Saturday, June 25, 2011

owen iii

It's probably a good idea to read the first two installments on Owen before this one if you haven't already:
Owen ii

We have several lines of investigation going on with Owen, and a vague idea that even if one gives us an answer, there are other thing possibly present that can affect his health. If you're a regular reader of the blog, you'll know that the main things we are looking into at this time are genetics, neurology, and gastrointestinal.  He receives Speech therapy through Preschool Speech and Language, and Occupational therapy as well.

We have a Behavioural therapist that is helping us with toileting in preparation for school next year, although from what she has seen, she believes the toileting is not a behaviour problem at all, but one that stems from medical issues. She will remain with us for the long haul so that we can build toileting into his school experience. It is a great comfort to know that there is someone who knows the ropes that can help advocate for him.

From the beginning, we identified that his eating habits are the most important to understand and improve, being that he was barely eating anything when we first knew something was wrong. Without the nutrition going into the little guy, everything else was moot.

A couple of weeks ago, we took Owen in to see Dr. Justinich in Belleville General. He was very attentive, and gave us hope that we could get to the bottom of many of his gastro problems. We had already altered his diet to the point of preparing separate meals for him. He was eating squash and pear, broccoli, spinach, kale and carrots in smoothies and pancakes, and drinking Neocate in his juice. We had eliminated milk products to ensure that any casein (the protein source in milk products)was not messing him up as well, and because of those things we've had some great results.

Dr. Justinich introduced us to the idea that it could be EE, or Eosinophilic esophagitis. This is an inflammation of the esophagus that is often caused by, or made worse by, allergies and intolerance to certain foods. Food sensitivities are thought (by some) to have a hand in Autism, ADHD, and as we learned earlier this week, are part of the "package deal" in Ectodermal Dysplasia syndromes. So this was not news to us, and we had already eliminated milk from his diet.

Great, right?

Wrong. In order to know for certain if milk products were causing the condition of EE, we had to re-introduce milk products, even just a little a day, so that they could see what is going on in the upper GI tract. The reasoning is this: Owen had been on milk heavy Pediasure, and many months ago we traded it for the caloric substitute Neocate. It is a hypo-allergenic amino acid formula that is broken down, so it's easy to digest.

In Dr. Justinich's practice, they would use Neocate in conjunction with an elimination diet to heal EE. Even though we've had good results with removing milk products from his diet, we could have also inadvertently eliminated the inflammation and eosinophils, even though the underlying condition is still there. So to know for sure, we have to reverse our treatment so that the scope can tell us for certain that he has EE.  While they scope his upper GI tract, they will also be taking a couple of tissue biopsies, one to check for EE, and the other to test for Celiacs Disease.

I know this sounds like a step backward, adding milk and stopping the Neocate, and it felt like that to us also, especially after all the gains. Nobody was more aware of this than Jenn and I. But we did it. The difference in him since we did this is astounding. Even just after the first two days, the screaming meltdowns, the stimming-like movements, the stiffness of the body, all these are back. It's all been an eye-opener. We couldn't believe how much progress we had made until we saw it taken away.

We will find out on July 12th, and believe you me, on the 13th the milk will be again out of his diet, and the neocate back in, no matter what the result. We want our bright little Owie back!


Further installments:
Owen iv

 Jennifer's blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Happy G-20!

Being that this is the one year anniversary of the G20 riots, just days after the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots, rioting is very much on my mind. I was listening to CBC radio yesterday, and on air was an eyewitness account of the chaos that was the Toronto G20 riot. I started to think about what a thin veil there is on our society.

My thoughts first went to putting myself in their situation. What would I do if I were stuck downtown and a police officer, who'd taken off his badge and was nameless, started beating me with a baton? Simply for being there. Or what if I had to watch Jenn being arrested, and was beaten? I understand that there was an element of the crowd that was not there to watch, and that they were up to no good, but surely we have better plans and tactics and training in place than to beat people and remove our responsibility as an officer of the law.

So I was then watching the documentary "Home" with a link my friend Ivona sent me from Taiwan. It is a brilliant compilation of motion photography about our impact on the planet and the cycle of carbon that makes it possible, about the plants millions of years ago that converted water into oxygen by trapping the carbon in their cells, that now we are irrevocably releasing back into the atmosphere. You can watch it here.

I learned much from it, but certain things stand out. First, with 70% of the oxygen we breathe created by blue-green algae that is now in danger in a poisoned ocean, we are even running out of the oxygen we breathe. I thought: if we fuck this up, there's no fixing it. We are already poisoning the oceans, so when is the tipping point? Are we already past it?

So tonight my odd brain started putting the concepts together. How long will it be after we run out of oil (or rather, I used that colloquially and need to correct myself. The crash will come not when it runs out, but when it becomes too expensive to produce the food we rely on for agri-business) .... ahem, how long would it be after we ran out of the oil to produce the food, before each and every major center like Toronto, Chicago, and New York melted down ... not over a silly sporting event or a political issue, but over the basic necessities of life? How do you feed 4 million people in Toronto without the tractors to produce wheat in Saskatchewan, nor the trucks to transport it?

It's not a given, this outcome. Another thing I learned from 'Home': One quarter of the people on the planet use the same means of food production as people used 6000 years ago. I immediately thought: One quarter of the people on the planet would probably be better off if our modern western society collapsed, as they would at least be able to breathe cleaner air while they lived the way they always have.

We in North America, and in Europe, would be looking at a complete breakdown of the institutions that define us should oil run out. We have no experience with making things from scratch like our ancestors had to, even just a mere hundred years ago. Could we make soap? Farm implements? Magazines? What would we do without computers?

First we have to know that we cannot sustain this. Look around at all the plastic products and ask if these will be here in three hundred years. That's a blink in the grand scheme of things. Now, look around and take account of all the things that are using power.  Where will the power for those gadgets come from? How reliable are those electronic things, and how long will they last if we no longer can power the machines to create their replacements? All those things will go dead without power to run them. It seems basic, but this is exactly my point. We seem to have forgotten our basics.

This culture of entitlement, that requires the latest and greatest gadgets, that feels it needs fast food, really, in truth, needs to learn frugality. We need to make products that last as long as possible. We need stainless steel laptops, cars that don't rust, and run on clean energy. We need toothbrushes designed not to break down. We need houses that produce their own energy. We need to grow local veggies, buy from local producers, eat less meat, and more variety, and reject consumerism. We need to allow commercial ads to fall on deaf ears. We need to make all these things happen personally, while remembering that machines are dependant on oil while people are dependant on food. Most of us will be farming when the oil runs out, merely for subsistence, or we will be starving.

So back to our riot situation. What is different about our police and the ones in Syria? Libya? Palestine? India? Is it our training? Beliefs? The righteousness of the people they are clubbing? We have to get it out of our heads that we are somehow better, because in reality nothing is different. They all take orders, they all do what their superiors tell them, and the people in power are not much different from one another.

Now don't get me wrong, our people in blue have much to be proud of, and have become examples in the world for how to do things. As ashamed as I am of the G20, I know that their crackdown was done out of fear. That is why I have to think of how they would react against a rioting mob the size of Scarborough. We have to stop being so smug about things and think about basic human nature, because if the oil runs out, we will all be back to basics. Further to that, how would we enforce a declaration of human rights to two million starving, rioting people, when our police can't even maintain control over several thousand?

If we don't solve these "small" environmental and supply issues, the larger issues will be on us faster than we know, and not in a way that is pleasantly solved by a bunch of eggheads. It will come down to brute force, and chance will determine who is in control at the time.

Or, more broadly, keeping in mind the crisis of carbon fuels, how do we ensure that the good things we have learned as a species, like DNA and molecular theory, and superstring theory, or the CERN findings, make it through to future generations, and that all we've accomplished does not just get forgotten?

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What it's like - very short videos of tower cranes.

Even though right now I represent workers in a Union, my profession is tower crane operator. When I say that, people either don't know what that is, or they ask two questions right off the bat. First, how do you get up there? Second, how do you go to the washroom up there?

For people who don't know what they are, I can explain by saying that if you look at the Toronto skyline there are about two hundred of them putting up high rise buildings on the horizon.

For those who do know, well, the first question is real easy. There are ladders. Each section is on average twenty feet tall, and some cranes are up higher than others. Each section has to be climbed every morning, and descended each night. For someone who sits in a tin box the rest of the day, it's actually a great way to get more than fifteen minutes of cardio. The second is easy as well. Number One, if I can go by my kids metaphor, is done into a sealable jug (antifreeze bottles work well as they have handles for tying up and lowering to the garbage). Number Two is usually accomplished before climbing by a combination of timing and Tim Hortons coffee on the way to work.
This first video shows what it's like to be nearly three quarters the way up. (I made videos to play for Jenn at home, so many are addressed to 'my love'.)

That out of the way, usually the next question is "What is it 'actually' like?"

Well, lets start with mechanicals. The whole crane is regularly inspected, and you can walk each section. Some 'parts', like the jib (boom) sections on some cranes, require having a harness and lanyard, others can be walked within catwalks. They are meant to flex and accept strain, so when things are picked up and landed, they move. A lot.

There are motors that make the cables move for lifting. These make quite a bit of noise that you can hear in most of the videos. There is a cab where the operator controls the crane. These can be as comfortable or as difficult as the different makes of car out there. Since some cranes are over forty years old, I've seen everything from cushy truckers chairs to actual Ikea desk chairs in them.

My father was one of the first half dozen operators in Toronto when they first started erecting tower cranes, and started out with the controls on a box hung from his neck. Not recommended.

This next video was to be sent to Jenn while she was in Belleville. I was cut off during a break in order to do some work, though, but it is great for showing the view.

In this next one, I was also working on the two Menkes towers beside Sherway Gardens.Warning I drop an 'f'bomb in it in case kids are listening. The operator in this, Nick, was relatively new at the time also, and taught me a lot. He had apprenticed under Frank, who had apprenticed under my brother Larry. Just to show you how small the operating community is in Toronto, I apprenticed under Larry, and then Nick, and my next job after this, under Frank.

Of course, that doesn't show what it's like to actually operate. This one is a good one of pulling panels out from under a deck at the Peterborough Regional Health Centre, in Peterborough Ontario. It's my Dad operating, and the foreman Mario on the overhang directing him.

Then, finally, people ask how they are taken down and put up. I also did that a few times on several different types, but because I was working so hard, I didn't take much video. In general, they are put together by bolts or pins, and each section is lifted into or out of place by mobile cranes. High rise buildings are different. The cranes get jacked up a couple of floors at a time every few weeks until they become too high to reach with mobile cranes. To take them down off high rise buildings usually a small derrick (tripod crane) is brought up through the elevator, and it's used to erect a bigger derrick. The large derrick then takes down the tower crane piece by piece, and then the big derrick is taken down by the small derrick, then the small derrick is taken back through the elevator.

I have two short clips of taking down a Pecco 2000 in Peterborough while I was still an apprentice, and here they are: In the first, the jib section is being taken away.

In this one, the counter jib.

Well, hope you liked the little tour! If you're looking for more, my brother, father and I were in the episode of 'Things That Move' in 2006, which was about tower cranes.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Little Brother is watching.

If there is a light at the end of the tunnel on this Vancouver riots thing (I know, I know, we all just want to see the issue go away, so I'll keep this short), it is how social media has 'adjusted' the outcome. I've been reading about rioters taking part in the cleanup, confessing their involvement, and turning themselves in, and others outed by their parents or other people on the special websites set up to identify them. I heard an 'expert' ( so of course we can trust her opinion) say that the Facebook outings amounted to vigilante justice.

There's a fine line. If we were not only outing the rioters, but also showing up on their doorsteps to drag them out in the street and beat them, then yes, I would agree it's vigilante justice. In this case, though I think it is an example of the best the internet has to offer. Here are kids (and most of them seem to be kids) coming clean because they have to. Some are choosing to be tried as adults so they can face their responsibilities, and others are forced into it kicking and screaming, but they are coming to justice, and that's a good thing.

If it were my son who had done the damage, and I had identified him on a FB picture, or anyone else had, then I would march them right out to the police station. The first reason is that I would want them to take responsibility for their actions in the same way that I would want them to at 9 years old after breaking a neighbour's window with a baseball. The second is that as a parent, I am legally (and morally) responsible for their actions, and not to do so would be a telling judgment on my parenting.

What is even more important, though, is the example this sets for the future. I panic when I think of a big-brother type police state, with people unable to protest or speak about human rights, or to have their opinions heard. I am the first person to decry state owned cameras everywhere like they have in the UK. Lets face it, this was a mild riot compared to other cities, where thousands are trampled and dozens killed. This was a few people injured and some property damage. What I'm saying is I see potential in this type of memetic, dispersed public self-regulation. This is not big brother, it's little brother. It's people watching other people as benignly as possible with cell phones. If nothing had been done wrong, this information would not be catalogued into Police databases, nor into some sort of bureaucracy, it would be erased and forgotten.

I guess what will be telling in the future, is what individuals do with this. With hundreds of cell phones watching, is a hooligan going to put a hammer through the window of a store, or are they going to pause, and put the hammer down? Hopefully the latter.

There will always be crime. I just hope that with less people practicing violence, less others will be 'caught up' in it, and this type of riot, for no reason, I must stress, will hopefully not happen. It marks the first step forward in a sort of uneasy truce between people and ... well ... people, without having to go all Big Brother. My fingers are crossed.

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Fathers Day.

I was lucky to have a smart, caring, and passionate father. There are many things that made him a great Dad, but the most important thing was that he was a great teacher. What I learned from him would fill volumes. I'm still learning things from him. I'm thirty-nine, and just last weekend he taught me how to cut down a tree safely. Over the years he has taught me everything from tying my shoes to finishing concrete to soldering pipe, to flying airplanes. He loves to share his knowledge.

The most important of skills I learned from him were intangible. This weekend we were laughing that he never showed us how to back down. From something we believed in, or really, from anything. He's very stubborn. He made me proud to stand out of a crowd, and to fight for things instead of giving up. He taught that our beliefs make us who we are. As an extension, one of the most important things I learned from him, something that overshadows all else, was how to be myself around people. I don't think I ever saw him put on an act, for anyone.

Also, as a result, I am thankful that he showed my brother and I how to joke, and laugh, and play practical jokes without taking them too far. We had fun in our house, and we still do in my house now, and for that I'm eternally grateful.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vancouver, 0

In June of 1993 I was staying at my parents' house in Tweed, having visited them after finishing up my school year at Concordia University in Montreal. I was a Habs fan. My apartment was about two blocks to the east of the old Forum, on St. Marc by the Faubourg. I knew there would be some pretty heavy partying if the Habs won against the Kings, and I regretted not being able to stick around for the games.
The view from my apartment along Ste.Catherine, 1993

I remember watching the game on television. As I recall it was a great game, and when they won I was pretty happy. I kept watching in that post-game glow, kind of biding the time and winding down to prepare for bed. I watched as Habs fans poured out of the Forum, out onto St. Catherine street, and started smashing windows and lighting cars on fire. I was absolutely gobsmacked as fans smashed the window on a Granada TV rental place right across the street from my apartment building.

Now, I didn't own a car, and my apartment was on the fifth floor, so they'd have to have pretty good aim to damage anything I owned there in Montreal, but I was mortified. I was so disappointed in the fans, and the people of Montreal for showing such an ugly side of themselves. I remember thinking 'but we WON', as if that made any difference. $2.5 million in damages later, and nearly 200 arrests, and for what?

Nothing. That's what. So I stopped watching hockey. I don't think I've caught a single game since, it bothered me that much.

That's probably why I didn't catch the riots the very next year in Vancouver, when rioters caused $1.1Mil in damage to the downtown.

Fast forward to yesterday, in Vancouver. I have lived in Vancouver as well, down by 16th and Granville, and found Vancouverites to be a little more sedate than Montrealers. They were courteous, polite, smart, and gave me the impression that their emotions were a little farther under the skin than the passionate Quebecois.

I have to admit I did not watch the last game of the Vancouver Boston series for the Stanley cup. I wasn't on the emotional roller coaster, the crazy whirlwind of feelings that the fans must have felt watching their team tank at the last minute, hearts no longer in it as the Bruins took home what they'd rightfully won. I wasn't there to feel how disappointed Vancouver fans were. I didn't feel the pain they felt, the sorrow, and the agony of having lost ... (er...  having watched someone else lose who was perhaps from another country or province or state and only brought to Vancouver by copious amounts of cash, but still wore the Vancouver jersey nonetheless) after pinning my hopes and dreams that the Stanley cup would be right there in MY CITY (for perhaps a couple of months after the win)

Perhaps there was something in the water. Perhaps there was something in the beer. I don't know, but I would like to steal a quote from Nisha Panchal, a Facebook friend-of-a-friend, who said: "paraphrasing someone smarter: "lose a game? burn shit. lose your country? sit on your ass and watch tv"

Amen. Where were these people when the Conservatives cut funding to arts organisations, to Katimavik, and to womens groups? Where were they when the government misappropriated $50Mil for the G-20summit? They were at home watching the game. Or another game. Or reruns of games. 

I do not condone violence. I have participated in protests, and many times have been fearful of the situation (2000, LA Democratic convention) but I never, no matter how emotionally charged the issue, EVER would have resorted to violence.

Look. Fans. I know that games are emotionally charged. I know that in your beer and testosterone fuelled stupor it feels like you need to punch something when you don't get your way, but grow up. You can't always get what you want. Perhaps if you paid more attention to what's really going on, and didn't get so caught up in a game, you'd avoid anger, and become empowered to start contributing to society in a meaningful way. Because burning shit when you don't get what you want is just plain stupid, and there's no explanation that prevents you looking like idiots.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Tolerance.

The mere mention of the word 'tolerance' to me used to invoke images of older white men gritting their teeth and bearing something unpleasant while thinking of better jokes. Our culture is limping toward the ideal of an accepting and equitable society, but many of the criticisms of modern society is that it is not moving fast enough. I disagree.

The roots of this limping change were in the freedom movements of the 1700's. You know, the ones that gave us the great democratic revolutions that swept the world into numerous wars and, when finished, allowed people the freedom to define their own forms of government. Or that was the concept. Societies are always works in progress. These revolutions merely laid the groundwork for the end of slavery, women voting, for sexual liberation, and for the rights we enjoy enshrined into constitutions, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Millions died to make these rights available to us, just as thousands of workers died bringing us the right to collectively bargain, demand a 40 hour week, a minimum wage, pensions, and benefits, socialized medicine, and to take children out of the factories and mines. It was a logical progression.

The Arab spring is an exciting modern example. With persistence comes freedom,  and after that I hope to see movements for women's rights, gay rights, children's rights and religious freedom. I have faith that these things are inevitable as long as they exist in the world, just as when democracy was born in the Mediterranean some 2500 years ago, the mere concept ensured it would someday dominate.

Now, bear with me, because this is going to seem completely unrelated.

In the small town of Tweed Ontario, there was a campground owned by a man who wanted to make his living having drunken parties, mud-drag-races, and fireworks displays. To each his own, of course, but it was an unfortunate profession for his neighbors, as they had to put up with strewn beer bottles, keeping their kids away, and being unable to open their windows on cool summer nights for the noise. For decades the residents tried to have it shut down to no avail.

Tweed in the 1990s

Last year, the park finally failed, and the land was bought by two wonderful men from Ottawa, who set to work cleaning it up. The park they are now running is quiet, clean, safe, and members-only exclusively gay. It can be found here:  Riverside.

This is also going to seem unrelated, but if you're a follower of this blog you'll know that everything comes together in the end. I work for a labour Union, and I always tell the people I'm signing that they should forget what they've read and heard about Unions, because at heart a Union is members looking out for each other. I believe that to this day, especially having seen the inner workings, just as I believe that is how society should work as a whole.

By taking that idea one step further, if we look at the number of members in the Union and apply the simple mathematical formula of 1% homosexual and 1% bisexual people throughout society, then there are over 200 members who would identify as gay if it were 'acceptable'.

In the construction industry we are working in one of the last bastions of quietly unchallenged intolerance, but this is changing. Part of this is due to the demographic of construction workers. The average age of operators is over 40, where tower crane operators are the 'oldest' of the construction workforce, with an average age of 45. This means the majority grew up in a 1960's and 1970's culture of intolerance. Change is difficult for them. They need to be assured that tolerance doesn't mean becoming gay, just as watching Oprah doesn't make one black. I believe that change happens generationally, and that this generation have come as far as many of them can.

What we really fight is a fear of the unknown. The terms 'faggot' and 'nigger' and 'spick', and 'retard' all serve one purpose to the person who utters them. It is to label it in their own mind as 'other', and to distance themselves so as not to be judged. It is a rock-jumping search for solidity in a changing world. 'Slurring' is really trying to be accepted by defining ones self from a position of socially accepted dominance. The practice still has power, just as it did for Hitler eighty years ago.

I don't blame, I accept. It exists because it is human nature. Change is threatening, especially to those whose lives have not changed much before. When people feel threatened, they blame others for the change, and slurs result. Simply knowing about it and teaching our children, in itself, helps to break down the behavior generation after generation.

Back to our example in the Riverside campground, I was proud when neighbors offered helping hands, or even just simply walked over to introduce themselves. I was also very proud hearing the name spoken on the streets of Ottawa last week, because it means that Clinton and Derek will make a good go of it. If it's bringing people in, then it is one more step toward being a viable business in a difficult area to find success.

So now the reader asks what is the endgame of all this? Where am I going?

It's simple. I want a world that accepts my children, and their children, and anything we do toward this end as a society is something I will be proud of. My tolerance doesn't just apply to lip-service when convenient, and a wishy washy flip when inconvenient. I know a day will come when a gay operator comes out and needs someone to defend them on a job site where being gay is never admitted. Will my Union be willing to protect his or her rights as an operator and as a Union member?

I don't want to hope so, I want to make it so.

No matter what their background, brother or sister, I would like to defend every member as if they were my grown up kids, because standing up for people's rights is the reason Unions were founded in the first place.

This change will happen in due time, even if just one person at a time. Derek and Clint and the Riverside campground are more than welcome in my neck of the woods, because they are good people, and that's what this whole society business is all about in the long run. Whether through religion or law, or just plain good deeds, it is people looking out for each other. We need a lot more of that.

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
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Friday, June 10, 2011

Smartass gene.

I used to joke that science will someday find the smartass gene in my family. When it comes to education, I come from a long line of Ne'er-do-well's who made good. It seems a Sprung tradition to avoid institutional authority.

My Grandfather, Harold, ca. 1949

State schooling is a relatively new thing in society. Prior to my father's generation, most kids weren't required to go to school. Previous to the great war, it was for those who either could afford to be schooled, or those who were very active in their churches. We were neither, coming from a long line of farmers and mercenaries, German and English stock who came across the pond to make a new life in religious freedom.

My grandfather started operating heavy equipment in the 1940s, building a highway in Nova Scotia during the second world war. My father, born in 1946, went to school in the first institutionally mandated public school system through the 50's and 60's.

My Dad. I love the hair in this one. ca. 1960

It's no wonder educators didn't have the resources to identify and help kids with special needs in those days. They were coping with the baby boom with its unprecedented number of children flooding the system. It led to a Darwinian version of school that reacted the way it knew how. Disciplinarian Principals thrived, and teachers took a laissez-faire attitude. Children either passed or failed, and it was the teachers' jobs to simply lay out the classes without ensuring it was understood.

My father dropped out to operate heavy equipment, fix and drag-race cars, and generally start a life. School in those days couldn't prepare him, and so he took an apprenticeship operating mobile cranes at 16 and never looked back.

Even though he didn't finish high school, he's no slouch. He learned how to fly airplanes through sheer determination, while still running heavy equipment, and went on to win awards, one for the highest score on a flight exam ever given (at that time) by the Ministry of Transport. He taught meteorology and flight training with Skycraft in Oshawa, and then flew DC-3s, Twin Otters, and 748's in the arctic as an airline transport Captain with Bradley air and FirstAir. He needed to learn in his own way, and did just that.

Dad in the right seat of a DC-3 sometime around 1982

My brother, Larry, was also different than other kids, taller and ganglier, but friendly and kind to a fault. He still has a heart of gold, and would literally give away everything he owned if it helped out a friend. In school he had similar difficulties to my father's. He was labelled and ignored, simply because he just could not learn in the narrow-minded way that teachers had set out for him. They tried moving him closer to the blackboard, and then moving him in with all the troublemakers in a 'special' class, but this only served to single him out. Now, of course, there is a recognition of different learning styles, and different approaches are geared to that, but back then there was nothing.
Larry, around 1975

He, too, went straight into an apprenticeship in the tower cranes. I can't blame him. Misunderstood and mislabeled, what else is there to do but go where your skills and strengths are appreciated?

I later learned what an intelligent, and clever thinker he is. When I started my apprenticeship, he was my teacher, my mentor, and my coach, making sure I learned it right the first time, and showing me how to be a productive and safe operator. I owe him my profession. I could write an entire novel on rediscovering our friendship after many years of not getting along, but that's for another time.

Larry and I in a Pecco, Peterborough 2005

Looking back, I see that even though I was perceived as the opposite of Larry, I went through nearly the same thing. As a child I was supposed to be the black sheep. The (now laughably) 'smart one'. First Sprung to go to University. First to be 'bookish' and artistic. Even though I did well in school, I never got straight A's. If I had an interest in something, like Physics or Geography, I would get near perfect marks. If I didn't, as in (ironically) English, I wouldn't. I had odd obsessions. Early on I could read. I don't ever remember not understanding words. I could read the newspaper at five years old, and yet it never translated to anything more than being a bookworm, hiding in the library while other kids took up sports and theatre.

On the other hand, it took me until 26 months to walk, and I had trouble with speaking to others, especially in groups. I mumbled to myself often, and also would repeat what people said to me, but in whispers, as if trying to find the meaning. Loud noises bothered me, painfully, and different textures also bothered me, which meant I developed defensiveness. It only makes sense now, not wanting to get hurt, but at the time it socially handicapped me. I ended up preferring to be alone much of the time rather than having to deal with people.

Larry and I ca. 1976

After high school, I didn't want to go into the heavy equipment because of the mess and noise, and tried instead to apply myself to academia. It was always an uneasy fit. I should have, from an early age, gone with what I was good at. I was a natural pilot, and learned, as my brother did, to operate equipment. Where I am happy now is a combination of academia and construction. I still write, and I still work with machines. I would love to get my pilot's license (I know, I know... after flying for nearly eight years, trained by one of the most experienced arctic pilots in the country, I never wrote for it...), but aside from a few things I would take back if I could, any anxiety I had about life has been banished long ago. I feel as if I am where I was meant to be.

Flying with my Dad around 1997 in his Taylorcraft. Loved this plane!
Now I worry about my kids. In looking at my Owen, I see nearly a carbon copy of all the social difficulties I went through as a child. I always worry also when Cole comes home from school having a rough day, because I know how hard it is for a little guy to admit to anyone that he's anything but popular and successful. I think it was a shock to my parents when we moved away from Havelock to find that it had been such a horrible time for my brother and I, because they always asked how our days were, and we always said they were fine. I don't think any parent wants to hear that their kids are having a hard time, but as painful as it is, it's the first step for making sure our kids cope.

That's not to say I want to intervene. I think they should all fight their own battles, whether within themselves or in standing up for their own rights, but in order to do this, they need to know they have someone in their corner, even if it's not the winning corner.

I consider it a badge of honor to have survived being an outcast, and sometimes being outright bullied. It made me who I am. To think 'survived' is too strong a word is to ignore national suicide statistics among young teens. I often wonder what could have become of me if my family had not been so strong. I know that I never would have spent so much time with my parents had I had friends through school, and yet the skills I rely on today, the kindness and generosity of my mother, and my father's sense of humour and affability, were things that socially I had to learn from them before going out in the world.

I also have reason to hope that schooling has changed, that there is a place even for a bunch of Ne'er-do-well's to stick around and learn from it. What gives me faith is that I know they will not be forgotten in a special class, like my brother, or be driven out through apathy like my father. Nor will they be left to sink-or-swim like myself. Armed with new learning models and an understanding of how to help kids get what they need, schools have an interest in helping every kid get through, whatever their style of learning. Now, if my kids will be an outcasts, they will be educated outcasts, with every opportunity to apply that roguish defiance to any field.

Who knows, with the amount of time Owen spends in doctors offices, perhaps he'll become a geneticist and answer for us that typically Sprung question. Which part of which chromosome controls the middle finger?

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Owen ii

Here is the original Owen post if you have not already read it:

Having children brings its own form of anxiety. Even having children who are 'normal' creates daily anxieties. I liken it to having your heart pulled out to walk around in the world. Times three. Every good parent wants the best for their child. Every good parent wants to think that their child is going to get along well in the world, and every good parent wants to protect them from all the bad crap that can happen.

When Jenn sent me the link for an article here, I was already formulating a post about anxiety, and how those normal parental anxieties are elevated for parents of children with special needs.

I nearly cried after this article. It is about children with rare genetic disorders finding others in the world who have that disorder, and seeing mirror images of their own children, right down to the physiology. It is long, but please read it if you can find the time.

Pulitzer article.

What anxieties? Specifically, this September, Owen goes to school, and we have identified three things that bother us the most about this.

First, he doesn't poop in a toilet. This can have social implications. I don't want those kids to treat him like a freak because he still has to use underjams, or a specific toileting schedule. Second, he doesn't eat 'normal' foods. He's not just picky, he's SUPER picky, and requires supplements and this seems one more step to take him out of the nutritional 'environment' Jenn has created to get everything in. He's still hovering near 33 lbs, and we'd like to keep him there and even gain a bit. Third, he tends to melt down when he overheats. At home, I experimented a few months ago and took a bag of frozen peas to the back of his neck which reset his meltdown in its tracks. I don't want this to be another thing that singles him out in school.

Cole, our 9 year old, getting a Terrific Kid award.
I have no doubt that he is going to ace his math and spelling. He really is brilliant, but he's going to have difficulties with his planning and task completion. I know the school will be understanding, and that his big brother will stick up for him, but having had such a horrible experience in elementary school myself, I worry that he won't play well with other kids. It's hard enough being 'normal' and going to school, without having to constantly explain why you're 'different'. Different in elementary school, we all remember, is social leprosy.

That said, now understand us when you get to the point in the article where the parents found other children with the same deletion, duplication or anomaly, and we were told that Owen is the only one. No group of other parents going through the same thing. No other kids to compare results, or to see how they did when they were older.

He's unique.

I have hope that what he has is the same thing I had as a child. I was hyperlexic in school, odd socially (sometimes I still am), and was defensive about loud noises and such, but not to the same extent as Owen. Now, I'm not looking for someone to tell me it's going to be okay, or that 'he's fine' ... I've given that hope up long ago for a kind of realism that informs me on what obstacles he has to overcome and what therapies help him overcome them.

I'm still left with so many larger questions though. What if it's fatal at 10 years old? What if it leads to degenerative nerve damage? We don't know. What I'm hoping for is that I have the same genetic oddity. That way, it sets my mind at ease about what the future holds for him. Barring that, I'm hoping someone in the world is in the same boat. Even if it's not me.

Now, I'm not a helicopter parent, but the urge is definitely there to be one. I sometimes can over-manage them, but I know kids have to be kids, to play and be free to learn in their own way, even if the lesson is that concrete is hard on the nose when they fall off their bikes. I sometimes have to remember back to my childhood when we used to ride our bikes nearly a three hour ride away to my grandparents cottage, or how we used to disappear all day to build forts. It was more free then. If anyone had asked my Mom where we were, she'd probably shrug and say "I don't know. Out." Perhaps it's the media, and perhaps our own fears, looking back at how much could have happened to us. It's just different.

As a result, our house is usually pretty chaotic, and we aim to guide our children rather than molding them. This therapy with Owen requires managing him, and teaching him how to stay on task, managing all the food that goes in his system (which Jennifer does magnificently) and even keeping a poop journal (I'm reluctant to call it a 'log' for obvious reasons). I try not to let the everyday coping with it consume our lives, which it has a tendancy to do. We still have to remember to be a couple, and to trust my parents to watch them for a couple of days, or even a night, once in a while, even though it isn't the care we'd be giving.

Then, there's the anxiety of the testing. We are heading down to Sick Kids tomorrow to have genetic testing done on Jenn and I. As much as we've been joking about whether this is going to be called 'Sprung's disease' or 'Wager's disease', it is possible that it didn't come from either of us. We'll find out in about two months whether the mutation was new to Owen, was from Jenn, from myself, or from both sides of the family.

(Place your bets now!!!)

But seriously, we're not looking for THE ANSWER any more. What we're really hoping for is another step toward the truth. Is the triplification on his gene passed down? Is it new in him? What could cause it? Is the genetic oddity causing all the medical things we've seen? If not, then what is? How do we make his life better?

I think Tena, our occupational therapist was correct when she said that the goal isn't so much to find out why, but to find out how to help him. At this point, I'd be happy with knowing how to help him use the toilet, and how to prepare him for school. It seems so far away, and yet we have to be ready by September.

My fingers are cramped from being crossed so long.

Owen iii
Owen iv

 My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Editing 101

So, you have your pen, paper, laptop, printer, and, well, I don't know, beret, Tweed jacket, and French smokes, and you want to write your masterpiece. There are certain realities that you'll have to face right off the start as a writer, that are sobering. That's not to say it's not a worthwhile practice, or that I haven't had endless joy out of writing, but it's like having a kid without being told about how much money it costs for diapers.

First (and I'm speaking of novel writing in particular here), publishing is really, really, really .... really tough. You have to be prepared to cut the crap out of whatever you've just put on paper, and do it with the utmost efficiency to get to what you want to say. Writing a novel can take years, and you have to maintain a solid vision throughout. Even if you make it to a polished final draft that you think is untouchable, there will always be someone who can poke holes in it. There is always editing to be done. In fact, when Thomas Edison said that genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration, he could easily have been talking about writing and not inventing. Beyond the initial idea, getting that first thought on paper, most of writing IS editing. They are literally one in the same. It is in drafting and re-drafting the same thing that was first written, working it over into a coherent and entertaining whole. You would think, then, that the greatest skill a writer could develop would be editing. Most amateur writers completely neglect this, and their writing suffers.

I was lucky enough in first year at Concordia to pick up a little book called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. (and E. B. White). It served me very well, and I believe it is essential to read it and understand it before writing in the English language. One could say that with the internet our rules have changed, but I believe it is as essential now as it was when it was first conceived.

Elements of Style

To sharpen my skills, I've been giving pointers to other writers on Booksie, and I'm finding the same common mistakes that I found in creative writing class in 1994. Most, if not all, of these mistakes are a one way ticket to a rejection form letter.

Even the works that are requested and read by agents and publishers, and ultimately rejected, are polished. The reason they are not published is seldom that they had typos or used the wrong tense, or switched between first and third person. No, those manuscripts are often weeded out before samples are even requested. (If there are mistakes in your query letter, they won't request a sample.) The ones rejected after sending a sample are often nearly as good as what you would read in the bookstore, just not right for that agent or publisher. Publishers and agents are concerned more with saleability.

Keep in mind when working toward submission, that writers have a tendency to overestimate their work. The  great ones underestimate. Any writer is well served by a healthy dose of humility, with a side of frequent bouts of thinking your writing sucks, followed by a burning desire to make it right. Until it's gramatically and structurally perfect, don't submit it to anyone but an editor. If you can find one.

After the editing comes the submission. If you are serious about your work, and think it is worth publishing, you don't just send it off everywhere and hope for the best. You send out query letters. If your query letter catches some interest, and agents or publishers request chapters, only then do you send what they request. If there are submission guidelines, follow them. Don't try to change the font sizes or types, or the margins to make it 'look' smaller or larger, just send them what they want. I can't explain any better about the query letter than QueryShark. Look it up, it's worth the read, and it will show you what not to do.

So even then, once you've written the work, edited the crap out of it, and submitted a stellar query letter, met with agents, and they've got you an offer from a publisher, or you've gone to the publisher directly, (and this is ignoring self-publishing options, and online sales and all the soup that publishing is today) ... lets say you get an offer for an advance. Keep this in mind. Seven out of ten novels don't earn their advance back. That's the reality. Publishers want to know that you'll be writing for the rest of your life, that you're going to keep cranking out novels that people want to read. They are usually investing that first advance in your career, so if you're not looking at it as a lifestyle, often without much reward, and you want to open yourself up to criticism, then don't do it. You have to write out of love. If you don't love writing, don't do it.

That said, if you have a work that you want general tips on, or even a shirtsleeves-rolled gutting, e-mail me at deocil at hotmail, and I will try to find the time to cut the crap out of .... er ... help you out with it. I will be taking excerpts to show others how to edit, also, and so there's a good chance I will use it to anonymously give examples to that end, but not maliciously. Don't submit if you don't want brutal honesty, and likewise if you don't want to see it later as an example.

I will be blunt, and it might not be pretty. You've been warned.

Sunday, June 05, 2011


About a month ago, I started getting pains in my right hand. I don't usually complain about the aches and pains, and it wasn't that bad. Seeing as I'm nearing forty years old, and it is one among many little pains, I didn't mention it to anyone. Being a guy I decided to tough it out.

Well, first I thought it was from the computer mouse, then possibly from perhaps straining it doing all the spring yard work. It got worse, and worse, to the point where I was constantly in pain. Finally, when I had backed off both those activities, I had to admit it was the writing.

My first thought was: My addiction has finally caught up with me.

This is my writing, normally.

I love writing with a fountain pen. I had backed off my journal writing last year at about the time I dropped off Facebook, both for the same reason - to write the new novel. Then, two months ago, I stopped writing in my journal. Nearly two decades of journals now sit in my office untouched and out of currency.
The problem with giving up writing is that my job requires I write notes about what I do all day, and I'm constantly taking notes and writing correspondence. Then, in my free time, I write. It's not hard to see how my dominant hand got strained. It never gets a break. Still, I can't give up writing altogether, because it's my life.

My solution? The idea came to me unrelated many months ago during my research. In order to understand ancient Assyria, I began learning Sumerian cuneiform (and still have plans to write a stela in clay, but that's another story), and then Aramaic in the Assyrian alphabet. I found that writing right to left made me smear the ink with the fountain pen, and that it was easier to write with my left.

So, with an aching right thumb and forefinger, I started teaching myself to write in English with my left hand, left to right, and to do my editing the same. At first, it looked like it was written by a kid using a quill. It was shaky, somewhat hesitant, and full of mistakes. It wasn't spelling or anything like that, but I was focusing so hard on the actual act of writing, that I couldn't remember what I was trying to say.

My thoughts were confused, my sentences sometimes scattered and incomplete. Not only that, but it was taking me three times as long to get a word written. It felt like I was writing in a mirror or something. I thought of Leonardo DaVinci, who wrote backwards in a mirror to avoid the decoding of his notes. I now have much more respect for his skills as a lateral thinker.

This is my writing on drugs, with a side of bacon.

It is getting easier. I now use my left for the mouse on my computer, and for the majority of other work around the house. I've found the best way to learn the writing is by doing it, just plowing ahead and making mistakes, concentrating more on the flow than on getting every letter right. It's actually legible now.

Try it sometime. It's one of those essential skills to learning to write Arabic.

Maybe next ... ?

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What cat?

Steven and Larry, sitting having a coffee before work:
"This is troubling, Steve."
"The NDP have more support among women than we do. Almost a landslide."
"How do we change that?"
"Well what do they want?"
* reads poll * "Health care. Number one."
"Well, we can't afford health care any more. Nobody can. We have to pay for those fighter jets."
"Um ... says national daycare is next."
"Ya, like that's gonna happen. That money is going toward international bases. What's next?"
"They think you should be more personal."
"Oh, like that damn moustache is any more human."
"Ya, they think he is. Maybe you could let them name your cat."
"What cat?"
"Get one! And have them name it! On that internet thingy."
"Guy, you know how little time I have."
"It could end up like that damn photo op for the humane society or whoever that was. I looked like an idiot."
"Chicks love cats."
"What if they name it something stupid?"
"It's not like you're actually going to be cleaning up after it or feeding it. You'll have a page for that."
"Alright. But don't make me look like an idiot this time."

Friday, June 03, 2011

Burger Quest

Run for cover! Getting ready to light!!!!
For years now, I have been on the quest for the perfect burger.

While I was working in the city, it was all about finding the perfect restaurant burger. I have been to Johnny Burger in Scarborough, and Apache on Queen West, as well as many places downtown, not to mention the regulars - Kelsey's, Montana's, Jack Astors, all the chains. They just don't have it over the little family run places.

The two notable mentions would have to be Tier Nan Og's in Kingston, with their Guinness burger, which has local Guinness marbled cheese, and BQM burger in downtown Toronto on Queen by Spadina. Ohhhh theirs are truly fantastic, best in Toronto by far, especially if it involves their aoli sauce.

But alas, this post is about the barbeque.

Ask me on any given weekend in the summer what I have planned, and no matter what I say it is underpinned by a theme of meat and flame.

The perfect burger starts with good beef. I use beef raised by my friends Cathy and Jeff on their land outside Brighton. It's great beef.  In a supermarket it would be considered a medium ground. I find the lean doesn't crisp up, and with the medium, the juice burns off, leaving a crispy textured char crust.

Naked burgers (pre-condiments), 2009.

I have in the past experimented with ingredients mixed into the beef in my burgers such as olive oil, eggs (not recommended, as they don't stick together) soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, HP sauce, garlic, onions, or cheese folded inside, but now I have a winning contender that I've been using so far this spring.

I add only liquid hickory smoke, Worcestershire sauce, and Chalula hot sauce (but not too much). It gives it a nice tang, but with a finishing flavor of smokey barbeque.

I hand form the patties a little larger than whatever bun I'm planning on using. They shrink a little on the grill, not as much with the medium ground, but with the lean especially. Then I pre-heat the grill. Using charcoal is a whole other post, as the ins and outs are difficult to explain. I used charcoal for years but now we have a propane barbeque and find the results are similar.

These ones had nice buns.
The grill needs to be hot, I use about 500'F, so that when the fat comes out it creates good flames underneath. I used to try to douse the flames with water (okay, beer ... use what's on hand) but now I try to move the patties around the flame to cook the insides and then finish them off over the flame when melting the cheese. It seals in the juices that way.

I prefer to melt the cheese on top and toast the buns all in one shot, but Jenn likes hers untoasted (heathen!). For cheese I usually just do what's in the fridge, medium cheddar or marble, but the best I had was last summer when I mixed goat's cheese with marble cheddar in tiny cubes so it melted together. 

The buns we've been liking lately are the PC thins, that hold together but lower our gluten and bulk. As you can see by the above pic, we're focusing on the meat anyway. In my mind, the bun is simply a vessel for meat and condiment transportation.

Yes, that's an English muffin. Surprisingly well suited.
Tonight's burger, however, was on an English muffin. See, it's been a long week, and sometimes we don't shop until Saturday as Jenn doesn't have her driver's license. So I scoured the pantry and this was all that was left. The muffin held up, and was less poufy than standard buns. I think I may even try it again.

Then comes the age old question: What do I put on it? In the past, cilantro, ketchup, mustard, relish, and many types of cheese, onion, fried onions, mushrooms, pretty much anything we fancy.

Tonight's was tomato, pickle, and cheese. I'm becoming a bit of a purist.

Jenn is saying now she wants to try a Mexican inspired burger, with guacamole and perhaps a salsa verde, with cilantro. Maybe tomorrow.... the quest continues.

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Through all that may come.

I was almost interviewed by a reporter last week. She was researching couples who had their children before getting married, and even though the interview didn't happen, being that our situation didn't fit the scope of the article, it got me thinking about family. The demographics of families are changing.

Prenuptuals. Starter marriages. Marriage of convenience. I reject the argument that marriage is trivial. I don't think it can be dismissed so easily. Any institution, from our Senate to our schools of medicine, to the oaths we take upon entering a trade Union or public office, all of these are only as sacred as the vows we keep. If we look to the roots of vows and contracts, we see they were essential in society, sanctifying something before the community to ensure they were honored.

I think there is still a need for the sacred.

In that way I believe those who were once denied the right to marriage now treat the institution with more respect and importance than those who have always had the right, and take it for granted. Some still fight for the right to marry while to others it is just what is done after high school. It is no wonder so many marriages fail.

I am a statistic in that respect too. After having a failed marriage before, that perhaps I entered too lightly, there was a very long battle that ensued over my son, and I now treat my successful marriage as sacred.

Jennifer and I didn't plan on getting married. In fact, at first we were just having fun. We were friends instantly, and built on a friendship that has always, through diaper changes and fevers and working away from home, and medical problems, and through all the happenings and moves and job changes, always been there. The vows that we took were an explanation to everyone of how important to us that friendship had become. We were so proud the other day when Owen in the back seat saw Paulo's, and randomly explained our whole wedding day from scratch. "I went in the restaurant, and up the big stairs, and ate bread with butter, and cake, and you were married!" He got it, at five years old. It was a big deal.

In getting to what I wanted to say here I should explain that my oldest son, Cole, is from the failed marriage previously mentioned. We have custody of him, but he goes to his mother's house about 30% of the time. His transitions are difficult because in her house there are different rules. Even though this has been his routine, and his life, since he was 2, I think he always feels like a bit of an outsider. We do everything to let him know that this is his home.

Cole had been hanging out with my Mom, while Jenn and I took Owen down to one of his many visits to Sick Kids, and he looked up at some figurines we have on our mantle. They represent our family, because we wanted everyone to be able to remember everyone else even when we all can't be here at home. When she asked who they were, he explained that one was me, one Jenn, and then that there was a baby, Daisy, and a little boy, Owen, but then he got muddled. He was left with a little girl, and a bigger girl who represents my first daughter, Seila, who passed away. At the heart of it he was hurt, because he didn't know where he fit.

He had misunderstood. In reality, he is the little boy, Daisy the little girl, and Owen the baby, because five years ago when we first put them up, there were only four of us. Daisy and Seila were added later.

I then pointed up to the photo we have on our living room wall of the old house on the other end of town. I said: "Our house is different now, and we had a different car back then, and different furniture. You had a different bed, and your clothing is different, because you grew, and all the old clothes no longer fit you. We added a Daisy, and lost Nala (our yellow lab who used to sleep on his bed) and in that old house little baby Owen started walking and talking and became a boy.

Really, nothing is the same as it was then, only three short years ago. I then explained what is the same ... us. We are all still here together because we are a family, and that's what defines a family. What happens to one of us happens to us all because we are in it together.

I believe that the success of our family is not in the work we put into it, but the friendship we have together through life. Marriage and family are two sides of the same coin.

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