Friday, September 28, 2007

Take Him To The Stars

It has been almost a year since my friend, Buff Schemmer, took his life and yet every time I hear a motorcycle coming down the street I think, "Here comes Buff. I wonder what's on his mind today?"

And then I remember. Buff won't be visiting anymore.

I think about Buff every day, but he was in my thoughts even more over the past few weeks as I read the final galley proofs of an autobiography on him that has been written by Phillip Whitford. Months ago, when Phillip first asked me to read a rough draft of the book, I hesitated. I was just beginning to heal from the tragedy of his death and I felt that reading a book about him would reopen fresh wounds.

But I did read it, and I've read two subsequent drafts.

I will paste my review of the book below. It will be posted on the Take Him To the Stars webpage where information about the book, its launch and a host of other things can be found, but let me say this. The book is written with tremendous compassion, wisdom, and keen insight. Reading it brought increased healing as I learned so much about the man that I did not know. Feelings of guilt over my own sometimes rocky relationship with Buff have been put to rest. I was the best friend I could be to him, and he was also being the best person he could be. Neither of us was perfect.

My Review:

After months of painstaking research, digging deep and conducting many interviews, Phillip Whitford has written a book that connects the thousands of interlocking puzzle pieces that make up Mike (Buff) Schemmer’s life and in doing so has formed a complete image that makes sense of the complicated person that Buff was.

Beginning with Buff’s early years, Whitford describes the awkwardness Buff felt in school when his physical size never matched his social maturity. We get a peek at the many unhappy incidents that Buff endured, including abuse and bullying by peers and teachers that were instrumental in shaping the man he was to become. The story then progresses into Buff’s adult years where Whitford, with tremendous wisdom, contrasts the passionate, exuberant man we saw on the outside with the troubled, lonely and depressed person he was on the inside. Whitford even manages to make sense of why Buff ended his life so tragically, allowing the reader to find closure.

This biography of Buff Schemmer does not gloss over the prickly edges of Buff’s character, but accurately portrays the complex man he was. At the same time, Whitford reminds us of Buff’s incredible accomplishments: his unrelenting efforts to protect at risk children and adults, his thousands of volunteer hours spent coaching countless children, and his passion for writing and theatre. In the end, this book shows how Buff could and did help everyone but himself.

Buff’s life ended far too soon, but Take Him to the Stars is a powerful legacy of a remarkable man.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What goes around...

Matthew was only 10 years old when he began dropping by my classroom at the end of the day. He'd never been my student but we became acquainted when I coached a team he played on. I'd invite him into my room and put him to work hanging artwork or tidying up and while we worked he'd chat about himself. I could tell he was an unhappy little guy but he claimed that his Grade Five teacher was special and that he was helping Matthew turn his life around. In fact, Matthew was so impressed by this teacher that he vowed that he, too, would become a teacher so that he could make a difference in the lives of troubled kids.

Fast forward 15 years. I am no longer teaching school but am writing novels for children and teenagers. That same school I once taught at invited me back to do an author presentation for their students. I had a terrific morning with three classes of Grade 7 students. While I was working with them, I noticed a young teacher sitting at the back of the room, listening intently, but I focused on the students and didn't pay much attention to him.

At the end of the session the students and teachers filed out of the library and back to their classrooms. I began cleaning up my books and didn't at first notice that the young teacher had returned to the library and was waiting to speak with me.

"You don't recognize me, do you," he said when I finally noticed him. He was fidgeting, clearly uncomfortable.

I shook my head. "No. "

"I'm Matthew. I used to be a student at this school and I often came to visit you in your classroom."

I'm sure my mouth dropped open. Little Matthew had grown up and done exactly what he said he was going to do, and here he was teaching at the same school that he'd once attended. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he began to look uncomfortable again. "I often think of you," he said. "And I even thought of writing you a letter. I wanted to thank you for always listening to my problems." He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked away. "Now that I'm a teacher I find that I, too, have students who want to hang back at the end of the day and talk. When I grow impatient with them, I recall how you always had time to listen to me. Remembering that helps me find the patience for my own students. I'm glad you came here today so I could tell you that."

I thanked Matthew, and we both went on our way, but for me, my life was permanently altered. I am so grateful that Matthew came back into the library and told me his story. Knowing that I made a difference in someone's life, and that it is now being 'played forward' is a gift I will always treasure. How incredibly lucky I was to run into him.

As I drove home that day I began making a mental list of people from my own past who I wish I could thank. First on the list would be my own grade five teacher. She was one of the gifted ones and it was because of her that I chose to become a teacher myself....
What goes around comes around.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Restocking the fish pond

"In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well stocked fish pond... If we don't give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked... As artists, we must learn to be self nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them - to restock the trout pond, so to speak." (Julia Cameron)

When I finished writing Sister Wife last June I knew I'd depleted my artistic reservoir. I felt emotionally drained, without a burning desire to start anything new. That's when I started this blog. It has encouraged me to write something, anything, fairly regularly, and I've come to enjoy it.

But the summer has come and gone and I still haven't started a new project. Julia Cameron (author of the above quote) suggests that we take ourselves on artist dates, at least once a week, in order to keep the inner well stocked, and in my case, to begin restocking it. With that in mind, I set out, with Winston, to visit a local church that has recently painted a labyrinth in its parking lot.

A labyrinth is a circuitous path, an ancient symbol of our life journey. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful route. Walking it represents a journey to our own center, our deepest self and back again with a broadened understanding of who we are.

The church parking lot was empty so I tied the dog to a tree and entered the labyrinth. At first I felt a little foolish as I wandered back and forth along the path, but as I got a little further into it I was able to quiet my mind and relax. Unlike the maze, in a labyrinth there are no dead ends, and everyone who walks the path will eventually reach the center. I quickly realized why this walk leads to meditation. You have to focus hard on your feet and the windy path just ahead of them in order to stay on it, and this clears your mind of all other clutter.

I've been told that if you ask yourself a question as you enter the labyrinth, the answer may unfold before you complete the journey. When you reach the centre, you enjoy quiet reflection for as long as you like and then you follow the same path out again. From there you can take the insights from your walk into your everyday life. Knowing this, I asked for insight on my next writing project. What should I write about? Who should the audience be? Should I step away from teen fiction for awhile and try something new? Should I dust off an old, unpublished story and rework it?

I walked to the center. I walked out again. Did I receive the answers to my questions? No, (and no big surprise there) but the experience reminded me of something I'd discovered years ago when my youngest daughter was in kindergarten. I'd write like a demon all morning while she was in school and then walk over there at lunch time to to pick her up. Many, many times, as I walked to the school, not even consciously thinking about my writing project, an answer for a problem I was having with it would suddenly come to me. Over and over this phenomena took me by surprise.

It must be the same principal with the labyrinth. The next time I visit it I will breathe deep, clear my mind, and enjoy. The answers I may receive won't be the ones I might have thought to ask, but I know I will come away more balanced, refreshed, and with insights that came directly from the universe, or even, more likely, the center of my deepest self. I will expect to be enlightened.


Monday, September 17, 2007

I'm mad!

A young person (YP) I know and love parked her car at the side of the road and went to work. When she finished her shift at her minimum wage, part time job she returned to her car and discovered that someone had backed into it and left the hood and driver's side of the car smashed in. The person who hit her didn't leave a note, nothing. This was upsetting to YP as she knows she will have to pay the $750.00 deductible to get her car fixed and that equals a lot of long shifts at work.

Today she went to the ICBC claim centre to report the damage. This is the part that makes me really really MAD. The situation was frustrating enough, she had done nothing wrong, was going to be out of pocket $750, but then the claims adjuster proceeded to ridicule her!

I know I know. Mr. Claims Adjuster would say that he was just doing his job, that he has to weed out the dishonest clients, that insurance fraud is rampant, but did he need to use that tone of voice?? In her polite and respectful way she told him that she only works part time, so then he asked her what she did with the rest of her day. "Do you just sit around and twiddle your thumbs?"

The conversation went downhill from there, he twisted her words around, made unfair accusations and by the time he was finished she felt like a criminal yet she was the one who'd had a crime committed against her! Was it really too hard for him to conduct himself in a professional manner? Would he have spoken to the YP's tall and robust father with the same sarcastic tone of voice?

I wonder how Mr. Claims Adjuster feels when he goes home at the end of the day? Victorious in his war against insurance fraud? Oh wow! He really showed her who was boss!

I suspect that if we dug a little deeper we'd discover that this person was bullied when he was younger and is now dealing with his latent anger by bullying back, under the guise of 'work'. Perhaps he deserves my compassion instead of my anger and maybe in time I'll be able to muster up a little pity, but right now I'm just mad. Spitting mad.

“The best index to a person’s character is (a) how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can’t fight back.”
— Abigail van Buren


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Treading Lightly

Did you know that 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags are produced world-wide each year? The negative ecological impact from just producing these bags is alarming, but then where do they end up? Sure, some are reused to line garbage cans or to ‘scoop poop’, but in the US alone 100 billion plastic grocery bags are thrown away annually. That’s a lot of bags eventually ending up in landfills and spilling out onto every other surface of the planet, choking and suffocating countless numbers of marine seabirds and mammals.

But there is good news! This is one environmental problem that isn't complicated. Each of us can make a difference by using reusable cloth bags when we shop.

In the past few months I’ve noticed a sudden increase in the number of us carrying our own bags into the grocery store. Hurray! It’s just another small step, like purchasing free-range eggs (see last post) that shows the planet we care.

Now, if I could only remember to lug-a-mug when I go to coffee shops...

I’m working on it.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Happy Eggs

David Suzuki is one of my heroes. He writes a column for the Vancouver Sun called Small Steps where he lists simple things that each of us can do to make a difference to the health of our planet. All the little things we do will add up to make a big difference.

One of the little things I do is support the Vancouver Humane Society. This society works hard to promote and ensure the humane treatment of animals.

In recent months they have focused on the plight of battery chicken (egg-laying hens that are kept in small cages.) On their Chicken Out! website ( they describe the living conditions of these chicken.

"In battery cages, there is no space for hens to flap or stretch their wings. When they try, their wings sometimes become trapped in the bars of the cage. Vertical space is limited and hens are often unable to stand up fully and raise their heads without hitting the bars of the cage.

Their beaks are sliced off with a laser or hot blade to prevent pecking at other birds.

The birds are clearly suffering from extreme feather loss, and you will even see some escaped birds left to languish on a pile of manure three feet deep.

Battery barns in Canada hold thousands of cages, each holding five to seven birds, in tiers of two to eight cages high, with farms averaging 17,100 birds."

All it takes is one small step by consumers and we can end this cruel treatment of hens. We simply have to purchase free-range eggs (or Happy Eggs as my family calls them.) (The picture at the top of this post is of happy, cage-free birds.) The eggs of cage-free birds cost a little more, but it is worth it. Just check out the photos on the Chicken Out! website and you'll never buy eggs from battery chicken again.