November 10, 2009 




Big Medicine is published by Team EMS Inc.


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Canadian Boys Don't Beg


by Sacha Vais

[Sep 16 2008]

*This column is dedicated to my Grandmama Jacqueline. May she rest in peace.

On Halloween night in 1950, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, five big-hearted children started knocking on complete strangers’ doors. They were hoping to collect money to send to their “peers” in post-World War II Europe.

They walked from house to house chatting with people about their concerns, raised a grand total of $17, and donated every penny of it to UNICEF.

They had no way of knowing it at the time, but their actions would soon trigger a far-reaching movement. Shortly after the five children made their donation, the campaign that came to be known as “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” was launched nationwide. And in 1967, inspired by those kids’ generosity, President Lyndon Johnson declared Halloween, October 31st, to be “UNICEF Day” in perpetuity. 

Over the years, the now-global campaign has gone on to collect upwards of 200 million dollars. 

Kids helping kids. Strangers helping each other. Giving without receiving. Awesome stuff! 


Fast forward >

On Halloween night in 1994, in Montreal, Quebec, I committed a reprehensible crime.

I got away scot-free. The deed went unpunished. I never got caught.

Since I’m incriminating myself anyway, I might as well fess up to the whole offense—the truth is, I committed the same odious crime umpteen times that night.

The crime was theft.

I was stealing from UNICEF.

This is my online confession.


I was a teenager—hormonal and pimply, fickle and faithless.

It was Halloween and the weather was damp and sticky. The sky and I were equally blue and gray.

The school day had just ended, and while leaving the building I walked past the principal’s office. Outside her front door, there was an enormous bin filled with bright orange “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” collection boxes.

There was a sign stapled to the front of the bin: FOR ELEMENTARY-LEVEL STUDENTS ONLY.

I made sure no one was watching, and then grabbed one. I wasn’t an elementary-level student, but I didn’t care.

I bundled the collection box in my godawful burgundy high school cardigan, tucked it safely into my knapsack, and ran all the way to the #51 bus stop.

I think you can see where this is heading.

And No, I am not proud of myself.


That evening I explored my entire neighbourhood. I went door-to-door. I must’ve walked for hours.

Just like those big-hearted children from Philadelphia, I knocked on strangers’ doors to chat about my concerns—knowing full well that my plan was to keep the money for myself.

And unlike those poor kids, I had the benefit of carrying an authentic bright orange “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” collection box around with me, which helped mollify the suspicious strangers, and won dozens of them over.

Dishonourable. Aimless. Two-faced. Low.

The skies were thundering. Lightning crashed. And it was pouring rain.

I was a lost boy in troubled waters.


I made almost thirty bucks during that soirée of larceny and fraud.

If memory serves, I waited for my parents to fall asleep before ordering a gooey vegetarian pizza and a side of hand-cut French fries with my winnings.

This is not a story about redemption. You didn’t miss my point.

Not all truths are gospel. Not all news is good news.

And No, I am not proud of myself.


Fast forward >

On a chilly evening in 2008, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I write these words.

The ocean in front of me stretches out forever. The air it breathes is thick and salty and briny and delicious. I am sitting barefoot in the sand. There are ducks, loons, osprey, sandpipers, pigeons, and gulls all around me.

(A pigeon is just a dove with a lousy publicist.)

Walden-the-dog is in heaven as he frolics in the surf, and rolls in the sand, and pounces at nothing in particular.

My life partner (and best friend) is sitting beside me, being beautiful, holding my hand and gazing outwardly in the same direction. Her feet are bare and sandy, just like mine.

Soon it will be autumn. Soon it will be Halloween again.

The winter of my adolescence has come and gone.

I am humiliated. I am uncomfortable. I am content! I am human!

To quote the late Kurt Vonnegut’s late Uncle Alex: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”


Here are three things about life I know for certain:

—Without darkness there is no light. 

—Failing big is necessary.

—Making a fool of yourself is essential.


An original poem about self-awareness and moral codes:

Roses are red and there once was a boy from Nantucket,

Violets are blue, but not always

Canadian boys don’t beg

Be braver! Be a man!

Grow a pair! Have some stones!

Too much of nothing can turn a man into a liar

And for god’s sake, never steal from UNICEF.








A Stinky Wonderful Vacation

[Oct 1 07]

Just finished watching the sun rise over the Brudenell River. It arrived in fifty shades of golden. 

I am in eastern Prince Edward Island, a part of the world affectionately known as Canada’s “Million Acre Farm.” 

I am in heaven. 

A heron drinks water and watches me. It drinks and watches for a long, long time. When it finally flies away, its wings are magnificent as they soar above me. 

I catch myself wondering where the heron is going and, perhaps more esoterically, where we’re all going. 

I remember that great old line, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

I watch the heron until it becomes a tiny fleck in the clouds. 

Taking a sip of my hot chocolate, I promptly remember that it stopped being “hot” chocolate over an hour ago. I spit out the clumpy milky cocoa watersoup into my cup. 

Walden yawns lazily as he lies beside me. I rub his belly and scratch under his collar, before I remember that he smells...DISGUSTING. (And now my hand smells rather inelegant, too.) 

You see, Walden is now a bona fide Country Dog. Because as of seven hours ago, Walden has been sprayed — in the face — by his first skunk! 

7 hours ago... 

I was lying on the back porch with Walden beside me. It was almost midnight. I was watching the moon and the stars, and Walden was standing at full alert and watching everything else. We’d been out there for almost an hour, and until then Walden hadn’t moved from my side. 

The sky out here in rural PEI is infinite and clear, and the stars bounce and dance and fill up the senses. Oftentimes, in the city, I have a little ritual where I wish upon the first star that I see at night. But out here in the wilderness, there’s just no way to figure out which of the stars is first. As soon as you look up...they’re everywhere. 

All of a sudden Walden let out a small, almost inaudible growl. I looked up at him, and noticed that his eyes were as wide as golf balls and the hair on his back was sticking straight up in the air. 

By the time I turned and saw the two beady eyes peering out from the forest it was too late, and Walden was gone. I screamed, “WALDEN, NO, COME BACK, COME RIGHT NOW!” but it was no use. Walden had disappeared into the forest after a small animal. All I had time to see was that the animal was black...with white stripes. 

Less than — and I’m not exaggerating — less than 5 seconds later, Walden came teetering out of the forest looking quite dazed and very ashamed of himself. He walked right up to me, head down, tail tucked tightly between his legs, sneezing, wheezing, and stinking very, very much. 

Now, I’ve read my share of wilderness survival guides, and when I travel I like to think that I’m prepared for practically any emergency that might pop up. I consider myself a man of action and not of words, so...quickly...bravely...sacrificially...I leapt into Canine Paramedic Mode and took matters into my own hands. I flung open the screen door to the cottage, and yelled out to my girlfriend: “SWEETHEART, THE DOG’S BEEN SPRAYED BY A SKUNK! WHAT SHOULD WE DO?” 

(Note that I didn’t yell “What should I do?” The “we” was extremely calculated.) 

Less than — and I’m not exaggerating — less than 5 seconds later, my girlfriend appeared from the bedroom, where she’d been wrapped up in a cozy blanket watching a DVD. 

She got the hose, I got the soap. I took off his fetid collar, she got the towels. I held him down, she sprayed. Walden bucked, I held tighter. We laughed, Walden didn’t

It was the middle of the night. We were tired and cold and wet and cranky. The smell was awful. And, well, to be honest it was really very nice. 

Tonight we’re planning to play boggle on the beach at sunset and then have a barbeque. 

Those are our “plans,” anyway. 

But I think I just heard God chuckling by the bonfire pit.


Coming to Terms with Terms (or, Disability is a Four-Letter Word) [Mar 11 07]--My father contracted polio as a child, and lost the ability to develop much muscle in his legs. He either walks with a brace and canes, or uses a wheelchair, depending on how he’s feeling and where he’s going. When I was a teenager, and started experiencing panic attacks and agoraphobia, I felt like I was letting him down by not being “normal.” After all, he has managed to have a career, make a living wage, buy a small house, start his own business, travel all over the world, and, with my mom, raise a family (me!), despite a total lack of cooperation from the lower half of his body. 

And here I was, his pathetic weenie-of-a-son, too scared to even go to a friggin’ movie theater. 

Because of extreme anxiety and depression, I gave up university in 2003, with just seven courses remaining towards a Communications and Cultural Studies degree. I stayed away from school for one full year, and during that time I came to terms with the fact that I, like my dad, am...disabled. Until that point, I’m ashamed to admit it but I think I would’ve been offended if someone had labeled my anxiety a “disability.” I hated the idea that I was “different,” and cringed at the term Mental Illness. I’d witnessed firsthand how hard certain things were for my father. Simply because of stereotypes and prejudice, he’s had to fight twice as hard as most people just to be listened to, and taken seriously, and I didn’t want that life. I longed to belong. To fit in. To blend in. 

When I made the decision to try going back to school part-time, I was terrified to have a panic attack during a class (or faint or vomit or get dizzy or say something inappropriate or or or...). I was so scared I’d embarrass myself, which got me thinking about all the times my father has slipped and fallen down in front of huge crowds of people (often complete strangers). The thought made me very, very proud of him. 

A year in therapy had taught me to accept my limitations, and to be upfront about them, so before starting the semester I paid a visit to my university’s Office for Students with Disabilities (a room I didn’t even know existed until I needed it). I was told that if I wanted to be assigned a caseworker/advocate, I’d need an official letter from my doctor or psychologist stating my conditions and outlining my need for advocacy. I asked my shrink (I’m afraid of my doctor), and she wrote one immediately. And I submitted it. 

It got me in! I was assigned a caseworker, and when we met in person (she refused to meet with this ol’ agoraphobe over the phone, citing university policy), I showed her my therapist’s letter and explained that I was hoping to substitute in-class presentations and group work with extra assignments and take-home exams. She laughed at me, and said that the office doesn’t give “handouts.” She said that her job was to intervene for “accessibility issues,” and not simply when students “can’t cope.” She suggested that if I’m not able to write an exam or give a presentation I might want to consider switching out of a program like Communications. I told her that there have been countless great writers and artists throughout history who have led rather reclusive lives, and cited J.D. Salinger, Elfriede Jelinek, Philip K. Dick, and Woody Allen as prime examples. She got increasingly rude and hostile, before declaring outright that the Office for Students with Disabilities couldn’t help “someone like me.”  

Being told categorically that I was not considered disabled by my university’s advocacy program was one of the strongest motivating factors for me coming to terms with who I am. I am disabled. I do deserve to be represented and defended. 

That being said, I was crushed (not to mention flat broke, unemployed, depressed, and pretty damn hopeless). But I still managed to muster up the strength/dignity to demand another caseworker. I was assigned a very kind, polite, gentle, slow-paced woman...the anti-advocate. Ombudspeople need to be aggressive, persuasive, relentless. Pitbullish.

She was...a schoolmarm.

Her first executive decision as my advocate was to send a letter to my professors. Here’s an excerpt:

I would like to introduce Sacha, who is registered in your course. Sacha has self-identified to the Office for Students with Disabilities as having a health-related/ongoing medical condition...According to the student’s medical documentation and an evaluation of educational needs by our office, the following accommodations are recommended:

·         Extended time for assignments when warranted in negotiation with professors. Take home exams when possible.

Some pit bull, huh? I’ve “self-identified” as being mentally ill, and I should be granted everything I need to make my education possible...when warranted, in negotiation, and when possible. And, to boot, these accommodations are merely RECOMMENDED.

Needless to say, it was a difficult semester and an exhausting school year. But I did survive it, and lived to tell the tale. I eventually graduated. (With Distinction, might I add!)

And now my degree hangs on my wall, in my home office, where I spend my days somewhat reclusively...getting paid to be a writer.

But I’m leaving out the best part of the story. My schoolmarmy caseworker might not have been a pedagogical pit bull, but she ended up doing me a HUGE favour.

The Québec government has a relatively unknown program that grants loans to university students who require education-related equipment. Even less known is the fact that any student with a “major functional disability” is eligible to have their equipment loan converted into a bursary, which means you don’t have to pay it back.

My caseworker sat with me for hours one afternoon, and helped me fill out all the required forms. She even attached a letter sponsoring my request, and wrote that I had a file with—and the full support of—Concordia University’s Office for Students with Disabilities.

The government granted my request, and a few months later they sent me a bursary cheque for $2000. With it I bought a shiny new laptop computer that I NEVER would’ve been able to afford otherwise. This computer. The one on which I’m writing this exact article.

These days, I can’t help but feel that I’ve come a long way. I used to fight to be considered “normal.” Then I fought to be considered “disabled.”

Eventually I stopped fighting altogether and took up freelance writing instead.


Flirting with Disaster [Jan 29 07]--It happened on a Wednesday in my city. I was nine years old. 

The rifle he used is called a Sturm-Ruger Mini-14, the same weapon used by the heroes in the 1980s TV show The A-Team. Although it normally comes with a five-bullet magazine, a larger one can be attached. He attached one that held 30 bullets.  

The killer’s name was Marc Lépine, and by mentioning this I’ve just given the selfish bastard yet another Google search result (he had over 65,000 last time I checked). 

Lépine committed suicide that day, but not before killing 14 innocent women and shooting 13 other people. Then he turned his Mini-14 blood machine on himself, and shot his own face off. (Apparently this is normal behaviour for a mass-murderer, who, unlike a “serial killer,” has no desire to bask in his own glory and be around to witness his celebrity.) 

December 6, 1989. I remember it like it was yesterday. Seven days ’til my tenth birthday and I remember I was excited to finally reach “Double Digits.” 

I hid under the coffee-table while my parents watched the news. And from under my coffee-table I watched the news, too.

I was terrified, but I didn’t cry. I’ll never forget that I didn’t cry.

“A crazed gunman confronted 60 engineering students during their class at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal,” announced the solemn-looking anchorman. “He separated the men from the women and told the men to leave the classroom, threatening them with his rifle.”

Lépine aspired to study engineering at École Polytechnique, but had missed entrance to the ultra-competitive university program by two credits.

Before opening fire he called the women “une gang de féministes” and yelled “J'haïs les féministes [I hate feminists].”

One woman pled that they were not feminists, just students taking engineering. But he didn’t listen. And he shot her in three places, including her temple.

And she survived.

Her name is Nathalie Provost. She went on to be an engineer.

After the massacre Provost spoke on national television from her hospital bed: “I ask every woman in the world who wants to be an engineer to keep this idea in their mind.” After that female enrolment in engineering programs across Canada rose dramatically.

Another survivor, Heidi Rathjen, went on to become a gun control activist. Rathjen, a fourth-year engineering student at the time, was one of the women who survived the incident by hiding in rooms Lépine never entered.

Shortly after the massacre, Heidi Rathjen circulated a petition calling for strict laws preventing possession of military-caliber assault weapons. In a matter of months she had collected half a million signatures. She went on to co-found an organization, along with Ryerson Polytechnic Institute professor Wendy Cukier, called Canadians for Gun Control. The organization, which lobbies vigorously for stricter gun laws, merged with the Coalition for Gun Control in 1991, and is still going strong.

Then, a few months ago, the unthinkable happened. On September 13, 2006, history repeated itself in Montreal.

Again on a Wednesday.

This time the killer’s name was Kimveer Gill, and this time the school’s name was Dawson College. I know the campus well, having studied there when I was younger. My uncle works there, as do several of my friends.

The killer did as killers do, and Kimveer Gill murdered Anastasia De Sousa, an 18 year old woman who had just started studying international business, and wounded nineteen other people, before police cornered him and he, like Marc Lépine before him, shot himself in the face. Gill was armed with a Beretta Cx4 Storm carbine, a Glock 9mm handgun, and a Norinco HP9-1 short barreled shotgun. He had time to fire sixty shots.

Every one of the weapons Gill had in his possession can be purchased LEGALLY by a civilian in Canada. In fact, Gill had a restricted-class firearms license and his weapons were registered with the Canadian gun registry. The same goes for Marc Lépine. As such, according to Canadian law, until they rained bullets upon innocent strangers they had yet to commit even a misdemeanor.

This is nothing short of lunacy.

When I got the assignment to write a column for a special Violence Against Women-themed issue of Big Medicine, I had absolutely no idea what to write about. I was really intimidated by the topic, and hadn’t a clue how to approach it. I confided to my girlfriend that I didn’t think I could be clever or funny or witty about violence against women.

She looked me straight in the eye and said: “That’s not the point this time. There’s nothing funny about this one. You need to tell the truth, instead.”

In an interview with CBC Television in February of 1990, less than two months after the École Polytechnique Massacre, Heidi Rathjen echoed that sentiment: “Students are putting up with fewer sexist jokes since the murders,” she said without smiling.

There’s nothing funny about this one.

Here’s a statistic: Violence inflicted by men (to women or other men) requires medical attention five times as often as violence inflicted by women.

Here’s another one: Women are nearly four times as likely to be murdered by their spouses than men are.

When I did an internet search for Sturm-Ruger Mini-14 guns, one of the first websites that popped up was a “fan club” for assault rifles. This particular site runs a “motivational quote” at the top of their homepage, and the one that was featured when I checked was: “Owning a gun no more makes you a gunfighter than owning a Stradivarius violin makes you a concert violinist.”

There’s nothing funny about this one. Guns are murder machines, and innocent people are dying.

Let’s join hands before it’s too late, and stop...violins against women.

Ok, maybe we need to laugh just a little.


École Polytechnique de Montréal

Geneviève Bergeron (b. 1968), civil engineering student.

Hélène Colgan (b. 1966), mechanical engineering student.

Nathalie Croteau (b. 1966), mechanical engineering student.

Barbara Daigneault (b. 1967) mechanical engineering student.

Anne-Marie Edward (b. 1968), chemical engineering student.

Maud Haviernick (b. 1960), materials engineering student.

Maryse Laganière (b. 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique's finance department.

Maryse Leclair (b. 1966), materials engineering student.

Anne-Marie Lemay (b. 1967), mechanical engineering student.

Sonia Pelletier (b. 1961), mechanical engineering student.

Michèle Richard (b. 1968), materials engineering student.

Annie St-Arneault (b. 1966), mechanical engineering student.

Annie Turcotte (b. 1969), materials engineering student.

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (b. 1958), materials engineering student.

Dawson College

Anastasia De Sousa (b. 1988), international business student.


Mercy [Sep 8 06]--As a boy growing up, my friends and I used to love to play a popular children’s game called “Mercy Fighting”—perhaps you’ve heard of it?

It’s a basic game, and the rules are simple: 

(Adapted from the Wikipedia entry on Mercy) Two opponents face each other and grab the other’s hands, interlocking fingers. Opponent #1’s right hand to opponent #2’s left hand, and opponent #1’s left hand to opponent #2’s right hand. On the word “go,” each person attempts to bend their opponent’s hands back, inflicting pain on him or her as the ligaments and tendons stretch in the wrist. When one opponent can no longer stand the pain, nor reverse the situation by overpowering his opponent and bending back their wrists, he cries out “mercy!” and is then defeated. The opponents then disengage hands and the match is completed.

It may sound barbaric, but we used to have loads of fun organizing our Mercy Fighting/Bloody Knuckles round-robin tournaments!

I was standing in line at the bank the other day, and I got to daydreaming about the concept of “mercy,” and how it’s been a really long time since I’ve seen a stranger perform a voluntary act of mercy. 

And then I got to thinking about what the world would be like if life were run by children:

Me: What do you mean this medication isn’t covered under Medicare? Why not? It is a MEDICINE after all, is it not…?

Pharmacist: I’m sorry sir, that’s just the way it is.

Me: But I can’t afford it.

Pharmacist: And I regret to inform you that there is no generic version available in Canada.

Me: What??? That’ll cost me, like, sixty bucks a month.

Pharmacist: More like eighty five.

Me: I won’t be able to eat, or pay my dog’s vet bills, or put gas in my car.

Pharmacist: Dem’s the breaks. Fork it over.

Me: Ok, ok…mercy.

Pharmacist: Pardon?

Me: Mercy. I give up. Now can I take my medicine home?

Pharmacist: Oh, of course Sach, have a great afternoon. Good match! See you in a month.

All I’m saying is: it might be nice if we all took care of one another a bit more…

The kids call it “mercy.” What are we civilized adults gonna call it? 


There is a creek near our house that our dog Walden likes to swim in. (And yes, we cornily refer to it as Walden’s Pond!) 

To get to Walden’s Pond you have to cross a giant meadow. Walden loves this meadow almost as much as he loves his pond, and he frolics in his meadow and chases birds and butterflies and dollar-store tennis balls alike. 

A few weeks ago, much to my chagrin, I arrived at Walden’s Pond only to find truckloads of construction equipment—heaps of gravel, shovels and spades, manual steamrollers, etc. 

My heart sunk, and indeed continued to sink in the following days and weeks as the crew (which was always gone by the time we arrived in the evening) began to clear a HUGE site, uprooting the grass and spreading around the gravel. 

And I thought to myself: They pave paradise and put up a parking lot. 

And I thought to myself: Another perfect wedge of nature lost to the Concrete Gods. Bah. 

It’s been weeks now since they started, and day after day they’ve cleared a wider and wider area. At first my girlfriend and I thought they were building a house, and then we thought they were building an apartment building, and then, as it grew and grew, we thought they might be building a baseball diamond and a community center (which would be nice for the neighbourhood kids, don’t get me wrong, but terrible for us, who are only in search of some peace and quiet). 

But, in the end, it’s not going to be a baseball diamond/cultural center either... 

You’ll never guess what it turns out they’re building?

…C’mon, guess?


…Betcha can’t.


...Give up yet?


...They’re not building anything at all.

It turns out they’re planting an entire field’s worth of new grass, so the meadow will be nicer to play on!

Sometimes...once in a while...they save paradise, and say screw the parking lot.


Just before my girlfriend and I moved to Halifax, we held a massive garage sale to raise some much-needed cash for our trip.

We sold our old posters, and cameras, and sports equipment, and t-shirts.

We sold rollerblades, and bean bag tosses, and a dartboard, and an unbelievably cool Velcro tennis ball game.

Against my better judgment, we also sold a large chunk of my old Archie comic collection (a collection which naturally included Richie Rich, Jughead Double Digests, Josie & the Pussycats, Katy Keene, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, etc.).

It was a sunny, hot and muggy Montreal day, and we started the garage sale at around 8 AM. By 2:30 in the afternoon we were absolutely drained.

We didn’t want to close up shop because there were still people coming by, albeit sporadically.

We’d done pretty well for ourselves already, raking in a decent amount of money considering we’d only put up, like, ten hand-drawn signs advertising the sale. But there were still people coming, dammit!

We tried to push ourselves, we tried to soldier on (in the name of needed Travel Cash), but we were dehydrated and exhausted and headachy and sunburned, and we needed to stop. 

We decided to try something rather unique, a what’s-the-worst-thing-that-can-happen kinda experiment. My girlfriend got out some permanent markers and a neon green Bristol board, and she wrote in giant, colourful, bubbly letters:

And then, in front of the sandwich board sign, we set up a tin can with a slot cut out that was big enough to fit coins and bills. And we used duct tape to seal up the tin can, to act as a “deterrent” to potential thieves (some deterrent!). 

And then we went inside to eat lunch. And take showers. And take naps, and watch TV, and surf the net, and catch up on emails. And then we went out to dinner. And came home and went to bed. 

The next morning, when I woke up and went out to check, a lot of our stuff was gone…but not all of it.  

And there was almost seventy dollars in our tin can! 

I urge people throughout the world to hold Honour System Garage Sales. 

Some of you might end up disappointed, but many of you won’t. 

It’s worth it, if just for the firsthand experiment in human behaviour. 

And besides, trusting people can be profitable!


p.s. My editor tells me that my column’s regularly among the most clicked on pages on Big Med. Thank you for reading, guys. Really.

Or as the French say...



Meeting David Suzuki or How I Contracted Foot In Mouth Disease [Jun 28 06]--Someone once challenged me to “find my authentic voice.” She said we each have one, though we don’t always use it.

She told me I had one. Somewhere.

“How do I locate it,” I asked her, “and how do I use it?”

“I dunno,” she said, “each person’s is entirely unique.”

“Thanks,” I said, “thanks a lot.”

And as I travel along this upsy-downsy, sometimes-scenic highway we call Life (at breakneck speeds), I often catch myself wondering whether or not the voice I most often use is my own.

The truth is, I dunno. Hard to tell. It sounded like me, but don’t we always…?


I was pleased (ok, shocked!) to see that I am writing for the same publication as Dr. David Suzuki. I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say that he is a very welcome addition to Big Med.

He’s amazing, and accomplished, and legendary, and brilliant, and determined, and unstoppable, and an international celebrity, and a Rock Star Environmentalist, and a One-Man Canadian Institution, and…

…and he once called me a “cheeky jerk.”

I didn’t mean to offend him, I swear. I was only trying to be friendly.

Bah, so much for authentic voices.


I first contacted Dr. Suzuki in September of 2003. I wrote him a letter imploring him, in his capacity as Scientist Extraordinaire, to send my girlfriend – who is now a marine biology master’s student – a personalized birthday present.

Yah, I know – pretty vain, huh? Young love. Adolescent ego. Unworldly naiveté. All of the above?

Anyway, he sent me back a signed bookmark, and a pamphlet for the David Suzuki Foundation and the Nature Challenge. His office even called to verify my address before they mailed the package.

If I hadn’t been young, and newly in love, and incredibly stoooopid, I probably would’ve-should’ve-could’ve left well enough alone…

But I was, and I couldn’t, and I didn’t.

…so I wrote him a second letter, chastising him for not taking more time with his response.

Of course, at the time I didn’t think I was being an arrogant dumpkiss. But then again, in the moment, we never do. As Dorothy Day wrote in her autobiography (titled The Long Loneliness):

“Written when I was fifteen, this letter was filled with pomp and vanity and piety. I was writing of what interested me most…but I was writing self-consciously and trying to pretend to myself I was being literary…I enjoyed our correspondence but I did not want anyone else to see it.”

A few months later, and having heard nothing back from Dr. Suzuki, my girlfriend and I, who were living in Montreal at the time, managed to snag a few tickets to the hottest lecture in town. David Suzuki was giving a speech at a local synagogue, and I remember we got all dressed up to go see him speak. (Keep in mind that, at the time, my girlfriend had no idea about my scheme.)

At the end of his lecture (which was incredibly powerful and motivating, by the way), I excused myself from my girlfriend (who had bumped into an old friend of hers, so it was an easy getaway), and I marched right up to introduce myself to Dr. Suzuki, thinking he’d…truth be told, I don’t know what I was thinking!

Our conversation was very brief. I introduced myself. He remembered me. (Ooooh boy, did he ever remember me!) He said my letter made me sound like a “cheeky jerk” (I’ll never forget those words), and he asked me, politely, to go away.


When I first heard that David Suzuki was going to be my colleague, my fellow columnist (talk about your free-range chickens coming home to roost!), I thought to myself, “Great, now’s your chance to ‘get even’ by writing a column about how the great David Suzuki was insulting and self-important and hoity-toity to you.” Seriously, I was all prepared to write an arcane, narcissistic, deeply existential rant about the “illusion of celebrity” and the Death of the Hero.

And then I went back and re-read my letters.

And then I looked at the situation through my Today Eyes.

And then I searched for my Authentic Voice.

And guess what? It turns out my letters were filled with pomp and vanity and piety.

It turns out I did, in fact, act like a cheeky jerk.


An open letter to Dr. David Suzuki, from one columnist to another (wink, wink):

Dear Dr. Suzuki,

Remember me, Sacha Vais, the dufus kid who wrote you those annoying letters a few years back? Well, I just wanted to say sorry, and assure you I’ve changed and grown and matured and developed. I no longer feel that the world owes me itself on a silver platter, and I understand that you’re an incredibly busy guy and that I came across as a “cheeky jerk,” and I just wanted to say thanks a lot for taking the time to send my girlfriend that autographed bookmark.

Glad to see you’re writing for Big Medicine. I hope you contribute widely and often. I look forward to reading your every word.

Oh, by the way, before I forget: My anniversary is coming up in mid-July, and it’d be great if I could present my girlfriend (a biologist) with a handwritten job offer from you asking her to come work for your foundation…!

I promise, this’ll be the last favour I ask for.

Oooh, and one more thing – can you throw in an autographed David Suzuki Foundation T-shirt for my nine-year-old cousin Sarah, who idolizes you and wants to “become a Country Vet and save the planet and all the animals on it”?!?

Ok, that’s definitely the last favour I ask for.

Keep up the great work. The Hero is not Dead.


S. Vais.


I am learning, as I grow, that it doesn’t take moving mountains to mend broken relationships. Apologizing to David Suzuki doesn’t take writing a 50-page letter, and it doesn’t take airing a 30-second primetime TV ad, and it doesn’t take flying a skywriter over crowded cities exhibiting my sincerities…

It just takes finding the words, and the humility, to say: I’m sorry, I was wrong, I’ve reflected.

But perhaps that’s just my authentic voice talking.


Haligonian Vacation [May 29 06]--So I’m filing this column from a rustic lakeside cabin just off Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. No kiddin’, I swear!

I’m pretty sure I can hear coyotes howling in the distance (nobody tell my mother), and there’s a roaring woodstove, like, three feet from my laptop.

I am drinking a bottle of Labatt Blue, imported straight from "Kyoo-beck" (they seem to pronounce it like this everywhere east of Moncton, New Brunswick). My girlfriend and I bought the beer – along with our groceries and our sunscreen and our long-distance calling card and our three dollar t-shirts and our bug repellent – in a tiny nearby town called Hubbards, where the people are incredibly friendly and generous, and the bank is connected to the liquor store is connected to the seafood restaurant is connected to the "super" market is a stone’s throw away from the fire station/bingo hall.

Seriously…the fire station and the bingo hall are the same building.


How I got to this idyllic cottage in this charming town on the Atlantic Ocean is a whole other story

* * *

A summary of the last week of my life:

- We drove into Halifax at 12AM, after the second 10-hour day of driving in a row.

- We arrived at our apartment, where the landlord met us outside and handed us the keys to our flat. He wanted to get back to a poker game, so he told us we could give him the signed lease on Monday (THANK GOD), and left us to look around ourselves. Think Hurricane Katrina meets Baghdad. The place was a catastrophe, a war zone, a carnival, a zoo. Broken windows that didn’t lock, half-empty wine bottles strewn about, wads of hair in the bathroom, toothpaste caked onto sinks, closet doors that wouldn’t close, a fresh URINE stain in one of the bedrooms, an oven that didn’t work, air ducts that were scotch-taped on, paint peeling everywhere… (see pictures below)

- Needless to say, we took all our stuff with us and checked into a hotel that night.

- The next morning we woke up at about 6AM (having slept a whopping two hours), to try to get in touch with the movers…who were scheduled to drop off our stuff at the apartment THAT MORNING! We called for almost three hours before we reached a dispatcher, who arranged for his guys to deliver our belongings to a local UHaul storage facility instead (which is costing us almost $90 to rent for the month).

- Next I called our almost-landlord, to tell him we decided not to take the place and to ask for our security deposit back. To say he was pissed would be a radical understatement. At first he refused to give us our $325 back, but I stood up to him and told him he had no choice, that the money wasn’t his, that it was the law. I told him it wasn’t our fault that the place was in a state of disrepair.

- I met him outside his place, to give him back the keys and to get a cheque for our security deposit. My girlfriend was waiting in the open-windowed car, with our dog Walden and a Louisville Slugger baseball bat. Just in case.

- We then spent seven LOOOOONG nights at a cheap, pet-friendly hotel in Dartmouth (a suburb just outside Halifax), and during the days we scoured the classified ads for a place to live.

- Note: If you have a large-breed dog it is almost impossible to find a safe-but affordable place to live in Halifax.

- My girlfriend and I must’ve called over 200 listings. No pets, no pets, no pets, no pets, no pets…

- We found one place that we absolutely ADORED – huge private deck, cathedral ceilings, overlooking a duck pond – and when we went to look at it the landlord seemed to assure us the apartment was ours, but…then we couldn’t get in touch with him again. He missed appointments, and dodged calls, and gave us the runaround. We even told him we were living out of a hotel, and that it was getting both stressful and expensive, but the jerk just kept stalling and stalling. We finally had to give up hope when we found another almost-as-wonderful apartment. Only difference was, this one was willing to take us…

- So we took it.

o Charming triplex atop a hill

o Top flat

o 2 bedrooms (which means I get an office!)

o Hardwood floors

o Many windows, very bright

o HUGE open kitchen and living room

o Private attic (unfinished, but great for storage)

o Quiet, tree-lined, residential street, but on a major bus route

o Coin laundry on-site

o Beautiful hiking trail just down the road

- We signed a June 1st lease, and rented this cottage to wait out the time ‘til then.

- We’re in the Nova Scotian countryside, and on a lake, and by the ocean, and it is utterly majestic here (and quite a bit cheaper than that bloody hotel in Dartmouth).

- Our luck seems to be changing…knock on wood.


* * *

Big Medicine Presents…

Nova Scotian Grudge Match: A Side-By-Side Comparison of Sacha’s Two Possible Fates:

                     Apartment we turned down VS. Where we are now

* * *

Y’see, the thing about this trip is…it’s not that I’m no longer agoraphobic, or insomniatic, or depressed, or headache-ridden, or irritable bowely.

It’s just that – for know – I’m also nomadic, and spontaneous, and vital, and curious, and content.

Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t all been easy – I’ve been freaking out at least three or four times a day!

This "vacation" has been a series of misadventures and a comedy of errors. At times, and often, it’s been frustrating, and depleting, and terrifying, and surreal, and unbearable. But somehow, along the way, I acquired some incredible memories, too.

I am taking comfort in the knowledge that anyone would have found the last few weeks of my life exhausting. For a change, I have something very real to be anxious about!

I am homeless, and unemployed, and madly in love, and renting a cabin on a lake, and in desperate need of a Laundromat, and over 1200 km away from the only home I’ve ever known. I am drinking a bottle of Kyoobeck beer, and writing my column on a laptop, and listening to the coyotes howl, and toasting by the woodstove.

Later on, I might even go bowling in Hubbards.

As human beings, we have a phenomenal capacity for exhaustion and pain, and our resilience is astounding. I am far stronger, and more able, than I ever knew.

And sometimes I’ll fall apart, too. And that’s ok.

It seems I went to the ocean, and found a bit of myself.

How cliché, I know.


Going…going…Haligonian! [May 6 06]--I had another panic attack over the weekend. This time I was by myself, and driving when it happened.

- Pulled over to break down.
- Pulled over to hyperventilate.
- Pulled over to cry.
- Pulled over to gag.
- Pulled over ‘cause I was dizzy, and overwhelmed, and terrified, and at the mercy of my out-of-whack brain.
- Pulled over to smoke a cigarette.

I got out of the car, shuffling my feet over to a nearby park, and sat down on a bench.

I tried circular breathing, but that didn’t do squat.

The sun was beating, and I was squinting, and I had a killer headache. I was nauseous, and lightheaded, and unbelievably whitenoisy. My feet felt numb, and my knees wobbly. I was sure I was about to die, or at least faint. And I had the strangest feeling – I was completely out of breath, yet I felt the need to run as fast as I can. While hyperventilating, I was literally overcome with the urge to sprint around the block.

It was by far my most “clinical” episode yet.

From the Wikipedia entry on panic attacks: “The experiences generally provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack begins (‘fight or flight’ reaction) and, when associated with chest pain or shortness of breath, a feeling of impending doom and/or tunnel vision…”

It’s been quite an anxious few weeks, so I suppose this was somewhat foreseeable. My girlfriend and I are in the throes of a major life decision. We’re trying to decide between Newfoundland (Memorial University) and Halifax (Dalhousie). We’re trying to save our last few dollars before an incredibly expensive move. We’re trying to find a safe neighborhood and a decent apartment (that accepts large-breed dogs, you try it sometime). We’re trying to find a moving company that’s affordable. We’re trying to decide what to take and what to leave behind. We’re trying to convince our doctors/dentists/banks/veterinarian/license bureau/mechanics/student travel agent/CAA rep/computer guy, etc. that they have a moral obligation to fit us into their already-overbooked schedules. We’re trying to organize a garage sale to raise a little extra travel cash.


I’ve got my shrink on speed dial…!

We’re basically trying to cram three months’ worth of moving plans into, like, three weeks.

Yesterday I told a friend that, during the last two weeks, it seems like I spend half my day making to-do lists and the other half trying to figure out which order to do my chores in.

Sheesh, relocation is exhausting…


* * *


A linguistic snapshot of my brain at this exact moment: Ohmigod ohmigod yahoo, ohmigod ohmigod yahoo, ohmigod ohmigod yahoo, ohmigod ohmigod yahoo...!


* * *


Fight or flight, eh? Some choice. Well I choose neither, dammit. I’m sick and tired of fighting, and there are no affordable flights…so I choose roadtrip instead.  

Maritimes, here we come.  

Make way for the determined. 

(***This just in, breaking news – a Big Medicine World Exclusive***: Our decision is made…We’re off to Nova Scotia!!!)

* * *

In 2005, National Geographic Traveler Magazine named Cape Breton Highlands National Park the “#2 National Park in North America.”

It’s utterly majestic, I’ve been looking at pictures.

And I’ve heard several people say that Halifax is the “friendliest city in Canada”…though I’m not quite sure how you judge such a thing.

Either way, come hell or highwater (or is that hell or saltwater?), we’re headin’ eastbound to New Scotland.

I’m about to become a bona fide Haligonian.


* * *

My only regret with not choosing Newfoundland is that I already had a job pitch prepared for local newspaper/magazine editors:

I was hoping to get paid to write an advice column called “Dear Newf Anne Landers.”

I planned to write it from home, under the pseudonym Gregory Arious, AKA The Wandering Agoraphobe.

The main problem with Halifax is that I haven’t thought of any good puns for it yet.

* * *

Top Ten Things to Keep in the Car During Our Roadtrip:

10) A huge cooler – for sandwiches, and fresh fruit, and Tim Horton’s truckstop donuts, and ice-cold water bottles/soda cans.

9) A trip itinerary for dummies (both my girlfriend and I are positively dreadful at reading maps!).

8) A solid collection of travel-appropriate mix CDs – organized into sensible categories (essential jazz tunes, tunes for early in the morning, tunes for late at night, Be Good Tanyas ramblin’ ditties, folk classics ‘n protest ballads, highway anthems, songs about the sea, Great Big Sea greatest hits, traditional Celtic arrangements, Barra Macneils, etc.)

7) A D/C adapter for my laptop, so I can watch movies (with headphones) when it’s my girlfriend’s turn to drive.

6) The Canon 20D digital camera, which I’m desperately saving up to buy, so we can chronicle this mind-boggling journey. (
Purchase my book here, and contribute to my camera fund…!)

5) Our dog Walden’s original, one-of-a-kind, extremely-innovative-but-not-yet-patented converted gerbil water feeder! (See below)

4) My prescription sunglasses.

3) Trail mix, and pretzels, and glosettes, and jolly ranchers, and granola bars. (These count as one item)

2) Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer – for those begrimed and fecal roadside-McDonald’s bathroom jaunts.

1) My thoroughly worn-out copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons – the perfect traveling book.

* * *

My girlfriend and I are in the process of rigging up an intricate system that will allow Walden, who will be in the backseat during our roadtrip, to drink fresh water whenever he feels like it. It involves a 1-litre gerbil waterer (the ones with the little water spout for the thirsty gerbil dog to lick), and a metal-frame bottle hanger, and a strip of heavy-duty Velcro. The plan is to hang it in our car, from the front passenger’s seat headrest and facing backwards…

To give you an idea of what I mean:

Cool, huh?

* * *

5 Potential Ways I Can Make Money In Halifax

1. I can learn ventriloquism, and apply for a busker’s license. (Downside: agoraphobes hate crowds)

2. I can get a mail route with Canada Post. (Downsides: too much walking, have a really bad sense of direction, out of shape, not a morning person)

3. Sperm donation. (Downsides: icky, embarrassing, can’t add it to my CV, don’t think dozens of little Sachas scattered throughout Atlantic Canada is such a good idea…!)

4. Video store clerk. (Downside: I’m not sure my film-snob colleagues will accept me when they find out my favorite movies are Police Academy 1-7)

5. Lifeguard on a public beach. (Downsides: not a strong swimmer, get migraines in the sun, tend to daydream involuntarily)

* * *

BREAKING NEWS 2: My girlfriend and I have found an apartment!

- Central Halifax
- Top flat of duplex
- 2 bedrooms
- Private balcony
- Fridge and stove in great condition
- Own parking space
- Tons of storage
- Walls painted friendly colours
- Fenced in backyard
- Completely dog-friendly (landlord downstairs has a gentle Lab mix)
- Close to all amenities, close to Dal U, but still apparently on a quiet street
- Within our budget

How do ya like dem apples?

I may be an agoraphobe, but my postal code’s about to change.

So HA.

And phew.

And oy.

* * *

A Big Med prize giveaway, just ‘cause I’m in a good mood:

The first one to correctly answer the following question wins a free copy of my book 'a boy named sach. notes from an agoraphobic front' [Editor's note: Sacha would never have agreed to this prize. He wanted to give away a $10 gift certificate to any Chapters-Indigo bookstore. However, given that the vast majority of our readers don't have access to a Chapters-Indigo bookstore, I thought a copy of Sacha's book would be a nice prize].

Question: Which poet said, on his deathbed, “It is a reproach to the faculty that they cannot cure the hiccup”?


Send your answers to

The Maniacal Ramblings of an Agoraphobe on the Move [Apr 4 06]--I read the news today, oh boy.

The mailman brought a special envelope this week.

Return address: School of Graduate Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

A brief excerpt from the letter:

“Dear Ms. Nemiroff…we are very pleased to inform you that you have been…accepted into a programme of studies leading to the degree of Master of Science (Biology) in the School of Graduate Studies, to commence at the beginning of the 2006-2007 Fall Semester.”

Ms. Nemiroff, you see, is my significant other.


I, it seems, am an agoraphobe on the move.

Moving the 2568.45 km from Montreal to St. John’s, Newfoundland (or perhaps Halifax – we’re still waiting to hear back from Dalhousie, too…) is the agoraphobe’s version of backpacking penniless through Calcutta without a passport or chlorine tablets or an English-Bengali dictionary.

I am being uprooted, and tested, and overwhelmed. How I react to this moment is how history will remember me. It isn’t brave if you’re not scared. Life is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Blah, blah, blah…

I packed a lunch when I took my car to the mechanic for a flat tire.



An original (unfinished) limerick about how I am feeling right now:

There once was a man from Quebec,



But I’m pretty darn excited, too.


Some titillating newfcentric words to calm my nerves: lighthouse Atlantic Ocean whales glaciers foghorn bakeapple Signal Hill wharf fjord landscape clam chowder screech Celtic music Great Big Sea.

I’m not even sure what a fjord is. But I definitely wanna see one.



I’ve spent the last week or so listening to CBC Radio’s live St. John’s internet feed, and checking Atlantic Canada job banks, and bookmarking off-campus housing sites, and making notes on ferry schedules.

And in my spare time, I’ve had significant acid reflux.

I’ll need a new job, dammit. It took me soooooo long to find the one I have now. (I work mostly from home, describing, pricing, listing, and transporting rare books and magazines for an antiquarian book dealer.)

If you’ve got a spare minute, and you’re up for a laugh, try googling various combinations of “Newfoundland work from home”…a whopping 276,000 results – all “amazing opportunities,” if you want to be an envelope stuffer, or a mystery shopper, or an “Independent Sales Representative.”

I’ve got a B.A. in Communications and Cultural Studies. I’m the editor-in-chief of an up-and-coming mental health/ self-empowerment
magazine. I’m a regular columnist for the irrepressible Big Medicine. And in my pre-agoraphobia days, I worked as a teacher, and a graphic designer, and a CLSC caseworker, and a chauffeur. (See my CV here.)

I want to be an armchair journalist, a stay-at-home muckraker, a live-in correspondent, a sedentary stringer. The neurotic Jimmy Breslin.

I want someone to pay me to be The Wandering Agoraphobe.

I should take out a classified ad: Need work. Have car, won’t travel. Only those who conduct job interviews via email need apply.


Ok then, I’m doomed.


On time zones: Right now it’s 90 minutes later in Newfoundland than it is in Montreal. They’re so lucky, they already know who wins the hockey game I’m watching.



Oh, nooooooo.

I just realized that I’ll need to make MANY doctor/dentist/mechanic/bank/veterinarian (for Walden), etc. appointments before we leave.

That thought alone is enough to completely overwhelm me.

Come to think of it, I’m not even sure if I have a doctor. It seems that practically every time I call my doctor’s clinic to book an appointment, the secretary casually informs me that my doctor has moved (usually to Toronto), and that my file has been re-assigned to a new physician.

Seriously, I’m not exaggerating – it’s happened, like, four times in three years.

I really didn’t like my latest GP. Granted I’ve only met her once, but she gave me the heebeejeebees. She didn’t laugh at any of my jokes. And she asked me, with her head buried in my file, if I “still suffer from that anxiety thingy.” And she called me fat twice. And she said it’s “a crying shame” that a young man like myself needs antidepressants, and that I “really need to relax.”

Thanks, thanks a lot.

If she had even tried to bring up hot baths or yoga or chamomile tea, I would’ve been outta there…



So it looks like I may be taking this column on the road, folks. Come May or June, whether it be Newfoundland (2568.45 km) or Nova Scotia (1270.16 km), it seems my toes are about to touch sand ‘n saltwater.


The next time you see me, I could be a lighthouse keeper, or an eco tour guide, or a trawler.

I could be anything, anything at all.

What an exciting – and utterly terrifying – time.

Stay tuned, watch this space. WAY more to come.



Breaking news, this just in: Guess what? I just called my doctor’s office to book an appointment and…MY DOCTOR HAS MOVED!!! Adding insult to injury, the secretary refuses to transfer my file to another doctor in the clinic, claiming they’re overbooked.

They say I can come pick up my file anytime.

Thank goodness we have universal access to healthcare in this great nation of ours.




Confessions of a Slightly Bashful Foot Flusher [Mar 17 06]--I had never seen a germ until I fell in love with my girlfriend.

That may sound unromantic, but it’s true.

Growing up, my parents denied that germs existed. They taught me that people get colds or flus when they’re “run down,” and that sickness is brought upon by deviating from healthful routines. They insisted that people only “catch” colds when they were already going to get sick in the first place. “Drink your orange juice and eat your leafy kale,” they’d encourage, “you don’t want to come down with something.”

To this day, when my mother gets a cold she walks around feeling guilty for eating the junk food that caused it. And to this day, when my dad gets a cold he walks around snivelling and wheezing and coughing and sneezing, and saying “It’s not a cold, I’m just a bit run down.”

Needless to say, when I fell in love with a biologist I was utterly shocked to discover that she had actually seen a germ under a microscope.

I learned that germs are tiny living organisms that can cause diseases, and that they are so small and sneaky that they can creep into our bodies without being noticed. She patiently explained me the differences between bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa, and then calmly informed me that humans are susceptible to all four!

And when I asked her where they live, she said this, which slightly unnerved me: Everywhere.

She even showed me a picture of strep throat bacteria (Streptococcus spp.).



What strikes me as odd (disturbing?) is that my girlfriend doesn’t seem the least bit concerned by the fact that we are literally surrounded by trillions of malevolent, virile, disease-causing monsters. Somehow, she’s able to detach herself from the reality that almost everything we touch in public has someone else’s flu on it. And somehow, I can’t seem to forget it.


Lately, I picture germs everywhere I go—on toilet seats, and doorknobs, and elevator buttons, and mailbox handles, and payphone receivers. And then I ask myself this question: Can I afford to get sick this week?

Usually I have errands to run and deadlines to keep, so the answer is almost invariably, No.

Lately, and against my better judgement, I’ve become a foot flusher.

I’m not sure who to be angry at: My parents for hiding me from the truth, or my girlfriend for exposing me to it. Or germs, for being evil little buggers.

I decided to do a little research, for this column but also in hopes of purging myself of this burgeoning neurotic tendency, so I hopped on the web and googled “germs.”

The news is not good.

One of the first sites to pop up was for Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer. Their slogan is: “Sometimes you can't get to soap and water.” The website explains that Purell kills 99.99% of common germs that may cause illness (what about the other 0.01%?), and goes on to encourage people to “sanitize your hands anytime-anyplace! In the kitchen or bathroom for extra care, at work, school, and day care, after changing diapers or handling money, before drive-thru meals or when camping, any time or place you can't wash!”

How can one not become “germaphobic” after reading a statement like that?!?

One of the next sites to appear was for Medline Plus, which is a vast medical database co-sponsored by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Their section on “Germs and Hygiene” has dozens of science-based articles, with titles like Bacteria Hone in on Shopping Carts, and Stopping Germs at Home, Work and School, and Hand Washing: A Simple Way to Prevent Infection, and Questions and Answers for Swimmers, and Using Alcohol-Based Hand Gels Could Help Families Avoid Respiratory Illnesses.

Oh, good. Nothing to worry about there.


And then there’s the website for the product known euphemistically as “The Clean Shopper,” which boasts of being “The fast, easy way to keep shopping-cart germs away!” A shopping cart/high chair cover for babies and toddlers, it “protects the entire shopping cart seating area—sides, back, handlebars and front—to offer maximum protection against disease-causing bacteria.” (From the promotional material: “Protect your baby from bacteria-ridden shopping carts and grimy restaurant high chairs with the original, patented and award-winning Clean Shopper® and Clean Diner®.”)


Since I’ve started paying attention to issues of contagion, I am finding references everywhere I look. There is a hilarious show on TV called Monk, about an obsessive-compulsive, germaphobic detective. And just the other day I came across an article about Kurt Godel, the influential mathematician who developed the Incompleteness Theorem of logic that challenged the view that logic would allow a complete understanding of the universe, and later died of self-starvation when his paranoid fear of germs grew uncontrollable. And Howie Mandel, the famous stand up comedian, refuses to shake anybody’s hand.

I think I’m straddling two equally self-destructive worldviews right now. On the one hand, I still feel guilty and ashamed when I get sick, as I did when I was a child, wondering what I could have done better, wondering which fruit or vegetable I should have eaten more of. On the other hand, now when I get sick I also feel responsible for my illness because germs are tangible things that I could have avoided.

Neither of these ideologies is healthy, and neither of them is right.

The truth is, although it is important to live as healthily as you can at any given moment, it is equally (if not tenfold more) important to accept that sickness is not our fault. Bodies get unwell sometimes, and it’s not our fault, and it’s not shameful, and it’s not something to hide.

I tend to agree with the comedian Steven Wright, who said something like “I wouldn’t be so paranoid if everyone wasn’t out to get me.”

And if you need proof, I’ll have my girlfriend show you her microscope.


The Pen Is Mightier Than The Ward [Mar 2 06]--This morning’s nightmare had me dying of multiple sclerosis. I’ve been woken up by a different disease every morning this week, at around 4:15AM. Yesterday was lung cancer, and the day before that flesh-eating disease. I had a brain tumour on Monday, which kept me up for hours, but on Tuesday it was diabetes, which is treatable, so I was able to fall back asleep in no time.

Born, and thus awaiting diagnosis.

My psychiatrist tells me I need professional help.

Q/ How many Freudian analysts does it take to change a lightbulb?

A/ Two. One to hold the bulb and the other to hold the penis, I mean the ladder.

Welcome to my third column. Stay awhile.




Boy, this whole journalism thing is fun.

I’ve been approached by my first INFORMANT. She has “an amazing story for me to write about.” Time is running out. Lives are at stake. It’s a matter of life and death. A woman needs my help. HELP!

She faxed me a crude press release, and a few contact numbers, and I told her I’d see what I could do.

The problem with being an agoraphobic journalist is: What can I do?

Stories require interviews. Interviews require human contact. Human contact requires social skills. Social skills require having adequate levels of serotonin and dopamine.

And I’m a little low on serotonin and dopamine these days.



Porphyria is not a single disease but a group of at least eight disorders that differ considerably from each other. A common feature in all porphyrias is the accumulation in the body of porphyrins. Although these are normal body chemicals, they normally do not accumulate.


The type of Porphyria that Laila has is called Acute Intermittent Porphyria (AIP), which is hereditary.

She was brought into the hospital with severe abdominal pain, and became completely paralyzed soon thereafter. She couldn’t speak, or even breathe, on her own. She underwent an emergency tracheotomy.

Laila is from the Philippines, and her stay in Canada is dependent upon her having a job. She was granted a work visa as a nanny, but while she was in the hospital…it expired. She lost her status in Canada, and with it her Medicare coverage. She has no family here to support her, and cannot afford to pay her medical costs, and the hospital and the government are threatening to transport her back to the Philippines (humane, huh?). Luckily, her social worker found a foster home that was willing to wait a month before getting paid, so donations can be collected from the community.

Laila is living in that foster home, for now. She is slowly getting better, and is finally able to breathe on her own again. She recently regained some trunk and leg strength, and is now able to sit in an upright position without help. She can partially lift her arms, but does not yet have control of her fingers.

According to doctors, given adequate time and the proper conditions Laila is expected to make a complete recovery.

If you’re interested in giving a donation to help Laila, call Marlene: (514) 696-7008




I was sad to read in the papers that Heather Crowe’s cancer has spread.

Crowe, a lifelong non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer after waiting tables in smoky restaurants for 40 years.

She has since become a tenacious anti-smoking crusader, appearing on billboards and in television ads, and she has often stated publicly that she wants to be the last person to die of second-hand smoke in the workplace.

The cancer has spread all over her body, leading her to enter a palliative care unit in Ottawa last week.


Since she started to lose her speech last month, her doctors have found 11 tumours in her brain and a painful one at the base of her spine, along with the lung cancer that was diagnosed in 2002.

She’s in pain and she’s suffering, and I wish I could take it away.

I hate cancer.

Email Heather to tell her you’re listening




On a completely unrelated note: I’m in the process of trying to take up smoking, as a way of coping with my debilitating anxiety. It’s taking me some time to learn how to inhale properly (the first few cigarettes made me nauseous and dizzy), and often I still cough my brains out, but I’ll get the hang of it, even if it kills me.

Why, you ask, am I this dumb?

Not dumb, just desperate.

My loved ones want me to reconsider. My shrink’s imploring me to try adding another anxiolytic to my daily mood cocktail. I’m terrified to tamper with my meds again, the last titration was exhausting. (And besides, I hear those pills are addictive!).

A cigarette can be whipped out at a dinner party. I’ve never heard of anyone “popping outside for a Rivotril break.”

I’m tired of agoraphobia. There are too many places I still want to see.

I’m so sorry Heather, I’m so sorry Laila.





Second column [Feb 22 06]--Some people greet challenges with confidence and curiosity—think of a young surgeon, fresh out of med school, convinced he could perform an inter-mammalian brain transplant in the backseat of a cab. Should the need arise.

Others—and I am an other—greet challenges with ample qualm and disinclination. I am the squeamish passerby at the scene of an accident who, by Satan’s luck, is the only one who knows CPR, and only because my mom forced me to take a class.

Will Rogers once said, “We can’t all be heroes, because someone needs to sit on the curb to clap as they go by.”

That’s me. I clap.


The other day, my girlfriend and I were at the dogrun with Walden, who’s a Husky/German Shepherd/Labrador Retriever mix (we call him our “SPCA Special”!), when a dogfight broke out between two dogs, one of whom was almost 100 pounds and incredibly strong. Sensing that something needed to be done, and not wanting either dog to get hurt too badly, and acting on instinct and adrenalin alone, I quickly sprung into action and did what any self-respecting, moral man would have. I grabbed my girlfriend and my dog and, as we were stepping out of the way, I yelled: Holy crap, be careful, those two dogs are fighting!

Luckily there were other, more responsible, people around, including the man who stepped in and ripped the two dogs apart (and then ripped them apart again when they momentarily overpowered him). He managed to throw the smaller dog over the fence, probably saving the dog’s life by doing so. His hand got bitten pretty badly in the scuffle.

I would have tended to the wound, but the sight of a stranger’s blood tends to make me feel faint and gag.


An original poem about bravery:

Roses are red,
Marigolds are not,
Stand in front of me
In case we get shot.


There is a growing movement of people who believe that intellectualism is harming our planet, that ideas impede action, that discussion impugns truth. They hold as their dogma the simple notion that change is the product of doing, and that Big Word Banter serves the ego, not the community. They refute the term “critical detachment,” claiming that it is a euphemism for “emotionlessness.” Thinkers, they say, as air force bombardiers, are guilty of possessing “moralities of altitude.”

The possessions of the dispossessed.

The movement is made up of former academics, retired philosopher kings, new parents, ice cream vendors, and at least one columnist who is in way over his head.

Columnist, noun. From the Latin words col (when hell) and umnist (freezes over).

Essay, noun. From the French, essai, to try.

Who was it again that said “context is everything”?

Does it matter?


My girlfriend loves giving blood. So does my dad. They say it saves four lives per visit. They say it’s “in them to give.” They say it’s easy karma. They even say it’s fun.

Needles scare the bejeezus outta me.

When I was a teenager, my doctor sent me for a mononucleosis blood test (it turned out to be a slight B12 deficiency). It was the first time that I can remember voluntarily giving someone the right to withdraw blood from my body. I wanted to tackle the nurse when she came at me with that 9-inch tent spike.

When she finished drawing blood, and I tried to stand up, I got light-headed and started panicking and told the nurse I thought I was going blind. She gave me a lollipop (which helped with the blindness!). She didn’t even wait to leave the room before she started laughing at me.

(To this day, I maintain that that nurse must’ve accidentally taken too much blood.)

My girlfriend and I have a deal. She doesn’t have a driver’s license, and I can’t stand needles. We’ve decided that if I take her to the blood drives and wait for her while she “donates,” we get to split the karma. We get to save two lives each.

Because we each do what we can.

The problem is, my girlfriend’s in the process of learning how to drive, and then I suppose I’ll have to find some other way to be benevolent and brave.





Sacha Vais is a freelance editor, writer, ghostwriter, and photographer, as well as founder of IrkedMagazine.com. He currently writes for BBC Ouch!, The Huffington Post, Link Magazine (South Australia), and the irrepressible Big Medicine.

He is grateful for his regular gig at Big Med, and he realizes that if he is to see a little further, and if he is to become a better practitioner of ubuntu, it will be by standing on the shoulders of giants.

He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was “schooled” at Concordia University, has a dog named Walden, and can be reached by email.

He enjoys baba ghanoush. But he enjoys hummus even more.

Previously on Sacha Vais:

Coming to Terms with Terms (or, Disability is a Four-Letter Word) [Mar 11 07]

Flirting with Disaster [Jan 29 07]

Mercy [Sep 8 06]

Meeting David Suzuki or How I Contracted Foot In Mouth Disease [Jun 28 06]

Haligonian Vacation [May 29 06]


Going…going…Haligonian! [May 6 06]


The Maniacal Ramblings of an Agoraphobe on the Move [Apr 4 06]


Confessions of a Slightly Bashful Foot Flusher [Mar 17 06]


The Pen Is Mightier Than The Ward [Mar 2 06]


Second column [Feb 22 06]




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