This Week, I Sang


Sometime in that naturally depressing period of self-evaluation between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I came to the realization that I had stopped singing.  I thought about when it had happened exactly, as I remembered that I had always been a singer.  I’ve been asked, over the years, if I wanted to sing in this and that, but I haven’t set foot on a stage in years.  ‘I’m not interested,’ I would say.  ‘It’s not who I am.’

That wasn’t true, of course, and in an effort to embrace the new me that I saw emerging against the northern landscape, I needed to face a demon that I’ve been dragging around for years.

Everyone has their demon.  Mine began with a friendship that I thought was something other than it was.  I realized, in those moments when I peeled back time and events, that it had never been a friendship, it had been a competition, and in my abandonment of music, I had let her win.

That individual epiphany lead me to a bigger question that I’ve been struggling with since I arrived in the Yukon more than one year ago.  It’s something I’ve been trying to give voice to, if only in my head, and it relates to competition.  It relates to the competition which has become the world, and the competition that is missing from the Yukon.

Competition has been simultaneously demonized and idolized in modern times.  It has been removed from formalized programs.  In many ways we’ve removed winners to avoid naming losers.  But, what we’ve taken from sports and schools has moved into our everyday lives.  We compete constantly.  We compete at work, we compete in friendships, we compete in relationships, we are in a constant and unending cycle of making others into losers in order to become winners.

In order to survive, we tell ourselves, we must eliminate anything that might ascend past our level.  We have become a society who believes that our success is dependent upon the failure of others.  The behaviour that follows is ugly, damaging and often, cruel.  It also acceptable, understood and often, praised as being the way to conquer the world.  A sort of emotional manifest destiny that we place as a tax on everything.  If the world is a meme, then we are all stating our views against a Darwinian image of a tiger eating an antelope.

Shortly after I began working in the cultural sector in the Yukon, I noticed that there was an incredibly different approach to social interaction.  Where, in other places, I have felt as though another person or organization might see my skills as a threat – and had steeled myself for the inevitable game of thrones – I found myself enveloped in encouragement, guidance, understanding and desire to ‘grow me.’  In fact, the Executive Director of a much larger institution introduced herself by saying how excited she was to work with me because I might be able to help her make her museum even better.

In the past year, I have realized that the people here are far more interested in collaboration, sharing and growing individuals than they are at tearing folks down.  Actually, they applaud when you do well.  Your successes are the communities’ successes.  A rising tide, lifts all boats.

There is a code of social conduct here that seems to condemn the contrary.  If I left an event and sat with a group of friends and made mention of some deficiency in someone’s performance, it would be met with a fairly predictable correction of my unkind behaviour. I have found that there is little tolerance for criticism (unless constructive and given directly to the individual in question), immaturity, gossip, corruption, greed or the ugly side of competition.

I could postulate on the reason why the Yukon is so unique in this area of social culture, but am still seeking answers myself.  However, I will say that the dynamic that allows people to improve themselves, to continue to develop and, in the end, celebrates their successes and achievements, makes for a much greater sense of peace.  It also helps to cultivate a better place to live by leveraging talents, skills and abilities into something that benefits the entire community.

And so, in a music room just north of Whitehorse, surrounded by brand new friends, and some who’ve been my pals for the past year, I found myself suspending my terror and singing again.  Before my first shot at the microphone, the instructor explained that ‘this is a safe place.’  I looked at the people gathered for the class and knew that it was true.  This is not a place where my performance would be critiqued later at a bar by the ‘popular crowd,’ this isn’t a place where seasoned musicians are grasping for gigs and worried that a new ‘one’ might take something from them, and it isn’t a place that creates losers in order to declare winners.

I sang.  It didn’t matter how it sounded, or whether I will continue to develop my skills as a vocalist, it only matters that I sang.  The people clapped, the instructor gave notes, and the next day, and the next day, I sang again.

I am in competition with no one now, and will cultivate growth in myself and others because that is what we do here.

They can’t take that away from me.





Jazz Singers and the Treatment of Epilepsy

gabe at sick kids

I had a hard time finding the light switch, but my foggy eyesight finally helped me navigate the dark room to find it so I could watch what I already knew was happening.  I had heard a loud thump from the next room, it was nearly midnight, but more than the sound of a boy falling out of bed, there were shrieks, grunts and the sounds of repetitive knocking.

The week before, my son Gabe, then nine, had been at his dad’s house.  He called me and said ‘I think Gabe had a seizure last night.’  ‘He does that,’ I said, ‘it’s not a seizure, he just thrashes when he has a bad dream.  It’s a night terror.’  His dad was slightly relieved, but not entirely convinced.  Neither, I suppose, was I.  When I heard the clamour coming from his room, my mind flashed back to the conversation, and my concerns became fears when I turned on the light and saw Gabe in the throes of a tonic-clonic seizure.  The days that followed involved visits to doctors, specialists and to strange new tests in hospitals across Southern Ontario.  Leading to a final diagnosis of epilepsy.

You learn a lot of new words, new treatments, new symptoms, new risks and new services when you are thrust into the world of having a child with a special need.  In my case, as in the case of many parents of children with epilepsy, one day I was not such a parent, and the next morning I was.  The learning curve was a uncomfortably swift incline which seemed insurmountable at the time.  As a single parent, struggling with sleepless nights (in those first few months he would have up to six seizures a night), adjusting medications and travelling for tests, I paid a heavy price, both financially and emotionally.

You come to understand this world of epilepsy, and do your best to navigate a vast medical field to drill down and discover what treatments and therapies are available.  There is no one to hold your hand, although I was blessed with several doctors along the way who did their best.  In the end it comes down to you and your child, and a bottle of medication with six months until your next specialist appointment and the number of your pediatrician on speed dial.

Don’t call an ambulance unless the seizure lasts more than five minutes.  Or he isn’t breathing.  Or if he hurts himself.  Or if he seizes in a pool.  Or a bathtub.

You go through the exercise of determining whether or not regular childhood activities are ‘safe.’  Can he take the school bus if he has to walk two blocks to get there? What about riding a bike?  Or a horse? Are rollercoasters dangerous?  How about flying?  If I want him to take swimming or skating will anyone want to coach a child who might have seizure?  What if he has one at school?  In front of friends?  Will he be able to go to sleepovers?

Over time, you learn these things about your child, because in every case, the answers are different.  Gabe is fortunate, after the first two years his seizures came only at night, and always with an ‘aura’ that was so significant that he would wake up and cry out before they even started.

With medication, he got down to about five seizures a week.

Then came the Yukon.

I was brave.  An adventurer.  I was prepared to seize the opportunities of the north for myself and my children.  I was not prepared to risk my son’s life to do it.

Eagerly, I scoured the internet looking for information regarding services for people with Epilepsy in Whitehorse.  Finding information about the Yukon Health Insurance Program was easy enough.  Determining that I would have continuity of coverage was a snap.  Learning about the Whitehorse Hospital and their facilities wasn’t difficult.  Still, I had so many questions.  It’s easy to look at a pamphlet on hospital services or read an article about a new MRI machine, but it’s not easy to determine things like emergency wait times, or specialist availability, or access to corollary services which he might require.  Would pharmacies have open access to his medication, for example?

These are questions that a person moving to Southern Ontario doesn’t ask.  They assume that their child will have access to the best services in Canada.  They trust that these services will be available when their child needs them.  However, anyone who has ever had the pleasure of dealing with the health system in Ontario will tell you that this is not precisely the case.  Wait lists are endless, emergency rooms are crowded and often services are located far from where you might be living.  The stretch from Cambridge to Thornhill is practically all one expansive city from one end to the other, but the average turn around time from our Southern Ontario home to the pediatric neurologist’s office was five to six hours.

All that being said, I had certain comfort about  Southern Ontario that I did not have about an isolated, northern community like Whitehorse, and there was little to be found on the world  wide web to assuage my misgivings.

Finally, I came across a radio interview with a Yukon jazz artist who had a daughter with epilepsy.  The interview was centered around the artist’s experience with the disorder, and a quick entry of the singer’s name into my facebook search engine turned up the beautiful image of the professional vocalist I heard speaking on the CBC.  Without much hesitation I sent a desperate message to Fawn Fritzen in the early hours of an Ontario day, and by noon had a simple reply of ‘I’d be happy to speak to you, call me.’

So began a friendship which I have cherished through my first year as the mom of a child with epilepsy in the Yukon Territory.  Not only did Fawn provide me with boat-loads of information about life in the territory for a child with a ‘need,’ but shared her story, her experiences and her challenges and successes with me.  The information that Fawn provided me became one of the founding factors in my move to the territory.

When I arrived, she was one of the first to greet me, and consistently offered me support through Gabe’s medication changes, through seizures and through my integration into this new place.  Through our discussions, we realized that we would be able to leverage our knowledge, skills and experience into an organization that could help other people, either relocating or newly diagnosed in the territory, by providing valuable access to information and services.  Within a couple of months, we formed Epilepsy Yukon, of which I am extremely proud.

Upon reflection, having experienced healthcare in both Ontario and the Yukon, I have a striking observation that bears sharing:  Ontario isn’t actually in the business of healthcare at all.  In fact, if I were to look at the system of care in Ontario and contrast it with what I have experienced so far in the Yukon, I’d say that what Ontario does is actually ‘sick care.’  Sick care is what you access when all other options have been exhausted, when prevention and treatments have broken down.  You see specialists when things go badly.  You see a doctor when you are sick.  You fix yourself rather than keep yourself.

The Yukon has shown me that healthcare includes all of those important components of ‘sick care,’ but also takes on a new approach to the care of its people.  My doctor sees Gabe monthly, even if it’s to ask him if he has anything he wants to talk about, my pharmacist calls me when Gabe’s meds are running out to see if they need to place an order in case they run low when he is in need, nurses begin conversations with ‘how is your health’ rather than ‘what is the matter,’ even the schools have been willing to have Gabe speak about his seizures so that students can understand what he needs in that event. Meanwhile, the local media has supported epilepsy education in a significant way, giving Fawn and I a forum to address issues relating to first aid practices.

It turns out that not only is there excellent care available in the Yukon, but it is a place where you feel as though the Minister of Health & Social Services personally knows that your son has epilepsy.  I can’t confirm that he does, but his office follows us on Twitter, as does the Minister of Community Services.  I could have never imagined living in place where I feel that people are so invested in the other people who live here.

As for Gabe, he went from having five seizures a week to having five seizures in the last 365 days.  I have a variety of theories (none of them scientifically proven) about why there was such a remarkable change in his health between our move and its first anniversary (better ‘health’ care, cleaner air, cleaner water, a more active lifestyle, fewer lights, more stable weather), but ultimately I’m just happy that he is doing so well.

The other day, Fawn came by for a visit, and when she left I put on her album.  My youngest son, Cohen, came into the living room and said ‘mom, is this Fawn?  Is she an artist?’  I told him yes, and he couldn’t contain his surprise.  ‘You’re friends with AN ARTIST?’  I said, ‘yes, I am.  Thank God for her.’  He said ‘yes, she is the lady that helps people with epilepsy.’  I nodded.  ‘She is a really great singer.’  I nodded, again.

Fawn Fritzen is a jazz singer, songwriter, pianist and vaudevillian from Whitehorse Yukon.  Her multi-cultural background lets her explore music in English, French and German.  Her album Bedroom Voice is available for download on iTunes. Please visit her website to find out more.

Fortune Favours the Brave


It doesn’t matter if that opportunity lies in stories of gold, or the calling wild.  It doesn’t matter if opportunity comes in the form of a great new job, or a relationship with someone that you can’t imagine living without. Opportunity requires change. When a person is brave enough, change happens.  So it was with me, so it has been with many of the people I’ve met since I’ve been here.  Each and every newcomer to the Yukon can easily tell you why they are here, but that rarely satisfies the questions of the inquisitor.

People don’t really want to know why, what they want to know is:  how?

‘How’ is the question that tourists ask me when I tell them about my recent relocation.  How do you live up here?  How do you like it?  How do you sleep with all this sun?  How do you find the schools?  How much are groceries, and gas, and rent?  How long has it been since you saw your mother?  How cold does it get?  How?

‘How’ turned out to be much more difficult than the ‘why.’  Deciding to come to the Yukon was easy.  It was the business of determining how to do this that seemed impossible.  It was so far, it was remote, it was winter.

Then I thought about my grandmother.

My grandmother was a British war bride.  In 1947, she boarded a boat and set sail from everything she knew towards her husband in Canada.  She was moving to a remote community where she didn’t speak the language, where her modern world had not yet extended, and where shortly after WWII, her new mailing address would indicate that she lived in a place called ‘Swastika.’  My grandmother brought with her no cell phone, no internet, no television, and a two year old daughter.  Trans-Atlantic flights were uncommon and beyond their means at the time.  Overseas phone calls were saved for very rare and special occasions.  She had no family in Canada.  My grandmother was brave.  The prospectors who ascended the Chilkoot Pass were brave.  People who hitchhiked their way north in the 70’s were brave.

I had Google.

I entered ‘should I drive to Whitehorse in January’ into my search engine. I found a blog which heartily discouraged the concept, citing the risk of imminent death as a possible barrier to such an adventure (in retrospect, this was ridiculous).  I queried the cost of u-hauls, and of loading my personal effects on an airplane.  I looked at the charges for shipping my vehicle, and for sending it up by rail.

In the end, I contacted a moving company and they came and loaded our personal belongings onto a truck.  They told me they were going to wait until other people added to the load to make it economical.  ‘It might take a month or two,’ they said.  My best friend and I packed up boxes with the boys’ old report cards, drawings and photographs, along with our winter clothes, dressers and the odd kitchen appliance.  Nervously, I watched our history load onto a truck willing that I would see it again in the Northwest. I would buy new furniture and essentials in Whitehorse, and figure out the transportation of my vehicle in the summer, when conditions were better.

Hours later, we left for Ottawa with our two cats, both of whom were overweight for carry-on, but whom Air North assured me would be accommodated under our seats on the flight through Yellowknife.  My mother met us in Ottawa, and on the morning of our flight she drove my truck to the airport and hugged us goodbye, before taking it back to her home in Northern Ontario.

My mother is a fortress.

In those moments I realized that I had bravely overcome the terrifying logistics of a move across Canada, and it was really rather uncomplicated.

As we worked our way through security I pretended that the load of the two giant felines in carry-on cages was lighter than it was.  Our biggest challenge came when we were advised that we had to cart them through the x-ray machine without the carriers.  My eldest son put on his brave face and carried the lighter cat through in his arms, while I struggled with the other.  No problems, no questions, no worries.

With the cats under the seats in front of us, the boys watching movies at my side, and a copy of Yukon, North of Ordinary on my lap, our little family moved to Whitehorse during that flight.  By the time we landed at the Erik Nielsen Airport we were citizens of the Yukon, and my opportunity met us at the gate.

Three weeks later, our belongings arrived from Ontario.

How did I move from Ontario to the Yukon?

On a plane.

Just like that.

(I would like to thank Air North, Yukon’s Airline, for their consistently wonderful service.  Their regular flight between Ottawa and Whitehorse has made me all the more brave.


So Nice to Come Home To

ssklondikeSomewhere in my CD collection there is a photo of the S.S. Klondike holding up two young men in tuxedos and a brunette in a long black dress.

I saw the Peters Drury Trio in Toronto at a showcasing event in 2002.  A month later, I placed a call to their agent to enquire about performance rates.  These young jazz artists, and their agent mother, quickly became my first link to the far and wild that is the Yukon.  I could close my eyes and hear Caroline Drury and Jesse Peters crooning Cole Porter standards by a crackling fire and I was transported.  For years, I listened to this album as I drove up and down highways throughout Ontario and imagining how nice it might be to come home to a place equally charmed with sternwheelers as it is with the smell of woodsmoke. I will admit that I began to identify the Yukon as a jazz bar decorated like an old mining saloon…

My first impressions of the land of the midnight sun were largely fuelled by the people I encountered in the Canadian performing arts industry.  So much of my notions of the cultural fabric of our country have been shaped by musicians throughout the years.  Nova Scotia was always an amalgam of coal mining  choirs and alternative rock, the Prairies became a fabric of country and roots music, Quebec to me was a beautiful a cappella group and avant-garde new musicians, and British Columbia was a warm and comfortable folk musician singing about a bar he once performed in.  The north was manifested in throat singing and storytelling, but then one day there were these three teenagers on a boat, and the Yukon became all about jazz.

And I have always had such a weak spot for jazz.

I drove past the S.S. Klondike this morning and noticed that the Yukon River is still open.  This is of critical importance to me.  Newcomers to the Yukon are considered ‘cheechako’ until they have seen the river freeze and thaw twice.  Buried in a drawer is a lease agreement with my name on it for my house.  It is dated January 1, 2015.  I have been here for one year today, and am still awaiting my first freeze up.  It seems I will be cheechako a little longer.

Jazz is alive and well in the Yukon, I have not been disappointed.  Over the past year, I have discovered that the Yukon truly is ‘So Nice to Come Home To.’  A community of creators has wrapped around me like a scarf and encouraged me to start writing again, so I’ve dusted off my Merriam-Webster and determined to share my experiences from my unique cheechako-mom perspective.

But first, I need to turn up the music and pour myself a glass of wine.

(The Peters Drury Album is called Backbeat, this and their two other albums are available for download on iTunes).