Monday, 30 June 2014

Red & White All Over…

You always knew the biggest party of the year was upon you when the flags started to appear all over the city.  Large, no … HUGE, Canadian flags adorn office buildings across the whole of Ottawa.

The main floor at Giant Tiger’s flagship store turns into a sea of red and white: in one stop you can get your patriotic t-shirt along with all the other necessary acr├┤utements – maple leaf deely-bobbers, temporary tattoos, flag picks to stick in burgers, those umbrella hat things to protect you from the sun’s rays beating down on your face (which can also block your view of the Snowbirds fly-past if you’re not careful), sparklers, family packs of fireworks and the necessary flag for your home (or to wear, as many do).

My sister and I used to affix a 3 by 5 foot flag to the front of our balcony; it was clearly visible 2 kms away if you were crossing the Mackenzie King Bridge by bus and happened to look our way.

And you would look that way, trust me.  Our apartment had a view straight up the Rideau Canal to Parliament Hill and the Laurentian foothills beyond.  The private boats would be lined up stretching south from the locks almost to the bend at the University of Ottawa.  And the tour boats did a booming business heading down to Dow’s Lake while providing history lessons to unsuspecting tourists.

My sister and I hosted many a fireworks-viewing party in our apartment until my permanent job in London necessitated moves for both of us.

After work on June 30th, or on the morning of the 1st while on their way downtown, our friends would drop by our house with their drinks and food contributions to the potluck dinner that night.  We filled one of the bathtubs in our apartment with ice to keep the wine and beer cold.  Off everyone would go to join the throngs pouring on to the streets in a great throng of red and white.  There’s music on the street corners, folk dancers in the parks, popcorn and poutine to be eaten.  The Snowbirds swoop and The Big Names of the Canadian music scene light up the stage on The Hill.

Around 6pm, everyone would start returning to our place to crack open the libations and cool off from the often-steamy weather.  The "Oh What A Feeling" compilation cds would spin and we'd turn CBC to the evening show on the massive stage in front of the Parliament Buildings so we'd know when to go outside for The Big Show.  By the time the last bite of flag-themed strawberry cake was consumed, friends and family would gather on our huge balcony to watch the sky light up in spectacular colours.

The day I left Ottawa at the end of February 2006, the last thing I did before leaving my aerie over the city was stand on my balcony, in a biting wind, watching the skaters on the Rideau Canal.  It was a perfect, clear, sunny winter day.

That beautiful view, of the most beautiful city in the most beautiful country on the planet, is forever locked in my mind.

Happy Canada Day!
 
 

Monday, 10 March 2014

How do you thank someone...

(Reposted from my work blog with some "judicious" - *ha* edits)

When I arrived at the Ministry of the Attorney General in early June 2011, I was a middle-aged woman with no self-confidence and no idea of how to manage the rest of her working career.  Both of those had been sucked out of me by the demoralizing management at my previous job once I came to London.


However, I LOVE it here!

This is in no small part due to the working relationship I have developed with the man I call “The Boss” (NOT Bruce Springsteen!).

I got this job as a direct assignment after the department I worked at in my previous Ministry was being handed over to the federal government and I had no desire to work there.  A co-worker on secondment from the Courthouse suggested I apply for this job (which I was required to do for every position I wished to be assigned to).  She told me that the director was new and from Northern Ontario.

The day I came to meet my manager and The Boss was the day I knew everything would be okay.  It was pretty simple, actually.  The Boss came into the room and we introduced ourselves and I said to him…

“I hear you’re from Northern Ontario.”

He replied, “Yes, Cochrane.”  I smiled and responded with one word:  Kapuskasing!

That told us most of what we needed to know about each other right there; a shared background of small-town life meant we understood each other on many levels.

I came to Court Services knowing nothing about the Ministry of the Attorney General or the inner workings of the court system.  Over the past 3 years, The Boss has answered every question I have asked of him, no matter how strange, silly or innocuous.  If there was something he couldn’t say due to confidentiality, he said so; no tap dancing around.  He explained the history behind policies and procedures so that I would also understand the “Why”, not just the “What”.

More than that, though, he always asked me what I thought.  We have extended management team meetings a couple of times a year; afterward, The Boss asked me to sit down with him and tell him what I thought of the speakers and presentations and to answer any questions I might have after the event.  The same applied to meetings, training and special events.

For the first time in years, I felt valued – part of the team.  I made contributions to management meetings based on my previous experiences in other Ministries and always felt that they were welcomed.

The Boss recommended me for the inaugural Administrative Professionals Development Program – and the ADAG picked me!  Late last year, he nominated me for the Ministry’s Excelsior Award (I didn’t win).

Above all else, he has believed in me – even when I didn’t believe in myself!  And that’s made all the difference in the world to me.

Last week, I learned that he has been appointed as a Justice of the Peace; today is my last day with him.  I only wish that everyone – inside and outside the public service – could work for someone like His Worship Paul Langlois.  Luck and good fortune brought me to be his assistant for an all too-short while.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

...people look like...the stars on a clear night, in the wilderness.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine re-tweeted the post of a mutual co-worker.  It was the blog post of a gentleman who works as a massage therapist in Portland, Oregon.

In one of the most compassionate works I've ever seen posted in my 20+ years online, Dale Favier reassured and comforted every average person out there; people like you, and me, and anyone with any tiny bit of insecurity about how they look.  He wrote:

"... nobody looks like the people in magazines or movies.  Not even models.  Nobody."

http://dalefavier.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/what-people-really-look-like.html

He ended by saying:

"I’ll tell you what people look like, really: they look like flames. Or like the stars, on a clear night in the wilderness."

With all my heart, I wish that I could be one of those stars.... just a point of light in the cosmos, glittering and shining down on a benevolent Earth.

But the truth is that I don't feel that way, and this Earth is not benevolent - especially not to people like me who don't "fit"the standard of beauty accepted in Western society.

When I first started to gain weight 20 years ago the instant response of the medical professionals around me was "stop eating - exercise" and then to throw the infamous Fen-Phen combination at me, without a single test.  It was 2 more years before surgery revealed the cysts on my ovaries pumping out excess testosterone, causing me to gain weight, my skin to darken in patches, and my hair to fall out in clumps.  The next "solution" was high-dose estrogen coupled with prednisone, which is noted for causing people to have a "moon-face".

To say that I ballooned would be an understatement.  As two doctors fiddled with the combination of medications to control the development of the cysts, my size 6-8 self quickly went to a 10, jumped to a 14, and then, size 18 by the time I moved from Toronto to Ottawa in the summer of 1996.  I also went from being one of those annoying women with short, painless, clockwork periods to weeks-long, severely painful episodes that kept their own schedule.  My Ottawa doctor tried other drugs that failed to control my symptoms before recommending surgery to at least stop the periods.  It also meant I could ditch the drugs since I wouldn't have the side-effects of the cysts.

The weight has stuck - no matter what I do short of starvation.

So I made the decision to have my body mutilated just so I would stop being such an affront to the society I live in.  Grown men think it's sport to oink at me as I pass on the street, or hang out their car window and yell "hey fatty, get off the street".  Other women feel free to comment on what I eat: "why do you eat salad all the time?" from someone I used to work with.  I wanted to say that if I didn't eat salad she'd probably ask me if I "really should be eating *that*?"

Being single all my life and using internet dating has been especially soul-destroying.  Unsolicited messages from men telling me to get off the site and leave it for the thin and beautiful girls.  And heaven forbid you turn down a man's overture:  "I was just going to throw you one since you're so ugly, I'm sure you're desperate for it".  Strange women telling me that I "owe it to the men" to post full-length pictures of myself to prove that I'm fat, despite my bluntly-worded profiles through the years.

In one of life's fabulous ironies, it seems that I fall into that odd category of "in-between" - too fat for the "normal" people and too thin for the men who like larger women.  It also made me a target for some pointed comments when I went to the orientation for weight-loss surgery.

Where I live, a team of medical professionals must assess your fitness to have the surgery.  Your family doctor sends an application to an assessment centre and you then go through physical and psychological testing for these individuals to decide if you will be one of the lucky few.  They play god with your life.

However, the assessment centre for my location is in another city about 2.5 hours away from me - and I don't drive.  Due to cutbacks in trains and buses, travel times are at odd intervals, and with appointments scheduled during working hours, I certainly can't ask any of my friends to drop everything to drive me.

I arrived at my orientation session after a long, nausea-inducing bus ride, got a ginger ale, and settled into my seat at the front as I wanted to be able to read the slides and take notes.  After detailed explanations of the surgical procedures involved in weight loss, a dietician went to the podium to talk about how to eat following surgery.  She was going through a long list of what could and could not be eaten and then stopped and looked pointedly at me.  "You will never be able to drink another carbonated beverage in your life," she said.  "This means no beer, no champagne and definitely NO ginger ale", the last said loudly with a glare in my direction.

I was taken aback, but that didn't prepare me for what came next.  We had taken numbers when we arrived and were called up to get our packages of documents to be filled out for the ensuing appointments before surgery.  The nurse who had explained the surgery to us took down information on each person and, asked each if they had any type of weight-loss surgery before.

Until she came to me.  I provided my name and address and, then, without looking up, she said "and you've had weight-loss surgery before."  It was not a question, but a statement.

"No, ma'am, " I replied.

Her head shot up and she had a clear look of disbelief on her face.  "YOU haven't had a lap band?" she asked, in a tone I can only describe as a sneer.

"No, ma'am," I repeated, as levelly as I could.  I was the smallest potential patient in the room.

She showed me where to sign that I had received my package and handed it to me without another word.  I made my way out of the building to a taxi stand to go back to the city centre, where I waited 5 hours for the bus home.

With a few words, these two women had made me feel that I was unworthy of their time and attention.  I shrank inside in a way that my body refuses to follow.

It was several weeks before I got the letter detailing my first set of appointments.  We had been advised that for those from out of town, every attempt would be made to schedule two appointments in a day.  Mine were one each Thursday for a month.  Each visit would require my taking 2 days off work to travel to and from the other city, plus hotel, taxi and meal expenses.  None of which is covered by the universal health care plan in my province, nor by the private extended insurance I have through work.

I called to explain my predicament and ask them to reschedule and was told that was impossible.  The woman on the phone said that if I couldn't afford to attend the 20 or so appointments that I wasn't a good candidate for the program.  That shocked me, because we were informed that there were a dozen appointments involved before surgery was scheduled - and that would be in yet ANOTHER city several hours in the other direction from my home!

I was informed that 12 was the minimum number of appointments, but there could be twice as many and they would deny the surgery if THEY felt you wouldn't be an appropriate candidate.  At a minimum, I would be out-of-pocket over $2,500, possibly more than $5,000, with nothing to show for it.

When I put the phone down, I realized what millions of Americans go through with their health care system on a daily basis.

After talking to my doctor, I called them back and cancelled the appointments.

I haven't complained about my treatment to either the Ministry of Health or the board of directors at the hospital.  At this point, it would be ridiculous to do so since a few months have gone by.

Shortly after all this happened, I learned that the medical profession has once again revised the BMI calculations.   Taller people have lower numbers than previously calculated, but short people; they've revised our numbers upward.  My BMI is now calculated at 49 instead of 43.

I am in awe of anyone with the strength of character to accept themselves at any size.

But the truth is that I can't.

I go through contortions of self-loathing on an almost-daily basis.

And that's no way for anyone to live.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Here's what you don't know about me...

For 3 years during the 1980s, I worked for one of the agencies of the Canadian Council of Churches involved in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

It's a strange place to find an atheist, smack dab in the middle of activist nuns, radical priests and the social justice arms of the member churches, but it makes sense in the context of my political liberalism.

The work of the agency stretched around the world:  mining issues in the Philippines, human rights in Chile, forestry in Brazil, Third World debt in general, and environmental matters here at home in Canada - but it was the work in Africa, specifically the independence of Namibia and the work to end apartheid in South Africa, that occupied the bulk of the group's attention.  Using church stock portfolios and the power of minority shareholder resolutions, the individual churches and religious communities would challenge the Canadian companies that polluted the earth and were involved in human rights abuses across the globe.

You could say they were tilting at windmills; the resolutions never passed, few people read the circulars that are sent before annual shareholder meetings, if they see them at all.  But I think it is safe to say that they did make a difference.  In the ensuing years, both Canada and the United States have changed their regulations regarding minority shareholder resolutions and voting, giving more power to individuals to challenge corporations and how they do business.

The difference also came about in pushing issues into public view.  Would the average Mr. or Ms. Shareholder have known that Placer Dome was polluting an island in the Philippines if it wasn't for the actions of a religious order?  Probably not...

As a secretary in our organization, I spent most days typing minutes of meetings and reports for the members, along with letters to other groups around the world.  More than anything, it was the visitors from other countries who made an impression on me:  Sister Aida from the Philippines, a tribal chief from the Amazon River basin in Brazil, and countless people from South Africa.

Most of the South Africans were young, but many of them moved with the weight of years - they were political refugees, people who had been released from prison after enduring unspeakable atrocities and horrendous injuries at the hands of their oppressors.  These young men and women were physically and psychically scarred, but their determination and spirit were unbroken despite being separated from their families and friends.  I continue to hope that the little I did to help their cause honoured them.

Shortly after I moved on to a different life, came the announcement that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison.

On that Sunday morning, I was glued to the television for that moment.  Tears streamed down my face as I watched him walk in to the sunshine with Winnie by his side.  But the best was yet to come...

A few months later, Mandela visited Canada, his way of thanking us for being one of the leading lights in supporting his cause and imposing sanctions.  It was announced that he would make a brief speech on the steps of the Ontario Legislature.

I joined the thousands of people on the lawn that hot evening in June.  Many of them were people I had worked with; I lost count of the number of I hugged in hello.  We stood together, holding hands in a long line, as Madiba spoke.

Do I remember his exact words?  No.  But the intervening years have shown us how eloquent he was and I distinctly remember his gratitude to Canada and Canadians.

My former co-workers and I parted then and it was several months before I saw them again, under sad circumstances.  One young couple, co-workers, had escaped South Africa through Botswana after being released from prison.  Joyce Dipale and her husband, Tiego Masinga (known as Rolla), had left their daughter behind with family and made their way to Canada.

Joyce and Rolla lived near me in downtown Toronto and invited me to to their home on several occasions to Sunday lunches with our friends and co-workers.  They introduced me to African food, which I admit is not to my taste.

Due to the torture Joyce endured at the hands of her captors, and after being shot by South African agents while living in Botswana, she suffered a major stroke at a very young age.  I visited her in the hospital, and found her surrounded by our mutual friends.  For a while, I sat with her and held her hand while she "talked" with me; the stroke had affected her speech processes.

It was the last time, I saw my friends from that stage of my life.  I moved on to other things and another city.

As the whole world knows, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, and he presented to the entire world an enduring image of grace, forgiveness, and leadership that so many are sorely in need of to this day.

Joyce and Rolla were able to return to South Africa and provided testimony to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

This world is a better place for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived in it, but at this moment, with his passing, it is also a little smaller and colder.

To honour him, it's up to all of us to make his vision a reality - a world where equality is granted regardless of race, religion, and gender, a world without violence and poverty, a world of opportunity for all.

Humanity will miss you, Madiba.

Thank you.

Friday, 22 November 2013

How do you make sense of the senseless...

That phrase is what best describes what I've heard about today and the events of 50 years ago on November 22, 1963.

How else do you explain the murder of the young, progressive and inspirational president of the United States?

You really can't.

I was only 3 years and 3 months old that day, a little girl living in a small town in northern Ontario in Canada.  People find it hard to believe that I can remember the events surrounding President Kennedy's assassination - yet I do.

I remember my mother's tears.  I remember watching tv and seeing the lines of people paying their respects in the rotunda at the Capitol.  I remember Jackie and Caroline kneeling at the casket and kissing the flag that covered it.  I remember seeing the procession to the cathedral and the clerics conducting the service.

Was it that day?  Something inspired my interest in this president and his liberal politics as I grew to adulthood.

Perhaps it was also the sad fact that I very clearly remember the announcement of Bobby Kennedy's death less than 5 years later.  On that morning, I was on a plane flying from London, England to Dublin, Ireland.  The Aer Lingus flight was packed with Irish-Americans on their way to "The Old Sod" when the pilot made his announcement.  And, almost as one, there were cries and weeping all over the plane.

In my early teens, I began to devour biographies of the Kennedy brothers and their family.  Despite the information that was then becoming available about the president and his dissolute personal life, I did grow to admire him, and his brother.

In spite of their wealth and privilege, the Kennedy family had a strong belief in public service - a belief that continues today in the succeeding generations.  Senator Ted Kennedy, carrying on the work of his older brothers, demonstrated the family's dedication to liberal causes and beliefs, especially in the futile development of a single-payer health care system.

Reading all those books about Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and the amazing words of Ted Sorensen that defined the president's administration and Bobby's run for the White House, coupled with Prime Minister Trudeau's leadership of my country during my teens, shaped my political, ethical, and moral view of the world in which we live.

I believe in the collective good.

I believe in the idealism expressed by John Kennedy; that good citizenship means asking what one can do for one's city, province and country, instead of "what's in it for me?"

As an adult, I had the opportunity to visit Dealey Plaza.  It is one of only two places on the face of this earth where I have *felt* evil.  A year later, I was able to visit the grave site of Jack and Bobby in Arlington cemetary.  And several years after that, I went to the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

In middle age, the words of this president continue to inspire me.  I have recently become politically active again, joining local groups in order to work on our municipal election next year; I suspect it will continue to our federal election the following year.  And I am glad for it.

Do I believe in the conspiracy theories?  I honestly don't know.  When you visit Dealey Plaza and see it for yourself, you have trouble believing in the "Lone Gunman" theory.  And the recently posited theory that a secret service agent accidentally shot the president makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

One thing that I do think is that we will NEVER in recorded history know the "truth" of President Kennedy's murder because of the actions of Jack Ruby and the stumblings of The Warren Commission.

Today I feel for Caroline Kennedy as the only surviving member of her family, as the person who carries the weight of the myth of "Camelot" on her shoulders as the new American ambassador to Japan.

But I wish to thank her father, for being the inspiration to many - for having dreams and vision that seem to be sorely lacking in so many of our public leaders.  It's up to us to continue this work; to not drown in an ocean of cynicism and keep working to make this world a more just and fair place.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

You can tell the seasons are changing...

It's still early September, one of those perfectly clear days where the sky is crystalline and really, truly, sky blue.

You know the blue I mean; it's the one that comes in the giant 64-pack of Crayola crayons that you only get at the beginning of the school year.  It's the shade called "Blue Sky", and only in the spring and fall do you actually get that perfect colour in the sky overhead in Canada.

The summer sky - especially in this part of the country - is often a washed out, slightly-yellow-tinged shade, a consequence of humidity and pollution.  And the winter sky is equally insipid, equally washed out, but tinged with an icy grey touch, as if a faint layer of hoar frost is between the earth and the sun.

Today is the day that promises fall; fiery red maples that match my hair, brilliant yellows on gingko trees, the bright orange of the serviceberry.  Cashmere sweaters and pashminas, my leopard print jacket, and the butter soft leather of my favourite red gloves.

And impending doom for the ragweed - which can't come soon enough for me.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The beginning, the end & everything in between...

I registered this blog name with Blogger a few years ago in order to write about my adventures in middle-aged dating-land, but didn't write a word until last month for many reasons; not the least of which is that I've barely been dating in the past few years.

But two public events in the past month spurred me to start writing again.

The first was the death of Canadian actor Cory Monteith.  As I read through the stories online about this young man, I also read some of the comments.  Interspersed with all the RIP and love from fans were the "who cares" and "just another junkie" and the "why should we care about this guy when so many other people struggle with and die from drug addiction every day?"

10 days later, His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge was born and the commentary turned to "just another baby in this world, why should we care?"

The young prince's grandmother, Princess Diana, changed the way the world reports and looks at celebrity; I would say that it is sadly not for the better.  The public seems to have developed an insatiable appetite for the private details of the lives of public personages; though if one was to turn that spy glass around on the lives of those demanding to "know", I daresay they would find it an intrusion in the extreme and would lash out, as some in the public eye do from time to time.

I developed an appreciation for that during a very public trial conducted at the courthouse where I work.  One day, I was accosted by a news camera-man while trying to get into my workplace, and after that incident, I was kindly chauffeured to and from the office by several co-workers for the duration of the trial.  The first afternoon I was driven home, I understood what some celebrities go through, as photographers stood on the ramp to our parking garage, photographing everyone leaving the building, hoping to get that one shot of the accused or the "star witness" against him.

It was an eye-opening experience.

Some people DO care very, very much about what happens in the lives of others.  The reasons vary from cheap thrills, to "there but for the grace of *insert deity here* go I, to escapism from the poverty of their own existence.

I am not one of those people who care about every random "famous" person, but what does bother me is the desire, almost need, of some to diminish the feelings of those who DO care.

Yes, thousands of babies are born into this world every day; but only one will be King of Great Britain and the Commonwealth (if it still exists when George takes the throne).  And there are many more thousands of people around the world who see this child's ties to his late grandmother and wonder "what if?"

Even more, I am perturbed by those who seek to diminish public mourning at the death of a public figure.  If someone has an impact on your life, who are we (the rest of us) to negate your feelings, be they expressed on a message board, the comments section of a news site, post-it notes attached to a store front (as happened upon the death of Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs), chalk drawings at City Hall (Jack Layton) or through leaving flowers at the gates of a palace?

It is sad when a young life is lost to drug abuse (or cancer, or an accident), and it doesn't matter to the family of that person if they are a "celebrity" or not.  Amy Winehouse's parents were very open about their grief after the passing of their daughter; I doubt their grief was any greater or any less than that of the family or friends of Jane Smith or John Brown who died of an overdose the same day.

Had I known Jane Smith or John Brown, even in passing, I, too, might have felt a pang of sadness.

At the most basic level, we are all linked together on this spaceship called Earth.  We all share the same fate.  This is why I try to never forget the immortal words of the Renaissance poet John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

(The words above are taking on more significance for me today following the death of a co-worker over the weekend.  It was a pleasure to work with Bonnie over the past couple of years and I cannot believe that I will not pick up the phone again to hear her say "Hello, dah-link, it's Bon!"  She'll be missed.)