The Trip (at 12,130 meters).

Flying often makes me wistful and pensive. There’s something about being strapped in a 737 flying over varied prairie and mountainous landscapes at 12,130 meters that brings it on. Well, flying in a much smaller Bombardier turbojet between Edmonton and Calgary also got me musing, especially about the place of humans in the world and about time.

We had flown from Comox on Vancouver Island directly to Edmonton in central Alberta a few days earlier to visit my sister-in-law who lives in the Dickensfield care home in Edmonton and to see my brother who has recently moved from Regina to Edmonton. The day before yesterday my niece drove us to the Edmonton International Airport for the start of our trip home. At this time of year Edmonton is covered in dirty snow and when it thaws a bit and then freezes again, the side roads can get treacherous, but the highways were clear and the traffic was light. It was 6:30 AM and the temperature in Edmonton was -8 ˚C and steadily dropping. I took the picture below with my iPhone somewhere between Edmonton and Calgary. I don’t know at what altitude we were flying but it couldn’t have been more than 3,000 meters. The patterns created by carving up the prairie into quarter sections is clearly visible in the photograph I took from the cabin. The snow helps delineate the quarter sections. The other photograph is a screenshot of the Alberta township system map that you can find here. Every square inch of the land is marked by human intervention. The symmetry evident in both photographs is superimposed on the landscape and is obviously not natural. Still, the grid is plain to see in the photograph from 3,000 meters up. Fences and tree breaks attest to the surveyor’s work and our penchant to delineate land to own, clearly separate and distinct from our neighbour’s land, forces us to recognize our pretence of dominance over the land. The scars are real.

Where is there room for burrowing owls, bison, prairie dogs? In patently very few places it seems. That’s plain to see. Humans have been transforming this landscape for centuries, millennia even, but nothing on the scale of the past 100 years. Alberta is the playground of humans for now at least. Wildlife (freelife) must find pockets of compatible space in the interstices of human culture to build homes and forage for food. In another 10,000 years, the scars that are evident from 3,000 meters up will likely be erased. ‘Alberta’ as a political entity will be no longer. Burrowing owls will likely be extinct. In a hundred million years new species may roam the land. In a half a billion years, the prairies may be lake bottom or the Rockies may migrate further east. The continents as we know them will be undone and redone. I don’t know how the future will unfold in detail. Geomorphologists know about these things, about plate tectonics and the like. All I know for certain is that everything will change radically over time.

Regardless, the way we think of time is conceptually extremely limited. Brian Edward Cox OBE, FRS, English physicist who serves as professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester and BBC documentary commentator argues that the universe is finite and will come and go in the blink of an eye. Our human lifespans are infinitesimal yet we live them as though they are forever. The Prairies and the Rocky Mountains seem forever but they are not. They will ‘die’. The speed at which they will die is extremely slow, of course, from our perspective, but there are other perspectives which have alternative assessments of the passing of time. Cox, for example, argues for a different conception of time than the one that rules our lives. For him time on a universal scale is vastly different than how we perceive of time at the human scale. However, for him, that matters little. All time happens in the blink of an eye.

My grandparents are dead. My parents are dead. I’m next in line. My children and grandchildren will follow me into the void. My life has passed in the blink of an eye. It really does seem that way to me. On a planetary scale, the Rocky Mountains will be gone in the blink of an eye as will the scars that crisscross the Alberta prairie.

Flying over the Rocky Mountains, then the central valleys of British Columbia and finally over the Coastal Mountain Range at 12,130 meters, before descending over the waters of the Salish Sea to the airport in Comox, it was evident that the landscape was not conducive to carving up the way Alberta has been into quarter sections. Mountainous terrain is hard to do anything with from a human point of view. Agriculture is sparse. Of course there’s always mining, logging and skiing, but only in limited areas. Many of the mountain ranges are inaccessible, the peaks are sharp and the mountain sides are stratified attesting to the fact that these peaks were once pushed up from deep inside the core of the continental plates. The Burgess Shale, close to Field, BC, in the Rockies contains innumerable fossils. From the Burgess Shale website:

The locality reveals the presence of creatures originating from the Cambrian explosion, an evolutionary burst of animal origins dating 545 to 525 million years ago. During this period, life was restricted to the world’s oceans. The land was barren, uninhabited, and subject to erosion; these geologic conditions led to mudslides, where sediment periodically rolled into the seas and buried marine organisms. At the Burgess locality, sediment was deposited in a deep-water basin adjacent to an enormous algal reef with a vertical escarpment several hundred meters high.

From ocean floor to mountain peak in a few million years. In fact, when the Burgess Shale was created, the planet looked entirely different than it does today. This map from the same website noted above shows that the continents were not yet formed as we know them.

British Columbia has been carved up for the needs of humans, and some of those carvings are visible at 12,130 meters, but not in the same way as Alberta. BC has nowhere near the absolute symmetry of Alberta’s political-economic divisions. Mountains and prairies offer very different options for human interference. In a million years that human interference will not likely be evident at all.

So, things come and go. People, mountains, plains, continents, planets, even universes. We are all finite. We all have our turn to get transmogrified with every atom of our bodies converted to other uses for other organisms. From that perspective, mountain ranges and prairies are no different from each of us as individuals.

That’s life. Flying gets me thinking about these things.

Ronna-Rae Leonard, local NDP candidate, unjustly slammed by her political foes.

This blog post is for residents of the Comox Valley. Please SHARE! Yes it’s long, but please read it to the end. 

Below is a letter I sent to the publisher of the Comox Valley Record last week in response to a letter published in an earlier edition by Dick Clancy, a close associate of our last Conservative MP John Duncan and reputedly now associated with the Liberal campaign although, I admit, I don’t know him personally nor much about him. However, his political affiliations and his letter (see it here) don’t leave much doubt about his political leanings. To suggest that Ronna-Rae would want the residents of Maple Pool thrown out onto the streets is ludicrous and insulting in the extreme.

My letter was not published. I don’t know why, but I think it’s worth publishing myself here because I just can’t sit by and do nothing knowing Ronna-Rae and what she stands for, her integrity and commitment to social housing. I’m quite certain I know where the truth lies and it’s not in Clancy’s letter.

Here’s my letter:

To the editor, Comox Valley Record.

I read with interest the letter in your April 25th edition by Dick Clancy. He’s pretty coy is Mr. Clancy for a person who says everyone running in the election agrees that this should be a ‘transparent’ campaign. If he really believes in transparency, he should declare up front which candidate and party he supports in the election because his letter looks like an attempt to smear the NDP candidate. It looks a lot like a political hatchet job. Come on, Mr. Clancy, tell us who you’ll be voting for so we can judge your letter for what it is.

I will tell you up front that I am voting NDP in the coming provincial election. I would vote for Ronna-Rae Leonard, but I don’t live in her riding. I will be voting for Scott Fraser.

I don’t blame Mr. Clancy for being partisan, I am. I do blame him for hiding behind a call for transparency in order to suggest that Ronna-Rae Leonard would want the residents of Maple Pool thrown into the streets. That is a patently absurd accusation. I worked with Ms. Leonard on the Housing Task Force here in the Valley before its mandate expired about 4 years ago. Ronna-Rae Leonard has worked tirelessly over the years on behalf of homeless residents of the Valley.

In my opinion, it’s people like Dick Clancy and Larry Jangula who have blocked the construction of decent affordable and supportive housing in the Valley, not Ronna-Rae Leonard.

The in-camera council votes don’t tell the whole story. Frankly, I’d love to see an independent inquiry into exactly why Maple Pool continues to exist and why there hasn’t been any supportive and affordable housing built in the Valley for decades.

Roger Albert

Cumberland, BC

On May 2nd The Comox Valley Record published a letter by Fredrick Smith challenging Clancy. It was fine but somewhat off topic in my mind. It didn’t challenge to snide innuendo in Clancy’s letter about Ronna-Rae wanting to throw Maple Pool residents out on the street as evidenced by her in-camera Courtenay Council votes on a lawsuit around Maple Pool.

On May 4th, The Comox Valley Record published a letter by Irene Murray full of innuendo and attacks on Ronna-Rae, attacks which are groundless and based on political ideology. It’s true that the Housing Task Force had limited success. I know. I sat on one of its committees and was paid to write a report on what municipalities can do to encourage affordable housing in the Valley.

There are some people in the Valley who are fine with giving poor people charity (soup and mittens) but not with providing them with adequate, safe housing. Every community around us (Campbell River, Port Alberni and Nanaimo) have built affordable social housing. The Comox Valley is alone in not doing so. I can assure you that’s not Ronna-Rae’s fault.

Getting old, damn it!: A meeting to address the implications.

Actually, I shouldn’t write ‘getting old’. What I should write is ‘being old’. Well, I’ve never thought of myself as old, but looking in the mirror reminds me every day that, yes indeed, I am getting on. But growing old is quite strange for me as it probably is for most of us. I think that as a species we have a built in system for blocking the impact of the passing of time on the way we live our lives. We are obviously aware of the passing of time, but we don’t think about it much if at all. Then one day we can’t help but notice that old age has crept up on us and bitten us hard on the rear end. The back hurts. The hairbrush pulls up tufts of grey hair where there is some left and the bladder, well, the bladder has its own agendum.

Of course the reality is that I have plenty of company in this getting old business. Born in 1947, I am one of the leaders of the post-war baby-boomer parade. The number of people in Canada over 65 years of age is higher than it’s ever been and it will trend higher yet until around 2040 when most of us boomers will be down for the count. My gawd, if I last that long I’ll be 93 years old which is my mother’s current age. My father lived to be 96 so I may just make it. I just hope I’m healthier than both my parents were as they passed into their 80s. My mother, born in 1924, has severe dementia and my father was deaf and  almost completely immobilized by arthritis when he died in 2007. I don’t think he died a happy man. My mother cannot know what happiness is.

It’s a wonderful thing that my mother who lives in a care home in Coquitlam has a few of my many sisters who live nearby visit her most every day. She doesn’t recognize us anymore, hasn’t for a long time. Still, my sisters, the angels that they are, visit her and feed her lunch while ensuring that she is well cared for by the staff. I haven’t seen my mother for many months. No excuses, except that we live on Vancouver Island and she lives on the mainland. Still, truth be told, even when we go to Vancouver to visit my daughter and her family we never get around to visiting my mother (or anyone else in the family for that matter). I feel guilt about that, but not enough apparently to change my behaviour towards her (and them). In my defense, with 3 brothers and 10 living sisters, it would take weeks to get around to seeing them all. I do love every one of them and some of us are in communication via Facebook, but it’s not logistically possible to see them all.

Well, the above is just a way of getting around to the point of this blog post, which is a day long meeting/study session I attended yesterday of around 40 or so people who work for the provincial ministry of health, Island Health, some front line seniors’ support workers, various and sundry nursing types and people like me, members of the non-profit sector with an interest in seniors and their quality of life. The topic of the meeting was seniors’ isolation.

Mary Everson from the K’ómoks First Nation welcomed us to the K’ómoks territory. She’s a year older than I am but is now looking after a 6 year old and a 13 year old. I can’t imagine what that would be like although I do get a taste of it when the grandkids come to visit. Mary Everson is a very articulate spokesperson for her nation and for her age group too. She emphasized the importance of treating seniors with dignity, especially frail seniors who have travelled to the hospital from remote communities. She suggested that many seniors isolate themselves and don’t ask for support or assistance in any way. Not all seniors crave company or want help. Later in the meeting we would hear those seniors referred to as stoic seniors. She emphasized that being satisfied with life is most important, old or not.

Daryl Plecas, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health (Terry Lake) for seniors attended the meeting and emphasized in his remarks the importance of quality of life for seniors but also of their caretakers and families. Too often we forget that family members and caretakers are seniors themselves and their lives can be seriously affected by their need to look after their frail kin or clients.

The keynote speaker was Norah Keating from the University of Alberta who has a long resumé and who has written a book on the social isolation of seniors. Her talk was nuanced and careful. She noted the importance of thinking about seniors and their lives from both an individual and community perspective emphasizing the need for agencies and governments to think about seniors’s needs from their point of view. She categorized seniors as stoic, disengaged, marginalized and frail. The meeting attendees were not so much interested in me as a senior, but in the marginalized and frail seniors. They do make up a significant proportion of seniors although less than 10% of seniors live in care facilities. Many live in their own homes and like it that way. As they age they may lose their spouses, their driver’s licences and much of their mobility. Many as driven by pride and/or shame and don’t easily ask for help. Neighbours, family and friends are all important in keeping seniors from being too isolated.

Keating noted that the view that successful ageing means having great family support, being lucky, having money and living in a beautiful home just doesn’t fit the life experience of the vast majority of seniors. Agencies and governments have to recognize that a compromised quality of life affects individual seniors obviously but it also impoverishes us all.

We did not spend much time during the day discussing death, dying, hospice or palliative care. Many of those in attendance are well aware of these issues but the point of the meeting was not in end of life issues, but rather in the quality of life seniors have in coming to what we all hope will be a good death.

The group assembled struggled over challenges, solutions and ideas around dealing with seniors’ isolation. A report will be forthcoming. Enough for now.

 

 

 

 

 

Quality of Life – What the hell is that?

So, as I engage in producing the 2013 Quality of Life report for the Comox Valley Social Planning Society I’m struck with the number of questions I have about just what quality of life means. I’ve determined that it’s not about comfort or serenity, the lack of problems or adversity, happiness or the lack of it, wealth, health, recreation, culture, fast cars, sex, food or much of anything else.  It’s not even only about personal, individual feelings and circumstances. So what is it about?  There are a number of organizations that have produced quality of life indices and reports.  The UN is into it: (http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/).  The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW)(https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/) has determined that the quality of life in Canada is declining regardless of the fact that the Gross Domestic Product may be rising.  We are obviously into contiua here.  The UN rates countries on a continuum of quality of life using a large number of indicators in three categories, heath, education and living standards.  The CIW uses dozens of indicators and eight domains or categories: community vitality, demographic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure and culture, living standards and time use.  Some of these domains address individual dimensions of wellbeing, others how community affects personal wellbeing.  The CIW is on to something here, I find.  On a continuum of wretchedness to bliss, I expect that a person living on the streets of Kolkata would be at the wretchedness end of the scale while someone living in a fancy house on the beach in Comox would be on the other (blissful) end without being too categorical about it. However, the world is never as simple as it seems and I’m not a good judge of the quality of life of a person living on the streets anywhere, especially India. 

To me, some self-determination is important in thinking about quality of life as is sociality.  So, for me, life in a prison isolation cell would qualify as extremely wretched even though health, sanitation and food would not necessarily be issues.  And there are tradeoffs.  Idleness due to unemployment may adversely affect income, but there is a certain liberation in not having to go to work.  Problem is, we have developed strong moral, legal and political objections to unemployment to the point where the unemployed are considered morally weak, self-indulgent, lazy and worse.  So not working (for the employable) carries a stigma and the unemployed suffer opprobrium.  

I suppose, for me, quality of life hinges on a number of factors including basic health, a roof over my head, access to effective sanitation, enough money to keep food on the table, clothes on my back and maybe go out the odd evening to a movie, a day in the park or on the beach, a visit to a library or an art gallery, having friends over for tea, being able to move about without too much difficulty, and community support when things go sideways.  Emergency services, then, take on more importance than they might otherwise in determining quality of life.  The question is, can I count on the help of others in the community if I get sick, lose my source of income, my house burns down, I get beat up on the street or bullied at work?  

Of course, comparison is the foundation of quality of life studies and indices.  How do I measure my wellbeing?  Well, it will be good or bad in comparison to the person next to me or in the next town, city, province or country.  If I have nothing to compare my life to others, the whole question of quality of life is meaningless.  As for the Comox Valley, what makes this place unique in terms of quality of life?  I’m not sure there is a basis for comparison with other similar sized communities on Vancouver Island.  

These are just some of the thoughts I’ve been having recently on the subject of quality of life. There’s lots more…for later.