Saturday, October 30, 2010


And here’s a quote fit for a HOPE LADY

Better Health Is Key To National Health Care Problems

That's the message Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti plans to spread across the country as he begins his two-year presidency of the Royal College, a national
not-for-profit organization based in Ottawa that aims to improve the health of Canadians by maintaining high standards in specialty medical education.

"Health care is such a mess across the country," said Francescutti, who was born in Montreal but now practises emergency medicine and preventive medicine
in Edmonton. "We spend $184 billion a year on health care in Canada and nowhere is it the way it should be."

For starters, he said, people and even health-care providers are brainwashed into thinking that what makes people healthy is health care. He believes that
couldn't be further from the truth.

"What really makes people healthy is literacy, education, strong social support networks and a sense of hope," he said in an interview Thursday from Edmonton.

And THE HOPE LADY asks: How can we turn Dr. Francescutti’s interest toard the practical application of hope?

Friday, October 22, 2010


The Monday evening homeward trek after work is different for me this fall. I am getting home later, stopping off to spend 45 minutes at an Alexander Technique session with Heidi Matter. She’s improving my posture. She’s teaching me how to figure out where my body parts are, and how I might reposition them to get relief from the pain that has been my unwelcome companion for far too long now.
Heidi’s methods are low-pressure, low-impact, low-risk. There are no extravagant promises of miraculous cures. There’s nothing to buy except her time. She stands me up and uses gentle touches at the base of my skull to position my head somewhere directly above the centre of my feet. She sets me to thinking about my head and soon I am stepping forward, propelled by my upper body. She sits me down and rocks me into a standing position. She lays me down and invites my hip and shoulder muscles to let go. “You don’t have to do anything,” she says. And so I don’t do much. My job is to follow the direction from her gentle movements.
You might seek out an Alexander teacher if you wanted to project your voice better, or sing with less strain, or stand and walk with more grace. You might seek an Alexander teacher if—like me—you had back pain. There’s nothing you have to do except show up, and how often you do that is totally optional. Like me, you might find some definite help in it, something you haven’t found elsewhere. But you probably wouldn’t seek an Alexander teacher, because you wouldn’t know you were looking for one.
There are Alexander teachers all over the world. The first was Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor who lost his voice and eventually regained it by teaching himself to reduce muscle tension. He taught his strategies to others and died in 1955. I discovered the Alexander Technique at the 2010 conference of the National Storytelling Network in Los Angeles. I went to a session on voice projection without knowing what I was going to and was amazed to find that I had accidentally stumbled upon the posture training I had been looking for. When the workshop ended I boldly walked to the front of the room and approached the teacher in a manner I knew to be totally inappropriate.
“I have back pain,” I said. “It hurts right here. Doctors and physiotherapists keep telling me to improve my posture, but when I ask them how, they don’t seem to have any suggestions that help me. They say to stand straight and I don’t think I even know whether I’m standing straight.”
“Okay,” she said calmly, as if we were the only people in the room and no other session was about to start. “Just bend your knees a little, and now lean forward a bit.” She had placed a hand on my lower back and was gently pressing forward. “Now,” she said, “we are going to move your head.” Two firm but gentle fingers were now lifting and pushing at the base of my skull.
The position she put me in was definitely unfamiliar, yet stable. “You haven’t been using some of these muscles for a while,” she said. Maybe not. The pain inflicted on my leg by my compressed disks after three days of conference sitting was not entirely gone, but I could feel the difference and it was good. David said maybe we should book time off work so I could take training in Los Angeles.
“I’ve never heard of Edmonton,” she said when we told her where we came from. “But if you look on the Internet, you might find a teacher there.” That’s how we found Heidi.
Heidi is one of three certified Alexander teachers in Edmonton. She works six hours a week, and those hours are not entirely full. I find that surprising, knowing how much she has helped me, knowing also how many Edmontonians are tortured by chronic back pain. “Why are you not busier?” I ask Heidi.
“The Alexander Technique is not well known here,” she says. That—I’ll say—is an understatement. But here’s the really surprising thing. Doctors and physiotherapists don’t seem much interested in learning about it either. It’s not that they know about it and think it’s bad, it’s just that they are indifferent, dismissive when I mention it.
I visit a doctor who has worked steadily and earnestly with my back pain for five long years. He has prescribed medications and changed them in favour of others that promised a better result. He has sent me to physio, and recommended that I find a new therapist when I was clearly not benefiting from the therapy. We’ve traced the deterioration through x-rays, bone scans and MRI. We’ve discussed the risks and benefits of surgery. He’s a good man, concerned and committed to making things better. I approach him knowing how happy he will be.
“I’ve found a good thing last summer,” I tell him in early October. “It’s the Alexander Technique. It’s posture training. I’d say it’s helped more than any of the physiotherapy I’ve had. It actually makes me feel better and not worse.”
I am excited to share this information, hoping he will recommend it to others, or at least think about doing so. But if he does, it will surprise me, because he doesn’t ask me any questions, doesn’t take any phone numbers down. “The name sounds familiar,” he says, moving on.
Back in Heidi’s office I say, “I’m well now, but Thanksgiving was the worst pain day I’ve had in a long time. It all started the day before with doing everything I know I shouldn’t do. I slept late and didn’t give myself time for a morning walk. Then I went to church and sat on the piano bench for far too long. Piano playing in the morning is a really hard thing. Then, without taking time for a walk, I got into the car for a three hour trip.”
As I continue on with my list of wrongs, Heidi is positioning a wooden chair in the middle of the floor and sitting me on it. “How high is the piano bench?” she asks, adjusting to the right height with a cushion. She positions a book under my foot where the sustain pedal would be and tells me to raise my arms and pretend to play. As if on cue, piano music replaces the flute solo that was drifting softly from the speaker in the wall.
As I hunch forward playing my imaginary piano she gently presses on my back, positions my shoulders, and touches the base of my skull, suggesting the direction my body ought to lean the next time I am feeling the pain when I play the piano.
“You think I’m going to remember all this and play the right notes too?” I ask her.
She says, “You don’t have to remember it. There’s nothing you have to do. You just let everything lengthen.” From experience with other things she has taught me I know what will happen. I’ll be sitting on the bench and feeling the pain, and then my body will remember Heidi’s small pressures and start to move in the directions she would have been giving if she were in the room.
Oh so relieved to have found such a low-tech, simple and practical approach, I tell David that I’m going to make Heidi famous. The only problem is, I really don’t know how. After all, here I am, a hope counsellor who hasn’t yet figured out how to make hope counselling interesting to doctors and physiotherapists, even though it costs very little and helps people a lot. When I figure out how, Heidi and I might both be rich.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Dan gardner, one of my favourite newspaper columnists, has a new book out: Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail -- and Why We Believe Them Anyway. Newspapers all over the country have been picking up an exerpt from its introduction. You can find one at Often Wrong and Rarely Accurate

Gardner writes: “As for why we believe expert predictions, the answer lies ultimately in our hard-wired aversion to uncertainty. People want to know what's happening now and what will happen in the future, and admitting we don't know can be profoundly disturbing. So we try to eliminate uncertainty however we can. We see patterns where there are none. We treat random results as if they are meaningful. And we treasure stories that replace the complexity and uncertainty of reality with simple narratives about what's happening and what will happen. Sometimes we create these stories ourselves, but, even with the human mind's bountiful capacity for self-delusion, it can be hard to fool ourselves into thinking we know what the future holds for the stock market, the climate, the price of oil, or a thousand other pressing issues. So we look to experts. They must know. They have PhDs, prizes, and offices in major universities. And thanks to the news media's preference for the simple and dramatic, the sort of expert we are likely to hear from is confident and conclusive. They know
what will happen; they are certain of it. We like that because that is how we want to feel. And so we convince ourselves that these wise men and women
can do what wise men and women have never been able to do before. Fundamentally, we believe because we want to believe.”

I read about Gardner’s book and felt the shock of being exposed. He might be one of my favourite columnists, but I hadn’t imagined that he knew me so well. I didn’t think he knew me at all. But what do I know anyway?
Last Thursday I had one of those so-called educational experiences, call it a life lesson in being your own expert and believing what you want to believe. It happened as I made my way to work, around 7:30 AM. I was boarding the LRT, our transit train here in Edmonton.
When you take a train on the LRT you have some choices. There are, in fact, two ends to every station. Depending on what decisions I have made before I take the train, I might enter the station at either the north end, or the south end. If I enter at the north end, the thing I most often do, I will turn right at the bottom of the stairs and catch the train called Century Park. When I enter at the south end, as I did that day, I will turn left at the bottom of the stairs and take the train called Century Park. I can be confusing for anybody, so Edmonton Transit provides clear, loud automated announcements to prepare you for the arrival of your train. These announcements are accurate about 99.9 percent of the time. Nothing could be simpler, really!
I was thinking as I entered the station at the south end. Just what I was thinking I cannot quite recall. I might have been writing a letter in my mind, or planning a lecture, or editing the guest list for a birthday party, or mentally preparing tonight’s supper. I know better than to let my mind go at that hour, but I honestly keep forgetting that in the past few years I’ve pretty much lost my ability to think and travel at the same time. It’s a bit like walking and chewing gum. I have to do one or the other. When I got to the bottom of the stairs I turned right and waited for the train. I had only a few seconds to wait. The announcement came on loud and clear. “Next train, Clareview,” it said. The train pulled up in front of me and I got on.
I was not alone. The platform was busy with people getting off and on. I was already comfortably seated when the door closed. When the door closes, a clearly audible announcement comes on. On my route to work, the announcement usually says, “Next Stop, Central Station.” Automation is an imperfect thing. Sometimes announcements on the train are a little off. When this happens, the driver generally picks up the microphone and appologizes for the computer’s failings. That announcement is accurate about 90% of the time.
As the door closed, the automation said, “Next stop, Stadium Station.”
Comfortably seated, I waited for the driver to make the correction. He didn’t make a correction, but that didn’t bother me. I had forgotten about the letter I might have been writing or the supper I might have been planning. Now I thought about the times when the announcements are wrong. I felt so sorry for the people who believe the announcements when they are wrong. I was happy, content, relaxed in my seat. It wasn’t until the train came out of the ground, halfway to Stadium station, that the light began to dawn. I had entered the station at the south end, I had turned the wrong way. I had ignored the name of the train when it arrived. I had disbelieved the announcement that told me we were on our way to Stadium. And now I was not headed for work at all.
Oh well, I sighed. There is a solution. I stood on the platform at Stadium Station, waiting for the train called Century Park. As I waited I wondered what the day would bring. When I got to the office I discovered that Graham Thompson, another of my favourite newspaper columnists, had published an article about FASD Justice Ministers’ Interest In Finding Solutions For FASD Offers Hope Thompson was quoting an expert—me. He was quoting me accurately. No errors were made. And I’m almost certain that what I said was right.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


My favourite new radio program is Day6 heard Saturdays at 10:00 AM on CBC Radio1. It comes on at a time when I’m not really listening to the radio. The radio is on, and I am doing other things. And yet, suddenly I am listening to day6 and not doing anything else at all, except maybe asking David to hush, or telling Pirate he’ll have to wait another hour if he expects me to join him on a walk.
The thing that draws me in is the light and cheery tone of the show. It’s kind of modern, kind of sassy. It makes me giggle. I am well aware that this is the draw for me. So you can imagine, given this awareness, how surprised I was this morning when I discovered that the features I remember after the fact, the features that make me want to blog about the show, are the serious features. I only discovered this when I sat down to craft a fan letter. You should never under-estimate the power of fan mail. I know the value of fan mail. It impresses your boss, but even more important, it keeps you working hard, at least that’s the effect fan mail has on me. So I wanted to write a good fan letter to the good people who craft Day6, a letter that would name the segments I value. When I’d made the list I read it over. My first thought was: Oh my goodness! They’ll think I’m a serious person. They’ll never even guess that my resume says I specialize in hope and humour.
So here’s the big question: Why, oh why are human beings so complicated??

Friday, October 15, 2010


My friend Scott has been sending me childhood stories lately. What a pleasure it is to read them! Short, vivid and descriptive, they are gentle invitations to a by-gone day. Reading them you can almost believe you are growing up with Scott in the 1950’s.
He’s got me interested in my own memories, few and undescribed as they may be. Still, the older I get, the more of them I seem to have. Go figure! So I am finding memories back there, and I’ve started to notice a few things about them.
There are a couple of kinds of memories, the ones I actually have, and the ones I wish I had. The memories of my real childhood tend to be dull, devoid of the intrigue and adventure craved by a reading world. The memories I wish I had are diverse in nature. In fact, they are quite subject to variation, depending on the context of the present day. On the days when I’m feeling light and cheerful, I wish I’d had a more adventurous childhood—one you could sink your teeth into. Why are there no stories about Wendy breaking an arm in a fall while trying to retrieve a robin’s nest from a sky-high poplar? Where are the tales of a teen-ager sneaking out of the house for romance after the folks had gone to bed? What is the potential entertainment value of a childhood lived out in relative obedience?
On other days, today for example, I wish I had more memories—any memories actually--of me in the role of a compassionate child, a kind child, a supportive child. There are kids like that, you know, and I really want to grow down to be like them.
There’s one such child attending elementary school in Guelph Ontario. I heard the story from my daughter, a substitute teacher—correction—an emergency substitute teacher. In Ontario, you see, they have two kinds of substitute teachers. Substitute teachers have their names on a list and when somebody is unable to teach they get called in. Emergency substitute teachers lurk on shadowy lists that are more mysterious. They are called in when the notice is so short, or the conditions so difficult that no substitute teacher can fill the gap. When it’s time for the second bell, and the teacher is lying delirious on the floor waiting for an ambulance, that’s when you need an emergency sub—one who will take charge with no preparation, no orientation and no lesson plans.
I don’t know if we had emergency substitute teachers when I was a kid. Maybe I’ll recall that later. For now I can only say that I disliked subs of all kinds. My list of complaints against them was lengthy indeed. They failed to follow our established routines. They seldom knew what to do. They didn’t learn our names. They had trouble controlling the class. Sometimes they were idiots and I had the facts to prove it! Once, when we were studying the theories of Freud in a high school psychology class, a sub came in and called him Frude. How outrageous! I fumed at the very idea of paying a salary to such an incompetent!
But time changes perspective. For my daughter, who is now a sub, I have nothing but respect. Imagine getting up in the morning and racing off to teach a class of self-righteous little Wendys. I brace myself to hear the tales she will tell.
Here’s today’s tale. Every classroom has its own features. Her Edmonton room had a telephone for direct calls and an intercom for messages intended for the entire school. Having made a rushed entry into an unfamiliar class, she had not noticed the absence of a telephone when a voice came over the intercom. “Excuse me,” it said. She hushed the children and there they sat, waiting quietly for an announcement to be made. Finally, a child whispered, “You’re supposed to say Hello.”
“Good thing Grade ones and twos are kind,” she writes to her mother.
Her mother says, “Good thing you didn’t have to emergency substitute teach your mother.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I’ve been wondering how research might be different if well people visited doctors and psychologists. Would the doctors and psychologists get curious about the things that make people well? Maybe I’m wondering this because I recently read a speech made 10 years ago by Martin Seligman—one of my favourite positive psychology researchers. In that speech, he was quoting an article that said there were 46,000 articles on depression in the psychology literature, and only 400 articles on joy. I don’t know how the balance has changed in the past ten years, but I’m guessing it’s nowhere near equal yet. Depression, after all is a problem, and problems seem to get a lot of attention.
Then yesterday I came across an article about dogs and optimism Is Your Dog’s Bowl Half Full or Half Empty introducing me to the research done in the UK by Professor Mike Mendl of Bristol University's School of Clinical Veterinary Science. Here is what the article says about dogs and optimism.

“”The animals were taught that when a bowl was placed at one location in
the room, it would contain food - this was the 'positive' position. Meanwhile the animals learnt that a bowl placed at another location (the 'negative'
position) would be empty. Once the dogs had been trained, the scientists placed a bowl in an ambiguous location midway between the positive and negative
Dogs that ran quickly to this bowl, as if they expected it to contain a tasty morsel, were classed as being 'optimistic', while dogs that moved more slowly
towards the bowl were classed as 'pessimistic'.””

Using this measure of doggy optimism, the researchers were able to show that optimistic dogs experienced less anxiety when separated from their owners. Dogs and optimism! Wow, what a combination of interesting findings for a dog-loving HOPE LADY! That got me excited and I just had to share it with somebody. So I sent it to Dr. Derek Haley, my favourite animal behaviour specialist. He wrote:
“”Thanks Mom. Mike (Mendl, the scientist) is a friend and colleague.
They do great and interesting work there at Bristol, about cognitive abilities in animals too. For example, they are doing studies looking at pigs in an
experimental foraging task and trying to figure out whether individuals that have experience in the test arena where food is hidden, and who discover food
there, will later try to deceive other naive animals and lead them away from the food sources so that they can keep the food they have previously discovered,
all to themselves. I always talk to people about Mike's work because it's such basic research, and so interesting. Yet, it's almost impossible to get funding
for such basic research. The pig industry is not clamouring for scientists to uncover what cognitive abilities pigs have. Surprised?””

I guess I’m not surprised. Maybe there are a lot of basic things we don’t study because we take them for granted. We assume that joy is easy to find, so we study depression because it’s hard to shake. We assume that pigs are dumb, so we don’t look for evidence that they are smart. It takes a canny scientist to put effort into studying the behaviour of optimistic and pessimistic dogs.
There was a time when I didn’t see the value of basic research. I thought you shouldn’t waste resources studying things everybody already seems to know. I thought you had to know how to use results before you got them. But now I understand that basic research—because it surprises us--gives us the foundation to wonder things. For example, if 46,000 psychologists had written about joy, we might have a better idea how to create it, because we might have learned something about it that we don’t already think we know. And maybe pigs have a lot to teach us, only we don’t know what to ask them because we haven’t been interested enough to check out the basics of piggy wisdom. As for dogs, well I have a dog, and he checks his dish fairly often, just to see what’s in it. Sometimes it’s empty. Sometimes it’s full. I like to think he’s a hope dog.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


And Audrey’s note says, ”My chemo is working. My liver is looking better. Thought I’d share the good news.”
So here, today, I make myself a promise: that tomorrow morning, when I’m fussing over my hair, and worrying about spill spots on my blouse, I shall take a moment to celebrate the unheralded magnificence of a good-looking liver.

Monday, October 11, 2010


And Mark, looking forward to a 9-week practicum teaching assignment that could conceivably have been limited to the single subject of physical education said: “I hope my supervising teacher teaches something in addition to phys ed.”
Whereupon Mark, who got the news of his assignment, was somewhat surprised to find that his supervising teacher is teaching phys ed, plus biology, plus science, plus physics, plus social studies, all at the high school level.
So Mark, who is rather underconfident in his ability to teach biology, and science, and physics is now anticipating long evenings of class prep as a means of being one step ahead of the students he will be learning how to teach during this stressful time.
Could this be evidence of hope in action?

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Congratulations to you, Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. You won it for suggesting that people should have the right to choose their leaders. A simple concept, really. One that is easily taken for granted by those who have the right to choose. As I understand it, your leaders are saying that there is no need for you to choose. You ought to trust them more.
Here in Edmonton we are in the midst of a civic election campaign. It is almost impossible for us to understand what it would mean to live in a country where you could be thrown in jail for 11 years for supporting the idea of making choices on a ballot. Here in Edmonton, they beg us to vote. We tire of hearing political rhetoric. We grumble that there’s nobody we want to vote for. Sometimes we don’t even vote. Can you imagine that?
Yesterday I voted in our upcoming civic election. I cast my vote in the advance poll (note to all candidates who plan to interrupt my dinner by having your machines call me before the election, it’s too late.) I voted privately and independently. As I pushed the final button to roll my ballot out of the voting machine, I thought of you, Liu Xiaobo. I wondered what you’d say if you knew how far we in Edmonton have gone to ensure a private and independent vote.
My private and independent vote was assured by a machine that read me the ballot and allowed me to choose candidates by pressing buttons. Before the ballot was confirmed, it gave me a chance to hear my votes again, a chance to be sure I’d done what I wanted to do. We’ve had this marvellous opportunity for several municipal elections. It may not seem like such a big thing to others. In fact, the country and the province have not figured out how to make it happen in their elections. If you are a blind chooser of leaders for the country or the province, somebody has to swear an oath of reliability and help you cast your vote. But when I vote for civic government in Edmonton, I cast my own vote for mayor, councillor and school trustee.
Many years ago an election official asked me if it really mattered that much. “Isn’t it just as good to have somebody you trust mark your ballot according to your instructions?”
I wondered for a moment how to answer. Providing this machine costs money. Is it money well spent? I took a deep breath and I said it mattered to me, even though I did trust the person who would mark my ballot.
I wonder how you’d answer this question, Liu Xiaobo. Would my little quest for independence seem inconsequential to you in view of the larger needs of a wider world? I’d like to ask you, if only they’d let you out of jail.
I do hope they will soon let you out of prison so that you can collect your prize. I also hope they will some day let you cast the vote of your choice in your own country. I suppose there is a cost for democracy everywhere. The cost is higher in some places.

Thursday, October 07, 2010


The first voice I heard when I woke up this morning belonged to one of my most famous hope heroes, Barack Obama. It was not the hopeful voice I am accustomed to hearing, not the voice that made him my hope hero. Quite the contrary, in fact. It was a sad voice. He was trying to rally the Democrats and it did not appear to be going well. You could hear the fatigue in his tone. He was chiding them, scolding them, urging them to get back to work. Senate elections are coming up and it sounded like he was feeling an urgent need for supportive followers. It’s a nasty position for a guy who needs the help of millions if he’s to convert his hopes into accomplishments.
Helplessly watching your very own hope hero suffer is a painful thing and I was feeling the pain. Even though I hadn’t brushed my hair or my teeth, even though it was 6:00 AM, not my optimal hour of best compassion, my heart went out to him. The reporter playing the clip was presenting evidence to prove that Obama is a desperate man. The speech excerpts he had chosen did appear to support that. So at that early moment, applying the twisted logic you might expect at 6:01 AM from a sleepy HOPE LADY I made a declaration. I promised to do whatever I could do to help my hope hero go forward in his hour of need. Only one question remained to be answered? Exactly what is it that a Canadian HOPE LADY can do for a President of the United States?
By the time the sun rose I was seriously considering some options. I could give money. Giving $10.00 would be relatively easy, except for the problem of exchanging the money into American currency, and the possible legal impediments that might prevent US politicians from accepting donations from Canadians. But on second thought, what use would Barack have for the equivalent of ten Canadian dollars? There might be a better option.
I considered calling an American talk show and stating my opinion on a variety of political issues. It seems like a lot of people get most of their information from talk shows these days, and most of my opinions are in line with barack’s stated hopes. This seemed plausible, until I realized that I’d have to start listening to American talk shows in order to find the one that would most likely take my call. That use of my time tempted me about as much as the idea of eating political pamphlets for a mid-morning snack. I decided to keep thinking.
Lunchtime arrived and still I had no plan of action. Assisting a US president is not as easy as you might think. But with the help of a little confidence boost and some thinking-it-through assistance from Rachel, a plan of action was at last devised. I would steer away from the thing that has so far earned me no respect—the formidable task of influencing American politics and steer toward something more familiar. I would offer my best HOPE LADY advice to Barack Obama. And here it is.
Stick with the hope stuff Barack! It served you well before, and there is no reason to believe it can’t do that again.
State your hopes for your country in the language of I hope. You’ve done it before. You can do it again. Stating hopes is a momentum builder. You could use some momentum now.
Refuse to choose between hope and reality. You don’t have to worry about losing reality. It will be there. Focus on the thing you might lose—hope.
Hang out with hopeful people—the people who give you hope. Hope is contagious. Some people are extraordinarily good at spreading it. You have shown yourself to be good at giving it, and it’s best to keep your own supply up.
Keep up your supply of hope by looking for hope in your past experience. Pay particular attention to things that turned out better than you expected, things that were possible when you thought they weren’t. Write about these things. Talk about these things. It’s easy to lose sight of them when you get really busy trying to fix absolutely everything.
And finally, try not to give too much attention to the hope-suckers, those people and events that suck out all the hope leaving you with only fear and despair. The media is already giving them more credence than they’ve earned. They’ll tell you that hope is not enough to fix everything. Who do they think they’re talking to? This is not news. Having hope is an efficiency measure. It’s just a whole lot easier to do anything worth doing when you have hope. Insist that others should offer a hope to match every hope of yours. Don’t let them off the hook until they do.
If this is not enough to make things better, I still have ten available Canadian dollars to give you. Proof positive that there is always one more option.

Friday, October 01, 2010


This morning, in the waiting room at the Cancer Institute I suddenly remembered the first time Lawrence and I went out for dinner. We were unlikely dinner dates thrown together by fate, mother and son hungry at suppertime. He was a teen-ager with a driver’s license. I was an ineligible driver with car keys. Everyone else in the family was—somewhere else. It was back in the days when I used to cook for him. Not surprisingly, it was I who suggested going out.
“Where would we go?” he asked. Scepticism hung heavy on the air.
“Wherever you like,” I said brightly.
“MacDonald’s,” he said.
“Anywhere except MacDonald’s,” I said. I had, after all, been thinking of going out for an actual dinner. Surely he didn’t want MacDonald’s! We could walk there.
“Oh Mother!” He gave one of those sighs that conveys everything without saying anything. “It has to be somewhere where we can order,” he said.
And now I understood what he was thinking. Considering our particular blend of disabilities, we were an impractical match for a dinner menu—a mother who would be able to read if she could only see, and a son who could see but not read. He was imagining the two of us staring blankly at a menu, neither with a clue as to what was on it. He was wondering what we’d say to the waitress, what kind of food we might get if he simply pointed at random to some item, hoping it was a burger.
Given the amount of creativity it might have taken to overcome this difficulty, I did think it probably would have been easier to stay home. But once you’ve imagined yourself out for dinner, it’s hard to let that go. So we went to Boston Pizza and managed well enough, or so we must have, because I don’t recall any memorable trauma.
These days we never go out for dinner, though we occasionally go somewhere together. Today our destination was the Cancer Institute, a stupefying jumble of scurrying professionals, snaking hallways, directional signs and forms requiring due diligence. Going out to dinner at any restaurant would have been a better choice. But this was not a menu with choices. Cancer institutes carry a lot of weight. If they tell you to go there on October 1, you go there on October 1, even if you have to go with your less-than-completely-helpful mother.
There are really two problems that arise when you cannot read. The first is that you cannot read, a condition that makes it difficult to know where to go, what to do, and what you might be giving written permission for in a busy hospital. The second problem lies in the explanation of it to others. For a blind person it’s easy enough. You show your cane and let them take it from there. If that doesn’t get you what you need, you swallow hard and say, “I’m blind. I’ll need you to read this.” Negligent as it may sometimes be, our culture, in general, is kind to the blind. But if you are not blind, and you are holding a set of car keys, and maybe you are even guiding a blind person, well, the situation isn’t quite so straightforward. Outside the professional realm, a variety of words are used to describe young men who function without the benefit of reading. They’re not fitting for a HOPE LADY Blog. I won’t mention them here. But even when nobody mentions them, they echo in the heads of those who are presented with English forms that might as well be in German or Italian for all the sense they make.
I wished I hadn’t gone with him. I wished somebody else was there in my place, somebody who could be a better help. I am a loving mother. Guided by the instinct of a protective hen, I would happily have sent him to the washroom while I whispered a request to the receptionist. “Please help my son read this form. It’s not his fault that he can’t read it.”
But he did not need the washroom, and he did not need me to explain it. I sat in the waiting room, waiting. He boldly told the lady she would have to read the form for him. He didn’t give her a reason, and she didn’t ask for one. You’d think that reading forms was the thing she was expecting to do.
Given the way things turned out, so much better than I expected, you surely can’t blame me for wondering if we should go out for lunch.