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The last post

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Here it is. I'm dead, and this is my last post to my blog. In advance, I asked that once my body finally shut down from the punishments of my cancer, then my family and friends publish this prepared message I wrote—the first part of the process of turning this from an active website to an archive.

If you knew me at all in real life, you probably heard the news already from another source, but however you found out, consider this a confirmation: I was born on June 30, 1969 in Vancouver, Canada, and I died in Burnaby on May 3, 2011, age 41, of complications from stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer. We all knew this was coming.

That includes my family and friends, and my parents Hilkka and Juergen Karl. My daughters Lauren, age 11, and Marina, who's 13, have known as much as we could tell them since I first found I had cancer. It's become part of their lives, alas.


Of course it includes my wife Airdrie (née Hislop). Both born in Metro Vancouver, we graduated from different high schools in 1986 and studied Biology at UBC, where we met in '88. At a summer job working as park naturalists that year, I flipped the canoe Air and I were paddling and we had to push it to shore.

We shared some classes, then lost touch. But a few years later, in 1994, I was still working on campus. Airdrie spotted my name and wrote me a letter—yes! paper!—and eventually (I was trying to be a full-time musician, so chaos was about) I wrote her back. From such seeds a garden blooms: it was March '94, and by August '95 we were married. I have never had second thoughts, because we have always been good together, through worse and bad and good and great.

However, I didn't think our time together would be so short: 23 years from our first meeting (at Kanaka Creek Regional Park, I'm pretty sure) until I died? Not enough. Not nearly enough.

What was at the end

I haven't gone to a better place, or a worse one. I haven't gone anyplace, because Derek doesn't exist anymore. As soon as my body stopped functioning, and the neurons in my brain ceased firing, I made a remarkable transformation: from a living organism to a corpse, like a flower or a mouse that didn't make it through a particularly frosty night. The evidence is clear that once I died, it was over.

So I was unafraid of death—of the moment itself—and of what came afterwards, which was (and is) nothing. As I did all along, I remained somewhat afraid of the process of dying, of increasing weakness and fatigue, of pain, of becoming less and less of myself as I got there. I was lucky that my mental faculties were mostly unaffected over the months and years before the end, and there was no sign of cancer in my brain—as far as I or anyone else knew.

As a kid, when I first learned enough subtraction, I figured out how old I would be in the momentous year 2000. The answer was 31, which seemed pretty old. Indeed, by the time I was 31 I was married and had two daughters, and I was working as a technical writer and web guy in the computer industry. Pretty grown up, I guess.

Yet there was much more to come. I had yet to start this blog, which recently turned 10 years old. I wasn't yet back playing drums with my band, nor was I a podcaster (since there was no podcasting, nor an iPod for that matter). In techie land, Google was fresh and new, Apple remained "beleaguered," Microsoft was large and in charge, and Facebook and Twitter were several years from existing at all. The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity were three years away from launch, while the Cassini-Huygens probe was not quite half-way to Saturn. The human genome hadn't quite been mapped yet.

The World Trade Center towers still stood in New York City. Jean Chrétien remained Prime Minister of Canada, Bill Clinton President of the U.S.A., and Tony Blair Prime Minister of the U.K.—while Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Kim Jong-Il, Ben Ali, and Moammar Qaddafi held power in Iraq, Egypt, North Korea, Tunisia, and Libya.

In my family in 2000, my cousin wouldn't have a baby for another four years. My other cousin was early in her relationship with the man who is now her husband. Sonia, with whom my mother had been lifelong friends (ever since they were both nine), was still alive. So was my Oma, my father's mom, who was then 90 years old. Neither my wife nor I had ever needed long-term hospitalization—not yet. Neither of our children was out of diapers, let alone taking photographs, writing stories, riding bikes and horses, posting on Facebook, or outgrowing her mother's shoe size. We didn't have a dog.

And I didn't have cancer. I had no idea I would get it, certainly not in the next decade, or that it would kill me.

Missing out

Why do I mention all this stuff? Because I've come to realize that, at any time, I can lament what I will never know, yet still not regret what got me where I am. I could have died in 2000 (at an "old" 31) and been happy with my life: my amazing wife, my great kids, a fun job, and hobbies I enjoyed. But I would have missed out on a lot of things.

And many things will now happen without me. As I wrote this, I hardly knew what most of them could even be. What will the world be like as soon as 2021, or as late as 2060, when I would have been 91, the age my Oma reached? What new will we know? How will countries and people have changed? How will we communicate and move around? Whom will we admire, or despise?

What will my wife Air be doing? My daughters Marina and Lolo? What will they have studied, how will they spend their time and earn a living? Will my kids have children of their own? Grandchildren? Will there be parts of their lives I'd find hard to comprehend right now?

What to know, now that I'm dead

There can't be answers today. While I was still alive writing this, I was sad to know I'll miss these things—not because I won't be able to witness them, but because Air, Marina, and Lauren won't have me there to support their efforts.

It turns out that no one can imagine what's really coming in our lives. We can plan, and do what we enjoy, but we can't expect our plans to work out. Some of them might, while most probably won't. Inventions and ideas will appear, and events will occur, that we could never foresee. That's neither bad nor good, but it is real.

I think and hope that's what my daughters can take from my disease and death. And that my wonderful, amazing wife Airdrie can see too. Not that they could die any day, but that they should pursue what they enjoy, and what stimulates their minds, as much as possible—so they can be ready for opportunities, as well as not disappointed when things go sideways, as they inevitably do.

I've also been lucky. I've never had to wonder where my next meal will come from. I've never feared that a foreign army will come in the night with machetes or machine guns to kill or injure my family. I've never had to run for my life (something I could never do now anyway). Sadly, these are things some people have to do every day right now.

A wondrous place

The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place. There is always more to find out. I don't look back and regret anything, and I hope my family can find a way to do the same.

What is true is that I loved them. Lauren and Marina, as you mature and become yourselves over the years, know that I loved you and did my best to be a good father.

Airdrie, you were my best friend and my closest connection. I don't know what we'd have been like without each other, but I think the world would be a poorer place. I loved you deeply, I loved you, I loved you, I loved you.


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My friend Jean-Hugues discovered he had the same cancer I do at the same time in 2007, in Paris, France, where he lives. He and his wife Laurence found this blog, and together we made our way through treatment in part by sending messages back and forth online.

But he got better. His treatment worked. He was supposed to visit this past December but was trapped in Europe by snow. Yesterday he finally made it for his first visit to the Pacific coast, staying at the nearby Hilton. I am much weaker now, but strong enough for him to sit at my bedside while we talked (well, I rasped at least).

He has spent these glorious Vancouver spring days traversing the city, and he showed me photos. My wife and kids are pleased he could visit too, visions of future trips to Paris drifting through their imaginations.

Today my mother made Easter dinner for 19 (!) people. She and my dad live next door, so after Jean-Hugues and I spent an hour or so discussing his day, we managed to join the party, and of course he could stay much longer than I could. While his English is excellent, he enjoyed speaking French with my uncle and cousins too.

I can still hear laughing through the duplex wall. I'm amazed JH would take time and spend money to see me, or that everything could come together as it has.

But it is our last chance, because it's my last chance, my last Easter, my final spring.

His flight leaves tomorrow. My father will drive him to the airport. It was brief but well worthwhile.

Diet Cherry CokeNow that we have the trivia out of the way, I'll get to what you really want to know: what's the situation with the Diet Cherry Coke and Easy Cheese?

In short, you guys are great. I've had so many friends drop by with a supply of one or the other or both, we're getting nicely stocked up. (If it was in the evening or nighttime, I either missed you or was in pretty sad shape—sorry Boris and Rachael.) The Easy Cheese has made a good snack on crackers or toast, and actually tastes more like cheese than I remember. We're building a little wall of the cans in one of our cupboards.

The Diet Cherry Coke situation is even better. Being a drink, we go through it faster, but people are delivering it at such a rate that there's no shortage. And just as I remember, I really, really, really like it. It has, in fact, replaced coffee and in my diet, since even first thing in the morning I'd rather have the nice cold bite of a fresh can of Diet Cherry Coke than a cuppa joe.

In my correspondence with the Diet Coke folks (see below), I have also found out the big secret. Yes! The answer is here! Why do they not sell Diet Cherry Coke in Canada? Is it a grand conspiracy, a secret plan to keep this delicious beverage from us, a sub rosa war with Canada Dry and Orange Crush? Here's what Teresa from Coke wrote:

There does seem to be a very loyal following for the beverage here in Canada, though demand is not high enough for us to produce it for the Canadian market.

Sigh. Simple market supply and demand. There are lots of people like me who enjoy Diet Cherry Coke (and Cherry Coke), some quite enthusiastically—but not enough to make and sell it here. Damn, I wish it were something more sinister.

Coke has scheduled April 19 (next week) for their "care package" of Diet Cherry Coke products to arrive at my house via FedEx Ground, so I'll be interested to see what that includes. But if you've been planning to bring some cans of Diet Cherry Coke cross-border for poor cancer-riddled me (oh, as well as Easy Cheese), then keep it comin'. No one will be manufacturing it to sell here anytime soon.

On the gravel road

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pavement-ends-closeupI'm at the point with my cancer that the car has finally bumped down off the pavement and we're driving on gravel now. What I mean is, the end of the road is somewhere up ahead, not too far, and I'm not going back to smooth speedy travel, ever. To keep moving at a reasonable pace, I have to pay more attention to details, and a lot of stuff I previously took for granted requires effort—mine or someone else's. This has happened faster than I expected, but life often does.

Several doctors have helped me manage my symptoms, and the celiac block procedure I had last weeks seems to have helped with abdominal pain, for one thing. While my chest cough persists, it is not from fluid building up in my lungs. I am treating the cough, most often at night, with a drug that dries tissues out locally so I can more easily find a comfortable sleeping position. The Depends are doing their job too.

Both of my feet and lower legs are swollen, but that appears to be a regular consequence of my metabolism becoming wonky as the tumours interfere with my various bodily systems. The treatment? Elevate my feet, and wear super-tight compression stockings (I'll get thigh-high ones fitted in the next few days, ooh-la-la). I remain stupefyingly tired, especially on days like today when I decide not to take Ritalin to perk me up.

None of these symptoms will get much better. The only one that could is my voice, which has been nothing but a whisper for two months, but which I hope Dr. Anderson will inject or spray on April 25, and perhaps I'll be able to speak with my vocal cords again.

Real plans, for real. No really.

All the rest means that my wife Air and I are making plans, real plans, about what the next few weeks and months are going to look like. I am on the full B.C. Palliative Care benefits program—British Columbia seems to be in good stead when it comes to this somewhat uncomfortable specialty.

I have signed the official B.C. Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) form, so if I have a heart attack or other really drastic event, then my medical team—plus first responders and hospital staff—know that I don't have long to live, and don't want any overly-heroic treatments to keep me alive at any cost. In particular, there's no point in having me on a ventilator in intensive care when that space could go to someone who might make a full recovery and live a long life.

Emily the Burnaby Health Nurse comes again tomorrow to see what I might need here at home, so that I can stay as long as possible—and to determine who else on her team might be best to help my family and me figure that out. While Burnaby Hospital's Palliative Care ward is apparently extremely nice, and just down the hill, I'm not planning to go there.

Rather, we're physically preparing our house for me to live my last weeks to months here, and likely for me to die here too. Burnaby Health will even bring in a fully-adjustable hospital bed so I can set myself up comfortably.

Being the Decider

I may sound a little cold and matter-of-fact right now, but in truth it's surprisingly satisfying, even a bit joyful, for Air and me to be able to make decisions about how my life will end—and to know that these decisions will take effect not in some abstract future, but soon.

Personally I don't expect to live until autumn, and I don't know if I'll get very far into summer. But if that's the way it happens, I'd like to die during a beautiful Vancouver summer rather than one of our grimmer grey seasons. Once I'm dead there'll be no further experiences, so I may as well face a lovely city in the sunshine beforehand if I get the chance.

At the moment none of my doctors sees any particular single organ or physiological system as a big scary killer lurking to take me down suddenly, or with a series of cascading problems. More likely I'll continue to become weaker and more tired, and I may need some help breathing later. Then, eventually, weeks or a few months down this gravel road, I'll simply shut down, and I'll die. There won't be a Derek anymore.

That sounds like a decent way to go.

So much for being diaper-free

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Back in 2001, when my youngest daughter toilet-trained herself at 18 months of age, I thought we'd be a household free of diapers for decades to come. Sure, there'd be (and has been) the occasional night of babysitting, but we figured we wouldn't be buying any more diapers until any grandchildren came along.

Well, maybe not so much. (Some text below might be Too Much Information, just to warn you.) It's been well over a year since I started wearing small protective pads to avoid accidents, especially at night, but a couple of very close calls last week have demanded that, at night, I wear a full set of Depend adult diapers. Yes, the same kind Betty White keeps making jokes about, and that prompted the hilarious "Oops! I Crapped My Pants!" faux-ads on Saturday Night Live a few years ago—no, the video won't play outside the U.S.

They're essentially the same as the diapers my kids used to wear a decade ago, merely a lot bigger, and without the cutesy girl patterns and prints. The manufacturer, Kimberly-Clark, also makes Huggies, which is only sensible. But man, they're expensive! Once I sort out the proper size, we'll probably purchase them at Costco, where they work out to about a buck apiece.

I thought that if I ever needed Depends, then admitting it would be humiliating for me. But after almost five years of cancer treatment, including radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, vomiting, blood, bodily fluids of many others sorts, and an ileostomy, it's just "meh." My wife Air and I were in the car last week, and I simply said to her, "I need to buy some Depends." She went and picked up a package for me soon after.

Our friends Jen, Neil, and their new baby Isaac dropped by yesterday for a nice long visit. Holding a sleeping newborn remains a great way to bring down my stress levels. Anyway, when we arranged the visit, my first thought was, "Hey, now we'll have two guys in the house with diapers."

It's not really funny, but it was true.

As my health has taken a sudden decline, some of you (thanks especially to my parents, my in-laws, and Beth) have offered to cook us food that we can freeze and reheat, and that has been quite helpful. But not everyone likes to cook, yet many of you still want to give me a hand somehow. So here's a suggestion you might not have thought of. (It only hit me last night.)

UPDATE: It turns out that Coca-Cola U.S.A. found this post, and will be sending me "a small supply" (I.e. not a semi truck) of Diet Cherry Coke. Wow! Thanks to them.

UPDATE 2: Of course my network of friends is even faster. Sylvia dropped by today with both Diet Cherry Coke and Easy Cheese, courtesy of her visiting uncle. Another thanks!

My family and I live in Vancouver. When we travel to the U.S., we often pick up a couple of things that are simply unavailable here. One is Diet Cherry Coke. No, nothing weird, none of the bizarre combinations of flavours that the soda companies keep experimenting with. Simple: Diet. Cherry. Coke. Like this:

Diet Cherry Coke, nectar of the gods

I have never figured out why this wonderful drink, easily available just across the border in Blaine, Washington, has never been for sale in B.C.

The second is a true guilty pleasure. It's Kraft Easy Cheese, which sprays out of a can onto your cracker or other eating surface:

Easy Squeeze Cheese 1

In the 1970s, we could buy something similar here, but I haven't seen it in a Canadian grocery store in decades. No particular flavour (Cheddar, Sharp Cheddar, whatever) is my favourite, it's the squeeze-cheese experience that I enjoy.

So if you're a Vancouverite travelling to the U.S.A., or you're a U.S. resident visiting Vancouver, I'd be happy to reimburse you for the cost of some Diet Cherry Coke, some Kraft Easy Cheese, or both.

And if you say that those are horrible food-like substances that will give me cancer, I will just laugh and laugh.

Better when busy

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It was shockingly quiet here in the house all week, just me and Lucy the dog. I hardly went out, since I was pretty ill most of the time. My parents dropped by to check on me, walk the dog, and drop off food from time to time. But I spent the week—largely feeling content and by my own choice—mostly alone.

This afternoon my wife and two daughters returned from Victoria, where she had been attending a conference, pulling up in the car close to 3 p.m.

The transformation was instantaneous. Kids arguing, laundry flying, puppy barking, snacks inhaled, sudden clutter making magical appearances here and there. Air and I exchanged a few glances: she'd been dealing with this type of chaos by herself for six days and nights.

I had woken up mysteriously early this morning, and Air was tired after an early morning and the drive and ferry, so we crashed out for a nap while the kids played and watched TV. Despite the continued noise (even Lucy decided to chomp on a squeaky toy while lying between us), I had a smile on my face. It's better when the house is full.

I'm sure I'll tire of the hullabaloo soon enough, but not today.

My living wake

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A "Living Wake" for Derek K. MillerA dying man can wish for many things, but one of them might be to have a party with many family and friends: like a funeral, memorial, or wake, but actually being able to be there, before he dies. That's exactly what my wife Air put together for me a couple of nights ago, on March 3. We had a "living wake" at the newly-renovated Waldorf Hotel in East Vancouver, with a couple of hundred of the people in our lives joining us for a great Lebanese buffet, lots of mingling and chatting, and some fine live rock-n-roll music from my old bandmates and me, as well as my friends in Vancouver's legendary group Odds.

We couldn't throw the invitations wide open because fire regulations restricted how many people were allowed in the grand tiki-themed room in the Waldorf's basement—and we wanted to make sure that the people who came really were those I knew, and didn't get crowded out. After all, it was a wake, not just a party. Luckily, we didn't have very many uninvited door-crashers (and a few guests missed out because of flu and other illness), so we stayed within the limit, and it all worked out.

A dress-up crowd

Amazingly, in fact, few people I wished I could have invited if I'd had contact info, and others I never expected to make it, showed up anyway. Some I hadn't seen in many years, or came from very far away, so that was a nice bonus too. There were family members I've known my whole life, and friends I've had for 10, 20, even close to 30 years. I think I had a chance to say hi to almost everyone. My apologies to the few of you I missed.

Most of them had their pictures taken in the photo booth set up by the awesome Miranda and Reilly of Blue Olive Photography. There are other pictures appearing on Flickr, YouTube, and elsewhere (such as blog posts) with the tag penmachine, with more to come (if you have any from the event, please use that tag yourself). You can also tag pictures and videos with my name on Facebook. We had this slideshow projected on the wall all night too:

I was shocked at how well I survived the evening. I did plan carefully: I took the right combination of medications at the right times, napped in the afternoon, avoided eating too much during the day, and simply ran on endorphins until almost the very end of the evening. During dinner I went upstairs and ate in the hotel room we booked, lying on the bed, to recover some energy. Then, after far more stints on the drums than I thought I'd be able to tolerate, I finally burned out and announced to everyone that I needed to lie down, then disappeared to let them wind things down. I paid for it afterwards, and all the next day, but it was entirely worth it.

Speaking of that announcement, yes, I still had (and have) complete laryngitis. Through the PA system, I rasped out a very few words, sounding like Christian Bale's Batman in The Dark Knight. Out on the loudness of the floor, I was completely inaudible unless I whispered directly into people's ears. I sometimes resorted to typing stuff out on my iPhone for them to read. It was bizarre and frustrating, but somehow appropriate—it was like being a speechless ghost, drifting in the semi-background at my own wake. It also kept anyone from trying to monopolize my time, since I couldn't engage in any serious conversation.

The thank-you brigade

Others made up for it. My wife Air coordinated the evening (and avoided crying, somehow), the guys in the band cracked the usual jokes, and there were four extremely short and touching speeches from those close to me: my friends Tara, Dennis, and Johan, and my (pregnant!) cousin Tarya (MP3 files, between 1 and 4 minutes each). We had tremendous help from my parents Hilkka and Karl (he made the slideshow too), our friend Steven, current and former members of The Neurotics and other bands I've been in, Pat and Craig and Doug from the Odds, the staff at the Waldorf, and our kids Marina and Lolo, who couldn't come because of B.C.'s stupid liquor laws, but who kept themselves and another friend's daughter entertained at home until we got back late.

My biggest thanks, of course, go to Air. It was all her idea, and her work that made my living wake happen. She has kept our family going through my four-plus years of cancer, through surgeries and fear and chemotherapy and a prognosis of death. She made this party happen now, while I could enjoy it and join my friends and family, instead of after I die when I can't. We've been married more than 15 years, and I've said before: that is not nearly enough.

Thank you, too, to all of you guests who could come. I'll remember it my whole life. I hope the rest of you will remember it even longer.

I am the father of a teenager

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Birthday girl in action. on TwitpicToday, Valentine's Day, is my daughter Marina's birthday, and this year she turned 13. She had a party and a sleepover with some friends on the weekend, and today she set up a Facebook account—she herself wanted to wait until it was legitimate to do, unlike every other pre-teen in the world who simply lies about his or her birthdate to join early.

If you know her and you're on Facebook, she'll probably track you down and send a friend request. We've warned her to keep an eye out for spammy links and time-sucking apps. Some parents are still paranoid about letting their kids on Facebook at all, but I think most of those concerns (especially the ones about predatory adults lurking about) are overblown. Children need to learn how to be smart there, just as they do in other contexts.

Marina already has a smartphone, a Twitter account, a blog, and email—and the main thing we've had to help her with is the complexity of relationships with friends online, and how easily misunderstandings can escalate. That's an issue teenagers and their parents have to face offline too, and is nothing new.

I first went online around the same age, though "online" was rather different at the turn of the 1980s. I learned some hard social lessons, but I gained far more. I wouldn't be who I am today without nearly 30 years of electronic interactions.

It is astonishing that my wife Air and are the parents of a teenaged girl, however. No amount of time online really readies you for that.

Happy birthday, Marina. Welcome to the 500-million-strong club.

My grandparents at the first houseBy all accounts, my maternal grandparents were a vibrant and social couple, pillars of Vancouver's substantial Finnish immigrant community in the middle of the 20th century. By the time I was born in 1969, they had reached retirement age, and I never knew them as young, healthy people. We lived next door, and as I got older I knew them as quiet as they aged and became ill, with few friends. They didn't travel much—a few trips to Reno in my childhood—nor did they go out or have parties, other than family gatherings.

After talking with parents, aunt and uncle, and cousins, I think a big part of that change was pride. My grandfather, a carpenter by trade, also led a Finnish choir. As he became less firm, he could neither do his old work nor sing the way he used to. I think he resented that. He did not want his friends and their families to see him become old. So he slowly withdrew, until he no longer kept in touch with most of them.

Finns are often stereotyped as extremely reticent and reserved, and like many stereotypes, it emerges from the truth. (There's an old joke: a Swede and a Finn go together to a bar. "Cheers," says the Swede as they raise their glasses. "Did we come to talk or drink?" replies the Finn.) My grandpa, who came to Canada in the 1920s, was certainly like that when I knew him decades later.

I also know how he felt. Four years after developing cancer, I'm tired, weak, and in pain. I've lost close to 50 pounds. I spend a lot of time in the bathroom, and I take morphine daily. I'm dying, and I know it. While I'm only 41, I'm like an old man, and I'm often by myself, frequently by choice.

There's a big difference, however. My grandparents both died in the early '90s. Neither had ever used email or anything related to the Internet. Conversely, I've been involved in some sort of online social networking since my BBS days almost 30 years ago. Email, this blog, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr—they're a bigger part of my daily life than the telephone or television.

So even when I'm here, alone with the dog, somewhat withdrawn, as on this grim rainy Vancouver Friday, I'm not really alone. People like you read what I write, and you respond. I keep track of my friends and acquaintances, and some rare days I know more about what's been going on in the lives of friends in Melbourne or Ottawa than with my parents next door (though my dad's on Facebook and has a blog too). I can simply lurk and feel part of people's days, or I can inject the occasional reply or snarky comment, depending on how I feel.

What I do feel is connected, in a way my grandparents didn't at the ends of their lives. Unfortunately, my grandma spent her last years in a care home, in the final stages of Parkinson's disease, not understanding much of her surroundings, and often reverting to memories of her youth in Finland. My grandpa, though, was pretty sharp until very near his death, when his lungs gave out on him.

I think grandpa would have benefited from something like Facebook or Twitter—some means to stay plugged in with his family and friends, and their families and friends. It's a new thing in our time, this ability to dip into and out of the lives of people we know—if we choose—to remain the social people we want to be, even if our bodies won't let us do it so easily or frequently face-to-face anymore.

Cheers, folks. I can't drink much now, but I can still talk.

Eleven years old

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My younger daughter Lolo turned 11 today. She shares her birthday with my cousin Tarya, as well as Wayne Gretzky, Ellen DeGeneres, and Australia.

The year I was 11, back in 1980–81, the Iran-Iraq War began, The Empire Strikes Back ruled the box office, Ronald Reagan became U.S. President, the Space Shuttle Columbia made the first-ever orbital shuttle flight, John Lennon was shot dead (and Reagan and Pope John Paul II nearly so), Terry Fox died, Voyager I passed Saturn, Walter Cronkite retired, AC/DC released Back in Black, and "O Canada" officially became our national anthem. I was attending the same elementary school Lolo does now, and my family got our first personal computer, a borrowed TRS-80 Model I with 4 KB of RAM and cassette-tape storage.

Will this be as momentous a year? No one knows yet. Sadly, though, it is unlikely I'll live to see Lolo's next birthday in 2012.

Happy birthday, not-so-little one.

Yesterday I met my friend Bill for lunch, and as we were ending our visit, he half-jokingly pledged that, after I die, one way he will honour me is to avoid typing two spaces after a period in his writing. I posted that to Twitter and Facebook, and was surprised at how many people report still using two spaces after sentence-ending punctuation, something that is typographically wrong. Coincidentally, the same topic showed up at Slate and at Andrew Sullivan's blog too.

If you're a convinced two-spacer, please pick up any professionally-typeset publication: a book, a magazine, or a newspaper. Here, for instance, are bits from Yann Martel's award-winning novel Life of Pi (left) and an article from this month's Marie Claire magazine:

Page from Life of Pi Page from Marie Claire

Look at the end of each sentence: one space after a question mark, period, or other sentence-ending punctuation. No multiple spaces anywhere. So, unless you handle nothing but personal correspondence all day long, chances are that the vast majority of everything you read each day, prepared by people whose job it is to know what they're doing, uses single spaces. And, chances are—even if you use two spaces in your own writing—you've never noticed the difference in publications or thought, "Gee, I wish there was more space after those periods."

I never took typing lessons, and always modeled my typing (I've typed pretty much every day for more than 30 years) on what I saw in print. So when I heard that typing students were compelled to use two spaces, I thought, Why the hell would you do that? And while people who do it have given me all sorts of reasons (beyond, "that's what my typing teacher demanded"), none of them refutes these six reasons why you should only ever use one space:

  1. The most common explanation for why two spaces were introduced after the end of a sentence is because of the fixed-width characters on typewriters, where they supposedly helped legibility. (I don't personally think so, but it's a reasonable argument.) However, few people today use fixed (a.k.a. monospaced) fonts: we type with proportional characters on our computers, and typographers long ago established that single spaces work better for proportional type. By the way, I'm typing this in a fixed-width font in my text editor, and I still don't find two spaces necessary or helpful.

  2. As I've already noted twice, single spaces are what professionals use. You don't always have to follow authority, but the job of a typographer or page designer is to make words as clear, legible, and pleasant to read as possible. None of them use two spaces to do so. There are plenty of circumstances in life where large numbers of people, perhaps the majority, understand and do things the wrong way. Typing two spaces because it's "more professional"—like thinking that the Coriolis effect applies to bathtubs, or avoiding sleeping with a running electric fan because you might die, or writing email messages with lots of different fonts and colours—is a misconception and a mistake.

  3. Even if you're laying out your own text in a word processor or page design program, single spaces automatically make text flow better on the page. That's because more than one space often creates rivers of whitespace that unconsciously distract your readers, reducing comprehension and slowing down their reading.

  4. If you're publishing text on a web page—on a blog or wiki, in comments, on Facebook, or elsewhere—web browsers automatically convert any multiple spaces into a single space, according to the HTML standard. There are many reasons for that, both technical and historical, but the end result is that typing two or more spaces is simply wasted effort on the Web, because readers won't even see that you've tried. (Okay, you could take this behaviour as, "yay, I can type the way I want," but that's like never learning to spell because your word processor has a spell checker: you're asking for trouble when the machine isn't there to help.)

  5. In my long experience as an editor, the simple fact is that in documents from two-spacers, sometimes there are two spaces after a sentence; sometimes there are three or four, or even more; sometimes one. No one who prefers to type two spaces after sentences, it seems, can actually make it happen regularly in real life. Every document I get from them that's more than a paragraph or two long has inconsistent spacing. I don't know if that's because people hold down the space bar too long so it repeats, or sometimes only hit it once instead of twice, or if the extra spaces end up migrating around as writers copy and paste sentences and phrases in their document. It doesn't matter. I've learned that the first step I must take with any manuscript is to search and replace multiple spaces with a single space. The text I receive is always a mess in that respect, and the simplest way to clean it up is to purge multiple spaces, wherever they are.

  6. I'm asking you to do it. This topic originally arose because Bill thought (correctly) that I'd appreciate his changing how he types spaces more than, say, bringing flowers to my memorial service, or myriad other ways people might pay their respects to me when I die. Better yet, you can make the change now, so I'll appreciate it while I'm still alive! That's right, I'm playing the cancer card and giving you a guilt trip about typing two spaces. If I'm willing to do that, this must be pretty important to me, right?

Since words have been my living and my interest for so long, I have plenty of staunch opinions about other matters of English grammar, style, and punctuation—from different types of dashes to the serial comma, from split infinitives to positioning prepositions. However, in most cases, I simply prefer that you be consistent, even if you choose differently than I would.

For me, typing two spaces after a period is a mistake. It's like smoking: an unfortunate bad habit. While I'm glad it doesn't have such drastic health consequences, it's still a pity so many people learned the practice as kids and continue to follow it when there are many good reasons to stop.

Childhood obsessions

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Millennium Falcon Model 01While among adults, obsessions with particular types of objects are usually seen as disorders—and thus potential pitches for TLC television shows—for kids it's quite normal to develop (temporary) passions for things. Sometimes strange ones.

My younger daughter Lolo, for instance, collected cellular phones for a long time. Not functioning ones, mind you: they could be toys, or store demo mockups, or old phones that grownups had deactivated upon upgrading. They could make noise and flash lights, or just sit there. It didn't matter. She had them (still has them, actually) in drawers, in purses, in pockets, on shelves. Well over a dozen of them. But since she got herself a real functioning phone (a Palm Pre) and an iPod Touch last year, her interest in fake and non-functioning phones has waned.

However, since her tenth birthday last year, she's become a little fixated on something else: cash registers. She's loved playing "store" since she was quite little, and for years has had various toy registers and similar machines around her room. But she's moved beyond that now, and since she's ten and knows her way around the Internet, she has been searching Craigslist periodically for used cash registers in the Vancouver area. They're not cheap, at least not for a good one, so she's saving up her allowance.

Today, my friend Tara brought her daughter Simone, who's almost three, to visit. Simone is currently infatuated with vacuum cleaners and ceiling fans. She repeatedly asked me where our vacuum cleaner was, and what colour our fan is. When we dropped next door to visit my parents, she asked the same thing. She also told me about the many ceiling fans at Ikea, and that she had one in her bedroom during a recent vacation to Mexico, which was very exciting. (Having the fan, I mean. I guess the vacation was probably exciting too.)

Like many young boys, back in the '70s my obsessions were dinosaurs and Star Wars. And my kids know it: this past Christmas, my older daughter Marina found me a very cool cutaway book explaining the inner workings of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon. I read it cover to cover in one sitting.

Still a great little car

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Mazda3 front endIt's now been more than six months since my wife Air replaced our Toyota Echo with a much jazzier Mazda3 GT sedan. As it should be, the Mazda is a better car in every respect. (The best thing? Heated seats.)

Back in the '70s, the first Mazda I remember noticing was the GLC, known as the Familia in most of the world. The Mazda3 is a direct descendant of the GLC—through other names such as 323 and Protegé. "GLC" itself supposedly stood for "Great Little Car," and the Mazda3 remains that.

The driving position in the Mazda is much sportier than in any of the other cars we looked at, such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. For similar sporty reasons, it's also more difficult to see out the back and side windows than from our Ford Focus station wagon—it's like a cockpit in the Mazda, especially with the aggressive red-and-blue lighting of the instruments.

I also have yet to find anyone else who owns a Mazda3—which turns out to be many people we know—who dislikes it at all. It's not just a great little car, it's a car that seems to inspire loyalty. Our Toyota never really did that, even though we bought it on my birthday in 2004. True, it was a bottom-of-the-line model, but the Echo was simply a car, nothing more.

The Mazda has more personality than that. It's not a true sports car, but it's as close as anything we've ever owned. And it's fun getting it up to speed on a winding road (something we don't get a chance to do very often). But our Echo, the Focus, the Ford Escorts we owned before those, and my old AMC Hornet, Ford Fairmont, and Mercury station wagons never even prompted us to try.

My last year

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It's an odd thing, looking out on what will probably be my last year. On television news shows yesterday, reporters were asking people about their resolutions, their hopes and dreams, their expectations for 2011. If I'd been one of those men on the street (though I wasn't feeling well enough to be on the street), my answer wouldn't have been what the TV crews were expecting.

"Hmm," I'd have said. "I have terminal cancer. So my hopes are that my wife and kids get through this year okay, because I'll likely be dead by the end of it."

Chances are indeed very strong that I won't be alive to write a new year's post in January 2012. The cancer's moving too fast for that. And the past few days, I've really been feeling it, physically. Through our Christmas events, a family holiday in Victoria, and especially yesterday, New Year's Eve, I felt crappy, weak, gassy, in pain.

Now, everyone feels ill from time to time. My wife and daughters were sick too, with my 12-year-old, Marina, even getting a throat infection while we were on Vancouver Island. But what's different when I feel ill is that I always have to wonder: will I get better?

Today I am feeling a lot better, so far, and I hope it persists. I slept in late (a good sign, meaning I didn't wake up early needing morphine), took the dog out in the yard, had some coffee, and now here I am feeling energized to write something, which certainly wasn't true yesterday. Today's plans include taking down the Christmas tree and setting up the massive electric slot-car racetrack my wife bought me, which has been half-assembled for a week.

Eventually, though, I'll get sick and feel bad, and it won't improve—not enough. Part of my mind is always watching out for it. The cough that doesn't subside. The aches that my current medication won't address. I've never been prone to clinical depression, but I also have to keep an eye out for that, because it runs in my family and could generate fatigue and hopelessness too—but it could be treated if I get it.

I'm already considerably weaker than I was for our trip to Disneyland in July, or my jaunt to Gnomedex in August. I've lost a lot of weight, which I'm finding hard to regain, and I find the prospect of driving myself down Interstate 5 for a few hours nearly impossible to imagine.

But, compared to yesterday, when I couldn't see myself going to the grocery store, or walking the dog around the block, or hauling the Christmas decorations downstairs—well, compared to that, I'm much improved. There are little tipping points everywhere, and my family and I never know when I've crossed them permanently. Not yet, anyway.

Low down Yuletide

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I caught some sort of virus earlier this week, and have now passed it on to the rest of my family, so Christmas wasn't as comfortable as I had hoped—not for me on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and not for any of us today now that we all have it. It's not severe, mostly aches and mild fever, but in my already-weakened state I spent a lot of time crashed on the couch. Not to mention vomiting in a parking lot on the way to my in-laws' yesterday.

Despite sucking a bit, it was far from a terrible time, and we did have the warmth of a big crowd at my aunt and uncle's place on Christmas Eve, and our small group with Air's family the next day, plus lots of useful and fun presents. And two turkey dinners.

Having the parties and shopping and craziness be over is good. Air, the girls, the dog, and I are going to do our own thing this week, which should let us recover a bit. I hope I can feel better: I was worried that my zonked-out Christmas state might be semi-permanent. Today I'm slightly improved, so I hope not. Regardless, I am safe and have a great little family, in our home together.

A comfortable and happy Christmas

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Years ago, on Apple's defunct iCards site, I found a photo that remains my favourite image for Christmas Eve:

Winter cabin

I don't know who took it, but I hope that tonight you are as warm and cozy as that picture feels. Christmas Eve is the night that my family has always held our big dinner and celebration, European style, and that will be the case again this evening.

There is also a sad component. Three years ago, on Christmas Eve, my friend Martin died suddenly in his sleep at age 39, so I think of it also as Martin's Eve.

Finally, chances are that tonight will be my last Christmas Eve: in December 2011, my family will gather again for Christmas. But by then, most likely, I'll be dead. I don't want tonight to become a maudlin event because of that, but it is the truth—and at least we all know that now. It's something I've wondered about for three Christmas eves now, and I feel a little relieved that it's become less of a mystery.

Christmas isn't a religious event for me, but a family one. Whatever it is for you, I hope yours is comfortable and happy, like the photo.

Primeval fears

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An old friend came a calling..There's no shortage of coyotes in Greater Vancouver. In our Burnaby neighbourhood, I've seen them regularly for years: they live and hunt in nearby Deer Lake and Burnaby Lake parks, and when I used to come home from band gigs late at night I'd regularly see small packs of them on suburban streets.

When I was a child, my knowledge of coyotes came mostly from Road Runner cartoons, but they have extended their range in North America during the past few decades. Like rats, crows, seagulls, raccoons, and a few other species, they seem to thrive near human habitation, with urban dwellers perhaps even living longer than their rural counterparts. They're common enough now that my kids nicknamed our local park/sledding hill "the Coyote Park" because of warning signs the city posted there.

However, this morning, my mom (who lives next door) spotted a mangy, rough-looking coyote darting across our street in broad daylight. That's unusual and a cause for concern: in urban areas, they are usually nocturnal. But a hungry and ill coyote is more likely to attack pets, small children, or even adult humans.

Our little dog, Lucy, would obviously be a prime target. So from now on this season, we'll have to make sure we don't let her out of the house, even in the yard, by herself—which is too bad, since she does like to run around out there, inside the fence, without us. But I don't think our fence would be much of an impediment to a determined coyote.

The sighting has dredged up primeval worries in me. I feel that I must now bring a big stick, a cane, or another weapon when I walk the dog. No doubt people have felt that need for as long as we've been people.

Sean, Derek, and Paul, musical elvesLast night my friend and former podcast co-host Paul Garay (who plays piano) and his wife Kelly held a little pre-Christmas party at their house in the Silver Ridge neighbourhood of Maple Ridge, near the snowy peaks of Golden Ears east of Vancouver. A few friends and family dropped by, including my pal and bandmate Sean Dillon (guitar), and Paul's cohorts Renée Cook and Steve Bulat (violin and guitar), to add to my slightly mad drumming skillz. My daughters, Paul's children, and other kids dropped in, plus my in-laws (who live down the road) and parents came too.

We planned a Christmas carol jam session in Paul's basement, where he'd set up a drum kit and PA system. Sean brought his Stratocaster and amp, I brought my snare drum and some extra percussion to share around, plus my bass and amp for someone to use.

We called ourselves the Maple Ridge Three, and since it was in Paul Garay's house, the session became "Rated PG with the Maple Ridge Three." For the first few songs, our featured guests Renée brought her violin, and Steve had his acoustic guitar, though we never ended up using it since he took up the Fender bass instead.

The songs

Guess what? You can hear what we played, because I also brought my Zoom H4 audio recorder, which I simply plopped on a shelf and let run for an hour or so. Here's what we hacked together, without any rehearsal, planning, or any real idea of where we were going with the tunes. All are MP3 files you can play on any modern device (composers are in parentheses):

  1. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (Traditional, public domain)* - 4:20, 6.4 MB
  2. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (Johnny Marks) - 5:14, 7.5 MB
  3. "Silver Bells" (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) - 6:47, 9.6 MB
  4. "Secret Agent Man" (Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan) - 2:47, 4.1 MB
  5. "Jingle Bells" (James Pierpoint, now public domain)* - 5:27, 7.8 MB
  6. "Nights on Silver Ridge" (Dillon, Garay, Miller)* - 3:04, 4.5 MB
  7. "Roxanne" (Sting) - 7:16, 10.3 MB
  8. "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" (Bill Withers) - 5:33, 7.9 MB
  9. "The Bed's Too Big Without You" (Sting) - 4:29, 6.4 MB
  10. "One-Minute Coffee Break Blues" (Dillon, Garay, Miller)* - 0:56, 1.6 MB
  11. "The Thrill is Gone" (Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins) - 5:42, 8.1 MB

Sure, we veer away from Christmas tunes pretty quickly, the performances are fairly sloppy (especially vocals, where we forget most of the lyrics), there's occasional blip-bzzt-bzzt crosstalk from a nearby cell phone, and much of the time we're not even sure what song we're playing until we're well into it. But there are some nice moments. I particularly recommend our original jazzy instrumental "Nights on Silver Ridge," our Latin-influenced take on the Police's "Roxanne" (at the end, you can hear Sean call out my parents for their excellent dancing), and Paul's soulful reading of Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone."

The four *asterisked songs are fully free, podsafe, and share-able MP3s using a Creative Commons Attribution license: since they're either public domain or our own compositions, you can do whatever you like with the recordings, as long as you note who wrote and performed them. The other tracks remain someone else's copyright as compositions, so they're in more of a grey area. Enjoy, but please don't try to make money with them or anything.

The musicians

The Maple Ridge Three are:

  • Paul Garay - keyboard (piano, organ, etc.), vocals
  • Sean Dillon - guitar, vocals
  • Derek K. Miller - drums, vocals

Our guests:

  • Renée Cook - violin (tracks 1 and 2)
  • Steve Bulat - electric bass (tracks 3, 4, and 5)
  • Various kids and relatives - tambourine, shakers, cowbell, triangle, background vocals, dancing

Techie nerd details

These recordings are completely live off the floor, in the order we played them, recorded to 320 kbps stereo MP3 using the default equalization on the Zoom H4, which was positioned on a shelf at about head-height for a sitting audience member in Paul's basement.

The only production I did was split the one long MP3 into individual uncompressed AIFF-format song files, trim out in-between chatter using Rogue Amoeba's lovely, minimalist Fission sound editor, and convert them to MP3 again via iTunes. Despite having the live limiter and a low-cut filter running on the H4 recorder, I did have the levels for the built-in stereo microphones set slightly too hot, so there's a bit of distortion here and there.

The band portrait comes courtesy of JibJab's Elf Yourself.

It is time for winter

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I plan to post about non-death, non-cancer things again soon. But first this. My wife Air wrote something amazing on Facebook a couple of days ago:

It will all be OK. No more grueling chemo. Think of a tree in fall—beautiful and full. But then its leaves start to fall down. Trying to tape them back on to extend the tree's beauty is futile. Standing out in the cold and holding them up to the tree is exhausting. It is time for winter. Enjoy each season.

I wrote 35 paragraphs about my prognosis in my recent two posts. She did it better in one.