Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An almost normal life

A young woman sits in the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office. She flips through old magazines full of celebrity diets and recipes for lavish desserts, uninterested.

“OK, Sandra, you can go in now.”

Into the throne room. The palace of no return. Or something like that. Since her bipolar diagnosis (and why is everyone suddenly bipolar? Wasn’t it multiple personality disorder a few years ago?), everything has been turned upside-down.

She is on five different medications, two of them to deal with side effects from the other three. These are (supposedly) working in tandem at relatively low levels which are (supposedly) easier on body and brain. Or at least that’s the theory, until the next one comes along.


“Dr. Turnstile.” (She has never quite gotten used to that name, which made her guffaw the first time she heard it.)

“So how are we doing these days.”

Not a question, but a statement, always in the plural.

“Oh, we’re. .  . just fine. But to tell you the truth, doctor, it could be better.”

“Feeling a touch of depression lately?” (He picks up his clipboard and begins to make notes.

“A touch. It’s been. . .I don’t know. Remember I told you about my brother?”

”The one who got married last year.”

“No, the other one. I mean. . .”

“Refresh my memory.”

“The one I’ve been talking about for the past five sessions.”

“I detect a note of irritability.” He makes another note.

“Yes, a note. He’s in jail now. Embezzlement. The guy is just too clever for his own good. He’s appealing, of course. I don’t mean that kind of appealing.”


“Never mind, it’s just a lame joke.”

“So apart from your brother going to jail. . . “

“Oh, everything’s just hunky-dory.”

“I detect a note of sarcasm.”

“That’s because I’m lying. Everything isn’t hunky-dory. You remember my boy friend, Robert –“

“The accountant."

“Lawyer. We broke up. It was. . . I don’t know, pretty bad.”

“Are you taking your medication?

She blinks. “I wouldn’t dream of going off it.”

“Would you like me to raise the doseage on the Seroquel?”


“The Lamotrigine?”


“The lithium?”


“Then let’s discuss non-medication-oriented strategies for managing the mild depression you seem to be experiencing right now.”


“Yes. You remember what I told you in our previous sessions. The principles of cognitive therapy indicate that feelings arise from thoughts. If thoughts are excessively negative, emotions will soon follow suit.”

“I always had a problem with that one.”

“Yes, I realize there has been some resistance to treatment. This must be overcome if you are to become truly well.”

Can I be truly well if I’m bipolar?”

“Not in the usual sense. But in a relative sense, as opposed to experiencing severe episodes, then it’s possible for someone with bipolar disorder to live an almost normal life."

“Almost normal. I see. So nut cases can only get so much better before they hit a wall.”

"Sandra, that is a completely irresponsible statement.”

“But I’m just sayin’. There’s only so far a bipolar can go. The chain is pretty short.”

“That’s why it is so imperative for you to adhere strictly to the principles of cognitive therapy.”

“You see, there’s where I can’t follow you. I find it hard to believe that every emotion is just an offshoot of a thought, and that every thought can be controlled.”

“Maybe not every thought. But people have more control than they think.”

“Do they now. Then I wonder why we even need medication.”

“Sandra, you know why. You have inherited a chemical imbalance of the brain which tends to trigger extreme mood swings, which in turn skews your thoughts toward the negative.”

“But the thoughts lead to the mood swings, don't they? I'm confused."

“There is no need to twist my words around."

“OK then, cognitive therapy. That means I’m supposed to reframe negative events – “

"Now you’re on the right track.”

“. . . Reframe negative events so that they become positive. Let’s see. So breaking up with Robert was really a good thing.”

“Yes, yes – continue – “

“No matter how much I loved him, I – I don’t know. I can’t think of anything.”

“How about this for an alternate hypothesis. There is a possibility that this breakup will free you to explore other possibilities. You’re young. There are other fish in the sea.”

“Other fish.”

“Maybe even better fish. Have you thought of that? And how about your brother? Can we shed a more positive light on his situation, which is, after all, self-created?"

“Oh, maybe he’ll turn his life around in jail. Have a religious conversion, write a book, marry some woman on the outside who’s willing to wait fifteen years until he gets out.”

“Again, the note of sarcasm.”

“Yeah, but I just can’t do this. This cognitive therapy, it implies we can control just about every thought, and thus every feeling that we have. We can just decide.”

“Yes, more than most people realize.”

“Isn’t this creating your own reality? Isn’t that what crazy people do?”

“Sandra, you are deliberately poking holes in the therapeutic process.”

“Poking holes. Doctor, I wish it were as simple as deciding how to feel.”

“But to a large extent, Sandra, it is. Cognitive therapy is, after all, the primary mode of treatment in modern therapeutic practice.”

"Then why have they stopped saying that about being gay?”

He looks disconcerted, puts down his clipboard.

“You know. They used to say being gay was something you could change if you just decided to. You know, made up your mind.”

“That was many years ago.” He shifts in his chair.

“In other words: yes, you might be attracted to men, but that’s a choice. You can choose something else, a girl in other words, any time you want to.”

“That’s very simplistic.” He is turning a shade of pink.

“But according to the principles of cognitive therapy, it should work. You should be able to change your feelings of attraction to men just by changing your thoughts. Am I right?”

”The DSM specifically states – “

“Forget the DSM. Say you’re gay. You want to be straight, or your mother wants you to be straight. Hell, let’s face it, even with the progress we’ve made, it’s still easier to be straight than gay. You don’t have to explain yourself all the time.  So, just change your thoughts about the subject and you won’t have those feelings any more! Think about girls instead. Finito. Problem solved.”

“We aren’t discussing sexual orientation now, Sandra.”

“Yes we are. Haven’t you been listening?”

Dr. Turnstile has the look of a fish sliding down a chute and landing helplessly in the ocean. It is imperative that they change the subject before he loses any more ground.

Sandra fixes him with her incandescent blue eyes.

“It just comes down to a decision. Am I right? But the thing is, doctor – you haven’t made that decision yet. Have you?”

A young woman sits in the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office. She flips through an old magazine with screaming headlines about Lindsay Lohan’s latest arrest on the cover, bored.

“OK, Sandra, you can go in now.”

She tosses the magazine on the table, gets up from her chair and walks into Dr. Turnstile’s office.

It's the great (great, great, great, great) pumpkin!

The most famous man in the giant pumpkin world

(from Macleans Magazine, Oct. 20/11)

The biggest pumpkin in the world this year weighed 1,807 lb. and came from Edinburg, Penn. But its story actually began in 1986 in Windsor, N.S.
Twenty-five years ago, a Windsor man named Howard Dill patented a pumpkin seed variety he named the Atlantic Giant. Dill was a full-time farmer and part-time mad scientist. Home from the evening’s chores, he’d work for hours at the kitchen table, doodling pumpkins and taking notes on his experiments. He spent years secretly perfecting a new line of super heavyweight pumpkins.

What started as a friendly rivalry with other local farmers at the Hants County Exhibition’s annual pumpkin weigh-off became a full-on obsession by 1980. Before the decade was out, Dill set two records for the world’s heaviest pumpkin. But it wasn’t his pumpkins that made Howard Dill the most famous man in the giant pumpkin world. It was the seeds inside them that, combined with his own genetic crossbreeding technique, sprouted the modern quest for the biggest pumpkin of all time.

Today, 20 generations of competitive pumpkins can trace their roots back to the first Atlantic Giants. This fall, more than 10,000 hobbyists in 14 countries entered giant pumpkin contests using seeds derived from Dill’s. “He is the father of the modern pumpkin weigh-off. There’s not one growing now that doesn’t go back to him,” says Dave Stelts, president of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, a nonprofit that sanctions over 80 pumpkin weigh-offs around the world.

Dill died in 2008, but he lived to witness the world’s first 1,600-lb. pumpkin. Now growers are closing in on the 2,000-lb. mark. “He just couldn’t imagine a 1,600-lb. pumpkin. It was beyond him,” says Howard’s son Danny Dill, who runs the Dill Farm with his sister, Diana MacDonald. Today, the farm draws 5,000 tourists a year and sells 2000 lb. of seeds—enough to grow 2.4 million pumpkin plants. Atlantic Giants are tipping the scales in Australia and Finland.

The prospect of a one-tonne pumpkin would have dumbfounded Howard Dill. A quiet and serious man with a seventh-grade education, Dill taught himself about plant genetics by reading gardening magazines. It occurred to him that he could isolate a male and female flower and perform his own pollination ritual to combine the most desirable characteristics of two plants—one with a nice orange colour and one heavy enough to break the back of his hay wagon. When he swept the weigh-offs for three years straight, he knew he had his own genetic imprint.

His real source of inspiration was the farm itself. “He was so particular about what kind of bull he would allow to breed with his cattle. He liked a quiet bull, not a bad bull. He just took it from that to the pumpkins,” says Danny Dill.

Championship pumpkin growers aren’t entering beauty contests. Their ideal pumpkins look more like mutant lumpen marshmallows, their skin a mass of hardened yellow-green scar tissue. The inner walls can be 30 cm thick, decidedly unfit for pumpkin pie—but perfect for a weigh-off.

Today, the Dill seed brand is better known for its pleasing orange hue than its girth. It’s a beginner’s seed, guaranteed to produce a supreme jack-o’-lantern. Like a parent who looks up one day and realizes his children have grown to be taller than him, Dill watched younger growers push their gourds into a different stratosphere using products and techniques he’d never dreamed of.

These growers have invented a few methods of their own, like garnishing plant compost with exotic amendments such as kelp extract and mycorrhizal fungi. No sacrifice is too great for the pumpkin elite, who spend thousands of hours pruning, heating, cooling and sheltering their pampered gourds. They spray the leaves with misted carbon dioxide, and treat them for root rot, fearful of disease. They mail leaf samples to far-off laboratories for analysis, and use the results to decide which additives—including calcium and phosphorous—to apply. Then they stand back and watch as their titanic fruits gain up to around 50 lb. a day.

As each generation of gourds surpasses the last, it produces seeds that form the basis for the following year’s mutant orbs. The seeds with the grandest lineage are much in demand within seed-trading circles and at online auctions. Someone paid US$1,600 for a seed from the 2010 world championship pumpkin, which weighed 1,810 lb. and was grown by a contractor named Chris Stevens in New Richmond, Wis.

Clad in blue jeans and a checked shirt, Dill transcended the role of small-town farmer and became the worldwide ambassador for his Atlantic Giants. He and his homegrown gourds appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, but he also gave his time to every visitor to his farm who wanted to talk pumpkins (or hockey, his other passion). When someone set a new world record, Dill sent a personal letter congratulating him or her on the achievement. He wrote those letters well into his seventies, right up until he died.

Iowa grower Don Young got one of Dill’s letters in 2007, after he grew the second-heaviest pumpkin in the world. He had invoked Dill’s name on Good Morning America, thanking him for his contribution to the hobby. “I should really frame this thing,” says Young, who got into growing giant pumpkins after buying, on a whim, a packet of Dill’s Atlantic Giant seeds at a local garden store. (The seeds are sold at Lowe’s stores in the U.S.)

In many ways, Dill was the last of a breed. Very few champion pumpkin growers are farmers today, but many see themselves as inventors on the land. Stelts, of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, grew an 1,801-lb. pumpkin in Pennsylvania this year—but he also grew an eight-foot-tall tomato plant and green beans as thick as carrots, with the same kinds of methods and products he used on his pumpkins. “I’ve got yields now that are just out of control,” he says. “If we can grow an 1,800-lb. pumpkin, imagine what you can do in your garden. To see that translate over to the dinner table is really exciting.”

Windsor has a carved wooden statue of Dill, smiling beneath his baseball cap. But few Canadians are aware of the legacy of the man who passed on his obsessive quest for the perfect seed. Fewer still have seen the family farm, which grows 30 pumpkin varieties and houses cattle in the same old barn, built in 1840, that Dill’s own father grew up working in.

Windsor triples in size over Thanksgiving weekend for the annual Pumpkin Regatta, as 10,000 spectators drive up to watch a few dozen locals row (awkwardly) across Lake Pesaquid in brightly painted, hollowed-out giant pumpkins. (There’s also a motorized competition.) “A couple of women approached Danny and said, ‘What can we do with these pumpkins other than grow them?’ and Danny said, ‘Let’s have a race with them,’ ” recalls Diana MacDonald. The regatta is now in its 13th year.
Danny Dill still has his father’s meticulously detailed notebooks, with their pumpkin snapshots, doodles and descriptions. “He made notes about the stem, the ribs on it,” he remembers. “The pumpkins themselves, he would just sit and look at them.”