#701 Making end-of-life conversations easier

Autumn leaf

Photo by earl53, via morgueFile

My partner and I are nearer the end of our life than the beginning. We have talked about our wishes, but The Conversation Project reminds me we still have a lot of loose ends to tie up.

The Conversation Project is a collaboration with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. It grew out of Ellen Goodman’s harrowing experience of her mother’s dementia and death. She was unprepared for the decisions she had to make as her mother’s mental and physical health declined. In a piece for Second Journey, she wrote:

That’s why I started gathering with a group of colleagues and friends — doctors, care providers, clergy, and media — to share stories from our personal experiences of “good deaths” and “bad deaths” we had witnessed with loved ones. We talked about being faced with a cascading and confusing number of medical decisions and an uncertainty about the wishes of our parents, spouses, and friends.

And with that The Conversation Project was born, launched as a public engagement campaign on August 15, 2012, to advocate “kitchen table” conversations with family and friends about wishes for end-of-life care.

The statistics from The Conversation Project Starter Kit are startling.

  • 60% of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is “extremely important”
  • 56% have not communicated their end-of-life wishes (Source: Survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation (2012))
  • 70% of people say they prefer to die at home
  • 70% die in a hospital, nursing home, or long-term-care facility Source: Centers for Disease Control (2005)
  • 80% of people say that if seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about end-of-life care
  • 7% report having had an end-of-life conversation with their doctor Source: Survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation (2012)
  • 82% of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing
  • 23% have actually done it Source: Survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation (2012)

Looks as if even those of us who think we know our loved ones’ wishes, and they know ours, have holes in our planning. So I am grateful to The Conversation Project, to the resources they provide, and to those who are adding their stories to the site.

Death comes into our lives from the moment of our conception. It is as ordinary as comfort food but a lot less welcome at the dinner table. This project is making it easier to open the conversations we need to have, for the sake of our loved ones and for our own peace of mind. It gives me hope.

You can follow The Conversation Project on Twitter and Facebook.


#700 Wangari Maathai, hummingbird of hope

When Wangari Maathai died on September 25, 2011, I wrote this tribute to her for Care2. She gives me hope.

Wangari Maathai

Photo of Wangari Maathai from e pants via Flickr Creative Commons

Wangari Maathai has planted her last tree, but she will never stop cultivating inspiration in the hearts of all who care about justice for the earth and its people. Sunday night, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize died at the age of 71.

Long before the environmental movement took hold, Wangari Maathai was planting trees. As a child in rural Kenya, she watched forests being cleared to make way for huge plantations. Early on she understood the role of these forests in preserving biodiversity and conserving water. She saw that loss of clean water and firewood for cooking and heating was having a devastating impact on families. So in 1977, she started the Green Belt Movement. The idea was simple: plant trees.

Hundreds of thousands of women and men planted 47 million trees. They restored damaged environments and lifted families from poverty. The movement grew to become a major force for peace and democracy. In its tribute to her, the Green Belt Movement’s site stresses, “The planting of trees became an entry-point for a larger social, economic, and environmental agenda.”

In a 2006 speech (video below) in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Wangari Maathai said, “We started recognizing that the government, or those who were in power, instead of being custodians of these resources and managing these resources responsibly, instead of promoting equity and justice, they were very busy acquiring wealth themselves. They were practicing corruption. They were greedy. They were not responsible.”

Even the Smallest Can Play a Role

The Green Belt Movement became part of the pro-democracy movement calling for more responsible government. Professor Maathai and her staff were jailed, harassed and intimidated because, as she said, “those who were in power did not want to be exposed and did not want to be called into account.”

The fierce campaigner for justice never backed down. She was elected to Parliament in 2002 and became Deputy Minister for the Environment in 2003. When violence erupted after the 2007 Kenyan elections, Professor Maathai helped to mediate peace. She and the Green Belt Movement played a role in making sure the health of the environment was included in the new constitution.

Wangari Maathai was also a tireless worker on the global stage, working for peace, justice and equity. As her stature grew, she never lost sight of what one person can do to change the world. For the animated movie Dirt! she told the story of the hummingbird.

When fire breaks out in a huge forest, all the animals flee, except the hummingbird. The little bird flies back and forth, its beak filled with water. The other animals are terrified into inaction. When they ask what the hummingbird can possibly do with its small beak, the little bird answers, “I am doing the best I can.”

Professor Maathai adds, “I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”


#699 Ushahidi puts power in people’s hands

“Free cultures get what they celebrate.” Clay Shirky

“We have to get better at telling our stories.” Ory Okollah

Samoa crisis map

Ushahidi map from Samoa; photo from Ushahidi’s Facebook page

One of the best technology innovations I have come across lately is the BRCK. The prototype was developed in Nairobi, Kenya. It allows anyone to connect to the Internet via wireless, ethernet, 3G or 4G. The portable generator is the size of a brick and can handle up to 20 devices. Power outage or intermittent electricity? No problem. The built-in battery provides 8 hours of access. Designed to provide connectivity in a part of the world where access can be most spotty, it can work anywhere.

But I am getting ahead of myself because its genesis was with Ushahidi, a name chosen because it means “testimony” in Swahili. The organization got its start during the post-election violence after Kenya’s disputed presidential election of December 2007.

Media censorship made it difficult for people to find out what was happening. Blogger Ory Okolloh, a Harvard-educated lawyer living in Nairobi, blogged about it on her site, Kenyan Pundit. Her readers added comments about what was happening. Each day she would collate and post them.

That became overwhelming. She wished there were some way to automate the information. 72 hours later two programmers who had been reading her blog launched Ushahidi, which could take reports from mobile phones, SMS and the Web and aggregate them on a map.

That was the start of crisis mapping. In his 2010 TED talk, Clay Shirky said:

And enough people looked at it and found it valuable enough that the programmers who created Ushahidi decided they were going to make it open source and turn it into a platform.It’s since been deployed in Mexico to track electoral fraud. It’s been deployed in Washington D.C. to track snow cleanup. And it’s been used most famously in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. And when you look at the map now posted on the Ushahidi front page, you can see that the number of deployments in Ushahidi has gone worldwide, all right? This went from a single idea and a single implementation in East Africa in the beginning of 2008 to a global deployment in less than three years. Ushahidi continues to provide open-source products. In addition to the BRCK, they offer the Ushahidi Platform for crowdsourcing information, SwiftRiver for “filtering & making sense of real-time information” and Crowdmap, Ushahidi’s hosted version of its crowdsource platform.

Ushahidi is another example of the widespread generosity I like to write about on this blog. Shirky described it well in his TED talk:

It is one of the curiosities of our historical era that even as cognitive surplus is becoming a resource we can design around, social sciences are also starting to explain how important our intrinsic motivations are to us, how much we do things because we like to do them rather than because our boss told us to do them, or because we’re being paid to do them.

Generosity abounds, and we all benefit. Thank you, Ushahidi. You give me hope.

You can follow Ushahidi on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, and Flickr.



#698 Re-thinking land use

Hendrick Farm beets

Hendrick Farm photo from Facebook

Subdivisions and malls sprawl over land that once grew food in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, where I live. Orchard Plaza is a parking lot dotted with shops. Streets with names such as Apple Brook and Applecrest are covered with houses.

British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve keeps development at bay in what is left of the province’s farmland, but pressures to ease access are constant. In tiny Lantzville, Dirk Becker and Nicole Shaw, a couple of hard-working organic farmers, are finally throwing up their hands, tired of defending their “urban” farm against neighbours’ complaints.

Then there is Ontario, with its Greenbelt wrapping the urban Golden Horseshoe with a protected area for green space. Farmland beyond the Greenbelt has been purchased by a company intending to sell it for more subdivisions.

Urban or rural? Farms or houses? Commercial or residential? These have been the questions and the laments as long as I can remember. Toronto Star writer Mark Cullen was contacted by a reader who had a different vision. Sean McAdam and his partner Carrie Wallace are dreaming their idea into existence in Old Chelsea, Quebec.

The couple bought 107 acres of farmland, with the intent of developing 45 and leaving the rest for parks, trails and a nature preserve. They approached Chelsea Council with an idea that would keep 10 acres set aside for an organic farm. In their first season they grew enough produce to supply 50 community shared agriculture boxes.

What makes Hendrick Farm (still named for Vince Hendrick, who sold them the land) particularly unusual is that the land is zoned residential-commercial. McAdam and Wallace could plunk down houses and stores on the entire 107 acres and make a pile of money from the development. They have other ideas, which they describe on their Web site:

Hendrick Farm is founded on the principle that a vibrant community is one that listens to its cultural, historical and natural environment. Hendrick Farm is informed by the agricultural, village-scale business and recreational environment of Old Chelsea. Underpinning these plans is our belief that the best way to protect nature is to leave it alone. Hendrick Farm stops suburban sprawl in its tracks, increases the agricultural and recreational use of prime village real estate and dramatically increases the variety of available housing and service options in this historic setting.  Best of all, Hendrick Farm makes it possible for you to call Old Chelsea home.

What calling Old Chelsea home means is that part of the development is a cluster of houses. They will all be walking distance from the village core, as well as the organic farm and nature trails.

Hendrick Farm rests on a vision of sustainability that would restore the commons in at least one small area. Communal visions have come and gone for a long time. This one holds promise for re-thinking land use, with an eye toward a legacy for future generations.

You can follow Hendrick Farm on Facebook and Twitter.


#697 Hug a tree; heal a heart

Tree hugging Lucas

Tree hugging Lucas; photo by Brian Birke, via Flickr Creative Commons

Outside the window of my fifth-grade classroom was a tree. I watched it in every season—when my attention to studies flagged, when I needed to ponder a question, and when I wanted some kind of reassurance. That was the year I declared my career goal was to become a tree surgeon. I had no clear idea what that meant. I only knew that when I wrapped my arms around the trunk of a tree, I felt such a sense of connection that I wanted to spend my life touching trees.

I wandered around the Web recently, wondering what people were saying about trees and people and health. Here are some of the things I found:

Tree and human health may be linked, USDA Forest Service, January 16, 2013

In an analysis of 18 years of data from 1,296 counties in 15 states, researchers found that Americans living in areas infested by the emerald ash borer, a beetle that kills ash trees, suffered from an additional 15,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 more deaths from lower respiratory disease when compared to uninfected areas….

“There’s a natural tendency to see our findings and conclude that, surely, the higher mortality rates are because of some confounding variable, like income or education, and not the loss of trees,” said Donovan. “But we saw the same pattern repeated over and over in counties with very different demographic makeups.”

‘Hugging trees cures cancer’

A [2010] study [by Dr. Eeva Karjalainen, of the Finnish Forest Research Institute] claims the tranquillity of the natural setting helps the body create the kind of cells it needs to kill disease. The report into the health benefits of forests also revealed that if you go down to the woods today it could also help reduce stress, muscle fatigue, ADHD, depression and bring down an erratic heart rate.

The music of the plants in Damanhur in Northwestern Italy

As early as 1976, Damanhurian researchers had created equipment capable of capturing electromagnetic changes on the surface of leaves and roots and transforming them into sounds.The trees learn to control their electrical responses, as if they are aware of the music they are creating. Research continues on creating a model of this device easily available to the public so that this profound experience of communication with the plant world can be shared with whoever desires it.

Tree hugging now scientifically validated

In a recently published book, Blinded by Science, the author Matthew Silverstone, proves scientifically that trees do in fact improve many health issues such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), concentration levels, reaction times, depression and other forms of mental illness. He even points to research indicating a tree’s ability to alleviate headaches in humans seeking relief by communing with trees. The author points to a number of studies that have shown that children show significant psychological and physiological improvement in terms of their health and well being when they interact with plants and trees. Specifically, the research indicates that children function better cognitively and emotionally in green environments and have more creative play in green areas. Also, he quotes a major public health report that investigated the association between green spaces and mental health concluded that “access to nature can significantly contribute to our mental capital and wellbeing”.

Adding trees makes life more manageable

In a study conducted in a Chicago public housing development, women who lived in apartment buildings with trees and greenery immediately outside reported greater effectiveness and less procrastination in dealing with their major life issues than those living in barren but otherwise identical buildings. In addition, the women in greener surroundings found their problems to be less difficult and of shorter duration. Thus it seems that trees help poor inner city residents cope better with the demands of living in poverty, feel more hopeful about the future, and manage their most important problems more effectively.

Whatever scientific, intuitive, experiential or spiritual truths resonate for us, I am convinced that living in close proximity to trees (and flowers and shrubs and water) has a profound healing effect on us. I know it does on me and am grateful every day to look out my windows and see the abundance of the natural world. It always gives me hope.


#696 Okanagan Valley, food-lover’s paradise

Jar of honey from Arlo's Honey Farm

Pure sweetness from Arlo’s Honey Farm

“This cookbook is a love letter to all those who have created, grown and nurtured our special valley on this earth.” ~ Jennifer Schell

A new book has been popping up in Kelowna’s restaurants, wine shops, coffee shops, book stores, and just about anywhere else where people who appreciate food can be expected to congregate. The author, Jennifer Schell, is Editor-in-Chief of British Columbia Food & Wine Trails and writes a weekly food column for the Kelowna Capital News. This apple truly did not fall far from the tree, as Schell grew up on an apple orchard in Kelowna.

With her passion for local growers and the people who turn their products into wine, cheese, bread, and restaurant fare, Schell is the right person to bring the Okanagan Valley’s abundance to a cookbook-loving audience.

And she is sharing the news of that abundance widely. Robin and I had the chance to be part of the audience when three of the people featured in the book spoke about their work. We were familiar with Jon Alcock of Sunshine Farm and Helen Kennedy of Arlo’s Honey Farm because of our regular forays to the farmers’ market. I knew of Sarah Harker of Harker Organics because of my years of work in food security. (She and her husband Troy are British Columbia’s 2013 Outstanding Young Farmers.)

Schell’s cookbook is arranged by courses, but there the resemblance to any other cookbook ends. Every recipe is surrounded by photographs of and introductions to the people who grow, raise, catch or prepare the food. Those who live in the valley and glory in its amazing offerings will recognize Milan Djordjevich (the Tomato Man of Stoney Paradise Farm), Wolfgang Wesle (Green Croft Gardens), Monika Walker (Okanagan Grocery Artisan Breads), Curtis Stone (Green City Acres) and many of the other chefs, winemakers and growers in the book. Schell features many more and serves up a taste for the bounty of the Okanagan.

The wonderful secret is that the book’s plentiful selection of the valley’s favourite food providers represents only a fraction of all who work so hard to feed us so well in this beautiful region. We are incredibly blessed in the Okanagan Valley, and that gives me hope.

You can order The Butcher, the Baker, & the Wine & Cheese Maker online and follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Watch David McIlvride’s video introduction to the cookbook:

An Okanagan Cookbook from David McIlvride on Vimeo.


#695 From slum girl to chess champion

Phiona Mutesi

Phiona Mutesi, photo clip from ESPN video

Uganda’s junior chess champion lost her father to AIDS when she was three. Phiona Mutesi’s mother could not afford school fees so from age six the child had no opportunity for education. By the time she was nine, her mother could no longer pay rent. The family was living on the streets when hunger gave Phiona a new life.

Her brother, Brian, told her that chess lessons came with a cup of porridge. So Mutesi tagged along to the outreach center of the Kampala Sports Ministry, a Christian mission, hoping to find something to ease her hunger pangs. What she found was chess. She told Afritorial:

“It was my first time to hear that chess was existing.

“I was very dirty. People started quarrelling with me and saying, ‘the girl’s so dirty’. I also quarrelled with them.

“My brother was very annoyed and took me back to my mum. My mum told me to never go back to chess, but I went back because I wanted that cup of porridge.”

Robert Katende started the chess program in 2006, as a way of reaching children who were too weak to play sports or had no interest in them. The idea caught on quickly. Within a few weeks, he had attracted 40 children. When he noticed Phiona Mutesi watching from a distance, he invited her to give it a try.

This was a child who had learned how to survive on the streets of the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda. She knew how to size up a situation and act in her own best interests. Chess strategy came naturally to her. After two years she won the Uganda women’s junior championship. When she played in Africa’s International Children’s Chess Tournament in South Sudan in 2009, she knew she had found her passion.

Now she is the subject of The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Rise from an African Slum, a book by American sportswriter Tim Crothers. Disney is planning a film about her. She has traveled internationally and is learning to read and use a computer. The Uganda Chess Federation is looking into the possibility of sending her to an American school for education and training. And her dreams of becoming a grandmaster and a doctor now seem within reach.

Hunger pangs led Phiona Mutesi to the outreach center. Curiosity, intelligence and drive pushed her up the ladder in chess competitions. Now she has a bright future ahead. She gives me hope.

Meet this extraordinary young woman in the ESPN video below.


#694 Architecture for the 99%

WikiHouse prototype

WikiHouse prototype; photo courtesy of WikiHouse

What if you could build a house as easily as you could put together a piece of Ikea furniture? No, wait, easier than you could put together something with complicated instructions and tiny, easily misplaced bits.

With WikiHouse, you can.

Alastair Parvin says in his TED talk he graduated from architecture school at the moment the economy took a nosedive and jobs disappeared. With no employment prospects in his field, he had plenty of impetus to contemplate the role of architecture and design. He told the TED audience:

The uncomfortable fact is that actually almost everything that we call architecture today is actually the business of designing for about the richest one percent of the world’s population, and it always has been.”

His questioning of the “Industrial Era mindset” coincided with the growing makers movement and some local realities. One of those was the aftermath of the earthquakes in Christchurch (WikiHouse/NZ) Another was the need for housing in Rio de Janeiro’s favela (WikiHouse/Rio). The founders of WikiHouse, including Parvin, began creating open-source hardware and software that anyone could use to design a house, manufacture the components, construct it quickly, and even design furniture for it.

Parvin compares the process of building a WikiHouse to the old barn raisings, where neighbours would pay it forward by gathering together to build each other’s barns. Building inspectors and permit issuers would be all over that today. So watching Parvin’s talk, I was reminded of the movie, Still Mine. The Canadian film is based on the true story of a New Brunswick farmer who was determined to build a house his aging wife could live in safely as her dementia worsened. Craig Morrison (played by James Cromwell) built the house on his own, defying the bureaucrats who kept putting up roadblocks. He had learned building from his father and built better than what was required by code, but that was not good enough for the rule-bound officials.

WikiHouse will bump up against zoning, bylaws, and various layers of bureaucracy, but those are all barriers that can be climbed or moved aside. Parvin does not claim WikiHouse can solve every housing issue globally, but it can be a significant contributor to the problem of safe, quality, affordable housing. Better yet, it can put the power of creation into the hands of anyone willing to take up the challenge.

The project is still young, and prototypes are being developed in cities around the world. WikiHouse gives me hope that in future people will have the opportunity to be more involved in designing the kind of houses and neighbourhoods they want to live in, even if they are not part of the 1%.

You can follow WikiHouse and Alastair Parvin on Twitter.


#693 Bulgaria’s living saint

Sofia's Aleksander Nevski cathedral

Sofia’s Aleksander Nevski cathedral, one of the beneficiaries of Elder Dobri Dobrev’s generosity; photo by Arian Zwegers, via Flickr Creative Commons

Strangers who came across Elder Dobri Dobrev, begging on the streets of Sofia, saw an old man dressed in tattered, hand-sewn clothes. He would have walked over 40 km from his village of Baylovo, where he lived on a monthly income of 80 euros. At the end of the day he would have walked back.

Though his monthly income was only 80 euros, he did not keep the money given to him in donations. He gave it to a friend, who deposited it in a bank.

Those who offered coins to the old man were surprised to learn that he was the most generous supporter of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. According to the video (in Bulgarian, with English subtitles), he donated 35,700 Bulgarian leva (about 20,000 euros) for the cathedral’s maintenance. He also donated 36,000 leva to help with the reconstruction of the Eleshnitsa monastery and nearly 20,000 leva more for two other churches, as well as an unnamed amount to orphanages.

I was curious to learn what prompted his extraordinary generosity and found only allusions to a quest for God’s forgiveness. Those who know Dobri Dobrev’s story do not appear to have written it, at least not for the Web. So all I know is that the man with the peace in his eyes, the man who bows before everyone and praises God’s grace, is an extraordinary philanthropist whom many consider a living saint.

He is a reminder that beyond the exterior of everyone of us lies a treasure chest, full of the unique gifts we bring to the world. As I write, Dobri Dobrev is 98 years old. Although he can no longer walk the round trip from his village to Sofia, he continues to live simply, travel frequently to Sofia, and donate any money he receives for the causes he holds most dear.

Pictures of Dobri Dobrev appear on many blogs and Web sites, none with attribution. Some of them show the artistry of a talented photography, who deserves credit. I particularly appreciated the ones posted by Maran Ata, who met Dobri Dobrev and may have taken the photographs. Others can be found with a Google image search


#692 Randolph Westphal, more lives than a cat

Randolph Westphal and his dogs in Kelowna

Randolph Westphal in Kelowna; photo by Deepthi Jayatilaka

With his electric bicycle and his two dogs, 55-year-old Randolph Westphal was standing beside GioBean, chatting with Lucy Lauretta, when we walked by. Lucy is familiar with this blog and knew his story would give me hope. She was so right.

Westphal has beaten the odds more than once. When melanoma spread beyond his skin and throughout his lymph system, his odds of surviving more than another six months were slim. That was 1987.

Since then he has undergone 28 surgeries for cancer, four of them life threatening. On a 1996 bike tour through Argentina he barely survived a hit-and-run accident that severed his left foot, damaged his brain, and kept him in rehabilitation for five years. One of his dogs, Shir Khan, was killed in the accident. On top of that, he says MRSA robbed him of 80% of his memories.

In spite of everything, Westphal has remained upbeat. When we met him in Kelowna, he was on his sixth world tour, traveling with two dogs (who give an assist to his electric bike on steep uphills). Relying on the kindness of strangers for donations and accommodations (generally offered by hotels en route), he shares his message of hope.

I wasn’t taking notes when we came across him on the street, but what he told Yellowknife’s Northern News Service in October 2006 sounds like what he told us:

It’s easy to die, but it’s harder to live. I tell people, ‘Don’t sit in the corner and wait for death. Open your eyes, and the world is beautiful.’

The world is unutterably beautiful. Within each of us complex, flawed human beings lie the seeds of transformation, first of ourselves and then of the world around us. Cancer set Westphal on his nomadic path, where his intrepid spirit gives hope to those he meets and no doubt changes some lives.

You can follow Randolph Westphal on Facebook.