Friday, April 23, 2010

Social Responsibility

Several years ago, Mary put a fair bit of effort into founding the Social Responsibility Division within the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada. Frankly, I had been surprised that such a thing hadn't already existed, but the truth is that business ethics has always been a relatively minor academic interest until the series of scandals that followed de-regulation under Reagan, such as the Enron debacle. Of course, with the recent near collapse of the banking and insurance industries, headlines about auto maker bailouts, and so on, the need for greater emphasis on social responsibility has become pretty obvious. Anyway, a number of colleagues told Mary she was foolish to devote so much time and energy to what's called 'service' in academia -- that is, spending time organizing conference streams and advocating for social responsibility to be recognized as a key specialization within the discipline -- when what counts for tenure is teaching and above all, research. But Mary was able to produce more quality research than almost anyone I know, retain her reputation as a top teacher, and still found and chair the new division. Sometimes, when you believe in something as strongly as Mary does, you just have to do it, whether there is any career payoff or not.

So, it was nice to learn that others recognize her contribution to the field: she's just found out that she is going to get a Service Award from the Social Responsibility Division of the ASAC at this year's conference. Almost restores my faith in academia.

Writer's Retreat: Day 0

My wife, bless her, has sent me away on my annual writer's retreat. I am approximately 90,000 words into my novel, and figure I have about 60,000 to go, so I won't likely finish this trip, but I would very much like to take a significant bite out of that remainder -- I'm hoping if I get close enough to the end, I can keep nibbling away at it even after the retreat and actually finish this year. What the retreat gives me is the opportunity to intensely re-immerse myself in the material again, get some momentum, and hopefully start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. So I'd like to set myself a quota of about 1500 words a day minimum (i.e., before I can go play) and am hoping that I can crank it up much higher than that -- say, 4000 words a day, if I can really get inspired. So, just as I did for NaNoWriMo, I'm going to post my word count here each day as a motivational tool.

Most of today went to travel: took the Canadaline to the airport, waited for my flight, flew to LA, took two hours to get to the hotel... by the time I dealt with some leftover issues from work via email, it was almost time for bed. So I wasn't expecting to get anything done today beyond some tentative outlining. I am a bit worried that I could stall out immediately, because of course I had stopped at a point where I was having a lot of trouble with the next couple of scenes. They are not working and I'm not quite sure why. So since they are not jelling in my head, I'm terrified when I sit down to write tomorrow, nothing is going to come out. Hopefully the NaNoWriMo philosophy will once again assert itself and I'll just plow forward, damn the torpedoes of internal critics, and something will fall out.

In the meantime, the itinerary calls for a good night sleep tonight. (Feels a bit like the night before an exam, but also like Christmas eve; I'm pretty excited!

Inauthentic Western Food

I'm off to a writer's retreat out of LA this week, but stopped off in Vancouver to visit with my long-time friend and now brother-in-law, Philip. We spent a wonderful day catching up and sharing news from our respective disciplines. Philip is teaching an IB course on "The Theory of Knowledge", which is the sort of course you wish had been available back when you were in high school. Philip is primarily a physics teacher -- indeed, just won the 2010 Canadian Association of Physicists' Award for Excellence in Teaching High School/CEGEP Physics for British Columbia --but is clearly relishing the opportunity of teaching such a wide-open, 'big ideas' course to students at the exact age when the 'big idea' can really capture their imagination. So discussing issues from his course ("to what extent should one rely on experts? Does it differ between disciplines? How do you know who is an expert? ) was a great discussion starter, and inevitably ended with us watching TED videos late into the night. Good times!

But one of the more interesting bits was trying to decide where to eat. Philip suggested going out for some inauthentic Western food, so naturally, I said, "Huh?"

"Remember how when we were growing up in Edmonton and we'd go out for 'Chinese food' at the Bamboo Palace, but it was all pineapple chicken balls and beef and broccoli and wasn't really like authentic Chinese food at all?"

"But I liked the Bamboo Place," I complained.

"Just so! It was often really good food, but I'm just saying it wasn't Chinese food. If someone from China ate there, they wouldn't recognize it as Chinese food at all."

"But I like Americanized Chinese food. 'Chinese influenced' cuisine, if you insist. When you and the others tried to drag me away to what you called 'authentic' Chinese food, it was usually awful. Dreadful! Chicken feet for example. They just hand you this chicken food. And I'm telling you, there is nothing you can eat on that thing. They might as well hand you a stick."

"Well, I'm not a fan of chicken feet myself, actually. But you're missing my point. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with Americanized Chinese dishes, or that you should prefer authentic Chinese dishes just because they are authentic. On the contrary, my argument is that they are completely separate cuisines, with just perhaps some vague historical influences.

"Okay," I allow, following his argument, but increasingly suspicious he's going to try to get me to eat Dim Sum.

(The last time I had Dim Sum in Richmond, I almost starved. The servers took one look at me, and didn't even bother wheeling 3/4 of the carts past our table. "What's that one?" I'd shout as the cart shot past. "You not like that one!" the waiter would explain. "I might!" I would argue, game to try anything. And then the waiter would wheel the cart over resignedly, lift the lid, and I would say, "Or maybe not!" or "Oh my god, what is that?" And the waiter would wave off the next 8 carts. "Here, I'll ask the kitchen if they have any steam rice for you." Enough said.)

"So, now imagine that you're growing up in Hong Kong", Philip continued, "and for an occasional treat, you go out for Western food. Only, it's about as authentically Western as the Bamboo Place is Chinese. What they call Spaghetti Bolognese and what you might have very little overlap, except that there are noodles in there somewhere. Or 'borsch' is a red soup, but nothing a Russian or even a Canadian Ukrainian would recognize as borsch. It's still often very good soup, but it's not exactly the Western item its named for."

"Sino-Western food. Interesting concept..."

"So then when you moved to Richmond, you sometimes still want a Western restaurant, but you want the inauthentic Western food you had in Hong Kong, not the real stuff that's just, well, way too Western for your tastes. So there are dozens of restaurants in Richmond catering to that market. And they are often very good, but...different."

So we go to the Kingspark Steak House Restaurant and have...a completely fabulous meal. I would recommend the place to anyone -- though we were the only non-Asians in the place. (As Philip pointed out, there always at least a few whites in the Chinese restaurants, because many Vancouverites have acquired a taste for authentic Chinese food, but if you felt like a steak, why would you go to a Chinese steakhouse for a steak?

Well, I'm here to tell you, you really should! The tenderloin at the Kingspark was excellent; as was the rack of lamb. The fact that they have a tenderloin/rack of lamb combo plate is, to my mind, greatly to their credit! And excellent value for the money -- I could not possibly have bought that much food for so little in any other steakhouse I have yet attended. I had my choice of a regular plate or hot plate, and chose the latter -- my meal came out sizzling exactly the way it would at Ruths Chris Steakhouse. They brought us tea in plastic water glasses and kept refilling our glasses exactly as a regular steakhouse serves ice water. Again, a plus in my mind! Other steakhouses could learn a thing or two here!

But there were some differences. Given Philip's earlier example, I chose spaghetti as my side (again, note how much food is included in the meal here!) and it wasn't. No red or cheese sauce. Looking at it, I thought it would just be plain spaghetti noodles, but tasting it, it was definitely flavoured -- I'm guessing Five Spice. It was both oddly different and oddly good. I really liked it. But I see what Philip meant about it not being what someone who thought they were ordering spaghetti would expect. I also ordered the 'cream soup' -- the fact that the description was a bit vague should have been a hint that this was going to be a bit different too. My least favorite element in the meal, it was still pretty decent. I suspect there was some manner of crab or lobster or something of that ilk, so not something I could eat around my highly allergic wife, and maybe not something I would have chosen given a more precise description, but not bad. Philip had the Borsch with his and pronounced it excellent. And a mango custard thing for dessert that had an unfortunate consistency of Junket but a magnificent mango taste, so I gobbled it up appreciatively, childhood Junket associations notwithstanding.

Weirdest part of the meal was the hot drink (also included in the very reasonable price! I think I paid just over $20 for all that food!) but then I went out of my way to order something I didn't recognize. (Well, they had the Chinese jellygrass drinks, but I knew better than to order those.) Horlicks, Philip explained to me, is actually a British drink, exported as a habit to Hong Kong, and then abandoned by the British. At least, I hadn't heard of it before. wikipedia explains it as a British drink consumed before bedtime to promote sleeping, but became a cafe drink in Hong Kong and Pakistan etc. I drank it all appreciatively, but I'm still not sure if I actually like it. It was kind of a cross between Ovaltine (whatever happened to Ovaltine? Didn't everyone of my generation drink it all the time as kids. Especially before bedtime in the winter.) and cream of wheat. Very alien.

So, I would not hesitate to recommend Kingspark to anyon: excellent quality, excellent value, bit of an adventure.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Georgina Runte Eulogy and Funeral

The funeral for my Mom was Tuesday (April 6) at St Mary's Anglican Church. The Church is small, intimate, and filled with golden light from the yellow windows that frame the half dozen stain glass pieces. About 20 people showed up, which is a lot for someone who had outlived just about all her acquaintances.

Her former boss had long since passed away, but his wife showed up to speak to Mom's working life; a member of the Eastern Star showed up to speak to Mom's long service within that organization (she joined in 1943); a couple of the residents from her condo showed up to speak to her participation in the life of that community; one was also a member of St Mary's congregation and told me how Mom sat in the fourth row each Sunday until she had to stop coming because the timing conflicted with her medications; and how the Minister and the Deacon (both also long passed) had alternated visiting her each week to give her communion. The lady from the Eastern Star described visiting Mom and how Mom had insisted on making and serving everyone tea, long after she had gone completely blind.

My brother Ron spoke with his unique blend of sensitivity and humor, perfectly capturing both my Mom's generosity and her fierce determination to stand up to bullies in two perfectly balanced anecdotes from his childhood. I hadn't heard either story for years, but recognized immediately how perfectly they summed up my Mother's character.

This is what I said:

Yesterday would have been my Mom’s 101st Birthday, so it is impossible to sum up a 100 years in just a few words. And one problem with living to over 100 is that there aren’t many people left who can bear witness to the first half of that life. So I can only speak to the last half of her life, and my memories of her as my mother.

My mom loved the arts and she loved to travel. She had season’s tickets to every symphony and every play in the city; and she read constantly. When her vision gave out, she listened to books on tape. I remember the librarians trying to get a sense of what sort of books she preferred and were confounded when she couldn’t be pinned down and simply wanted more of everything.

She traveled across Canada, across Europe, across China and Japan. When I say “across” Europe or China or Japan, that doesn’t really cover it, because the rule was, starting when I was ten, which means she must already have been in her 50s, we had to climb to the top of every castle, every cathedral, and every monument: the top of St Paul’s in London, the top of the Eiffel tower, the Great Wall of China. Where ever, whatever, she was always game. When my mom was in her 70s she actually fell off a castle in Denmark.

And wherever we went, Mom would seek out the art of that region: an exquisite Swiss clock, a fabulous Flemish vase, a set of Danish glass two decades before it became fashionable in Canada. Of course one of my strongest memories is helping to lug the vase or the clock or the Danish glass all across Europe as we hopped on and off trains, sometimes passing the packages through open windows because the train only stopped for 2 minutes at that station. That could often be quite the challenge, especially with my reputation as the kid who broke everything he touched.

One of my favorite memories was when we were in Denmark one summer having lunch at their version of Zellers when my mom suddenly had a craving for an orange float. She tried to order one without much success, until another customer started translating for us, but he and the man behind the counter were both incredulous at the suggestion of putting ice cream inside a glass of orange pop, so she had to repeat several times with assurances that that’s what was meant; and then watching my mom drink it, and by then I and my brother Douglas had joined her, the counterman and the translator also had to try it... and the punch line is that when we returned to that store on our next visit four or five years later, we discovered that orange floats were a house specialty.

So that was my mom: always game; always rising to meet every challenge; taking from each place she found herself, something beautiful, or meaningful, or significant; and leaving a little bit of herself behind; leaving the Earth and the lives she touched better off for her having been here.

My daughters than each took a brief turn speaking; Tigana talking about her favorite memory of her Grandmother at Christmas Dinner years before; Kasia saying "I love you Grandma" while laying a pink Teddy bear on the table next to Mom's picture (and later into her grave).

After the service, we had tea in the Church basement, as fitting a tribute to Mom as any, tea having long been central to her social life. Mom's favorite niece -- the daughter she never had -- and her husband were there; along with the two of her nephews. And the irrepressible Mrs. V., the woman who half raised me when my Mom had to go back to work full time: she brought my daughters each a doll with hand knitted dresses and regaled us all after the service with her own near death experiences. It was nice meeting her son again after nearly 50 years, as great a joker as I remembered him. And a friend of mine from Edmonton came to be supportive.

Only the minister and the immediate family went to the grave side; we buried my Mom, my brother Douglas, and my Dad Henry all at the same time. A month earlier, I had booked the other two burials for April 6, thinking I'd take care of that matter on the same trip as we came up for Mom's 101st birthday; I'd had no sense then that she would be joining them. Burying all three at once was harder than I thought it would be. I'd thought I'd already dealt with the other losses, and Mom's came at the end of an exceptional life, but it hit me pretty hard. And my kids. Kasia cried out when she realized that they were burying her Grandfather that she had never met. It was a tough moment. The minister asked if I wanted to shovel in a few symbolic shovelfuls but I couldn't do it.

It didn't help that the Minister kept saying my name instead of Doug's or Henry's as she lowered the urns. I can't blame her for getting confused, since she'd only met me a day or two before. She was nice, and it provided a moment of comic relief, albeit in a creepy sort of way. But I'd been nervous about getting everything right throughout the day, even though Mary had kept me organized and relatively sane through the process. I was also grateful for the presence of cousin Mike who kept reassuring me throughout that this was just a family affair and that it was all good. He reminds me a lot of Doug, the way he can reassure and restore common sense with just a few words.

And then we were done. Mary took the kids over to visit her father's grave in the same cemetery while I handled the paper work. Later, Mary and I had supper with Ron and his wife Joan; we determined to see more of each other now that we are the last of the family.

In the end, what gets me through is my wife and kids. I don't know how I could have handled any of this had I still been single. It's not just Mary's organization and support, it's that my kids are so full of life, such an reaffirmation of the life force, the continuance not just of my family but of the meaning of life, that they make it possible to carry on in the face of death. Its hard to explain, exactly, but my Mom and brother carried the memories of who I was for the first half of my life, but the loss of that identity, the absence of any external validation of what I think I remember, is compensated by the potential for new memories to be made with my wife and kids. When I was sitting with my Mom in her final days I kept looking at the photos of my kids on my blog taken at the San Dieago zoo. The life, the exburence that comes through in those four photos got me through not just those last days with Mom, but through the funeral as I kept picturing them in my mind. I miss Mom, I miss Doug, is good.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Georgina Runte (Dodie)

The nursing home phoned me late Monday morning to say that my mother had likely had a stroke on the weekend: her speech was slurred, her tendency to lean to one side was more pronounced, and her oxygen levels had been low. The initial call was framed as an update: they knew we were already planning to come up the following week for Mom’s birthday, and thought that would be fine; but needed to discuss some treatment options in the interim. Mom’s oxygen levels were back up, but she was experiencing difficulty eating and drinking. Was I in favor of increasing her fluid levels?

The second call was more urgent; she had lost the ability to swallow. By 4:30 I was on a plane to Edmonton to be with her.

She was unconscious when I arrived, but seemed to derive some comfort from my being there and holding her hand. I sat with her through the evening and tried to get a sense from the staff what her condition was, but no one was able to be definitive. One staff member I know and trust told me she was growing weaker by the hour; another, more medically qualified, member said that Mom seemed to have stabilized and was resting comfortably, and that it would certainly be safe for me to go home to sleep for a few hours. A third said she could offer no such guarantees.

In the end, I judged mom to be stable and comfortable, and with the nurse’s promise that I would be called if mom suddenly started to get worse, I risked going to Mom’s condo to sleep. I might as well have stayed as I was unable to sleep: restless, I paced and read and distracted myself as best I could, but eventually gave up and returned to the nursing home in the early morning.

I sat with her through the rest of the day, holding and stroking her hand. She would occasionally withdraw her hand briefly: as mentioned in a previous post, if I held her hand too long the blood would stop flowing, so I interpreted this as her hand having fallen asleep, especially as my own hand would sometimes start to have pins and needles after holding in the same position for too long, so I would leave it be for a bit and just talk quietly to her. My impression is that she knew and appreciated my presence, but was too busy breathing to have much energy to respond. The staff kept reassuring me that hearing was the last sense to go and that Mom knew I was there. (I had just read some recent research where the researchers were able to communicate with a man in a vegetative state by asking him to imagine two different types of scenes -- one for 'yes', the other for 'no'-- while in a MRI machine, so I am inclined to believe that they were right about my mom.) So I alternated between stroking her hand when I ran out of things to say (it's amazingly difficult to keep talking to someone who is not responding), and talking when I judged her hand was getting tired. But I made sure she knew I was there with her.

At about 2AM, I lay down for an hour's break. Mom was calm and her breathing had been steady if labored for several hours so I judged it a good time to break; the nurse had assured me Mom was not in pain because she was laying quietly, whereas those in pain tend to wave their arms around and appear agitated. Mom's movements were few and slow. 45 minutes later, I heard Mom say something, halfway between a moan and a call, and woke up. Then I realized I must have dreamt that because the 'quiet room' was well down the hall from her room and it would not have been possible for me to have heard her. So I turned over to go back to sleep when the nurse knocked on the door and told me my mom had gone. I said, "Oh so that was her I heard?" and she gave me this really odd expression and said, "No, it was just my time to check on her. [Name] had just checked on her a minute before, and your mom was fine then; but I didn't know that she had gone in already, so I went again just now, and she was gone. But we didn't hear anything. She just went quietly in her sleep."

I had been sorry I hadn't been with her, but the nurse told me, "Its often that way. The family will sit all day, but when they leave to go to the washroom, the patient will go in that moment. We think that they know and wait to spare the family that last moment. Its either that, of they wait until everyone is there. We had a woman last month, the whole family was there and they were waiting for hours, but when the last grandson arrived, and they all started singing a hymn, she left. It happens like that a lot too. Either way."

So my Mom passed away about 2:45 March 31, 2010. She would have been 101 April 5.

Part of me had kind of hoped she would make her birthday, but I know that's silly: there is no prize for crossing a particular finish line. Indeed the Chaplin had told me earlier in the day that vast majority went just before their birthdays. "You tell them that they are going to turn a hundred and they say, 'No, no I don't think I want to be a hundred', and they'll go a day or two before. So we don't ever mention their precise age unless they specifically ask..."

I was surprised to learn there were four residents older than my mom, two of whom had lived at home up until and only arrived in the nursing home after their 101 birthday. So we are definitely living longer. He related the story of one lady who on her hundredth birthday had announced to her family that she was the oldest person in the building, and when he had looked away not to disagree with her, she had noticed and demanded to be taken to someone older. so he had wheeled her to a resident who was 102 and they had had a long if shouted conversation (both being quite deaf).

A lot of staff told me stories like that over the two days I was sitting there. Each one made a point, on their own and spontaneously to see Mom and to tell me a story about her. Two of them were fighting back their own tears. It was very clear to me that they sincerely cared for my mom. Their support was very important to me, and I know that they had always taken very good care of my mom. I want to say here that I have always appreciated the humor, warmth, patience and above all, the commitment to the care of my mom and the other elderly in that home (The Dr. Gerald Zetter Care Center). Doug had spent months researching nursing homes before permitting himself to place her in one, and I had come up and toured the three 'finalists' with him, and in the end there had been no question in my mind that this was the best one. There was something about the culture of the place that was obvious even on my short visits that made it the place we wanted her to be. Then Doug had gone there to feed mom supper every day for two years, so he had really gotten to know and trust the staff before he passed away. I could only visit for a weekend once a month or so in the two years since, but I got the same impression of the staff, partly because they treated me as they had Doug, and partly because I was able to observe them with other residents when they didn't even know I was watching, and they were all unfailingly great. I know I could not do the job they do.

I miss my Mom, and Doug, a lot.