Sunday, February 28, 2010


Saturday finds us shopping for wedding gowns—an unlikely scenario at best. I’ve often said that there is one and only one reason why I would like to be crowned Queen of England. The reason: I’ve read that the queen never shops for herself, not in stores anyway. Apparently she sits at the castle signing proclamations and petting corgis while designers and maids scour the planet for a selection of garments, gorgeous and comfortable from which she might make a choice. Yes, I’d be a good queen on shopping days. Take me to a store at 10:00 and I’ll be peevish by 11:00, whining about the heat, complaining about the crowds and suggesting we find a spot for lunch while there’s still a place to sit.
But on this day I have received an invitation to take part in the process with the bride-to-be and two of her bridesmaids and it seems to me that even the queen might find herself wanting to put the royal duties aside for a few hours if she had received the same.
The universe, on this particular day, is friendlier than I had expected. So excited about the bridal prospect are these young women as we enter the first shop that they fail to warn me of the cardinal rule of wedding shop shopping—shoes are definitely deposited at the door. It isn’t until we are leaving, and they are searching for my shoes, that one of them notices I have them on. Quite a remarkable oversight, since I have already been guided around the borders of several flowing trains to a place where I might examine the curve of a neckline or the fit of a waist. Later in the day sitting near the dressing room of a mall shop in a mega-mall I will hear a sassy salesgirl chastising the unfortunate members of a different entourage for failing to take their shoes off. “This is a wedding store,” she will say, in a tone suggesting that anyone with an IQ of 10 would have known. But my infraction has happened in a smaller venue where the brides are seen by appointment. In this venue we are served by the manager herself, a cheery well-mannered woman who does not usually serve customers but is doing so for this special occasion. She, without doubt, has noticed my shoes and thought better of mentioning them. Being the manager, she has a sense of how to make or break a sale.
It is important to order today, she tells us. That should ensure a delivery by the end of May. Every week you wait at this point delays the delivery date by two weeks. “Which of these two do you prefer?” And then, “Please come back soon if you want to order.” She is keeping a file.
We know already that we will be ordering. Our bride is smaller than any size on the rack. But gradually I come to understand that every bride will be ordering. What they do with the dresses on the rack remains a mystery. There is only one of each type, and that only in one size. Size is no concern here. You start with a dress bigger than you and clip it together to match your shape. You then imagine how it would look if it really fitted you. They’ll be ordering it with your measurements in mind. This dress, for example, can be ordered in two heights, five feet nine inches and five feet six inches. Not to worry that you are only five feet three inches. The dress will need to be tailored after it arrives.
As dresses are tried it becomes clear that there are many choices at hand. Will it be strapful or strapless? One strap is also an option. Will we have diamond white or ivory, real silk or satin, organza or taffeta, trimmed with lace or bling?
“Oh Mom, get up and come over here. Now don’t step on that train. I’ll show you what bling is.” The train rustles. Another prospective bride is scurrying to get out of my path.
A wedding shop is a psychologist’s paradise. You could get a fascinating Ph.D. watching personal dynamics. A peevish sister says, “Mum, I think we just have to quit this. She doesn’t seem happy in any of them!” Meanwhile, other brides seem particularly partial to styles that show off their bellies. On-lookers hint that the style may be less flattering than some other fashion, but they do not hear. If it weren’t for the fear of train derailments I might jump up and go over to help. “I am wondering,” I might say in my best professional voice, “if each of you could pause for a moment and tell me what you are hearing from the other.”
But I stay in my seat. Beside me one of our bridesmaids says, “She has a good one on now. I just wish I could go over and tell her how wonderful it looks.”
“Go for it,” I urge. Our bride is hidden behind a curtain. She’ll not be out for thirty seconds or more.
Up leaps our bridesmaid. “You look wonderful in this one,” she says to the stranger. She herself married several years ago and has recently become a mother. She’s sensitive to the power of concepts like positive reinforcement.
But the stranger says, “I think I prefer the other one.” And now our bride is out again.
The day wears on. I do my best to behave. My patience is rewarded. Our bride, the one who should be overwhelmed, judging by the endurance we notice in other brides, seems to have sipped at the fountain of endless patience. How many gowns has she tried in how many shops? None of us can remember. But one bridesmaid needs a snack, another a washroom. In this context my needs appear casual, inconsequential. I don’t have to whine for anything.
Off we go, across the city, across in another direction. We snack at lunchtime, have lunch when we ought to be snacking. Somewhere around 4:00 we notice that we are wandering without focus.
No choice has been made by day’s end. But this leaves us with no worries. Several of the dresses will probably do just fine. Home goes the bride to look at the photos. Did I mention the camera? A digital camera in the hands of the bridesmaids has captured multiple views of the bride in every gown. She will choose in the quiet of her living room and return to whatever shop for a fitting at a time convenient to her. Our work is done—well, mine anyway. Nothing left for me to do but wonder how one person can, at the same time, be both my baby girl and a gracious, beautiful woman.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


“I’ve found a picture of a wedding cake made from rice Krispies squares,” says Ruth.
Huddled round a tiny table in the window of the Italian bakery, we are drinking cappuccino and evaluating the relative merits of available wedding reception facilities. The street is bathed in the slanting shadows of the late afternoon sun. There we sit, future newly-weds, parents of the future bride, asking the questions that millions, maybe billions have asked before us. How many guests should there be? How much money is it reasonable to spend? In the final analysis, what is it that matters the most?
The questions might be easy, but the answers are conflicted. “I’d marry you in a ditch,” says the groom, meaning, “I just want to marry you. It doesn’t matter where.” And yet, when we compare ditches, community halls and golf clubs with fabulous patios, he definitely prefers the golf club with the fabulous patio and back-up room in case of rain. She, surprisingly, is leaning toward the community hall. “It’s a lot cheaper,” she says.
Here we are at a decision point. Having fleshed out the issue without reaching a conclusion, we change the subject.
“Really,” she says, “I can show you a cake picture on the Internet. It’s made completely of Rice Krispies Squares.” I am paying close attention, looking for subtle cues that will tell me how serious she might be. All four of us like Rice Krispies Squares. The guys like them even better than us girls. But the guys don’t seem to be thinking she’s serious. Maybe she doesn’t know if she’s serious.
I decide to take a position. “I don’t see why we couldn’t have Rice Krispies Squares,” I say. And then, compelled by a force I am powerless to stop I add, “I can hear your grandma rumbling though.”
I say it because I can actually hear it, though even before the words are out I wish I hadn’t. It’s a conversation stopper. Why do I say such things? Will I never grow up?
It stops the conversation because Ruth can hear Grandma rumbling too. The thought of it brings her near to tears, brings us back to the hours we spent cleaning out Grandma’s house, a fridge filled with tiny pots of coloured icing, the corners of cupboard stuffed with hundreds of flowers in multiple hues, leftovers from so many wedding cakes. . To Derek we offer an explanation for the sudden chill at the table. Grandma was a wedding cake artist, we tell him. He nods a sympathetic understanding. But he probably doesn’t really get it. To understand the passion of a wedding cake artist like Grandma, You kind of had to be there.
It’s a turbulent phase, this time of wedding planning. I remember it well from the long-ago days of our wedding, the negotiation, the fatigue, the balancing of perspective, the commitment to flexibility, the show-stopping incidents when we failed to notice that one of us was headed for emotional meltdown.
In the years following the marriages of her daughters, the years when the empty nest was made to seem emptier by the filling of new nests, my mother did something totally out of character. In the middle of summer, with the farming in full swing and the garden brimming, She took a week off farm wife duties to attend a women’s program at Olds agricultural college. She returned home rested and excited. She mentioned that she might see if she could decorate a wedding cake.
It turned out that she could decorate a wedding cake, first one, and then another, and another, and another, until the time came when she turned down more offers than she accepted, so great was the demand for her creative eye and her steady hand. Brides, mothers of the bride, whole families of the bride would sit in her kitchen leafing through picture books. Would they have two tiers, three tiers, four tiers. If they hated fruitcake, could she do cherry swirl chocolate, or maybe lemon spice? Did she really need more than an hour in the reception hall in order to assemble the cake on site?
We’d go to her house for the weekend. “Excuse the mess,” she‘d say. “We’ll just clear this away a bit to make room for supper. Careful, careful. Don’t touch the side of that layer. It’s not dry yet!”
After supper she’d linger over tea. We’d start the dishes. “You don’t have to do the dishes,” she’d say. Then, if we persisted, “Well, okay. You do the dishes and I’ll just get started at this again.”
The TV would be on in the kitchen. We’d visit while she made flowers. The clock would show 10:30 and we would head for bed. Midnight would find her making flowers. 2:00 and she might be there still.
“I used to look through Grandma’s wedding cake books for hours,” says Ruth. “I used to think about which cake she’d make for my wedding.”
We miss Grandma at this moment. Shew always had an opinion on most aspects of a wedding. She would have been a bit shocked by this current cake idea, but probably not daunted. If we’d chosen Rice Krispies Squares you can be certain they’d have been decorated to the pinnacle of perfect magnificence. But Grandma is gone and so is the afternoon.
The shadows on the street lengthen. Pushing back our chairs we four compliment one another on a good afternoon’s work. Reflecting on it a day later, I don’t think we made a decision about the cake. I don’t think we made a decision about the place for the reception either. Sometimes you have to go back to go forward. It’s an emotional phase, this time of wedding planning.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


I’m going to be a mother-in-law!
Got the news on Monday
Only six-and-a-half months after first suspecting it,
Hardly time enough to prepare oneself for such a change of role.

I’m going to be a mother-in-law!
A loaded possibility for awe-inspiring tyranny
For a girl who grew up near a TV
Watching reruns of the Flintstones.

Fred’s mother-in-law announced by Wilma
Smiling demure and devilish at dinner.
“Mother is coming to visit us Dear.”
And in she’d come like a 50-ton tractor
Bellowing and huffing and clearing a path,
Roaring to roll over Fred.

Phoning to say, “I’m coming for a visit, Dear.”
I’m going to be a mother-in-law!
Swooping across to Guelph Ontario.
And for Derek, a coy announcement at dinner.
“Mother’s coming to visit.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


”What would you do if you had endless money and/or endless time?”
It’s Rachel asking. We are counting down her last few hours of anticipation before she reaches one of her great life goals, to be present at the Olympics. She has just told me that she would attend more events if she had endless money and endless time.
What would I do if I had endless money and/or endless time? Wow! What a question, just the sort of thing that ought to bring out the imagination of a true hope lady. So I am surprised and yes, a little embarrassed to find that no answer is leaping to my tongue.
”I don’t tend to want things unless I can afford them,” I babble. All the while I am scraping the inner sanctum of my brain. What is the matter with me anyway? Surely I can do better that that! I try to imagine myself enjoying the ultimate in creature comforts.
”If I had endless money and/or endless time I might choose to stay at the Jasper Park Lodge,” I say. I am recalling the times when David and I stayed there, the luxury, that feeling of incredible opulence. The queen has stayed at Jasper Park Lodge. Marilyn Monroe stayed there. That’s how nice it is.
We stayed there back in the days when there were lovely low rates for some romantic weekends. It was the low rate that got us there. The rates are much higher now—much higher than the rates at other hotels. The low rate included a room with a fireplace, one room-service breakfast and a several course dinner. I think there were chocolates on our pillows. It was wonderful.
Still, it seems kind of ridiculous to be mentioning the Jasper Park Lodge in a conversation about things that are really important. I have chosen not to stay there. Even at the higher rates I could afford this. I simply don’t choose to. I had that thrill already, and I can have a really good time in the mountains for less money without it. What would I do with endless money or endless time? More to the point, what do I do with the money and time I have?
I take great vacations and I don’t generally go to the office on Fridays. When I am at home on Fridays—celebrating a day off—I think about work. I think of it fondly. I don’t long to be at work, but I think about things I might write, presentations I might make, better ways of doing counselling. Sometimes I respond to work-related emails—not because I have to, but because I want to.
Don’t tell anybody, but sometimes, when I’m at work, I think about things that aren’t directly related to work. Sometimes I answer personal email. That’s one of the things I love about my place of work. They trust me to do what needs to be done, to do it in my own way. It makes me want to do more than I have to do.
If I had endless time I think I’d divide it evenly between work and play, spend more time doing both.
And as for money—well, if I had endless money and conditions stayed as they are now, I’d still want to work and I’d still want to play. One thing I would do is put some of that money into my work, to give it a boost in aid of some of the things I’d like to see. I’d like to see a large group of well-trained, highly-skilled hope-focussed counsellors paid well enough so that they could raise a family and travel comfortably without having to be married to somebody who earns a really good wage. I’d like their work to be supported so that it could boldly be offered without charge. I’d like to see a well-funded program of research around their work so that it could be disseminated in a manner that would bring respect.
All of this would cost quite a bit, but I believe it would be money well spent. It would be the fulfillment of a promise to myself that my treasured work would be made useful. And knowing that the promise would be fulfilled—I believe--would make it easier to step back and spend more of my endless time at play. I might even splurge on a romantic weekend at the Jasper Park Lodge.

Monday, February 08, 2010


I was a good kid—I mean, a really good kid. I didn’t break rules or lie to my parents. I studied enough to get reasonable marks, kept a social life sufficiently limited so as not to require parental discipline, yet vibrant enough to keep them from worrying about my well-being. When it comes to stretching the boundaries, I’m a late bloomer. Because of this tardiness, the burden of balancing risk against my eccentricities has fallen not upon my parents, but on my kids.
”I’ll be telling stories at midnight in the Wainwright Cemetery,” I announce to each of them separately. Perhaps it would be more fair to tell them together, but it’s more fun to tell them separately. It triples the pleasure of watching as each of them measures a long and pregnant silence, groping for an appropriate response.
And while I view this upcoming exploit as a triumph of the outrageous over the mundane, as the hopeful proof that my life will still hold many surprises, I can see that each of them, in a private moment, is wondering what signs ought to raise suspicion if they ever need to prove a case of dementia.

Monday, February 01, 2010


Science reporter Anne Mcilroy had an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail last Saturday, January 31 2010: “”How playing Dance Dance Revolution could repair children's damaged brains
Researchers hope repetitive tasks can reverse effects of alcohol.”” The moment I read it, I began to feel hope. It was a thrill tosee that so many researchers are working together.

“”The six-year-old boy plays the game Operation, skillfully wielding a pair of tweezers in a school gym that doubles as a research lab. His brain has been
damaged by the alcohol his mother drank when he was in the womb, but he's adept at extracting tiny plastic bones.

"When it gets too easy we will have him switch to his left hand," says Chris Bertram, a scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford,
B.C., who is investigating whether children with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, can rewire their brains by improving their strongest motor
skills. Advances in understanding neuroplasticity, or how experience can change the brain, have led to therapies that have helped people who have suffered
strokes or traumatic brain injuries learn to speak again or move paralyzed limbs. Now, a growing number of scientists hope the revolution can help children
whose brains were damaged by alcohol before they were born.

They are testing different approaches - including computer games and other specialized training - in hopes of helping kids with FASD strengthen connections
in their brains and boost their cognitive skills.

Dr. Bertram and his colleagues have assessed all eight kids with FASD who are hard at play at various stations in the gymnasium. All are good at something,
perhaps the fine motor skills needed to pluck a rib out of a cartoonish chest or the co-ordination needed for the interactive videogame Dance Dance Revolution.

But they have a wide variety of cognitive and emotional problems that include trouble paying attention, remembering what they have learned, anticipating
the consequences of their actions and controlling their impulses. Hyperactivity is common; they can be challenging to manage at home and at school. Dr.
Bertram's hypothesis is that the eight-week program will do more than just improve their rope climbing and free-throw shooting.

The idea is that improving one area of brain function, in this case motor skills, will also boost their ability to pay attention and to regulate their impulses.
He is still analyzing the data from the 35 kids who have been through the program, but the preliminary results have been encouraging, he says.

"We call it transfer of learning, or transfer of performance," Dr. Bertram says.

Alcohol damages many parts of the developing brain, says Christian Beaulieu, a brain imaging expert at the University of Alberta. It can affect areas and
structures critical for memory, learning and abstract thinking. He and his colleagues have shown it also damages white matter, the connections that allow
parts of the brain to communicate and work together.

But recent experiments with laboratory animals offer hope. At the University of Victoria, Brian Christie has been able to reverse the brain damage caused
by fetal alcohol exposure in rats by getting them to exercise.””

Mcilroy’s article comes just when I need it. Here at the Hope Foundation we are working on FASD from an adult emotional perspective. With funding from the Edmonton Fetal Alcohol Network, staff from four agencies including our own are collaborating to offer a hope group to parents who have FASD. As adults with children of their own, they struggle to be good parents while continuing to cope with the cognitive, motor and emotional difficulties they had as children. Parenting is made all the more difficult for them because the behavior of their own parents was and still is impacted by substance abuse.
You have to be very focussed to offer a hope group to people who have so many pressing issues. In a two-hour session they offer you dozens of opportunities to veer away from hope. How easy it is to hear their problems, their sadness, their self-stated inadequacies. These, after all, are the reasons they came to a group, the issues they are accustomed to presenting when professional helpers are in the room.

Mcilroy’s article goes on to highlight the positive. “”Dr. Bertram says that many of the current therapies or interventions being used with children with FASD focus on their deficits - for example, anger management
therapy for a child who is acting out in school or extra time devoted to reading or math for a child struggling in those subjects.

"Traditional intervention programs have these kids doing things their brains are not adept at doing, and their success rates are not great. We flipped things
around and said, 'Why don't we build intervention programs based on things they are good at.' "

He and his colleagues build an individual program for each child based on three areas of strength, making it increasingly challenging over the eight weeks.
The kids also get to pick a fourth activity they like. The researchers carefully monitor their progress when they come twice a week after school for two
hours. He is also monitoring levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, to see if it drops after the eight weeks.

There is growing scientific evidence that children with FASD have a heightened response to stress that can make it difficult for them to cope with situations
at home or in the classroom.

At the University of British Columbia, Joanne Weinberg is investigating this phenomenon in laboratory animals and, in particular, how areas of the brain
that are important in the stress response system overlap to a large extent with areas of the brain involved in depression, addictions and other mental-health
problems, also common among people with FASD.

One day, the work could lead to new drugs that target the stress response system.””

In our group we are examining personal strengths, digging through the sadness to find the things people love, the things they are good at. I like to think there will be positive programs to go along with the stress-reducing drugs.