Friday, November 18, 2011

Ahmed, Me and the CBC

I hopped into the taxi, gave the driver my destination, then sat in silence for only a few seconds before he asked:

“Would you like to hear the radio?”

“I don’t think so right now, but thanks for asking,” I answered. “You’re the first cabbie to ask,” I said, thinking of the many times I’d gotten into a car with the music blaring.

“You know, according to the book,” the driver said, "we’re suppose to ask the customer before turning the radio on.”

“I didn’t know that,” I said.  “I’ve had a couple of nice experiences lately, though. Twice when I got into a cab, the driver was listening to the CBC. I happen to love the CBC.”

“Ah, yes, the CBC, my favourite, too.”

‘Ah, yes, the CBC.  My favourite, too?’  His comment both surprised and delighted me. It challenged my stereotype of who a typical CBC listener is, and like all stereotypes, it was good to be challenged. I knew my driver was an immigrant because of his strong accent. As well, I was quite sure he was Somali. I had become familiar with their distinctive facial physiognomy since large numbers of Somalis immigrated to Canada in the 1980s.
I wanted to ask my driver how he came to his love of the CBC, but didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. I thought it best to talk about myself first.

“The CBC has played a big role in my life,” I said. “I’m an immigrant to Canada—from the States. Most people think there’s not much difference between the two countries, but there really is. I had a lot to learn about my adopted home when I first came here in 1970. Listening to the CBC helped me feel connected and less lonely.”

“Same here,” he said, introducing himself as Ahmed. “ I’m from Somalia. When I first came, I would listen to the CBC all day, everyday. I learned about Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton. I heard Gordon Lightfoot sing the ‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’. I still listen to the station, and it’s good, but it’s not the same.”

As a longtime listener, I agreed. But before I conjured up my list of greatest laments and losses, he beat me to it. “I guess the death of Peter Gzowski and Morningside was the worst. I’ll never forget the day I picked up The Globe and Mail and saw a picture of Peter on the front page with two dates listed above his photo. I knew what they meant. I was so very sad. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.”

Yes, the two dates, birth and death. I, too remember seeing them.

“You’re older than I thought,” I said. “Peter Gzowski goes way back. His last radio show aired in 1997. He was really special wasn’t he?”

“Shelagh Rogers and Barbara Frum, too,” Ahmed said, referring to two other well-known CBC broadcasters. "They would interview people in Newfoundland, then B.C., then the Yukon. I’d take out my map to see where those places were.”

How well I too remembered Shelagh's contagious laugh on Morningside and Barbara’s probing interviews on As It Happens. But it was Peter who touched me the most. Home every day with my colicky first child, he made me feel I was part of the larger world. I felt like I was eavesdropping on wonderful conversations. One day he'd be talking to a woman in the prairies putting up Saskatoon berries, and the next to a man in Quebec on his way out to tap his sugar maples. Inevitably, we’d get a full weather report from these people, find out whether it was a good or bad year for whatever crop they were harvesting, and get a recipe for some kind of jam before Peter hung up.

Some people I knew hated these segments. Thought they were hokey, a little too homespun for their tastes. Not me and Ahmed. We loved hearing everyone’s stories. We thought they actually had the power to pull the country together. Or at least make us feel at home.

“I met so many interesting people.”

“Me too.”

We both laughed, realizing it was happening again. The CBC had brought us, if not the country together.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

O Canada!

I can't explain why it took me so long, but after forty-one years in Canada, I finally became a Canadian citizen yesterday. It was a remarkably moving experience.

I was one of 72 people from 36 countries who swore allegiance to the Queen (and her heirs!), promising to be law abiding citizens. It didn't take me long to break my pledge though. Probably no more than ten minutes later, I jaywalked across the street while walking with my son and husband on to our celebretory breakfast. Oh dear.

The judge read the list of countries off, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Vietnam. Couldn't tell if I was the only American in the room, but I can say that chances were pretty good that I was the only person with blue eyes.

I wasn't the only person choked up when the judge told us we were now, officially, safe in our new home. She said that many of us, particularly the refugees amongst us, had endured great hardships to get here, suffered long and worked hard to reach this day (as opposed to me who just sat on my duff for 41 years).

While I was teary, the young woman in front of me just started sobbing when the judge said this. I looked around and knew the room was full of remarkable stories, probably like hers.  I'm sorry I didn't get to hear them.

I think it was a moving day for all in the room. Heartfelt smiles, tears and inspiring words. All made me want to stand up, be proud and roar:  I AM CANADIAN.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Letting Go: it ain't easy

“We’ll meet you at the Wellesley subway stop at 10:45, ok?”

My husband is talking on the phone to our son Michael at the group home where he’s living. “You remember how to get to the Wellesley station from there, right?  So we’ll see you there at 10:45, a quarter to 11. Do you want to write that down so you don’t forget?”

“No, that’s okay, I’ll remember,” Michael says to my husband. They then hang up.

I’m standing in the background, listening to the conversation. I want to jump in before my husband ends the call. I want to say, “Tell Michael you’ll wait while he gets a piece of paper to write it all down. Or, at least, have him repeat the time back to you and describe how he’s going to get to the Wellesley station.” 

But I don’t say anything. I keep my mouth shut and get dressed. I can’t always be jumping in, trying to micromanage everything and everyone interacting with my son. At some point, I have to let go, at least a little. Michael likes feeling independent. I have to give him a chance.

We’re meeting up with Michael to go to an art gallery together. My husband Robin and Michael take a woodcarving class each week, and their teacher is exhibiting his sculptures at a downtown gallery near the Wellesley station. Michael, like us, was really looking forward to seeing the exhibit. I so very much want everything to go smoothly.

If all goes well, we’ll be meeting Michael in two hours. I can’t relax, though. I know there’s a very good chance that all will not, in fact, go well.  It’s happened too many times before.

Michael, now 24, has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). One of the symptoms he has, common in people with the disorder, is a poor memory. What he may know one day may not be retrievable to him the next.

Sure, he once knew how to get to the Wellesley station from the group home where he’ll be coming from.  But will he really remember how to get there today? Maybe or maybe not. Will he remember what time he’s suppose to meet us?  Maybe, maybe not.

To complicate the impending rendevous, Michael often believes he knows something when he really doesn’t. He often says he knows something when he really doesn’t. He often pretends he knows something when he really doesn’t. And, as I mentioned before, he often knows something one day, then not know it the next.

Therefore, both my husband and I know the chances Michael will show up at the right time and place are 50/50, if that.  

Robin and I arrive outside the subway station a little early just in case Michael shows up ahead of time and gets worried if he doesn’t see us. I can see from the look on Robin’s face that he’s as anxious as I am. We stand together for awhile, then he moves away, leaning up against the building. He pulls out a crossward puzzle he’s been working on.  I move into the sun and pull The Globe and Mail out of my bag and begin reading. I look over at Robin, now pacing and biting his lower lip.

Everytime a rush of people come out of the subway station, I peak up from the paper to see if Michael is one of them. He’s not. Something churns in my stomach.

Fifteen minutes have passed. It’s now 11:00. Then 11:05. Michael’s now 20 minutes late.

“I’ll call the group home to make sure he’s left,” Robin says. After a brief call, he tells me, “They say he left around 10:30, so he’ll probably be here soon.” I’m not totally sure whether Robin believes it, but we both take our positions again. Neither of us wants to admit defeat.  So we wait.

I’m starting to think we may have to consider giving up, but I don’t say a word. Neither of us wants to be the one to say, “I guess we better go on without him.” 

I took comfort in knowing that though we would be terribly disappointed if Michael didn’t show, we at least wouldn’t have to worry about him. Even if he got lost finding the subway station or messed up with the timing, he would know how to get to our house. We’d practiced that with him on the subway line for what seemed a million times and a million different points on the system.

I kept looking at my watch. It’s now 11:15. He’s half an hour late.  11:20, 11:25.  11:30. Now forty-five minutes late.

“What do you think?”  I say. “Should we just go?”  I really don’t want to, but it was probably time.

“I guess we can safely assume he’s not coming,” Robin responds.

And wouldn’t you just know it. Right then, Michael walks cheerfully out of the subway station in his black hoodie and jeans with a big grin on his face, looking as proud and cheerful as could be.

“Hi, Mike,” I say, putting my arm around him. “We were just about to leave. We were afraid you got lost or something. You’re forty-five minutes late.”

“Really? he said. “What time was I suppose to be here?”

“10:45” I say.

“Oh, I thought you said 11:45.”

“Nope, 10:45. Did you have any trouble finding the station?”
“Naw, I know the subway system really well.”

“We’re just glad you made it,” I said. We really were.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wounded in the Womb

Wounded in the Womb

I’d like to alert my readers to an excellent series of articles published this week in the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Free Press about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Wounded in the Womb, is available for reading online at   

A wide variety of articles, research findings, photos, diagrams,  interviews and even videos about FASD can be found under the following topics in the series:

    * What is FASD?
    * Crime and FASD
    * Child and family services
    * FASD in the schools
    * Diagnosing FASD
    * Prevention and solutions
    * The Voices of FASD

I commend the Free Press editorial staff for developing this special series. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is considered a significant problem in Manitoba by many FASD advocates in the province, though they’re concerned the real number of people with the syndrome, as elsewhere in the country, is underdiagnosed, and therefore, underserved.

According to an article published in the Free Press last February, FASD experts say the commonly used estimate of a 1% prevalence rate of FASD in the province is seriously lowballing the number. They believe the danger of this guesstimate is that it’s and used to justify the paltry sum of money allocated by the government to FASD prevention and treatment.

Brenda Bennett, director of FASD Life's Journey said, "We're all just guessing."  Bennett, an advocate for adults with FASD in Canada says, "When I know the majority of people with FASD in Manitoba go unidentified and unserved, it's really heartbreaking.

“If each child were screened for FASD at birth or in elementary school, she continues, "they wouldn't be a mystery to every teacher, every foster parent, every social worker, every guidance counsellor, every judge and legal aid lawyer..."

Unfortunately, there’s no easy test like a blood test or brain scan to diagnose FASD, and according to the government, no mass scale screening for it was on the near horizon in the province. They’ll address the problems associated with FASD through education and programming, they say.

Huh? Ok, sure, you can educate the public about the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy without having a body count. But come on. Without knowing who has FASD, who exactly is their so-called “programming” going to be for?  You need a target to target programs, don’t you?

Albert Chudley, a Winnipeg pediatrician, professor and FASD expert sees this as a problem, too. "For 18 years, we've been dragging our feet, collectively," said Chudley. "To say, 'We don't want to count, we just want to prevent' -- the two are very closely related.”

Young people in the province with FASD may be a long way off from getting young the treatment and programs they need. Besides difficulties in diagnosis, Chudley identifies another impediment. “FASD is also seen as an aboriginal disease so it goes under-reported among non-aboriginals.

According to the February Free Press article, “Experts such as Chudley say it's likely doctors treating the troubled children of white, middle-class parents zero in on similar cognitive problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and never think about prenatal alcohol exposure.”

Wounded in the Womb has timely, important information about FASD. Check it out. Maybe we can all get our local newspapers to do something similar?