Friday, December 24, 2010

Cholera in Haiti: A young doctor's story

This story is a note shared on Facebook by my friend Amy Osborne, a doctor working in Haiti during the horrific recent cholera outbreak. I met Amy a few years ago when a group of friends and I invited her to speak at a fundraiser about her experiences as a midwife in Darfur. She has the storyteller's gift, a great heart and courage to help others. She inspired me to donate to the Cholera Treatment Centres set up by Médecins Sans Frontières in Haiti. I hope you do the same:

i was hunched down by a bed, making a patient drink ORS when Deska, our driver, came up and tapped me frantically on the shoulder. he tells me in French (most people here speak creole) that there is an emergency. i follow him to the other ward and find a teenage boy lying half-naked on one of the cholera beds. i think to myself that he must be mortified to be lying there, so exposed, his naked buttocks hanging over the hole cut in the cot so his diarrhea will simply fall into the bucket placed below his bed. as i get closer i start to see that he's not mortified because he's barely conscious. his eyes have sunken into his head and the skin on his face is pulled taut over his now-prominent cheekbones. i rush over and feel for a pulse in his right wrist. it's not there and his hand is cool. i grab his other wrist and there's still no pulse. i tell deska to run for one of the doctors and he goes. i feel the boy's neck and i can't feel his carotid pulse. i know he's alive because his breathing is fast and furious. i ask one of the nurses for a stethoscope and she tells me there are none. i ask her to start an IV in one arm and i'll start one in the other. she gets to work and can't find a vein- he's severely dehydrated. another nurse comes in and i ask her where the doctor is. she shrugs. I tell her to start the next IV and i go run for a doctor who i'm hoping, at the very least, will have a stethoscope and, at most, will be better at starting IVs on severely dehydrated patients than we are. i find Kanako and she goes to find one of the elusive doctors while i go back to check on the boy. his breathing is slowing down. his brother, who has clearly been told in my absence that ORS is the key to survival, is trying to pour ORS down his throat. i want to tell him to stop because the boy is barely unconscious and can't swallow, but i also know that it's too late for this boy and i think the brother needs to feel that he did something. i notice something white coming out of the boy's mouth and i look closer- white foam is bubbling out. it begins to pour out of his mouth and both nostrils. at first i wipe it away, but then i notice that he's not choking on it because he's no longer breathing. i sit back and just watch it flow out. the doctors arrive and one of them stands back and observes (he has a tendency to be less than inclined to touch cholera patients) while the other doctor does a few half-hearted chest compressions. we haven't been able to find a vein and there is nothing more to be done. it's over.

there is little time for compassion in a cholera outbreak. the "corpses" are highly contagious and need to be quickly cleaned with disinfectant and then put in a body-bag to be buried. i want to give the family time to grieve- they just lost a 19-year-old boy- but the families of the other patients want him gone immediately. someone runs for a body-bag. i pull the sheet over his face as people are gathering around to gawk. his mother is in shock and doesn't seem to believe that he's really gone. she goes over and pulls the sheet down. she touches his face. she pulls the sheet down further and touches his stomach. then she touches his feet, one at a time. i don't know what she's looking for, but she doesn't find it. she sits down beside him and looks incredulous. I am about to be the only person in the room to cry so i step out onto the balcony and take deep breaths. i manage to pull it together.

Someone arrives with the bag and Kanako lays it out on the bed next to his. together we open it and his mother and brother take his arms and legs and lift him into it. Kanako and i reach in and take his hands and lay them on his chest. then we zip the bag closed, over his still open eyes. he doesn't look dead. he looks like even he can't believe that he's gone- that one day he was a normal teenage boy and the next day he died the most degrading death a human being can ever experience.

cholera is merciless. it robs you of any and all dignity you once had. untreated, you can lose up to 20 litres of fluid a day in the form of diarrhea and vomit. you will lose all of your strength and you will literally lie in a pile of your own diarrhea until you die. the management is simple. you need fluids. it's just that easy. cholera treatment centers (CTCs) are easy to set up. it just takes resources- people and supplies. it just takes someone actually caring.

why this STILL hasn't been properly implemented here, I have no idea.

I don't know why I have such a strong belief in justice. but i do. as a Christian, a Libra, a woman, a human being... I have this intrinsic belief in justice- that the world is just. or more realistically, that it can and should be just. in spite of all of the places i've been and the things i've seen that have shown me time and again that life is anything but just, i still believe it can be. and what's happening here isn't just.

– From Amy Osborne

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Where the light lets in: For my friend and mentor

Mystical Mike never seemed quite of this world. 
Not because he’d actually died once as a toddler, seen the ‘light’ of the other side and come back – or maybe it was. I didn’t know that story then. 
It was his eyes.
The first time I met Mike I was set up by a mutual friend to give him a ride from Victoria to Cortes Island for a social change conference. All I knew about Mike was that he was older (like 50s), a cultural mythologist, had back problems and would be in my car for at least six hours.
When he crouched into my front seat and held me with a smile and sparkling eyes, shamanic and childlike, I knew he was good. Otherworldly good.
Mike made many kindred spirits that way. Physicists, Jungians, activists, waitresses and academics – whomever he met and made that connection with stuck. He could see the heart of things and people. He could name it. He could help you name it too. He called it the sweet spot.
A few months ago a friend and I were having coffee with Mike and we got on to the subject of the Proust questionnaire on the last page of Vanity Fair magazine. We decided to ask each other some of the questions.
Mike was asked: “What is the most overrated virtue?”
“Intelligence,” he said.
Coming from a guy who casually debated physics and mathematical systems with the brightest academics, who was sought out to help advise the Obama and Earth Day campaigns on messaging and who could quote many histories, Joseph Campbell and the last book he’d read verbatim, we just rolled our eyes.
He explained: “If you are intelligent and you don’t have integrity you are incredibly dangerous to this world. “
Mike and I drove from his studio apartment in James Bay to Fairfield to pick up the next passenger on our journey: Another Mike. This one was a twenty-something beat-boxing youth worker, living in a commune-like dilapidated mansion, where nearly a dozen mountain bikes hung on racks outside the front door.
Mystical Mike loved this. He was fascinated by the bikes and the promise of personalities and connected lives they represented. He and Young Mike immediately bonded, two open souls full of enthusiasm and ideas.
Later, when it was just the two of us, Mystical Mike and I would imagine everyone we’d met at the conference as characters in an Odyssian journey. He said Young Mike was a Magi Type: A rare specimen capable of bringing great powers of good-heartedness to the many Warriors we’d met in activist documentarians, journalists and community leaders.
I asked Mike what my Type was.
“You need to find that out yourself. That’s your journey,” he said. He was so obviously a Teacher.
When I went to visit him in the hospice a year later he asked me again. “Have you found yourself? Don’t give up. The answer is right there.”
We continued north along the Island highway, bypassing the small communities along the waterfront scenic route until turning off into Courtenay. Our final passenger, Hans, was waiting outside his small house – black beret, leather bag and soul patch in tow.
The forty-something single dad was a native of the area, an avid writer, photographer, foodie and ballroom dancer. Like the rest of us, he was looking for comrades in work – like-minded people to change the world with, and hopefully make a little bit of a living at it.
As I drove, I mostly listened to three of the most gracious and lovely men I’ve ever met get to know each other. When I think back to the moment that Hans got into the car and joined in on a conversation and journey that bonded and changed us all I feel so grateful.
“I’ve never met someone who isn’t a storyteller,” Mike told us. “And it isn’t limited to our species.”
You don’t tell your story, you tell their story. This was Mike’s mantra and the premise for how he believed narrative could change the world.
He told us about helping a small city council change its attitude towards a growing homeless population by using “our homeless” instead of “the homeless” in all its discussions of the subject.
He quoted Campbell: “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths,” and said our job as storytellers is to mobilize the waking dream of a culture.
He quoted Hemingway, “Life breaks everyone but some are stronger at the broken places.”
It wasn’t until the ride home with just the two of us that I discovered some of Mike’s broken places.
Growing up in Idaho, his life’s passion had been to fly fighter jets in the war. But his eyesight wasn’t good enough. He became a war historian and expert model-maker instead.
In his late teens he moved to Ontario to go to university. There he met the love of his life, a South American woman named Judy.
Judy had been married and recently left her husband – against her family’s wishes. She and Mike planned to move to Victoria, where he’d study physics and she’d have a chance to start fresh.
“I’d gone ahead to find a place for us and found this great little apartment in a house on Amelia Street,” he said. “Judy’s plan was to finish the semester and come meet me right after.”
Mike and Judy wrote letters back and forth to each other daily in what was supposed to be a few months apart.
“Then the letters stopped coming,” Mike told me. He continued to write, asking Judy if she’d changed her mind – his heart breaking with each unrequited letter.
“I figured she’d either gone back to her husband or changed her mind about us. Either way I had to accept her wishes,” he said. “It was the darkest time of my life.”
Mike dove into his physics studies with intensity, barely leaving the apartment.
A house fire forced him out, scrambling to find a new place to live.
It wasn’t until several months later that the true story of what happened to Judy would slowly unravel.
“My landlord called and said she had a bunch of mail for me,” Mike said. The fire damage to his old residence was only on the interior. Because the exterior looked fine, mail had continued to be delivered to residents there despite it being abandoned for months.
All of Mike’s letters to Judy had been returned with an apology from the Ontario Postal Service. Because of a mail strike, his letters sat in the post office for months. When the strike was over, the recipient, Judy, appeared to have moved with no forwarding address. She never got his letters.
But now, from his landlord, he finally got hers. Months worth of letters detailing her excited anticipation of their new life together, her worry at not hearing from him, her anger, her sadness, her fear, her frustration and her final resolve to give up and go back to her ex-husband.
This was the part of the story at which I pulled the car over off a dusty strip of the Malahat Highway and said, “Tell me you found her. Tell me you set things straight.”
He didn’t. And this is the precise point where my understanding of men and women differs. Mike didn’t want to bring any more pain to Judy. She’d made her choice and suffered enough so he let her go.
“You have to find her. You have to tell what happened. She has to know you loved her,” I told him.
“What good would that do now? It’s better this way,” he said.
The drive was silent for several minutes before Mike turned the subject back to my broken places and me. He had a way of doing that, deflecting his own suffering to delight in the possibility of healing another’s.
I noticed this throughout our relationship. He’d squint and smile through excruciating back pain to spend hours drinking coffee and talking at his office, the Days Inn restaurant.
Even when the back pain turned out to be cancer, a terminal tumour, he held court in the hospital hospice. Family, friends and cohorts came to offer him comfort and still he offered mentorship.
“Do good things. You have a lot of power you know,” he told me. My warm hands rubbed his back as he sat on the edge of his bed in a hospital gown drinking a McDonald’s milkshake. “There’s someone I want you to meet. He’s doing really interesting stuff in Africa. It would make a great story.”
His memorial was held a few days ago at the Days Inn, a frosty, bright October morning just a few days before what would have been Mike’s 62nd birthday.
Our ragtag group took over the bar and told stories of Mike’s brilliance and generosity: How he captivated the Secretary General of the United Nations with his thoughts on narrative, how he often babysat and tutored the children of the single-mother waitresses he befriended at Pagliacci’s restaurant 20 years ago and how he listened to everyone with respect and interest regardless of status.
He died a bachelor but had an immense network of family and friends just as close. I worked up the courage to ask his sister Barbara about Judy.
“Yes, he told me about her,” she said. No, he never contacted her. “I never knew her last name… But their souls will meet again. That I’m sure.”
I hope to meet Mike again on some other plain someday. I know I’ll continue to find him in the wisdom he shared. Despite being the biggest Luddite in the very tech-savvy bunch at the social change conference, Mike was the star. The stories he told and questions he asked, and asked us to ask each other reverberated in a soul-shaking way that changes lives, careers and builds bonds. Here are just a few tidbits from my notes at his talk:

On the characteristics of an effective storyteller:

“Everyone is a storyteller but a truly effective storyteller possesses three things: A natural ability, a mentor and someone who knows your true face.”

“Link common knowledge with your narrative with a new emergent story. This is where change happens.”

“Leadership, learning, health, sustenance and defense. The Ojibwa learned these are the most important elements to society. A good politician has learned this too.”

Sutton’s Law: A lesson in clear storytelling:
“Willie Sutton was a world-class bank robber and escape artist. He evaded the authorities for years and became a notorious celebrity despite very little being known about him as a person. On one occasion when he was caught, a reporter managed to get in a question as he was being taken away. ‘Willie, why do you keep robbing banks?’ she asked. To which Willie replied, ‘That’s where they keep the money.’”

Five questions you need to be asked:

1. Who are you?
2. What do you want?
3. What are you doing about it?
4. Are you satisfied?
5. If not, what are you willing to sacrifice?

Monday, October 4, 2010

My life in Super 8mm films by my dad...

My dad, David Petrescu, collected old cameras and was documenting his and our lives on Super 8mm video, box, 35 mm and Rolleiflex cameras since I can remember. When he passed away seven years ago we were left with boxes of film, slides and thousands of pictures he took and developed. Recently, my mother had some of his old films transferred to DVD. I've made short videos from that footage. Putting these together I see what a gift he left us with and what an artistic spirit he was.
This video starts with my parents as a young hippie couple living in a cabin by the Nechako River in Prince George, B.C. I come along in 1978, then my brother Nicholas in 1981.
When my dad was ill with cancer in 2003 I asked him what the best time of his life was. He said, "Those early days with your mom and you kids. That was so much fun."
Here's to you Dad.
XO Sarah

Watch on my YouTube Channel:

My life in Super 8mm films by my dad...

Breakdance Party - Fall 1984

My brother Nick's third birthday party was a blast. All the neighbourhood kids showed up to bust a move to Michael Jackson. My dad had picked up MJ's Thriller album at the Woodward's in Prince George. Nick (the cutie in the blue and red track suit) was so obsessed with the King of Pop he'd ask mannequins in the mall if they knew him and yell "Michael Jackson!" at every black man we encountered. Very embarrassing...

My life in Super 8mm films by my dad...

La Famiglia Bevacqua, 1979ish.

Growing up as a young child in Prince George, B.C. my family spent many Sunday afternoons at my mother's folks' place on Winnipeg Street. Nonno Felice and Nonna Chiarinna were from a small village in Calabria, Italy, called Mangone. They joked it was called Man-gone because so many of the men left after the Second World War to work in America. My nonno left in the late 60s to work on the railway in Northern B.C., bringing his family of seven over years later with the help of a generous couple he'd been boarding with. They saved his rent for two years to help him. In this video my dad has his Super 8mm out again. Zio Carmelo, auntie Brenda and cousins Tina and Mark are over visiting - likely for an afternoon filled with gnocchi, wine, gardening and singing. My mom, Rita, is the beauty with the long black hair.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Dreams of Jim lead to better thoughts…

I've decided to compile some of my favourite blogs, stories and posts that are only available online here to keep track of them. They cover the time period between my last year at Ryerson University in Toronto to two years later, as I settled into a new job as an arts writer in Victoria...

From MySpace: 15 Oct 06 Sunday

This afternoon I passed out on my green shag rug and awoke two hours later from a very disturbing dream about my first .. and last .. guitar teacher, Jim.
Jim was a forty-something guy with greasy long hair, pockmarked cheeks and cigarette breath who wore everything in the fabric known as jean.
He was a weekend warrior rock star playing the Coast pub circuit in a cover band called Local Traffic. By day he taught kids guitar at the now defunct Strings and Things in Sechelt.
I was given guitar lessons with Jim from my parents for my tenth birthday, inspired by an obsession with the Tracy Chapman Fast Car record and my mom playing House of the Rising Sun very superbly.
I lasted three lessons.
Jim was a total pig. He burped and farted (I'm pretty sure he was farting, but it was hard to hear) and kept going on and on about how girls never make good guitar players, they don't want to cut their nails, how I won't want to cut my nails and probably quit too, how many great female guitars players have YOU heard of and on and on...
So I quit and that's basically when I became a boy-chasing mall rat. Thanks Jim. Stay out of my head please.
I guess this sprung to mind because of all the superkids I've been talking to lately. You know, those kids I always go on about who are four-feet, barely in the double digits, hardly say a word, yet can rip out your heart with a Mozart concerto or play Shostakovich with more emotion than most adults I know and then sit down for some and pop and chips.
How did they get so good? Not with Jims in their lives. Quite the opposite. The amount of support for kids in music here makes me teary sometimes. As much as I'd like to kibitz with cute rock stars all day .. yeah right .. I love the kids.
And I'm starting to listen to music differently, which is kind of weird. Last night during Nosferatu I recall getting this very eerie feeling and then thinking, "Damn. Oboe, you fucking rock!"
(I'm also reading this awesome book right now called This is Your Brain on Music: The science of a human obsession, in which I've learned classical music is the original punk rock having directly rebelled from the Catholic church's banning of polyphony [more than one musical part playing at a time] and the interval of an augmented fourth because it was too evil)
Anyway, I'm not too sure where this boring stuff is all going other than I'm tired, can't sleep and seem to be consumed by the things I never learned and the things I did learn, but have forgotten and probably won't learn again.
The latter thought was compounded by just reading the letter my dad wrote me before he died, in which he swore me to remember and pass on all the important things he taught me to my own children one day like how to chop wood, fish, plant a garden and drive a stick shift. Oops.
In memory of my dad, Dave, who would have been 53-years-old today here is a poem the author/artist Harvey Chometsky wrote about him at the age of 23, when he had reputation around Prince George as an odd-ball tour guide with an arcane knowledge of the area.

In the Prince George dump there's no scavenging allowed.
The reason they give, says Dave, is sanitation.
He says the trick .. believe me he knows ..
is to go there at lunch,
while the workers are eating.
Go to the dump for lunch.
He says he hates it when bags are soft.
There might be dead babies or anything in them,
but he hasn't come across one yet thank Christ.
Well it's true you know. The soft ones are bad.
What you do is keep away from them
like I did
and still find this poem
those picture frames, diaries, notebooks and a compass
that hangs on my door,
that tells me every morning
which direction I'm going.

From Charleston, with Love!

From MySpace: May 27, 2007

Call me a crazy West Coast leftie, but I don't think it's a co-incidence that every time I'm in a U.S. airport there's been a terrorism alert of some kind from Homeland Security – code yellow, orange or whatever. Combine that with some sorry-looking 21-year-old soldiers kibitzing over shrapnel and gunshot wounds in Iraq and no wonder everyone's too scared to cut down this war. Anyway, I better keep this to myself. I am in the South.
Charleston, South Carolina – known as the port city where three out of four slaves from Africa were brought and sold, where Bubba from Forrest Gump set up his shrimp shack (yes it's here), where the locals wear enough pastels to make Abercrombie and Fitch look hardcore and where many of the black population still speak an African Creole called Gullah.
I've been here two hours and in that time I've met one of those Gullah speakers, scoped out the one indie rock club, had two shots bought for me, tried grits and lumpy cakes at the Crab Shack and found a new friend to show me around tomorrow on my one day off before the conferencing starts – Dani, a 21-year-old determined to get a tattoo since South Carolina just made them legal (except on the neck!) a few months ago. I told her I'd check out a few parlours with her since I'm such an expert. Ha. I like it here already, 90 per cent humidity included.
Can't wait for all the music and music discussions to begin – even though I'm pretty sure I'm the only gal and definitely the youngest. Just found out we are attending a Menotti tribute on Thursday in addition to the other three shows a day and seminars. Phillip Glass playing five keyboards at once in his new Leonard Cohen opera, Book of Longing. Outta sight!
I still haven't decided between a few days in Savannah, Georgia, or going up to Myrtle Beach to see Dolly at the Summer Sun Festival. I'm leaning Savannah: ante-bellum architecture and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Good times.

Words, fidelities and a 97-year-old BFF?

From MySpace: 08 Apr 07 Sunday

I had a friend who I thought was somewhat shallow share something very deep once. He said: "We do nothing from the goodness of our hearts. It's either from guilt or for glory."
I've been thinking about this lately in regards to a forging relationship. Not a dude. No, my ball and chain is a sweet, lonely little old lady who will do just about anything to hang out with me.
Most of you have heard me talk about Rose.
I met Rose a few weeks ago in the lobby of my apartment building – yes, that house of low-income all-sorts that includes a plethora of drug dealers, escorts, exchange students and the guy with a hook-hand across from me.
Rose introduced herself as 97-years-old, with no family and wanted me to help her walk across the street to a café. I offered her a ride and gave her my card.
Next thing you know it's trips to Wal-Mart for bras, Paul's Motor Inn for Salisbury steak, Wellburn's for TV dinners, Sirens for sweaters and McDonald's for seniors 50 cent coffee day.
When I took her to Med Grill for dinner she whipped out a giant old school magnifying glass to read the menu and I bust out laughing as the bar star servers' jaws dropped at the old lady with the giant eye.
Rose is generally pleasant and kind. She says "God Bless" a lot and loves to ask me about my life. It was pretty funny when she gushed over my fishnet stockings one day, until she asked me where she could get some.
I thought this was kind of weird, as was her lack of memory, history and ability to appear from one era. Most old ladies I know dress in the era they felt most stylish in – which for anyone over 80 usually translates to polyester pants, a big blouse and a curlered hair helmet.
When I first met Rose she was wearing white yoga pants, a red '80s corduroy jacket, fanny pack and gold banana clip. Imagine this on someone with no teeth, like Mother Theresa the Jazzercise version.
She would also tell me nothing about her life. Only that she never married, had children and didn't regret "doing something stupid like get tied down caring for somebody else all the time."
Hearing this rant from someone semi-stalking a stranger 60 years their junior for a coffee or a ride just reassured my desire to one day birth many a child if only for the guarantee of friends.
But I could tell there was a back story there with Rose, so I wasn't too surprised when her pastor, Marc, called me up to let in me in a few details before I took on more Rose than I could handle. But he did drop a few shockers.
Rose is actually 85. She has dementia and is schizophrenic. Until a few years ago she was living on the streets, distraught and aimless after the state took trusteeship of the money she inherited – apparently a considerable sum.
Marc and his wife helped her get into a mental ward and thought she could live there until a few visits revealed, "It was a hell-hole full of vegetables," he said.
So they hooked her up with an apartment and she's been doing pretty well since – minus the crazy boredom.
Which, I guess, is where I've come in. Marc wanted to know how big a role on Team Rose I wanted to play. I told him I couldn't commit to any responsibility for her, but I'd take her out once a week.
Besides my newly adopted World Vision child, I don't do much for anybody. And what's an hour or two a week anyway: One less yoga class, CSI episode, Value Village browse? Rose is just as entertaining.

PG, Pine Beetle, Pasta and Palominos…

From MySpace: 10 Oct 06 Tuesday

PG, Pine Beetle, Pasta and Palominos…
(This is my first blahg attempt..I couldn't figure out that livejournal thing girls. Sorry. But here's a story..)

It's been four years since I was last in Prince George.
I don't remember much from that trip considering it was a whirlwind of tears, old women in black, a language I barely understand and booze, all brought on by the untimely death of my Nonno. For anyone who hasn't heard the story of the demise of Felice Bevacqua, my jolly, spitfire grandfather had a heart attack after beating a thief with his cane when the scumbag burst in on him mid-prayer La Madonna Degli Angeli and tried to rip-off the wallet chained to his polyester brown pants. He lived and died a fighter. He was a great man.
Anyway, as I drove into town with my cousin Mike the first thing I noticed were the colours of the landscape. The low, rolling hills of spruce and pine trees were green, yellow and... red?
How beautiful. Or so it seemed. As we got closer I could see the trees were not red, but rust-coloured and leafless, like lifeless statues of trees put under some cruel mythological curse. Pine Beetle. I'd heard all about the devastating effects of the bug that, in nature's balance, should have had most of its population die off each year in the frigid winters. Even with all the articles and hype about climate change (including a cameo in Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth) I never imagined the Pine Beetle infestation to be such an in-your-face cancer on the landscape.
You'd think it'd be enough to convert the town towards some serious environmentalism. Not really. "Government..s problem."
Everyone's talking about the big boom coming. Oil exploration apparently. "Gonna be the next Fort McMurray, eh." That's what PG needs, more gas money for all the ginormous F-series Fords and trips to Wal-Mart.
Okay, that's enough..
So we get to Nonna..s new apartment and I..m relieved to see all the stuff from the old place downtown is there: black velvet painting of the Last Supper, light-up Jesus statues, Pope plate collection and walls filled from floor to ceiling with family photos.
Nonna's kitchen table is covered in flour and tiny round gnocchi she..s made (potato dumpling pasta.) It's her specialty and she plans to stuff me with it and anything else she can over the next two days: perpeta (deep fried rice balls), pitoli (deep-fried zucchini flowers) and shitty homemade wine from noon until I pass out.
"You hungry, you wanna eat a something, I make a nice a pasta for you, Mange, Mange.." she sing-songs in her shrill accent that has yet to fade though she's lived in this country since 1965.
We listen to Mario Lanza cassette tapes, drink espresso and watch Italian variety shows. She gives me the little nuggets of family history I've come here for.
I find out that Nonno's biological mother had 16 bastard children she left on various people..s doorsteps after her husband left her to go to America and she became the mistress of a well-known doctor. And that her husband eventually came back in his sixties and she took care of him until he died. Even Nonna was shocked. "Why she take him back I no know. E pazza!"
She gives me hell for breaking up with PW and then tells me her friends are coming over to meet me. Panic ensues.
When I was a kid Nonna used to invite her old lady friends over and make me massage the blue rivers of varicose veins on their thin white chicken-skinned legs. They..d say, "Young a hands make a better" and slip me a dollar bill.
But these friends were cool and mostly compared notes about their ailing bodies and gossiped.
The highlight of the trip was an unexpectedly stellar night on the town. I asked my cousin Lisa to take me out for a PG special: Inn of the North, slots at the new casino and I wanted to go to the Generator (that's where my parents met), but we settled on the Cadillac Ranch.
I'd never really been to a country bar and didn't know what to expect. Luckily, it was packed with cute young cowboys, crazy old cougars and had a live band. Our dance cards were more than full before we'd barely stepped in the door.
I learned to two-step by the best dancer of the bunch--a green-eyed wrangler in tight wrangler jeans, a shirt that said "wrangler" on the front and "cowboys rule" on the back, cowboy hat and boots. He wasn't too much of a redneck, but did sporadically "Yee-haw!!" at the top of his lungs and stomp his boots like a crazed gorilla.
(Note to the wise: don't mention Brokeback Mountain any place north of Hope.)
So at one point, the cowboy asks me if I want to go outside and look at his horse. I ask him if that's some kind of cowboy-code line and he says not at all. He really did have his horses outside in a trailer hooked up to his truck (F350, bleh!). Three Palominos and beautiful flaxen pony. What majestic, beautiful, sad creatures.
That was enough of cowboy for me, but I think cuz is a fully converted buckle bunny.

The Telemarketer Blues

* I just found this 2006 Toronto Star piece about my short stint as a telemarketer. Reminds me to appreciate my life now.

George tells me to call him at his phone on the other side of the
table and run through the script. It's a sink or swim exercise, he
"Hello my name is…I'm calling on behalf of…can I count on your support
of $250 tonight?" I blubber into the phone.
When I'm done, George walks over and says, "That was the best cold
read I've ever heard. Congratulations, you're going to do well in this
This is how, at 27-years-old and six weeks shy of graduating with a
second university degree, I became a telemarketer.
Working for minimum wage six nights a week at a crap job after a full
day of school or work is an act of survival.
I'd managed fine in the land of the privileged through student loans,
scholarships and bursaries. But a clerical mix-up on my loan documents
in the fall delayed the cash a few months and before I realized it I'd
racked up nearly $7, 000 on my credit card, had no income and less
than a hundred bucks in the bank. I completely freaked and hit the job
I found the telemarketing job advertised on craigslist as "a chance to
support valuable arts institutions." Essentially, it was a call centre
asking for donations for museums and galleries across the country. Not
a bad gig in the telemarketing world.
I have a friend who sold cell phone minutes from a call centre on the
outskirts of Ottawa. He couldn't leave his desk or even pee without
asking someone for permission. He said everyone he worked with spent
their time trying figure out ways to screw the company– stealing pens,
faking calls and getting high – in sheer revenge for the thankless
monotony of the job.
My first night of telemarketing went better than expected. No one I
called yelled at me. Only two hung up. I brought in $250!
Even better, the people I worked with were really nice. They
high-fived each other when a donation came in and gave thumbs-ups.
Mark, an out-of-work photographer delivered a heartfelt speech about
how his co-workers helped him overcome the recent death of his dog.
Sue, a retired grandmotherly-type, left lozenges at every body's
station in case our voices went hoarse.
I sat beside Teresa, a friendly Filipino woman who was always late
because she worked at a coffee shop all day.
The worst part was the walk home up Parliament to my apartment at
Dundas past the druggies, prostitutes and leering perverts. I'd just
read in the newspaper a woman my age was grabbed by a stranger along
the same route, raped and beaten badly. At least I had my pepper
spray. Damned if was going to spend an hour's earnings on public
transit or a cab.
It didn't take long for the sub-human tag of being a telemarketer to
sink in. I was calling people who'd willingly given their phone
numbers to the gallery we were fundraising for, but many still
insisted on being jerks – slamming down the phone, interrupting
mid-script or going on about how dare I disturb them at home.
Excuse me. I'm sorry I took two minutes from your Pilates workout or
beer on the patio to ask for a charitable donation. Go ahead. Take out
all your frustrations on the starving student making less than eight
bucks an hour doing this.
For the most part, people were gracious and generous. Thus proving my
theory there are two kinds of people in this world: the good
(inherently kind enough to be nice to telemarketers) and evil (those
who are not).
I'll admit, knowing I'd eventually get my loan and bursary money, land
a salary-paying job after graduation and be done with telemarketing
didn't make me a poster girl for poverty-line living.
I was a visitor to this world. Not like Teresa. She got fired for not
bringing in enough money. I felt sorry for her coming in to work
already exhausted every night, having the people she called always ask
where her accent was from and if she was calling from India or some
place that took jobs away from hard-working Canadians.
I lasted eight weeks as a telemarketer, long enough to pay for food
and rent. I quit the day I received a bursary cheque from my school.
In the end the only thing I stole was the address of a very depressed
elderly woman I'd spent at least half an hour with on the phone. She
told me she was broke, lonely and felt invisible at her senior's home.
I was the first person who'd called her in months. A few days ago I
popped a gift for her in the mail – a colourful book by crazy-haired
hippie lady called Wild Succulent Woman. I hope she likes it.