Friday, December 30, 2005

Oh, the humanity!

The internet, in case you hadn’t noticed, has changed everything. And by ‘everything’ I refer of course to access to embarrassing celebrity photographs.
Finally a little balance is entering the picture; a picture that since the beginning of time (or women’s magazines, whichever) has been airbrushed, shaded, re-thought, re-drawn and altogether re-imagined, re-presenting women as something akin to Superwoman.
Superwomen - with superskin and superthighs and superboobs.
Inhuman beauty – the excruciating standard of the new millennium.
So the reality is essential I find. And this isn’t a New Year thing, a resolution thing – it’s an essential thing, because in eleven days I am going on holiday. To a beach and bathing suit place for eleven fun-filled days of sun and sand and sucking in my stomach. Hence the need for embarrassing celebrity photographs. Because (and here’s another thing you wouldn’t necessarily know if the internet had never been invented) after scanning the various appropriate websites with even the most cursory of glances, no one with any sense would worry either a tittle or a jot about less than perfectly taught abs, or slightly jiggly glutes or even somewhat wobbly pecs.
Celebrities, we’ve come to see through regular navigation of the world wide web, are just as imperfect (and sometimes excruciatingly more so) as thee and me.
Tabloids you say! Rubbish I reply – because the typical tabloids are notorious for upping the unreal photographic ante with all sorts of exaggerated and photo-shopped visions and versions of worst case scenario famous folks who though human, are regularly presented alongside Batboy, surefire cures for cancer and the woman who gave birth to her mother. Its unreliable evidence: when I go looking for celebrity deficiencies I want mine hot, fresh, real and ready for their close up.
Celebrity justice internet style.
Just last week, I was considering adopting a fourth level vegan diet (you don’t eat anything that casts a shadow) when I stumbled across pictures of Tara Reid’s tummy on The Superficial. Billowing, bumpy and bizarrely puckered and pooched, it seems a botched liposuction treatment has repackaged the starlet and placed her in a container a few sizes shy of the contents.
I smile and pick up a potato chip – I have a better body than the erstwhile star of ‘Taradise’. A better tummy, much less weird non-balloony, unscarred breasts, not to mention the fact that I spend most days sober and wear underpants beneath my skirts. Compared to Ms Reid, I am as shapely as a Victoria’s Secret supermodel and as modest as Queen Victoria enshrouded in the darkest of widow’s weeds.
I am a babe. Compared to Tara anyway.
Encouraged by this initial, enormously satisfying research, I plow on through Awful Plastic Surgery. And here self-esteem goes into overdrive; I note that in comparison to the high-priced celebrity surgical shambles depicted, my lips look like lips… my nose looks precisely like a nose… and my bottom and nipples… are right where I left them.
Heaven. I am thinking of taking up pole-dancing and nude modeling.
Creating a monster you say? No, I reply – I have more than enough insecurities, obsessions and hard-earned humility to counter any unattractive over-weaning self-satisfaction.
Besides, just thirty seconds spent with a photo of Angelina Jolie – a mere ten seconds with one of Charlize Theron – and I am back to the whimpering, gibbering bundle of anxieties of yore; the girl who was thinking they should bring back the Bathing Costume circa 1920… the one that comes compete with bloomers, knee-length skirt, black cotton stockings and full-length sleeves. Oh – and sensible hat.
It’s a see-saw. One minute you’re gloating over Kirstie Alley, the next you’re groaning over Jessica Alba. On the one hand you’d feel confident going toe to toe with Britney Spears, on the other, you’re not sure the planet’s big enough for both you AND Gisele Bundchen. Not and leave you with even a shred of self-assurance that is.
I remember a story about an Elizabeth Taylor sighting, sometime around her Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf days.
“Oh my God, look - there she is,” says the middle-aged lady to her companion. “I remember when all I wanted was to look just like her!”
“Congratulations,” replies her friend. “Now you do.”
So I’ve come full circle. I no longer wish to compare and contrast myself with celebrities good or bad. I don’t wish to feel better because somebody else is falling to bits – or because somebody else got put back together with what looks like a few parts missing. And I don’t want to deride myself by odious comparisons to people who though spectacularly beautiful may also have achieved a particular look with the help of make-up, surgery and digital technology.
I want to be my own judge and critic and cheerleader.
I am going to Barbados and I am going to wear a bikini and I am going to know I am just as good as any famous movie star.
After all, I’m human. Excruciatingly.

Monday, December 19, 2005

K-9 Krunchies

You know that thing where you hear a word or a phrase or an idea seemingly out of left field and suddenly you’re hearing it everywhere? Here’s mine: people eating dog food.
And no, I’m not referring to the sad, almost clichéd, tragic elderly-ladies-and-others-on-welfare-eating-food-designed-for-animals-because-it’s-cheap (though I think that’s pretty much cat food, if clichéd memory serves) but rather humans choosing to eat dog food – because they like it.
Now just because this is new to me phenomenon-wise doesn’t mean I’ve never heard of such a thing. My brother was renowned in our family for trying every type of dog food, wet or dry, treat or medicinal, that came through the door.
Pedigree Chum, Gravy Train, Milk Bones, liver snaps, Gaines Burgers (remember those?) Alpo – everything. He drew the line at rubber bones and chew toys, but other than artificial dog toy stuff, he was pretty much open to everything dog diet related. But that was more than twenty years ago, and like every little brother, mine was a certifiable creepy nut.
(I myself ate a few Good Boy Choc Drops – licked one, then scarfed the rest truth be told – but only because they actually tasted like chocolate; like large, slightly dry Hershey’s Kisses. One hopes they weren’t actually made of chocolate, but even if they were, no matter: I had saved our pets from toxic chocolate poisoning through pure greed. I’d like to tell you I was prescient, but really, it was nothing more than gluttony.)
Anyway, years go by and this week my book of choice is Augusten Burroughs’s autobiographical ‘Running With Scissors’, (hilarious and horrific, just like the jacket copy promises) and I come across a passage where Burroughs is shamed into joining his weird surrogate family in snacking on Purina Dog Chow.
“It was surprisingly tasty,” he reports. “Nutty, slightly sweet with a satisfying crunch.”
Then, apropos of nothing (it’s that out of the blue phenomenon working again) someone mentioned to me their habit of gorging on Kibbles ’n Bits back in their college days. The perfect dorm snack that no one else would steal out of the communal kitchen – but that was just the upside; the real purpose of the purchase was because he LIKED it. Kibbles ‘n Bits.
And I am left sitting here wondering if my brother Chris wasn’t messing with me all those years ago about how “delicious, yummy – come on, you’ve got to try some” the food destined for Charlie, Pip, Sadie and Chloe was. Maybe he was purposely using reverse psychology: he may have been ten, but he was a smart little creepy nut.
Maybe the big secret was that all that tinned gourmet dog food and delectably crispy, crunchy kibble really IS tasty. Maybe he was trying to keep it all for himself. Or, more likely, attempting to maintain his title as weirdest Wilson. No mean feat…
So yesterday I’m at the pet store picking up a little homeopathic arthritis remedy for the dog. (And a little was all it was – it cost a fortune for a tiny bottle; but do I want to sleep through the night unaccompanied by yips and twitches? I do. The cost of uninterrupted slumber? $27 plus tax. But as they say in the credit card ads, the end to sleep deprivation? Priceless.)
I take a lot of stick from people who think I spoil my dog. The truth is, she’s kind of exceptionally cute and small and purse-puppy-ish. They think I treat her like a tiny human, but the fact is, she’s just good value personality-wise. I like hanging around with her and playing with her and even though I put coats on her in the wet and in the winter, I don’t dress her up, or stick little hats on her, or buy her exceptionally pricey toys or treats. Honestly, I treat her like a dog. So I’m a little nonplussed by all this gourmet dog crap.
So there I am, lined up at the till, looking at all the impulse purchases dotted around the counter, more now that the holiday season is here, and trying hard not to get sucked in by the plush reindeer antlers, and tinselly collars with jingle bells, and Santa caps of all sizes – with ear-holes and without – that cost a little too much to be believed, but are just cheap enough to make you waver. And I finally succumb to a small packet of Christmas cookies – in gingerbread man, Christmas tree and wreath shapes. They’re adorable. And the dog demonstrably has a chronic pain disorder and they’re only $1.50. They’re really too pretty to waste on a creature who will lick things off the bottom of my boot, but after all, it’s Christmas and so on and so forth.
Waiting to pay, I take a sniff of the biscuits and am surprised to discover they don’t smell musty or meaty, but cinnamony and spicy and altogether exactly like real gingerbread cookies.
“’Scuse me,” I say to the harried woman behind the counter. (If this shop is any indication, dogs will be having a breakout Christmas this year. Makes you feel a little sad for the Jewish and Muslim pets; though G-d knows, I wouldn’t doubt there are plenty of kosher and halal treats available to the dedicated dog fancier.) “But are these for people or dogs?
“I just wondered,” I continued, “because they smell absolutely delicious.”
“Both,” she mumbles, trying to get the overloaded Interac machine to accept my bruised and wilting card. “People are always trying their dog’s food, so we’ve started making the treats animal and human-friendly. We’re selling loads.”
I’m not surprised. I simply would not be able to tell the difference. By smell that is; you can fool me, but you couldn’t make me eat something displayed at muzzle level, next to the rubber squeak toys and the desiccated liver chunks and hard and greasy pig’s ears.
It would appear however that I am on my own. All over the internet, and hung and stacked throughout pet stores and specialty dog-bakeries throughout the GTA, are human-friendly pet snacks. Not surprisingly, there are even a few high end outlets that sell (and sell well) a whole line of candy treats for man and beast.
“At last, a snack people can share with dogs – and vice versa!” goes the slogan for the snooty online gourmet treat merchant that sells all manner of delectable dog treats:
Dog/People Truffles: 25 for $25; Lickety Splits Dog/People Carob Sticks: 12 for $12; Turtle Dog/People Treats: 4 for $15; and Woofy Pop Popcorn for people and their pets: 3 microwavable packs for $8.
I won’t bother commenting, I’ll just let you do the math.
So we get home and I remove her faux Burberry overcoat, unbuckle her red collar with the initials ‘LW’ outlined in diamante, and measure out a dose of the arthritis-relief medicine. I take a sniff – fascinated now to see if pet remedies also come in dog-friendly flavours – and gag at the viscous brown liquid that smells like a cross between rotten eggs and dog poo. If I could manage it, I’d pinch her nose for her, but I just pry open the gaping maw and squirt the stuff in.
She seems okay, she licks her lips and looks up brightly, clearly hoping for more. Good dog! Truly, the stuff was shudder-worthy, so I tear open the packet of Christmas dog biscuits and offer her a small wreath to snack on before dinner.
She takes it gingerly, as if it was a favour to me and stands there sort of sucking on it ruminatively, before dropping it on the floor. She gives it one desultory lick, before turning around and trotting off into the bedroom, toenails clicking happily on the smooth parquet.
I pick up the biscuit and give it another sniff. Cinnamon and ginger spice. Very nice, very Christmassy. Still a dog biscuit.
Later, I go to join her in the bedroom, but I can’t find her; she’s in none of the usual places – sprawled on the chaise, curled up on a pillow on the bed. I check the bathroom, under the desk, then I spy her in the back of the closet.
She’s licking the bottom of my boot.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Pretty much over

I heard a remark on the radio as I was driving around town this afternoon.
Listening to CFRB (I only listen to Talk Radio now – as a former disc jockey I find it all but impossible to just listen to music – I can practically hear the format under the tunes, and can almost guess which songs the producers will play to take them exactly to the hour, the quarter or the half; it’s distracting is what I’m saying) I heard John Moore suggesting to his guest the Prime Minister that the election, with not so very long to go, still pretty much hadn’t gotten underway.
The Prime Minister had to pretty much agree.
I was relieved. Because as far as thinking about the election myself – considering the issues… listening to the candidates… deciding just exactly how much of a wally Steven Harper is this time around – I haven’t exactly been engaged in the process. My mind has been elsewhere – and unlike years past, this time around I really don’t care.
Of course I don’t mean I don’t care I don’t care – I mean I think “it’s going to be okay”I don’t care; I think that barring some unforeseen major trauma, we’re looking at another Liberal minority or bare bones majority, so I think status quo-wise, everything should remain pretty much, well, status quo.
And I don’t think it’s as a result of that haircut that leads the Conservatives – and I don’t think it’s because the Prime Minister has turned up the scintillation factor, exhibiting heretofore undiscovered reserves of charm, or even because Buzz Hargrove had a meltdown and fell in mad, passionate love with the Liberal party all of a sudden. I think it’s because there are larger issues in play and for the first time in my lifetime, considerations outside our country which may well contribute to the biggest influence on the vote.
There’s just a little too much far right nuttiness out there and consciously or sub, I believe Canadians will not want to contribute any more to it by voting in another conservative-type government that has on more than one occasion flirted with some of the issues and obsessions that have so shockingly distracted the President of the United States and his practically frothing-at-the-mouth Far Right Christian supporters.
The Prime Minister and former PM served themselves, their party and their country well in one thing at least: in making clear in issues as diverse as softwood lumber and same sex marriage – not to mention defining Canada’s non-role in the Iraq war – that they were taking a different tack – and by doing so sailing against the wind and the world’s greatest superpower.
The current PM – and future, I predict – has made his most judicious moves in distancing himself and us from the true evils that beset America in the 21st century. Removed as it may seem from the fistfights and dust-ups that blow up over differences in opinion over the future of private health care, the directions the parties see for a myriad of policy issues and the stand each takes on the issues of personal morality and conduct, the war and its ethos seems to fascinate and terrify Canadians as much or more than American voters.
The Liberals will be voted in again because we trust them not to belly-up to the Republican President; it’s as simple – and as complex – as that. There’s a balance that needs to be struck, as ethereal as it is real, that won’t allow for more right whingeing in North America.
The majority of us get it, I believe, get what it has taken several years and multiple deaths and a few (finally) publicly revealed cock-ups for the majority of Americans to get: that the President and those who serve him are as corrupt and wicked as the wickedest of ‘evil-doers’ they swore to take down when they led as much of the world as was theirs to weasel into the so-called War Against Terror.
In a world more beset upon by terror than ever before, the worst part – or the best, depending upon your point of view – is that though the realization has cost the lives and resources and goodwill that it has, it is based less on the actual war and more on the way in which the President and those closest to him have reacted to any criticism of the war.
As Frank Rich wrote recently in The New York Times, the Administration is on the run – and heaving the most pathetic of non-explanatory bombshells in their wake.
Rather than respond to the recent kafuffle stirred up by Representative John Murtha (D-Pa – and former proponent of the war) who called for an early exit from the war in Iraq by joining the debate on “… how our troops might best be deployed in a recalibrated battle against Islamic radicalism”, the President’s men (and women) moved in like attack dogs seeking the jugular, instead of guard dogs protecting the people, attacking their critics and impugning their characters.
Why no discussion? Why no reasoned explanation? Why call a decorated Marine veteran and hawkish Democrat (and recognized unofficial spokesman for the troops) a coward, (from Republican Congresswoman ‘Mean Jean’ Schmidt: “…cowards cut and run, Marines never do”) or proclaim, as did Vice President Dick Cheney, that anyone who suggested that the Iraq war was entered into on a lie was dishonest and reprehensible, and “… are engaging in revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety.”
(Frank Rich injects a hint of much-needed humour – not to mention uncanny accuracy – into the discussion by comparing Cheney’s over-the-top defensive bombast as reminiscent of the misanthropic Mr. Potter of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life”, he sounded, says Rich “… but one epithet away from a defibrillator.” Beautiful. Right – Potter… or maybe in the Canadian version, Conrad Black; though to be as vocally grandiloquent as his Lordship, Cheney would have to step up not only the wounded disbelief, but the verbal impenetrability factor as well. So far, I still more or less understand the Administration – the words, if not their true meaning.)
The new line from the White House – note: presented with neither shame nor chagrin - is that if it IS true that the war was entered into based on false information about WMD, they were just ONE of the suckers that bought into that theory. Just one of the unfortunately mislead… really no different from anybody else.
Problem is, some of us remember.
This is the problem with the US – they allow themselves to be distracted by this rubbishy legerdemain, forgetting the things that we as Canadians do not forget.
I remember the debate in the UN. I remember Canada, amongst other countries, begging the US to allow weapons inspectors to finish their job, a job if you recall, that at that point had not found anything yet. A job that Hans Blix suggested would take just a couple more weeks.
I remember Colin Powell looking as though some unseen hand had been shoved unceremoniously up his bottom, forcing him into pathetic puppetry as he parroted the words the backroom boys had bullied him into proclaiming, telling the UN Assembly that America, with or without them, would be moving on this the greatest menace to US security since 9/11 – a grave danger threatened from a quantifiable enemy.
I remember the threatening tone with which the US torpedoed the UN.
I remember the constant subtle and not-so-subtle references to 9/11. I remember as the pursuit of Osama bin Laden faded and the search for Saddam Hussein took centre stage. I remember the move from Iraq to Afghanistan measured in weeks, the move out of Iraq still potentially many years.
Until recent months the President and his men (and woman) could depend upon their supporters to take what was given them (‘Mission Accomplished’; 9/11 + Saddam = justifiable war on Iraq; detractors = traitors; torture = effective interrogation) with neither complaint nor question. Now that the numbers are shifting (approval ratings: Bush – 36%; Cheney – 27%) the White House is discussing troop withdrawal as if they’d invented not only the term but the practice.
I’ll believe it when I see it.
I believe the President and the Republican Party should be on notice that a substantial portion of the western world and the G-7 nations are viewing the United States with the same awkward embarrassment as would a room full of guests forced to watch their host drunk and with his fly undone, slacks heading south.
There’s a growing sense that enough is enough – it’s time for a sobering shape-up to occur.
(Zip up that fly, slug down some black coffee and get with the program. And by the way, quit inviting your crazy friends over: they’re eating all the snacks, interrupting all the intelligent conversations and spilling blood-red wine all over the carpets and furniture.)
Put simply: we’ve had it – and Canadians are not going to run the risk of sending a mixed message when a clear one is needed the most.
Here church and state are separated. Here we view war as last ditch retaliation, not preemptive first strike. Here we don’t debate the need for universal health care – we argue the delivery of it. Here we tend to vote liberal, and we tend, if not to like it, then to appreciate the message it delivers on our behalf.
Campaign not yet begun?
I believe the campaign is over.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The value of nothing

Canadian Supermodel Linda Evangelista famously refused to get out of bed for less than $10,000.00 a day.
The minimum wage for Canadians (on average) is $7.19 an hour. The highest lowest minimum wage is paid in Nunavut ($8.50 an hour) the lowest lowest minimum wage in Newfoundland ($6.25 an hour).
According to March 2005 Parade magazine, the median weekly wage for an American is $638.00 (half earned more, half earned less). The median salary for men was $713.00; for women, $573.00.
R.O.B. Magazine detailed a few salary and wage figures not so long ago that painted an interesting picture of Canadian compensation.
Bank of Montreal Chairman and CEO, Tony Comper, earned $900,000 in salary in 2003, plus a $1.4-million bonus. Even with the generous speculation by the article’s author that he works 15 hours a day, six days a week, 12 months out of the year, his take-home still averages out to a whopping $491.00 an hour.
A bank teller on the other hand, typically earned between $10.00 and $15.00 an hour, which at the high end averages out to $28,860.00 a year. If you can get fulltime hours.Increasingly, bank-tellering is becoming a part-time job. The low end is getting considerably lower.
Ontario plastic surgeons billed an average of $267,389.
Ontario's ophthalmologists and dermatologists pulled in $376,999 and $355,469, respectively.
The highest-billing specialists in Ontario were heart surgeons, who commanded an average of $448,911 in fee-for-service payments.
A General Duty Registered Nurse of the Ontario Nurses Association earned between $42,413 up to a maximum of $63,785 in 2002.
In the world of high tech, entry-level computer operators start at between $30,000 and $45,000. But help-desk support staff, the human punching bags of high tech, receive considerably less renumeration for being yelled at all day: salaries start at $31,000 and top out at $58,000.
Toronto Transit Union Local 113, says that drivers average, with overtime, $52,000 a year. At the high end, 3% earn $70,000, but according to the spokesthingie who provided the figures, that means they "never go home."
A Toronto Police officer makes about $70,000,
Most Canadian teachers with bachelor's degrees earn $33,000 to $60,000. None of it is tax-free; and they can't deduct home computer depreciation and office supplies.
(Out-of-pocket expenses are considerable-Canadian teachers spend about $430 of their own money on supplies. A British Columbia teacher fares worse; their province's average is $1,095 a year. Maybe that's why 40% of B.C.'s new teachers leave the profession within five years.)
A fulltime ballerina makes about $570.00 per week.
A reasonably successful opera singers is lucky if they make $25,000.00 a year after expenses.
No matter how enthused Gerrge Costanza might have been about his alter ego architect Art Vendelay, architecture, while it may pay big bucks eventually, is a profession with a long apprenticeship. After many years of post-secondary education, interns make between $27,000 and $45,000 a year. Associate architects with a small firm can make $50,000; associates with a big firm can make $130,000. Senior architects earn between $39,000 and $75,000. It’s not going to put them in a palace
An executive chef's salary ranges between $40,000 to $90,000, depending on the reputation of the restaurant and the chef. A good waiter in the same establishment, in a good year, earns around $40,000, tips and the minimum-wage hourly rate combined.
The best job I ever had paid about $4000.00 an hour. I worked mere minutes a day for a relatively outrageous annual salary. I had that job for three glorious years.
The worst paid job I ever had was painting a big old barn ‘Big Old Barn Red’. It took a high school friend and I about a week and I think we earned less than $50.00 each. Of course those were American dollars, so adjust your opinions suitably upward please.
These days I charge about $75.00 an hour for writing (for government and corporate clients) and get paid between 35 cents and a couple of bucks a word for magazine or newspaper publications.
But the most important thing I do doesn’t pay a penny, though at the risk of sounding hearts and flowers (and violins – why not) corny, the compensations are priceless.
So it’s not the ‘nothing’ that bothers me; it’s what I’ve recently come to realize is a nearly complete lack of value placed upon what I and other volunteers do.
I’ve been volunteering regularly for more than ten years now. I began at the CNIB reading tons of newspaper and magazine copy for Voiceprint, the ‘audio newsstand’ that broadcasts top national, regional and local stories from more than 100 Canadian newspapers and magazines for the blind, vision restricted, the elderly, or those with problems of literacy or learning difficulties.
I was there for three years. It was a lot of work – reading for a couple of hours straight is a throat-drying, yawn-inducing (you have to remember to breathe properly) strangely exhausting activity, but I can’t tell you the number of times people recognized my voice from this; far more than when I was the voice of two high profile television networks.
The technicians who recorded, edited and broadcast the material were all blind. I’m still not entirely sure how they did it; this was years ago – far before voice recognition software – or any software for that matter. They did it the old fashioned way: by ear and by hand.
After that, my voice a little raw and overworked, I joined up with the Distress Centre for three years. After extensive training and much role-playing through frighteningly well-acted suicide calls, I was accepted as a counselor, speaking with anyone who called in – suicidal, depressed, lonely, shut-in, drunk, handicapped, mentally unhinged, abusive or angry. We were an equal opportunity listening post.
We had to beware of the phone sex callers (cheapskates who would telephone ostensibly to discuss an upsetting sexual problem of some sort or other, but really to get their rocks off) who were often difficult to discern from the legitimately sexually troubled, until their breathing changed and their conversation became erratic. They tended to hang up with a cheery toodle-oo as soon as their needs had been met, sometimes right in the middle of what we might have thought was helpful listening. When they were done, they were done. We tried to catch these calls early, but were always careful not to cut someone off precipitously; genuine sexual problems were legitimately discussed by some of our most anxious and troubled clients. We were there to listen, and if we were occasionally taken in by a caller, (or grossed out by a genuine client) it was simply the price we paid to ensure that everyone who needed it got a fair and sympathetic hearing.
I received precisely one happy call in all the time I was there – from a woman who got engaged late, late at night and had no one to tell until a more appropriate hour, so she called me at 3 AM to share.
A much more typical call would be from someone suffering mental, emotional or physical symptoms that effectively cut them off from society. Lonely, slightly mad, tearful, drunk, stoned or even furious, they’d call from home, from the hospital, or from a payphone in a locked-down ward at the Clarke Institute. Just calling to say hi – or to ask if any of us sitting there in the near dark, softly-lit call room at a hidden location in downtown Toronto could think up a single reason they should carry on. Sometimes we tried to answer the unfathomable, but mostly we listened and befriended and suggested that perhaps one more day wouldn’t be so bad – and the one after that… and then we could go on from there. They could call whenever they needed us.
Suicide was the rarest type of call, but the calls came. It would be nerve-wracking when a suspected suicide would be at the other end of the phone, calling from the platform of a subway station, contemplating when they might jump, or ringing in from home, half-drunk and nearly passed out from an incipient overdose. We were like flight attendants trained in emergency measures who spend most of their time providing comfort and warm reassurances for their passengers (we of course had no sandwiches or tiny little packets of peanuts) but every now and terrifying then, strapping on the life vests and preparing for a crash.
The Distress Centre was an amazing place. We did not have call display, nor were our phones equipped to follow up a call with STAR 69. Clients had absolute anonymity.
We could ask a caller where they were, or try to get their permission to put a trace on their phone if they were becoming incoherent or slipping into unconsciousness, but we were never allowed to meet the clients or take part in their lives away from the phone room on the second floor of the small out-of-the-way downtown church where we took the calls.
We didn’t, for the most part offer advice, or suggestions, or attempt to psychoanalyze the callers in any way. We were simply there to listen, and by listening we befriended.
I would have and could have gone on at the Distress Centre for years, but after three of them, the strain of the overnight shift (we did three daytime and one overnight, midnight to nine shift per month) got to me; it took me ages to compensate for the disruption in sleep, no matter what I did, and the 4 AM blues were beginning to get to me, so I decided to try something else for a while.
I’ve been doing ‘something else’ for four years now. The somewhere I do it is a big hospital in downtown Toronto, famous for its top notch care, cutting edge surgical treatments and life-saving, internationally renowned research.
It’s an enormous place – so enormous, it could take daily shifts of five to ten volunteers, seven days a week simply to direct patients and families around its convoluted hallways and wings to the vast number of clinics and nursing units.
It takes hundreds – more than a thousand people – to support the patients and the variety of comfort and respite programs the people in Volunteer Resources man at no cost to patient or taxpayer.
(There is a budget for the department and four salaried professionals that direct the programs, train the volunteers and cheer us all on, but it’s minimal: splashing out for a sandwiches and fruit punch reception once a year to honour the individuals who donate hundreds of hours a year, for year after year is about the extent of the budgetary possibilities.)
And we’re not Candy Stripers or nice grandma ladies – not that there’s anything wrong either – but the senior citizens are outnumbered by the young and middle-aged professionals and smart as paint students who bear no resemblance to the volunteer of yore: there’s very little pushing of tea carts around. (Precisely: none.) And similarly, though there is plenty of reading to the younger patients, there’s a lot more video game playing and pet therapy and Battleships than The Three Little Pigs.
My colleagues are project managers and account supervisors from top Fortune 500 companies. They’re medical students and teachers and freelancers of all types and stripes. There are a couple of nurses and social workers. We have a retired high school principal (with a practiced gimlet eye, and a warm smile) a top software designer, a government consultant, a lawyer, an executive leadership coach and people who want to spend time usefully as they transition from one career to the next.
Most of us are women and most of us have fulltime jobs or class schedules. Most of us want to be with the patients, but some people feel their gifts are better used away from some of the more upsetting or emotionally charged bedsides, so they fill in in administrative or home-based placements.
We’re just grateful they take part.
It’s a dynamic, exciting, fully-engaging experience that is incomparable to anything else – and would register less value if it were compensated.
That’s really how we feel.
But to discover that because we aren’t paid and our contribution cannot be easily quantified, we aren’t valued beyond a general indulgent condescension, is a blow that is hard for volunteers to take.
We’ve become increasingly aware that volunteers have not been figured into the ongoing strategy planning and brainstorming that accounts for every other position, placement and department in the hospital, and is creating the ‘vision and value statement’ for the next five to ten years.
We’re not there. Not mentioned, not made use of, not factored in, nor accounted for. Our gifts of time and expertise – whether it be for baby-cuddling, game-playing, crafting, reading, pet therapy, hand-holding, shoulder-to-cry-on offering, errand-running, respite care providing, teaching, baby-sitting, computer programming, individual program creation, training, mentoring, organizing, heavy-lifting, traffic-directing, smiling, entertaining… and listening – always listening – is not even mentioned in the presentations, or supporting documentation, or the pages of overview material. Volunteers themselves were not included in the questionnaires distributed everywhere else. With the exception of a very few low-paying clerical positions, volunteers are not considered ‘internal’ for hiring practices, no matter how many years they’ve contributed, no matter how many volunteering or even professional awards they accumulate, no matter their real-world credentials.
But the administration and the board of directors and the foundation that raises extra funds and the friends of the hospital and the corporate sponsors and all the others that receive salaries and compensation to perform their functions and responsibilities for the hospital don’t ask us questions or listen to us if we speak. And they don’t know, beyond the most cursory understanding, who we are and what we provide.
And they should – because our stories are interesting.
Besides my direct interaction with the patients, I am involved in interviewing and selecting candidates to take the training in anticipation of being accepted and becoming a volunteer. I’ve learned that the quality of the people who apply to do this unpaid work with such enthusiasm and commitment are for the most part, there is no other description – extraordinary.
(Privacy issues make it necessary to generalize or exclude any identifying details.)
Yesterday I spoke with three applicants.
The first applicant, a woman in her early thirties was a recent immigrant to Canada. Her English was excellent, her qualifications and experience helping others extensive, and her reason for waiting a couple of months before applying for a volunteer position was that she had been recovering from a lengthy, extensive, life-altering, intensely painful facial surgery.
She looks fantastic now. And she can’t wait to begin. She feels she can relate to patients in pain – she feels she can help by understanding.
The second candidate was a student in her early twenties who had, she told me, been anxious for some time to join the volunteer ranks at our hospital. She told me she had been in a terrible accident some years earlier, knocked over in the street, critically injured; she had been completely paralyzed, brain-injured and on the brink of death. Through the long months and years of recovery, she remembered particularly the volunteers who had become a part of her life – the people who relieved her boredom and kept her company through many lonely days and nights, the individuals who had become a surrogate family - and who she felt she owed a debt of gratitude to. This was the hospital she had spent so much time in; this was the place where she wanted to return.
My third and last interview of the day – and I was already on an emotional high from meeting the first two – was a young woman also in her twenties, also a university student.
We went through the standard introductory questions about her desire to volunteer, her expectations and the qualities she might bring to the position. I was trying to decide which area of the hospital might suit her best and she helped me out by telling me she was studying medicine and was considering a career in pediatrics; she wanted to know how she would feel particularly being around children in pain – if she could cope with the notion of surgery in infants.
“I know the deal from the other side,” she informed me. “I spent a lot of time in a hospital as a child.”
It turned out she’d been in a horrific car accident at the age of five that had killed one of the passengers in the car and had seriously injured her mother and sister. She herself had been comatose for a week, her sister for considerably longer. There were many more weeks of recovery and surgery and months of rehabilitation, but she was fine now – an athlete of some considerable success (and even a little bit of fame) and in between full time classes and a busy sports team schedule, she hoped we’d accept her as a volunteer and allow her to squeeze some of her spare time into our program.
Would we? We would.
The point is this: these women are not unique. As special as they are, there are others with similar stories to tell; people who know the smell of the hospital from the under-side of the sheets in a long-term care bed. They know the boredom and the terror and the loneliness and the pain and the appalling food and the endless days followed by longer nights.
They know what it’s like to see families frozen in agony and fear. They know what so many of even the doctors and nurses don’t know: what it’s like to be helpless and sick and at the mercy of strangers who probe and stick and cut and prod and squeeze and rip and who might have to leave mid-procedure to attend to an emergency. They haven’t just seen patients’ bodies exposed to the elements, they themselves have been exposed to the avid eyes of strangers who never look into their own eyes, but who will know them in ways that even their most intimate relationships will never, and should never achieve.
They are the very best of volunteers.
And they are three more who will join our ranks and disappear from bureaucratic sight because though they will be able to provide a depth and level of understanding and care for vulnerable patients and their stressed-out families, they will receive no salary and so their contribution will amount to nothing.
We need money for more training, more staff and the resources to recruit even more volunteers. We need workshops on bereavement and depression and how to listen effectively.
We need money for training and education of the other healthcare professionals in the hospital so that they can make better use of this enormous, dedicated, resourceful, talented and committed resource.
We need for people to know that the value of volunteering isn’t in the physical health care that volunteers do not and have no business providing, but for the priceless humanity they bring to sick rooms and clinics and isolation wards in a hospital where besides family and friends, they are the only people who enter the room with no agenda to hurt or prod or inject or study or interrogate or frighten, or even to bring appalling food.
We’re there for the human part of them that needs company and fun and distraction and attention and a reminder that they exist as a whole person, and not just as their illness or injury in isolation.
Not being friends or family, they don’t have to comfort us or protect us – from awful information, or even just from their depression – and they don’t have to put on a brave face, or even an interested one. They can even tell us to go away without worrying that we will be hurt or dismayed. Because if we are, they don’t need to know.
This is not a polemic against the health professionals – the doctors and nurses and other front line hospital staff who would probably be thrilled to have the time to sit with a patient and keep them company, allay their fears, hold their hand or cuddle them if they’re crying. But with cut-backs and lay-offs and downsizing and outsourcing, they simply cannot.
And someone needs to do it.
But until a genuine value is placed on work that isn’t paid, the role of the volunteer and the contribution they make will continue to be devalued. Being unquantifiable and non-revenue producing is starting to affect the range of activities we can perform and the array of people being drawn to the task.
We don’t want our heads patted, or our contributions praised, or to be favoured with some meaningless award that allays the responsibility for those whose job it is to weigh and measure where resources will be allocated and the direction in which patient care is going.
We just want to work and to take part and to help the patients and families who need simple human interaction when they are at their most vulnerable. Without taking volunteers into account and without valuing the contribution they can make and the service we provide, the programs and quality of volunteers we can recruit are going to begin to deteriorate.
And the loss may be incalculable.