Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sometimes A Husband Doesn't Know Jack

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

Our home is decorated with watercolour paintings and a couple of oil lamps, several shelves of books and the carvings my sister brought back from Ethiopia. I chose the paint for the walls and the furniture in the living room. My husband has never complained about my knick-knacks, never balked at a colour, never vetoed an idea. Perhaps there’s bit too much clutter but as long as you stay out of the guest room, we don’t look like hoarders. 
So why did my husband suddenly decide he needed to contribute to this well-oiled decorating machine? 
Dwayne went to Dartmouth a few weeks ago for a surgery follow-up with his surgeon. That evening, he said, “By the way, I picked us up a new pet today.”
“Okay,” I said, not really sure why  he was grinning like that but I figured the pet was going to be a giant concrete rooster or some other item he shouldn’t be lifting.
“It’s out in the truck,” he said.
I was sitting at the dining room table checking email on the laptop when he returned. When I looked up, there was this enormous black bear with a huge pink tongue and giant teeth roaring at me. 
“Holy crap!” I screamed and leaped out of the chair, putting it and the table between me and the bear. It looked very, very real. 
Except for the fact that my husband was holding it in his arms because it had no body.
“What were you thinking? What did you do?” I hollered.
Because when your husband goes to the city to see his surgeon and returns home with a mounted bear head, obviously something happened. 
That something is an outdoor store between here and the city. 
“Some guy brought in a bear and put a down payment on getting the head mounted but he never came back for it,” Dwayne explained. 
“So you thought you’d bring it home.”
“I got a really good deal on him. Oh, and his name is Jack. Where do you want me to hang him?”
 When I moved in here, I made him remove the “family heirloom” from the bedroom wall because I refused to sleep under massive moose antlers yet now my husband was standing in our dining room, holding a massive, gape-mouthed black bear head, which he had named, and was expecting me to point to a spot on a living room wall.
 “You can’t hang that in the house,” I told him. “The dogs haven’t even blinked their eyes since you brought that thing inside. And how long do you think it will take the kitten to discover he can hang off that mouth?” 
“You really don’t want Jack in the house?”
By then, I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not but NO, Jack is not living inside. Jack can live in the garage with the moose antlers. 
(Which now has me wondering if he’s going to want a face to go along with that rack.)
As Dwayne carried the bear head out to the garage, he said, “If you write a column about this, I get to hang Jack in the living room.”
Oh, puleeze! Bring it on, Jack. 
Who goes to the city to see his surgeon and brings home a mounted bear head? A man who lost his decorating cred six years ago, that’s who. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Like Winnie-the-Pooh Says, With Bees You Never Can Tell

I've been reading David Sedaris' essays lately so I find I'm thinking like him. It makes me notice the sublime regularness in every day and write it down. Or think about writing it down.
Yesterday, the boss pulled a spoon out of the pocket of his jeans at 9 o'clock in the morning. I knew that was something David Sedaris would jot down, would give dead-pan-humour meaning to but I couldn't manage it. I recognized the potential but couldn't lasso it. It wasn't funny until I muttered to my friend and co-worker Jane, "The boss is spooning himself."
Yet as always when I'm trying to learn a new trick, the lessons come frequently.
Late this afternoon, about fifteen minutes before quitting time, Jane informs me, "Apparently, we have a swarm of bees on the deck."
Her husband had just called to say that when he went to bring in the laundry that he'd hung out this morning, he couldn't get near the clothes because they are covered in honey bees. In fact, the entire deck from which the clothesline runs is covered in honey bees.
"What did Jerry do?" I asked.
This is the first question we ask when something goes awry at Jane's house. Jane is a Competent Person who finds herself helping incompetent people like her husband. And me. (Panic is my default reaction and hollering, "Jane!" is the first thing out of my mouth. Even when Jane isn't around.)
Now, I was home with Jane at lunch time and when we left at 12:30 to come back to work, the deck was fine. I noticed the laundry. I noticed that Jerry had mowed the lawn. Their dog Sam wandered in and out the door. There was no swarm of bees.
"I'm hoping maybe when the queen shows up, the bees will swarm and take off to find some place else to live."
It took me a minute to realize she wasn't talking about herself; she meant the queen bee. Although if anyone could make a swarm of bees go away, it would be Jane.
We had to discuss their current living arrangements: Jane and Jerry's underwear. Personally, and without getting into the size of them since I had my one big-butt zinger yesterday and it was so good, Jane is giving me a pass on retaliation, I don't see anything wrong with honey bees living in their laundry. I think that's rather friendly and welcoming and considering the current plight of the honey bee, rather environmentally responsible. It's the caring thing to do, allow these honey bees to live in their clean clothes.
Jane is waiting to go home and investigate before she passes judgement on the situation. (This is what Competent People do: they hold off, they evaluate, they make thoughtful, rational decisions.) I think she should get some hives and become a bee-keeper but more than likely, Jane will perform some remarkable Bee Whispering feat this evening and a swarm of bees will follow her down the sidewalk and across the park to their new home in a tree by the river. Maybe she'll guide them using a pair of underwear as a flag, like you see the leader of a tour group do.
"If I come in here tomorrow with all these swellings and knobs..." Jane is saying as she shuts down her computer. But she won't because she's competent. The bees will respect the queen.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Buy-Local Ties A String Around My Finger

Purely by accident, we ate more locally tonight than we usually do this time of year. It was by accident because I grabbed ingredients for Greek salad at our small-town grocery store which I just assume carries the cheapest stuff shipped in from the States by the mother company.
We were having lamb sausage (NS meat) and that required Greek salad -- I was sacrificing local for theme.
I knew the feta would be local because they carry a Nova Scotia-based one and I make a point of choosing it but imagine my delight when at home I started peeling stickers of the tomatoes and cucumbers to discover they were grown in this province.
It was a nice surprise but it also makes me aware that I'm not looking at labels when I shop.
Reminds of Barbara Kingsolver's excellent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she and her family take a vow to buy only food raised in their own neighbourhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it.  Time to read it again and be inspired.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In Conversation With...Gerry Helm

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 8, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

May 5 to 11 was National Hospice Palliative Care Week in Canada. “Palliative care” is a phrase we are familiar  with, but apparently, don’t understand: According to the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, more than 252,000 Canadians died in 2010 and 90 per cent of them could have benefited from hospice palliative care. 
Nearly all of them. 
And yet, palliative care is all around us. 
“It’s about end of life care,” explains Gerry Helm, chair of the non-profit Palliative Care Society of Cumberland County. “It’s a philosophy of care that can be done anywhere a person says their home is. We do palliative care in hospitals, in long-term care facilities, we do it in seniors’ homes, we do it in private homes. It’s the idea of controlling pain and symptoms and having people live until they die. Not waiting to die but able to be active and to do what they can for as long as they can.”
It’s about people living until they die. What a hopeful, peaceful, comforting way to think about something that is, let’s face it, inevitable and scary.
“By talking about it, we get rid of all the fear around it,” Gerry says. “At least you have an idea about what to expect. Why not do it on your own terms at least as much as you can? And most of us want to be in our own homes if we can manage it.”
As a nurse in Amherst for 35 years, Gerry, who lives in Tidnish Bridge, has seen life at its beginning and at its end. After retiring, she volunteered with VON palliative care program then became their volunteer coordinator. After that, she became the chair of the non-profit palliative care society. 
Her work with VON became very personal after her mother was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 72. 
“She never spent a day in a hospital,” Gerry says. “There were five of us in the family and two of us were nurses so already you know that we were better off than other families. We promised our mom when she was diagnosed that she would never be alone. And the five of us, along with spouses, were able to do that.” 
As the disease progressed, Gerry’s mother’s voice got quieter and quieter, she became unable to walk, then she couldn’t feed herself. But with some creative modifications, she was able to do puzzles and play cards. 
“We were grieving every loss,” admits Gerry, “but her mind was sharp. And she was home.”
As a nurse and as a daughter, Gerry appreciates most what palliative care means when someone actually passes. 
“The day that [my mother] died, she was in a recliner because it was easier for her to breathe sitting up and we were all there. She just slipped away. We carried her into her room and put her on the bed and everyone had a chance to say goodbye by themselves with her. We called the funeral home and they took Mom when we were ready. It was so easy. It was so calm. It was so much easier than calling 9-1-1 and the police come and the paramedics, they have to do CPR. If someone dies at home [in palliative care], the doctor knows what’s wrong so there is no problem getting a death certificate. It makes it so much easier for families.”
Palliative care isn’t merely support for someone at the end of their life; as Gerry’s personal experience reveals, it also provides support to the family and friends. 
“How about the caregivers?” she points out. “They are often so involved 24/7 that they don’t even know there are services out there that can help them, they don’t even know where to go to find them.”
Palliative care is usually associated with very end-of-life, those final days or weeks, not months, but time can be extended by being at home. Gerry says it’s a completely different experience than being at home.
“You are away from your loved ones, and let’s face it, the hospital isn’t conducive to getting up to go outdoors, to do something for as long as you feel up to it. And it’s very stressful.”
Palliative care is not funded by the government. To pay for its operating costs, the Cumberland society must raise funds through donations and grants. 
“The government now pays for medication; people at one point couldn’t afford the medication so they would go to the hospital where everything is paid for. Now there is a drug plan. There is a bed-borrowing program; now you don’t have to pay for a bed,” says Gerry. “Palliative care can be and is done at home but not as often as we want it. About 70 per cent will die in hospital, sometimes because there isn’t enough support.” 
The Cumberland County Palliative Care Society one day hopes to open a unit to accomodate those for whom a home passing is not possible. A unit, which is meant to take in several people, creates a private world for everyone to be together without an audience.
“It’s patient-centered,” Gerry says about not having to adhere to the hospital’s schedule for meals or baths. “It shouldn’t be regimented. It’s a more relaxed space.”
Considering she started as a nurse’s aide at the age of 15, Gerry has devoted most of her life to caring for others yet she gives no indication she plans on retiring yet again. Palliative care is a calling for her.
“It’s amazing,” she says of her experiences. “Everyone is different in how they deal with their illness and their circumstances. I meet such great people. The dying teach you how to live.”

Gerry is pictured with the footstools
she makes (out of 1 L milk cartons!) as
a fundraiser for the Palliative Care Society
of Cumberland County.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Room With A View

On Twitter yesterday, Christina Martin, my singer/songwriter neighbour who must now be home from her cross-Canada tour, tweeted a photo of what she sees when she's working. Since I wasn't at my desk yesterday, I had nothing to share but I'm working on this cold, rainy Saturday and this is what I see:

And now, five minutes later, I see snowflakes outside.

Friday, May 17, 2013

How the Two-Minute Magic Happens For a Community Correspondent

The truth about radio and television is that we are like ducks on a pond. On the surface, we're calm and unruffled, gliding over the surface. Below that surface, behind the scenes, before the microphones and cameras are live, our feet are paddling like crazy. I remember many crazy-busy mornings in my radio days, the big news days, racing into the studio at one minute to seven with my newscast still warm from the printer but you'd never know it as I said "Good morning." 
Even when it's only two minutes from a home base, there is still a behind-the-scenes element. Writing that makes me realize this is kind of like radio: two minutes on air, speaking to a microphone, can't see an audience but know it's there. Only now, I have to worry about what my face looks like. 
(Sidebar: I don't see Cyril Lunney during this. Because I'm projected via Skype on a TV screen for him, it's just my image I see. But I get to hear everything that's going on around them and this morning, Cyril's colleagues were considering him as a human sacrifice! Roasting over a spit with an apple in his mouth. Oh, the fun that happens when no one is looking...and only I was listening. Wait, is that mic live??)
This is what my side of the TV screen looks like when I do my CTV Atlantic "Morning Live" correspondent segment every two weeks. All you see on the telly is my head with the blank yellow wall behind but this is the space I'm sitting in. Hey, it looks very writerly from this angle, doesn't it? Must remember that for future author interviews.(Just putting that out there.)
Please note the very technical set up, the way we do things in the country: Duct tape is holding my tablet to the music stand to keep it at the right tilt for our chat. Okay, maybe not so much a country thing as a Sara's-not-technical thing. (Remember that photography tip? Never look down on a camera. Unless, of course, that triple-chin look is what you're going for.)

Today's segment featured a cameo by Archie the kitten when he wandered through the video. Now he wants to do the entire segment next time. He'll likely talk about Marilyn William's campaign to spay and neuter the local feral cat colony because he's a very civic-minded kitten.
I don't use those notes taped on either side of the tablet but it makes me feel better knowing they are there just in case my brain freezes and I forget everything. Don't think that will happen; I love doing this segment and the details come easily for the chat. Wish it were longer than two minutes! (Now, who is experiencing shudders as they read that?!?)

**CTV Atlantic Morning Live posted the clip of today's segment (it's always a bit choppy) so you can witness Archie's TV debut at the end.
There's a commercial first and a bit of a pause but it's there.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Writer, Baker, Community Maker

I was remiss in not posting this story about my friend Norene Smiley of Pugwash when it appeared in the Chronicle Herald on Tuesday. She is also one of my favourite artists; we have three of her watercolours hanging in our home. So much artistic talent -- and she's an gourmet cook as well.

This photo was taken a few summers ago at a literary evening at the Chatterbox Cafe in Pugwash, which Norene runs with her husband Greg. Norene is second from the left. Greg and Norene promote music and writing through their cafe all summer long; their Friday night kitchen party showcases some pretty amazing local talent.

Hey -- the first live show of the Summer of 2013 is this Saturday night. Juno Award-winning West Coast singer Shari Ulrich is playing at 7:00 pm. $20 a ticket and the cafe will be open for supper.
The Friday night kitchen party starts up May 24 (not this weekend).

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Stuff of Memories

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

Before my husband had surgery on his shoulder early last month, we had a conversation about our wills because this is what you do when someone is going under anaesthesia. 
In our house, there are three people to consider: me, my husband and the person who lives in apartment 2A (my mother). Our main goal is to protect Mum so she doesn’t lose what is now her home. Turns out the house is the easy part.
What’s hard is figuring out what to do with all the stuff that’s in the house. Because, seriously, the small stuff adds up and really does make you sweat. (Hundreds of books make for very heavy boxes.)
 In theory, writing a will seems simple: You leave a house, a truck, a cottage, a ring, a gun collection, a set of moose antlers to someone or some people. You write down who gets what. It’s simple if you only have those few things. But looking around my house, I realized I have way too much stuff. It all has its place now but what is its place in the future?
So this is the real reason people have kids! You can pass on, serene and ethereal in the knowledge that your stuff will be dealt with by your children after you’re gone so you don’t need to fuss about it now. 
Do I burden my nieces and nephews, who live in Georgia, with the task of dealing with however many decades of their aunt’s stuff? What will they want with a dozen framed photos of Dwayne and me? Or three jars of dried pussy willows? Or my pig, bird and elephant collections? 
At least they can pawn my jewelry.
Most of my dearest friends live in Ontario so I can’t leave instructions for them to come in and pick over all my stuff and take what they want. I suppose if I am organized enough, lucid enough or warned enough, I can box up items I think each of them (or their children) would appreciate, stick a mailing label on each and hope there is enough money in my estate to cover postage.
In a post last August on the Mother Nature Network, Starre Vartan wrote, “All this stuff does take time, after all, to keep clean, to sort through periodically, to fix and paint and even just to think about.” 
Vartan went on to write about her hardest giveway: Because she doesn’t have children, she mailed several boxes of her Barbies, including the outfits handmade by her grandmother, to a friend whose daughters were thrilled to receive them. 
“These items that had taken up space in my attic for a decade are now being used and played with,” she concluded. “And better yet, I realized I still had all the beautiful memories from my childhood, which of course don’t take up any space at all.”
And that’s why we have stuff. They are a tangible representation of our memories and stories, of the who and what they are connected to: The carved loon made by a dear family friend who died in 2011. The ironwood coyote my father bought me in Palm Springs. The jar of beach glass collected from Pugwash Point. The elephant my husband gave me as a desk talisman at the start of a big writing project.
We worry that if the item disappears, so will the memory, the story, the person. It’s hard to argue that stuff is bad if it has meaning. The trick is to keep the meaningful stuff and let go of the rest.
I mentioned to my dearest local friend that I was figuring out what would happen to my stuff when I die.
“I don’t know anyone who talks about death more than you do,” Jane said. 
“Well, it’s a good thing I do because do you want my elephant collection?”
She said yes. But when I told my mother about it, she said, “I want your elephant collection.”
Okay, I’m not dead and they’re fighting over my stuff. This is unexpected.
So I had to go back to Jane and retract my offer. Jane wasn’t fazed a bit and she solved another problem for me. 
“Oh, I like your mother so I’ll adopt her and get the elephants anyway.”

A sample of the coveted collection

Monday, May 13, 2013

Out Standing In Her Field

We attended the Atlantic Community Newspaper Awards on Saturday night in foggy, rainy Halifax and although my column didn't win Best Specialty Column, it was a great night.
It's too bad my name wasn't called, though, since the man sitting next to me at our table, Alex, whose wife Krista was a presenter from Atlantic Lottery, had promised to out-woot the Newfoundlanders if I won!
The best part of this competition is that the judges provide comments on each submission and the ACNA publishes them. This is worth as much as a win:

Friday, May 10, 2013

If The Glove Fits, You Must Commit

It's hard to say goodbye to a good pair of gardening gloves. Traitorous, really, after everything they've been put through. I mean, look at them. All that hard work, all that labour. Things I try to hard to avoid yet here is evidence that I actually do manual labour.
I'm so proud of that, I might frame them to hang on the wall.
The pink ones on the left are the best pair of gardening gloves I've ever used. I'm hard on gloves, as you can see, so I used to buy in bulk: 12 cotton pairs for ten bucks. I'd use every pair in one gardening season. The pink gloves, however, were a birthday gift from my best friend, Sarah, either last year or the year before. Likely the year before because Sarah doesn't actually get a gift to me on my actual birthday, or really even in the vicinity. So could have been three years ago that I received them, in September or perhaps as a post-New Year's gift. Considering my birthday is in May, today in fact, it's hard to know how old those gloves are. (And in case you're wondering, no, no gift from her today. I'll get an email at 11:30 tonight. She builds anticipation.)
Also, because they are/were pink and well-fitting and absolutely lovely, it might have taken me a couple of months to actually use them. I wouldn't haven't wanted to get them dirty.
All I know is that I continued to wear them with a hole in the finger, that's how good they are. Then I was able to wear all last season because I remembered the country boy fix-it: duct tape.
Those gloves (and my country boy) are everything I am not: tough and comfortable and most excellent for digging in the dirt. I have several trowels but I tend to use my hands. These gloves could take it.
Actually, if my husband hadn't bought me the new gloves on the left this year, I would have continued using Sarah's gloves and just kept adding duct tape to the fingers because they are the best gloves I've ever used. I might just do that, you know. Perhaps a pair of gloves this good deserves to be worn until every finger and thumb is wrapped in duct tape.
It pays to pay more for gardening gloves. Like shoes and jeans and underwear, if you buy good quality, it lasts more than one season. And when you find something you enjoy wearing, like gardening gloves or underwear, you want them to be tough and comfortable, excellent at dealing with dirt, and last a long time.
Especially if you live in the country like I do and the gloves are called upon for other duties: Scooping up rabbit poop; grabbing and holding chickens when they need their wings clipped; stacking wood (no splinters); scooping gravel; carrying slate rock. I even wear gardening gloves to collect eggs because hens get broody in the summer and they peck at the back of your hand when you reach underneath their feathers to gather eggs. They actually draw blood and it was awkward explaining the heroin-addict-like scabs on my hands.
A good pair of gardening gloves can even make you smarter.
So, Sarah, hon, if you haven't yet got around to sending my birthday gift, or even purchased it yet, try, dearest, to remember where you bought those gloves and send me another pair. I'll look forward to their arrival at Thanksgiving.
And, please, please, please make sure they're pink.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

In Conversation With...Jim Kaluza

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

If you get lost in  Cumberland County north of the Trans Canada Highway, chances are Jim Kaluza will be coordinating the search for you. 
The 55-year-old mechanic has been a member of Pugwash Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) for 35 years, a milestone that will be marked by the provincial government sometime this year. Jim is now a search manager and he’s one of several GSAR members who oversee a search from the unit’s mobile command post. 
“I enjoy it,” he says. “I love knowing that I’m helping people. I get a good feeling by going out.  You know someone’s lost and they’re hoping someone is looking for them, and you’re there and you do what you can.”
Pugwash GSAR hasn’t done as many searches in the last few years “because there just aren’t as many woods to get lost in anymore,” Jim says. “You still have your lost hunters in the woods, lost fishermen, lost skiers. We go after cross-country skiers who go on these long trails; they get lost, too. We look for everybody.”
While the unit doesn’t perform water searches, it does scour the shoreline and Jim says the unit has done hundreds of those. No matter which result a search has, it’s finalized. 
“It’s a successful search when you find who you’re looking for, one way or the other,” he says. “Preferably the person is alive and well, but if not, it’s closure for the family. They’re not wondering where the person went.”
Jim got into GSAR at the age of twenty because he was in CB radios. 
“A bunch of us joined REACT [Radio Emergency Associated Commmunication Teams],” Jim explains. “Then we came onto Cumberland Emergency Radio Communicators so we could work with EMO. Then we started search and rescue [based in Pugwash]. Search and rescue existed in the province so we started our own club.”
The club is responsible for a vast area. The boundaries of the group range from the New Brunswick border to the Colchester line north of the Trans Canada Highway. (Springhill GSAR covers the south side of the TCH.)
Being a member of a GSAR unit isn’t simply a matter of pulling on a pair of hiking boots and all-weather coat and meeting up at the place someone was last seen. 
“Every search we do, we write it up and send it in to search coordinators. Right now, we have formulas we work with and computer programs.”
Besides the use of computers and GPS, Jim says the biggest change in training from when he first began is training. Now it’s law. 
“Back when I started, you just needed to know how to read a map and compass and you went for a walk in the woods. Now, when you join, you have a criminal record check. If you pass that, you take the Probationary Searcher course. After that, you take Basic Searcher then Searcher and really that’s as far as you have to go. If you want to be a team captain, you have to take another course.”
One thing searchers no longer need is First Aid certification because paramedics are close by. 
“When I first started, we had to go to a First Responders course; I’ve even taken emergency childbirth courses. We used to take Standard First Aid; to pass that, you needed to know 75 percent of the names of the bones of the body. You were right up there with paramedics.”
Jim points out that most work places now require First Aid training so odds are good that someone on the team is going to know how to help. He has never done a search with EHS right there. 
“You make the person comfortable then you go get EHS. They try to find the closest way they can drive to it; we end up carrying them out of the woods to EHS.”
To illustrate how he gets a search underway, Jim provides a missing hunter scenario. 
“It’s usually ten or eleven or twelve o’clock at night. He hasn’t arrived back yet and the person who called has eliminated the possibility that he’s at a camp having a beer with his buddies. They call the RCMP who goes to talk to the person first; sometimes they call to put us on standby. That way we can get everything geared up. As search manager, I get the call to activate my search team. I call our communications officer then I call my three team captains. Each team captain calls their team. We have a very fundamental system. I call and say ‘We have a search. Can you go or not?’ If you say no, that’s the end of it. If I call and you say yes, I give the details. Sometimes I’ll say right away we have a lost hunter or a lost child. If I say we have a lost child, I never get no.”
Jim interviews the family using 20 questions asked for every search. These questions pertain to health, fitness, medical history, clothing, job, as well as what kind of mood the person was in, which is why the first question asked is if the person is suicidal.
It takes two to three hours to get the search started but Jim says there is no other way, adding  that it is the RCMP who decides when to send the teams in. 
After 35 years with Pugwash GSAR, Jim has see a lot of changes, including the use of computers for everything from creating a profile of the missing person to tracking search teams and using GPS.
“It’s slick,” he admits even though he’s still most comfortable using a map.
Regardless, his enthusiasm and motivation remain strong. To him, this is an essential service provided by dedicated volunteers. 
“Support search and rescue: Go get lost,” he laughs. 

Jim in PGSAR's new mobile command centre. 

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Ground Search & Rescue Ready with Project Lifesaver

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

On a warm, drizzly Saturday morning, a group of hunter-orange-clad men and women gathered at Amherst Shore Provincial Park. Only they weren’t hunters; they were searchers. 
Hunting for a lost person.
Thankfully, this was not a real call. This was a training session for Cumberland County’s two Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) teams, based in Pugwash and Springhill. Several groups were doing a pretend search for three lost children, but a couple of teams headed out on a unique search with a piece of equipment no one else had. 
All  24 GSAR groups in the province are equipped for “PLANS”: Project Lifesaver Association of Nova Scotia searches for children and adults equipped with a special transmitter bracelet. Both Pugwash and Springhill GSAR teams have members trained on the electronic search system.
Project Lifesaver employs two pieces of equipment: a transmitter which looks similar to a watch and is worn around a wrist, and a receiver which resembles a satellite antenna. Teams of two searchers work together to track the transmitter’s signal using a beep emitted by the receiver. 
“We have five clients,” said Billy O’Neill, PLANS organizer for Pugwash. “We’ve done so much practice and it’s proven itself to us. There isn’t a family who needs this who shouldn’t be using this.”
Project Lifesaver is offered only to families with a loved one who is prone to wandering: a child with autism, an adult with Alzheimer’s, or someone with a brain injury due to an accident. 
“In practice, we’ve hit it and hit it and hit it,” O’Neill said. “We never fail to find the transmitter. If we can’t find the watch-sized unit, we’re standing right beside it and can’t see it. If that was a person, we’d find them.”
Often the search is over in ten minutes. 
Chris Gooding and Ken Brownell of Springhill GSAR were one of two practice search teams at Amherst Shore Park. They were given the scenario: a missing autistic boy, last seen at playground. The team didn’t go to the campsite or the spot the child was last seen but  instead walked to the beginning of the road into the campground. Gooding turned on the receiever and did a slow 360-degree sweep. He listened for a beep, which came in faintly, and he realized there was interference from a nearby steel building. 
The team walked a little further along the road and after a second 360-degree sweep, the team got a stronger signal, giving them a direction in which to head. 
O’Neill was observing the team and pointed out, “We wouldn’t normally be walking like this. We’d be in a vehicle or on a four-wheeler because they are quicker.”
As he walked, Gooding continued to sweep the receiver slowly back and forth in front of him, following the signal. If it grew faint, he knew the transmitter was not in that direction. 
As the beeps grew louder, the range of the sweep became smaller, allowing the team to pinpoint the exact location of the small bracelet.
O’Neill had hidden the transmitter in a tree earlier in the morning, near the brook that runs through the park because not only are autistic children drawn to water, it provides a greater challenge to the searchers since water can reflect the signal.  
But 20 minutes, the transmitter was located. Brownell called it in by radio as if it was a real search: “Subject found. Healthy. Coming in.”
This is the peace of mind that Misty Martell-Ferdinand and her husband, Kevin, were seeking when they joined the program. They have three boys, aged 8, 6 and 3. Their middle child, Trent, is autistic.
“Part of our motivation was that, because of his autism, he doesn’t always respond to his name and he isn’t aware of his surroundings or any dangers,” explained Martell, a French teacher at the Pugwash high school.
She said it wasn’t a big deal when Trent was at home but they worried about what could happen when he went to school and on outings.
“He’s never bolted or been a runner so our biggest concern is that he doesn’t always respond. It’s one thing in the house but if he’s lost in the woods... He gets disoriented very fast. He wouldn’t know to go back or to shout or to ask someone for help. He might not even realize he’s lost. He would trust that we know where he is.”
Like every client of PLANS, the Ferdinands pay a one-time sign-up fee then a monthly fee of $25. Every day, Trent’s older brother Payson checks the transmitter’s battery and marks it on a log. Once a month, a PGSAR volunteer changes the battery. 
“The worst possible scenario is your kid missing,” Martell said. “[Project Lifesaver] gives you that peace of mind that if he is gone, we have someone to call.”

Ken Brownell & Chris Gooding use the receiver to locate the
transmitter hidden in a tree.
Payson Ferdinand checks the battery in the transmitter his younger
brother, Trent, wears. The boys' mother, Misty, looks on.

Monday, May 06, 2013

A Sacred Time: An Essay About Palliative Care

May 5 to 11th is National Hospice Palliative Care Week in Canada. As the guest speaker at River Philip United Church on Sunday, May 5, I devoted the service to the meaning and importance of palliative care.
Here is a revised version of my message to the congregation:

On a Wednesday in May, four years ago, I paused outside my father’s room in the nursing home around eight in the morning to gather myself before stepping in for another day of sitting with him. He was dying, having had a bad seizure a week earlier, common on the late stages of Alzheimer disease.
As I stood there, the day RN in charge of the floor appeared at my shoulder and murmured, “It will be soon”
I took a couple of deep breaths and walked into my father’s room to take up my spot in a chair next to his bed, holding his hand.        
An hour later, there was a knock on the door and I stepped around the curtain in my father’s room to find the director of local hospice society standing there. Peter Marrocco was there to speak to me because this was our first day with a hospice volunteer coming in to sit with my father that afternoon.
I told him what the nurse had said and that I had never done anything like this before, been with someone, watched over someone, as they died
“You simply can’t be prepared for this,” he said to me. “You just need to listen to your gut.”
Then he added, “As far as I’m concerned, this is sacred time.”
Peter also assured me that my father was better off in his own room at the nursing home.  
“Your father is surrounded by familiar things,” he said.
And indeed he was: photographs of his children and grandchildren covered the wall, there was a stereo for playing his favourite CDs, birds chattered at the feeder outside the window.
Yet I think Peter Marrocco perhaps misspoke one thing: You CAN be prepared for this, for dying. Not only someone else’s but also your own.
This is what hospice palliative care is all about: transforming what we are scared of into something that is sacred.
What is palliative care?
Gerry Helm is the chair of the Cumberland County (NS) Palliative Care Society and she explained it to me this way: “Palliative care is not about dying, it’s about living until a person dies.”
The purpose of palliative care is to think in terms of “whole-person” health care, to relieve suffering and improve the quality of living and dying. Most people would prefer to die in their own homes, surrounded by the people and the things that area meaningful and important to them, and palliative care is the way to ensure.
But consider this statistic:  In 2010, more than 252-thousand Canadians died and 90% of them could have benefited from palliative care – nearly all of them!
Peter Marrocco’s description of our dying as a sacred time was eye-opening to me, but also life-changing. As the RN predicted, my father died later that day. As I watched my father’s body shutting down, and seeing so clearly the division between body and spirit, I thought to myself, “I will never be afraid of anything ever again.”
Going into his death with a sacred attitude, not scared, changed the entire experience.
This month’s United Church Observer magazine includes a timely feature article by Trish Elliot about death and dying. Ruth Richardson, a palliative care nurse in Ottawa, is quoted as saying, “We need to normalize death and reclaim dying as a special, sacred, wonderful time.”
That’s whole purpose of palliative care: to address the physical, psychological, social, spiritual as well as practical issues, as well as all the needs, hopes and fears that that go along with those. It is done with a team not only of nurses and volunteers but also with doctors, dieticians, physiotherapists; whatever will allow a person to live until they fully as they possibly can.
No one wants to talk about death, particularly their own but you won’t meet a palliative care nurse or volunteer who doesn’t look at you and say, “We all die. There’s no getting around that.
As Gerry Helm said, “If we talk about it, we get rid of the fear around it.”  
In this way, scared becomes sacred. It is a gift you can give to yourself, and to your loved ones. A gift of time and peace and comfort.

I closed my message to the congregation by reading the final stanza of a poem by Mzwakhe Mbuli:
“Now is the time,
To give me roses, not to keep them
For my grave to come,
Give them to me while my heart beats,
Give them today
While my heart yearns for jubilee,
Now is the time...”

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Rethinking the Idea of "Downtown" Halifax

Part of being an aspiring book author means using Twitter so for the last week, I've been immersed in a new, strange and obsessive world. As a writer, thinker and talker, I find it challenging to express my thoughts quickly and in 140 characters. As someone who likes to know things, it's a bombardment of information. As someone who likes to learn new things and have the chance to consider other viewpoints, I find Twitter challenging.
My first experience with a Twitter conversation came today when I spontaneously replied to a tweet that was in a response to an article in the Halifax newspaper about the increasing number of empty stores/buildings in downtown Halifax. 
The tweeter called the story BS and said that two years ago, downtown was worse. I replied by stating that I go downtown to get my hair cut but rarely stay to wander, eat, shop because I find downtown empty and grim. He tweeted back, "Wow you sure are missing a lot" 
No one else jumped into the conversation and I didn't know who he was, if he was someone with a business interest in downtown or if he was just reacting to the article (Twitter Lesson of the Day: Consider every tweet you write the start of a conversation with a complete stranger) but I did reply. I said that there seems to me to be no connection between downtown and the waterfront, and that the downtown is sprawling.
When I consider the couple of tweets exchanged after that, I realize the conversation can't really go much further in this fashion. It needs a real conversation; actually, I'd hoped CBC Mainstreet, which follows me, would pick up on it and give us some airtime to have a proper debate because I find myself fascinated by this topic. That was a pleasant surprise, to find myself thinking about this as I drove a country road to do an interview for the newspaper, as my mother and I chewed over our experience with Halifax. My brain was totally engaged by this debate. (So let me says "Thanks!" to my fellow tweeter.)
I'd never considered it but as someone familiar with cities and someone who chooses to live in the country, and as a frequent visitor to Halifax, I have a very specific impression of Halifax: "Downtown" is the waterfront to Barrington Street, a wide swath to walk and explore. When you have lots of empty stores, it makes the streets seem longer than if there are stores and cafes and people to make the walk interesting. You don't want me noticing empty spaces; you want me stopping to look in full windows.  
There is a parkade across from MEC that we used to use because it was central to the places we like to visit in downtown Halifax but the walk from the parkade for a whole block along Granville street was scary. Even in the middle of the day, the empty lot, the back of a club, the chain link fence, the garbage made the block feel desolate. Not safe. Not welcoming. We now park at Scotia Square, near the hair salon, and a long way from the rest of downtown. Parking there discourages us from going for a walk to explore, to go to favourite places. 
So I said that in 140 characters! The other tweeter replied, "Have you never been to Agricola? Spring Garden Road? SoMo? Quinpool?"
That's when I realized my whole thinking about "downtown Halifax" may be skewed.
Having lived in Toronto and Vancouver, I don't consider an area like Quinpool, Spring Garden and Hydrostone to be downtown but to be neighbourhood shopping areas. In both Toronto and Vancouver, there is a downtown but there are flourishing neighbourhoods like Bloor West Village where my friend Jennifer lives or Main and Broadway where I once lived. West 4th and South Granville in Vancouver also were favourite areas. 
Perhaps this is Halifax's problem with its downtown: It's thinking of the entire city as its downtown. Neighbourhood shopping areas emerge to fill the needs of the residents in the area; they are diverse and interesting and well-travelled. They are wonderful places with a mix of franchise and totally one-of-a-kind stores. What sets these areas apart from "downtown" is that they are not surrounded by or anchored by or dwarfed by high-rise business towers and government buildings. What sets them apart is that they are in residential areas serving the residents of the area. There is a sense of community in these areas. 
Maybe Halifax needs to think like a big city and realize its downtown isn't the entire city (I'm not sure what "the peninsula" refers to). It needs to come up with a radically different plan for its downtown: Leave it to the corporations and the convention centres, to the hockey games and concerts, to the bars and restaurants. Leave it to Barrington and environs. Any revitalization means a major rethinking. There's no other way. If nothing is changing, you have to change the way you're doing something.
I'm not a business owner, I'm not a city planner. I'm just a visitor. All I know is that my Twitter conversation today reminded me that I, too, need to get out of the downtown and get back into the neighbourhood shopping areas. That's where the wandering, eating and shopping happens. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Support Group Provides Heart-To-Heart Hugs

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, April 17, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

It’s as simple as saying, “I need help.” And help is at hand. From one side of you or the other, someone will reach out and provide a reassuring squeeze or touch. That’s the best reason for attending a support group when you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. 
 Recently, I was the guest speaker at an Alzheimer’s support group that gathers each month in Tatamagouche, NS. My mother came with me because we share a similar caregiving experience; when we arrived shortly before the 1:30 meeting time, I was directed to the speaker’s seat at the top of a large table in the board room.
So I’m sitting there watching as every person who comes into the room gets hugged and I realize this two-year-old group must be special. Sometimes, caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s can mean the only real heart-to-heart bear hug you get comes from a good and trusted friend. 
The co-facilitator who invited me, Inez Daye, says that complete confidentiality is assured, which is where the trust comes in since the conversations can be very personal. 
Every meeting begins with the round table: Each person gets a chance to speak about what is happening in their life. The stories range from the need for constant vigilance about the stove to a parent’s resistance to accept help to how difficult grandchildren find visiting their grandparent in a nursing home. Some talk about feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do (which reminded me of my mother describing the taking care of a spouse with Alzheimer’s as “thinking for two”) while others have a hard time dealing with feelings of guilt. 
As a person speaks, the others listen. When the person asks a question or expresses doubt or fear, the advice and comments offered are supportive and insightful. Everyone is warm and genuine and caring. Everyone understands. Everyone is going through their own struggles yet they are able to reach out and provide empathy and encouragement to a dozen friends. 
It’s not selfish for caregivers to take these couple of hours for themselves.  
 “Unless you’re giving good care to yourself, you can’t give good care to someone else,” points out Inez Daye.
Granted, the success of a support group relies on the mix of people who attend and their attitudes. The members of this group come with a positive energy and outlook that is uplifting and encouraging – exactly what a struggling caregiver needs to bring him or her back to balance and hope.
Particularly in rural areas, support groups can be a lifeline for a caregiver who is trying to manage on her own. 
“This was a support I didn’t know existed,” a woman who cares for her husband said. She praised the support of the group, saying the stories of others give her benchmarks for where she and her husband are compared to other people. She added that there is a great difference between where she is now compared to when she first came to the group. 
What she means is that she is doing better, feeling less alone and overwhelmed and scared, because she has a support group to attend. Not only that, she knows that in a crisis, she could call someone from this group.
You want to know what happens when an Alzheimer’s support group really gets it right? Two people who haven’t been caregivers for four years want to go to the next meeting -- and they’re not even the hugging kind. They want to help others by sharing what they learned from their own experience.
 The group meets the second Thursday of every month at 1:30 pm at Willow Lodge in Tatamagouche. For more information about a support group in your area, call the Alzheimer Society at 1-800-611-6345.

Those who agreed to be in a photo gather in the board room's  kitchenette
where the nursing home always leave tea, coffee and cookies for the group.