Monday, February 4, 2013


In the midst of the fire, on a day when the slings and arrows of outrage are being hurled at me by people I work with and for (enough said), a patient wrote to ask for medical advice I could not give. All I could do was extend my arms, acknowledge and embrace her suffering. It felt like far too little.

She responded, ending her note with this:

P.S. have you seen this ted talk? reminds me of you.

I aspire to such compassion, to be seen as having even a measure of it breaks my heart, in the most beautiful way.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Crafted Life

Reposted with some edits from May 2009

During a visit Zak I fell into discussions about deeper issues as we worked. The practice of Buddhism is a frequent topic when we get together. As practiced by most Westerners Buddhism is a discipline, rather than a religion, since there is no worship and no affirmation of a deity.

And, in fact this is apparently exactly what the Buddha in mind. He was not concerned with religion or the hereafter. When some of his students came to him, saying they were leaving because he had not told them what happened after death, he asked, "Did I ever say I would address the question of the hereafter?"

"No, Master, you did not," they answered.

"No," he replied. "I only said I would teach you to deal with suffering, and it is suffering that leads you to worry about the hereafter."

As I see it (and I am no scholar) my practice of Buddhism serves to discipline body and mind, encourages me to live a useful life, and helps as I struggle to grasp the nature of reality. By the time you are in your late 60s and have lost grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, children, siblings, cousins, friends, co-workers and colleagues you begin to realize that we are all temporary manifestations of energy in an unending dance of cosmic energy. We wink in and out like lightening bugs on a summer night.

When I grasped the nature of reality, and accepted the nature of birth and death I found a visceral sense of being at one with the universe. I think that is what is referred to as enlightenment. It's not some sanctified state of bliss, or any kind of holiness. It is knowing to your core that this is the moment you have now, and with it you build your life as a carpenter builds a house with wood and a box of nails. It is the knowledge that we create our own reality. We find (and we see) what we look for.

You can fret over past hurts, wrongs and anxieties or worry about what tragedy may come tomorrow. You can spend your time struggling to control others or in amassing things which mean nothing. When you bang your life together with greed, selfishness or resentment the character you build is as plain to the onlooker as is a house thrown together by a disinterested carpenter. The character of the craftsman is revealed by the work. Even a simple house is beautiful when crafted with care.

I've come to feel that the more you attempt to explain the peace that comes with living in the moment the less understandable it is. You cannot absorb it from someone else, buy it or attach yourself to it. You can only learn it by practicing it. You practice by attending to the moment, and by letting go of your expectations that it is someone else's responsibility to provide you with happiness. You practice it by bringing your thoughts back to the now and living in the moment at hand with discipline and responsibility.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bearable Only Through Love

There's this thing about cats. Not having one is a disaster. So when Salvador the Maine Coon died last February, though I swore at the Vet's office that Sal was our last cat, within 48 hours we had adopted a gorgeous long-haired silver tortie named Smokey.

We were told Smokey was three years old, and thus was fully grown. He seemed very small compared to Sal's hefty 22 pounds, and weighing him he did indeed weigh in at just barely half Sal's weight. We joked that he looked like he was walking sitting down, because not only was his hair very long his legs are very short. Sal could jump five feet straight up. Smokey can't even jump on the bedside table. He can barely jump on the bed!

But he's a sweetheart. Obviously never cuddled in his former home, he was not a lap cat when he arrived, but within weeks he loved being held on his back and rocked just as much as his predecessor, and every other cat I've ever been owned by. He also didn't purr when he came to us, and with a little purring encouragement, he was soon "voicing" his pleasure in snuggles and conversation.

He is the most social cat we've ever had. He loves everyone! Sal would run to the bedroom when visitors arrived. Smokey runs to the door. Smokey runs out the door and soon was running up and down the hall looking for people to talk to every time the door opened. Several times a day I'd prop our door open and let him into the hall, where he'd run the length, sniffing at the doors where other four-leggers live, greeting the neighbours, greeting and playing with their dogs. Everyone knew Smokey.

As time went by we noticed something. Smokey was growing. Smokey shouldn't be growing, but he has gotten a full third bigger since he arrived, in both height, length and weight, so we think he was probably more like a year old. His teeth are still "kitten" teeth, very sharp, no wear, and he is extremely playful and energetic. But he's a good boy, and we don't mind that he's younger than we thought he was.

There's a rental unit down the hall. A young man moved in there about two months ago. A young man with a large, aggressive pit bull he can barely control. This ended our hallway walks, visits and playtime. Everyone is cautious of their animals now, no one wants to encounter this pitbull in the hallway. So Smokey has to stay inside.

He begged at the door for hours at a time, he scratched and cried and begged some more. He gradually became discouraged, simply lying on the mat with his nose stuck under the door. He grew clingy and depressed, wanting to be rocked and held for hours every day, sleeping much of the day. He cried when we went to bed at night. He didn't want to play. It was obvious we had to do something.

Enter the something: An eight week old tiger-striped male kitten we have named Sal2. Smokey is face washer, guardian ("Why is my baby crying?"), playmate and comforter. No more boredom. They wear each other out.

Smokey is huge compared to Sal2. He jumps on top of this tiny kitten and appears to be intent on killing him. The kitten screams like a banshee, crawls out from under the mountain of fur, sidewalks like a crab, growling fiercely, and then leaps on Smokey's back like the cowboys in the old west movies leapt on their horses. They go tumbling all over the floor, screaming and hissing until they lie panting in each others' arms with big cat grins on their faces.

Smokey is one happy camper. Sal2 is a happy kitten. When they lay together and Smokey washes Sal2's ears and face, the kitten gets the biggest smile on his face, and his purring can be heard across the room.

I guess what Carl Sagan said applies even to cats. “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Too Many Days Like This One

When will this insanity stop?

My cousin Nan said we don't have the problem with mass shootings in Canada like they do in the US because Canadians are just nicer people. I beg to differ. We've had a half dozen school shootings in the past 40 years, but only two which resulted in multiple deaths, one in 1989 when a mentally ill former student decided competition from women students was the reason he had failed his courses, and shot 28 female students, killing 14 before killing himself. The other was in 1992 in which four people died, shot by a former professor who had been a colleague in the engineering dept. But in 110 years 28 people (students, faculty and staff) have died in school shootings in Canada. Most of these were single fatalities and the result of someone settling a grudge or a dispute with a gun.

The USA and Canada are very alike in culture and demographics. We basically have the same early British and French roots, and demographically we have much the same immigrant populations. Our populations watch the same TV shows, see the same movies, play the same video games.

This "niceness" argument can be refuted by looking at the gun homicide rates in each country. In 1975 Canada's gun homicide rate was 3.03 per 100,000, about the same as the gun homicide rate in the USA between 2008-2010, which was 2.98 per 100,000. In 1975 Canada had dozens of different gun laws on the books, none of which had much impact on crime or gun homicides. But in 1977 Canada put gun controls into place that required a firearms acquisition certificate (FAC) in order to purchase any firearm, and introduced controls on the selling of ammunition. Applicants were required to pass a basic criminal record check before receiving the FAC.

Since 1977 gun homicides have steadily dropped and are now down 80% from what they were before gun controls, to 0.76 per 100,000. Let's put that into perspective, in the USA=over 10,000 people murdered with a gun in 2010, in Canada, 170.

Hardly any guns are used in the commission of crimes (like robbery) in Canada, 94 of those 170 deaths were gang related. We had four gun homicides in Calgary in 2012, a city of over a million people. One of the four gun deaths here last year was a young woman was shot at a gang party where someone decided to settle a drug score and she got in the way. The rest were as a result of domestic violence, which is surely one of the best arguments for not having a gun at hand in the home.

The second place we differ is this: Hate speech and hate crime are not legally tolerated in Canada. Freedom of speech does not extend to the denigration of others, nor acts of hate, based on race, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation etc. I have heard words come from the mouths of American politicians in this last campaign that would get them charged with hate speech in Canada.

Canada is a country of immigrants (I am one of them). In the 1970s the government adopted a policy of promoting acceptance of cultural diversity. Immigrants are encouraged to retain their ethnic identity, language and traditions while adopting Canadian social norms and cultural values.

Thus while it's encouraged that immigrants retain their religion, traditions and cultures, they are not allowed to bring their homeland's oppression of other religions, traditions and cultures with them. It's expected that everyone will live peacefully side by side with their neighbour.

Now, I was born early in the morning, but not yesterday morning, so I am not so naive as to imagine there is no prejudice here, no sad little White boy groups who think they are somehow superior because they are melanin challenged, or because they uphold "Cross and Crown" like weapons, but society as a whole does not tolerate such behaviour openly. When a White "supremacy" group announced a rally in Edmonton last year hundreds of protestors showed up to refute them. The few "supremacists" turned tail and ran as soon as they saw the waiting crowd. The KKK received the same reception a few years ago in Calgary when they came up from Idaho to "recruit". Faced with an actively hostile crowd they retreated rather than recruited.

Compassion is seen as a value here, and is expressed though the provision of universal medical care, and constant pressure exerted on the government to extend fair treatment to disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. Not that this is always successful mind you, but laws are set up to protect the citizen more than the corporate structure, and wealth is more equally distributed than in the US. Banking and mortgage regulations kept the Canadian real estate market from the chaos seen in the US market, and the resulting fiscal crash, and while the tax burden is somewhat heavier it is more equally distributed, and it includes medical and social benefits available across all strata of society.

Calgary made a decision a few years ago to eradicate homelessness and is well on its way to providing decent shelter for those who are hard to house, the mentally ill, the addict, the mentally challenged, elderly veterans, abused women, those who have for one reason or another found themselves living on the street without options. With it, counseling, a monthly income, job training if appropriate. Above all, dignity and compassion. Yes it costs money, but it costs society to ignore these people too. A society hardens its heart at a price.

In America the GOP has politically prospered by fostering hatred, division and paranoia for the past 40 years. The politicians who talk most loudly about individual freedoms are those who work the most aggressively to curb them and who work hardest to divide people along racial, cultural and class lines. Their list of who to heap contempt on; the "welfare queen", the unemployed bum, the 47%, the union lackey, the greedy pensioner, the sick child who needs medical care, the medicare leech, the illegal immigrant coming to suck at the freely flowing government teat, their litany of who to hate today goes on and on - everyone but "us" - you and me, especially me.

While right-wing American politicians cry we need to go back to the "good old days" when the Bible was (supposedly) the law of the land (it never was), what they really want to go back to is a time when the only power lay in the hands of the wealthiest, and everyone else had to knuckle under extreme privation or starve. They prey on paranoia fostered by 40 years of fear-mongering, of building an "us against them" mentality that has Americans patrolling their neighbourhoods with guns, shooting teens armed with a bag of candy bought from the corner store, and countless others armed to the teeth against an invasion of - who?

The mother of the mentally ill teenager who killed 26 small children and their teachers in an elementary school this week owned all these weapons because she had bought into the political paranoia that the government was going to collapse and there would be an "invasion". By whom one might wonder? Six year olds?

She knew her boy was unstable. A man who babysat him, even as a 10 year-old, had been cautioned never to turn his back or allow the boy to get out of sight. So what was she thinking giving him access to firearms of any kind? She paid the price every gun owner is far more at risk of paying than the person who does not have a gun in the home. A gun in the home increases the risk of a gun death, by homicide, suicide or accident twenty-two times over a home in which there is no firearm. Unfortunately she was not the only victim of her poor judgement and paranoia.

At some point Americans have to take their heads out of their political assholes. No, guns don't kill people, but people with guns do. If these crazed mass shooters had access only to a kitchen knife or a 2 x 4 they wouldn't have gotten far, because you have to get up close and personal to do damage with that kind of weapon, and none of them are that brave.

Any coward can shoot a six-year-old from 10 feet away, or a stranger from 250 feet away, or 10 strangers, or 50, with your automatic weapon. On the same day a deranged man went into a school in China with a knife and attacked a class of 22 kindergarten age children. He injured four before he was stopped. All will recover. Not one of those children died.

But in the end, people are people. Canadians and Americans. Just like children can be brought up to be well-mannered, considerate and compassionate, they can also be brought up to be selfish, brutal and cruel. Depends on the parents and their peers, and what is expected and tolerated by society.

One man at the scene of this latest shooting said it best, "To all those who love your guns, I pray that you love your children more."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Most Astounding Fact

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked by a reader of TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" This is his answer.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gravity, Thou art a heartless bitch!

All around a most unsettling week. Where to start, small and work up, big and work down or sequentially? Let's go sequential, which begins wonderfully, with a lovely red early Christmas gift from our two sons. It went like this, "We are buying you a new car, what do you want?"

Well. That was a promising beginning.

A week ago today we headed for the new car store and after the usual to-and-froing and licenses and deciding on warranties and what-not on Monday we had this bright new red KIA Soul to drive home. Sweet. We have named it Salvador in honour of our late and beloved big red boy.

The timing of the KIA couldn't have been better. Tuesday at noon we had appointments at the specialist's dental clinic in the regional hospital all the way across town. We zipped across town in good time and I dropped Tony off at the front door 15 minutes prior to the appt and went to find a parking spot. Unfortunately there were no parking spots. The parkade was full.

I was directed to the parkade south of the medical school which is a four block walk away, and requires driving back into traffic, down the road, and negotiating a labyrinth of back roads before accessing the parkade. I drove around and around and around inside for 25 minutes waiting for a spot to open up. Finally parked, and hiked with my cane through the maze of hallways in the medical school to get to the hospital. The dental clinic is on the farthest end, so from the time I dropped Tony off until I reached the clinic was 45 minutes.

I walked in the door and the receptionist told me my husband had fallen down a flight of concrete stairs and was in the trauma unit with a possible skull fracture, broken bones and bleeding. I was wanted in the emergency department as quickly as possible.

The emergency department is in the opposite end of the hospital from the dental clinic. There is construction everywhere. The hallway to ER is blocked. I had to hunt around until I found a detour. I finally arrived and they said they don't know where he is, he hasn't arrived yet. (WTF?)

I sat there shaking for three or four minutes when about 10 people and a gurney came trundling down the hall, and on that gurney was my extremely bloody husband. I guess if you are going to fall down the stairs a hospital is a good place to do it. There were a couple of medical staff on the stairs with him when he fell, so he got immediate care. But they didn't move him until they'd stabilized his neck and spine and were at least trying to stop the bleeding which was coming from 20 cm (8 inch) gash on his head, where he had a lump the size of a baseball.

He had fabulous care, with a CT scan, full x-rays of head, neck, spine, arms, legs, all kinds of lab work, cardiac tests… He actually passed out on the stairs and tumbled down, since he was unconscious he didn't even try to protect himself, so he had no "protective" injuries but he broke his collarbone where he and a step collided and he is a mass of huge bruises from head to toe. It took 12 stitches to close the head wound.

About eight hours later I had to get the car from the parkade. It was cold, pitch dark, the medical school access was locked, so I had to walk several blocks through the snow (no sidewalks, no lights, no crosswalks and no signs) hunting for the parkade. By the time I found it I was so tired and stressed out I could not read the instructions on the machine which tells you how to pay for your parking. Finally a woman came along and seeing my distress asked if I needed help. I told her I hadn't a clue how to use the machine, so she did it for me, gave me my change, and told me how to redeem the ticket.

There were no signs saying how to get back to the hospital so I asked a policeman for directions. (He and his cruiser were in the middle of the road.) He told me I needed to turn right, and after doing that and going all the way round I realized I had actually needed to turn left. I retraced my steps and when I finally found my way back to the hospital, I missed the emergency pickup entrance (no lights, no signs) and had to drive all the way around again. By the time I found Tony and picked him up I was ready to head for the nearest bridge and jump.

The good news is that, after four days he is in slightly less pain than he was, and he is able to move around more easily. I am still shaking.

So, good news, new red car. Bad news, husband learns gravity is a heartless bitch.

Friday, November 2, 2012

We can change the world - we already have

This week's "super-storm", which hardly even qualified as a hurricane as far as wind speed is concerned, but which inundated New Jersey, Manhattan and other parts of the Eastern Seaboard, appears to have slapped a few people upside the head and made them realize that climate change is not just a "Liberal" conspiracy but a real threat.

No more talk about 50 or 100 years in the future when the world heats up, 2012 was the hottest year on record, after 2011, 2010 and 2009. We've had massive crop failures, and food prices are rising dramatically as a result.

How long are we going to continue to keep our heads in the sand? Time to think seriously about instituting energy policies which support the 350 Initiative, a worldwide movement to reduce the CO2 level in the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million, a point where we can avoid global climate catastrophe.

Green energy, wind, solar and water power, combined with conservation, new building codes which require new homes to be energy self-sufficient, and the kind of resolve that saw us through two world wars could see this problem solved in the next 25 years. Do we have a choice?

[David Attenborough]
We are a flexible and innovative species and we have the capacity to adapt and modify our behavior. Now, we most certainly have to do so if we're to deal with climate change. It's the biggest challenge we have yet faced.

[Bill Nye]
The same thing that keeps the Earth warm
May make the Earth too warm
It holds in heat

Methane, Chloroflourocarbons, water vapor and
Carbon dioxide - they all trap heat

[Isaac Asimov]
It is important that the world get together
To face the problems which attack us as a unit

[Richard Alley]
The evidence is clear

The globe is getting too warm

We can avoid climate catastrophies
We can do this

We can change the world

Science offers us answers
To these huge challenges]

It's one global ecosystem

We can do this

We can change the world

Every single thing every one of us does
Affects everybody all over the world
It's one global ecosystem

Warm, wet, cold or dry
Climates all start in the sky

When the C02 is high, the temperature is high
Moving together in lock step
When the C02 is low, the temperature is low
Moving together


[Richard Alley]
Our use of fossil fuels for energy is pushing us towards a climate
unlike any seen in the history of civilization

Adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
Warms things up
The rise in C02
Comes from burning fossil fuels

When you burn them, add oxygen
That makes C02 that goes in the air
We're reversing the process by which they formed

We're talking about something
That affects the entire Earth
Problems that transcend nations