Sunday, December 24, 2006

...And So This is Christmas...

Not quite, but it's officially Christmas weekend. Christmas is a very odd time for me, as I'm sure it is for most people. I associate so many good and bad memories to this day, that I'm never sure from one year to the next which memories will win out.

The bigger deal here, is that it's Brandon's first Christmas. Not for him, of course, his main goal will be drooling over as many gifts as possible, but for my wife and me, it's very symbolic. This is where we officially start creating our own family traditions, and charting our own course as parents.

As I grew up, Christmas went from being a magical time, to stressful, to a hassle, to downright depressing, culminating with the year where I spent the holiday with my terminally ill mother and her 24-hour nursing care, while my dad was away visiting his family. While I was there, we were literally buried in snow, receiving a solid foot of snow a day for a week. Because our home was an official workplace for the nurses, I had to keep the driveway and walk cleared at all times because of health and safety issues, which meant 12 hours a day of shovelling, and 6 months of back pain after the fact. And when I wasn't outside shovelling, I was cooking, cleaning, and waiting on everyone hand and foot.

Most of the nurses viewed me as little more than a hassle in the house, and I really didn't feel comfortable being there on my own. It was like being a guest in some absurd mausoleum where the enterred are still alive. I totally understand why my dad often felt that he was a stranger in his own home, as the nurses had made it theirs. To top it off, the majority of them were utterly incompetent, and I seemed to have more knowledge of general first aid and patient care than they did.

To top it off, I had pulled the plug on my relationship with my mother many years previous. To me, unfair or not, she and her illness grew to symbolize all of the weakness I saw within myself, weakness that I sought to eradicate at all cost. Too sensitive, too self-absorbed, too weak, too naive, too easily pushed around, too easily defeated. The ultimate blows to the relationship were her hypocrisy in thinking less of me for turning my back on religion, and her leaving my father for the second time (a further display of hypocrisy). Even in the best of times, her holier-than-thou attitude grated on me, and I used to revel in throwing stones through her glass house, but her disease had progressed to the point where she was just a morbid caricature of herself, somehow amplifying her weaknesses while completely burying her strengths. Coupled with our strained relationship at the best of times, it just got to the point where there was nothing left to love, and I couldn't even bring myself to be upset about it.

I still wonder if there was something I could have done differently, something that I could have done to salvage things while still evolving into a reasonable facsimile of the person I am today. There is no doubt that I am completely happy and satisfied with who I am today, but it makes me sad that I had to amputate the emotional connection to my mother to grow in the way that I have. It just doesn't seem natural, and many of my relationships with other family members have grown needlessly complicated as a result.

Christmas always brings me back to this. The nights half-heartedly putting up a tree, the days opening afterthought gifts, the fake and materialistic absurdity of it all. But then...

That Christmas that I spent buried under an avalanche and a heavy heart was also the first Christmas that my future wife spent with me. Even though I warned her what to expect, she still agreed to come with me, and help me out as best she could, all this despite the fact we had only dated a couple of months. And she didn't get scared off. If anything, our relationship grew stronger. And we made a pact that when we got our way, Christmas would be a real celebration again. Not all about presents, but being together with loved ones, and celebrating those relationships. Every year, we've gotten a bit better. More decorations, better suppers, bigger parties, more charitable donations.

I must admit, I'm still lagging behind a bit in the whole Christmas celebrating. I just can't get into it yet. But I'm getting better. Brandon's arrival couldn't have come at a better time, as the firstborn of his generation, he's had a unifying effect on our family, and as he grows up and learns about Santa Claus and all the traditions that come with Christmas, I'll be able to restore some of the magic in my own heart.

So, I guess my message is that Christmas is a time where you're supposed to come together as family and friends, and put to rest all the petty shit that taints your relationships, at least during the holidays. Enjoy a good meal, let the people around you know that you love them, and just relax and have fun. Don't worry that your new tie doesn't match any of your suits, or that you don't know what you'll do with four more sets of candleholders. It isn't about the gifts, anyway.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

On the Environment and Climate Change

Usually, I'm more than happy to leave these issues to the experts. But because a whole lot of people are self-proclaimed experts on everything that has to do with the environment, I figured it wouldn't hurt for me to throw my hat in the ring.

Keep in mind, I don't approach things the way an expert would. I don't know anything about kilotonnes or greenhouse gases or anything like that. But you don't get to be an aspiring executive without being able to anticipate how people will react to the information presented to them.

The environment is a big issue in Canada right now. The public is upset about the perceived lack of commitment and leadership shown on this issue by decision makers and those in power. The Conservative environment minister, Rona Ambrose, is under a lot of scrutiny, and it is rumoured that she could lose her position. Some reports have blamed her, others her department. So it's probably a little of both.

But really, what kind of progress could be expected? This is a huge issue, so huge that it is beyond the realm of comprehension of most human beings. Certainly mine. But I think that two crucial missteps were taken on the environment issue, missteps that, if they were addressed, could help to make the issue a bit more digestible in the future.

1) Environmental issues, more often than not, are expressed in terms of climate change. The problem with this, is that not even everyone in the scientific community can conclude that the climate is changing because of human intervention, and if it was, how large a role our actions have with respect to the environmental changes occurring around us. Furthermore, climate change, to most Canadians, means that our winters get a little milder. Most don't really see that as a problem. So if we're going to make headway on the environment, we have to express the issues in terms that everyone can rally behind. Instead of being all about climate change, why not express our concerns in terms of concrete, undeniable statements? For example:

"The pollutants we release into our atmosphere affect the air that we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we farm, and the animals we raise for consumption. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to take concrete steps to find out which products and which industries do the most harm to our environment, and either help them clean themselves up, or find alternative products that do not produce the same negative effects." I don't think you can find anyone with a theory that can counter that.

For the record, I don't fully believe in climate change. Somehow, I have trouble coming to grips with the fact that in 150 years, humanity could irrevocably alter a series of ecosystems that have grown and evolved seemingly on a whim for hundreds of millions of years. Yes, we spew a bunch of pollutants into the air. So do volcanoes. So do decaying forests. So do dead animals. I'm not saying we're not playing a part. I'm just saying that we could be responsible for 90% of the environmental change in the last 150 years, or 9%, or 0.9%, or 0.00000000009%. That's why we need to take climate change out of the equation, and limit our arguments to the water we drink, the air we breathe, etc. That makes it seem a lot more real and concrete.

Sometimes, the best way to tackle a huge problem is by taking small bites out of it. Work with one industry here, one there. The argument is that we've been screwing up our environment for 150 years. I don't think there's a magic bullet that will repair it in five. Talking about magic bullets, my second point is this:

2) There is heavy support for the Kyoto Protocol, but find a person who can describe how the protocol can be implemented in reality. I don't believe such a person exists. The Kyoto Protocol gives guidelines and suggestions without coming up with answers. In essence, it attempts to bury emissions in red tape.

I do not support the Kyoto Protocol, because it just sounds like so much watered-down, double-talking corporo-political nonsense. Find me a real solution.

Businesses should really be jumping on the bandwagon now. If the issue is such a hot topic in political spheres, people running the corporations should know that any product that has positive effects on the environment or that produces less pollution than its competitor while remaining at a competitive price point will be a hot seller. And yet, there still aren't enough hybrid cars to meet demand, and the technology, after initial rave reviews, hasn't progressed as much as we would have expected. The technology is there to build houses that are energy neutral, that is, they create enough energy (through solar panels, thermic heating, etc.) to return energy to the electrical grid and ease pressure on the dirty coal plants powering our energy-consuming excesses. Why aren't there full subdivisions of these houses on the market yet? If there's a tax credit for modifying one's house to be energy neutral, why isn't this advertised?

The environmental campaign, just like many others, needs intelligent leadership at all levels. Not people standing out on the street and yelling or writing inflammatory editorials based on half-truths, just a bunch of people with the necessary motivation and resources to tackle the problem. We also need to be patient with these people, and understand that the solutions won't come tomorrow, next year, or the year after that. In return for our commitment to patience and aversion to glory-grabbing headlines, we should expect to see slow but steady progress along the way.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Is This What I Have to Look Forward To?

I've always wondered what it means to get older. Like, when will I realize that I can't climb stairs three at a time, or go on a 2K run anytime the mood strikes me, or stay up until 4:00 am watching movies? My grandfather once told me that you never really feel old. You just sort of wake up one day and find out your body can't do stuff that your brain still takes for granted.

One thing: I am scared to death of colostomies. Back when I was a medical translator, I had to translate a file belonging to a patient who had had a colostomy. A colostomy, in case you don't know, is a re-routing of your internal plumbing. If something goes wrong with your colon or lower intestine, like cancer or chronic inflammation or polyps or whatever, the doctor goes in, snips your intestine, uses his scalpel to give you a new asshole just south of your ribcage on the side of your body, and attaches your intestine to it, giving whatever injured part of your digestive tract the opportunity to heal without all kinds of shit (literally) passing through it. Because medicine isn't advanced enough to give you a sphincter for that secondary asshole, they just stick a plastic ring around the hole (to ward off infection), and you can attach a plastic bag, known as a colostomy bag, to the ring. So your shit just happens to fall into the bag whenever it's ready. Then, once you heal up, you get opened up again and the plumbing is reattached. But now, all your rectal muscles are weak from lack of use, and you get to spend months wearing diapers because you never know when you're going to shit yourself.

This, to me, is a fate worse than death. I've already told my wife, if I ever need to get a colostomy, to drive down to the US, get a 12 gauge shotgun, and shoot me in the face.

So, where does all this lead? Straight to the bathroom on the floor where I work. I eat a pretty balanced diet, drink a lot of water, and take care of myself. So my morning shits aren't much of an ordeal. Just go in, get comfortable, drop a decent to considerable-sized log, couple of wipes, flush, wash hands and walk out. If I've got a touch of the flu, it gets a little more interesting, but still nothing to write home about.

Now, I don't know if I'm the exception to the rule here, but a lot of the older gentlemen I work with treat taking a morning shit like it's a combination between powerlifting, defusing a bomb, and doing atomic physics. I'm sitting there minding my own business, and you hear guys throw the door open to the bathroom and are obviously in a hurry to get into the crunch position, fiddling with their belt, breathing hard, the sense of fear is palpable. Then, a nasty, wet, chunky explosion, followed by moans of relief and pain. Then audible grunting. Then a second explosion, twice as vulgar and wrong as the first. So me and my semi-soft stools are sitting there like wtf? It would be normal if this happened once in a while, everyone goes overboard on the hot wings now and again, but with some of these guys, it's EVERY DAY. Sometimes I just feel like yelling out "Hey! Lay off the curry!", but I find myself quickly clasping my hands over my mouth and nose because of the smells of death and decay emanating from the neighbouring stalls.

Now, I'm the last one to claim that my shit smells like roses. It smells, well, like shit. Vaguely reminiscent of what I ate the day previous, but mostly just your basic shit smell. Bad, but not overly offensive. But man, some of the smells I've smelled in that bathroom border on the absurd. I ask myself, do these fools eat nothing but raw chicken, cumin and dog feces? What's the deal here? Then I start to wonder, is this what I have to expect? Does the digestive system start to fail as it ages? Have 50 years of steak, pizza and hot wings rotted these guys from the inside out?

Needless to say, with that in my mind, I never need any encouragement when it comes to heaping on that second serving of veggies. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, so I'm keeping my colon as clean as a whistle.