Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays

            the Huffington Post

           And me.

Happy Holidays, everyone. Hope it's filled with food, family and joy. See you on the other side.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mont Tremblant, December 22

Happy Schnauzerkah.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Things My Husband and I Argue About - An Objective and Balanced List

Whether you should walk through Ikea the way you're supposed to: following the arrows and enjoying the seamless, modern Swedish common sense experience concluded by cinnamon rolls... or, take all the short-cuts and risk missing out on an item of household furnishing that could complete your life.

Whether you should sit two thirds of the way back in a movie theatre, enjoying the panoramic experience of sight and sound... or directly underneath it, causing neck dislocation and permanent hearing loss.

Whether to hang the dog's winter coat on our coat rack, since it's so cute and costs more than all of our coats put together... or store it in a separate dog cabinet with his toys and snacks and winter boots because it's "dirty from the street".

Whether the dog should be allowed to get into bed with us whenever he wants, thereby increasing his self-esteem as a loved, appreciated and cuddle-able family member... or only after he has been decontaminated, disinfected and bleached.

Whether to only make the bed on weekends when it will be used as a picnic space/couch/dog-cuddling-zone/meditation pad/existential crisis area... or make it daily, because an unmade bed "is depressing".

Whether crepes are actually pancakes

Whether it's okay to watch the Grinch before the Christmas tree is up

Whether french fries count as salad 

Whether Donovan counts as music

Whether takeout souflaki delivered to our door by a man named Savino counts as cooking dinner.

...To be continued. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

My website is me. It must be fresh. It must be happening.

My heart grew 2 sizes today: Ab Fab returns on Christmas Day.

Cancel your aromatherapy, your psychotherapy, your reflexology, your osteopath, your homoeopath, your naturopath, your crystal reading, your shiatsu, your organic hairdresser, and pour yourself a Bolly-Stolly.

Friday, December 16, 2011

ABC Gets It (Almost) Right

ABC did a piece on the Dragon Tattoo story today, and unlike some of the other ones, they actually took the time to speak to me first.  The story is actually quite balanced and true, except for the line:

"My fear is that people will watch the film and have this impression of the heroine and what she endured to be that person."

It doesn't really make sense (even if I said it,) but what I intended was, I fear that people who see her as a heroine WON'T think about what she endured to get that way.

You can read the whole piece here

There's a column coming out in the Toronto Sun on Sunday, and I'm hoping that's the end of it.  But I wanted to answer the comments and be black and white on what I actually said and didn't say.  So:

This is not an attack on how you or anyone dresses.

This is not an attack on H&M, or on the film.  I LIKED the film (the original Swedish version, anyway).

I'm simply questioning the association of a line of clothing with a victim of childhood abuse and rape, who exacts violent revenge.  I found it to be negative; a thoughtless marketing ploy.  That's all.  I wanted people to think about why Lisbeth does what she does, before they choose to emulate her.  I questioned it, and I proposed that others question it, too.

For doing that, I've been attacked, and some of these attacks have come from people who were also raped - which I find really painful and difficult.  I know they are in pain, and that they are angry. And yet they're responding as if I attacked them personally - their life experience, how they dress, how they feel.  That is not what I set out to do.

This was an opinion piece, based on my emotions and judgement.  Most importantly, I NEVER said that H&M is trying to glamorize rape.  I said they are glamorizing the rage and fear that sexual violence leaves behind.

One last thing to the people who claim I'm doing this to draw attention to myself: believe me, this is the last thing on earth I want to draw attention to.  I made this message public, and I feel it's my responsibility to follow through with it.  But every time I check my e-mail or my twitter feed my heart pounds, and often I'm left shaking and deeply upset.  I'm having to defend not just my opinion, but my opinion as a rape survivor.  That's not fun.  It's actually pretty horrible.

Try to remember that before you put me down.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Opinion (a definition)

It's been quite a day, and quite a week.

I've been told that what I wrote was a cry for attention.

I've been called an idiot. I've been called pathetic.  I've been told to get a life.

A major media news outlet has taken my words out of context, and suddenly, I am saying that H&M is glamorizing rape.  I said no such thing.  Who in their right mind would try to glamorize rape?

There are too many comments and questions to respond to individually, so I will respond to them here, but not tonight. Tonight, I want to say:

If you want to send me insulting tweets or write disrespectful comments on my blog, that's your right. But to save us both energy, I ask that you first recall that this is my opinion, based on my impression, from my experiences.

If that's not what you read in my letter, read it again.

I'm not judging you, or your clothing.

I'm not judging where you shop, or what you do with your time.

I'm not assuming anything about your life.

Consider extending the same courtesy to me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There Will be Pugs

There was more today: interview with the Toronto Sun, piece in the Toronto Star, and it even made it to the UK. But I don't really want to talk about it.  I had no idea that this would go where it has, and that it would bring up some of the hard stuff, which hasn't come up since the last trial.

So I'm going to leave it for now.

Then why am I posting?

The day before all this Dragon Tattoo stuff exploded, I'd made a pact to start blogging every day.  The way I was doing things until now - posting long, thoughtful, introspective, soul-bearing essays once a month once every two months when I could fit them in between everything else - was fine and all, but it's not 1999 anymore.  So here's to more, shorter, shallower pieces.  And lots of pictures.

Tony and I are pug-sitting this week, so we'll start with Desmond and Bruce.

There.  That ought to do you.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

PFO Sighting and The Gazette

I got an e-mail this morning from a woman named Bella, who, along with her husband, is launching one of the most genius products I've ever heard of.  It's called a PFO, which stands for Protective Fashion Object.  It's a bracelet which is connected to a GPS tracking device, which is then connected to your social network or a security service. If you're in a dangerous situation, you pull the bracelet, and it sends a text message to three people of your choice.

It also happens to be seriously stylin'.

They are just launching the PFO now, and already have an insane Facebook following (over 125,000) which is pretty amazing, given that no one actually owns one yet.

The couple was inspired to create the bracelet because they have three daughters, and were becoming more aware of the dangers women face living anywhere in the world.

By the way, PFO unofficially stands for Please F*** Off.

Bella read my H&M letter and wanted to know if we could help each other out.  I was thrilled, and even more thrilled when I spoke to her, and she turned out to be super sweet and lovely.  Isn't it weird how the world works?

So stay tuned for more on the PFO.

The Gazette also printed my Op Ed piece on this same topic today, that I wrote before the WSJ stuff.  Here's a link.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Update on H&M (aka a Twitter Christmas Story)

Just a little update on my open letter H&M from a rape survivor, which has traveled farther and wider than I could possibly have imagined - i.e. to The Wall Street Journal.  Yes, that Wall Street Journal (I asked the same question at first.)

How did this happen, you ask?  

Because of my mammoth Rolodex of high-up media personalities and my clout in the fashion world?  No!  Because of one person, Nadine Lerner, aka @bluedogzdesign on Twitter.  I've never met Nadine - something I hope to rectify soon - but she sent the story to Christina Binkley, the style writer for the WSJ.

Christina wrote:

[Natalie Karneef] looks at the retailer’s commercial effort in stark terms with disturbing connotations, more as a rape-survivor-with-a-dragon-tattoo collection than cute affordable clothes aimed at style-conscious young people.
Karneef asks if the Swedish retailer  has considered how rape survivors approach the task of dressing, ever-after second-guessing their own choices of skirt length and neckline.
You can see the entire WSJY story here.                                     

Because of this, H & M sent out a public response to my letter.  It said:

We have read the open letter by Natalie Karnefwe [sic] apologize if she or anyone has been offended by the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo collection by Trish Summerville – this has not in any way been our intent.  The collection is based on and inspired by the film and character Lisbeth Salander and though we think Lisbeth is a strong woman who stands up for her ideal,  we are not trying to represent her specifically.  Our goal is to rather offer a collection that we see in today’s trend picture that will appeal to many customers.   We do not view this collection as provocative-it contains pieces that are staples in many people’s wardrobes: jeans, biker jackets and t-shirts.  It’s all about how you wear them.  We encourage our customers to find their own personal way to wear our products.

... which is pretty much the bullshit response you'd expect, but still.  People tweeted, people Facebooked, people talked.  Maybe some people will think twice before going in and dropping cash on an American flag t-shirt that looks like it's been run over by an 18-wheeler - not that that's the point.

The point is that we need to pay attention to mainstream messages about rape, and that one person - Nadine - made all the difference in this story reaching 100 people, vs. however many thousand read the WSJ website.  And who read, who picked up the story, too, asking if the Dragon Tattoo collection trivializes the experience of rape survivors.  And who read a site called The Tattooed Girl. My "resistance" was mentioned again in a new WSJ story that came out today, as the release date of the collection approaches.  (H&M's words to live by: "We don't stand behind the violence or the harshness but the look is very cool.")

This post is for Nadine, and for you.  No, we haven't changed the world.  But maybe we've changed a few minds.  

(photo of Nadine and her daughter courtesy of

Friday, November 25, 2011

An open letter to H&M from a rape survivor

Dear H&M,

I used to like you.  I really did.  Even when your clothing started to lose its funky, vintage-store-treasure style and holes started appearing in the t-shirts I bought from you, I still thought you were mostly doing things right.  You had organic collections.  You supported good causes.  You sold cool hats.

But then came your Girl with the Dragon Tattoo collection.

I'd like to be clear: I loved the original film.  It's one of the only stories I've ever come across where the hero is female, and that female comes out smarter and stronger than the male hero, whose life she saves.  But it took me a long time to watch the film, and I had to fast forward through a few scenes.  Because, like Lisbeth Salander, I was raped.

And now, H&M, you have created a line of clothing based on her character: a woman who has suffered a lifetime of abuse, who is violently raped, and who is hunting down a man who violently rapes and kills other women.  Lisbeth has been through hell, and her clothing is her armor.  That's her choice, and it's an understandable choice.  But you glamorize it, putting a glossy, trendy finish on the face of sexual violence and the rage and fear it leaves behind.

I wonder if you've considered how a survivor of sexual violence chooses her or his fashion choices.  I wonder if your designers researched what we think about when we get dressed, how some of us will opt against a revealing outfit because we'd rather not deal with unwelcome advances or sexist slurs.  I am an ardent supporter of the Slutwalk movement.  I believe that what a woman wears should not have any bearing on whether or not she is sexually assaulted or harassed.  But many of us who have been there still decide against the short skirt.  We place our bets, hoping that our camouflage will protect us from a rude catcall in a subway station, and the subsequent anger, shaking, tears.  When I dress in the spirit Lisbeth Salander, it's because I want to send a message to men: to stay the fuck away.

Anna Norling, the Division Designer at H&M, says that she is “so proud” of this collection, because Lisbeth is the “very essence of an independent woman.”  Lisbeth Salander is independent woman whose mother was abused by her father, who was violently raped by a man in charge of her well being, who is harassed and bullied by men in public, and who is severely emotionally scarred.

 Stieg Larsson was inspired to write The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because he witnessed a girl getting gang raped when he was 15 years old.  I've heard it said that being raped is like getting a tattoo - it never goes away.  I hope your shoppers bear this in mind before they emulate Lisbeth Salander.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fear Itself

I’m writing this from a picnic table under the sun, at my local dog park.   Some might call this strange, or even work-obsessed.   They’d only be half right.
I’ve always struggled to quiet my mind.  Even in places where I feel my thoughts should shut off, like the dog park, or yoga class, or looking out at a sunset over a lake, they still yammer away like a bunch of old Greek ladies on Nescafe. There I am, balancing my body weight on one elbow*, mentally going over my To Do list and screaming at myself like a drill sergeant for not having gotten enough of it done.  Why didn’t I call the insurance company?  Crap, I didn’t defrost the chicken!  If I’d gone to the grocery store this afternoon, I could have gotten two more hours of work done afterwards...  why am I so bad at managing my time?  And I don’t even have kids!  AndwhatamIgoingtodowiththoseapplesthatareabouttogooffIreallyshouldn’tbehere Namaste.
I began to perfect the drill sergeant routine when I started writing from home.  At first, creating something I cared about and believed in was good, like a small, crackling fire under my ass, or at least a citronella candle.  But soon, whenever I wasn’t writing, I was panicking.  And by not writing, I mean going to the bathroom, or doing the dishes, or eating lunch.  Even when I was doing the paid work I needed to do to so I could keep writing, I’d be in a state of full-body anxiety, because I wasn’t writing.  I’d add up how many hours I’d written that day, and tell myself it wasn’t enough, no matter how high the number was.  (This was while being fully aware that many successful writers claim they only write for 4 hours a day.)  I berated myself for not working as much as people with “real jobs,” conveniently forgetting those people have meetings and coffee breaks and water coolers to chat around, where they can exercise a different part of their brain, whereas I go all day speaking to no one, except my dog Ruble, and sometimes the fruit flies in my kitchen. 
And then, a few weeks ago, I went to see a… healing person.
You see, for the last three years, my hair has been falling out.  Yup, those curly locks I spent 31 years of my life trying to straighten and bleach and thin and flatten are now taking residence in the shower drain, my hairbrush, my sweaters.  I’ve been to a family doctor, a dermatologist, an endocrinologist, a naturopath, two homeopaths and a cranio-sacral therapist, and none of them can figure it out.  It has not been fun.
Do I realize there are worse fates in life than losing hair?  Yes.  Am I aware that there are a lot of awful reasons one’s hair can fall out, and how lucky I am that none of them apply to me?  God, yes.  Very much so.  But if it’s all the same to you, I’d still like it to stop.  I like my hair, and I apologize to it, publicly, for all the humiliation I’ve caused it over the years. 
So as wary as I am of admitting this, for fear that you will no longer take me seriously as a cynic…
I went to a healing person, and had energy work done.
Before he did anything, he asked all kinds of questions I didn’t want to answer, like how Tony and I had been getting along lately, and what I did for fun. (“Fun? I’m not sure what you mean by that.”)  Then I lay down on a mat.  I managed to go into a deep meditation, and he put his hands lightly on different parts of me, which went cold and warm, and sometimes felt as if currents were moving through them.
Coming out of the session 45 minutes later, I felt like I’d just run a marathon.  I could have stayed on that mat and gone to sleep for the next 12 hours.  But I forced myself up and back into a chair, and the healing person said,
“You’ve got to stop being afraid all the time.”
He wasn’t saying it in a demeaning way.  He was saying it straightforwardly, matter-of-factly.  Fear, he said, was something I carried with me everywhere I went.
Naturally, my first reaction was to be afraid. 
“How?” I asked.  I felt like he was telling me to stop breathing.  Was this what it was going to take for my hair to stop falling out?  Well forget it, I was going to have to get a wig, but those were really expensive, and would I have to take it off to shower?  How about to swim?  Would I sleep in it?  I could never rock the bald look – my head shape is too -   
“Just be aware of it,” the healer said.  “You tell yourself constantly that life is hard.  That’s not helping you.”
I knew, in that moment, that I had a choice.  I could roll my eyes, leave his office, and decide that anyone who equates hair loss with fear has obviously eaten one too many gluten-free spacecakes.  Or, I could believe him.  Because he was right.  I am steeped in fear.  I marinate in it.  And take what you want from this, but my hair started falling out just a few months after I started writing from home.
I walked out into the street that evening feeling light and clear, as if my emotions and thoughts were passing through me, instead of getting stuck like the fruit flies do to the sticky tape I put up in the kitchen.  I met up with Tony to help him go shopping for new clothes -  a bi-yearly event I both look forward to and dread - and watched as the little fear bursts ignited, even at the most insignificant things.  I began to see how I instantly translate rejection, even when it’s from my husband, about a men’s shirt I’m holding up to show him in the basement of The Bay, to “you’re not good enough.”  It’s as logical, and no doubt as helpful, as telling myself that my inability to accomplish 36 hours worth of tasks in 17 means I am a failure as a human being, or when I decide that the pain in my left shoulder blade means I probably have three weeks left to live.
Since my meeting with the healing person, some days have been easier than others.  I’m getting better at doing just one thing at a time, on focusing on how many things I have gotten done in the day, and staying conscious – mostly - of the voices that tell me I’m not doing enough.  Other days, I go back to old habits.  But even then, part of me is aware that what those voices are saying may not actually be true.
And for the first time, I’m actually grateful for the hair loss.  It’s led me to a place I really needed to go: a place that is much more enjoyable, where being alive isn’t a chore, and where there’s actually room for fun.  Yes, fun.  Which brings me back to the dog park, and the next item on my To Do list: Throw squeaky toy. 

* slight dramatization. I can't balance my body weight on anything, except the couch

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mama Greek Hits the Big Screen

For the last 4 years, while I've been writing a book about my life, Tony's been working on a documentary about his.

This has made for a very low drama, stress-free environment, as I'm sure you can imagine.

Well, the day has come to let the world in.  Tony's film, Fortunate Son, is premiering at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal on October 20th.  

You can watch the trailer here.

You can look at the poster here:

Bringing it full circle, not only am I in it, but my brother did the original score.  Now that's what you call a family drama.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Extra, Extra: The Day my Brain Stood Still

I’ve started to think of my brain as a newspaper, with a different headline announcing the top story of every day.  The caption beneath the headline always contains the same message, which is funny, because the headlines themselves change so drastically. 

For example:


It’s the most important thing she’s ever had to deal with.

The next day:


THIS is the most important thing she’s ever had to deal with.

The day after that:


Definitely way, way more important than anything she’s ever have to deal with.

Then, four weeks ago, my grandmother died.  

She was 84, and had been fighting cancer for some time (much longer, it turns out, than she let on to the rest of us.)  My grandmother used to call me “my little angel (pronounced “leetlee,” in her Hungarian accent.)  She used to send me photo collages by mail, of me and Tony and her late dog, Lady, and the flowers on her balcony.  Sometimes, she’d include poetry she’d written.

After she died, I was cleaning out her apartment with my mom when I realized the headlines had stopped.  I felt incredibly sad, but also clear, awake, and – there’s no other way to say this – alive.  There has always been a way around most of the sadnesses I’ve faced: arguments with Tony get resolved or forgotten, writing rejections are followed by acceptances, the apartment upstairs floods and we clean it up.  7 months later, we no longer notice the holes that are still in our ceiling.

But sitting on my grandma’s velour couch, where I’ve sat a hundred times before drinking cranberry juice and talking to her about Oprah, my “Top 57 Life Things That Are a Priority To Get Sorted Out” weren’t floating around my head.  I was just standing in front of the void she’d left, my heart broken, but also wide open. 


The time that followed my grandma’s death resembled a black-and-white existentialist French film.  One week later, I found out that a friend has stage 4 ovarian cancer.  And the week following that, the husband of another friend learned he had a brain tumor.

I think this might be part of that thing they call “Growing Up:” tragedy is there, every minute, ever day.  The things we most fear are happening, not on some TV show or to a celebrity or to a person we read about in the Huffington Post, but for real, to people we know and care about.  But watching it happen around me, I’m starting to see that when our brain headlines stop, other things begin.

When Papa Greek died, hundreds of people filled the funeral home and church, traveling from as far away Toronto and Ottawa just to show their support for Tony and Mama Greek and me.

After my grandmother died, my mother and I shared the calmest week we’ve ever had together: laughing, crying, looking through old photos and reminiscing, rather than getting caught up in our usual mini tornadoes of frustrations and expectations.
The man with the brain tumor had a successful surgery and is now, thankfully, back home, recuperating very well.  Before and during his stay in the hospital, his wife and I spoke on the phone every few days, and e-mailed and texted almost daily.  Instead of wallowing in doubt and self-pity or watching Mad Men, I connected with her in a way I haven’t in years, though I’ve known her for almost half a lifetime.

And every day, I’ve seen messages of support, love and encouragement come in from all sides to the woman with ovarian cancer.  Friends have lined up to take her wig shopping, to drive her to the hospital, to go to the movies with her.  This past Sunday, dozens of her friends, colleagues and family members flocked to the Walk of Hope, to support her on her fight, and raised over $10,000 for Ovarian Cancer Canada.

Please don’t think I’m saying anything insane like I’m grateful for the pain and struggles these people have to face.  It’s not that at all.  But like it or not, this is happening already.  The trick, as Tony put it, is to not make it a bad thing.  

The friend with cancer said it best, in the incredible blog she keeps about her experiences:

Effort spent wondering whether I am doing the right thing with my life, working in the optimal job, living in the right city, adopting the right lifestyle, going to the right church, doing the right exercise, investing in the right things – all those urban concerns were getting in the way of my life.
Now I know. This is my life now, every day, every minute.

Tragedy is a bitch.  But I sometimes wonder if, without it, we wouldn’t be in a lot more trouble.

For my grandma, Olga Fuhrer
06.11.1927 - 07.31.2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Papa Greek

My father-in-law is dying. 

Over the last few weeks, watching him fade away, I so desperately wanted to say goodbye.  But I was too chicken.  No one else seemed to be acknowledging that he was leaving, and, well, I just didn’t have it in me.  I would hover outside his bedroom door, afraid to be alone with him.  I’m not proud to admit this, but it’s true.


Last Sunday morning, we got a call that he’d fallen in the night, trying to go to the bathroom.  We went to see him, and he told Tony he wanted to go into the hospital.  Actually, that’s not what he said.  Mama Greek had been driving us a little bit crazy with her frantic, ceaseless worrying and trying to feed him soup and leaping around whenever he had visitors.  Papa Greek’s words were, “Get me to the hospital and away from her.”


When Tony told Mama Greek that Papa Greek wanted to go to the hospital, I believe her words were along the lines of, “No way in hell.”

“We get him diapers,” she told me, as we sat at the kitchen table.  She and Tony had been yelling at each other for the past hour, and now Tony was off clandestinely meeting his uncle, to develop a strategy to negotiate between his dying father and his hysterical mother. 

“Some women take care of their husbands for years," she added.  "It’s okay!  I get gloves.” 

She talked about the gloves a lot. I just sat there and listened and didn’t say much.  I have not been able to muster a lot of compassion towards Mama Greek in the last few days.  What makes it harder is the moments when I see Tony yelling, fussing and fixating obsessively in the exact same way as she does.  If there is a Jesus, I hope he forgives me for this.  I’m learning that sometimes, you really don’t feel the things you’re supposed to feel. 


It was decided that Papa Greek would go into the hospital on Monday.  On Sunday night, I finally found a way in.  I started with a joke.  I said,

“I can’t believe you’re leaving me alone with these two.”

He smiled and said, “You’ll be okay.  No one is around forever.”

He stuck out his arms, which are so thin and fragile now it breaks your heart, and pulled me to him.  And he said, “I love you so much.” 

And through my blubbering, I was able to say what I wanted to say, which was, “I’m really going to miss you.” 

“I don’t have the strength to stay,” he said.

And I said, “It’s okay.  You can go.” 

Then Tony came in and got onto the bed next to him, and we all held hands and cried for a while.


I wish it had ended like that.  I think Papa Greek does, too.  The day he left to the hospital was torturous.  We had to wait 3 hours for the ambulance, since it wasn’t an emergency.  He was agitated and very upset.  Mama Greek was, understandably, beside herself.  She was down on her hands and knees,  rummaging through cardboard boxes in the closet in his room for his slippers, which she insisted go to the hospital with him.  She sent me out to buy him a new pair, which didn’t fit, so she sent me back to exchange them. 

Papa Greek hasn’t walked in days.


They play CNN in the “Family Room” in palliative care.  This makes so much sense to me.  Watching the world end and Americans justify kicking imams off planes, anyone would want to get out of this place as quickly as possible.


Yesterday, I went with a very close friend of Tony’s family for a meeting at the funeral home.  The woman we met with wore a massive jewel around her neck.  It’s horrible, but I stared at it the whole time, wondering if she stole it from a dead person.  I can’t help it.  Maybe funeral home owners should think twice before sporting that kind of bling.

She asked if we were Greek, and I, accidentally, said, “Yes.”  When I corrected myself, the family friend, who I think of as the sister-in-law I never had, said, “If you aren’t yet, you will be soon.”  The woman’s eyes lit up, and we immediately had to talk her down from a funeral package that costs twice as much as your average wedding. 

“He’s a simple man,” my sister-in-law explained, of Papa Greek.

The bling lady told us about one of the more modest packages, but made sure to mention some of the add-ons you can get, like something called a Serenity Table.

“You display the deceased person’s personal belongings,” she said, to which we both turned grey.
“It’s very touching,” she added, quickly.  “I can’t tell you more, though, because I’ve only seen it once.”
The Serenity Table costs $450.


My mother-in-law has said she wants to get a $5000 casket for Papa Greek.  Tony told her that if she does, Papa Greek is going to come back from the dead and haunt her. 


I’ve realized the most peace I feel these days is when I’m sitting with Papa Greek, holding his hand or massaging his feet.  It seems weird to say, but it feels kind of like being with a newborn baby.  When people get to that stage, I think, they become pure again.  They don’t have the slings and arrows of normal humanity anymore.  They just exist.  I feel protective of him.  It’s so weird that he is the same person who replaced the metal grate in my garage, who gave a speech at my wedding, who danced at Tony’s aunt’s and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary party less than a year ago.  Now, he’s just a being.

Soon, he will just be light.

I’ll say it again: I’m really, really going to miss him.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Stomach cancer with Papa Greek (some moments from the last few weeks)

The tumours in Papa Greek's stomach have caused a huge amount of fluid retention.  At first, before it was getting drained out regularly, he looked like a malnourished child, or Victoria Beckham.

“He look pregnant,” Mama Greek agreed, then went into a detailed description of her own pregnancy with Tony, 41 and a half years ago, which she’s related to me at least fifty times before. 

“The doctor tell me what day he come,” she concluded, “but he come 10 days early.”  

Which, if you know Tony, is not surprising at all.


We called the CLSC so they would send a nurse to Mama and Papa Greek’s house to do an assessment.  They called back while he was asleep, and Mama Greek couldn’t take a message, because her English isn’t good enough.  That's when Tony and I realized: we needed to get them an answering machine. 

I called Bell, who said they could install voicemail at my in-laws place, as long as they got verbal permission from Mama or Papa Greek.  Tony explained this to Mama Greek, who flew off the handle.
“We’re tired,” she said.  “Leave us alone.  Your father’s sick.  Don’t you know that?”

They don't agree on much, but Papa Greek said later that he, too, was against the idea.

“I like it when people call,” he said, “but I don’t want to have to call them back.  And what about the people from Greece?  They’re not going to understand.” 


I am really squeamish around anything to do with barf, but I like my mother-in-law’s term for it.

“Throw out,” she says, as in, “This morning, Papa Greek threw out.” 

I find it easier to take.  As if he's just getting rid of stuff he doesn’t need. 


The CLSC nurse came to do the assessment: 2 hours of questions and instructions.  After she left, I reminded Papa Greek of something the doctor had said: that he wasn’t supposed to mix liquids and solids, because it was more difficult to digest, and might make him sick.

“Like soup,” I said.  “Just have the broth, then have the vegetables and the noodles later.”

“Really?” Papa Greek asked.

“Yes,” I said.  “Like the doctor told you.”

“I don’t remember that,” he said, then translated to Mama Greek, who nodded.

“I give him this,” she told me, and pulled a bowl out of the fridge, which contained soup - with noodles in it.

“No,” I said.  “He can’t have the noodles.  Just the soup.  Otherwise, he will throw out.”

“But he likes it,” she said, looking hurt.

“I know,” I said, “but the doctor said 'no.'” I indicated with my hands so she understands.  “No water mixed with food.”

“But he never get sick from this,” Mama Greek pointed out.

“Okay,” I said, “but he might.”

“But he eat this,” she informed me, puts it back in the fridge, and walks away, the matter clearly settled.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Voicemails from my In-Laws

There are 66 messages on our voicemail.  All of them are from my in-laws.  No, they’re not all from last week, but Tony refuses to erase them.  He’s making a documentary about his family, and he says he needs to record them for possible use.  This means I have to skip through all 66 to hear any new messages we receive.

As annoying as this might sound, I realized recently that among Mama and Papa Greek’s voicemails are some gems.  The real humorist is Papa Greek.  His messages are like one-sided conversations, with space in between each question, as if he were imagining the answer:

Hi, Tony and Natalie


How are you? 


Everybody okay? 

[pause; yelling sounds from Greek soap opera on TV in background]

We were away earlier. I don’t know if you called us or not. 


We just came home. 

Mama Greek’s messages are much more dramatic, fulfilling her “you-haven’t-called-you-haven’t-visited-look-what-it’s-doing-to-us” quota.  Like this one, left when we were on our way to their place for dinner:

You left or not?  I have no idea.  You not call us.  Call us please.

She also has this thing where she says I’m her daughter, as opposed to her daughter-in-law.  She’s never stopped lamenting that she only had one child (and probably never will, until she gets a grandchild.)  Once, when I was teary after the funeral of a friend’s relative, she asked me why I was crying, because “You have two mothers now.”  She doesn’t know my mother well enough to see the irony of this statement.  Here’s Mama Greek:

Hi, hi my children.  Hi, Natalie and Tony.  Long, long time have to see you, to hear you.  How are you?  Just I wanna know how you doing.  If you have little bit time, call us. I wanna hear you.  Thank you.

The shitty thing is, Papa Greek is currently battling stomach cancer.  Until recently, he got up every morning and went to work – that is, to the office he used to run with his business partner of 30 years.  He’d read the paper, ask everyone how they were, drink coffee and then go play cards with the business partner, who spends his mornings in much the same way.

Nowadays,  Papa Greek leaves the house a lot less, and it’s usually to go to the hospital for a check-up or chemo treatment.  He sleeps a lot, but he still manages to crack me up.  This is my favourite message from Papa Greek:

Hi, Tony and Natalie. 


How are you?  Okay? 


Just called to see how you are. 


If you feel like calling us, we’re at home. 


Doing nothing. 

I started working on this blog a couple of weeks ago.  Even since then, my father-in-law’s health has rapidly declined.  Our lives are changing, and there's a lot of emotion in the air.  I’ll be sharing about this over the next days and weeks.  I'm hoping for many more messages from Papa Greek.  Even if they're about doing nothing.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Who Controls Your Birth Control?

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on January 18, 2011.

If you're reading this and you know my Greek mother-in-law, please don't translate.

I still use birth control.

We'll save the reasons why for another time. The point is, I don't want babies right now. I also don't want to be on the pill. I never liked the idea of putting hormones into my body that aren't supposed to be there, or tricking it into doing things it doesn't do naturally. After trying it for the second time and seeing how quickly my emotions rebelled, I went to my doctor and got fitted for a diaphragm. And that was the end of that story.

Until a year later, when I tried to renew my prescription. That's when I was told:

They don't make diaphragms anymore.

It was the strangest feeling. Living in this country, and growing up with a sex ed curriculum that included the diaphragm, I simply took for granted that whichever form I chose to use would be available to me. My doctor did point out that I was his only patient who still used a diaphragm - I think the word "granola" might have jokingly come up - but he also called it the "healthiest form of birth control" for the reasons I've already stated. So he made a few calls, and it was confirmed: Janssen-Ortho had stopped manufacturing the diaphragm, due, they claimed, to lack of demand.

I understand that the lowly diaphragm isn't as popular as the pill. It's more complicated and, unless used perfectly, not as reliable. (If used perfectly, the failure rate of a diaphragm is four to eight per cent, whereas the failure rate for hormonal methods runs between 0.1 and 0.3 per cent.) But surely there were other women with the same concerns as me? What about those who couldn't take hormones for medical reasons? And where does lack of demand figure in when things like tanning oil and TaB are still on the shelves?

I did some research and found a U.K. company called Westons that sold the Ortho diaphragm online. It cost $25 including shipping -about half of what I'd paid for my first one -and all was once again well until this year, when I learned that Westons had stopped carrying the Ortho diaphragm, too.

Desperate, I called one of the larger Pharmaprix in Montreal.

"I'm looking for a diaphragm," I said.

"How do you spell that?" the pharmacist asked. "Does that come in pill form?"

I called a Jean Coutu, who told me they could order a brand of diaphragm called the Cooper Surgical Milex for $98 plus taxes. I asked if that included spermicide, which my last pharmacy diaphragm had. No, the pharmacist told me. Spermicide is no longer available.

I found a Yahoo group for women who use, or are considering using, barrier methods of birth control, and when I mentioned I wanted to write this article, dozens of stories flooded in. One American woman was told by her doctor that cervical caps - which work similarly to the diaphragm and are available for purchase online - are illegal in the U.S. A woman in Australia had to order spermicide from Canada. One woman in Ontario was completely unable to obtain a diaphragm from Shoppers Drug Mart, and another had such difficulty getting either a diaphragm or cervical cap that she's resorted to using the rhythm method and withdrawal combined with condoms on her fertile days.

"I'd probably be ridiculed by health-care professionals," she says, "but I feel more comfortable taking the risk of possibly needing an abortion than injecting my body with hormones that make me act like a completely different person and whose long-term side effects nobody can say for sure."

That may be an extreme example, but it still points to a very large problem: An important and long-standing form of birth control may be in the process of going extinct. And lack of demand can very easily feed itself. Could it be a vicious circle? If the pharma companies no longer sell something, won't that lead sex educators to stop including it in their curriculum?

I asked Amanda Unruh, a member of the Sexual Health Network of Quebec who also runs the Shag Shop at McGill, if the diaphragm is still part of the sex ed curriculum in this province.

"On a basic level, yes," Unruh said.  "But whether teachers impart that basic information to students is another story."

Dara Maker, a family physician at Women's College Hospital in Toronto who works at the Bay Centre for Birth Control, talked to me about what's going on in Ontario.

"Young people are being taught about the diaphragm," Maker said, "but a lot of reason for lack of demand is it's not being advertised, and there's less people talking about it. Young women will talk about contraception with friends, and if you have less users, you have less women generally sharing information. In that way, it is a vicious circle."

Both agreed that the demand being down probably has a lot to do with more hormonal methods coming on the market in the last 10 years, which are more efficient and "safer"-at least when it comes to failure rates. And the Shag Shop started selling the Cooper Surgical Milex in November, for $60. The shop is located in the McGill health clinic, where doctors are available to do fittings.

Had there been much interest in the diaphragm?

"We do get a lot of people asking about hormonal contraceptives but saying they're not comfortable," says Unruh, "or younger women who have been on a hormonal method and it hasn't been for them. Most people go to the hormonal method first because that seems to be the social norm. But people are asking more and more about the diaphragm and the female condom. I think it'll balance out over time."

By the time I found out about the Shag Shop, I'd already learned, through the Yahoo group, that another brand still available through Westons fit the same way as the now defunct Ortho diaphragm. Spermicide is available through a site called, which also retails cervical caps.

Let's hope that these companies continue to offer alternatives to hormonal birth control. Because as much as I love my mother-in-law, I also love my right to choose what goes into my body. And that's a right the drug companies shouldn't have.

The McGill Shag Shop is located in Suite 3300 in the Brown Building, 3600 McTavish St. 
Or call them at 514-398-2087. They sell spermicide, too. sells cervical caps, a natural (Nonoxynol-9 free) spermicide, and fertility and ovulation monitors. sells the Reflexions flat spring diaphragm for about $15, plus shipping. You'll have to get fitted by your doctor before ordering.

For information and discussion about diaphragms and cervical caps, go to