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“best day ever”

It’s a good thing I’m not paid to write this blog. If I were, I would be fired. I discovered today that I only posted four times in October.  I’m not precisely sure how I should feel about that, but “ashamed” seems close to the mark.

And it is not that I’ve had no feelings of gratitude. But the last few weeks have been tumultuously busy, both at work and at home. It hasn’t been an unpleasant busy. I’ve felt a sense of efficacy and productivity at work, and home life has been packed with the sort of activities that are exhausting, but nevertheless remind me why having a family can be a great thing.

Today was an exception from the fast pace that has characterized the last month.  After bundling the kids into the car and getting my oldest on the bus, I discovered a text message from our child care provider saying she was ill.  What started as any other Monday turned into a “Daddy-Zachary” day.

father with son

Photo Credit: John H. White; Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

When I was young, my mom and I would sometimes go out together for a muffin and coffee (muffin and hot chocolate for me).  Sometimes I would save up my money so that it would be my treat, though I’m willing to bet my money never made it to the till, my mother being so very much like a mom.

One of my regrets as a parent is that, after the birth of my youngest, spending time alone with either of my boys became a rare occurrence. No doubt all children with siblings appreciate an opportunity to spend time alone with a parent.  For the child, the absence of another sibling is the very thing that makes it special: for a little while, the child isn’t just “one of the kids” but a friend, a confidant, “chosen.”  For the parent, the experience is visited with a quietude that must otherwise seem like a distant memory.  Although my sons have a fraternal affection for each other I doubt my brother and I ever shared, spending time with both of my sons together still usually leaves me feeling like a referee, and I am sure most parents feel the same way.

Today, I am thankful for the few moments in life when parents are able to move beyond the parent-child roles and be friends with their kids.  After Zachary and I returned from a visit to the library, I suggested that he go use the washroom, and then we could read all the books we borrowed.  As he began climbing the stairs, he exclaimed, “this is going to be the best day ever!”  It’s uplifting to see that much enthusiasm over something so simple as reading books with Dad.  It’s not like we don’t read books together every day!  But today was special: it was just us.

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the new world

passenger ship

Photo Credit: Unknown; Licence: Public Domain

I was on an ancestry kick several months ago.  Ancestral research is a difficult process made infinitely easier by services such as ancestry.com, which permitted me to research my family history in my pajamas.  And if that isn’t the very definition of progress, I don’t know what is.  I was also helped along by my poor grandmother, who did all of her family research before the advent of online ancestry databases.  Without her immense initial effort, I never would have gotten anywhere.

For some, researching family history has been simple.  In one line on my father’s side of the family, I’ve gotten as far back to the 17th century with nary a bead of sweat on my brow.  My grandmother’s paternal line, on the other hand, has been a thorny maze fraught with dead ends.  Her father seemed to have a penchant for adventure (read: trouble).  He changed his name, and his life before moving from England to Canada is shrouded in mystery.

After a month of solid research, during which I spent almost every waking second not otherwise absorbed by obligation poring through records, I finally had to shut it all down.  I am highly obsessive.  Faced with a problem, I’ll skip meals and sleep in an effort to reach an answer.  I was very literally exhausted.

But the process was not without reward.  The beauty of ancestral research is not only that it tells you something about yourself, but it also gives you a glimpse of history in a personal way.  Though I am cognizant of the class system in England, both now and — more prominently — in the 19th century and earlier, seeing that my ancestors were lower-class labourers opened my eyes to how fortunate I am to live where and when I do.

Today, I am thankful for living in a society that ascribes greater value to determination and ability than it does to birth.

My parents and I have all had the benefit of a university education.  If you told my great-great-grandfather, who was a coachman and domestic servant, that his great-grandson (my father) would be a university-graduated accountant, he would have laughed.  There was virtually no opportunity in his day for anyone to rise above the limitations of their birth.

How incandescent my ancestors must have felt, travelling by ship across the dark waters of the North Atlantic.  Crammed into third class accommodations, the journey must have seemed endless, but on the other side of that horizon stood a new world, laden with possibility.

on top of the world

Everest

Photo Credit: Bernard Goldbach; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Even as a child, I found my brain lacked focus in the first hour after waking.  The experience has become more prominent with age.  To say it “lacks focus” sounds negative, but I don’t intend it to be.  If I am trying to focus on a task at work, having a mind that wanders can be a bad thing.  But a wandering mind is essential to originality.  Or, to drag an old cliche out of the closet and beat it like a rug: wandering minds “think outside of the box,” and it is outside of the box that all the messy, nebulous plasma of creativity lies.

My wandering mind brings me inspiration for writing, for new approaches to troublesome problems, for new website ideas, for new directions to take in life, for… the list is endless.  Other times, I find myself reliving memorable experiences, some of them moments when I acted shamefully, and others which are a source of pride or joy.

The other day, lying awake in bed in the first warming moments of dawn, waiting for the house to come to life, a memory popped into my head.

Time for a juicy confession: when I was in high school, I was a Latin geek.  (Okay, so it’s not the type of thing you’ll see splashed across the tabloids, but I needed to say the confession was juicy to keep you reading.  I initially titled this post “Latin geek,” but figured no one would stick around to read it).  I know you’re picturing a pale, waif of a youth, with a perpetual runny nose, ill-fitting clothes, and no social skills and — well, you’d be partially correct.  It’s rare nowadays to find a school that even offers Latin for study, much less one where it’s the best class in the school.  My Latin class was extremely engaging, owing largely to a phenomenal teacher — Margaret-Anne Gillis — who has almost single-handedly resuscitated the stone-cold language and spent most of her career spreading the word that rumours of Latin’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Once, in senior Latin, we were assigned a passage of poetry to be performed by each student in front of the class.  Like much of classical poetry, the passage was in dactylic hexameter.  Dacta-what?  Look it up on Wikipedia.

On the date of performance, the teacher cycled through the class.  Like any subject, different students expended varying levels of effort.  Some stumbled through the passage, pronouncing barely any of the words correctly; others, pronounced the words correctly but with limited expression; a few had expression but did not follow the meter; others followed the meter, but spoke in a monotone.

I was the last performer, and I had practiced the hell out of this passage of poetry.  Not only had I carefully practiced each word to ensure I said it correctly and clearly, but I read it according the meter, and delivered it all in a dramatic voice.  And, despite many of my practice runs, when I had stumbled over parts of the passage, I said it all without a single error.

When I was finished, the entire class erupted in applause.

Today, I am thankful for the few occasions in life when we feel like we are on top of the world.  Remembering this event the other morning, I found a smile spreading across my face.  Most of us spend our lives as one person among billions, nameless and faceless and insignificant.  But once in a while, we do something that stands out, and a few people take notice.  Maybe the course of history isn’t affected, maybe it doesn’t change the world… but it changes us.

Have you had a moment where you shined?  Please tell me about it in the Comments.

famous painter

A cherished Canadian Thanksgiving family tradition is to go apple picking at a local orchard.  This year, a severe spring frost damaged any hope for a quality yield in a number of apple varieties.  On Saturday, we visited an orchard which has quickly come to be our favourite for the range of apple varieties it offers, and for the on-site bakery and store where we can purchase pies, streudels, cider, and other marvelous apple products, either to eat there (warm) or to take home.  We were able to come home without empty hands, but with none of the mutsu or empire varieties I love to use  in pies.

Sunday, we went to greater lengths to find an orchard with my wife’s family.  We were wholly unsuccessful.  But the weekend was not wasted.  We had the opportunity to take in the beauty of autumn’s palette.

autumn foliage

Photo Credit: Fg2; Licence: Public Domain

Having young children, my wife and I have limited opportunities to get away, so we have to use our anniversary as a basis for doing any activity we want to do without our children.  This year, though our anniversary is in July, my wife and I decided to forego our standard weekend of unbridled vanity in favour a simpler trip in late September to Ontario’s Muskoka region to relish in the splendour of autumn foliage.  For a number of reasons, that plan withered, so our local foliage would have to do.  It might be less breathtaking than the vistas of more northern climes, but it’s still breathtaking.

It’s difficult to get one’s children to share appreciation for important things.  During those drives this weekend, there was a good amount of complaining from the back seat about how I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old watch a movie or play video games.  On Saturday, I finally said in exasperation: “Outside your window is the most beautiful picture ever painted. It was painted by a famous painter you might have heard about: God.  So look out your window and keep quiet.”

Then I smirked at the silly things parents say… except, it was true.  In my travels, I have seen a plethora of really stunning works of art, but never anything so beautiful or brilliant or phenomenal as the one we get to see every autumn.

Today, I am thankful for autumn.  The science of the changing of the leaves is exceedingly simple; the visual result is magnificent.

the gang extended

It seems now many moons ago that I expressed gratitude for “the gang” (my family).  In that post, I was referring to my wife and kids.  Now, on the cusp of the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, when the roads will be filled with people traveling near and far to pay visits to loved ones with whom they will sit at tables overladen with food, the time is ripe to express thanks for my extended family.

With apologies to any family members reading this, I confess that my patented phrase following any visit from family is: “it’s wonderful when family come to visit; and so much more wonderful when they depart.”  It is always a joy to see them, but after a weekend of children made more boisterous from excitement over the grandparents who spoil them, and the (happy) fatigue which invariably follows hosting guests, I cannot deny that there is a measure of relief when it comes to an end… not  unlike — I am sure — the relief those grandparents must feel when the boisterous children are no longer using them as trampolines.  (My mother often admits to needing a nap after we leave her house, and who could blame her?)

You might be familiar with the charmingly irreverent greeting card site someecards.com.  I was alerted to one the other day:

Love is spending the rest of your life with someone you want to kill & not doing it because you'd miss them!

Credit: someecards.com

It’s tough to argue with truth.  The ones I love the most are also the ones that drive me the most crazy, and somehow that makes me love them even more.

Today, I am thankful for my extended family, and all the insanity they bring.  They’re a heterogeneous bunch of misfits and goofballs.  Just the sort of family where a goofball misfit like me feels like he belongs.

knowledge

To any readers who have become accustomed to a more regular dose of gratitude, I apologize for having been missing in action for a while.  Getting back into the school year routine has taken a greater toll on my energy than usual.  Gregory’s homework regimen has clearly been developed by someone with a sadistic streak.  Helping him with the homework on top of getting the kids to/from their extracurricular activities, getting dinner on the table, spending as much quality time with the kids as possible, and everything else, has left me feeling that I need to hire a project manager just to keep my life under control.  Then I got sick, and things just went further south.

But enough of the pity party.  This is the life of every parent.  This is also what every September is like.  I always manage to wriggle my way back into the swing of the things before too long.

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson; Licence: Public Domain

The other night, while I sat with my son in our dining room moving from homework task to homework task, with the descending sun casting longer and longer shadows in the room, I found myself overwhelmed with bitterness.  That bitterness has arisen partially from the time and energy I have lost in trying to motivate my son to tackle his homework when he is understandably frustrated by the tedium and sheer volume of it.  The bitterness has also originated from seeing my son finally head to bed, exhausted.  But mostly the bitterness has developed from seeing a society that increasingly fails to let children be children.

In the midst of all that bitterness, however, one thing did occur to me: at least my children have access to public education.  I know there are cultures that don’t prize education greatly, and that the history of my culture is one which did not always recognize the right of all children — regardless of status or wealth — to benefit from education.  My children and I are fortunate to live in a time and place where each of us has the opportunity to pave a way for ourselves, not through our family names or the coins in our pocket, but through diligence and merit.

Today, I am grateful for public education.  It helps us work and live better, opens our minds, enriches our communities, and propels forward human understanding of this mysterious universe.

alive

baby

Photo Credit: Carin Araujo; Used with Permission

Shortly after I turned 1, my mother was holding me in her arms while I burned through a fever.  Suddenly, my eyes rolled back, and my body began moving rhythmically. I was having a seizure. While my father held me, my mother ran frantically to the house of a neighbour, who was a registered nurse.  My father has told me that, while he held me, I stopped breathing.  My mother returned with the neighbour, Vedra, who took control of the situation and, before long, I began breathing again and recovered.

A few months later, I had another seizure.  It was my brother’s birthday, and my family was planning to go out for dinner, but I had a fever and my mother suggested that my father and brother go out without us.  I began having the seizure and, again, Vedra came to the house and I recovered.

It was the last seizure I had.  I do not have epilepsy and the seizures were febrile, meaning that they were caused by a high fever.  It’s not an uncommon thing to happen to young children, who sometimes lag in developing the nervous system mechanisms to effectively control body temperature.

When my son was born, I was a worried that the problem might be genetic.  Every time he had a fever, I was terrified that it would happen to him.  What would I do?  During my first seizure, I stopped breathing.  Without a combination of several factors, I very likely would not have started breathing again, and what if my son wasn’t so lucky?

Today, I am thankful for a lot of things.  First, I am thankful for timing.  I had the seizures while I was being held by a parent and both my parents were present. My second seizure happened just as my father was about to leave the house. A few minutes later and my mom might have been alone, and I might not have fared so well, because it would be hard for one person both to respond to my needs in the moment and also seek help.  When my son had his fevers, I kept thinking: what if he has a seizure while he’s in bed?  He could stop breathing and I would never even know.

Second, I am thankful that my parents had the sense to run for help.  I think my mother rebukes herself for not really knowing what to do (I always say that perpetual guilt about one’s children is a sign of a good parent) but, really, which of us thinks straight when we perceive our children are in danger?  Once, while camping with Gregory (my eldest) and my friend Sarah, I asked Gregory several times not to walk along the seat of the picnic table, because I had the Coleman stove running, boiling water, and I was worried he might fall and either knock the pot of boiling water on himself, or set himself on fire.  Moments later, while he started walking along the bench again, he fell, with his arm hitting the stove.  That was when I made a complete departure from sense, which is a nice way of saying I went nuts.  I started alternating between screaming at him about needing to listen, and hugging him and asking him if he was alright.  He was perfectly fine, but in my mind, I had already decided he had burned himself, and I was panicking.  In the case of my seizures, I think that having the good sense to run to a neighbour who could handle the situation was the best anyone could expect.

Third, I am thankful that a registered nurse lived nearby, and that Vedra was able to help.  She is one of those every day heroes I like to talk about in this blog.

Without all of these things, I don’t know that I would be alive today, and that is certainly cause for gratitude.

ordinary heroes

building collapse

Photo Credit: Tannoy; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Many months ago, I stumbled upon the Carnegie Hero Fund, a fund started by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wanted to honour civilian heroes.

The fund was founded in 1904, and the stories of the numerous awardees of the Carnegie Medal are truly inspirational.  Spend a day reading or listening to them and your heart will be full.  Don’t forget to stock up on tissues.  They are the stories of people who have risked their own lives to save others, many times people they did not even know.

Out of all the selfishness in the world, it’s moving to see so many people who become heroes when their circumstances call them to action.

I can’t share all the stories, so I will share two:

On 17 August 1953, Theodore Henderson (aged 39) was fixing a flat at the side of a highway in Florida, when a 19-year-old woman drove by, lost control of her vehicle, slid off the road, and landed upside-down in a 12 ft. deep murky canal.  Henderson arrived to see the tires of the vehicle slip below the surface of the water. Avoiding an 8 ft. long alligator near by, he swam into the canal and managed to open a door, but the car shifted and the door closed on two of his fingers. He yanked free, tearing a tip off one and breaking the other.  He swam back to the bank, grabbed a tire iron, then swam back down to the vehicle and smashed the rear window.  After swimming to the top to take a breath, he swam back down, dragged her out, and swam to the bank, where she recovered.

On 17 November 1960, Joseph Granahan was relaxing in a bar when he saw clouds of dust.  A building had been recently demolished, but the foundation of the adjacent tenement building had not been adequately protected and the building was collapsing.  When Granahan arrived, all the tenants had managed to escape, except one elderly woman named Helen Giles, who was screaming for help from the fourth floor.  Granahan did not know the woman, but he kicked out the glass panel of the front door and climbed the stairs.  When he reached the fourth floor, the power went out and the building shook.  He managed to find his way to the apartment and carried Giles down the four flights of stairs, with the staircase pulling away from the wall as he descended the last flight.  Moments after he had exited the building with Giles, the entire building collapsed into rubble.

Today, I am thankful for heroes.  We live in a world of survival.  Everyone is committed to his or her own interests.  And yet, when circumstances call for it, sometimes ordinary people become heroes. It’s the type of thing that restores my faith in humanity.

freedom extended

Mid-June, I put away Hugo’s Les Miserables in favour of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Hugo was too heavy for the sultry summer weather, and I desired literature that had been aired out a little.

Both of the two Twain novels are light-hearted, enjoyable reads, but Huck Finn’s saga has an underbelly of racial commentary.  There are a few points in the novel which stand out in this manner, but there is a short section in Chapter 16 which I feel is almost the crux of the story.  In it, Huck Finn and his runaway slave companion, Jim, are travelling down the Mississippi, looking for Cairo.  Cairo is positioned at a crossroads between freedom and enslavement: continue further down the Mississippi and travel deeper into the south, or travel up the Ohio river and reach the northern states where slavery is abolished.

Huck begins to have a crisis of conscience (please excuse the use of derogatory language below, but I am quoting and, really, considering the point I am making, it would be idiotic to censor):

Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t cell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.”  Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children — children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but shake my head.  Of course, I have a decent grasp of history and the treatment of slaves. I understood, too, that slaves were truly objectified, and stealing a person’s slave or helping that slave escape was perceived as no different than stealing their farm animals or their jewels.  It still astounded me, though, to hear stated in such bald terms that a greater crisis of conscience might arise from the idea of a man taking back his children and wife from the person who “owns” them, than does arise from the idea of the person “owning” them in the first place.

Later in the book, Jim talks about how he misses his family, and Huck simply cannot understand it, even though he would think nothing of a White person missing his or her family.  To Huck, it must seem as crazy as a table getting emotional about the absence of other tables: he simply cannot see Jim as a human being with feelings and yearnings.

Twain, of course, lived and wrote in the time when all of this was a reality so, even though it is fiction, he is a satisfactory and reliable commentator: this is what people believed.

Huckleberry Finn: Jim on the Raft

Illustration Credit: E. W. Kemble (original book illustration); Licence: Public Domain

The idea of having no free will and no personal choice; of being owned, and having my destiny determined, by another; of knowing that fulfilling a natural desire for companionship and offspring would simply enslave another person at the profit of another; of being separated from the people I love and not being able to bridge that gap; to say nothing of the abuse suffered by slaves…. the idea of it all is simply too disturbing to consider.

Slavery is truly one of the most disgusting blights on the history of humanity.

A few days ago, I spoke about my gratitude for freedom, but I felt that this example of freedom deserved special attention.  Today, I am thankful not only for my freedom, but for the heroes of history who went against the grain and fought against slavery, and fought for civil rights.

freedom

freedom

Photo Credit: David Niblack; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Today was a difficult day.  Sometimes, working in mental health, you have to do things that feel wrong.  You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s right.  Sometimes, you’re even successful in convincing yourself of that.

Today, after having gone before a Justice of the Peace to argue that a person needs to be taken to the hospital to be assessed, I had to show up at that person’s home with police.  I had to help demonstrate at the hospital that she is ill enough to be involuntarily admitted for psychiatric assessment.  I had to stand by while she hurled a barrage of verbal assault at me for doing this to her, all of which was valid, even if what I was doing to her was necessary.  I had to wait with her in a cold, unfriendly hospital room for 7 hours while the hospital system tried to get its act together.  I had to ask her if there was anyone I could call for her, knowing as I asked what the answer would be: there is no one.

And through all of that, all I could think is how awful this entire experience was for her.  Here is this poor, lonely woman.  Her illness prevents her from understanding what is happening or why it is necessary.  All she knows is that she is surrounded by people she believes intend to harm her.  She is helpless.

Today, I am thankful for my freedom.  I am thankful that I am not plagued by a mental illness which necessitates involuntary confinement.  I am thankful that, in my home, I feel safe from the possibility of police showing up and taking me to a strange place when I haven’t done anything wrong.  I am thankful that I live in a place where I can express what I think, feel, and believe, knowing that, although I might be persecuted, I’m unlikely to be prosecuted.  I am thankful that I am not targeted because of my race, ethnicity, religion, or sex, and that I feel safe to walk through my city, day or night, without any significant fear that I will be attacked.  I am thankful that I live in a democracy. I am thankful for my freedom in so many ways. Most importantly, I am thankful that, if any of these things ever happen to me, I am not alone.

What does freedom mean to you?  Tell me about it in the Comments.

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