This Olympics Junkie Quoted in an Article by Victoria Ahearn

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Olympics Junkies article CP article on CBC Website

As Alex and Andi on CBC Olympic Morning were wrapping up with a replay of the team figure skating — and really, can one see that too many times (yeah, OK, maybe . . .) — Victoria Ahearn, writing for Canadian Press (CP), a news wire service, tweeted me that she was “doing a story on people staying up late/waking up early in the morning to watch the Olympics.” She asked: “You have time to chat today?”

Oh yeah! I did!!

The way CP works is it feeds articles to news organizations across Canada, some of which automatically run everything that comes over the wire from CP and others, like CBC, decide which ones to use and which ones to skip. It looks like many from local (like below) to CBC and the National Post picked it up. I wasn’t sure whether my interview would make it in, especially after hearing about the fan who’s sleeping in 10-minute blocks so as not to miss a single live moment! Whoa, I can’t meet that dedication. Quotes from that fan started off the article, but mine on live vs. taped-delay finished it up. Sweet!

Last Quote for CP Olympics by Victoria Ahearn


Happy Canada Day 2012

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Stained Monarch

The Monarch for me is Canada. I don’t remember when I first learnt about or first saw the Monarch butterfly, but she’s fascinated me always. Imagine: the endurance to migrate the length of an entire continent; the beauty to attract the eye wherever she flies; the fealty to milkweed and the fragility of that choice; the one life lived through many generations; the herald of summer in a white-locked country.

I travelled to Point Pelee one fall to witness the Monarch migration south. The sight has been imprinted in my mind forever of a lone Monarch launching herself against the wind blowing off Lake Erie, a tiny fluttering presence against the mighty span of the smallest of the Great Lakes, the far shore not in our sight – nor in hers – yet off she went, confident that she would not fail, not falter, not drown.

Our politicians, our bureaucrats, our leaders may be filled with caution, even introducing red tape into a rescue operation, endlessly talking and not acting on so many urgent issues that face this country and her cities.

But not so Canadians as a people.

We established a northern country, so vast it’s second only in size to Russia, but with a miniscule population that is spread out across the land and northwards like rare beads on a long string. Yet we are confident we will endure, we will not be taken over by bigger, more powerful countries than ours. We revel in beauty of such variety we could never grow tired or bored of it. We are loyal to each other, to the notions of peace, working hard, innovating, and taking care of each other through programs like medicare, even though they are often so at odds with the behemoths near us and secretive trade negotiations. We are growing to understand our history, appreciating how previous generations formed who we are today. We love our summers but are not afraid of our winters. The best of us find joy in every season.

And we never quit.

We do not follow blindly others as they race towards privacy-intruding laws; we look at the tide of fear consuming the planet in so many ways and resist; we fight to retain the rights and privileges that we remember others before us sacrificing their lives for and for us.

To my fellow Canadians: Happy Canada Day!

May you continue to bless this country, and may she continue to bless you.

Brain Health

Does a National Strategy on Mental Health Have Any Meaning in Canada?

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The Mental Health Commission of Canada has released its National Strategy report. It took them five years to compile and write it. I understand that they had two Chairmen — the original one resigned. I’ve heard several interviews with the second Chairman, a physician, and the original Chairman, a Senator, and I caught a snippet of the original press conference when they released their strategy.

I have no idea what this all means.

Health is — stupidly — a provincial issue. I can sort of see why different provinces may want to educate their subjects, I mean people, differently. But last I saw, human beings who live in Ontario are biologically, physiologically, and anatomically the same as those living in Alberta. But we seem to believe a doctor trained in Saskatchewan won’t know how to treat human beings living in Québec. Or that human beings living in New Brunswick don’t suffer from the same diseases or need the same kinds of treatments as those living in British Columbia.

I don’t know what our Fathers of Confederation were thinking when they made health a provincial responsibility.

In spite of how this illogic treats Canadians unequally and in some cases disastrously so, provinces are jealous over health. They don’t want to share it with the federal government. It’s okay for the federal government to give them money to spend on it, and maybe it’s okay to have national medicare rules about who can pay for what, although that’s changing after the Supreme Court ruling, but they don’t like the Feds telling them what to do with the money. If province A wants to spend it solely on cancer, and province B wants to spend nada on cancer but only on heart disease, then they get to do that, and the Feds can’t do anything. Or don’t, for fear of treading on toes.

It’s all about power. Not about the overall health of Canadians.

Yet here we have a national strategy on mental health. Yes, Canada was apparently the only major nation without one. But we also don’t treat health as a national responsibility. Since when are the provinces going to harmonize their approach to mental health — or physical — so that an Ontarian suffering from major depression can know that if they move to Nunavut they will receive the same treatment, the same level of care? Since when will the Federal government ensure the same level of care is not less than the minimal in any province or territory? Since when will the provinces give over any power so that a national strategy on mental health really is national?

In one interview I heard the Chairman say that different provinces will implement the recommendations differently, depending on what they do now, the implication being that at the end of the day a Canadian can live anywhere in Canada and know that they will receive the same good care. Hardly. I can’t see that happening? Can you?

No, a national strategy only has meaning in this country if Canadians challenge the provinces over their absolute power over health and demand that health be national, that a doctor licensed in Nova Scotia can practise and prescribe in Manitoba, that a Yukoner has the same access to a GP or psychiatrist as a Newfoundlander, that treatments in whatever form they come in are covered equally across the country from coast to coast to coast.


Voting the Rejecting Way

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I don’t want to vote. The First Past the Post system means if I want to vote for a particular party but don’t like the candidate, I have to vote for the candidate to register a vote for the party. And if I like a particular candidate out of all of them but not the party they represent, I have to choose between candidate and my preferred party. It’s nuts.

To make matters worse, our Parliament and Legislatures are becoming more and more about The Leader and the MPs or MPPs are simply seals that bark to command. And so voting for candidates because of who they are and their background is becoming meaningless. You’re simply voting for a human to keep a seat warm in their party’s section of Parliament or the Legislature. It’s disheartening.

But then I’m reminded that people died to keep Canada a democracy, to keep it free from fascism and totalitarianism. I’m reminded that we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with teeth, that came about because we’re a democracy. And a key way to keep Canada a democracy is to vote. I’m reminded that it’s the people’s voice that keeps the police and politicians from blanketing our highways and cities in CCTVs, which allow tracking of our every move and strip us of anonymity, a hallmark of democracy. Autocracies need to, and like to, track its citizens wherever they are. I’m reminded that it’s our voice expressed through votes that decide how much of our privacy will be stripped from us, whether we approve the arbitrary use of police force okayed by Premier Dalton McGuinty and the Liberal government during the 2010 G20 in Toronto.

But what to do when the First Past the Post system disenfranchises you, when you don’t like the three big parties, when you don’t like the candidates in your riding?

Remember first that if you don’t want your democracy usurped by something else — by an autocracy, by one man deciding your fate — then use your vote.

If you don’t like the three main parties, check out the Greens. They may surprise you as reflecting you and your political wishes. And perhaps see a vote for a smaller party as sticking it to the big guys.

And most importantly remember you can reject your ballot. It’s a protest at the ballot box.

If everyone who sat home on voting day went to their polling station instead to reject their ballot and have that rejection registered, then the politicians — and the media — would have to take notice. And maybe then our leaders would seriously bend their minds and actions to improving our democracy.

So go and reject your ballot! I am.

Brain Health

Brain Injury: the Government Ignores, the People Remain in the Dark

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BIST (Brain Injury Society of Toronto) was founded in 2004 and has grown to 469 members, as of this week’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). I looked around at the 50? 40? 70? or so members in attendance and was rather surprised. But as the AGM progressed I thought about those growing numbers and BIST’s new focus this past year on fundraising and awareness, as reported by the various committees and 11-member board.

But from the abysmal brain injury care in Ontario, you wouldn’t know there is an epidemic out there.

When I first joined, I had no idea who was on the Board and who volunteered, even though I had a good sense of who were the active members with brain injuries from falls, meningitis, crashes, tumours (no hockey). Today, members of the Board are making a concerted effort to get out to the meetings and making known who they are. And by the end of the evening, it struck me that like the Board, putting ourselves out there where we live and engaging is what we people with brain injuries need to do.

Everyone knows about cancer; breast cancer is the charity du jour. Half the population suffer from heart disease, and the other half know someone who’s had a heart problem. Rick Hansen has done a stellar job of bringing attention to spinal cord damage, and people in wheelchairs are visible representatives (even if that is not the reason why they must use a wheelchair). But unfortunately brain injuries are invisible, though plentiful.

The Brain Injury Association of Canada says “thousands of Canadians incur a traumatic brain injury each year the majority being young adults.

And so, as usual, we Canadians must look to the US for detailed stats (and that was true even before Prime Minister Stephen Harper nixed the scientifically sound and comprehensive look at our population, the long-form census). Every year, 1.7 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury. Using the ten percent rule, that means 170,000 Canadians have their brains damaged each and every year. And like Americans, twice as many men as women.

As I listened to the reports at the AGM, I thought how daunting the task and how needed to make people aware of brain injury and its devastating effects on the injured. Hockey fans are becoming aware, but only as it applies to hockey players and with incomplete understanding of its lifelong effects.

Sidney Crosby appeared recently with his doctors to talk about his concussion and their expert opinion that when he is one hundred percent better, it will be like he hadn’t had a concussion, that his risk of another concussion will be back to what it was before his two.


How can they know that? There is no technology that can look at the brain in such detail so as to know the brain matter is one hundred percent healed and regrown, that there are zero changes in neuronal metabolism and structure.

The science is so new and still in the dark ages, relative to heart disease or cancer treatment, that to say we know with certainty the future and the risk is full of hubris. But then I’ve discovered too many doctors, particularly neurologists, are like that — think they know it all in the face of great ignorance, think they recognize brain injuries when the cognitive ones zip right over their heads — and so why would the population be any more knowledgeable?

Researchers are finding that people who have traumatic brain injury have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, and so on. Yet they cannot say if the long-term effects of brain injuries are different in people like me who’ve had active treatment for cognitive deficits. But to assume not is a dreamy, potentially dangerous assumption.

I’ve met people who’ve experienced bad bangs to the head but with no broken skull, maybe only temporary unconsciousness, which they’d shrugged off and if they saw a doc, told it’s just a concussion, watch for a couple of days, then should be fine. Yet when they hear about some of my difficuties, they go, “hey, I have that too.” They always thought whatever “that” was was normal. It isn’t. I never had these injury-related issues pre-car crash. Most people don’t. Yet they had an impact on these people’s lives, and because they never made the connection, they didn’t understand the problem, never mind how to heal it and improve their lives.

It doesn’t help that even if you recognize you need to see someone about it, you can’t in Ontario because of lack of funding for neuropsychiatrists, no funding for psychologists who are on the forefront of active treatments, and severe cutbacks to community care. When no one knows about brain injuries, except as hockey concussions, why would the government fund adequate care?

Crosby and his docs have presented his concussion as healable as a simple broken leg, just takes longer. Even when concussions are recognized as real injuries with bad effects on the brain, they’re still represented as happening only to hockey players and having no lasting effects, thus no big deal.

Yes, the AGM theme is right: we need more awareness to stop injuries, to have access to good treatment, and to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of the walking wounded.


Brain Power

Jack Layton: The Spirit of His Legacy

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Words fail me. That’s what I tweeted this morning, after I saw the Breaking News on Citytv’s Breakfast Television, as I was massaging my muscles post-weight session, that Jack Layton had died. That first announcement was brief, and Cynthia Mulligan had a hard time switching gears to traffic. Switching gears. That’s what’s happening today.

Being a long-time Torontonian, I have “known” Jack Layton since he was first elected to Toronto City Council. Back then the city was the centre of what was Metropolitan Toronto comprising Toronto, Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke, East York, and York, all of which were at odds with each other. Today, we are all one big city under the moniker “Toronto” and still don’t like each other. In the 1980s, Layton entered the spacecraft-shaped Chamber and roared his protest. That’s pretty much how I remember Layton: one big noisy antagonistic protest. It came to a head for me during the SkyDome building days when CityPlace (if I remember the name right), owned by CN at the time and in charge of developing the lands around the SkyDome, was almost brought to a halt by Layton because he said the buildings had to be one hundred percent social housing, else no building. No kidding. That’s why there was lots of green space, one narrow park dedicated to the Chinese rail workers, a driving range, a concrete crushing plant and no building for years. Needless to say,  I was heartily glad when he finally lost an election shortly after that. Since the Art Eggleton days, Toronto has been about destroying our past and doing nothing in the present, and Layton seemed to be a big part of that. I did not like the man, and I was not alone. Many of us cheered at his loss.

After three years in the wilderness, Layton returned to municipal politics. I was not happy. And then I began to notice he had changed. No more was he one big bossy noisy protest; instead he was envisioning solutions to current problems and using larger and larger stages to make life better in Toronto. Life in the wilderness had made him think. His demeanour had changed from fist and protest to energy and grins. He infected people with the idea that Toronto wasn’t about petty left-right bickering but about creating an urban space in which rich, poor, and middle class lived, worked, and played. Although he had become a driving force in the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, I hadn’t realised he was dreaming even bigger until I read the news that he had become leader of the NDP party. I’m not sure why that surprised me. Toronto City Council bans party politics, but we had all known Layton was an NDPer, even before the days the NDP Party began blatantly showed their backing of certain municipal politicians. Still, I had always seen him as a city man not as a national politician. But then eighty percent of Canadians live in cities. Why should we not be represented by a politician who loves cities and knows how to make them work?

The election he started talking about becoming Prime Minister, even in the face of scoffing and rolling eyes, is when I knew Layton had transformed himself  completely and methodically over the years. He had become a politician with an unattainable dream. And he was going for it.

In the last few years, Layton won me over completely. He had a happy optimism that wasn’t Pollyannaish or head-in-the-sand-refusing-to-see-reality. No, it was an optimism that faced reality and still rejoiced in the coming triumph while planning how to make it happen. It was so rooted in reality, it was infectious. He was savvy and understood that by lifting people up you could get more things done that helped people, made life better, made us productive and energetic, made Canadians want to do more for their country together. He was tough. You can’t make statements like “I’m campaigning to be Prime Minister” and then weather all the tomatoes and eggs and laughter lobbed at you and keep dancing forward without being tough. He was resilient. He took the failure, thought on what kind of politician he wanted to be (apparently even before his big public failure of losing an election), and came back with bigger dreams and an inspiring way. He had courage. I’m not sure when he decided the NDP would form the national government, but a person can’t envision such a thing and plan for it as if it is entirely possible without having courage. Even with the plethora of support he enjoyed from family and friends, it was and is a breath-taking dream. He had energy. Some people have loads of energy; some don’t. But I believe that pessimism is an energy-stealer; division is an energy-stealer; dwelling on failure and nurturing hatred for not getting your own way (politically) is an energy-stealer. Optimism gives energy; bringing people together creates more energy for each person; dwelling on failure long enough to figure out why and thus come up with a solution then sticking the failure in the past gives energy; shrugging off not getting your own way and figuring out how to do things better puts the focus firmly on the present and propels a person into the future. I think that’s why so many people liked watching him: his energy and joy flowed out of him and into us.

On July 26 when we heard the news of Layton’s cancer, I wrote:

“… when you are at the point of achieving your greatest goal … there is something intensely grieving about receiving that kind of news. One moment, you are happy, laughing, loving each day, anticipating with excitement the fulfillment of all your work; the next, you’re facing the death of your dream, and in Jack’s case, perhaps his very life.”

That is what makes this news intensely tragic. Layton had worked a long time, had spent a long time thinking and planning, to make his dream a reality. And it wasn’t his spirit that killed it; it wasn’t lack of opportunity or even ill health; it was an evil process that today’s medical science and knowledge was helpless against.

When I saw him on TV on July 26th, I first saw his body: emaciated, pale and flushed, failing. My heart sank. Then I saw his eyes, his spirit. So strong, so determined, full of hope and planning. If spirit alone could delay death, Layton would be alive. After all, it was that spirit that had already done the impossible: gotten him through the first six months of this year, including an election. His fractured hip puzzled me – the explanations given didn’t seem to jibe to me – and his shrinking frame not just from diet alone. Yet he showed more energy than Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff combined. And he triumphed. He achieved the penultimate step to his unattainable dream. That’s what optimism, courage, facing reality, yet dreaming big do for a person. And not relying on contacts or others to make things happen.

I am overwhelmed by the tragedy of his death, of witnessing the death of a man who thrived on life and was cut down as he was seeing the fruition of all his work. Only four more years, and perhaps he would have become Prime Minister. I am also overwhelmed by the tragedy for Canada. We have a Prime Minister who thrives on division, who is about as inspiring as a wet teabag. We have an unproven Official Opposition who doesn’t seem to have a member with Layton’s combination of dreaming and pragmatism and ability to negotiate. We have a Liberal party who still doesn’t seem to get why they were tossed out. And if Toronto is any indication, we have a country full of middling politicians and apathetic people who all believe the best we can achieve is mediocrity, the best thing to do in all cases is nothing or dreaming small, and the best dreams are not about people – rich, poor, middle class — and how to make their lives better.

After my last injury, I became afraid of having dreams. It wasn’t the first time injury and events out of my control had derailed my dream. Previously, I had been able to pick up and get going again, but my closed head injury put paid to my dream – I heard the final clanging shut of that door six years post. And then help arrived out of the blue. Still, I remain fearful of dreaming, for to me dreaming equals bad things happening. The power of Layton is that he never stopped. His legacy is for us to switch gears, from envy and division, from apathy and learned helplessness, from waiting for others to do – to being the dreamers and doers ourselves.

No man is indispensable. But what Layton gave us is. Layton did seem to understand how tough life is for the vulnerable in society, and so few politicians really do. They spout trendy phrases but act in a way that makes life more difficult. And so perhaps Layton’s best legacy is not to look for an NDP politician to replace him, but to take on his best characteristics and to dream the unattainable for our country, our fellow citizens, and ourselves, and, through our actions, force politicians to make our dreams happen. Illness and brain injury has a dampening effect on how much one can physically do yet our spirits can still act. Perhaps those of us with low physical energy cannot march in protest, but we can goad others into marching. Perhaps we cannot write letters every day, but we can blog or tweet our thoughts directly to MPs every time we can, even if all we can is once every six months. Perhaps we cannot express ourselves well, but expressing ourselves even in a few, short words is better than not at all. And most of all, we can mimic Layton’s resiliency. His seminal failure was not  of health but it was a mammoth one nevertheless, and he came back like the proverbial cat.

I may be afraid of personal dreams, but I can dream for my city and my country. We can together adopt Layton’s brand of optimism, face reality then let our minds wander freely into amazing visions of better things, and ask ourselves why not?


The Grief of Jack Layton’s Cancer Announcement

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I am not going to speculate on Official Opposition and NDP Leader Jack Layton’s cancer and condition because the timing of his announcement reminds me too much of the timing of my own catastrophe that it overwhelms other thoughts.

It is awful and frightening when you receive a troubling diagnosis; it is shocking enough when you’re trucking along and either a couple of bad drivers hit you or your doctor sits you down to tell you have cancer. But when you are at the point of achieving your greatest goal — or in Jack’s case having reached it and being placed to reach further — there is something intensely grieving about receiving that kind of news. One moment, you are happy, laughing, loving each day, anticipating with excitement the fulfillment of all your work; the next, you’re facing the death of your dream, and in Jack’s case, perhaps his very life. It is a devastating fall. And the grief both drives you to get better and infects your every moment. The grief rocks your world and rolls your emotions from anger to bawling. Over the long term, it buries hope.

But Jack is probably going to have a relatively short fight, given the nature of cancer; it’s easier to keep up the spirit over months or a few years of active work-interfering treatment than years and years and years. Being a politician, he also has a well of hope that never runs out. For decades, he has faced constant rejection and ridicule from naysayers and political enemies until after this election victory, yet the well of his hope and optimism only became deeper. He has close support in his family and friends and a net of well wishers from one end of Canada to the other, from the south to the north, lifting and holding him up. He will not lose hope, and he is a determined man. I hope for him, and for us, that his dream, that the pursuit of his ultimate achievement will not be derailed.