Gratitude makes the journey better and so does kindness

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Weekly Column: Our Teenagers Are Vaping Away At The Cost Of Their Health

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops on September 17, 2018 and also published at

On August 30, 2018, the San Francisco-based company Juul Labs Inc. announced its arrival to Canada. Their products will be available for sale starting this month. The Juul memory stick-like vaporizers contain nicotine in variable amounts, as high as 59 micrograms per milliliter of liquid. The amount of nicotine contained in a pod could be as high to two packs of cigarettes, according to one source. The nicotine salts deliver a head rush like no other, users say. Plus, it’s slick and easy to conceal.

Health And Education Should Come First

Originally published as a column in NewsKamloops.

PupI could delight you this time with some stories about our three-month-old puppy. Her deeds are cute, funny and downright naughty at times but cuteness comes with built-in ‘forgive me’ features and that’s that. Should she happen to need veterinary care because, say, she swallowed some sharp pebbles (true, she did), I have no trouble finding help in one of the clinics here in Kamloops.

That is reassuring. It’s good to get help when you need it and reassuring to know that you are not on your own with an issue that gives a few extra heart beats.

When it comes to my children, well, that’s a different problem. Over the last couple of weeks my youngest has been struggling with asthma on and off. As long as the puffer works, he gets some breathing help at night and I get some peace of mind. But puffers can only last that much and then you need a new prescription.

Unlike the urgent help I can get with our puppy, finding a spot in one of the local walk-in clinics for my son is a different matter. There are line-ups, there are lists, there is luck (or not) and there is the fear that, should he need additional tests done, there will a long waiting time before we can get in and get an answer. When one’s breathing is laboured, that is the farthest thing from reassuring.

This last week the news that the BC Children’s Hospital had to cancel some surgeries (non-emergency ones) because of a shortage of nurses was not only sad but infuriating. Though positive thinking tips include the one that says you should not ask ‘what if’, in this case I have to admit that the dreaded question crossed my mind.

What if? What if my children were among the non-urgent cases whose surgeries would be postponed because of a shortage of nurses? This kind of question becomes severely uncomfortable when it affects one directly. And it does, many people.

It does not cease to amaze me that our province lags when it comes to health, education and general child care issues. There are nurses I talked to who said they are overworked, many work on contract which means they have no benefits and support staff is scarce to make proper medical care a joke at times and their job a lot harder.

At the same time, many schools are closing throughout the province and in Vancouver too, where you’d think the rivers of money brought by real estate and foreign investors could positively impact the school situation.

That sometimes they are the only schools in an area (the case of the highschool in Osoyoos) makes it all the more shocking. Many teachers are being given the slip, many support staff too, so for parents whose life was a struggle at times because their children needed special assistance, life is becoming even more challenging.

Same goes for children struggling with chronic health issues. The families who appeal to the government for help are being told that there are no available funds for their case. To add to an already flammable list… we have the highest rate of child poverty in Canada, and there are communities where environmental pollution affects people’s health (as always, children are most susceptible), not that the latter is in any way a concern of the present provincial government.

Reading a well put together book on virtues with my youngest, we came across issues such honesty, kindness, compassion, and the discussions that ensued are nothing short of wonderful. We all want our children to learn to be honest, kind and compassionate. The world seems better that way. When someone goes the extra mile out of sheer kindness, it gives me hope.

When someone in a leading position makes the choice to remember that many people hope with all their might that vital issues like health, education, minimum wages and affordable daycare or support for people in poverty-ridden communities, are not overlooked but dealt with respectfully, that makes a world of difference. As it should.

Life is so far from perfect at times so our only hope is to stick together, to stand up for what’s right and to remember that though we may be out of harm’s way, some people aren’t, and their needs have to be solved. That a society where health and education are well taken care of sees many of its other issues solved too. It’s a story that could have a happy ending, but all characters, and primarily the ones in leading roles, need to show some good moral and intellectual virtues. Like honesty, kindness, compassion, courage and wisdom. That would do. Truly.

Change Starts With Education

IMG_8606It’s the word we’re hearing every day during the ongoing campaign: change. It is, in truth, what keeps the world turning and alive, so it make sense that the elections would become the epitome of the very concept.

The word and its envisioned wake get people fantasizing about what will be after October 19. Change alone is not what we should be after, but positive change, visible and beneficial for all Canadians. And we need a lot of good change to make things better.

With so much at stake, it is only natural to experience the slight hand tremors of the overwhelmed voter. There is no simple answer and yes, there is work involved in searching for the best option that will make the said tremors go away. It is really not enough to just show up to vote; we need to become informed voters who know who and why. If you find yourself hesitating, you’re not alone.

Every day, a new event unfolds, at home or internationally, new boundaries are being traced and we find ourselves wondering who to vote for, so we’re back to the drawing board once again. Who to choose? Why? It might as well be that common sense will invite to clarity; it always does when you let it do its thing.

Needs should come first. Food, water, medical care, education, financial support for those in need, addressing security issues that will not see anyone unfairly monitored or even worse, prosecuted, developing climate change strategies that will see alternative energy source industries thrive and people safe from natural disasters. For starters.

Good food; it is a right, not a privilege. We now know enough about nutrition to realize that corporate agriculture is not the way to go. No amount of pesticide is safe enough, and food coming from huge silos, whether it is vegetables or meat is just not the same as locally grown or raised products.

Food should come unprocessed, supplied by small businesses with faces we can see and know; with people who stand behind their product and supply not only farmer’s markets but also food stores throughout the country. It has been said that only large scale, genetically modified food can feed the growing number of people. It is only logical to argue that corporations know less about the growing of food and there are considerable risks associated with depersonalized food suppliers, one of them being the slow degradation of the very land we need to grow food in the first place.

In the age of corporate agriculture where seed patents are a reality and a company can dictate the way farmers live and operate, most times painfully removed from farm life in the name of profit over people’s health and environmental well-being, we need to go back to understanding growing food from the roots up.

High quality, independent (PR-free) education can provide the pros and cons of such arguments and enough critical thinking should serve as a tool to find the best solution.

We have been witnessing a decrease in the quality of education, and moreover, at a higher level, frequent and shocking abolition of science and the means that support it, be it research labs, libraries, intellectuals whose purpose is to promote knowledge and help it thrive, but who are instead shut down to make room for corporate development that brings profit to a few, but rarely to a community.

By definition, true knowledge should be unencumbered by any financial and political interest. We should employ electoral change to help go back to that. Reinstate the importance of learning, and the need to offer programs that will not stop anyone on the basis of income, reinstating the value of studying hard, knowing that studying is a right, but one that comes with the obligation of excellence.

Excellence is badly needed in addressing various health issues that have been at the centre of many a discussion in the media, from obesity and lifestyle-caused cardiovascular disease, to mental health, addictions, and the lack of quality care for veteran and the elderly. In the age of increasing environmental and lifestyle-related health issues, medical care (hence enough medical doctors of various specialties available in most communities) has to be an election subject, and an important one at that.

As for the environment, well, we’ve been raking up a bad reputation for a while now, our government stubborn enough to stay out of climate change summits. That needs to be addressed and unless people understand why urgent attention is needed, the perception of ill-intended environmentalist who oppose economic development will keep on going, much to the detriment of us all.

We need to educate ourselves and our children that health comes with a healthy environment, which can only be done if we apply knowledge and common sense to the world we live in, understanding that non-renewable energy sources can only take us so far and they come with a price too high to pay (recent storms and the hottest summer on record, plus the rapid melting glaciers as well as the disappearance of many canary-in-a-gold-mine species).

Climate change should have been addressed already and education on the subject will shed light on undeniable true-to-form facts: a thriving green industry provides employability for many and break the vicious circle that holds us dependent to finite, polluting resources.

The needs of a community at large (a country’s needs in fact) are many and diverse, and the task to address them all is gargantuan at best. Which is why we need to ask those in power to address the needs of those who are most at risk if not protected: children with special needs, the elderly, low-income families, and veterans, to name a few.

For all of that and more, we need education. From the first day our children ask why, we need to provide truth and knowledge and that should be enough to help promote integrity and help critical thinking tools develop in each and every one of them so that when it’s time to vote, greater good change will be the first to happen.

Education Should Not Be About Money But About Critical Thinking

Initially published as a column in the AM News on February 6, 2015. 

I grew up in a country where I had access to free university education. It seemed logical. I had to pay to live in the dorms and I had to pay for food, of course, and I also had to pay for some of the textbooks that were not available to borrow from school (department or library) but most were reference textbooks that I have to this day and have served me for more than one particular course with a final exam.

My graduate studies here opened my eyes about paid education. I could pay my tuition from scholarships and by teaching in my particular field, but the undergrads I was teaching often complained about having to work and study at the same time. Some could barely made ends meet, coming from underprivileged families but they were very keen on learning; their debt grew with every year of studying.

I also had many students that arrived to school in expensive sports cars and could not care less about the way cells uptake glucose. There were arguments about marks, haggling over fractions of a mark and an attitude that was that I had to deliver something that will push one’s social status to a higher tier. I guess the perception was that if one pays, the goods should be delivered and they’d better be worth the price.

That was when I started having the distinct feeling that such a conflict of interest might breed trouble. The story repeated itself during my years of teaching at a private post-secondary school. Some students believed that though they were paying (and more so, because they were paying money that did not come easy to them) they had to work hard and make it worthwhile. Others believed education to be some sort of merchandise that was being bought with money. A certain sense of entitlement was often looming over their heads and it was affecting the learning process.

Many a conversation with people who have to pay for their own education bear a bitter taste. Tuition is high and increasing, quality of education often low because, many feel, every paying student has to be caught in the safety net that will not allow very many to fall behind, whether they truly have something to show for it or not, and then, there are the exorbitant prices for textbooks that, on being resold after merely a semester, bring but a fraction of the money back (percentages may vary depending on the discipline and institution.)

Tuition, I was told by a second year student, includes a bus pass which she uses occasionally, but some do not use at all, it also includes daycare costs (she has yet to have a child in need of a daycare), and union fees; thus, fee by fee, tuition meant to open the avenue to higher education becomes an avenue towards frustration.

Should education cost so much? Getting a loan these days becomes increasingly difficult. Between not having well-to-do parents and/or acceptable co-signors, many a student willing to learn are pushed out of line because they cannot afford it.

The cost of living even in a city like Kamloops is increasing, rent and food, and many have trouble paying for textbooks that rake bills in the hundreds just for one semester, which makes one wonder about it all. Should education be free and standards higher, wouldn’t the whole society benefit after all?

By higher standards of learning I do not mean forcing kindergarteners to read before their time or promoting competitiveness at the expense of true knowledge and common sense, but rather allowing them to learn at their own pace while providing them with enough time to play and express their creativity and encouraging them to develop critical thinking as they see the significant adults in their lives use theirs.

As soon as we put a price on education, everyone suffers. The learners in the first place, the instructors, and the society. By promoting values and true knowledge, with no price tag, students feel like they have truly achieved something when they graduate from school, be it elementary, high school, university or post graduate) and moving forward. I have heard from high school students and university students as well that they do not feel challenged enough so when they finish school they almost feel like frauds. That is a sinking feeling.

On the other hand, no one benefits from anyone entering society with superficial knowledge or barely any knowledge, just like we do not benefit from people doing jobs without much passion and just for the monetary gain. We see critical thinking and common sense missing; in politics, at a family level, in all types of learning institutions and workplaces, we see it everywhere and at all levels.

Education should not be about money but about learning and acquiring knowledge not just for personal benefit but in order to bring a contribution to the society that has enabled us to get an education to begin with. When financial issues get entangled with education, a certain bias is bound to overshadow the noble and worthy endeavor of acquiring true knowledge.

A first discussion topic on many an education board should perhaps be disentangling the learning and finances for everyone’s gain… for the greater good, you could say, and that is a lofty goal for any society where critical thinking and knowledge are valued.

Are We Afraid Of Learning For The Love Of It? We Shouldn’t Be

It is almost 10.30 pm, way past bedtime and the big boy has finally been peeled off his book and is now sleeping. Unless his mind races for a while, ruminating the stuff he’s been reading about… Ancient Greek history, today’s reading, complementing part of our history class today. Perhaps calling it ‘class’ is a tad forced now that it’s the two of us.

A month into it, we still love it, the learning together. Not a tinge of discomfort. I love the enthusiasm and wide eyes, he loves the multitude of things he learns every day and the challenges I carefully prepare for our daily journey.

There is no resentment over too much work. I do not do it on purpose, you see, I am not piling topics up just for the sake of it. I take cues. What can complement this and why add one more subject to the roster… which one? If there are questions about certain things during our dinner conversations, I make a mental note: to be added somehow to the learning.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing. A treasure and a privilege to acquire as we go. There is a lot to be acquired, a lot of dots to connects, a lot of connections to be made between bits that have been collected over the years… ‘Mom, did you know that so many words came from the Greeks?’ The meaning of this word and the next, once you know where they come from you know what they reveal, you can understand, not just memorize.

You can ask why and you learn to delight in finding the answers. It will not be easy all the time, but that’s where the beauty and the challenge lies. In carrying on for the love of it.

That is the gift I intend for my sons.

Yet once I step out of the home learning bubble, the world turns a few degrees colder at times, with what has now become the most often asked question about our homeschooling adventure.

‘Do you follow the school curriculum?’

When I say I do not, eyes grow big and uneasiness settles in like a dark cloud.

I tell of the wonder of learning based on what interests him, I tell of my wonder of seeing it all. I could tell of the slight apprehension that all worthy adventures have attached to them, whether you’re the guide or the guided (and these roles switch constantly, as I have come to know during my earlier teaching experiences), the humble nature of the guiding process itself when you immerse yourself in it fully, the expanse of all that learning-to-be. There is much to tell but many people stop at the school curriculum.

Guiding ourselves based on a curriculum can only take us so far and our children not so far, I believe. If they start losing interest because, as you and I know, a curriculum is a ‘one size fits all’ when learning is everything but, then what? Can we revive it every time and are we aware of it flopping?

There is nothing wrong with guidelines, and there is nothing wrong with curricula if they work for some children.  We have to be honest though, and apply critical thinking: do they truly work? I believe in seeing the spark in a child’s eye, curiosity satisfied and primed for more at the same time; I’d hold onto that for guidance, rather than hold onto a curriculum that might give me the feeling of a job done, when what I should be after is a job well done. Not just by my standards, mind you, but by of the ones who learn.

I am but a guide, grateful and humble and awed, all at once, by the steps children take to learn, by their joy of prying open the world with their minds… I am not sure if curriculum has any recommendations on that….


Are We Witnessing The Disappearance Of Something We’re Equipped To Do So Well and Benefit From?

(Originally published as a column in the AM News on Friday June 13, 2014)

In yet another attempt to purge some of the dust-collecting items in our home, I went through the old correspondence drawers. Two of them.

I kept all letters that my parents wrote from the time I left home at the age of 18, same with my sister’s , and my close friends’ also. I kept the greeting cards too.

It was only two drawers, one and a half to be precise, so it shouldn’t have taken too long. But it did. I got caught up in reading some of the letters, including some very candid ones written by my niece when she turned seven and was trying her hand, literally, at handwriting.

Then an old nag surfaced. The disappearance of handwriting. Cursive writing, as we call it.

My sons have always been fascinated with the magic of it. They love the roundness of words as they appear on the paper, and they love the almost mysterious nature of a handwritten letter.

Many of today’s kids type instead of writing down on paper, because they’ve learned to do it so fast you get dizzy just looking at them do it. They get even faster by using acronyms for everything and writing as if they drew letters and numbers from a hat and threw them on the screen. Spelling is taking a hard hit as we speak.

Short words become shorter and so does attention span.

Most of today’s children will not write a single handwritten letter or have a journal. Have you tried handwriting after typing for a while? It’s painfully slow, you make mistakes, and the hand seems to be disconnected from the brain. Patience is a precious, rare commodity these days.

But what also happens is that when you write things down, they seem to stick better.

Some researchers who looked into how the brain does it all went as far as to suggest that in some cases dyslexia may be lessened should we return children to good old handwriting. It’s worth a try anyway.

Because, they say, when you struggle to learn how to write that letter, many areas of the brain fire up and there’s a whole process involved in mastering it.

Printing and typing, or writing the letters following a dotted line just don’t get the brain firing up so intensely.

Journal writing, by hand, has been used a therapeutical tool by many a psychologists over the years and many people swear by keeping a written account of their days. Ideas flow freely, you just allow the brain to drip onto the paper and the time dedicated to it is a time of solitude and an opportunity for introspection.

A mirror of some sort, you could say.

When we write by hand we become mindful by default.

Reflection time gives us a measure of where we are in the world, allows us to think without being rushed and encourages brain and personality growth.

The letters I was perusing a couple of days ago tell more than the stories within. They are a reflection of the people who wrote them; a glimpse into time, then. Just like that, my many journals over the years tell stories of more than just life happenings.

Letters and journals are human maps. You can read emotions, just like you can read words. I cannot escape the feeling that we will lose something precious and essential to our nature if we live them behind.

Typing may be fast and efficient but it’ll never be the same. Acronyms have been around for a while. Journalists and students jotting notes have always employed them with success. While handwriting, that is.

Students taking notes by hand learn better than when they type course notes. Having but paper and pen, and a whole lot of attention directed to the teacher rather than a handling a laptop, while simultaneously texting or updating some social media status, keeps you present in a room where you’re supposed to do nothing but acquire knowledge, think and ideally, ask enough questions to start healthy and topic-oriented debates.

Writing things down makes you think. Hitting backspace starts happening before you write things down more often than not. Perhaps that could serve as an enhancing feature of ‘freedom of expression.’

Political Correctness vs. Principles. Where Do You Stand?

Rivers of ink and pixels have been flooding newspapers, news websites and social media outlets about Rob Ford, the current Mayor of Toronto, for a few days now. The threat of it all lurked in the shadows for a few months, since the drug antics of Rob Ford have been hinted at by the media. We now have a fully developed case of social and political black eye (one of them at least) for all to see and shake their heads at .

Most people who kept informed willingly or were assaulted by the news over the last few days, know that Rob Ford has admitted to using illegal drugs (while in a drunken stupor, as if that softens the blow,) he avoided admitting to drug use when asked by the media a few months ago, and he has also been photographed with alleged drug dealers, hardly the place to be for a mayor, unless it’s some wicked undercover work to expose the bad guys.

You can access details in most papers, and online as well, so I will not go further. The situation is disgraceful and it shouldn’t have made it this far. A person in a position of influence should display respectable conduct. There are no two ways about it. Even more so when the situation is recurrent. That points to absent remorse and that is a scary reality.

But my thoughts revolve around the conflicting messages about this situation. That such a situation has been created is a sign of the times. It is, on the bright side, an opportunity to reassess our value system and make the appropriate adjustments, if you will.

Some people defend Rob Ford with the unoriginal, though true, “everyone makes mistakes,” and while that each of us want that applied to us at least once in a lifetime, I believe this to be a case of “n/a” (not applicable). It should be. Barring unforeseen political and social circumstances, when one is in the public eye, and in an influential position in which elected by a community, one should avoid any situation that might become a black eye.

Others are saying “Many of us have been there at least once or have loved ones who have…” meaning not drugs necessarily but alcohol and questionable behavior. I’d stamp another “n/a” on this too. This is not an appeal for help and compassion issued by a man seeking help. A man of high political stature is plunging into one pool of social wrongness after another and he is getting away with it, while almost everyone’s hands are wringing over something that should have not been. Shedding some PR-required crocodile tears while saying “sincerely” three times and throwing a “God bless the people of Toronto” at the end should not make anyone say “have some understanding, he’s going through a tough time.”

The threshold of what we consider socially acceptable is getting lower and lower. I am troubled by it. Extremes are never good. Taut lines stretched across concepts and ideas and life in general annoy people and make them react, but being permissive and lacking principles is not the answer either. With common sense and critical thinking as bearings we can find the way, I am sure.

Finally, there are some people who are saying “enough is enough; how much time are we going to spend on this issue when there’s many more pressing ones that need attention?”

True to some extent. I think the Rob Ford incident is one of the iceberg tips that might help us – if we are so inclined – understand and assess the times, review our collective principles, reformulate terms on engagement for those who are or will ever be in positions of influence and ultimately understand the huge responsibility we bear as today’s adults. Our collective children are learning values, principles, political and social correctness (they should not differ much) from us. Parents, educators, politicians, and every person who has the capacity to become a role model has to know that the responsibilities associated with such a job are as high as the job itself.

What do you think?

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