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Rest in peace, Boom Boom

Golden Retriever

Image by rkleine via Flickr

The May 21st Apocalypse is practically upon us, so I feel pressured to throw in at least a couple of points for Humanity this week.

The first one goes to Boom Boom, who taught my daughter a valuable lesson about life and love.

Boom Boom was a 14 year-old golden retriever who lived across the street. He was absolutely the heart and soul of my inner city neighborhood – he loved and was loved by everyone. And last week, his time came to an end. (If you have a dog you love, you may want to stop reading now.) After months of loving care and expensive veterinary treatment, his owner finally broke down and scheduled his final day. We were invited to drop by that evening before the vet arrived. Since my daughter’s most frequent question about our own dog is, “Mummy, how long can we keep Jack before he dies?”, I planned a quick five-minute goodbye.

When we got there, some neighbors had already arrived. We had all agreed beforehand that Chantal would need time alone with her dog, but she opened a bottle of wine and we started to talk. Another family with children joined us and she got out paper and stickers to entertain them. Before we realized it, we were swept up in an impromptu wake for a dog.

If you read even one of these posts, you will know that I am not the kind of person who could approach a wake for a dog without scathing ridicule. But there I was in this spontaneous gathering to celebrate the passing of a golden retriever. And it was beautiful. We told stories and we laughed. Every now and then someone broke down and cried. The children alternated between sitting on the floor petting the dog and running around the house. I watched my 8 year-old blink back tears, trying to be strong. And then the vet, Dr. Judith Weissmann, arrived.

I have to name the vet, because she is the most sensitive, caring health care professional I have ever met. I wish she treated humans too.

She arrived at 7:00. On a Friday. She took the time to greet everyone, to express her condolences, to get to know the kids. She waited patiently until Chantal was ready for her to prepare the injections. Chantal decided she didn’t want to go through the procedure alone, so we stayed. The children watched as Judith prepared the syringes and, sensing they needed to be part of it, she took the time to explain every step.

While this was going on, my girlfriend and I had to decide just how much our daughter could watch. She had never been exposed to death before and, as an adopted child, she has unconscious but deeply rooted memories of losing everyone in her life. We decided that it would be best for her to see and to understand, rather than having Boom Boom simply disappear.

We sat around the dog while Judith prepared to give him the anesthetic. We waited patiently while he went to sleep. Then, when Chantal was ready, Judith disinfected the site for the final injection – such an unnecessarily beautiful gesture – and gave Boom Boom a kiss on the nose. There was another long wait until Chantal was ready, and then the final injection. We sat silently while Judith let Chantal check that his heart had really stopped. And then the children cried.

Chantal had arranged for her dog to be cremated, so the vet stepped quietly outside to call Simon, who was waiting in his truck outside. When he came through the door, he took off his ball cap and held it over his heart, expressing his condolences with a silent nod. He wrapped Boom Boom in a blanket, gently lifted him on the stretcher, and he and Judith carried him down the stairs with the quiet dignity of pallbearers, the rest of us following behind. Chantal and the children said a final, sobbing goodbye, and the truck drove away. Then we all gathered at our house across the street to let the children play a little and to take care of Chantal.

This evening was an incredible gift for my daughter. She learned what is supposed to happen when someone dies. The community gathers. We tell stories, we laugh, and we cry. We make the passing as gentle as we can for those who are left behind, and we take the time to say goodbye.

I think Humanity deserves a point for that.

The Apocalypse: 29

Humanity: 22.5


Cracking down on Ashley Smith?

I should probably write something about the results of Monday’s federal election, but I am too damned depressed. For my… ahem… international readers, Canada just handed a majority government to the only Prime Minister in its history to be found in contempt of parliament. Roughly the equivalent to re-electing Richard Nixon after Watergate.

Still, the election does provide a bridge to this post, since one of Stephen Harper‘s first orders of business will be a “crackdown on the handling of violent and repeat young offenders.” This is ironic, given that the family of one of the most tragic victims of our existing treatment of young and young adult offenders has just settled an $11 million lawsuit against Correctional Services of Canada. (Note to aforementioned international readers: in Canada, $11 million would have been astronomical damages. Courts here don’t hand out millions because McDonalds failed to warn us that their coffee is hot.)

In 2007, Ashley Smith died in her federal cell of self-strangulation while her prison guards watched. She was 19 years old.

This morning I read the damning reports on her treatment as a young offender in a provincial jail and of her death in adult custody. It is depressing stuff. The story is long and complex, best summed up by saying that she was jailed at 13 for throwing crab apples at a mailman and spent the rest of her adolescent life being bounced between prisons, displaying increasingly disturbed behaviour that a ten year-old could identify as serious psychiatric problems but receiving next to no psychiatric help.

Ashley Smith was a deeply troubled and incredibly difficult young woman to deal with. She started showing signs of behavior problems as early as 9 or 10. Although the crab apple incident seems a ridiculous reason to send a youth to secure custody, she had already accumulated a long history of serious behaviour problems. By the time she was 13, she was already a violent and repeat offender. The reports don’t talk much about her mother, but there is no indication of an abusive or neglectful family, and lots of evidence of the early onset of serious psychiatric problems. At various points in her brief life, Ashely Smith had been diagnosed with servere Borderline Personality Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADD, and Aspergers Syndrome. None of these conditions were adequately treated. None. Instead, the system cracked down on her.

While in custody, she hit, bit, and spit on correctional officers, smeared feces on the windows of her cell, and tore up clothing and mattresses to fashion ligatures to strangle herself with. Pretty much daily. The sheer magnitude of her disruptive behaviour ought to have been a sign that something was deeply wrong with this young woman and that she needed serious psychiatric help, right? Sadly, it was not.

Probably the most depressing thing in both reports combined is a quote from a psychiatrist who evaluted her: “Ms. Smith clearly understands her responsibilities and their consequences and can control her behaviours when she chooses to.” (Note to psychiatrists: the fact that a person with a mental illness understands that their behaviour is wrong and is able to control it at times does not mean we can expect them to do this every fucking day.)

The reports don’t draw the line, but it’s pretty easy to imagine how that kind of assessement would lead to correctional staff to see her as bad rather than sick. That’s the kind of attitude that causes us to crack down.

If Ashely Smith is just a rotten kid, then she is choosing to be violent and self-harming. She has other options available to her and is able to use these options every single day, but somehow she prefers to be physically restrained, pepper-sprayed, tazered, straigtjacketed, and locked in solitary confinement for up to 60% of her time, rather than participating in the youth jail’s arts and gardening programs. This is her choice.

If Ashley Smith is mentally ill, even though she knows how she ought to behave and she knows that what she does is wrong, she often loses control of her behaviour and poses a threat to her own safety and the safety of others. She needs to be restrained, controlled, and even isolated at times to protect her and others. But she also needs treatment.

Ashley Smith spent five years in the correctional system with no comprehensive psychiatric treatment plan and almost no therapy. Attempts were made, but she was never allowed to stay in a facility long enough to be properly assessed and to get help.  In the 11 months before she died, she was transferred 17 times.

Segregation seems to have been the most popular element of cracking down on Ashley Smith. In the youth centre, it accounted for up to 60% of her time. And as described in the federal report on her adult incarceration:

In the weeks prior to her death, Ms. Smith spent all of her time in a security gown, in a poorly lit segregation cell, interacting with staff only through a tiny food slot and with absolutely nothing to occupy her time.

Experts agree that much of her very problematic behaviour was probably caused or exacerbated by being in segregation, where the only access to human contact she had for days on end was being physically restrained. As one report concludes, prolonged isolation leads to all the symptoms and behaviour for which she was being isolated:

 negative attitudes and affect, anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hypersensitivity, ruminations, cognitive dysfunction, loss of control, irritability, aggression, rage, paranoia, hopelessness, lethargy, depression, a sense of impending emotional breakdown, self-mutilation,  and suicidal ideation and behaviour.

Violent and repeat young offenders, by definition, need help. I am not saying they should not also go to jail, but a crackdown mentality is not going to make them stop. But the Conservatives have majority government now, so that means we will have no choice. Once again, Stephen Harper comes through for the Apocalypse.

The Apocalypse: 29

Humanity: 21.5

(Days left to the potential rapture of Stephen Harper: 16. Pray hard, readers. Pray hard.)

End of warranty blues

I’m having one of those days where if Gandhi even looked at me sideways, I would kick him in the nuts. Yes, I know he is dead. But I think my willingness to kick him in the nuts is the best way to express how I feel.

Growing old is supposed to be great. I am a feminist unfazed by body issues. I embraced my 40th birthday and have counted on things getting better and better for at least another ten years. And then I was subjected to a series of end-of-warranty medical examinations that sap my faith in the beauty of age.

I have to get a mammogram. I am only 43, but the fact that I have never been on the pill and my ovum have never been infiltrated by sperm means I have some kind of extra risk. Because I’m a lesbian, I get to have my boobs pressed in the titty-panini a full seven years early. And I’m not even a gold star.

And my doctor ordered a hemocult, which is the medical term for “smear some of your shit on a piece of cardboard for three days in a row and keep it in your fridge.” They do not make a ziplock bag thick enough for me to store fecal samples in my goddamned fridge. But I have to do this anyway, or she will order a colonoscopy, which is, of course, the medical term for shoving a video camera up your ass. Not because I am having any particular colorectal issues. Just because I am 43.

Had my eyes checked today and I don’t need bifocals. But he’s giving me another two years. And I get to see a specialist for a black hole at the back of my left eye which, if I understood correctly, is either nothing to worry about or my retina about to detach.

And that’s another thing that pisses me off. If you are going to refer me to a specialist, don’t fucking tell me that it’s probably okay. This will NOT stop me from having a goddamned anxiety attack- all it does it take away my right to make dramatic announcements about how my retina is about to detach. What the fuck is the point of having a problem with your retina if you can’t dramatically announce that it is about to detach?

Is it fair to blame all this on Humanity? Probably not. But I’m giving a point to the Apocalypse anyway, because Gandhi is not here for me to kick him in the nuts.

The Apocalypse: 28

Humanity: 21.5

Nominate Stephen Harper for the Rapture

I got it all wrong. I was ready to drop everything and lobby for all Humanity, missing perhaps the only opportunity I have to engage meaningfully in the Canadian political process. This Judgement Day business is our way out! If Harper wins, we could be saved by the rapture!

Accordingly, I have created a Facebook event to help Stephen Harper get saved:

Nominate Stephen Harper for the Rapture

You may not be aware of this, but a Christian radio station in California has established  May 21st as the Day of Judgement. As a devout atheist,  I may not have all the details straight, but I believe this means that God is scheduled to make his final choice on the sheep and the goats. Those who are saved will be beamed up directly to him, and the rest of us will be left behind to suffer the end days with the Beast.

If this is true, it presents a unique opportunity for the Canadian voter. If the efforts of Iggy, Jack, and Gilles are not enough to keep Stephen Harper from winning a majority government, we can pray for him to be taken up in the rapture.

It’s a win-win solution. There’s not enough time between the May 2nd election and the Judgement for him to ruin what is left of our democracy. And since Stephen Harper is a member of a fundamentalist Christian church and would be on the list of the hopeful, we would actually be doing him a favour as well.

Atheist, agnostic or member of another faith? Not a problem. Think how impressed Harper’s God will be when the unwashed heathens petition his behalf!

Given the bovine complacency and gullibility of the average Canadian voter, willing to hand this despotic right-wing nut majority control over our government because he took credit for a system of banking regulations that saved us from the worst of the recession (which, as a libertarian, he would have dismantled if he’d had the opportunity), this may be our only chance.

I humbly submit the following prayer for your consideration:

Lord, if Your judgement day is indeed slated for May 21st, I humbly beseech You to include Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Saved. I know, Lord, that he presides over a sinful nation of abominations like equal rights for gays, but I assure you that Stephen Harper is  a faithful fundamentalist Christian and, were he not hobbled with a heathen majority in the House of Commons and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he would have abolished all such progressive legislation years ago.

Lord, if you call home the Faithful on May 21st, please do not overlook Stephen Harper in the rapture.


And the point? For The Apocalypse, of course. Because the post-rapture world promises to be more democratic than a Harper majority government.

The Apocalypse: 27

Humanity: 21.5

The end?

The end is near, apparently. And the timing couldn’t be worse.

Canada is heading into a federal election which might give our right-wing nutwad prime minister, Stephen Harper, his first majority government. Stephen Harper is a top scorer for the Apocalypse, so for the next six weeks these posts would have written themselves.

After all, this is the leader who gave us a Foreign Affairs Minister so twisted by fundamentalist religion that he expressed doubts about whether our maternal and child healthcare initiatives could include birth control. When that blew up in his face, Harper scored again with a new plan for the G8 which includes birth control, but refuses all federal funding to any organization that provides access to abortions.

He contributed another point by spending a record $1 billion on the G8 summit in Toronto, most of which seems to have gone to building a fake lake in the middle of a media center and to gathering and deploying thousands of police officers to beat and detain peaceful protesters and bystanders.

And his most recent point, a plan to spend billions of dollars on new prisons even though crime rates have been dropping for at least 20 years, has led to his government being declared in contempt of parliament by its own speaker. That’s not only a point for the Apocalypse– it’s a first in Canadian history.

But sadly, I will not get to enjoy any of this election campaign. Family Radio Worldwide has established that Judgement Day is upon us- biblically confirmed for  May 21st- and I’m not going to abandon my readers to this fate. If you spend any time at all on this blog, you are not likely to be raptured, so I am going to drum up all the points for Humanity that I can on your behalf.

It’s the least I can do.

Paris vs. Sweet Potatoes

Brigitte and I are an almost sickenly perfect couple. Until we have to talk about money, that is.

I entered the job market in the nineties knowing that I was never more than one substitute teaching gig away from indigence. I have always felt that I had to scrape to keep a roof over my head and to pay the bills, and that I had to put any leftover money aside so I could afford to eat the really good cat food when I was old. I am what you might call debtophobic.

Brigitte was raised in a family where everyone but her father had died by the time she was nine. There’s not much reason to accumulate and to prepare for old age when you are pretty sure you’re not going to live to be thirty. She learned to invest in the moment, to dream big, and to make things happen now. She is what you might call debtophilic.

In our relationship, my job is to make sure that we live within our means. Or, more realistically, to live within sight of our means. Or maybe have a general sense of the direction in which our means lie.

Brigitte’s job is to maintain the quality of our lives in the face of my general anxiety disorder. She makes most of the money, manages our finances, dreams big and makes things happen, and authorizes weekly take-out food when I come home tired from work.

Before it required childcare, we had all our discussions about money in coffee shops where no objects could be thrown. As it turned out, that would have been a good idea this week, when a talk about which conference Brigitte should attend resulted in me hinting that without my intervention, our daughter’s education would be squandered on trips to Paris and Brigitte observing that my real problem is spending money on anyone other than myself.

And then somehow the discussion turned to a near physical altercation we had last week over a sweet potato I was trying to scrape into the trash. She said something like, “You keep saying there’s not enough money to take our daughter to Paris but you are always throwing away good food and there are always three unnecessary new toothbrushes in the bathroom drawer!” I was literally stunned into silence, she looked at me, and then she threw her head back and laughed.

When you find someone able to laugh at herself in a moment like this, you go ahead and award one more point to Humanity on her behalf.

The Apocalypse: 26
Humanity: 21.5

Apocalyptic roundup

My therapist would say that I should stop feeling guilty and worthless for neglecting to read, comment, write, and think complete thoughts for the last month while I struggle with mild end-of-winter depression. She would say that I should talk to myself “as though I were my best friend”.

Problem is, I think what my best friend would say is “Get your froggie-pajamaed arse off the couch and write.” To which I would reply, “I have a LAPTOP, Sucker! And my flannel froggie pajamas are HOT.”

I am flu-ridden and unable to sustain even my usual level of coherent thought. Please lower your expectations accordingly.

It’s a good day for the Apocalypse. There are small stories. Like the Quebec woman who was trapped in the snow on a logging road for three days because her GPS steered her wrong. Apparently, most GPS owners are unable to check the “paved roads only” option in the settings.

Or the British Columbia hospital that is solving its space problems by treating overflow patients in a Tim Horton’s donut shop. (To which I am inclined to respond, “But it’s still free, so suck it up and be grateful. Like I did.”)

Or the Ottawa students who are whining because they have to pay the university back after cheating the laundry billing machines and washing their undies for free. When I was a student, laundry machines still used horizontal coin slots, so you could just put a piece of tape across the quarters. Now it’s all computerized and they can track the fraudulent launderers and bill them. Once again, technology fails to make our lives better.

There’s the release of the iPad 2, which will bring a hailstorm of criticism down upon me from my non-mac friends who frantically disapprove of my numerous iPurchases. Even though I just got the iPad 1 for Christmas and wouldn’t dream of upgrading it. And for the record, I also buy a lot of iron-free shirts from Eddie Bauer, but no one is reducing me to a “fangirl” for an online clothing retailer.

There is a market for ice-cream made from breast milk. The earth may be under attack from aliens in ships shaped like chewy mints. A scientist has devoted valuable brain matter calculating the resale value of our planet ($5 quadrillion). Vital questions about humanity go unstudied while research grants are used to discover that people who postpone emptying their bladders are better able to delay other forms of gratification. Back in a sec. I have to pee.

Then there are bigger stories, like Baby Joseph, whose right to be spared invasive medical procedures when all experts agree that he should only be receiving palliative care will be attacked by Sara Palin’s favourite lawyer. Because grief-stricken parents and an uber conservative lawyer from the American Center for Law and Justice (which defends Americans from cuss words at the Oscars, handgun bans, and public parks not displaying the 10 commandments) are clearly better placed to make decisions about Joseph than the two teams of medical experts at American and Canadian hosptials.

And Saskatchewan judge Robert Dewar, who allowed a convicted rapist to avoid jail time because the survivor of his attack was wearing a tube top, indicating that “sex was in the air”.  The rapist is eligible for a 2-year conditional sentence to be served in the community. He doesn’t get that saying no, pushing him away three times, and crying means that a woman does not want to have sex with him, even when he admits to telling her “it would only hurt for a little while”.  But he is not a threat to the public. Well, not unless the public wears a tube top.

All things considered, I think I’ll just go ahead and award two points to the Apocalypse.

The Apocalypse: 26

Humanity: 20.5

Let’s talk

February 9th is Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk day.

Bell is donating 5 cents from every text message and long distance call placed that day to help the 1 in 5 Canadians with mental health problems. They are also donating 50 million dollars over four years to mental health initiatives, and they have launched an ad campaign to encourage people to talk openly about illnesses like depression and anxiety, and to get help. They have even signed on my all-time favourite Canadian, uber-Olympian and one-time depressed chick Clara Hughes.


I was all geared up for The Apocalypse taking a huge lead. And now not even the potential for this being a crass marketing campaign supported by the pharmaceutical industry can stop Humanity from scoring this week’s point.

I mean, this is kind of my business. I train mental health workers to manage suicidal crises and more than 80 percent of people who commit suicide are suffering with some form of mental illness, mostly depression and addiction.

And it’s also my life. Although my mental health disorder of choice is anxiety, I have also been treated for major depression. I suspect most people who know me had no idea. One of those highly functional depressives, I went to work every day with a smile but spent every Saturday morning curled up in bed, longing for death. Eventually, my girlfriend dragged me to the doctor and, in the waiting room, handed me a sheet of paper with the title whited out. I read the checklist of symptoms, saw exactly what she was up to, and said, “I am not fucking depressed. I only have 8 of these.” She gently replied, “You only need to have five.”

I didn’t mind taking the medication so much. Well, the 40 pounds I gained in 8 months despite going to the gym three times a week was no picnic, but between having to go out and buy new bras and being a mother who frequently longs for death, the choice was reasonably clear. I found a brilliant therapist to help me take care of all the stuff the medication would not fix, and I slowly got better.

What was difficult was hearing people talk about depression. It was a lot like being in the closet again, feeling hurt and ashamed of not being able to stand up for yourself because no one can know that they are talking about you. For the record, no the whole fucking world is NOT on antidepressants. If they were, we might have fewer suicides. And not all doctors give out prozac like tic tacs. And there is nothing easy about having to take a little orange capsule every morning just to get out of bed.

My depression was painful but not debilitating. I think that makes me a little bit more responsible for speaking out. We reluctantly admit that those who are so depressed that they cannot function at all are sick. But those of us lucky enough to have symptoms that are manageable are subjected to the anti-medication backlash, and that makes it pretty damned hard to seek help.

It’s time to stop feeling ashamed of being sick. Especially since January light-deprivation and pre-menopausal hormones are causing some of the darkness to seep back. (Last week, while lying in a hot bath, my thoughts travelled with alarming rapidity from, “Oh, the caulking around the tub needs to be redone,” to, “Brigitte’s going to realize how worthless I am and leave me, so we’ll need to get a good price on this place if we want to run two households on the money we make now.”)

For her courage in speaking publicly about her own depression, Clara Hughes scores her second point for Humanity. I just hope my brilliant therapist has an opening on February 9th.

The Apocalypse: 24

Humanity: 20.5

My bad

Canadian winter has finally arrived in Montreal. When one factors in the wind chill (and Canadians do factor in the wind chill, as it accounts for 73.5 percent of our conversational matter), it is -31 C this morning. For my American readers, that is  -23.8 F. While it is not yet the kind of weather that will freeze unexposed skin on contact, it is not the kind of day that you want to hang about outside doing nothing. Which makes it a bad day to have a dog.

Deciding where to eliminate seems effortless to other canines. Not so our Captain Jack Sparrow, the tenacious and extremely masculine Bichon Frise. Deciding where to eliminate for Jack is a weighty intellectual matter fraught with controversy. He sniffs. He circles. He sniffs again. He chooses another spot and circles again, sniffing.

This morning, he went through four potential poop spots. The first one had insufficient depth– he cannot defecate in a place that I will not have to plunge my ungloved, plastic wrapped hand into at least 5 cm of snow. The second one had some strange garbage next to it. (It looked like the remnants of a wig, but I really didn’t want to know.) The third one was rejected out of hand for no reason that I could establish. The fourth looked really promising–  deep snow I would have to wade through for the pick-up, strong likelihood of me stepping on frozen turds along the way, room to pace back and forth to tamp down the snow. And then some guy walked by to distract him, and we had to move on. At this point, I lost it and yelled, “For the love of Jesus, will you just SHIT already!

Yes, a low moment for me. Even atheists ought not to invoke the name of the Christian messiah to get their dogs to crap. As penance, I’m going to shave off a half-point from the Apocalypse. Forgive me, Humanity.

The Apocalypse: 24

Humanity: 19.5

That ain’t workin

Dire Straits performing in Drammenshallen, Nor...

Image via Wikipedia

Last week I listened to CBC Montreal’s drive-home show to check on traffic and was treated to 10 minutes of listener feedback celebrating the use of the word faggot.The host had played Dire Straits’ 1985 hit Money for Nothing and then invited people to call in with reactions, most of which were euphoric.

A little background: The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which enforces ethical guidelines for private broadcasters, had just ruled that the original version of this song  is inappropriate for play on private radio stations:

“The Panel concludes that, like other racially driven words in the English language, “faggot” is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so.  The Panel finds that it has fallen into the category of unacceptable designations on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.”

This should be a fascinating and complex debate, especially when hosted by our public broadcaster. The lyrics are written from the point of view of an ignoramus and his use of the word reflects at least as badly on him as the “little faggot” in the song. In this context, I was not offended when I first heard it (as a terrified closeted lesbian high school student). It seemed then to be a wink and a nod in our direction, as it does now. I might feel differently if I were a gay man, but I am not more offended by it today.

But I can see the other side too. Context is hard to establish in a short form like a rock song and it’s hard to argue that the general impact of this ironic moment is positive. I think it helps to use the n-word test in a situation like this– would we be defending the use of the n-word in a 1985 rock song where a racist blue collar worker was talking about a group of African American musicians? We might, but I think we would be a hell of a lot more tentative. The same station that contested the complaint routinely bleeps the n-word from songs by artists like Kanye West who, as a member of an oppressed group reclaiming a slur, has an undisputed right to use it. Hypocrisy at its best.

Like I said, this is a complex debate and I can see myself agreeing with both sides. (Feel free to weigh in with your comments.) In the end, I think what pisses me off most is the tone of the listener feedback from my fellow Canadians. The whole discussion was reduced to “Yay! Now we can say faggot again! Faggot, faggot, faggot!”

And that ain’t workin for Humanity.

The Apocalypse: 24.5

Humanity: 19.5