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A Meditation on Cancer, Climate Change, and Life

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Astronaut Piers Sellers recently published an article in The New York Times Sunday Review section. I came across it on Twitter, seized by its audacious title: “Cancer and Climate Change”. With an open mind, I learned that the 60-year-old NASA scientist recently diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer wants nothing more than to spend his remaining days back at work.

I was once told to be open-minded, but not so much so that my brain falls out of my head. This time, it did. I was shocked to see that Sellers could not find something else to do with his golden years, like conquering Mount Everest or enjoying a permanent spot at a beach resort. I found this bloodlessly macabre. In fact, I closed the tab before I even finished the article.

I was appalled by Sellers’ end-of-life decision because it counters what many others (and myself) have in mind for our own retirements, mostly including checking off those selfish, self-indulgent, and pathetic items on our to-do list before we die. In fact, Dr. Oliver W. Sacks, the renowned neurologist and author, published a series of farewell articles in the NYT and his memoir On the Move when his melanoma metastasized into his liver in 2015. He said “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at News Hour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.” Of course, this is not to say that Dr. Sacks is selfish or pathetic. He chose intimacy with his lover and readers instead of taking a stand on global issues when he knew his expiration date was soon to come. Isn’t it only normal for terminal patients to take their remaining time to enjoy the limited clarity of mind which comes with their condition to better face the unfair early death sentence put on their lives?

Seller’s altruistic reasoning and plan on what to do before death shames mine into inferiority. In the next few days, I couldn’t shake his article from my mind, and so decided to resolve my feelings. At the end of the article Sellers reveals his reason for going back to work. He is not just another faceless member of NASA’s staff. Rather, he was an astronaut who walked in space above the Earth and floated alongside the International Space Station. He did what many can only dream of doing, and it was continuing to live this dream which gave him the reason he needed to go back to work, even with cancer.

Like many of you who grind day in and day out for a minimum wage paycheck to survive, you bet that when I face death I will spend all of my time and money doing things I never got to indulge in: visiting foreign lands, skydiving, or just simply being lazy. I cannot even attempt to image what a fantastic life Sellers has lived; however, by finishing his article, I do seem to understand why he chose going back to work as the only item on his bucket list. His life experiences have trumped anything my supposedly boundless brain could ever achieve. Murakami liked to consider people as onions; he said if you peel people layers after layers, what’s left is pride. Reading Seller’s article is like dicing an onion; that burning sensation in your eyes is unmistakable.

I am not writing to condescend anyone’s choices or decisions, but rather to ask the question of how we should live our lives, even without immediate death sentences chasing our rears. Should we push our limits and expand our boundaries to the point that we have little happiness, or should we just be normal and even mediocre so that we can enjoy the present and not worry about how we will become the next Bill Gates or Charles Darwin? Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 36-year old neurosurgeon, died of metastasized lung cancer. Just before his passing he wrote When Breath Becomes Air in which he said that he postponed learning how to live while he was becoming a neurosurgeon. When he finally stopped striving forward, he ended up spending the last moments of his life learning how to die.

I understand the yearning to achieve success, and surely everyone wants a piece of that pie. The question to ask yourself is: “what are you willing to forfeit and sacrifice for it?” It is not simply about losing a few hours of sleep, but your sanity. Often, our choices can lead us to the brink of collapse.

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Everybody loves poignant tales in which benign madness precipitates success. Van Gogh’s madness devastated his life and killed him, but it allowed him to see colors unlike anybody else before and after him. Depression made Sylvia Plath stick her head inside a carbon monoxide-filled oven, but one can also argue that her sensitivity granted her the ability to write some of the most beautiful and thoughtful poetry in contemporary literature. By the same token, alcoholism took Eleanora Fagan’ s ( Billie Holiday)’s liver and life, but she claimed alcohol loosened her up to produce some of the best of jazz vocals in the recording business.

Today, everyone is looking for this form of ephemeral and intelligent madness so that we too can become brilliant. Some of us work 24/7/365 to  convince this genius to visit us; others cheat their way through drugs,  seeking out-of-body experiences. We no longer take care of ourselves, nor do we pay attention to our surroundings, where love, content, and satisfaction all lie.

The question I have is why we all want to be the greatest when we know that there can often only be one in most disciplines. The Earth revolves around its axis with or without you, no matter who you are. If you don’t believe me, recall Albert Einstein, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandel, and more. People often forget that these great figures all stood on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said. So I ask you: where would that shoulder be if we all want to be the ones standing on top of it?

I am not dissuading anyone from trying to achieve the best in themselves. I am simply saying that to enjoy your life while you have it you must pursue realistic goals, not egocentric ones. Naomi Shihab Nye wrote “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.” So do try hard, but also do remember what Charles Dickens said in Great Expectations, “If you can’t get to be uncommon through going straight, you’ll never get to do it through going crooked. So don’t tell no more on ’em, Pip, and live well and die happy.”

His Story: My Family and the Great Wars

A British soldier reads up on Sicily, the target for the next Allied invasion, July 1943. NA 4105 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION Keating G (Major) No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit
A British soldier reads up on Sicily, a target for WWII Allied invasion in July 1943.

It’s during the holidays when families tell their stories. The cold and snow (or this year, rain) lure people indoors, silent nights filling with tales of those both present and long passed.

Having recently completed a course on the military’s role in shaping modern society, I wanted to learn more about the impact war has had upon my own family.  Over the course of a single one-hour conversation with my grandfather (we call him Nonno), I heard the story that I share with you today.

My grandfather was sixteen when Allied forces invaded Sicily.

His North-Eastern hometown of Francavilla, isolated from the combat raging in the South, was used by occupying Fascist and Nazi forces as a transportation hub for arms, food, and materiel. It was the Nazis that my grandfather spoke of as most cruel. They killed women and children who refused to part with scarce rations, and caged residents of entire neighborhoods without food or water in livestock pens watched over by machine-gun carrying guards for days. Fascist forces accosted my grandfather as he picked oranges in his family’s orchard, demanding to know his age and if he was a defector masquerading as a civilian, a practice which grew more common as the war waged on.

The Allies announced their presence with swiftly-passing planes which bombed transport  vehicles and killed nearby civilians with each drop. Despite the carnage, the attacks on Axis supply lines were effective;  my grandfather described pairs of patrolling Fascist soldiers forced to share one rifle between them. Fleeing Germans passed through their town towards ships bound for the continent, blowing up bridges and planting land mines in their wake. Nazi reinforcements in the Mediterranean were met by Allied Jeeps and machine guns in their attempts to reach the Sicilian coast.

Frightened of the bombings and German scouts, my grandfather, his family, and crowds of townspeople hid in an abandoned train tunnel in the mountains, leaving its safety only to scavenge food and game in the hills.  A dead man had been sprawled on a sidewalk when the town made its flight; when they returned four days later, certain that the new forces they saw in town where Allies and not Axis, the body had remained untouched.

When the Allies arrived they swept Francavilla for remaining Axis soldiers, finding one Nazi in a countryside shack. The town’s cemetery, used by Axis forces to store drums of gasoline, was set ablaze. Pamphlets were distributed calling for hiding Fascists to surrender at the local church, the crowd which congregated there then taken prisoner. American GIs led the POWs on a side road toward an Allied base outside of town. Crossing one of the town’s few remaining bridges, a land mine was triggered and every man on it was killed.

My grandfather concluded his story here, adding that his family was lucky not to have lost anyone or have been solely dependent on rations, having a farm and livestock to supplement the 150 grams of bread allocated to each citizen per day.

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Francavilla di Sicilia and it’s famous ruins of a Medieval castle

He went on to speak of his father, a World War One veteran. Having immigrated to Montreal in the early 1900s, his father answered his nation’s call to arms and returned to Sicily to serve in a volunteer Special Forces storm trooper battalion known as the Arditi (“daring ones”) on the Western Front. These troops were responsible for breaching enemy lines to pave the way for a broader infantry advance to follow. According to the Wikipedia, they “were successful in bringing in a degree of movement to what had previously been a war of entrenched positions. Their exploits on the battlefield were exemplary and they gained an illustrious place in Italian military history.” The Arditi were the most elite force in the Italian army. Some historians consider them to be the modern world’s first true “special forces”. Pretty neat.

His father often told him the story of the Special Forces mutiny which arose following a territorial advance that had quickly been reclaimed by the German line. Exhausted and only just returned to camp from their effort, their commander informed them of the news and demanded that they immediately return to the Front. In response to the ensuring rebellion, the commander lined up the battalion and executed half at random. Rather than quelling rebellion, it infuriated the surviving men who had been forced to watch their comrades die. They were eventually forced to fight by their commander, standing behind them with a pistol pointed at their backs.

The rest of his Special Forces unit was killed in a shelling attack, my great-grandfather surviving under the body of a friend. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Italian victory in WWI all living soldiers who had fought for at least six months were awarded the order of Cavaliere (knight) in recognition of their service to the Italian Republic, including himself.

A sample Cavaliere di_Vittorio Veneto Diploma. My great-grandfather's was issued July 30 1947 under the name Antonio Mazza.
A sample Cavaliere di Vittorio Veneto Diploma. My great-grandfather’s was issued under the name Antonio Mazza.

I highly encourage you to ask your elders about how war has impacted their personal history. You never know what stories you’ll keep to commemorate for another generation.

5 Quick (and Healthy!) Lunches for a Long Day on Campus

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It can be a struggle to entice yourself to spend an entire day on campus. Sure, you may study better, or you may be obligated to stay considering your course load, but it can be gruelling to sit for an entire day in libraries or campus common spaces that are obnoxiously packed, with the lure of tantalizing fast food aromas all around. Continue reading 5 Quick (and Healthy!) Lunches for a Long Day on Campus

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Balancing School & Career Goals: Alize.S

Ever have trouble keeping up with the demand that is U of T? Though a difficult feat, many students manage to balance higher education with other goals, supplementing textbook knowledge with crucial real-world experience.

These days, it’s uncommon for employers to value only the critical thinking skills that are obtained with the typical bachelor’s degree: undergrads are finding themselves almost unemployable directly after graduation, depending of course on their extra-curriculars and part-time work experience.

Even with a degree in a specialized field (commerce, the sciences) usually requires another educational investment such as a Master’s or certificate program. With years and years of education, it’s easy to see why students lose sight of other opportunities with tunnel vision for the diploma(s).

Something employers value is initiative, and the ability to develop unique and personal side projects outside of the classroom. Zachariah Fernandes–aka Alize.S–is one of those students managing to pair his career dreams with a degree at U of T, and has managed to land impressive gigs as a young and starry-eyed second year student. We caught up with him to talk about how he keeps everything in balance.

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BLOGUT: What are you taking at U of T? Do you think your education is facilitating or keeping you from pursuing music projects? In other words, how do you find that balance?

ALIZE.S: I’m currently working towards a double major in English and Book & Media Studies. I don’t believe my education takes me away from doing music. There is a time and place for each, and it is possible to keep a balance between the two. I’ve gained a lot of time management skills that I didn’t possess before because I knew I had to prioritize. ​Sometimes I want to spend more time on my music, but the time I spend away from it makes me anticipate it more. When I get back in front of the mic, its the best feeling in the world and its always worth the wait.

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BLOGUT: How did you record your EP? Do you rent studio time? Ultimately, how do you balance the school finances while funding your own projects outside of the classroom?
ALIZE.S: I currently work with my own mic at home. I would love to rent studio time eventually, but working on my own music at home gives me full control, as well as me being able to go at it for hours on end. Plus, the new equipment I’ve started buying is giving me the sound I’ve been wanting for a while. Right now everything just works great. 
BLOGUT: You recently landed an appearance on OmniTV2, how did you manage to find such a great opportunity?
ALIZE.S: My mom was watching the show and let me know that they were looking for talented artists to showcase their talents on the show. I got in touch with the host and later the producer of the show and they set up a special ‘freestyle’ segment for me to be on. It was an amazing experience and I was so grateful to have been given such an opportunity. Shows like VMIX really show the hidden talents in Toronto that can sometimes be overlooked. I really hope they’ll have me again, they were really great to me. 
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BLOGUT: Do you collaborate with other U of T students on your music? Who are your biggest supporters?
ALIZE.S: Of course! Right now I’m working with a talented singer by the name of LYNN. We’re released two songs so far (Heartbreaker & Roller Coaster) and people are really enjoying what we’re bringing to the table. We will be working on new material soon, which we’re excited to give to the fans. Also, one of best friends, Delina, has been a supporter from way before university. She’s currently helping me with planning and promoting my music progress. We also do visuals and youtube videos together. My other best friend Tiffany does filming for my videos and performances, and I’m so lucky to have her. My biggest supporter is my mother because she’s believed in me since Day 1 and is one of the driving forces behind my desire for success. And of course I’m nothing without the great fans, who always tune in and show me love. 
BLOGUT: Why did you decide to pursue an education at U of T, and what does having a degree ultimately mean to you?

ALIZE.S: English, literature, and current media have always been topics I enjoy. I always planned to do English, but I stumbled upon Book & Media Studies and fell in love. I’ve been taking really interesting courses and have met some great profs as well as students. A degree would mean the world to me. A lot of people tried to count me out, but I’m still here pushing towards something few get to experience. I’m proof you can have a dream and an education at the same time. 

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For more on Alize.S follow him on his social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

This is my fascinated face. Fascinating...

That Time I Was on TV

I like to think of my time at U of T (2.5 years and counting) as a series of experiences, good and bad.

Good: learning a lot, being introduced to awesome new things.
Bad: cramming for exams, bureaucratic nonsense.
Good: finding a great job through the Career Centre.
Bad: spending $60 on a textbook I never used.
Good: sitting in the studio audience of a Christian talk show on CBC and meeting guest Margaret Atwood.

The background to that story is absurdly simple: My phone pinged one afternoon with an e-mail from Context with Lorna Dueck, inviting me and my club (that’s blogUT with a U-T) to sit in the audience for a taping of their show. As the e-mail went on to explain, Context is a Christian talk show that welcomes guests and audience members of diverse faiths and perspectives. I guess ours was the student perspective? The e-mail mentioned free refreshments, gifts for studio audience members, and, oh yeah, that the guest would be CanLit giant (and subject of many an essay o’ mine) Margaret Atwood. I RSVPd in a heartbeat.

In the week-and-a-half before the taping, I couldn’t stop thinking of it. Would I get a chance to talk to Atwood? Would people see me on TV? Would I get to say something from the audience? Would Atwood sign a book? Do I own a book by her? I only had anthologies including her work, so I picked up a hard-cover copy of The Blind Assassin from a used book store, which happened to be a first edition. I read the whole thing in a weekend.

On the evening of, I met my friend outside of the CBC building on Front. We lined up with the other guests and were told that we’d get a chance for Atwood to sign our books. As I stood in line, I worried about what I’d say. Would I mention that I was studying writing at UofT? Would I bring up a certain story of hers that I’d loved? Here is the whole conversation, as it transpired:

TRAIN: (Giving her my copy of The Blind Assassin) “Um, it’s Louis. With an S.”

ATWOOD: “The French way.”

TRAIN: “Yeah. But I’m not French.”

And that was it. You should understand that I do tend to freeze up around cool people. As a result of working with blogUT alone I’ve had the chance to botch engagements with Tony Award-winner William Finn and Man of Steel director Zack Snyder. (If you were with us, you could meet cool people too, and probably with more success…)

After the signing, we got seated in the audience. It is smaller than it looks on TV. Someone from the show came out to get us excited. He did so by talking about his own experiences reading Atwood, about that essay he had to write about The Stone Angel. “She didn’t write that,” I whispered to my friend, just before a fellow in the third row shouted, “She didn’t write that!”

Then a woman from the show came out to teach us how to be an audience. She showed us the APPLAUSE sign above the stage, incorrectly referring to it as an “applause-o-meter,” as if we were telling it how to react, and not the other way round. She had us record some stock applause, in varying levels of intensity. The whole thing was strangely enjoyable, and in retrospect it’s a little scary how much fun I had clapping exactly as much as I was told. But it worked; they got the footage and we got in the mood to applaud like lunatics for whatever stepped on stage.

I sat in the very back row, so you see my face only once. It's basically the most important part.
This is my fascinated face. Fascinating…

Then the show began. Lorna entered, elegant and serious, and introduced the guest a few times. Atwood entered and was warmly welcomed by the host a few times. And then the interview began. I had watched a few snippets of the show in preparation, but I was surprised at how thoughtful the discussion was. Although the perspective was Christian, the topic, environmentalism, was handled with a degree of rationality and care such that it was meaningful to everyone in the audience. After the interview, and some technical difficulties, they filmed another Atwood environmentalism segment, and then another entire episode. From the time we arrived to the time we left, the whole thing took over four hours.

As we left, we were offered some parting gifts: small flashlights, coupons for a restaurant I’d never heard of, and copies of seemingly self-published Christian books. My friend and I turned down the books. Back out on Front, we stepped into a Starbucks. The barista asked where we were coming from.

“We were actually just in the studio audience of a Christian talk show,” I said. “But you probably get that all the time.”