Three Books Every Young Adult Heading Into Their 20s Should Read Right Now

As a high school educator for 20 years, I have had the privilege of encountering so many talented young people, their exuberance for life can rub off on teachers like the old temporary tattoos of the 1980s that have once again found a resurgence in the dollar stores of today. We feel tremendous positivity from the ‘great moments’ of education when such students border on the cusp of genius, producing great projects that supersede our own wildest vision of what we had assigned, or when they make a grand breakthrough in their learning, the result of painstaking resiliency and determination on all our parts – students, teachers, assistants, and, in many cases, parents. Teachers, whether we get thanked for our role in any of this or not, revel in these victories. For us, to see true potential striven for, and achieved, in our students, it is the ultimate rush of the profession – it can fuel us for years to come with the ambition to have these moments realized again with the next crop of kids we help cultivate. So what then, like those temporary tattoos that flake away from our skin when we shower or pull our sleeves over our arms, causes us to crash from those successful highs, to suddenly plummet into the realm of disillusionment, self-doubt, angst, and regret – all of this sometimes within a day (sometimes sooner) of feeling like we are on top of our game, and that we have the greatest profession in the world?

For teachers, particularly those of us in secondary school, the levels of despair are painful when we contemplate the much-less talked about, taboo experience of seeing our students fall. By fall, I don’t mean fail – the word ‘fail’ we now connote as a learning opportunity in today’s educational lingo, a chance to learn from mistakes with the option of doing better, whether that be an exam rewrite or the classic ‘watch out-for-this-next-time’ warning on a poorly-executed science experiment. No, by fall, I mean really fall – in life, outside of the classroom, no longer within the safe confines of the school system, where failure means no ‘redos’ or the ‘don’t-get-bogged-down-in-that-quagmire-again’ cautionary heeds. By fall, I don’t mean the traditional bumps and bruises of “the school of hard knocks” my generation likes to tout and brandish either. I know many good people from that school who’ve taken a licking, recovered, and done brilliantly for themselves. By fall, I mean royally screw up. It can mean dropping out of school, but not always – it does, however, refer to negative happenstances once they leave the clemency our K-12 institutions provide – getting in trouble with the law, becoming addicted to drugs, and/or prostituting themselves for money, for another ‘fix,’ for desperation, for survival. It means becoming exploited by forces no teacher or parent could possibly foresee or counter. On a lesser scale, it can also mean seeing kids flounder in ways that never see them realize their true potential or calling, whatever that may be. In many respects this can be equally as tragic because the results of this floundering may not be readily apparent in young adulthood, but become far more problematic for the students when they reach later adulthood, when they themselves may be overcome with regret, blame, shame, disappointment, depression, addiction and/or, worst of all, suicide. The whole point of what teachers want for all our students, at every level, is for them to achieve their own measure of success in life. To do that, they need to meet or exceed their potential, in whatever endeavor that may be. It is up to the student his or herself to define that success. No one else, teachers (myself included), bosses, friends, or sorry parents, not even you, can define that for them – nor should we.

 

So then, why am I even bothering to write an article like this one? Well, if 20 years of teaching has taught me anything, it’s that every kid – no matter what walk of life they come from – has tremendous potential in at least one significant area, regardless of their ‘IQ’ or ‘standard reading level’. There have been scores of students, for instance, I’ve seen struggle in my Social Studies classes who’ve gone on to far exceed any of my own abilities in subjects like writing, cooking, mechanics, journalism, fashion design, cosmetology, construction, art, welding, media, computers, plumbing, outdoor education, business, physical fitness, and engineering. You bet these kids surprised me, in some cases they surprised their parents, and almost always surprised themselves at just what they accomplish once they find their calling. Though I would never have realized it at the time, these kids too would ultimately work their way into my ‘great moments of education temporary tattoo club’ – their stories still inspire me to this day, and are on occasion brought up by me to that new crop of kids who have similar struggles understanding how a bill becomes a law in the Canadian House of Commons, or exactly how the forces of supply and demand dictate price in the modern day capitalist economy (i.e. ‘Social Studies’ stuff).
Unfortunately, long time educators who are in this profession for keeps frequently come back to those kids who flounder. Why? Probably because we care too much, but it’s more than that. There’s something to be learned from them, lessons that can, should, and will benefit the next group to pop up in our classes, to try and help steer the new generation away from the pitfalls so many other young people their age stumble into. While every generation has had to deal with obstacles, some even devastating if not terrifying (the two World Wars that “The Greatest Generation” faced down certainly garner them the title belt, at least for recent memory), the problem for our youth today is that they are living in what feels like an overflowing jug, an age of uncertainty where the signs of an overwhelmed planet, economy, and human population have reached the tipping point – the consequences of which no other generation before them, including my own, has ever had to confront before. They are, more than ever before, heading into a cut-throat world, where achieving individual success means having to pick sides – management vs labour, government vs. citizens, corporation vs. corporation, being uber-rich vs. being like the rest of us, trying to keep our heads above water. There is little room in-between anymore, for compromise or consensus. Our middle class is shrinking [i], and our society is ever-so shifting towards an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that permeates all aspects of social life, not just business or politics. We can’t even agree on what to do about mass shootings or whether ocean acidification is a problem or not! The reaction of our youth is not surprising – they only have three choices. Tune in & fight, tune out & wallow, or try to survive as best they can. Each one comes with its own share of predicaments, stresses, and anxieties, for the parents, the students, and the young adults in their 20s struggling to find their place.
Before we dismiss this as a routine part of ‘every generation,’ – who didn’t have their share of ‘tycoons,’ ‘geniuses,’ ‘slackers,’ and ‘good folk trying to make ends meet’ – the concern as I see it is that our kids today, and the future generations they procure, can’t afford the latter two options. At all. What we’re seeing with the current response of North American teenagers today to the Parkland shootings is an awakening – it may start with guns, but it won’t end there. Too much is on the line, and they no longer trust the previous generations to have their best interests in mind. Their future is bereft with large-scale problems that are well on their way to becoming global crises, if they’re not already. Here is a short list – (1) an out-of-control opioid epidemic with no end in sight, (2) accelerated climate change with no solution in sight, (3) the sinister but clandestine threat of cybercrime in its many forms, (4) a new age of nuclear proliferation that includes several ‘rogue nations’ not just two superpowers, (5) a domestic political division exasperated by a rules-free digital media world, and – if any of that wasn’t enough – add (6) the phenomena of social isolation and disconnect created by the aforementioned pervasive digital constructs, not to mention (7) a burgeoning global inequality gap, augmented by gender, racial, and class divisions, and to top it all off, an (8) out-of-control world population projected to exceed 8.5 billion by the time they turn 40 [ii]. Each of these challenges alone are enough to paralyze a generation, and our kids are getting thrown into a veritable piranha-pond loaded with them, and many of them know it. They know it because they’re learning about it in school, though the shielded confines of ‘theory’ that most of them see right through, especially when we teach them skills like critical thinking. Worse yet, they know it because they’re also learning about it through the open waters of today’s media, social and otherwise, where the noise is far reaching and the criticism damning. It’s no wonder our kids are anxious today and struggling with mental health issues at a far more pronounced level than ever before [iii], they are anticipating these challenges all the while trying to plan ahead for the ‘normal targets’ we expect them to hit in the ‘dog-eat-dog world’ they already a part of. Normal targets that every generation before them have struck off the list – graduate high school, obtain post secondary training, get a job, build a career, acquire a set of wheels, become independent, find a spouse, have kids, build a life, be happy. Piece of cake, right?
Our kids are scared. They may not admit it, or perhaps fully grasped it yet, but it’s there. I can sense it even amongst junior-high aged students. There is so much wrong in their world that they face a dubious future, and all their getting is a plethora of hatred, misinformation, disinformation, blame, and irrationality about it. Unfortunately all we have to give them is the caterwauling that they themselves have to sort through with whatever critical thinking skills we try to arm them with in school. No wonder so many seem ambivalent, our society certainly haven’t given them much hope. Forget about the crap you hear that they’re pampered, spoiled brats, or entitled millennials. This generation today is waking up, becoming self-aware, and I think many of them are starting to realize this is their world that we are handing over to them, as mucky and deluded as we’ve allowed it to become.

 

The good news is that these kids have advantages that the ones before them didn’t have. They have information – indeed they are the children of the Information Age, they have a better understanding of the global village than anyone reading this over the age of 35 ever could, they have grown up in the social network, and they understand the power of communication, collaboration, and the importance of thinking differently. Our job in our high schools today is to help them mature, to imbue in them the best we can with the skills of responsible citizenship, including the traditional stuff – reading, writing, engagement with the world around them, but also the 21st Century stuff – creative thinking, collaborative skills, and the newest layer in the citizenship realm – digital responsibility. It’s what happens to them after that, the byproducts of everything the previous two generations have left them – the divides, the recrimination, the perils, technological & otherwise – that has me worried for them. That said, there are three non-fiction books I would like to bring to light here – books that summarize with illustrative explanations the key strategies of successful thinking – that I would argue every high school graduate – every young person under the age of 30, really – should grasp to help lay down a foundational framework for success in the 21st Century world. Success, of course, in avoiding the traditional quagmires of adulthood we all faced, but moreover success in meeting the inevitable, multifaceted challenges (crises?) that are coming their way. But above all else, success at just being happy. That’s it, just being happy in the everyday world of chaos around them – something all educators want for their students and all parents want for their kids. Notice I didn’t include the kids themselves in this list of wants, as we’ll see obtaining happiness is more than just striving for a care-free, worry-free, duty-free life, rather it is far more than that – happiness comes with a price tag, one in which they’ll be willing to pay, but it is very important that they pay it.
These books are recommended as separate entities – all of them have been written within the past decade, are all valuable enough to read on their own (that is, without having read the other two), and each one can help young people lay the foundation for a life of success and happiness from their 20s through to the end of their days. For the 18-, 19- and 20 year old reading all three, or at the very least familiarizing themselves with the core teachings each author encapsulates for them, it will definitely give them a far greater advantage that anybody who remembers listening to AM radio or an 8-track cassette ever would ever have had when we delved into our 20s. Furthermore, these books are not just recommended for young adults going to college or university – they are recommended for every, single young person, regardless of what post-secondary venture they plan to partake in, because each book delves into ALL aspects of young people’s lives – relationships, roommates, part-time jobs, travel, hobbies, technology – not just academic or vocational pursuits. Finally, all three books are relatively short – no more than 200 pages (did I mention I am a teacher? I know many teens ‘aren’t readers’ – more on that when I write about book # 2 on my list). All are readily affordable, running around $13 – $20, thereby making great high school graduation gifts. What follows below is my best sales pitch for each book, and why you as a young adult or – if you’re a parent, then your child – should read or skim over each one (I’ll even accept that). Please note, I have nothing to gain by promoting any of these books, I don’t know the authors, and have no personal stake in what they are trying to proclaim. I am merely recommending them simply because I care about our young people’s future, believing beyond a shadow of a doubt this generation of kids will facing daunting challenges no other before them have ever had to face, and I want them to have a shot at overcoming them. With that, I also want for them a fair shake at “the pursuit of happiness” we all received maturing into a world where global warming was still a challenged ‘theory’, and ‘Tweeting’ was something we associated with a Hanna Barbara cartoon. My recommendations for the three books every young adult soon-to-enter their 20s should read are as follows, in no particular order:

 

Book # 1 – The Defining Decade, Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now, by Dr. Meg Jay, Ph.D., Grand Central Publishing, 2012, 200 pages, ($19.19 on Chapters.ca)

DEfining Decade Cover
As the title implies, 18-, 19-, and 20 year olds are entering the decade that will lay the foundation for their career, relationship, financial, and personal aspirations. The problem, of course, is that most don’t realize it, and certainly don’t take advantage of the opportunities they have to capitalize on it. Neither do many twenty-somethings, for that matter. Then, all of a sudden, as I’m sure we can all relate, our 20s are gone and we’re catapulted into the “thirty-something era,” where we really have to become adults. Societal expectations, for instance, rightly or wrongly, expect you to have your act together by 30 – you should have a degree, a trade, a job, a partner, a starter home, a car, your life path defined and set. There is no more social license for trying to figure out what your identity is, what your career longings are, and how your life’s dreams are going to play out, you’re expected to have figured it out by then. What Dr. Jay’s book does is first of all convince you how formative your 20s are in today’s in laying out the roadmap to where you want to be by adulthood, really for every decade until you are in the grave. Your 20s, especially in today’s economy and societal norms, still give you flexibility and leeway to figure all of this out, but once they’re over, there’s little to no room – be it your parents’ patience (e.x. when exactly are you going to move out of our basement?’), your eligibility for financial incentives (e.x. think scholarships, loan remission), or your wannabe employer’s desire to hire you (e.x. so…you’re 30 and you still aren’t finished your degree, really?) – to wait on you any longer.
Particularly effective with Dr. Jay’s book is the way she lays out the typical pitfalls people in their 20s stumble upon – overbearing partners, toxic friendships, fears of inadequacy, or a little too much ‘living it up’, and not enough ‘working hard’ to earn it. All of these pitfalls throw wrenches into people’s lives that increase in size like expandable grow monsters (another popular 80s toy resurfacing in the Dollaramas’ of today) well into their 30s, 40s and 50s. These are the booby traps we come to regret later in life largely because we realize too late how much of a hindrance they actually were, through the very lens of hindsight Dr. Jay wants our young people to anticipate. While her essential argument can be summed up as “wouldn’t it be great if our young people could conceptualize what they were getting into?” It would indeed, and using a variety of constructed case studies from her own practice, she is trying to get her readers to think about ways in which you can totally screw up your twenties, and the exorbitant consequences for doing so in all walks of your life. The problem is societal, and that’s important, because much of what influences the perception of our twenties – television, celebrities, pro athletes, even traditional customs (e.x. misleading, but popular, catchphrases like ‘30 is the new 20’ & ‘your 20s are your time to shine’) – are only distorting this decade into a fantasyland instead of respecting it as the transformative period of your life. It is the period where forethought, planning, and hard work should be regarded as the necessary prerequisites needed to protect oneself in the face of the turbulent economic world the 2020s and 30s are going to carry our way. Our generation of young people, with each subsequent one to follow, need to figure this out now more than ever. There is no room for them to flounder for what is to come ahead. Employing Dr. Jay’s book is one way to help them realize this and hopefully become self-aware of how critical this stage of life really is for their futures.

 

Book # 2 – Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Ballantine Books, 2007, 244 pages, ($14.15 on Chapters.ca)

Mindset Cover
If our high-schoolers are fortunate enough, they may have already been exposed to this book, or at the very least, its core ideas. Carol Dweck’s research and theories have been spreading throughout education circles for the past decade, and have been incorporated by many school jurisdictions, staffs, and teaching circles in that time. If that is the case, then these fortunate teenagers will know the difference between the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset,” and if they do, then they should also know which one is the more advantageous to have, in all endeavors in life. For our kids and their parents who haven’t been exposed to Dweck’s book, it simply goes like this: you can choose (yes, choose) to be defined by your failures in the ‘fixed mindset,’ OR you can decide to accept that you are human, that you have capacity to learn, to improve – to grow – and realize that failure is a necessary step in moving forward in whatever you want to do in life. Now, before we incorrectly jump to the assumption that the “fixed mindset is bad” and the “growth mindset is good,” it is important to note the Dweck points out that many people have achieved tremendous success encompassing a ‘fixed mindset,’ where one’s performance is driven by an innate desire to succeed at all costs. In-and-of-itself, a fixed mindset isn’t horrible to have, but at the very least her work implies people with this way of thinking – this self-definition – need to be aware of it. Referring to numerous case studies from the business, sports, and academic worlds, all of whom offer up famous, recognizable personalities who many readers will know – and kids can easily Google if they don’t – the number one common denominator for such people is the problem of maintaining their achievements, their standing, and their status. The struggle to do so often comes at the expense of their sanity, their personal relationships, and their happiness. Not to mention that is also at the expense of others – people you have to step on, be ruthless with, and ultimately consider pawns or, worse, peons in order to make it to the top.

 

The real jist of Dweck’s book is in presenting how the ‘growth mindset’ can help our students and, subsequently, anyone else who reads it. As a teacher, I see the ‘fixed mindset’ limiting kids all of the time, at all levels. ‘I’m not a reader,’ ‘I can’t do math because I’m a girl,’ or ‘I don’t understand politics, it’s too hard,’ are all too common catchphrases teachers could retire off of if they received $10 each time they heard students say such variations thereof. Part of the problem is that the fixed mindset is ingrained in kids by societal customs that never give them an alternative to think otherwise. Dweck’s book challenges all of that, by helping readers adopt the ‘growth mindset’ – that has you focus on doing the best you can, while understanding that reaching the pinnacle of success is a gradual process, one that requires time, effort, persistence, help, mistakes, and especially failure, and all of that’s okay. It encourages initiative, cooperation, and adaptability – all valuable 21st Century skills to have, as esteemed as any ability to write computer code or operate a piece of machinery [iv]. Those latter skills can ultimately be taught to any adult willing (or desperate enough) to work; the former – well – by adulthood either you genuinely have them or you have to fake it. Just imagine how absurd it would be if employers actually have to hold in-services on ‘sensitivity training’ or ‘creating a collaborative workplace environment’ – oh, wait a minute… [v]

 

The power of Dweck’s work lies in its relative simplicity, and high schoolers ready for the post- secondary world should not only be able to find it readable, but practical for the new world of learning that lay ahead, whatever that may look like for each and every one of them.

 

Book # 3 – Happier: Can You Learn to Be Happy? by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., McGraw Hill, 2008, 168 pages, ($21.26 on Chapters.ca)

Happier Cover
The Happiness movement that came out of Harvard University in the first decade of this century, the product of Dr. Tal Ben-Sharar at first glance may come across as contrived and formulaic; however at its core is a fundamental principle of positive psychology that holds true for young people who can embrace it as early as they can, when they have such tremendous power to shape the course of their lives – that is, to be truly happy, you need to be follow two rules, and it doesn’t really matter what it is you are doing so long as you are following these rules. Satisfaction, contentment, drive, purpose – and with them all happiness – all emanate from these two rules. The first is that no matter what you choose to do in life, ensure that it gives you pleasure, that you receive enjoyment from it. Sharar is primarily referring to your life’s work – your career choice – but it really can refer to anything you are doing once you grasp the principle. However, that rule alone is not enough, it requires the second rule to go alongside it, otherwise, I suppose it would be easy to assume we should all just play video games or do drugs all day and obtain that long-sought after key to happiness. No, rule number two must go in conjunction with the first, otherwise you would just veer into the path of inertia, and all the calamities that accompany it – lethargy, inadequacy, and depression. Rule number two is that your pursuits must have meaning, in a context much larger than yourself. A popular catchphrase in the modern day WE movement which has caught on well with most youth who engage in the movement’s spirit is that helping others feels good, doing a service for one’s community, charity, and/or planet feels good, and that is very much the same spirit embodied in Dr. Shahar’s second rule. The key for our young people to understand is that building a life imbued with pleasure and meaning is not only an integral part of long-lasting happiness, but also a blueprint to making a difference in their communities, organizations, and/or planet. Taking on endeavors that gives us pleasure and purpose implies we will do it with enthusiasm, motivation, and kick. Completing tasks that have significance for causes larger-than-oneself means we will do it for the most altruistic of purposes, that we will be more apt to persevere and be resilient, knowing that there are others – possibly even society itself – that will benefit from our industry. Doing work that combines both pleasure and meaning will be exactly the kind of undertakings our kids need to be doing to make our world – their future – a better place.
The other value in Dr. Sharar’s research is the idea that happiness is a currency, as important as money and time, and that we often give up that currency in the “rat race” of life, one that is even bound to be more demanding to our kids in this new, 21st century age of 24 / 7 communication, networking, and lack of privacy. Technology and digital media, lest our kids completely disengage into a neo-luddite tribalism, are going to be hotwired into their careers round the clock, as their jobs will literally be following them around all hours of the day. We are living this phenomenon today where we can be texted anytime by our employers, our professions are telecast in the next popular reality or DIY show (& thus scrutinized accordingly by the ‘armchair’ public of the world), or we are reminded of the dictates of professionalism whenever we think to post a joke or a sports criticism on Facebook. Thinking about happiness as a currency compels you to be cognizant of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and whether doing it is worthwhile. Dr. Sharar offers some Stephen Covey-like paradigms for figuring this out, but the book’s ultimate benefit is in making its readers aware that your happiness belongs to you, and that treating it like a currency makes you self-aware of your need to protect it, watch how it is spent, and seriously consider why you are spending it. Granted some of this may only come with wisdom and life experience, but for our young people, paying mind to their happiness in this fashion at 18, 19, or 20 would prompt them to, at the very least, consider their happiness – that is, happiness as they define it (as opposed to anyone else) – to be the ultimate influential factor for their career & life plans.

 

Closing Thought(s)

Okay, so there’s my three non-fiction books every young adult should read right away, as soon as they can. My barometer of success for this article is low. For instance, if this article is read by one parent, who in turn buys their kid just one of these books to read, and the kid reads it and incorporates at least one piece of learning from that book, I will consider that a victory, and thus worthwhile of the ridiculous amount of time I spent writing this article. Why the low standard? It’s because I have nothing to lose or gain from this article. I am posting it up for free on my blog, and will make zero dollars from it. I wrote it because I want our kids to do well, and I worry about the world they will maturing into as adults, when they are no longer ‘young adults’. The challenges are intimidating, the problems compounding, the feedback loops already set into motion. Not only do I want them to be able to meet these difficulties head on, but yes, I want them to be content and productive with their lives, to be truly happy, whatever that may look like for them. Happy people take on challenges, they work together, and they are resilient in the face of adversity, and there is going to be a whole lot of adversity our future generations are going to face, with a burgeoning overpopulation that will tax our resources, with a planet that is shouting out warning signs that threaten our way of life, with artificial intelligence that could well put us face-to-face with everything we fantasized about in movies like AI or the Terminator [vi]. Any one of these scenarios would be enough to send anybody in a downward spiral of despair, but I want our kids to have the opposite reaction – to be successful, adaptable, and determined in their lives, to attain the strong quality of life they aspire to, and above all else, to fight like hell to keep it when it’s time for them to do so.

– Feature Photo Credit: Alex Jones – 1247 – Upsplash.com

Sources:

i – Levitiz, Stephanie, Canadian Press, “Canada’s Working Poor Nearly Doubles Since 2002 While Middle Class Shrinks: Poll,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/10/09/canadas-working-poor-nearly-doubles-since-2002-while-middle-class-shrinks-poll_a_23238027/, October 9, 2017.

See also: Schwartz, Nelson, D. “Middle Class Contracted in Over Two Decades, Study Finds,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/business/economy/middle-class-united-states-europe-pew.html, April 24th, 2017.

 

ii – United Nations News Center, “UN Projects World Population to Reach 8.5 Billion by 2030, Driven by Growth in Developing Countries,” http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2015/07/un-projects-world-population-to-reach-8-5-billion-by-2030-driven-by-growth-in-developing-countries/, July 29, 2015.
iii – Schrobsdorff, Susanna, “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” Time Magazine, http://time.com/magazine/us/4547305/november-7th-2016-vol-188-no-19-u-s/, October 27, 2016.

See also: Denizet-Lewis, Benoit, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” The New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html, October 11, 2017.

 

iv – Morrisson, Kimberlee, “21st Century Skills for a 21st Century Economy,” Entrepreneur Magazine, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/218643, February 25th, 2010.

 

v – Cowan, James, “Sensitivity is Often a Work Place Punchline. The Joke’s Over,” Canadian Business, http://www.canadianbusiness.com/blogs-and-comment/workplace-sexual-harassment-sensitivity-training/ November 4, 2014.

See also: Goodman, David Jane, “New York City May Require Businesses to Conduct Sexual Harassment Training,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/23/nyregion/nyc-sexual-harassment-workplace.html, February 23, 2018

 

vi – Paul, Keri, Marketwatch, “Stephen Hawking’s Final Reddit Post is Going Viral Over Its Ominous Warning About Robots,” MSN News, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/stephen-hawking’s-final-reddit-post-is-going-viral-over-its-ominous-warning-about-robots/ar-BBKdJAe?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartanntp, March 16th, 2018

Superbug Follow-Up: My Open Letter to Health Minister Jane Philpott

Photo credit: The Honorable Jane Philpott, Parliament of Canada Website: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members/Jane-Philpott(88835)

In light of my therapeutic rant on the Superbug crisis posted on my blog a few days ago, I committed myself to putting my actions where my mouth is, so to speak.  In doing so, I thought I would at least share with whomever’s interested my letter to current Canadian Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott, and a whole lot of other elected political brass in our House of Commons, including the big guy himself (JT) whom I carbon-copied the letter to (special thanks to a wise-old wizard who, for now, shall go nameless for that ‘cc’ political tip a couple of years ago – it really does make a difference in putting your letter to the top of the political ‘slush’ pile).  Too bad it didn’t work that way for literary editors and publishers the way it does for politicians trying to get reelected, but I digress…

Here is my letter to Minister Philpott for those of you curious to read it.  Her Parliament contact information, as well as that of any federal politician you may wish to write to on this or any other issue – municipal, provincial, state, or national – is readily available online.  To fight off my natural inclination to turn this into a Social Studies lesson, I will stop right there and paste my letter below.  Hopefully, at the very least, I’ve helped bring some attention, someway, somehow, to somebody in regards to the seriousness of this issue, and by so doing, hope to gain some traction on getting people, politicians, doctors, researchers, whoever to begin taking action to quell the destructive potential this problem, if continued to be left unchecked, may befall on all of us…

March 4, 2017

The Honorable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health

 Confederation Building, Suite 162
House of Commons 
Ottawa, Ontario   K1A 0A6

Dear Honorable Minister Philpott,

I am writing this letter to you in regards to an issue that, according to many medical and scientific researchers, is a veritable ‘ticking time bomb’ that has the potential to be the greatest existential threat to not only Canadians, but to the entire world – that is the steadily growing, and adapting, number of antibiotic resistant bacteria, germs, and viral organisms that, to date, are not only untreatable but rapidly communicable and, most disconcertingly, deadly to anyone, of any race, gender, age, or nationality. 

As a medical doctor yourself, I obviously do not need to describe for you the roots or cause of this problem.  I would however, unequivocally state my dissatisfaction at the lack of worldwide attention being directed to the matter, and the lack of will expressed by pharmaceutical companies, medical researchers, and governments in the Western World to fund research into new antibiotics and treatments for these ‘superbugs.’  While I know the challenges, both in terms of both economic cost and scientific limitations, to conducting this research are immense, to sit idly by while these resistant germs and organisms continue to adapt and spread is foolhardy, irresponsible, and dangerous , especially as we are now seeing firsthand the clear links between the rise of these resistant germs throughout the world in the face of new age, world developments like accelerated climate change and the pronounced availability of antibiotics worldwide.      

While it is certainly a tendency of the human race, and certainly those of us among the electorate, to be reactive rather than proactive on issues such as these, I believe that we cannot afford to wait for the next major, inevitable, global pandemic to occur in order to capitalize on the public outcry to finally take action.  There is much groundwork to be laid not only in setting up the funding structures and implementation of this research, but also in educating the general public about the dangers of overprescribing antibiotic drugs, improper disposal of unused prescriptions, the careless use (not to mention the unregulated availability) of antibiotics for household pets, and the rampant use of sanitizers in public places and private dwellings.  Education, at this point, may be the best way to mitigate or quell the pending disaster that a superbug infestation or epidemic could potentially bring to our country.  I call on our current Canadian government to take the lead in addressing this issue nationally by looking at creative ways to entice private corporations to begin research into effective treatments for the bugs already festering in our country, and to also take the lead globally, so that international nations begin working together to share and fund research that will ideally save countless number of lives in the future, including those of Canadians, who presently have no idea the threat such contagions pose to their health. 

Thank-you very much for your time to consider my letter.  As a concerned Canadian voter, I look forward to your response. 

Sincerely,

Michael Saad

Cc: The Right Honorable Mr. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Cc: Ms. Rona Ambrose, Interim Leader of Conservative Party of Canada

Cc: Ms. Kellie Leitch, Critic – Health, Conservative Party of Canada

Cc: Ms. Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada

Cc: Mr. Thomas Mulcair, Leader of Canada’s NDP

Cc: Mr. Don Davies, Critic – Health, Canada’s NDP

Cc: Ms. Rachel Harder, Member of Parliament, Lethbridge Riding

***************************UPDATE:***************************  

Here is the response I received, not from Minister Philpott, but from a designee she assigned the response to:

Dear Mr. Saad:

Thank you for your correspondence of March 4, 2017, addressed to the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, regarding antimicrobial resistance (AMR). I sincerely regret the delay in responding to your email. The Minister has asked me to reply on her behalf.

I agree with you that AMR is a growing threat to global public health. The Government of Canada recognizes this threat, and is committed to taking action to prevent, limit, and control the emergence and spread of AMR. Antimicrobial Resistance and Use in Canada: A Federal Framework for Action was released in October 2014, and maps out a coordinated, collaborative federal approach to addressing the threat of AMR in three strategic areas of focus: surveillance, stewardship, and innovation. The corresponding Federal Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance and Use in Canada, released in March 2015, outlines the concrete steps that the Government of Canada will take between 2015 and 2019.

Building on this initial response, a pan-Canadian framework for action on AMR and antimicrobial use (AMU) is under development by the federal government, the provinces, the territories, and external stakeholders across the human health, animal health, and agricultural sectors. As AMR is a shared responsibility in Canada, the Framework lays a foundation for coordinated, multisectoral action across jurisdictions on four key components: surveillance; stewardship; infection prevention and control; and research and innovation.

As you note in your letter, a lack of awareness surrounding AMR and AMU exists, and enhancing knowledge on this issue is a fundamental component of Canada’s efforts, both federally and as part of a pan-Canadian framework. The Health Portfolio participates in both national and international awareness efforts, and some of our educational resources can be accessed at: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/antibiotic-antimicrobial-resistance.html.

Surveillance of AMR and AMU is also essential to enhance our knowledge and understanding of this issue. To address this challenge, the Public Health Agency of Canada created the Canadian Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System (CARSS) to provide an integrated picture of AMR and AMU across Canada. This enhanced and integrated surveillance is detailed in the CARSS Report, the most recent release of which can be found at: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/drugs-health-products/canadian-antimicrobial-resistance-surveillance-system-report-2016.html. To support a global picture of AMR, Canada has also joined the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System.

The Government of Canada is engaged at the global level on efforts to address AMR. For example, Canada endorsed the WHO Global Action Plan on AMR in May 2015. Through the G7, Canada has committed to encourage international discussions on incentivizing the pharmaceutical industry; incentivizing the research and development of new antimicrobials, vaccines, diagnostics, alternative therapeutics, and other medical countermeasures in human and animal health; and improving access to effective vaccines, diagnostics, antimicrobials, and alternate therapeutics.

The Government of Canada is committed to supporting research and innovation on AMR and is making investments through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Between 2011-12 and 2015-16, CIHR invested over $96 million in AMR research, with $20.2 million in 2015-16 alone. As part of these investments, CIHR has a focused initiative on AMR where investments are being made in developing new point-of-care diagnostics to allow for better diagnoses and treatment options for patients.

Thank you again for writing, and I hope that my comments are helpful in addressing your concerns.

Sincerely,

Dr. Theresa Tam, BMBS (UK), FRCPC
Interim Chief Public Health Office
Public Health Agency of Canada

 

The Existential Threat We All Face & Why We Need Each Other To Defeat It

We know it’s coming.  We know it’s inevitable, that it’s going to be awful and, with all of that, we know it’s going to kill a lot of people.

We know it so well that our military, governments, health systems, and emergency management agencies, at both the national and international levels have been drawing up mitigation strategies, map zones, and ‘what-to-do-if-the-worst-case-scenario-actually-does-happen’ contingency plans, all the while the rest of us (myself included) live our day-to-day lives, worrying about our kids, our mortgages, the crime rate, what we’re going to do on the weekend, what we’ll do for our next holiday.  In short, regular stuff we all should – and need to be – worrying about.

What we don’t know is what form it will take.  I am talking about the next global pandemic.  We, of course, have seen these before, and survived them.  To be fair, you wouldn’t be reading this, nor would I have written it,  had we not survived them.  But what scares me, and should, at the very least, concern you too, is my first sentence in this paragraph.  That we don’t know what form it will take.  Will it be a rogue virus, previously thought to be dormant coming from some long forgotten, contaminated region in the tropics?  Will it be something we have already heard about in the news today – mayhaps that mutated avian bird flu currently spreading in China (March 1st, 2017) or the recurrence of the West Nile virus that gave us scares back in 2003 and 2012 and which returns to us in smaller – and less sensationalized – outbreaks every year since?  Or will it be a bacteria resistant superbug, genetically altered through adaptation to be resistant to the overused and abused antibiotics we have, at least in the Western World, taken advantage of this past century?  I suspect it will be the latter – doctors and scientists, medical researchers and pharmacists, geneticists and pathologists alike are worried – make that very worried.  So why haven’t we heard about it?  Well, first off, we have, it’s just that we haven’t been listening.

As far back as the 1990s we’d been warned about them (now is the point when I would like to unequivocally point out that I am NOT a doctor, medical researcher, global alarmist, or even remotely what you’d call an expert in this field – just think of me as your regular, ordinary middle-class Joe here, with nothing to gain, or to lose,  by writing this piece and pasting it on the Internet for the world – with all of its online pundits and trolls – to criticize, ridicule, condemn, and make crass memes of…), the media reported on numerous experts and whistleblowers sounding the alarm on antibiotic resistant superbugs and the dangers of them, especially if they manifest in the form of easily communicable diseases, spread through the air, or by mosquitoes, fleas, germs, or whatever other avenue all the various bugs of the past 1000 years have spread (I did say I’m no expert on this, right?).

We’re also being warned about them right now, as in today, in March 2017.  Everyone from the American Center for Disease Control (the CDC) to Bill Gates have been conjuring up those dreaded worse-case scenarios that have been peppering our media, social & mainstream, this past week, sandwiched between Warren Beatty & Faye Dunaway’s Oscar mix-up, the latest Donald Trumpism, some controversial parole-granting in my own country (Canada), and the latest happenings in the sports world – the NHL Mumps outbreak (!) and Kevin Durant’s MCL Sprain.  A fair jibe at me would to be to question why I am choosing to bring this up now, and post it onto my blog page, berating you with my alarmist, belly-aching about it today.  Why didn’t I do this years ago, when I knew full well this problem was growing, and the potential consequences of it getting direr?  Good question, and I have the following three points to make to address it.

(1) I actually have been sounding the alarm, just not so directly. In March 2015, my novella White Army Stand was published, a story which posits a world threatened by such an outbreak.  The pathogen I conjured up, the Norcavirus, was completely fictional, based on no real, existing virus – hell I don’t even know if I should be calling it a pathogen in the annals of science.  In my story, my main character Matias, himself a victim of Norca, has to rely on an unconventional, radical, and highly experimental treatment for the disease because no existing drugs or treatment would work.  In that respect, he becomes the last hope for the human race.  Now, it is at this point, that I must be clear that I am not writing this to put in a cheap plug, or to showcase, my story – I have not, and will not, make a single dime off of it – it’s available online, for free, at Fiction-on the-Web.  You can find it right here, along with some great illustrations by Elkford, B.C’s Adam White, whom I will put in that cheap plug for, because he’s so talented: http://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/2015/04/white-army-stand-by-michael-saad.html  Why I am including it in this blog entry is because I want to prove to people this is a crisis I’ve followed for quite some time, and while my story was published in 2015 in Great Britain, anybody who is close to me knows I have been working on it a lot longer than that (and by “a lot longer” I literally mean over 20 years, and yes I can prove it if you’re want to press me on it).  So yes, I have been worried about superbugs and pandemics for some time.  And to be 100% up front, so too have a lot of writers & filmmakers before me, who’ve composed far greater and more influential pieces than I ever will – Stephen King’s classic novel The Stand, Wolfgang Peterson’s chilling movie Outbreak, and even Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, in all of its popular incarnations, posit the same end-of-life-as-we-know-it outcome in the face of an untreatable, all-too-real, global pandemic (okay, maybe minus the zombies & devils stuff, but definitely include the panic & human infighting parts). As for my character Matias, the results of his treatment I’ll save spoiler-free for anyone who wants to give the story a whirl.

(2) Okay, well number (1) was the fun point, at least in my own head, in terms of how fun it can actually be writing on a topic such as this one. Numbers (2) and (3) are far less fun to talk about, but represent the real reasons I am writing this blog entry.  Here’s the thing: why I am taking the time out of my *insanely-busy* life to sound the alarm right-this- second is because I firmly, without hesitation, know that climate change is hastening the disturbingly real possibility that the dreaded, world-changing pandemic is coming.  Forget about what’s causing climate change for a minute, don’t fret about the roles that humans may or may not be playing is hastening it, and ignore what those guys & gals in our sheltered, temperate zones  are saying about the heaps of snow & cold weather they’re getting outside their living room window  – let’s just acknowledge that the climate is changing, and by changing we mean that global temperatures are rising.  Scientists can prove it (I’ve seen the data, photos and I’ve read the research with the most critical eye you can imagine – like most of us, I would have loved nothing more than to have found some glaring inaccuracy, some fabricated omission, some gross contradiction to imply that the science was wrong, and I couldn’t do it).  We’re at a point now, I feel it’s safe to say, where even the deniers & skeptics we see on YouTube and on talk shows, don’t make any sense (even though I so desperately wish they did).  To stress that point, back when I was in high school, 25 years ago, it was conceivable when such deniers & skeptics posited that human beings didn’t have the capacity to impact something so monumental and God-inspiring as the climate, but in 2017, with developments such as the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, our replenishing of the Ozone Hole (itself a major crisis in my high school days), the spread of the Asian Brown Cloud, and a much better understanding of the circulation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, how can anyone imply that we are not living in the Anthropocene – the era where humans, above any other force of nature on Earth, has the most impact on the geological, atmospheric, hydrologic, and biological fate of the planet.

How climate change is increasing the odds, and expediting the inevitable pandemic that I, and a whole slew of experts, fear is coming, is by ridding our planet of the colder temperatures that have mitigated the potential sources of contagion, if not the actual viruses and bugs themselves, in our respective winter seasons.  Of course, like all of you reading this, I hope I’m wrong, and with me that the countless numbers of experts who I’m drawing such dire conclusions from – Bill Gates, Gwynne Dyer, all the ‘leftist,’ environmental cronies writing for National Geographic and Nature Magazine to name a few  – are all discredited, forced to eat crow, & shamed to obscurity.  If we’re not, then we have one last, real hope left, which leads me to my third and final point, number (3)…

(3) We can act now to start working on the drugs, the vaccines, the research, the protocols, to create the new treatments needed to combat the superbugs, or quell future pandemics, perhaps even the ‘big one.’ I will even go out on a limb (and believe me, posting this on my webpage for the world to scrutinize for posterity is that limb) and say that we as a human race, in all of our potential, in all of our capabilities, possess the means and know-how to concoct these treatments.  The problem, however, is the current, divisive political climate, and our incredibly uncanny, short-sightedness to be proactive when it comes to our collective fate.  I mean, it’s really incredible that the human race has lasted this long, when you come to think about all of our wars and the wanton destruction we’ve carried out over the past 3000 years of recorded human history.  We’re supposed to be the master species on the planet, yet you don’t see lions, or wildebeests, or jellyfish creating weapons of mass destruction or fighting wars of attrition, do you?  Not only is it amazing we’ve lasted this long, but the fact that we’ve overpopulated the planet is truly astounding.  While that overpopulation thing is no doubt a notable contributing factor to all of the aforementioned problems I’ve been whining about in this article, that fact is what it is, and it’s the hand we’re dealt.  Any solution to deal with that problem amounts to murder, abortion, and / or genocide and that’s forever off of the table, as it should be.  As a matter of fact, what I’m actually trying to offer is a way to hopefully avoid mass death altogether.  Yet, get this, the number one reason why, in the Western world at least, drug & pharmaceutical companies do NOT invest in new research, new protocols, and new drugs to counter the lethal threat to human existence that our superbugs pose, is because there is no potential to make money in doing so.  If I were talking to you directly I would repeat the last part of that sentence, but I’m not talking to you, I’m writing, so my Italicized emphasis will have to do.  Apparently there is no money making potential – no viable financial profit – in creating new medicines that could potentially save the human race.  Think about that for a second – and I’m a staunch capitalist, and even I think that’s absurd.  Just to show I am not making this up, here are the mainstream, sources I dug up that claim from (take your pick who to bash on this as bringing you such ‘fake news’ – I have the entire political spectrum encompassed in the following links, so see if you can discern what the common denominator in all four appear to be, and that denominator is certainly NOT ideology):

http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/we-may-soon-have-no-useful-antibiotics-left-expert-1.3302987

http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-uncounted-drugs/

http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/40/confronting-the-pandemic-threat/

http://www.foxnews.com/health/2017/01/13/nevada-woman-dies-superbug-resistant-to-every-available-antibiotic-in-us.html

Obviously (in case you can’t tell) placing profit over the fate of countless human lives, which could very well include our own, or our families, is unacceptable to me.  It should be unacceptable to you.  We desperately need to be united on this front, if we’re going to have any hope of mitigating the damage, certainly if we’re going to have any hope of winning the fight.  This research needed to start yesterday, and our respective governments must be prioritizing the facilitation of this research – if it means a nationalized drug plan in Canada, so be it.  If it means cutting military spending in the United States, I say go for it.  Write your MP or Congressman, premiers or Presidents, write to health boards, research institutes, pharmaceutical countries, write to anyone who will listen.  The biggest threat facing our people, our families, may not be the Russians, or migrants, or each other (though I daresay that may seem like it’s the case given the nasty turn politics in North America and the Western World have taken this past year-and-a-half).  No, the biggest threat may be that microscopic contagion from God knows where, maybe even in your own country or backyard, that is a ticking time bomb, an unknown, mutating pathogen no one has heard of and can’t pronounce, but who’s festering in the shadows, waiting to thrive in the larger, communicable world once it gets unleashed.  At that point, we will have heard of it, and this issue, along with its name and pathology, will be the singular, pressing, dominant fear on our collective psyches, for our families, and for our futures.

And by then it will be too late.  I’m going to do my part to help make sure that doesn’t happen.  I hope you do too.

 

Picture Credits:

(Left: Staphylococcus aureus antibiotic resistant, with a dead human neutrophil, courtesy of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases / NIH,  as found in Zielinski, Sarah, “Superbugs Are Everywhere: How to Stop Deadly Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria,” Slate Medical Examiner, November 2015).  Website URL: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2015/11/antibiotic_resistant_superbug_bacteria_are_everywhere.html

(Right: Image from “White Army Stand”, illustrated by Adam White, found at http://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/2015/04/white-army-stand-by-michael-saad.html)  I put Adam’s picture in the title bar because ever since we drew it 17 years ago, it continues to give me hope because, in so many respects, it captures the sentiment of unity and resiliency that I believe is our great hope to overcome this challenge, and which I closed this blog article with.

 

From Leaves to Devils: The Inspiration of a Writing Teacher

(Picture Above, Mr. Ron Basarab – Photo Credit: Sparwood Secondary School Yearbook, 1988)

I’ve been asked a few times now how long it took for my first novel – All the Devils Are Here, due out this September 2016 – to get published from a blank page to finally being sold online and on the shelves.  My answer is 25 years, and I’m only being partly facetious.

It all started in 1991, as a student in Mr. Ron Basarab’s Writing 11 class.  One of our projects that year was to write a short story, or some sort of creative piece of fiction.  Sticking to the short story format, I wrote a tale about a terrified 10 year boy who idolized his father so much that he would worry himself sick whenever his father went away for long periods of time, or would get so wasted he would get ill or become violent.  The problem, or the crux of the story, as Mr. Basarab called it, was that the boy’s father was a drug dealer, and got himself into a lot of trouble.

The story, of course, would ultimately (and, by that, I mean 25 years later ‘ultimately’…) become the manuscript for All the Devils Are Here.  Without delving too much into the plot of the actual novel it would become, the story left my 10 year old boy, named Radley, with quite the crux.  Does he continue to live a life of constant, unbearable anxiety, or does he turn his father into police, in a desperate attempt to get his father help?  Does the child thus become a pseudo-parent, essentially making the decision to protect his father by turning him into the authorities, getting him arrested, and sending him to jail?

When I wrote that story, at the time called “Leaves,” I disliked it.  I thought it was phony.  I felt like Radley was too mature for his age, too focused into his thoughts for a prepubescent, and was utterly unbelievable as a character.  Handing the story in only because I spent a full day writing it (a full day, in my Grade 11 year, Holy Crap – that took my whole life away back then!) and it was all I had.  I had written other stories for various classes before, never really remembering them except for a select few (I’ll probably be blogging about those some day soon, I’m certain), this one was destined to be something I would surely forget about the day, if not the quarter century, after I handed it in.

Only it wasn’t.  Mr. Basarab – who was very old school and peculiar about concise, crisp writing, staying on topic, and was always one to barrage your paper or essay with red ink correcting your punctuation, spelling, or run-on sentences – actually hand-wrote a personal message at the end of my story, “This is quite good.  Go further.  What repercussions would this boy face?  I want to know.”

I could have just stopped at ‘This is quite good’ because, as I reflect now at that moment, 25 years later on the eve of getting the novel out in print, I realize that was the key – dare I call it a crux – that Mr. Basarab put me into.  First of all, he liked it.  That may sound ridiculously simple, and it was, but wouldn’t you know it, for a hormone-laced teenager growing up in small town Sparwood to read those words for the first time for virtually any piece of fiction I had EVER written up to that point, they were the bomb.

Second of all, and here’s where the crux comes in – he challenged me.  What were the repercussions Radley would face, whatever the decision was that he made? (you can see, I’m working hard on the ‘no spoilers’ angle for the actual novel).  I didn’t know the answer to his question, of course.  Hey, I had just spent the whole day on the story and I finished it, and had other things to worry about, like the hot, older girls in my class and the fact that my hockey team of the past 13 years, the Minnesota North Stars, was on the verge of defeating the best team in the NHL that season, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the first round of the ’91 playoffs (the Stars would wind up making it to the Stanley Cup Final that year, but I digress…’stay on topic, Saad!’).  In truth, I just never thought that deep about my characters before, certainly not when my sole intention was just handing in that story so that I didn’t fail Writing 11.

As I compose this blog, I am about to partake in my seventh year as MC and Chair of my current school district’s annual Wall of Fame ceremony, where our entire district honors and celebrates the achievements of former alumni of our schools who have gone on to lead distinguished careers and lives in their chosen academic or career fields.  Often these inductees, and we’ve had 37 to date spanning well over the 50+ years of our school division’s history, mention the contribution, advice, or mentorship of ‘that one teacher’ – that one kindred spirit who guided them when they were struggling, or sat down with them on the hallway floor to talk about their goals, hopes and dreams.  They’re all great, feel-good, inspirational stories, and fun to listen to year-after-year (I did mention I’m entering my seventh year of doing this, right?  I really do enjoy it, despite the extra work at the beginning of the school year, already busy enough).  Unfortunately, my story with Mr. Basarab isn’t so feel-good, inspirational, or dare I say  ‘sappy,’ – it may even come off as a bit cantankerous, but here goes (Be concise with your writing, and no more tangents, Saad! I can indeed hear his voice bark at me right now as I compose this … ) …

He was bloody persistent.  Probably the most persistent man I’ll ever know.  Those of us blessed enough to have been taught by him know what I mean.  The same jokes over again, corny jokes, so bad they became endearing, growing on you like freckles or dimples.  If someone sneezed in class, “come on you guys, it’s SNOT funny.”  “All right, class, if you guys REALLY think the ONLY reason I’m giving you an in-class exam before your final is so that you are forced to study for the departmental, then I’ve got this to say to you … You’re probably right!  Bahhhhahahhhaa!”  (Yes, I hate to admit, I do steal this line, AND his delivery, with my own students – it’s so much more fun when you’re on the other side as the teacher…). And that was just his jokes.  He was also persistent in his marking and assessment, knowing, almost as if he had a modern-day computerized Gradebook inserted into his brain, exactly what overdue assignment you had owing, and what your mark was on the last one you handed in.  I try to repeat that as an educator, but I flop, and get students mixed up whenever I try.  I need the print-out in front of me.  How he did it, I’ll never know.

And he didn’t let up.  And he never forgot.  Anything.  Especially when it came to teaching, or his students.  Even with all of the annoying jokes, which I now find not only nostalgic but also a fond memory, and even with the four other courses I took from him in subsequent years, including two I adored (English & English Literature) one I dreaded like the Plague (Journalism), and one I dropped because it was the Plague (French, en francais) he never forgot Radley’s story…and the fact that I had never given him an answer.  “So what happens with Radley, Saad?”  As aforementioned, the North Stars in the Cup Final that year quashed me from having to think about that decision, the hot, older girls in my class only got hotter, and then came the Grade 12 year, and the focus on scholarships, graduation, more girls, and the North Stars (or worse, the Minnesota Stars) poised to rebound from their Cinderella Cup run to seal the deal the following year (yeah, that didn’t happen, but don’t try telling me during the 1991-1992 season!) – all of this stuff was too dynamic for my 18-year old mind to concentrate on much else.  These happenstances allowed me to conveniently dodge the answer to Radley’s predicament and stick the whole thing on the shelf, where it gathered dust as I ventured onto newer, exciting things in University.

But oh did it haunt me.  Virtually any news-story that occurred in the mid 90s involving drugs or violent crime, I thought of Radley and his dilemma.  During those years, in encountering Mr. Basarab in the oddball of places I did, in the Sparwood Library as a summer student, in the Post Office, the bookstores in the Lethbridge malls, he would ask me about Radley’s fate, often telling me that story should have been longer.  It was meant to be longer, and that Radley was a character as real as he or I, and that he hoped he would one day see ‘Leaves’ between covers.

In 2006, I began in earnest to attempt to answer that question – I hadn’t seen Mr. Basarab in well over ten years by that point (I think he was seconded to the Education Ministry in BC, presumably never to step foot in the East Kootenays again, or so it was thought), but his inquiry about Radley’s fate still followed me, even after all those years.  So I began to explore.  I made contact with a friend of mine from university – the late John Gill, who was working as a Crown Prosecutor in Alberta, and barraged him with all kinds of ‘hypothetical scenarios.’  ‘So John, if a guy, hypothetically speaking, was soliciting drugs and selling them to kids, could he get put away for life…?”  Ever the patient, eager to help anyone kind of a guy, John must have thought I was up to no good – I finally confessed I was writing a story, and (thankfully) he guided me, in much the same vein Mr. Basarab would have, into helping me discover what happened to Radley and, in this new story I was creating, Radley’s entire biological family.  I owe just as much to John, I now realize, as I do to Mr. Basarab – while the latter was my inspiration to keep the story alive and answer the question of Radley’s fate, John was very much my tour guide through the mucky and intimidating world of Canadian crime & legalities that was so crucial in that all important, make or break, first draft of the novel.

Completed in 2008, A Swinger of Birches, the novella version of Radley’s story was ready to go, and one year later I finished the full novel.  And then it sat on the shelf for various reasons I need not delve into here (in short, I was busy teaching, and composing other short stories, as well as bringing babies into the world with my wonderful, supportive wife Jodi [be concise, Saad and stay on topic!])  Then in 2013, I made the conscious decision to take Radley’s story off of the shelf and fine tune it (and by fine tune it, I mean completely rip it apart, change the ending, change key characters, and revamp entire passages of it…)  Why did I un-shelve it?  Because, after well over a decade, I ran into Mr. Basarab again. He had defied all rumours, and returned to Sparwood, proving (to me, anyways) his affinity for Sparwood Secondary, the community, and its students.  Older, graying, he appeared tired – I realize this now but didn’t quite catch onto it at the time.  Regardless, we had a grand conversation. Mostly about life and education.  He never brought up my story, or Radley’s fate.  I did that, and he remembered it, telling me he was still waiting to hear the answer to his question.  I told him it was ‘in development’. It was all the motivation I needed at that point.  “You’ll get your answer soon, Mr. Basarab.” (I never could call him, Ron, despite being, at that point, a fellow ‘veteran’ high school teacher myself).  How soon, I couldn’t say, but like most writers, I promised it would be sooner than later, knowing full well that with the publishing world in the state that it currently is, it would probably wind up being later than sooner.

On October 23rd, 2014, the published online version of the novella became available, or at least I became aware that it was available. Radley’s story, and the answer to the question, had been partially answered.  I didn’t think to send it to Mr. Basarab right away, but it was in the back of my mind – I had sent him copies of my previously published stories and articles.  I would get to it soon, certainly before the month would end, I didn’t feel like there was any rush.  Only there was.  And I was too late.

In some twisted, cruel, bizarre, gut-wrenching coincidence, Mr. Basarab passed away on October 23rd, 2014.   It was a shock.  Thankfully, I’m proud to say, I thought only of him – the man, the teacher, and the great legacy he left behind.  I didn’t want to wallow in regret, or pout about him not getting to read my story, and have him discover the answer to his question – I knew he was a far greater man than that.  One who cared about all of his students, and go the extra mile to help them in whatever way he could.  People need only read his online obituary and guestbook to see how endearing and committed he was to so many of his colleagues and former students.  I did, of course, wind up dedicating the novella to him, but in doing so, understood that I hadn’t really, completely answered his question. Only the full-fledged novel would do that.  The novel (I know now) that he was really steering me towards.

That novel is, of course, All the Devils are Here, the title a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear that I knew Mr. Basarab would appreciate.  I set off to work on it throughout early 2015, and finally got it ‘between covers’ with the gracious help of Doug Owen and his team at Tumbleweed Books.  It, too, is dedicated to Mr. Basarab.  I hope it answers his question regarding Radley’s fate.  I only wish I could have thanked him in person for inspiring me to figure it out.

 

 

 

A Bright, Infinite Future for 2016?

In my writer’s blog I will feature a website-exclusive commentary on my published works, characters, and little asides that went into creating them.  Hopefully for any other aspiring writers out there, this may be of use.  I love to help other writers out where I can.  I, myself, have benefited greatly from the advice and guidance of wiser, established, and (thankfully) benevolent souls, both mainstream and not, who have led me along my path of this craft over the years.  I aim to pay it forward myself (I’m teaching my first creative writing class this Spring), and I hope this blog – with anecdotes of what I’ve done and how much I struggled with my fiction & non-fiction, published and non-published  – will help do that.

A Bright, Infinite Future.  I thought I might as well start with this story, my most recent to be published.  It is featured in the December 2015 issue of Non Local Science Fiction Magazine out of Pennsylvania.  I wrote the story as an expression of my reaction to the death of the courageous young lady you see pictured below.  Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26 year old Iranian, who was a citizen participant in the Green Revolution against the Spring 2009 election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Neda-Agha-Soltan Profile

I was in Edmonton at the time, marking diploma examinations.  It was late June 2009 and while the Western world reeled at the bizarre death of Michael Jackson, whose controversial end made scandalous headlines on virtually every television station and news website at the time. Neda’s death was also making the rounds albeit on a far lower scale, primarily on YouTube.  Incidentally I caught wind of Neda’s death while searching up the details behind Jackson’s condemned anesthesiologist – Dr. Conrad Murray, the image of this dying Iranian girl, shot in the chest while her two friends tryied desperately to help her,  startled me – shocked would be an equally appropriate word. This was not Hollywood, nor was it a scripted dramatization of war, or murder, that we saw countless times in movies, television, and video games.  This was real cell phone video, of a real life victim of a political repression, and for the first real time in history – we had a front row seat, and it was horrible.

You can still watch the video today – it is easy to find, heartbreaking to watch.  It’s still on YouTube and countless other streaming video sites.  I do NOT recommend watching it; rather, I would encourage everyone interested in Neda’s story to watch the powerful and wrenching documentary on her life “For Neda,” which also can be found online.  For a politically-active citizen like myself, who no doubt would’ve been right alongside her had I been an Iranian protesting the political corruption in her country, Neda’s story – and her death – are a symbol of the sacrifices that must be paid to showcase evil to the world.  Granted, there have been countless others like her in world history, civilians oppressed and murdered by ruthless militant authorities, but hers was presented to us right onto our digital laps.  Such is the power of media, especially media that gets it right in our faces – the cell phone video that day was happenstance, it was uncoordinated, un-calculated, sloppy and instantaneous, but it was there, and it caught everything that needed to be shown.

If the explosion of news media and photojournalism helped turn American public opinion against the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 70s (photos of the Mai Lai Massacre, for instance, or the disturbing one of a naked Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing in terror from a napalm attack, hold particular resonance and agony for me), then the video of Neda’s death must hold the same sway.  Given the current turmoil in the Middle East in this post Arab Spring era, I think Neda’s death, as instantaneous as it was, carries the same resonance.  Tragically, countless other video taped deaths equally as gruesome and more deliberate – Daniel Pearl’s to name one – have occurred since Neda’s.  Videos like these without question have become a unique trend of the digital, viral world we now live in, giving human societies all over the world a first hand civilian view of the experiences of war, terrorism and – with it all – tragic death.  It is the new function of civilian media, and it is for this reason, at the core of A Bright, Infinite Future, I presented the Cel’Dero’s story through the eyes of journalist Sherrie Dennigre.  Cel’Dero, of course, represents Neda, and Delroy Higgins is me, and what he experiences in the story is what I went through in response to Neda’s tragic end, a video that haunts me to this day.  Given the current state of affairs in the Middle East with ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, and the ongoing Saudi Arabia, Iran, & Yemen conflict, I remain heartbroken at the thought that 2016 will only bring more chaos, destruction, and death to that part of the world – including death that we will see firsthand on the news and social media feeds of the World Wide Web.  As always, I can only hope I’m wrong.  I really wish I would be.

My story, A Bright Infinite Future, is published in the December 2015 edition of Non Local Science Fiction Magazine, which can ordered online through Amazon at http://www.amazon.ca/Nonlocal-Science-Fiction-Issue-4-ebook/dp/B019DA87MA/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1450244202&sr=8-3&keywords=nonlocal+science+fiction

 

 

Welcome to Michael Saad’s Author Page

Welcome to Mike’s official author page, which will feature updates on all of Mike’s future writing, fiction, and non-fiction, as well as blogs, commentary, and insights on all of Mike’s work.  Particularly of note, there will also be a showcase of artwork on several of Mike’s fiction stories by a variety of ultra-talented artists from British Columbia’s Elk Valley and the Lethbridge / Southern Alberta regions of Canada.