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Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul

Writer's block

By: Melanie Hackett

Talking Writer’s Block

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Writer’s Block”. But what exactly is it? Is it the block of notepaper that writer’s use to jot down ideas? Is it the weighted block used to contain the strewn mountain of disorganization typical of right-brain thinkers, for when the cat jumps on the pile?

No, the feared Writer’s Block is something much more terrible, something deeply dreaded by those relying on originality of ideas for their work. It is when the glass of creative juice has been drunk to complete emptiness. It happens when all ability to generate sentences and paragraphs of any sort simply stops. Kaput.

It is like the athlete that suddenly cannot perform a skill they have succeeded at countless times, or the musician that suddenly forgot their concerto. This mysterious psychological phenomenon can have several causes.

Sometimes a writer’s brain goes into overdrive and there are so many ideas all seemingly hyped on quadruple espresso, whirling around inside the skull in a struggle to burst out whilst merely colliding into each other, and run-on sentences just run on and on too fast to catch and freeze on some paper, thoughts racing far past the constraints of finger dexterity…

The solution? My god, take a chill pill! Simmer down the boiling over alphabet soup! Sometimes writers just need to chillax. My dad, author of several books, occasionally does this by enjoying a cold beer or puffing a Cuban cigar. But there are also healthier methods than his think drink or his think stink. How about a hot bath, a walk or a ski on the river? Then, once the overdrive has been geared down, some form of coherent thought can begin to assemble on the pages of your notepaper block.

The polar opposite can also happen. Your brain could feel like a black hole, devoid of any thought whatsoever. But, ideas are a dime a dozen. The joy of writing is that unlike most activities, the subject matter can be anything at all, and constantly changing. From mystical extraterrestrial creature sightings in the North to the latest seasonal beer at Yukon Brewery to, heck, even Writer’s Block, one can write on whatever it is that piques your interest at the time. Topics are easy to come by, and the problem lies not in a lack thereof.

So perhaps the black hole issue stems from a tree of emotions within the writer. Whereas runners can run on, accountants can count on, professors can blab on, politicians can fib on, emotional states within writers can simply halt the flow of ideas. Maybe fear of disappointing yourself paralyzes you to become frozen stuck. Or perhaps the writer is bored, uninspired, or discouraged.

Well, we’ve all heard of countless remedies for such dilemmas. Do yoga, drink antioxidant tea, go for a long walk on the beach. Take a hot bath, smoke a Cuban think stink, have sex with your lover. Talk to the cat, eat chicken noodle soup, go see the shrink. Listen to music or try other methods of creating, such as painting, photographing, or dancing, just to fill up that glass of Creativity Punch.

But perhaps the real solution is merely to view Writer’s Block not as a problem, a dreaded ailment of those attempting to produce originality. Perhaps Writer’s Block is simply the footprint for creativity; the priming of the right brain for an explosion of vocabulary onto the parchment. Given enough time and patience, supplemented with the Chill Pill, writers are bound to move past this stage of inventing a masterpiece. After all, the empty punch glass can only be replenished once again!

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Revolutionizing Resolutions for New Year

Revolutionizing Resolutions

By Melanie Hackett

It’s happening again. Fireworks are lighting the skies all around the globe. The ball is dropping. People are writing down everything that is going to change with this new beginning. But what exactly is the significance of the New Year?

For most, it’s a clean slate. People are comforted by the idea of a chance to start fresh, erase the mistakes and bad things of the past, celebrate the accomplishments, and resolve to make positive changes starting – mañana!

In reality, most of us realize that New Year’s resolutions typically don’t make it through the first month. It is after all a wee bit irrational to believe that things can just change at the drop of a hat – or a ball in this case. But it is a global starting point for people to reflect on their lives and the changes they want to make, to talk about it, and to participate in something that makes their resolutions seem to sink in.

My mother has always said, “New Year’s resolutions are silly. If I am not pleased with something in my life, I will change it NOW, and not wait until the New Year!” And kudos to her! To change old habits can be extremely difficult and not everyone can do it without some kind of starting point, and even then, we have to work extremely hard not to fall back into the same habits. That is why so many people make resolutions at this time of year. It brings people hope and confidence that they can implement the changes they want to see in themselves or their lives.

For me, New Year’s always held special significance. Our coach for competitive Irish Dancing taught us to reflect on our accomplishments over the past year, and to write out the goals that eluded us or new goals that we wished to achieve in the coming year, as well as a strict plan on how we would aim to do that. My plan would include monthly, weekly and daily strategies, outlining in detail the changes I was committed to making in order to improve my skills at a faster rate. Sometimes, we had to bring these goals in to the first class. Other years, we brought our papers in prepared to share them with the class, only to be told that we were going to get straight to work and start sweating – hard! We would then be required to glue our goals to our mirrors so we would be forced to look at them every morning. But in the end, I think we were all going to work as hard as we already did, whether or not a new year came. The results we wanted to see were much stronger motivating factors than the change from December to January. Similarly, the reason for wanting to make any resolution and the results of the change should be motivating in itself, because ultimately we are not motivated by the change from one day to the next even if it is a new year.

This year, I’ve been struggling with the task of writing down New Year’s resolutions. I don’t anymore compete in the sport that consumed my entire existence, where goals and successes were very well defined. Now, like most people in their twenties, the direction of my life is a little more vague. So instead, I am reflecting on the reasons why it was so important to me, and many others, to come up with resolutions before that ball drops. In the world of highly competitive athletes, it is easy to be defined by your accomplishments, especially in the elite levels. This is particularly true when athletes are children or adolescents with brains that are developing, and their self-identities are only just forming. When 110 percent of their focus is towards reaching a specific goal, as is necessary if they are to succeed in elite sports, they cannot build all of the other elements that make up a healthy self-identity. Essentially, they can become defined by a number – the value of their top placement.

And what is the New Year? It is also just a number; a day like any other. It only holds the meaning we decide to attach to it. So rather than expecting ourselves to be able to change things that we haven’t yet managed to change and being disappointed that an arbitrary number did not change anything at all, why not frame this New Year simply in terms of hope for a good next cycle of the seasons. Why not simply resolve to enter into a future that can be satisfying even though it lacks everything that we may desire; a future that offers hope that if we cannot change certain things, that we will be at peace with the unavoidable rougher times we will all face within the next journey around the sun?

Tonight, for the first time since I can remember, I will not be writing down any resolutions. I will raise my glass of Glühwein high, and toast to the continuation of this ongoing journey through time, resolving to celebrate the good things each day and to enjoy a future that has hope even with the inevitable challenges life will bring. Happy New Year!

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Cleanse Yourself of the Myths

Cleanse Yourself of the Myths

By Melanie Hackett

If you are interested in health you have probably heard of “cleansing” diets aimed at ridding your body of toxins by reducing what you eat to a very limited selection of healthy products for two or three weeks.

But wait! Is our physiology that straightforward?  No way.  These diets simply don’t do what they are intended for.  In fact, more toxins are created during these diets!  Of course, there are many different types of detox diets.  Like all fad diets, most of these are merely a tool for companies to earn money off unwary consumers and aren’t based on science at all.  Even my mother, a very health-conscious and active 61-year-old who generally looks for the science, used to do annual “cleansing” fasts consuming nothing but elderberry juice for a week in an attempt to “flush away” toxins.  I will focus on these types of “cleanses”.

In most people with a healthy diet, blood sugar levels are well regulated by two hormones: insulin and glucagon.  Insulin, released by the pancreas after a meal, is the bus driver that takes the blood sugar to work.  Mr Sugar’s workplace is inside all body cells where it can be used as energy for all cell function.  Extra glucose (sugar) combines forming a substance called glycogen, which gets stored in the liver and muscle.  The hormone glucagon, opposite of insulin, is the vehicle that takes Mr. Sugar from these stores back into the blood when your blood sugar gets low.  These glycogen stores are crucial for maintaining blood glucose levels when you aren’t eating.  They can be completely depleted after only a couple of hours of exercise at a heart rate 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. So how do we rebuild them?  Only with a diet high in carbohydrates (fruits, veggies, quinoa, rice, whole grain bread, etc.)!  These stores can also be depleted within a couple of days of consuming much less than you are expending, or not having a diet consisting of about 60 percent carbohydrates.

When the glycogen runs out, your liver breaks down fatty acids and proteins to use for energy instead.  The by-products are three types of what we call ketones.  Two of these are used by the heart and brain, and the third is a waste product stressing the kidneys.  Ketones also make your blood more acidic.  To correct this, your respiratory system goes haywire, and in extreme cases this can be fatal.

For the Bioscience Geeks:

When the pH of your blood is too low, you’ll start to hyperventilate to expel more carbon dioxide.  This works because in the blood, carbon dioxide combines with water and forms bicarbonate and a hydrogen ion (the latter of which makes the blood more acidic).  What’s in your lungs goes into your blood through structures called alveoli.  If there is less carbon dioxide available, fewer hydrogen ions will be produced, and your blood pH will therefore go back to normal.  However, less carbon dioxide also means there is less of a stimulus to breathe.  This is how it can cause fatality.

The main point here is that rather than “flushing away” toxins, we create toxins when we don’t eat enough carbs.  Excess ketones and the physiological effect they have can be considered toxic in the human body.  These effects are pretty much identical to what happens both during starvation and during diabetic coma when a diabetic’s blood sugar is extremely high because they lack insulin, sugar’s bus driver, to help the sugar from the blood to the starved cells.  This is also what happens during the Atkin’s diet, one that should only be tried in morbidly obese people who are at alarming risk of fatality if they don’t lose weight.  In general, if a diet is not healthy or is impossible to maintain permanently, it probably should not be done at all.

When we don’t eat enough carbohydrates and our glycogen stores run out, the use of proteins for energy instead can be compared to burning fossil fuels.  Instead of using renewable energy such as Whitehorse’s hydroelectric power, there are many more waste products with fossil fuels.  The net breakdown of proteins to provide energy (either in a high protein diet such as the Atkin’s diet or when the body is starved of carbs in “cleansing” diets) not only creates ketones, but also causes a negative nitrogen balance, meaning there is a lot of nitrogenous waste being produced.  Just as the burning of fossil fuels taxes Earth’s atmosphere, this taxes the liver as it tries to rid itself of the waste products.  The immune system is weakened, and the levels of cortisol, our long-term stress hormone, may increase, further weakening the immune system.

The physiological effects discussed above merely state what toxins build up in the body and the negative effect on health during “detox” diets, and that’s not even to mention the nutrient deficiencies that occur during such limited diets, which have a cascade of harmful effects in the body.

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Lava lake at Pu'u O'o crater, Hawaii Big Island (Photo: Melanie Hackett)

Where Fire Meets Ice – The Icelandic Eruption

By: Melanie Hackett

Humans have always been fascinated by the immense power of volcanoes. After all, volcanoes are responsible for the birth of new earth, as is rapidly happening on the Big Island of Hawaii. In fact, the gases released by volcanoes may have contributed to the creation of our atmosphere, and therefore set the stage for all of life itself.

Here in the Yukon, these spewing beasts of fire have helped shape the landscape. Have you ever driven the Klondike Highway to Dawson and wondered about the white layer on the sides of the road, especially visible near Carmacks? That is volcanic ash, or tephra, from a massive eruption of Mount Churchill 1300 years ago. Near Fort Selkirk, at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, Volcano Mountain is a young and active cinder cone.

But what happens when volcanoes erupt in frigid areas full of glaciers, and how does that change the landscape afterwards? In 2010, a team of scientists from the UK and Iceland set out to the flanks of Eyjafjallajӧkull to discover the consequences of fire meeting with ice.

Remember this Icelandic eruption? Yes, it’s the one that caused the greatest air travel disruption since the Second World War as ash clouds blanketed Europe. However, Eyjafjallajӧkull provided the opportunity for scientists to learn how volcano-driven torrents of glacial meltwater would behave and how they would alter the landscape.

Prince William Sound, Alaska
Prince William Sound, Alaska

When the volcano rumbled to life on April 14, 2010, it melted large amounts of ice, sending cascades of meltwater roaring down the mountain. These glacial outburst floods are given the easily pronounced name jӧkulhlaup. The action culminated in two larger floods that sent the equivalent of 60 thousand Canada Games Centre swimming pools down the flanks of the volcano! The surge flowed both underneath and atop the glacier, carrying gravel and debris into a lake at the base of nearby Gigjӧkull glacier. And before you can say “Eyjafjallajӧkull”, the lake level rose by nearly five metres, engulfing the scientists’ equipment. The jӧkulhlaup continued its rampage, smashed through the far lake wall and drained the lake entirely.

Before this, not much was known about what happens as these catastrophic floods are raging down volcanoes. The scientists’ time-lapse imagery showed another subsequent 140 jӧkulhlaups. Each of these is believed to have occurred after the rupture of temporary blockages in meltwater rivers. These floods were much smaller than the initial two because the increasing tephra created an insulating layer on the ice, so less could melt. However, what the scientists discovered, to their surprise, was that contrary to previous belief, the large floods did not actually transport the most debris. The 140 smaller jӧkulhlaups had a much greater influence on the new shape of the land, as they brought fans of gravel down the mountain.

These findings will be invaluable for future hazard assessment, especially since more and more of these glacial outburst floods are expected in our warming climate. Closer to home, a future jӧkulhlaup is possible at Lowell Lake, a sediment-dammed lake at the headwaters of the Alsek River. Currently there is not enough water in the lake to flood Haines Junction if a catastrophic flood were to happen, but as Lowell glacier melts into the lake with global warming, this could be of concern in the future. However, as Eyjafjallajӧkull has shown us, it is not necessarily the largest and most powerful body that initiates change. There is strength in numbers, and change can be initiated by much smaller forces, that when combined, hold great power.

Here in the Yukon, these spewing beasts of fire have helped shape the landscape. Have you ever driven the Klondike Highway to Dawson and wondered about the white layer on the sides of the road, especially visible near Carmacks? That is volcanic ash, or tephra, from a massive eruption of Mount Churchill 1300 years ago. Near Fort Selkirk, at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, Volcano Mountain is a young and active cinder cone.

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Dispelling myths about mental illness

Dispelling myths about mental illness

IT was a crisp day in May, snowflakes gently flying in the breeze. At the bus stop, a woman wearing a colourful toque to conceal her balding head wondered aloud whether summer would ever arrive. The woman let out a deep cough that seemed to arise from a deathly monster within her. She was going through her third chemotherapy session, and silently wondered whether she would make it through summer, assuming it did arrive.

The several others waiting for the bus stood a distance from her. As the bus pulled up, someone lashed out at her weak body to the cheers of the group. “Get lost, sick lady!” they exclaimed to her as they filed past her slumped on the ground. As the bus pulled away without her, someone announced they had the episode on video and would post it to YouTube for everyone’s amusement.

Imagine if we treated everyone with compromised health the way we treat those with mental-health challenges. The above story did not happen. The following, however, certainly did:

I was driving to my favourite biking trails with the radio on, listening to the story of the man who harmed himself with a knife on the Today Show’s Rockefeller Plaza set on June 6. The broadcaster explained how the man was tackled to the ground to cheers from the crowd. He then went on to exclaim that in any event with a crowd, there is guaranteed to be at least one stupid person. He expressed his worry that here was a stupid person who pulled a really stupid move.

These comments shocked me, and show complete ignorance of the rising incidence of mental illness. The fact of the matter is that one in five Canadians suffers from some form of mental illness. Compare this to the two or three per cent prevalence of cancer, or five per cent prevalence of heart disease.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the economic cost of mental illness is in excess of $50 billion annually, yet well over half of the people struggling with their mental health fail to receive the health services they need. One of the major barriers for getting treatment is this stigma, which is propagated by such comments as the one made by the broadcaster, as well as a lack of knowledge on mental health issues. This worsens the issue, and I worry how many people struggling with their mental health heard the commentator.

At some point in his or her lifetime, everyone will experience feelings of isolation, loneliness, sadness, emotional distress or disconnection from things. Mental illness occurs when a person’s ability to function over a long period of time is affected. Depending on the illness, it can disturb the sufferer’s thinking, mood or behaviour, and it can either have no obvious triggers, or can be set off by life events that we all find difficult: the loss of a job, a death, a romantic breakup or a loss of physical health to name a few.

Self harm or suicide can arise from some form of mental illness. It’s not a sign of weakness or stupidity, but rather an intense internal pain that manifests itself in physical form. Twenty-five per cent of deaths among youth are due to suicide, and this number increases dramatically in aboriginal populations. Of the 4,000 Canadians who die by suicide each year, most were confronting a mental-health problem. As with physical illnesses, development of a mental illness depends on a complex array of factors including genetics, physiology, environment and personal experiences, and therefore cannot be judged, as it is impossible to know another’s experience.

Mental illness does not mean the affected are “stupid” or less “mentally tough” – quite the contrary. I was a hiking guide for the wilderness therapy program of Simon Fraser University’s Students for Mental Wellness, a club started by my friends, and some of the most courageous people I’ve met are those that have struggled with their mental wellness. Similarly, here in Pelly Crossing, there is a high prevalence of mental illness due to the horrific experiences many of the people here have endured. This originates from the abuse suffered in residential schools, and the intergenerational cycle of social woes created by the obliteration of their language and culture. Knowing their stories sheds light on how mental illness including addictions can progress, and the incredible strength of character they demonstrate through their hardship and recovery.

My vision for the future is that opening dialogue on mental illness will increase knowledge and awareness, and that a corollary of that will be an eradication of the stigma that is held in our society, which is not only a roadblock to treatment, but also a factor that exacerbates this issue, one that either directly or indirectly affects us all.

Melanie Hackett was recreation director for Selkirk First Nation, Pelly Crossing.

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Larger than Life by Melanie Hackett

The devastating beauty of the North. Photo by Melanie Hackett

YOU only need to set foot in the Yukon for a split second before it becomes clear why the territory’s motto is “Larger Than Life.”

Home to 14 First Nations groups and some 30,000 people — as well as the backdrop of Canada’s highest mountain and some of the largest and most isolated National Parks — the Yukon is one of the least densely populated places left on earth.

Imagine taking one tenth the population of Victoria and spreading it out over an area that is geographically larger than California, and is unadulterated and pristine wilderness.

Most of the population resides in the territory’s capital of Whitehorse. I, on the other hand, live in a self-governed Northern Tutchone First Nation community of 300, several hours north of Whitehorse. Of the seven billion people living on our planet, only about four million of them can claim that they live further north than we do here.

I am a graduate from SFU’s Kinesiology program, and the Recreation Director for the community of Pelly Crossing, which is located in the traditional territory that the Selkirk First Nation has been inhabiting for many thousands of years, passing on knowledge of survival in the below 50 Celsius winters from one generation to the next.

In my time here, I’ve had many larger-than-life experiences, and have also faced the sharp paradoxes of the Yukon: there is a contrast between the awe-inspiring experiences that teach you how tiny yet connected to everything you are, and the harsh reality of life in the north.

One of the most amazing northern experiences has been to watch the aurora borealis dancing overhead in electric purples and greens as the particles from the sun interact with the oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere, respectively.

One particular November night, it was nearly -50 Celsius. I ran out with two of my friends to watch a huge swan dance into a soaring eagle, a daffodil and finally an angel that raced across the star-filled sky — a sky that was so clear by now that I spotted the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away. By contrast, in the summer, it’s chilling to lie in the sunlit tent nestled in the jagged mountains at two in the morning, listening to the eerie call of the wolves. The ground cover consists of strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, and more. By autumn the hills are on fire with the changing leaves, as hundreds of thousands of cranes, swans, geese, and other birds migrate south. I saw bears, lynx, foxes, porcupines, Dall sheep, wolves, moose and elk.

Yet even with more beauty than imaginable, the people here have suffered greatly. From the sudden colonization that occurred after the Klondike Gold Rush, to the end of the steamboat days when the Klondike highway was built, which forced Selkirk people to relocate, to the despicable residential school era that forced children away from their hunting gathering culture, westernized them and spat them back to families they could no longer understand, there is a lot of trauma left in our community.

It is a generational cycle, one lacking parenting as a result of being taken from their own families; there is a generational gap: the elders living here grew up living off the land, and their grandchildren grew up playing video games. It is a suppression of their language, traditions, and culture, and it is a cycle of substance abuse that leads to many more downward spirals.

There is no purpose in sugar-coating it. Children steal money off their parents in order to feed their drug habit — after all, their parents are attempting the same thing, sometimes stealing off their children who work part-time student jobs.

Being part of the Yukon EMS ambulance team, I know that over 50 per cent of our calls are alcohol related. Beginning in February, it is the sunniest place in the country, but don’t let it fool you. There have been several instances this year of teenagers that have passed out drunk and froze to death in the -40 temperatures.

Even if sober it can be a dangerous place. If your car breaks down on an isolated strip of highway, it could be an extremely long and dangerously cold wait, as there is no cell reception. Although difficult to deal with, these issues and history make the discrimination against me — as one of the only “white” people here — more understandable.

I have a friend here who was violently raped as a teenager. She got pregnant, and alcohol and drugs were the only method to temporarily wipe out her horrifying experience, so her child was born with severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This substance abuse however, increased her vulnerability to being raped again.

Eventually, two kids later, she found herself lying in the street close to death. She finally called for help and was flown to Vancouver, where a specialized surgeon reconstructed her slashed wrists. Relocated from her home and with no money or support system, she had nowhere to go. She ended up like many of the people in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

How many of us look from the bus window at that corner and judge the people there for “wasting their lives?” How many of us ignorantly tell kids ogling from the car that that’s where they’ll end up if they make stupid choices? In the best case scenario, we simply don’t give them much thought.

My friend was one of those people — the ones standing on the corner, serving as a lesson of deterrence to children, on the receiving end of our pity. Today, she is one of the most inspiring “Larger Than Life” characters I have ever met: hardworking, outgoing, and humorous, she is not afraid to share her story.

Sometimes the incredible beauty surrounding us brings even more pain as we try to comprehend the horrors that occurred in such a pristine place; likewise, it is difficult to comprehend how a simple mistake, such as forgetting your lock antifreeze inside in the dead of winter, could lead to death by such an aesthetic place.

But the things that bring healing to the community are activities that restore their culture and focus on nature.

One successful program was a native dancing program for school kids. When the children performed for their elders, the community was transformed. Tears of joy, pain and healing flowed down the faces of elders as they got up from the audience and danced with their youth, bridging that generational gap to finally connect with them.

The stone-faced youth that were so preoccupied with finding their next joint became energetic with smiles after only three days in the wilderness, where they were learning to ice fish, make fire, shoot arrows, make snares and listen to traditional legends.

It will take time — it may take a few more generations — but if any people can overcome such struggles, the Larger Than Life community of Selkirk people will.

These are the people most connected to the land, and they instinctively realize what an integral role it plays in the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of a person. If we are to deal with all of the contemporary issues we’re faced with, we need to listen to the lessons of their stories and culture.

One thing I know for certain is that if there is any place on earth that is larger than life, in both the natural environment and in the character of its inhabitants, it most certainly is the Yukon.

Words and pictures by Melanie Hackett

(Melanie Hackett was recreation director for Selkirk First Nation. She lived in Pelly Crossing for more than a year.)