pat American living in Canada makes it even dicier.  I took the world’s best healthcare for granted until I moved to Canada – yes, I was one of the extremely lucky Americans who always had an excellent healthcare package through my job.  If I needed something, I called my doctor, got in to see him/her right away, and got on with my life.  I didn’t miss entire days of work waiting in a clinic or an emergency room nor did I waste countless hours calling around trying to find a doctor who took new patients.

From 2002 until 2006, my family went without a regular family physician here in Canada.  There were none.  If I drove by a clinic that had a “taking new patients” sign, I’d cross lanes, block traffic and perform other unsafe manoeuver to get to it.  When we  finally found someone who was taking new patients, we’d get one appointment and then be told  Dr. So-and-So was moving to Saskatoon, or Lethbridge, or Dubai.  I began interrogating doctors, “So, are you planning on moving, retiring, going into the Witness Protection Program, dying, or winning the lottery in the next 2 years?” 

In Calgary, procedures of all kinds, major or minor, had waiting lists.  Women went out-of-town to have their babies, sometimes driving up to 2 hours away for an OB/GYN appointment.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is not in much better shape.  The only difference here is that we have at least half a dozen hospitals to choose from in a 5 mile radius.  Because here, an Emergency Room visit is often the only way to get seen…by anyone.  We thought we had a lovely family doctor  only to find out that she left rather suddenly right before Christmas.  There was no warning, no letter, no notification from her office.  Gone.  Was it something I said?  Oh, I forgot to ask the Witness Protection question…

So now my daughter needs a diagnostic ultrasound on her shoulder and I have no doctor to write the actual referral.  I feel like I’m constantly chasing my tail and when it comes to my family’s health, this is not only frustrating  but scary.  I just got off the phone with the clinic.  They have one doctor left who is taking new patients…I’m trying not to picture the kid who gets picked last for the sports teams in gym…and I asked the receptionist (who told me this doctor is very nice):  “Do you have her chained to a desk so she can’t leave?”

She laughed.  So did I.  Then we both said at the same time, “It’s really not funny is it?”  No.  It’s not.


In Praise of…Reading


Several things brought me to this post:

  • The path to the hair colour aisle at the grocery store
  • Shakespeare
  • My novel in progress
  • Highbrow literary pursuits

Don’t worry, even those who love me and know me well have a hard time following the trails in my brain…

Item #1:  Yesterday,walking past the racks of magazines and “supermarket novels” in order to get to my box of Natural Instincts Medium Brown (aka Espresso) hair colouring, I wondered if my novels would ever displayed with Road & Track on one side and Mickey Mouse gift wrap on the other.  As I walked past the Clive Cussler paperbacks, the Jodi Picoult novels, and others whose names I didn’t immediately recognize, I wondered if I would mind if my book was sold in a supermarket…

And, then I thought about the fact that Jodi’s and Clive’s kids probably have had top-notch university educations, braces paid for in cash, and at least two vacations a year in lovely, tropical locations.  Nope.  I wouldn’t mind at all.

  I don’t pretend to be aspiring for prizes such as the Booker, Giller, Pulitzer, Oprah Book Club (if it even exists anymore).  On the other hand, I don’t want to be known as a overtly commercial book-churning roboton.  I aspire to write engaging and readable stories – well written, of course – something I’d like to read. I aspire to…dare I say it… entertain.  I do not aspire to have readers yanking at their hair trying to figure out the mystical meaning of the novel’s deeply buried sub-plots.  Relax, read, enjoy.

Item #2: Shakespeare has come up a fair amount in our household recently.  Sunday night we watched the movie “Anonymous,” which, for any die-hard Shakespeare fan, is a bit unsettling.  Surely it doesn’t really matter whether Shakespeare penned all of those great literary works or not – what matters is there are great literary works out there that should still be read, explored, and enjoyed. My daughter is about to embark on her very first Shakespeare experience with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She, like so many other students her age, is completely intimidated by the very name Shakespeare. 

But, if you believe popular culture’s portrayal of him, he was  a hard-working guy who was as confounded by the fickleness of muses as any other writer can be.  He struggled no doubt but also enjoyed great commercial success.  As both actor and writer, he lived to entertain.  Or, somebody using his name did, anyway.

Item #3:  The Novel is humming right along…except when I allow myself to worry that I’m not going to win a Booker, Giller or be the next Shakespeare.   I worry that I will worry myself right out of writing it.  Naturally, I tell myself to stop worrying and write it down – leave off the concerns until later.

Item #4:  I have had people suggest books to me that are uber-literary, and on the short list for this prize or that…nine times out of ten I give up after a few chapters.  Like a lot of people,  by the time I settle down to read, it’s late at night.  I’ve been writing and worrying over words all day.  After that, I tend to my family.  At bedtime, I don’t want to work too hard.  My taste in books runs to the witty, sharp, fast-moving, humourous (but not necessarily light).  I don’t do plodding, laborious, or deeply insightful; I hate books that have me asking “WTF?” at the end. 

I like to emerge from one of life’s greatest pastimes sated, happy (although sorry the book ended).  I stretch like a cat, yawn, and say, “Wow, great book!”  It is my greatest wish that someone emerges from their reading cocoon someday happy and sated after reading one of my books.  Guess I’d better get on with writing it…

Of Bells and Haunting Melodies


Some days, I’m quirkier than other days.  Today I’m waxing nostalgic about church bells and psalm singing (in Gaelic no less) even though as my son describes me, “She’s allergic to going to church.”

One chilly spring  Sunday in the late 1990’s, we visited my sister-in-law in Calgary, Alberta.  Her house  overlooked Elbow Park.Adjacent to the park, nestled into the hillside sat Christ Church, a charming old Anglican church complete with bell tower that contained bats and…hand rung bells.  As I stood on the hillside that morning, the bells pealed out over the park.  I looked at my husband and said, “If we ever move here, we must live where I can hear these bells!” 

Several years later, we were living in a house so close I could see the bell tower.  Hearing the bells brought me peace – a feeling that all was right in the world (or at least my little corner of it).  Weather permitting, the windows of the house were flung open to let in the happy noise. 

Christ Church’s bells – there are eight – are hand rung in a very specific, mathematical sequence known as “change ringing.”  The bells are gargantuan but they hang in frames allowing them to be swung in an arc over 360 degrees easily – by children or seniors – pulling on long ropes.  However, it is an art that requires constant practice and attention.

Change ringing originated in England and has been practiced since the 17th Century.Churches all over Europe and North America have change ringing bells; in the United States, change ringing bells rang from Old North Church in Boston before the American Revolution. 

To hear bells in Toronto, I can’t just lean out my window. I have to go to St. James Cathedral at Church and King Streets.  This church, which has 12 bells (the only place outside of New York City with 12), known as the Bells of Old York.  They are the only set of change-ringing bells in Ontario. 

 Where the bells light a joyous light deep inside me, psalm singing rips open my heart, brings me to my knees and lays me bare.  How could such a thing be appealing?  I have no idea.  Closing my eyes when I hear these haunting melodies, I feel the wild landscapes, the angry seas even though I can’t understand the Gaelic.  My niece, who lives on the Isle of Skye, says the first time she heard it all the hairs on her arms stood straight up.  I had the same reaction and yet, in true Celtic fashion, I cannot resist.  I click on YouTube and dive in.   Hairs rise to attention while the haunting beauty of the music flows into me. 

Practiced first in the small, remote kirks of Scotland, psalm-singing exists elsewhere – brought by the Scots who came to North America in the 18th and 19th Centuries.  It can still be heard in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee by Appalachian descendants of these immigrants.  It is sung “a cappella” traditionally and is led by a “precentor” – one who sings beforehand – who sings out a couple of lines to the congregation and they return it.  It is haunting, it is beautiful.  It is woven into the DNA of some of us like coloured threads are woven together in a tartan. 

As the congregations in places like the Hebrides age, the art of “presenting” is at risk of dying out.  Thanks to technology like YouTube, perhaps new generations will learn of it and continue to pass on the ancient tradition of this moving music. 

(Videos of change-ringing bells and Gaelic psalm singing can be found on YouTube – I don’t have a video upgrade.  For the bells try Trinity Church NYC, for the singing try “Gaelic Psalms,Back Church, Isle of Lewis”)

A Deadly Silence


Today, in Canada, Bell Media is sponsoring something called “Let’s Talk” in an effort to raise awareness and to help erase the stigmas attached to mental illness.  When researching this 2nd annual event, I found that there are a multitude of different “mental health” or “mental illness” awareness days. 

A very small sampling (Canada):

  •  February 8 – Bell’s “Let’s Talk” 
  • Sept. 30-Oct. 6 – Mental Illness Awareness Week
  • May 7 – 13 – Canadian Mental Health Association Awareness Week

The above doesn’t even include initiatives by various universities across the country which all have different schedules.  And, the U.S. schedule is completely different.

My question is:  Why aren’t we talking about this all the time?


In the “good old days,” no one talked about mental illness regardless of socio-economic rank.  The poor were affected more visibly only because the wealthy families had the means to shove their mentally ill family members into expensive institutions.

Here’s a snapshot of my own family:

  • I have an aunt I didn’t know existed until I was a young adult; she was institutionalized when she was 18, 
  • My grandmother,described as “the laziest woman ever born,” would take to her bed for weeks at a time; she suffered from crippling depression and anxiety,
  • In the late 1950’s, well-meaning(?) doctors prescribed alcohol for my brother as a means of silencing the voices he began hearing  – leading to a lifetime battle with alcohol (never mind the schizophrenia),
  • My sister, later diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, was always described as “excitable” or “high-strung.”  Talking about her violent mood swings & impulsive behaviour was strongly discouraged,
  • Another aunt (different side of the family) was always described as “difficult,” or “eccentric”  even after she tried to harm her child.  No one knows whether help was offered or even available.  The child committed suicide as an adult,
  • I was told: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  Pull yourself together” during bouts of severe depression in my youth.  Thankfully, my method of coping was only chronic napping.

We never talked about mental illness.  The stigma was so great, relatives would vanish from sight or die and the silence was deafening.  Mental illness did all the talking in our family.  Now, with increased awareness, hopefully the suffering can stop or at least be diagnosed and treated. 

My brother, who has always danced along the fence separating genius from insanity, has crossed forever into the shady realm of delusion.  In his increasingly rare lucid moments, he talks candidly about his illness.  He acknowledges that our parents never did – “Sweetie, no one talked about it in those days.”  Our sister is dead.  I was lucky enough to have healthcare; the Black Dog has been trained to heel.  But, I lie awake at night and worry for my children; I’ll be honest, I over-analyze every mood swing (which does nothing to alleviate my generalized anxiety disorder). 

We talk about their aunt and uncle; however, there are family members who wish we wouldn’t.  We talk about the fact that when Mommy gets sad and can’t stop crying she goes to the doctor and gets help.  We don’t hide it.  We don’t pretend these things don’t exist.  No one is “delicate” or “high-strung” around here.  We call the demons out and we challenge them to duals.

So yes, talk about it.  Because silence can be deafening and it can also be deadly.


Joyous Adventure or Pure Folly?


“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.”  —Winston Churchill

If the venerable genius Winston Churchill thought this about writing, who the bleep am I to think I can manage it? Being a writer, I cannot resist the adventure, even if it eventually turns to folly.  The Novel, once disgarded and disregarded, has emerged from the ashes hotter than ever, lording it over me night and day.

By hot I don’t necessarily mean good – just fiercer, more insistent, more able to keep me up at night.  The Novel (which has no fewer than five different titles and incarnations on the hard drive of my computer), interrupts conversations, keeps me idling at stoplights after the light has turned green, and this morning it led me from the shower before I’d rinsed the conditioner out of my hair.

I’m a bit scared, if I’m honest.

In the midst of my obsession there is, as always, nagging doubt acting like a bucket of water on the flames.  Doubt is almost as powerful as the obsession to write this thing.  I fear at some point I will be consumed by one or the other or caught in the bloody crossfire between these mortal enemies, ambition and doubt.  I foresee a horrible end for myself, possibly in a mental institution or sitting on a park bench reading my tale to no one but a flock of pigeons. 

Last night, I wrote until my eyes were burning.  My contact lenses committed suicide, leaping from my eyes into the sink all dry and crackly like potato chips.  I lay awake debating this plot twist or that; I told myself, “Don’t do this – you’ll overcook it.”  No use. I can’t stop.  Resistance is futile, the obsession says.  Doubt stands outside my closed door and pounces on me every time I take a break.  Doubt doesn’t quote Churchill; he quotes someone who said a waste basket is a writer’s best friend.  Or is it a bottle?  When Doubt takes over, both are handy to have.

Once the story is down, for my own safety, I will send it off to someone to read as soon as possible – a trusted someone who will be kind but honest.  Perhaps a writer friend who has done battle with both demons that haunt me now. I wonder though, is publication the only cure?  I fear so.  Until then, I’m in for a long battle in some kind of Purgatory for the Unpublished But Hard-Working. 


Lost in IKEA


Not too long ago, there was an  ad for IKEA lauding it as Swedish for “idea” but every time I shop at an IKEA store I have to wonder whether it was a good idea.  As I drive away sweaty, thirsty, and feeling as though I’ve just trekked through a very vast expanse of either jungle or desert, I wish I knew the Swedish translation for “frustration,” “exhaustion,” and “I don’t care how good the savings, is this really worth the effort?”

In fairness to the Swedes, I’m sure most of my difficulty with their iconic store is that I’m not well-versed in how to shop there.  I always wear the wrong footwear, I never remember to bring provisions – water bottle, high energy snackables, compass – and worse, I never enter the giant sliding doors with an iron-clad plan.

[When The Man goes with me, there is always a plan but since The Man would rather have all of his nose hair plucked out by a blind person with dull tweezers than go to IKEA, I often go alone.]

For shoppers like me who suffer from high anxiety and who are subject to ADD caused by over-visual stimulation, IKEA is not a good place to meander or browse.  There’s just too much to see, too many ways to get lost, and too many displays to knock over while turning in an aimless circle.

Even if I go in with trail mix and a plan, I am often thwarted right at the very end just when I think I’ve escaped without physical damage or emotional scarring.  As I barrel into the self-serve section pushing a trolley as big as a tractor trailer (and far less manoeuverable), I skid to a halt in Aisle 37B/subsection 1a only to find they have no more of the Stokholmen shelving in the off-white solid wood but have 500 of the same in the lingonberry mauve (foil finish).

Today I walked out with aching feet and feeling like a salmon who had just made the ardurous swim upstream (because I never, ever follow the arrows painted on the floor).  Any plan evaporated when faced with the vast array of things laid out to the horizon.

I left without even so much as a bag of Swedish meatballs (which I’d actually meant to buy).  Good ideas for IKEA (for next time):  don’t go alone.  Add Valium to the trail mix.  Rent a mobility scooter.  Learn Swedish for “clear the decks, coming through!”