How and Why I Remember Canada’s Fallen Soldiers

It’s been a long time since I sat down to put my thoughts to internet paper. With a full-time editing job and freelancing writing on the side on evenings and weekends, it can sometimes be a challenge for me to find a few spare moments to do my own writing. It usually requires something I care passionately enough about. Which is why I am sharing my thoughts today. 

Military Beginnings

I grew up as what many would derisively call “an army brat.” It certainly had its downsides, not least of which was moving too often for my liking, but overall I never really thought much about my dad’s military career. To me, it was just my dad’s job, no different than the jobs other dads did.

Until I was in my teens. Until my dad was posted to peacekeeping duty in the Golan Heights in the Middle East. Only then did I start to think about what could happen to my father while he was on duty. I didn’t know exactly where Golan Heights was, or anything other than that the people there had been in conflict for a very long time. Yes, dad’s mission was classified as peacekeeping, but everything I’d ever heard about the Middle East until then made me aware things could easily change in a moment.

I worried a lot when dad was gone. It was in those six months, when I’d lie awake at night and wonder if he was safe—if he would come home—that I truly began to understand what my dad’s work in the military meant, not only for him and for my family, but for Canada. With that understanding came a new pride in the fact that my father was in the military.

Too Many

It wasn’t until the Afghanistan war that I fully realized how lucky we’d been as a military family. Although dad did go to the Middle East on his peacekeeping mission, he also came back, and he never engaged in combat in this 32 years of service. In recent decades, other military families have not been so lucky. They have seen their loved ones go off to war, and their loved ones have seen things no human being should ever have to see. Too many Canadian soldiers came back scarred and wounded. Too many never came back at all.

That point was driven home deeply one day in late 2006. I was living in the Middle East myself by then, teaching at a college in Abu Dhabi. My dearest friend Bev had a brother who was serving in Afghanistan. Because I was away from home, I often read the Edmonton Journal online. That day, I read a headline that two Canadian soldiers had been killed by a suicide bomber. For the first time, reading such a headline gave me more than just a general sense of sadness; instead a sick feeling settled in my gut. Later that night, I arrived home from work to find an email from Bev. It had no subject line.

Before I opened and read the email, I already knew what it would say. Corporal Albert Storm had been one of the soldiers killed that day, November 27, 2006.

My friend’s life changed forever that day, as did those of her family and the family of Sergeant Major Robert Girouard, who was killed in the same senselessly tragic attack.

Project Heroes 

My gratitude for having my father come home from the military and retire when so many others did not and my sorrow for my friend’s loss and the way it irrevocably changed her life led me to Project Heroes, an art exhibit created by three Edmonton artists: Susan Abma, Shairl Honey and Cindy Revell.  The title of the exhibit is “Canada in Afghanistan: The Faces and Stories of Sacrifice.”

These three women spent years tirelessly painting the portraits of soldiers killed in Afghanistan so that their sacrifices would be remembered and honoured and so that Canadians could get a small glimpse of who each soldier was as a person and all the specific things that were lost when they lost their lives.

In January of this year, I read an ad in the WestWord newsletter (Writers’ Guild of Alberta) looking for writers to write profiles of the soldiers. I knew instantly that I wanted to contribute to this project and got in touch the same day. To date, I have had the honour and the privilege of writing profiles of eight soldiers.

Corporal Karine Blais

Private Garrett Chidley

Corporal Matthew Dinning

Corporal Shane Keating

Corporal Mark Robert McLaren

Captain Jonathan Snyder

Corporal Albert Storm

Private Blake Williamson

When I sat to write each profile, I had a research packet of information and anecdotes from the soldier’s loved ones. I also had a copy of the portrait that I set up beside my computer. The deep responsibility I felt as I wrote the profiles surprised me. I needed to get the facts right, but also to capture the spirits of these brave people who put everything on the line for what they—and we—believe in: freedom, democracy, justice.

Another surprise was how well I was able to get to know the soldiers from these snippets of their lives and these artistic renderings of their faces. I could connect with who they were from their eyes and their facial expressions.  Through the process of writing about the soldiers, I learned more about their military careers. More importantly, I learned about what and who they loved and left behind, and in doing so, appreciated their sacrifices in a much more personal way.

I cannot thank Project Heroes enough for the opportunity to know and share these soldiers’ spirits with other Canadians. I cannot thank the soldiers, their families and their friends enough for their sacrifices. I hope that I have indeed accurately represented each soldier’s essence and that their loved ones accept these profiles as the gifts of thanks I intend them to be. This is how and why I remember Canada’s soldiers this November and every November.

Lest We Forget.

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My Memorable Moments of 2013

Another year is over. The speed with which 2013 moved was astonishing. When I was young, my mother used to warn me about how fast time would fly when I got older. I didn’t believe her then, but I do now.

2013 was a big year in my life, one in which I made many fond memories (personal and professional). Here are my top memorable moments of this year (in no particular order other than how the popped into my head).

  1. Editor Status In January, I started my first full-time editing job as my practicum (the final requirement) to complete my Bachelor of Applied Communications in Professional Writing degree from MacEwan University in Edmonton. It was scary to work in the real world of words instead of playing with them as a hobby—but also awesome. I still get a little thrill when people ask, “What do you do?” and I can say, “I’m an editor.”
  2. The Finish Line Speaking of my degree, I finally finished it at the end of August. When I hit the send button on my final assignment to my practicum supervisor, I was elated. I did it! I finished the thing that I had been too afraid to try for many years. And I was successful at it instead of falling on my face like I’d long feared. What a great feeling.
  3.  Newspapers The daily newspaper is important to me, so it was one of my joys of this year to be published (3 times!) in the Edmonton Journal (the first newspaper I ever read and one I followed even when I lived overseas). A big thanks to my editor, Helen Metella, for giving me the opportunity.
  4. Magazines I have been a magazine reader for most of my life, but I was over the moon this year to become a magazine writer. My first published magazine piece was published this September in Edmonton Woman magazine. The best part is that the article, Czeching Out Prague’s Communist Era, was also about travel, which is one of my favourite things to do. A big thanks to my editor, Danielle Higdon, for giving me that opportunity. I have had more articles published in EW and had pitches accepted at other local magazines for articles to be published in 2014.
  5. Other New Writing Tasks  Although I am an editor by day, I write at night and on weekends, and I love it too. This year I also got to work on a number of new types of writing as a freelance writer. I wrote a brochure, a tour script, a white paper and web content for Shaw Conference Centre. I enjoyed stretching my writing skills in new directions, and I especially enjoyed writing these pieces because they focus on sustainability, which is a topic I am interested in on a personal level.
  6. Hungry for Hungary  Although work was a big area of memories for me this year, so was play. One of my favourite forms of play is travel. This year, my husband Roland and I visited Budapest, Hungary, which was on my wish list for a long time. What a delight! Both sides of the river have amazing things to offer, and the main thermal spa was a lovely way to spend the day. Our hotel room overlooked the famous Chain Bridge, which was beautiful all lit up at night. I definitely see a return to Hungary in my future.
  7. Rollin’ on the River Budapest is on the Danube River and served as the starting point for the Avalon River Cruise we took from Budapest to Nuremburg. Although we’d already been to some stops on the cruise, such as my favourite European city (Vienna), we got to see many new places and also to just watch the scenic countryside go by while sipping wine on the upper deck.
  8. Czech Mates The final stops on our summer travel adventure were in the Czech Republic to visit friends we hadn’t seen in so many years that we lost count. It was lovely to catch up with them and to see some favourite old places while we were there. Two of the tops were Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage site where some of our friends live and where we took a lovely afternoon rafting trip through the medieval town and into the countryside, and Plzen, where we took a tour of the Pilsner Urquell brewery (which was delightfully chilly on a 40-degree Celsius day).

Overall 2013 was a good year. I hope it was for you too. I also wish you and your loved ones health & happiness, love & laughter in 2014!

Budapest Chain Bridge

Budapest Chain Bridge

View from the Danube River

View from the Danube River

Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov

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A Canadian in the Middle East on 9/11: A Different Perspective

9/11. Unless you live in a cave—and perhaps even if you do—you remember exactly where you were when you first heard what happened on that world-altering day. You probably also remember the following days and weeks in stark, vivid detail. The terror attacks on the US that day were the JFK moment of my generation. Until then, we saw the world in a certain way; afterwards, we never saw it that way again. I am amazed by how vastly different and yet so much alike people’s experiences of 9/11 in Western countries were, save for those who lived the horror directly and who therefore have a deeper, darker experience of it. The rest of us, less directly impacted, learned of the tragedy in different places, at different times, yet we all felt—and still feel—remarkably similar emotions: rage, sadness, confusion. I felt those same emotions, but I also felt additional emotions that most Canadians did not. I was not in Canada on September 11, 2001; I was living in the Middle East.

With the time change, the events of 9/11 took place for me in the middle of the afternoon. I’d just returned home from Abu Dhabi Men’s College[1] where I was in only my second week as an English teacher teaching male Emirati soldiers. After work, as always, I got a snack from the kitchen, sat down and turned the satellite TV to The Today Show, which I watched daily to keep up with North American news since there were no Canadian channels. As I switched on the TV, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer were discussing reports that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Like most people, I thought in the initial moments that they were discussing a small private plane that had accidentally crashed, perhaps after the pilot lost control. I watched the story wondering about the safety of the pilot, the crew and the passengers. I had no idea then that the pilot and the crew at that moment were hijackers or that the world would be changed by that crash and the three that had not yet happened. Watching live footage of the flaming first tower, it soon became apparent that the plane in question must have been large, perhaps a jet, but even then it didn’t occur either to me or to the announcers that the crash was intentional. How could we, at that time, even envision such a thing? An act of terror would be our first thought now, but it certainly wasn’t on that day, before we learned so tragically about international terrorism.

Within moments, my husband Roland returned from his job at Abu Dhabi Women’s College and asked what I was watching. He was standing in the living room, so I looked away from the screen to relay the story. Seconds later, he said, “What’s that?” I returned my gaze to the TV just in time to see the second plane smash into the second tower in a blazing burst. It was then that it first occurred to me that these events were not random. The idea of terrorism was difficult for my brain to process, but what I was seeing could only have been premeditated, in spite of one person’s speculation that perhaps there was an air traffic control problem. Hearing Matt Lauer suggest “something deliberate” out loud crystallized what had previously been only a faraway concept into something close up and real. So real that I sat in my chair, watched the news coverage and cried in disbelief and despair for hours. I was, of course, crying for all the victims inside the planes and the buildings—later including the Pentagon—and their loved ones. I didn’t know that I should also have been shedding tears for all the other things that would be lost that day and in its aftermath: our sense of peace and security, our belief in the goodness of the world, the Canadian soldiers, and others, who lost their lives in the ensuing wars, the other innocent victims who were not soldiers but who lost their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere fighting for peace and freedom in their homelands where the terrorists had grown roots.

I couldn’t eat dinner that night, and I didn’t want to go to bed. I was riveted to the screen. Some time before midnight, Roland pried me off the sofa and made me try to sleep. I could not. I was consumed by my shock and sadness—but also suddenly concerned about the now-scary Middle Eastern world outside my safe apartment and about teaching my Middle Eastern military students the next morning. I don’t recall whether I heard “Al Qaeda” that first day, but the idea of Islamic terrorists being responsible for the attacks was already circulating, as was the name Bin Laden. As I tried to sleep, questions surged through my mind. Who could I trust and who couldn’t I? Who that I might see or talk to on the street might sympathize with the attackers? Would these attacks spur other massive attacks on Westerners, this time here in the Middle East? What if some crazed Islamic fundamentalist was so buoyed by the attacks that he decided to attack a Westerner randomly on the street?

When I woke the next day, my stomach twisted like a stick of black liquorice. My palms perspired. My heart hammered hard against my ribs. I had to take a taxi to work, and the driver was a Middle Eastern man. On the surface, the ride with him should have been the same as any other, but it was not because the world—and the way I saw it—had changed. I didn’t know what to expect anymore from the people around me, and I was scared. In retrospect, I see that my fear was irrational, but back then fear felt like a reasonable response to a suddenly unreasonable world. When I arrived at college, the Western teachers spoke with shock and sadness and shared their experiences of the previous day. My friend Arthur had a brother in New York and was trying, so far unsuccessfully, to make contact to confirm whether he was safe OK. A few American co-workers took a sick day, and I wished I’d have taken one as well. The closer the time came for my first class, the more strain I felt. Will the students say nothing? Will they say something? Will they laugh? Will they brag? How will I respond if they behave or speak unkindly?

Walking to class, everything inside me tensed like a guitar string. Before entering the classroom, I tried to affix a normal expression on my face, to seem unfazed by the previous day’s events. In the class, one or two students approached me and said, “Sorry for what happened, miss.” I was grateful for their concern, and I relaxed a little. I began the class as I normally do: said hello, got their attention, took attendance and introduced the first part of the lesson, which was a vocabulary game. I explained the game to the class and split the students into two teams. I asked the team on my left for a team name. “Sharks,” they shouted. I turned away, wrote the name on the board and then, without turning back to face the group, asked the other team for a name. “Bin Laden,” several shouted.

My stomach and shoulders tightened further. For a split second, I paused, upset and unsure what to do. I took a deep breath and quickly decided to ignore the whole thing. Relieved they couldn’t see my face, I said, “Come on gentlemen, I need a name,” as if I’d never heard what was shouted a moment ago. “Tigers,” was the answer. I wrote that name on the board, re-affixed a neutral look on my face, turned around and carried on. Over and over, I kept thinking, “Never let them see you sweat.” So I didn’t, even though I left the room three hours later feeling sicker than ever. After class, I taxied home again and locked myself in the apartment for the whole weekend[2], not wanting any further contact with people who might feel a kinship to the attackers or who might pose a physical threat.

On September 12, 2001, I thought some of my students admired Bin Laden and that’s why they shouted his name at me. I was scared, hurt and horrified. I didn’t want to go on teaching them, although I did because I was under contract. I also refused to leave the country out of fear and distress because I refused to let the terrorists terrorize me. In time, and with more experience of Abu Dhabi, its culture and its lifestyle, I realized that those students only wanted to see what I would do, how I would respond. They were testing me to see if I would scream, cry or collapse, in much the same way all students test the boundaries of their teachers. When I didn’t respond, they carried on as normal because I did. Perhaps my present perception of their actions is naive. Perhaps I don’t want to see the situation accurately. Perhaps some of the students secretly harboured feelings of pleasure and triumph over the attacks. I will never know for sure.

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Ugly Spring is Here. When Will Pretty Spring Show Up?

When most people hear the word “spring,” they think about warm sun, birds chirping, sprouting buds on the trees, flowers breaking ground and beginning to bloom. In my part of Canada—Edmonton—those joyous things come, in what I call “pretty spring.”

But first we must endure weeks of what I call “ugly spring.”  The air still chills, especially when the wind blows, which is often. The temperature still goes below zero at night, and flurries are still sometimes in the forecast. Some parts of the grass are still buried under snow. Other parts are over-laid with fuzzy grey snow mold or are brown and beaten—except where they are submerged below melt water puddles. The roads and sidewalks are covered in puddles, ice, mud or gravel. No matter which of these things greets you, alone or in combination, the mess gets tracked everywhere, even into your house. There is little to cherish about ugly spring. It’s simply one more insult from nature for us to bear.

After our especially long winter in Edmonton this year, including last week’s 30+ centimetres of snow,  all I can say now is this: “Pretty spring, please hurry. We have missed you. We have waited long enough for you and for your friend summer.”

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Sleep Cravings from Daylight Savings

In many locations tonight, including here in Edmonton, we will shift to Daylight Savings Time (DST) with the traditional “spring forward” change of the clock. The theory behind DST, of course, is that adding an extra hour of sunlight to the evening brings many benefits:

  • fewer road accidents and related injuries
  • more evening social time
  • boosts to tourism from increased outdoor activities
  • electricity savings from needing fewer lights at night

These benefits are increasingly debated, especially electricity savings. Some studies show the savings exist. Other studies show they do not. I believe that although the evenings are lighter, the mornings are darker, at least at the beginning of the DST shift. In my opinion, any energy saved at night is simply moved to mornings instead. I am no scientist, though, so I could be wrong.

What concerns me are the harms associated with DST, especially its effects on sleep. I have always dreaded the idea of losing an hour of sleep each spring. Some argue it’s not really a sleep loss because you don’t actually sleep any less. The time is different, but you still sleep the same number of hours you normally would. I am not sure if that’s true or not. What I am sure of is that I feel like I slept less. And I am not alone.

Many people feel DST affects sleeping patterns and body clocks. They complain of sleepiness, headaches and stress. Sleep deprivation is known to have a negative impact on health, particularly heart health. A 2008 study, Shifts to and from Daylight Saving Time and Incidence of Myocardial Infarction by Imre Janszky and Rickard Ljungand, found heart attacks increased significantly for the first three weekdays after we spring forward. The same study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found DST interrupts our biological rhythms, which affects quality and length of sleep. This impact lasts for many days. It’s no wonder many of us get sleep cravings from Daylight Savings.

These sleep cravings are similar to the negative impact of jet lag that I have become too familiar with from my years of world travel. I wanted to know if there are any ways to help my body make the transition to DST, so I looked it up. It turns out some of the tips for jet lag can also help with your sleep cravings from Daylight Savings.

Here are some simple, natural suggestions.

  • Take a walk or a run. Exercise stimulates serotonin and other brain chemicals connected with sleep.
  • Take in some bright natural light. An hour or two should do.
  • Trick the body into thinking it’s later than it is by eating dinner early.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol—well known sleep disturbers— in the afternoons and evenings for the next several days.

Ultimately, the best solution would be to eliminate Daylight Savings Time. Since that is not likely to happen any time soon, at least not for this year, I will have to live with my sleep cravings and the return to near darkness when I go to work in the mornings—and enjoy the only practical DST benefit for me—my extra hour of sunlight in the evenings.

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Do you love or loathe Valentine’s Day? Part 2

Last year, I took a course in rhetoric. One of our assignments was to write two arguments about one topic, an invective (against) and an encomium (for). My topic was Valentine’s Day. Yesterday I posted the first argument. Here is the second.

Valentine’s Day is the “day of love.” Since we value love above all else, we must value Valentine’s Day with equal passion.

February 14 is a holiday that celebrates love, not just romantic love but all kinds of love: love for pets, love for friends, love for family. The date may seem like it is all about flowers, cards and candies, but it is about our passions, our hearts and our souls.

The Day of Valentine is believed to have begun in the third century.  Roman Emperor Claudius outlawed marriage because he believed single men made better soldiers than married men. A Catholic priest named Valentine believed in love so deeply that he secretly married young couples anyway despite substantial risks to his own life. Claudius soon discovered Valentine’s secret ceremonies and sentenced him to death. The “day of love” was later named after Valentine, whose birthday was believed to be February 14. In honour of this lovely story of one young saint’s belief in love, we celebrate this sacred emotion with this special holiday even today.

Valentine’s Day is wholesome, pure and good. It is peaceful, joyous and heart-filling. Valentine’s Day is everything a holiday was meant to be.

February 14 gives all of us the chance to let our feelings be known and shown. It gives all of us the chance to remove ourselves from our hectic lives and share special moments with the people connected to us in our hearts. Most days of the year, we get up and propel ourselves through the day without much thought about those around us. Our only goal is to make it through the day and do what needs to be done. Valentine’s Day is the one day in the year of crazy days when we take the time to slow down, appreciate our loved ones and—most importantly of all—show them how much we appreciate them. Without it, we might never share these sentiments with the most important people in our lives.

This special holiday is like Christmas. It only arrives once a year, but when it does, we are given a precious gift: love, the most priceless gift of all.

February 14 is a day to look forward to, a day to open your heart and share your feelings with those you love. The essence of Valentine’s Day is love, so it is the essence of ourselves because we are love.

If you read both posts, do you know which one reflects my true attitude about Valentine’s Day?

In theory, if I have argued well, you should not be able to tell; I should be able to argue each side as well as the other.

So did I manage that? Or is it obvious whether I love or loathe Valentine’s Day?


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Do you love or loathe Valentine’s Day? Part 1

Last year, I took a course in rhetoric. One of our assignments was to write two arguments about one topic, an invective (against) and an encomium (for). My topic was Valentine’s Day. Here is the first argument.

Valentine’s Day is a day of love—or is it a day of disappointment? Talk to any single person, and she will tell you that Valentine’s Day does not bring thoughts of love. Instead, it brings thoughts of despair and questions of desirability. Talk to any coupled person, and he will tell you that Valentine’s Day does not bring romance. Instead, it brings disappointed expectations and deferred gratifications.

Valentine’s Day is built on guilt. It is simply another occasion, falsely deemed a “holiday,” that is created and perpetuated by businesses for the sake of sales. Your partner expects that you will show an appropriate level of appreciation of the qualities you admire. You feel you must purchase a gift or make a grand gesture that approximates your level of admiration. Your guilt at not wanting to let your partner down makes you rush out and make that expensive purchase or grand gesture. And the jewellery stores, chocolate boutiques and flower shops rejoice to the sounds of this cash register sonata.

The Day of Valentine is believed to have begun in the third century.  Roman Emperor Claudius outlawed marriage because he believed single men made better soldiers than married men. A Catholic priest named Valentine believed in love and thought this decree was unjust, so he secretly married young couples anyway. Claudius soon discovered Valentine’s crimes and sentenced him to death. The “day of love” was later named after Valentine, whose birthday was supposedly February 14. This lovely story of love, though, is nothing more than an unsubstantiated myth.

If Valentine’s Day was merely a commemoration of a saint who believed in love, that would have been acceptable. Instead the concept has been corrupted. Nowadays, it is a commercial machine with greed at its heart. It cares nothing for romance or love; it cares only for currency and profit.

Valentine’s Day is a disappointment waiting to happen. No matter what you do for your partner, it will never satiate the hunger hiding in her heart. No matter what your partner does for you, it will never satisfy the longing lurking in your soul. Valentine’s Day is a lose-lose situation for every couple—and even more so for the uncoupled, who are guaranteed disappointment because they are alone.

Like the meaning of Christmas, the meaning of Valentine’s Day has been corrupted. When you don’t get what you hoped for on Valentine’s Day, it is like a child waking up on Christmas morning to find that Santa Claus has left coal in your stocking or worse—never stopped by at all.

February 14 is supposed to be a day to look forward to, a day to open your heart and share your feelings with those you love. Instead, it has become a day to dread, a day to open your wallet and buy things for those you love.

Stay tuned tomorrow for “Do you love or loathe Valentine’s Day? Part 2.”

What about you? Do you love or loathe Valentine’s Day? Share your thoughts here.

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