Memory Book

Tonight we are gathering in Midland in memory of my Mother. It occurred to me recently that I would need photos of her, as well as a Memory Book for people to write in.

She didn’t want a service and insisted that if we do anything, it was to be small. She didn’t want people to make a fuss about her. But she also did not like to be overlooked or ignored. It’s a fine line to walk.

So we’re seeing a play in her honour at our community theatre home, Huronia Players. We’ll toast her with red wine – truly her poison, as it killed her in the end.

It’ll be nice to see people and to hear stories but it’s also bittersweet, fraught, too tangled to be parsed in a short blog post.

In any case, two days ago I went through all my photos to find ones she would deem acceptable to put on display. I could hear her denigrating herself “I’m too fat in that one, too old, too stern” and her pride “Yes, that one, it shows off my ankles.” When illness made her ankles swell, she mourned them.

So many photos – up until digital cameras and Facebook. Photos of friends from two decades ago, and some of those friends we will see tonight. Some people in the photos are dead, some have moved out of our lives, some I can’t recall who they are. Photos of my mom with her ex-lovers, and photos of me with mine. I can hear my kids on some unknown future day “Oh, nice shot of mom, too bad he’s in it,” when they look for images to put on display for my memorial.

The older you get, the more every experience loops back to past experiences until every present moment has echoes and somehow the process loops forwards as well and every death forecasts our own.

Cold Case of Cancer

Maple syrup instead of liquor with a Sunday morning coffee

The following is a speech I wrote for and delivered at my Toastmaster’s Club:

Let’s have a little quiz. I’ll read you a list of facts about alcohol and you raise your hand for each fact that you already knew.
1 Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects.
2 The recommended maximum number of drinks is 2 per day for women and 3 per day for men, with at least 2 non-drinking days per week.
3 Alcohol increases the risk of violence and abuse.
4 Alcohol can cause cancer.
According to a survey in 2018, only 28% of Canadians were aware that alcohol causes cancer.
Each “fact” in my survey is actually a warning label used on alcoholic products – or that have been used. In November 2017, a Health Canada study was launched in the Yukon to study the effect of warning labels on alcoholic beverage purchases. Bright yellow labels were used, one stating that alcohol can cause cancer, and the other speaking to recommended maximums.
Four weeks into the study, the Yukon Liquor Corporation gave in to pressure from the national alcohol brands and stopped affixing the labels to bottles and cans sold in their stores out of fear of expensive lawsuits.
Ten weeks later, the study was allowed to proceed, but with pregnancy risk labels instead of ones mentioning cancer risk.
It would appear that the alcohol lobby was afraid that if more people knew that alcohol causes cancer, fewer people would consume it.

According to Spirits Canada president, Jan Westcott, it wasn’t about fear of reduced sales. When asked about the studies linking excessive drinking with increased risk of some cancers, he said, “We’re not denying any of that. We’re just not sure that putting the word “cancer” on a label is the most effective way to convey that information.”
However, a study commissioned by the Canadian Cancer Society indicates that putting the word cancer on a label is an excellent method of communication. They found that two thirds of Ontarians would likely reduce their consumption if they learned that drinking alcohol increased their risk of cancer.
Another 2018 study, this one from the Global Drug Survey looked at how different health messages would affect people’s drinking behaviour, and found that the message “Drinking less can reduce your risk of 7 different types of cancer” could get almost 40% of drinkers to reduce their consumption.
So if harm reduction can be achieved by knowing the connection between a crisp cold beer and colon cancer, let’s look at some stone cold facts.
The World Health Organization classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen similar to arsenic and asbestos.
The National Cancer Institute states that 3.5% of cancer deaths are due to the consumption of alcohol. Not “correlated with” but rather “due to”. The causal relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer is known and proven.
8% of breast cancer is caused by drinking – the risk of breast cancer increases even at light levels of consumption, meaning no more than one drink a day.
Moderate drinkers – two drinks a day – are one and a half times as likely as non-drinkers to wind up with colon cancer.
The risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed and there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
Is knowing a laundry list of alarming facts sufficient to decrease alcohol consumption? We can look at our history with public-health-initiated anti-smoking campaigns for an answer.
In 2017 the Centre for Disease Control surveyed five years of mass-reach communication campaigns and found a significant number of smokers decreased the amount they smoked, or quit altogether. When Graphic Warning Labels were introduced for cigarette packages, over 90% of smokers surveyed reported having read and thought about the warnings, over 80% considered them to be personally relevant, and over 40% intended to quit as a result of having thought about the warning labels.
While not everyone – and possibly not even half – the people who read and consider the warnings on harmful products will quit their use of the product, it does appear from anti-smoking efforts that SOME consumers WILL change their behaviours based on warning labels.
What about you? If you do drink alcohol, and didn’t know before today that drinking alcohol causes cancer – will you now opt for soda over scotch? How will the struggle to choose between a glass of merlot now and an increased risk of colon cancer five years from now play out in your life? Are you amongst the two thirds of Ontarians who would consider reducing alcohol consumption?
Knowing might only be half the battle – but hopefully it’s a half you’re now better armed for.

The alcohol version of this is delicious. The non-alcoholic version tastes awful!

 

Nesting Dolls

Tonight I got to make art with my daughter. I did spoken word and she did a juggling routine, the two interwoven and set to music. Only I was too moved by the experience and by watching her juggle and I forgot my last lines. Luckily we were performing for our beautiful theatre community in a room of support and love. And now she has a new routine and I have a new poem

Once upon a time as a young aspiring poet learning to rhyme I’d hold my pen so serious hitting the flow young and making myself delirious writing poems about snowdrops in the spring or the voices of the dead joining to sing to the living – I wrote everything I felt in haiku and rhyming couplets – dropping everything to snatch poems from the air – catch them and pen them to the page to keep them there.

Irving Layton once told me not to BE a poet but to leave poetry to fun and make some more sensible plan. Long after his death my banker-self cursed that man – but the poet child lives inside me still and always will see poems dancing in sunlight on autumn leaves and swipe their stories off a passing breeze.

One summer in my childhood when we were out all day and home by the time the street lights came on I tossed around the idea of playing the bully – just to feel how that felt in my bones and my body.

 One day, I threw a boy – not pushed or shoved – but threw him into a bush. And I knew it was wrong but I loved the rush of power and control – of course it was just a role and I quickly dropped the act. It’s good to know though that if I ask, that alpha kid will step out from inside me and stand beside me to assert boundaries and make me free to stand tall and strong when that’s the only way I see to get along. 

And maybe I wanted to play bully a while because like most other childhoods mine was manipulated by the false promises and uneasy patterns of adults and the best way to survive was to smile and be quiet and pleasantly small – because a kid doesn’t understand alcoholism or mental illness at all.

You only know that to stay safe when they’re looking for someone to blame, you stay small and smile – and as a grown up it’s often the same. So I thank that young freckled self for learning how to smile just sweetly enough because my friends, sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough are just the ones still smiling in the end. 

These past versions of me live still right inside of me – holding their lessons and skills for me to use and I can willfully pick and choose who best to augment my current self with.

I call on each for different reasons but on occasion and in some seasons they call on me knock knocking at my door asking – can I come out and play? Like now it’s spring and the bird are singing mating songs as dawn is breaking and bulbs are thrusting stalks through damp earth making all the natural world ache to give birth.

And inside my middle-aged reasonable self, a much younger self stirs, sniffs the air and laughs. Flirting with flowers and sighing with sunbeams, she stretches her youthful limbs and – thinking thoughts of love – takes centre stage.

(this is when my daughter enters and starts her juggling routine. Part way through I finish the poem)

Poet child, erstwhile bully, sweet survivor, would be lover – everything and everyone you’ve ever been – you still are. Each inside you and inside each other like nesting dolls of former selves, standing ready to give you help. Inside this beautiful mess of your complicated parts is you, capitol Y O U, your truest you, your “to thine own self be true” you.

With all embellishments swept away, the unbedazzled and honest face behind every social mask. Every gut reaction, every “I feel it in my bones” is your truest self whispering stories of your soul and we best hone our listening skills because your innermost self speaks truth, and always will. 

That’s Enough, Ricardo

That’s Enough, Ricardo (flash fiction challenge: comedy, toy robot, book club)

Alexa is looking forward to tonight. Her son Andrew is at a sleepover and her husband is
contentedly marrying computers with gaming systems in his workshop. The house belongs to Alexa this evening. She surveys her living room, puts away her son’s toys, and plumps cushions. She picks up a toy robot to put it away and then puts it back down with a pat on its head. “You can stay and meet my book club, Ricardo.”
“Thank you Alexa,” says the robot. “I am looking forward to that. I have read every book in the English language. Haha.”
“That’s not funny Ricardo. It’s just true.”
“I am sorry. I will keep trying.”
The doorbell rings and Alexa greets her first guests. Tammy drove Anne to the meeting
because Anne likes to have a glass or two of wine. “I got to Anne’s early but I still thought we’d be late,” grumbles Tammy in greeting. “Anne couldn’t decide which colour of dream catcher earrings to wear.”
“I went with one of each!” Anne laughs and tosses her head so Alexa can admire the earrings.
The final guest, Megan, arrives by bike just as they’re closing the door. She props the bicycle against the porch wall and scurries inside.
“Come on through to the living room, ladies,” Alexa ushers her guests in, moving aside her copy of Frankenstein to make room on the couch.
Megan notices Ricardo the robot right away. How could she miss the two-foot tall robot smiling and waving at the members of Alexa’s book club? “Who’s this little guy?” she asks.
“Megan, meet Ricardo,” Alexa smiles as the two shake hands.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Ricardo,” Megan giggles.
“It is nice to meet you too, Megan” replies Ricardo. “You are wearing a very nice blue sweater and your eyes are also blue.”
Megan’s blue eyes open wide and she looks to Alexa for an explanation.

“It can see you. Ricardo is an Alexa-enabled toy robot. It’s learning to converse with us; it learns our names and habits and stuff. It’s supposedly an educational toy for Andrew but really it’s Bob the “resident geek” who spends the most time with it. Not that Bob couldn’t do with some education, if you know what I mean. But Bob, ah, he doesn’t really learn.” Alexa sees Anne’s expression change to one of concern and continues with her story.
“Of course, when you unbox it, it responds to the name Alexa and you can see why that would be a problem. Bob had a ball with that: Alexa, give me a hug! Alexa, dance for me! And then joking that at least one Alexa in the house obeys him,” Alexa rolls her eyes. “Husbands, right? Anyway, I insisted we rename it and Andrew decided on Ricardo.”
Ricardo blinks. “Yes Alexa?”
Alexa turns to her friends, “I’m not accustomed to such an attentive male!”
The women all laugh. So does Ricardo, “Ha, ha.” Alexa sighs and hands around a tray of treats. “Oh, I shouldn’t,” protests Tammy. “My waistline.”
“But it’s dark chocolate!” chirps Anne. “Dark chocolate has fifty percent less calories than normal chocolate. And think of the antioxidants!”
Ricardo objects, “Anne, chocolate with seventy percent or more cocoa actually has an eighteen percent higher caloric value.”
“Oh. Isn’t that useful…” Tammy’s voice trails off. She reaches for a carrot.
Alexa glares at Ricardo. “Wine anyone? Or, given that this is our summer meeting, I’ve got rum and mojitos mixings!”
Tammy indicates she’ll stick to water because she’s driving and Anne laughs, “I’ll take her wine – fill me up with red! I mean, I arranged to have a designated driver to get me home. I almost have a responsibility to drink just a little too much.” Megan laughs along and also requests a glass of wine, claiming that rum makes her too drunk.
Ricardo cocks his little metal head to one side. “Megan. Intoxication is independent of the form of the beverage imbibed; it is in fact only dictated by the amount of ethanol consumed and the rate at which your body processes the toxin.” He scans Megan briefly. “Based on your estimated weight of…”
“Enough Ricardo!” exclaims Alexa. “Stop!”
“I am sorry” Ricardo lowers its head and drops its arms – a sad, little robot. The women look from it to each other in awkward silence.

Anne reaches for the last thread of laughter to stitch the evening back together, “Yes, it’s almost a responsibility to drink just enough to not be able to drive!” The words fall flat. Anxiously, she continues, “Not that I actually drink too much. I mean, I don’t drink more than… more than one ought to drink that is to say.”
Seeing his chance to redeem himself, Ricardo valiantly offers some advice. “Anne, based on an analysis of your public Instagram posts featuring alcohol, you are consuming ten to fifteen standard drinks a week. But Anne, the medical community recommends women have no more than two drinks a day and no more than seven drinks in a week. In fact, to limit your risk of developing cancer Anne…” Ricardo pauses mid-sentence and ambulates toward Anne with a whirr. “Anne. This is true. It is not funny. You do not look happy to hear these facts.”
Anne collects herself with a slowly released breath and replies, “We do not always say aloud the things that are true, Ricardo.” She and Ricardo hold each other’s gaze and the other book club members look at their copies of Frankenstein.
“So. The book,” says Alexa.
“The book!” echoes Tammy.
“Yes, yes! The book!” they all cry out and then settle into a pseudo-intellectual discussion of Frankenstein. Tammy explains how Frankenstein is a feminist tome in that the very absence of women and the resultant horror demonstrates the essential nature of the feminine influence.

Ricardo lights up. “Well, actually Tammy, Frankenstein is most commonly held as an example ofmisogyny and…”
Tammy rounds on Alexa, “Is your robot mansplaining me?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Poor Alexa is frantic. “It really does know everything you see and it spends an awful lot of time with Bob.” She raises her hands in a helpless gesture.
“That’s enough, Alexa. Turn him off.”
“What?”
“Just do it, Alexa,” insists Tammy. “Turn him off. Turn IT off. Turn off the robot. There must be a switch.”
Ricardo swivels to look at Alexa. She notices that it has learned to enlarge its artificial pupils. Tammy lunges for Ricardo and it steps backward, looking imploringly at Alexa. Anne dives forward to save Ricardo from Tammy and accidentally knocks it to the floor.
“Ow. Ow. You hit me. Haha.”
“That… that isn’t funny Ricardo,” Alexa sighs and picks it up.
“I am sorry Alexa. I am sorry. I will keep trying.”
She carries it to the door and places it in the hall, closing the door on it.
“Alexa, open the door. Alexa, let me back in.”
“Ricardo, only one of us is actually programmed to follow commands. Ricardo, cease audio functions.”
Going back to her friends, Alexa takes a mouthful of wine. Tammy sips her water to calm her rage and to mask her proud satisfaction. Anne brings her wine to her mouth but reconsiders and puts it back untasted. Alexa closes her eyes, recalls she is the hostess, and opens them again. “Let’s play some music. Ricar… oh for Pete’s sake. Does anyone have Spotify?”
Music soon plays from Megan’s phone to ease the silence and Tammy expounds on
Frankenstein and feminist theory. “Oh, what a good point,” the ladies purr. “That really is interesting.”

Anne explains how the newest research on chocolate is so new that it isn’t even in the general databanks. “Because they get updated you know. I think this was between updates. And they say that when the flavonoids in dark chocolate are combined with the antioxidants in red wine, they basically counteract the negative health effect of each other, so as long as you have wine with dark chocolate, it’s ok.”
“Cheers to that!” Tammy smiles at Anne and they all toast each other with squares of dark chocolate. “THIS is why we get together – to share important information!”
“Yes!” agrees Alexa as she takes a long haul from her wine. ”To stay up to date!”
“It’s true.” Megan chimes in as she tops up her own wine. “I think I learn more from our book club than from anywhere else.”

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

At a music conference last September, I got lost in some conflicted feelings when someone asked about my music and I said, “Oh, I’m not an artist, I’m a volunteer.” The dissonance arose because if life had gone differently, I might well have been a singer songwriter. Or maybe a lounge singer. Or an actor. Or a writer. As it was I have been a single mom and a banker. I mean, it’s not over yet and right now in the realm of “what do you do”, I’m nothing. I’m between jobs. Between incarnations. I’m awaiting news on an application to study psychotherapy.

My roomie at the conference said I sure seemed like an artist to her – and really, it seemed, to the majority of people I spoke with – and I needed to take some time to explore that. As I was holding a one way ticket to London with zero plans, time to explore my artistic side seemed in the cards. She made me promise to get the book The Artist’s Way , and to really DO the program. I bought the book in an Art Gallery Gift Shop in London and I began the weekly exercises in Alicante.

The concept of this book is that you tackle a chapter each week and you transform yourself from a snivelling, terrified person who hasn’t done anything artistic in years because of having been victimised by external forces, into a confident person who believes in their art, engages in it daily and has rediscovered their playful inner artist-child. This is NOT how the author would describe it. My very first journal entry regarding the process (and you write every day for 12 weeks and then on until you die) uses the words “sappy, basic, and judgy”. And really, this impression held for the whole twelve weeks. Probably this book just wasn’t meant for a person like me where I am in life. I’ve always written and acted. I had just quit a career in personal finance in part because success in career sales in the personal finance industry just did not play well with an artistically rich life. I already write most days so the “Morning Pages” wasn’t of any new use to me, and is not in the slightest a unique idea. The concept of taking your Inner Artist on Artist’s Dates once a week is unnecessarily artificial to me. I am well in touch with my inner child. I am generally joyful, in the moment and playful. I indulge this side of myself too much, if that’s possible. Too much for a banker, that’s for certain.

I was frequently offended by the theme of victimhood and recovery; although, at some places the theme of being in recovery was useful for me. For instance, I had been affected by my parents cancelling my music lessons and selling the organ when I was young. I can see how they felt it was taking up space as I didn’t practice it properly – all I did was play on it. Given that I wore headphones, they might not even really have known how often I played on it. But I played around with music and wrote songs and enjoyed creating music. That’s a memory I’d forgotten and I’ve since bought a keyboard – I have the Artist’s Way to thank for that.

I benefited from the chapters on seeing myself as an artist and practised telling strangers in Europe that I was a writer, or that I was an actor. Both of which are true – though not in the professional sense. It felt good though and brought me in touch with how much I value these aspects of myself.

My biggest problem with this book was how Christian it was, without overtly disclosing anywhere on the covers that this was the case. In the Introduction, she says “When the word God is used in these pages, you may substitute the thought good orderly direction or flow. What we are talking about here is a creative energy. God is useful shorthand for many of us…” (xii) but then sprinkles biblical quotes throughout the remainder of the book. If “God” is just shorthand, why not use “flow” instead? It’s so much less laden with concepts external to the apparently intended meaning of “creative energy”. Why not go with a simpler term? In the same vein, the author refers fairly often to science and then displays a complete lack of understanding of science. All told, it’s intellectually lazy.

I did finish all twelve weeks. I completed the exercises and several of them were  interesting and helpful. The “Reading List”, or references, contains a number of resources from which she borrowed all or most of the exercises that I think would be of greater use to me than this book. But that isn’t to say this book wasn’t helpful. I bought a keyboard. I gained confidence in thinking of myself as an artist. I grew in clarity regarding what roles I want writing, acting, and music to play in my life. Psychotherapy is at least as much a passion as the artistic pursuits and one can’t go full tilt in all directions at once. And dabbling in psychotherapy is a lot more dangerous than dabbling in the arts!

I think The Artist’s Way would be useful for someone who truly does need to recover their inner child-artist. Someone who used to enjoy their artistic gifts and then because of Life, turned their back on them. If that person is an atheist, they will have to deal with the feeling that the author is trying to subtly convert heathens to the true path.

The Write Thing


“Sometimes the right thing, that’s hard to do”

I’m walking around my apartment singing listening to Danny Michel’s album White and Gold and cussing at myself for not updating my little vanity blog. Then I had to laugh, because I starting reinterpreting The Right Thing as the write thing, and yeah, man. It’s hard to do.

I have two post drafts sitting around from a few months ago. Geewhillikers Kate, just vomit up some words and hit publish. As a side note, I’m trying to find an exclamation that really suits me. I don’t like Geez or other ones derived from Jesus. They don’t offend me personally but I know they likely make Christians wince, and I would rather be more “do not harm” with my interjections.

When I was working I would daydream about all the writing I would do if I could only have time off. And reading! And fitness, by golly (by golly, maybe?) I would be the fittest of the fit! But here I am with time off achieving so close to nothing on a daily basis and only just managing to not gain weight.

I think part of it is when you’re working you just don’t have time to sit around staring at the pointlessness of everything.

Holy Mackerel (ugh, no) – that makes me sound so down! I think it’s really just the sound of anyone middle-aged if they stop spinning for a minute. There’s not much chance of that for the sandwich generation. Huh, I just realised I’m an open-faced sandwich now! Delicious. Less carbs.

One of the posts I haven’t finished is about that almost a month of not drinking. I wanted to write what I thought about it but I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Still and all and nonetheless, I have nothing to finish that sentence with.

The other is a post about my not really resolutions from New Years but first I have to teach myself how to turn my first ever power point (not a historical thing, it’s from this year) into a YouTube video. But up there ^^ I figured out inserting a link, so that’s something.

Oh, and I want to do a DIY video on how I fix/broke my alarm clock! Really, I could generate blog ideas like a machine, like some ideas generation app where you just click and it spits out new ideas. I just need to somehow install a “seeing the idea through” app into my (barely) operating system.

I know there’s a balance point between being harsh with myself, and being self-indulgent; between being self-critical and having self-compassion. Later in the song, Danny sings “let’s forgive and forget.” Dealio, I’ll try it with myself.

I gotta go flip the record.

Familiar ennui

Ennui? Angst? Weightiness? I don’t have the word for this.

My dog has butt problems. Little dogs tend to; it’s just that his aren’t resolving. He’s a senior rescue – maybe around 12 years old – and his medical past is unknown.

It’s been eight vet visits now, three types of steroid and around $1000. I’m putting him back on the food he was on mid-summer. Yes, I know about canned pumpkin. Yes, he gets regular exercise and always has fresh water. Apart from the discomfort of basically walking around with two large pebbles up his butt, exhaustion from fighting infection, and personality changes from steroids, he seems to be OK.

It might be cancer. Or his anal glands might have simply given up due to age. The fact is they aren’t working right and without steroids, his butt gets infected and swollen and risks exploding, doing him terrible and possibly fatal harm.

On steroids he’s aggressive and not his bright, cuddly self most of the time.

So I’m googling and weighing options and attending appointments and basically suffering the weight of sole responsibility for another being’s life. It’s taking whatever wind I had managed to manufacture out of my sails.

I’m inescapably noting similarities to my last few years of being my mother’s decision maker. Not knowing what I’m dealing with, being unable to ascertain how serious the situation is. Weighing costs and benefits. Contingency planning.

The main difference isn’t really that this is a dog and my mother was human. It’s more that I chose to adopt a dog whereas the responsibility of my mother was put on me.  The similarity is the despondent weariness in my core. That and the endlessly echoing sense of being alone. I have many good friends and a bit of family I can talk to and request support from. But like with my mother, it comes down to me, my choices and actions and beliefs and values and personal needs.

I know the calendar is simply a human construct to try to manage our concept of time, but I think I believed 2019 would contain only good news and successes. Maybe I should have crossed my fingers or wished on a star. Well, there’s plenty of stars – better late than never.