Category Archives: Opinion

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.”

A Lesson Learnt from Architecture: Technology and Social Media

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We speak of technology as though it has its own character, with its own will and right to make choices. But too often we forget that technology and social media are mere gadgets and tools that channel the intentions of people, good or bad.

Technology and social media, like the right to vote, are placed in the hands of both wise and foolish people. Similarly, how technology and social media impact us and our society depends on in whose hands they’re in and how they’re used.

The world of social media is a web of contradictions. Websites are some of the most popular haunts on the Internet and have revolutionized the way people communicate and socialize. French philosopher Michel Serres claims that “for the first time in history, the voice of almost everyone can be heard”. Yet how clear can each person’s voice be as an individual?

I believe that in today’s connected world everyone can speak up but not everyone can be heard. In the brouhaha and din of social media, individuals’ voices are lost. How easy is it to write a post to raise awareness about a certain issue, and how easy is it to report that very post and have it removed instantly?

Technology and social media are extremely powerful tools in the hands of humans. Like the remarkable thunderbolt of Zeus, the relatively smaller gadgets in our hands are much stronger than we are; we cannot underestimate their potential to work with us and their potential to have authority over us.

Capstone Shatters Headstone: How to Take Full Advantage of Graduate School

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In a recent interview with Dr. Alice Eriks-Brophy, the Graduate Coordinator of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto (SLP), an interesting yet unfamiliar requirement was mentioned for its Professional Master degree: the Capstone Project. As a trainee in the basic medical sciences, I was intrigued by what exactly this project was.

Dr. Eriks-Brophy is a down-to-earth and kind woman. Her positive attitude and warm voice break down the alienating exoskeleton separating professors and students, making me want to call her “Alice” five minutes into our interview as she explained this unique requirement and long tradition of the SLP department. Before the internet, the department asked students to submit their Capstone Portfolio in paper format. Nowadays, Alice simply receives them in Power Point files which she treasures like rare gemstones. The graduating class must prepare a 20-slide presentation to summarize their achievements and readiness to embark on their next endeavour as they leave academia and enter society. The project is meant as a strategy for students to plan their academic progress and better align their education with their career objectives post-graduation.

Alice mentioned a graduating student who presented her entire Capstone Project by unfolding an origami paper crane. The paper crane was her first slide, portraying herself at the moment of graduation. The head of the crane showed her pride at satisfying the requirements for the best SLP program in Canada. The outwardly stretched wings showed her maturity and readiness for a real job. Even the tail pointing to the sky showed her happiness at earning her degree. As her slides progressed, she marked the different folded grooves as her skills obtained, abilities improved, speciality perfected, and prizes awarded. In the end, the unfolding of her paper crane represented the chronology of her journey through the SLP program.

This conversation made me to reflect – If not through origami, how can I represent myself? Continue reading Capstone Shatters Headstone: How to Take Full Advantage of Graduate School

From Me to You: Be Skeptical of News Outlet Credibility

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Back in high school, our English classes gave particular attention to credibility: how to be a credible writer and how to find credible sources. I never really thought much of it. It’s a lesson, it’s homework, it’s an assignment. Once done, it’s over. I probably won’t look back on it again. But here I am, with the sudden ringing of my high school teacher’s voice telling me to be skeptical of what I hear, see, and read.

Friday night was when word on Paris being attacked was plastered all over news outlets and social media. I immediately felt sorrow for Paris, and even shared a couple of grieving photos and statuses myself. The next morning, Facebook installed that new “Paris Profile Picture” update. I didn’t do it. Not because I had anything against Paris, but because I forgot about the other countries in the world experiencing the same hardships that were in many ways worse than Paris. A couple days later, there were some posts on my newsfeed about #PrayForTheWorld. It included Japan and their earthquake, Beirut and their suicide bombings. But what about Syria? What about Palestine?

I’m not one to delve myself into politics and world issues, but the pressing matter is the credibility of our journalists and news outlets. We’re clearly missing half the story, maybe even three quarters of it. What about the rest of the world? And even if they do report on it, chances are, what they say is skewered. I’ve seen the comments and even the petitions going on in an attempt to stop Syrian refugees from coming to Canada. Why haven’t they reported a positive light on Syrian Refugees? Does the world truly believe Syria is full of terrorists? What about Palestine? What about Palestine?

Many people (I’ll narrow it down to North Americans for the time being) are unaware of the real situation in Palestine. That has to do with our search engines, with Google. When I tried to Google what was going on in Palestine, I got a whole load of propaganda videos. It took me awhile to actually find the real stuff, with big help to my very educated peers of course. But the entire Google fiasco made me think to myself, why is the truth hidden in a bed of lies? Google isn’t as free as we think it is (we actually had a discussion about this in ENG287). It’s an American company you should be skeptical of. Extremely skeptical of, if I may reiterate. Unless you try really hard, you won’t be able to find the credible sources you’re looking for. Below is a video Banksy filmed on the situation in Palestine:

It’s crazy if you think about it. Banksy’s creation and video of Dismaland was covered by a variety of news outlets and social medias, so why hasn’t this video received the views it should be?

When I was riding on the subway this morning, I felt a surge of fear. I wondered, “what if this subway blows up? what if this subway gets hijacked? I’m underground. I can’t send any text messages. No one will know what happened to me.” And it was at that precise moment that I realized, I was succumbing to the war on terror. I let the news instill a fear in me that I was going to die by the hands of a terrorist. How could I let the news do this to me?

I’m not sure where I’m going with this post now. All I can do is ask you to be skeptical for the right reasons. Read the news, but be skeptical. We only see, hear and read what they want us to see, hear and read. Use the intelligence and knowledge you were given to make the right conclusions. Don’t let others make a conclusion for you. Don’t be a follower of social trends.

Competitiveness: How It Can Make or Break You

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Ah, competitiveness. How we’ve all had those moments when we wanted to be better than your friend, your class, or maybe even the entire school. The spirit of competition and that lingering sense of superiority exists within all of us. It’s no surprise that in a place like a university, competition is in everyone. It’s really how we utilize that drive that ultimately forms the dividing line between pushing yourself to succeed and running yourself into the ground. Continue reading Competitiveness: How It Can Make or Break You

So You’re in Second Year, Huh?

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Now that the whirlwind of craziness and confusion that is first year is over, you’re left to survey the damage and start planning the next one. Right about now you’ve all picked courses to fit your shiny new majors, but graduation is closer than you think, and now’s a great time to start looking into your options afterwards.

You obviously don’t need to make any decisions – most third and fourth years I know still have no clue what they want to do – but you should start preparing for the possibilities. Pick a couple grad schools, preferably the ones you think will be the most difficult to get into, and print off their applications. Most grad schools post their applications in July or August and take them off their websites in the late fall or early winter, so try to do this over the next few months. Take a look through them and see what they’re looking for. How much do they stress academics? Extracurriculars? Standardised testing? At the same time, don’t forget to look into a few scholarships you might want for graduate schools, as their expectations can be very different from what the schools themselves are looking for.

At the same time, look into what you’ll need to get the jobs you’re considering. For me, this was always the most overwhelming part of things, but luckily the Career Center can help. Their Get Experience Program will guide you through the whole process; you can meet with someone who will go over your resume, and help you identify its strengths and weaknesses. They will also tell you how to figure out what you need to do to research your chosen field, find internships and professional experience, and even put you into contact with alumni who are successful at the job you may want. Once you know what qualifications you need for the jobs you’re considering, you can tailor part-time jobs and even courses to give you an advantage upon graduation.

Most importantly, don’t rule anything out. You may be absolutely sure you want nothing to do with grad school right now, but a lot can change in two years. Make sure you don’t close any doors.

Regretting UofT? Don’t.

Let’s start off by saying UofT is an amazing institution to begin with, but it’s no secret university can be somewhat soul sucking. I know there are some of you who have regrets about choosing UofT, or feel as though university is not for you. Perhaps some of you want to transfer to a smaller city, or a more social university. Yes UofT can be very daunting and secluded, even with all the efforts the university makes to get you involved. I’m sure there are hundreds of student feeling the same weight and loneliness at UofT as you. Living in a huge city like Toronto certainly has it’s ups and downs.

Ups: Opportunities are everywhere and it’s calling your name. Any interests/passions you may have (music, clubbing, life-drawing, thrift-shopping) or not sure what your passions are, it’s out there. And last but not least, absorbing culture and diversity. Toronto prides itself on its diversity and it makes you a more humble person without you even knowing it. For example, if you are in the LGBT community there are hundreds of organizations/events that you can partake in. Not every place in the world would have that. Now the trick is finding where all these amazing things are.

Downs: Having a million things to do but not knowing where to go or what to do. Being invisible in a sea of people. Nobody caring who you are or what you do. Highschool for me sucked simply because it was not what I expected and I felt out of place and alone. There were no such thing as cliques or rumours at my high-school because nobody cared or knew you well enough to play the stereotypes. A lot of people from my residence who came from small towns, amazed me with their stories of how Americanized their schools were. You know that whole party, jocks, nerds, mean girls, scandalous gossips thing. And a part of me has always wanted that since that is what I am conditioned to expect through Americanized programming. But it was mostly community that I wanted, and I came into university expecting to meet people like myself, get connected, and feel a sense of community.

However that has not been the case yet, since UofT is quite isolating. The hardest thing at UofT besides the overbearing amount of work, is the lack of social-life. Funny thing is we knew coming to UofT would mean forfeiting our social-life. Even moving into residence was not that helpful since everyone is busy with their own lives and not everyone makes the effort. It’s difficult to network and build connections in such a vast city of over 5 million people and even harder if you were a commuter. All I have to say to you guys is don’t worry. Truth of the matter is, you are getting one of the best educations in the world, and though it’s challenging and it’s a lot of hard work, it makes you a stronger, more well-crafted person. The key is to find balance between work and play.

I know everyone says this, but seriously, it doesn’t matter if you graduate with a 4.0 GPA if you’re lacking the communication skills you need to nail an interview to land the job.