Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Overcoming Brick Walls

I'm reading Randy Pausch's, The Last Lecture. It's one of those, makes you think kind of books, and one that should be required reading.

For those of you not familiar, Pausch was an accomplished professor at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2006, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On July 25, 2008 Pausch died. That in itself isn't overly significant. More than 30,000 Americans die each year from this hideous disease. It's the legacy that Pausch left that is significant.

In September 2007, he captivated an audience of 400 people at Carnegie Mellon University, when he delivered the Last Lecture called, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. The lecture became a phenomenon, as millions of people around the world viewed his lecture on the web.

Throughout the book, Pausch uses a brick wall as a metaphor to describe the challenges we face in our lives. He writes: "The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough." and "They [brick walls] give us a chance to show how badly we want something."

Throughout our lives, each of us face brick walls. Sometimes we want something bad enough that we climb over that wall. Other times, we look back and regret that we didn't want something bad enough. If only we had done things differently. The point isn't to dwell on those "if onlys". The world isn't a perfect place and neither are we, but if we can learn from those experiences, we'll be ready when we come to the next wall.

Pausch talks a lot about childhood dreams, and as the title of the lecture suggests, really achieving those dreams. As I was reading the book, I began to realize that I didn't really have a whole lot of childhood dreams to reflect upon. I remember telling my parents that I would move out when I was 18, spend six Christmases by myself (whatever that meant), and then get married when I was 24. Not surprising, my life didn't play out like that. It was my parents that moved out when I was 20, and I didn't get married until I was 28. And when I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I used to pace when I was talking, especially when debating and arguing different points of view. I would also act as an arbiter in some of my parent's disputes. My mother said I would make a good lawyer. But when I hit that brick wall, I suppose I didn't want it bad enough.

I asked my wife if she had any childhood dreams. And apart from marrying some handsome, brilliant and charming man, she rattled off three--swim on the Great Barrier Reef, jump out of an airplane, and go on safari in Africa. She's done two of the three...she still yearns to see the world's biggest zoo.

Not long ago, my three-year old son, Jack, said to me, "Daddy, I would like to go to Paris one day." I'm sure he's not alone, but it is refreshing to see such a young boy with big, worldly dreams.

While I don't have a lot of childhood dreams, I surely have many as an adult. And maybe that's how it should be, as our life experiences show us opportunities that we didn't know existed as children.

So, I started making a list. In a sense sharing your dreams with others can make you feel vulnerable, but vulnerability is one brick in that big wall. It keeps forcing us to ask the question, how badly do we want it?

In no particular order, here are my dreams
  • take Jack to Paris, so he can ride the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower
  • there isn't a place in this world that I wouldn't want to visit, but high on my list are India, Pakistan, South Africa, Morocco, Vietnam, and Granada, Nicaragua. My wife and I attempted to get to the latter, but circumstance foiled us, and despite a great story to share about spending the night in an impoverished Nicaraguan village, I still yearn to get to Granada.
  • walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem
  • take my parents to a part of Europe (Venice, Vienna, Prague) they might not normally go to. A reminder there's more to Europe than Britain.
  • show my in-laws some vibrant cities in East Asia
  • explore New York City with my family, and take my sons on the big Toys R Us Ferris wheel in Times Square
  • Visit New York, or Chicago, or Boston to watch a Vancouver Canucks game with my wife, or father-in-law, or my friend, K2
  • drive across the United States
  • go to the World Hockey Championships in Europe
  • raise $1,000,000 for charity
  • have an article published in National Geographic or National Geographic Traveler (even better would be for my wife's photos to accompany the story)
  • interview Robert Milton, who is the Chairman, President, and CEO of ACE Aviation Holdings, the parent group of Air Canada (I had been chasing an interview with Mr. Milton for a few years, but kept running into brick walls)
  • work in the aviation industry, whether for an airline or airport
Maybe you have a list of your own.

A link to the Last Lecture website

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Yes, Carrie, there is a Santa Claus!

Last night the jolly old fellow from the North Pole paid a visit to our house. I know this because the cookies that Jack left out for him, and the carrot for his reindeer were gone. The only evidence that something had once been on the plate were the crumbs. And he left some gifts under the tree. Oh, and the deer droppings in our backyard.

About a month ago, we all went to see Santa at the Mall. He asked Jack what he wanted for Christmas. A video game was the response. This sounded like a reasonable request. Santa then looked over to me and asked what I wanted. I told him I would like a book. Again, a very reasonable request. Then he turned to Carrie and asked what she would like Santa to bring her. She paused for a minute, and then said she would like a trip to Hawaii.

Somewhat surprised by such an audacious request, Santa looked to me with one of those, "well Dad, how are we going to get out of this one," looks.

"I'll see what I can do," Santa said, after a moment's hesitation.

Maybe Carrie had some doubts about whether Santa could really deliver, so she decided to test him. Never underestimate Santa, I say.

On Christmas morning we each got a gift from Santa. A video game for Jack, a book for Dadddy, and a trip to Hawaii for Mommy. It was at that moment, when Carrie unwrapped that last gift, that all doubt had been erased.
With apologies to Francis Pharcellus Church--Yes, Carrie, there is a Santa Claus!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Leave Santa alone

So, some do-gooders in Germany want to get rid of Santa Claus. They claim he has commercialized Christmas. Right! And Santa is also responsible for the current world economic downturn, and much of the scourge and deprivation that afflicts our world.

The jolly, bespectacled, old man, who wears a red coat trimmed with white fur, and calls the North Pole home is an easy target. Much easier than taking responsibility for our own actions. It's not Christmas that has become commercialized, it's our society.

If we're going to blame Santa, then let's blame Jack O' Lantern (by the way, does anyone know what Jack Lantern's middle name is?) and the Easter Bunny, and St. Valentine, and teachers, too, because they are surely responsible for the commercialization of going back to school. And good God if we're talking commercialization have you been to the Vatican and seen all the kitchy (and tacky) souvenirs they sell to the masses.

Every year we here how the true spirit of Christmas (as if Christmas has been around since...well, since Christ) is being ruined by our indulgent pursuits. I disagree.

In my 37 years of life, Christmas has changed very little. It's still a time for family to come together, and for most to share a big meal. It's a time when Santa stocks me up with socks and underwear. And those who go to church and celebrate the birth of Jesus, do so gladly (you know he wasn't really born in December) . They even get to catch up with the C&Es. They're the ones who only go to church at Christmas and Easter.

Sure, some people go a little crazy. Like the lady on the news who says she usually spends $1,000 on each of her four kids at Christmas. But her ridiculous behaviour isn't exclusive to Christmas, I'm sure.

Hands off the old man! Santa isn't to blame. If we feel society has become too commercialized, then maybe it's time we looked at our own behaviour. In the meantime, tomorrow night not a creature will stir in our house, not even a mouse. We'll hang our stockings by the chimney (how does Santa deal with gas fireplaces?). And we'll have oranges (I'm not fond of sugar plums) dancing in our heads. Since I don't hear anything when I'm asleep, my wife will have to open the shutters and pull up the sash, when she hears the clatter on our lawn, announcing the arrival of Saint Nick and his herd of reindeer. And in the morning we'll race downstairs and see what magic he has brought.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers, published in 2003 by Lonely Planet Publications, is a compilation of travel stories proving that even the most hardened traveler will come to rely on the helping hand of a stranger.

In that book, seasoned travel writer, Don George, wrote:
"In 25 years of wandering the world, I have learned two things: the first is that when you travel, at some point you will find yourself out of money, out of food, unable to find a room, lost in a big city, or on a remote trail stranded in the middle of nowhere. The second is that someone will miraculously emerge to take care of you--to lend you money, feed you, put you up for the night, lead you to where you want to go. Whatever the situation, dramatic or mundane, some stranger will save you."

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of my own brushes with the kindness of strangers. While exploring the world, I have never run out of money, or food, but like most people, I have come to rely on strangers to help me on my way.

Fifteen years ago (longer ago than I care to remember), I visited France, as part of a two-month, trek through Europe. I had always heard, and still do for that matter, that the French are rude and not overly helpful towards tourists. But my experience on a cool, windy day, in a small French town shattered those pre-conceptions.

We were the only ones to step off the train in Arras. It was eerily quiet. Our intended destination was Vimy, a sacred place where thousands of Canadians lost their lives in the First World War. From the station, our guidebook suggested that Vimy was a “healthy hike”. But not knowing if the author was a marathon walker or a couch potato, we weren’t quite sure what a “healthy hike” was.

We wandered around to the front of the station, which looked just as deserted. The only clue to our destination was a small guidepost, which pointed in one direction. After a few minutes, we waved a car down, and I tried to summon all the French I had learned in school, which wasn’t much. There were three people in the car, and we spoke to a man, probably in his forties, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

He told us his father would return and drive us to the Memorial. Minutes later we found ourselves in the little car, zipping along a country road. The older man chatted away in French, and I in English. It all seemed to make sense. I could tell that he was grateful for the sacrifice made by Canadians. When we got to Vimy, he arranged with another visitor to drive us back.

The day ended when a couple from North Vancouver drove us back to the train station and offered us a bottle of wine, one of many they had purchased on their travels through France.

While on the same trip, we found ourselves in St. Goar, a quaint village on the banks of the Rhein River. The youth hostel was located in an old castle. Most castles were built in difficult to reach places. This particular one was perched on a cliff-side, high above the river. As we searched for the trail that would lead us up the mountain, a man stopped his car and asked if we were going to the youth hostel. “Jump in,” he said, “I’ll drive you up there.” The man lived in St. Goar and always felt sorry that visitors had to walk up to the hostel, so whenever if he sees someone, he offers them a ride.

In early 1998, Carrie and I were in Seoul, Korea. Carrie’s health was deteriorating, and we spent many days at the hospital seeing doctors. On one occasion, she had to have a number of tests, all of which had to be paid for in advance. Each wasn’t overly costly, but after several of these tests, my wallet had been emptied of cash. Turned out the hospital didn’t accept credit cards, so I went to a bank machine in hospital lobby. At the time, only a handful of ATMs in Seoul accepted foreign bank cards. And this wasn’t one of them.

Another test was ordered, but now I had to show my empty wallet to the nurse. It was difficult communicating to the nurse. How did I tell her that I had money, it was just in the bank not my wallet. Then an older woman, who seemed like a hospital volunteer, overheard our conversation and offered to pay for the tests. She gave me her bank account number and I assured her we would return the money in a few days time.

The next day, I was telling my students about this woman’s kind gesture. At the end of the class one of the students offered to make the deposit for me. I gave her the money and the next day she gave me a receipt from the bank.

A number of years ago, my wife and I were in Sydney, Australia (not to be confused with Sydney, Nova Scotia, where the odd wayward traveler some times ends up instead). It was late afternoon and we left the downtown area for my brother-in-law’s house, north of the city. We had the vaguest idea where we were going. Instead of taking the bus all the way, we decided to take a small ferry part way before connecting to a bus.

After some uncertainty as to which bus to take and where to get off, we arrived at a shopping centre, which served as a hub for city buses. We weren’t far from Bob’s house, but we still needed to find the right route to his house.

I should point out that it was May (late Fall in Australia), and I was the only person wandering around in shorts and a t-shirt. A cool rain had already started falling. And everyone we asked had no idea how to get to Bob’s house. Finally, after looking lost and being told to wait at various stops, a bus driver came to us and said, “My shift is over, you can hop on my bus.” He was delivering his bus to the depot, but on his way he made a detour, and dropped us off in front of Bob’s house. When we told my sister-in-law, a native Australian, about the kind bus driver that just dropped us off. She didn’t believe our story. “Our bus drivers aren’t that nice,” she said.” Well Des, there’s at least one.

When Carrie and I visited Iran, a work colleague arranged for her brother, who we had never met before, to tour us around Tehran. In the morning, Fereidoon arrived with a bouquet of flowers for Carrie. We climbed in his car, and drove through the crowded and chaotic streets of Tehran. Then we visited his parent’s home in the northern part of the city, where Iranian hospitality included copious amounts of tea, oranges, and cake. After filling our stomachs we headed off to Fereidoon’s home, about 40 minutes west of the Tehran, where his wife had prepared a gastronomic feast.

After a lazy afternoon, sharing stories with Fereidoon and his family, he drove us back into the city. The following morning we left Iran for a few days and traveled to Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates. We spent a few days here before returning to Iran and visiting Esfahan and Shiraz. Fereidoon offered to pick up our plane tickets and hotel reservations from the tour company, and would meet us at the airport around noon on the day we were scheduled to arrive back in Tehran.

As it turned out our morning flight from Sharjah to Iran had been cancelled. We were booked on on another flight, but it wouldn’t leave until 11:00 pm that night. This delay meant that we would miss our flight to Esfahan, and Fereidoon still had our tickets for the rest of our trip. He assured us by telephone that someone would be waiting for us at the airport with the tickets. When we arrived in Tehran, at 1:00 am, Fereidoon was there. But how and when would we get to Esfahan. Turned out Fereidoon had arranged an overnight taxi. And so we found ourselves racing across the Iranian desert in the middle of the night.

After a few days ambling through two of Iran's most beautiful and historic cities, we flew back to Tehran, where Fereidoon was again waiting. This time he took us back to his parent’s place where we stayed the night and enjoyed dinner with what seemed like family. Fereidoon's kindness and that of his family were a reflection of Persian hospitality.

Before arriving in Bucharest, my impressions of Romania were largely negative ones.
From all the stories I heard, I half expected to be attacked by roving gangs of gypsy kids at the airport. Instead, I was offered a ride into the city. I was looking for the bus outside the terminal and asked someone where the correct stop was. A man pointed to the stop a short distance away, but said that he was driving back into the city, and offered me a ride. What a pleasant introduction to Romania, as we drove into the city past wide, tree-lined boulevards.

I often reflect on these stories, and wonder if we would do the same. Would we open our homes or our wallets to someone we had never met? Would we go out of our way to drive a stranger somewhere? I like to think we would. You too must have stories of your own, when a stranger offered you a helping hand.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why we should care who Jørn Utzon was

Jørn Oberg Utzon died last month at the age of 90. If not for a brief mention in the latest issue of Maclean's magazine that piqued my interest, his name would have meant nothing to me, as I'm sure is the case for most people. Yet, he designed one of the world's most iconic buildings. And while it is arguably this city's most photographed site, Utzon never got to see the completed building. In fact, when it was opened in 1973, he wasn't invited, nor was his name mentioned.

In 1957, Utzon won the competition to design this building. It was his first competition outside his home country of Denmark. From the beginning the project was mired in political interference. And it was politics that would eventually befall Utzon, when he was forced to resign as Chief Architect in 1966, after the government stopped payment on the project.
Decades later he was brought in as the building's architect to develop a set of design principles to at as a guide for all future changes. And in 2003, was honoured with the Pritzker Prize, Architecture's highest honour.

Fifty years after Utzon won the design competition, the building was declared a World Heritage Site, and the expert evaluation report to the World Heritage Committee stated: “…it stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind.”

It's a shame that Utzon never got to see his masterpiece, but as his son commented about his father's work, "...as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it."

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the opening of Sydney's Opera House.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Children can be a detriment to one's health

My youngest son was screaming his face off last night (sometimes my other son does that too, but not last night, thankfully). I was holding my son while said screaming was happening, which means the sound, and not a pretty one at that, was traveling right into my ear.

I thought to myself (because no one would have heard me if I vocalized the thought) that there must be some inherent danger to my health and well being, as I was forced to endure this incessant noise. Somehow noise just isn’t the best descriptor for the high-pitched sound that emanates from deep inside this screaming kid. It’s kind of like when I try to explain the snoring sound that roared and grunted from this animal-like person that I had to sleep above in an Austrian youth hostel. Sometimes there isn’t a word that can adequately describe something. This is the case with my son.

I handed my son to my wife and walked away.

“What are you doing,” she asked.

“I’m refusing unsafe work…”

Wife looks perplexed

“…it’s in my contract that I can refuse unsafe work, and according to the latest worksafe regulations your son’s (insert glare from wife)—I mean, our son’s screaming is unsafe.”

Forget listening to loud music, or working next to a jet (now, how do I get that job), or riding a jack hammer like a pogo stick, the son’s decibel crushing scream is ruining what little hearing I have left. And my wife wonders why I can’t hear her.

After pawning son off to wife, I made a hasty retreat to bed, so I could recover from the relentless ringing in my ears. (Okay, before you all think I'm shirking my fatherly duties, my wife can cheat by shoving her mamories in son's mouth for a feed, which usually keeps him quiet)

Then he started again. And making matters worse, federal regulations require a baby monitor to be installed throughout our house, which seems pointless considering someone would have to be deaf not to hear some shrieking baby, especially this one. “Would someone shut this kid up,” I wanted to yell. But I knew that no one would hear me.

I’ve now resorted to disassociation. We were at a townhouse Christmas party last weekend, and my wife was talking to our neighbour, whose very quiet baby was born one day before our shrieking son.

“So, do you hear him,” my wife asked.

What she really wanted to know was, do you hear him through the walls of our house?

Yes, sometimes,” our neighbour reluctantly offered.

“Oh yes, I can here him too,” I said, pretending not to be associated with wife and son.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Most of us have never experienced fear

Fear Grips Nation. That was the ominous sounding headline splashed across the front of The Province, with a picture of a brooding sky and a Canadian flag. In a word or two--one of the most sensationalist and ludicrous newspaper covers that I have seen in years. Apparently, 75% of Canadians are truly scared for the future of the country--so says a poll published in the paper. Let’s get real. We need to grow up and put an end to this lunacy. Yes, we find ourselves in a time of unprecedented political instability, but the sun will rise tomorrow, chickens will still lay eggs, and salmon will amazingly find their way back to the river of their birth. And Canada will forge along as it has for 141 years.

Most of us have never experienced real fear.

Fear is when you were the sole income earner, and you just lost your job, or you’re not sure where you’ll find some money to buy your kids presents at Christmas, or you don’t where you’ll sleep tonight, because you have no home to go to. Fear is when a soldier points a gun at your husband’s head and shoots him, and then rapes your daughter. Fear is when you have to walk miles through the searing heat looking for clean drinking water, or when war drives you to pack up all your belongings (which you can carry in your hands), and forces you to trek for hundreds of miles to another country, only to find yourself with thousands of others crammed into a refugee camp, uncertain if you will ever return to your home. Fear is when the Ebola virus, or some other insidious disease, sweeps through your impoverished village.

Fear is when you know you are drowning and you take one gasp of air before slipping beneath the surface. Fear is when you are trapped in a burning building, or lost and injured on a freezing hillside, or you lose your brakes while driving down a steep mountain road. Fear is when a foreign army rolls across the border and occupies your town. Fear is when you and your family are huddled in the cellar of your house waiting for the monstrous destruction of a tornado or hurricane to pass, or when you survive a massive earthquake, only to find that 100,000 of your neighbours perished and cholera is now rampant. Fear is when your son, who has found a home in the South Side Compton Crip gang, gives you a hug on his way out the door, and you wonder if it will be the last time you see him alive.