Monday, March 24, 2008


I'm still reeling from the death of my brother, Douglas. I had tried phoning him Thursday evening, and when I was sent immediately to voice mail, thought he must be on the phone to our other brother. But when I still hadn't heard from him Friday I started to worry, but assumed there was some innocent explanation. He often took awhile to respond to phone messages because he often went days without using the phone and therefore without hearing that he had messages waiting. But when I still hadn't heard Saturday, I called the nursing home where my mother is and asked if he was there -- he fed mother supper every evening without fail. When he wasn't there and hadn't called to say he was away sick, I phoned his building and had the caretaker break into his suite. She found him dead.

This weekend was Tigana's 10th birthday, so we had taken her out of town to Kananaskis for the weekend to celebrate. We decided not to tell her until after the weekend, not only so as not to ruin her birthday, but so she wouldn't be reminded every birthday from here on in. And Tigana is going to take this very hard because she is still coping with the loss of her Grandfather whom we buried less than two weeks ago. But this meant I had to hold it together for her sake, and this actually seems to have been helpful for me. And I dragged Kasia around with me more than usual because she is so full of life at age 4 that it sort of offsets the shadow of death...and she has been quoting some of the books we read her and things we've said to her to help her deal with the loss of her grandfather, so hearing them back has also helped me.

Being away from home complicated coordinating necessary arrangements, since I didn't have access to my phone lists to tell people who needed to know, or even a home phone to use. We got back to Lethbridge this evening. Tomorrow I fly to Edmonton to make funeral arrangements, arrange for the continuing care of my mom (99 next week) and otherwise take charge of things. I am fully expecting to lose it when I am alone in Mom's place (where I'll stay) or when I am going through Doug's place looking for papers addressing his wishes etc. but in some ways that will be easier than trying to help my kids with this -- a very tough job I have had to dump entirely on Mary, who will tell the kids about Doug Tuesday or Wednesday.

The only good news out of this is that the Medical Examiner assured me that Doug had likely not suffered. He had a heart attack and would likely have lost consciousness before he hit the floor. He had complained to my other brother of flu a few days before so we're now wondering if those flu-like symptoms were in fact already signs of heart failure, and the act of lifting the Oxford English Dictionary (which he was holding when they found him) was the final effort that triggered the end. If so, it would have been and oddly fitting ending for my brother, for whom books meant so much.

More on this when I can.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Okay, here's one from Central Ganglion:

The Garfield minus Garfield comic.

"Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness in a quiet American suburb."

Deeply disturbing in a very funny way.

Personal Genotyping

Okay, this is pretty cool, in a "The Future is Now", and a "I have a bad feeling about this" kind of way.

Check out this blog by Mike Spear, publicist for Genome Alberta. Spear's blog talks about buying a home genotyping kit at Best Buy, and two rather more expensive kits from the Internet, to examine his personal genome. He did the swabs today, and has sent the sealed test tube(s) off to the lab(s), and in due course will be told his genetic medial history. He'll then record in his blog how the process went, which kit gives the best results, and so on. His hope is not merely to compare the three services, but to have the scientists and ethicists he works with comment on the whole process to help work through the implications of all this.

In a CBC radio interview this morning, Spear's raised a few of the more obvious issues:

if the results come back that he has a genetic predisposition for prostate cancer or memory loss, will he then become obsessive about looking for symptoms? Or is this a useful heads up? Or will the public confuse genetic predisposition and test results to think that they need prostrate surgery right now? Or that they are safe from obesity, or whatever, because they don't have the predisposition?

At the moment, unless he takes the results to his doctor and allows them to become part of his medical records, Spear's genome analysis is private and insurance companies can't ask for tit. But Spear's raised the concern that in five years, such testing could be routine requirement for insurance -- what insurance company is going to take you (at least without gigantic premiums) if your genetic profile suggests you may develop cancer? Same for employers, etc. This is definitely scary stuff.

And then, coincidentally, I was listening to bit from the Comedy Factory podcast where they talked about a dating service that did genotyping on its clients -- so you could tell if you were about to date your long lost cousin, and more likely, so that you could tell if your genes were compatible. But besides questioning just how much one's compatibility could be determined by genetics, the commentator made the rather chilling point that sending one's DNA for analysis in the states is maybe not the best idea. Since the Patriot act allows the government there to look at any information in any American company's data base.... well, you can see the problem.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


My wife got a phone call as she was putting the finishing touches on her keynote address for a conference in Tokyo: Her brother told her that her Dad had taken ill and was not expected to live through the day. Mary booked the next flight up, but her father passed before she could reach his side.

Fortunately, we had been up to see him only a couple of weeks before. Although at that point he had been expected to live for a couple of years, he had declined considerably since our previous visit. When Mary had first seen him on that trip, she had doubled over as if punched in the stomach, he had become so skeletal. And, it being one of his 'bad days', he was essentially unable to speak, simply mumbling incomprehensibly. The next day he was a little better, and could speak clearly, but his mind was still confused. I asked him what he had done that day, and he told me that he had spent the whole day here in jail, but that no charges had been laid yet, and they wouldn't tell him what he was being held for. He explained his plans for going over the wall to me. Then, with a generosity of spirit that was typical of him, he offered to take me (apparently a complete stranger to him) over the wall with him when he escaped. The next day, Mary went into see him while I worked on the car, and he was apparently worse again. So Mary had recognized that the dad she had known was already gone in one sense, and said her goodbyes.
August 10, 2007)

(Mary later told me that she had realized that she had accepted that her Dad was no more when something went wrong with the car and it hadn't even occurred to her to phone him for advice, even though it was late at night on a Sunday, and Mary had figured out to call long distance to a mechanic in another time zone to get the information we needed. I knew that the man I had known was largely gone when he told he that he had not only stopped working on his various projects, but stopped reading. Indeed, he no longer watched the news. I had been pleased that when he no longer could be physically active (e.g., fixing the roof) he had switched to genealogy and writing his autobiography and composing essays on disputed passages in the bible. These projects had kept him mentally active for a number of years, haracteristic of the man always interested in everything. He had even taught himself bookbinding to finish his books. So to see his mind slowly grinding to a halt was hard to take.)

The call came in on a Monday (March 3rd) and Mary stayed in Edmonton until the following Sunday to organize the funeral etc. The kids and I went up on the Thursday for the Friday graveside ceremony, and a memorial service at his church on the Sunday.

At home with the kids, I tried to prepare them for what was coming. In anticipation of either her Dad or my Mom (who is 99 next month) passing, we had assembled a selection of storybooks that assist kids with grieving. But to my great distress, we could not find the cache of books anywhere. (I must have put them somewhere so kids would not read them prematurely, but did a better job of hiding them from myself than from the kids.) So I zipped out to Chapters and was quite shocked at how poor their selection of books was for this purpose. They only had two books on the topic, neither of which I felt were suitable. There are in fact dozens if not hundreds of books available, but I guess they do not pay to keep on the shelf since they only sell when the family needs them: but when you need them, you REALLY need them. I have to say I feel that Chapters (especially given that it is the ONLY new bookstore in town) has a social responsibility to stock at least a few copies of a few titles on this very important topic.

Mary therefore looked for copies in Edmonton as she went around making arrangements for the funerals, moving her dad's possessions out of the veteran's home, etc. but could only find one or two titles in Chapter/Indigo etc. Finally, she went to Greenwood's, an independent Edmonton bookstore, and they had an entire shelf of excellent books.

Of course, one of the best, and one that most Chapters/ carry (though my local store had been out) is Robert Munsch's The Lighthouse: A Story of Remembrance. I love his funny books, as does every kid 3-10, but people often forget his serious side. Lighthouse and I'll Love You Forever are fabulous sentimental books that I highly recommend. I also really liked Bear's Last Journey by Udo Weigelt (Author), Cristina Kadmon (Illustrator); it seemed to help my kids with their grieving. Another one, loaned to us by Kasia's Montessori teacher, Zahra, was Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie. I think this one was the most help to Kasia.

It's hard to know how the kids took the passing of their grandfather. Tigana, of course, greeted the news with hysterical sobbing, but then she has always been dramatic; and she talked a lot about feeling "confused" and "scared", so I suspect it had as much to do with coming to grips with the general concept of mortality as with her feelings for her grandfather. Which were probably mixed, since visiting in the veteran's home could not have been a lot of fun, especially near the end when Grandfather couldn't recognize her. But I think she does truly miss her grandfather.

Grandpa, Tigana and Kasia
August 10, 2007

Kasia hadn't really known her grandfather while he was still active, so was probably less connected then Tigana, though she still loved him, and he certainly doted on Kasia for as long as he retained his faculties. Kasia seemed less affected than Tigana, but you never really know what's going on inside that brain of hers. After an initial sob or two, she had seemed to go about her life normally, but every once in a while we'd get a glimpse of her interior processing. E.g., I'm sitting in the car, still in Lethbridge, when I hear this voice from the back seat say, "Knock Knock" "Whose there?" I respond Kasia says, "It doesn't matter because he's dead." Okay, what do you say to that?

Both kids had a hard time at the funeral(s) but both spoke at the graveside and at the memorial service. It was touching.

The weirdest thing, though, was that after the graveside service we picked up a local paper in Devon and discovered that the local ski lodge (which had been a huge part of my father-in-law's life -- he'd run the ski club for years) had burned down at the same moment as he had passed on.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Book Covers

A package arrived with two review copies of SF books from a small press publisher. I often review SF for NeoOpsis Magazine. so this is fairly routine, but on this occasion, I happened to be opening the package in front of my wife. Who looked over at the books and said, "Oh my god, those covers are terrible!" I had to agree. Both looked amateurish, and did not encourage me to read the books within. Indeed, I decided these would have to be restricted to nigh time reading because I didn't want to be seen carrying these around in public. My wife spent a minute or two analyzing why the covers were so bad --"They're both awful," she said, "but for different reasons". I had to agree, and expressed some disappointment with the publisher, who generally had better covers then this.

Having drawn my wife's attention to the publisher, she looked at the logo and recognized it. "This isn't one of the publishers you were thinking of sending your novel to is it?" I allowed that they were in fact on my short list. "Oh my god!" she said, clearly concerned that I might end up with such a cover. "Can you specify in your contract a plain black cover with just the letters of the title and your name on it ?"

"I'm afraid the nature of the book is such, there will have to be a space ship on the cover".

"A spaceship!" my wife cries in anticipatory horror.

"But I am hoping to recommend a specific artist to them after I sell them the book."

"Oh my god," my wife complains, "why couldn't you write something more respectable. Like, say, pornography?"

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Kasia Bedtime

Bedtimes remain contested territory with 4-year old Kasia in spite at our attempts at consistency, firmness etc. Lately, I have been emphasizing that her daily protests and tantrums over having to go to bed -- and no, we're not going to read just one more book, and no, you may not get one more drink of water, etc. etc. etc. -- are a waste of her energy and unproductive because 8:00 o'clock is bedtime and nothing she says or does can change that. Look, I say pointing, it is coming up on 8:00 o'clock so you might as well accept gracefully that you are going to have to go pee and get into your PJs and go to bed, rather than make all this pointless fuss that is frankly unpleasant for everyone.

So tonight, after a particularly grumpy session, I again say that her saying all those mean things to me is, well, mean.

And she responds, "I am only doing that because you're being so mean to me!"

To which I naturally, and now somewhat routinely respond, "Don't get mad at me because it is 8:00 o'clock and bedtime. Look, it has nothing to do with me. It's just the clock telling us it's time to go to bed, so what is the point of getting so mad at me?"

She seems to accept this somewhat, examining the clock closely as I point out the big hand on the 12 and the little hand on the 8, and settles down enough to actually lie down on the bed, head on the pillow, and is silent for a long pause. Long enough to make me hopeful that she is in fact about to go to sleep. And then a tired, quiet voice asks, "Dad?"

"Yes, Kasia?"

"Can we get a new clock?"