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My Faint, Fragrant Hope Click Here To Comment!

My Facebook newsfeed is rife with posted articles on the recent escalation of conflict in Israel. There is a lot of commentary and passionate debate.

I am so NOT an expert on the issue or the history, although I consider myself somewhat well-read.  In a nutshell, the British (self-appointed rulers of the Galaxy and my ancestry of origin on my father’s side) thought it was a good idea to grant the land of Palestine to a highly oppressed, ostracized group (Jews) without sufficient provision for, or acknowledgement or, or discussion with, the then occupants of that land (Palestinians). If someone tried this on my street, there would be hell to pay.

(Oh, wait … the British did try this here … and First Nations peoples are still reeling from our thoughtless and arrogant mismanagement …)

Here are three of the most thought-provoking, and heart-wrenching, articles I’ve read so far:

Israelis and Palestinians have been attacking and killing each other, literally, for as long as I can remember, and I realize now, for at least 40 years before my memories started to form. I was an avid news watcher when growing up and I distinctly recall having some child-like narcissistic fantasy about being the mediator between Golda Meir and Yassar Arafat and being able to make them see that they didn’t need to kill each other’s children anymore. Everyone could be friends … all you need is love … or something similar. After all, how can some parts of the world be so consistently peaceful and other parts be so consistently violent? We should just share some of our Canadian peacenik-ness with the Middle East and all would be well.  Cue patchouli incense.

Fast forward 40+ years and, although I have long ditched the fantasy of being the wise and all-knowing mediator, the map, the patterns, the headlines … the basic gist of what is transpiring looks about the same now as it did then. I understand the complexities and chasms more, now, but the overarching specter of two ancient peoples bashing the hell out of each other looks startlingly similar to what it did on my parents’ fuzzy tv when the news came on.

The Middle East is very hot. There isn’t really enough drinkable water to go around. And many peoples hold that one piece of land is, sacredly and historically, “theirs”.

Until this last item is settled in some way that all parties can live with, literally, I doubt the map, patterns, or headlines will change significantly in the next 40 years.  There is no peace-nik sensibility strong enough to blur the scars, the hurt and the tragedy of that which continues to unfold.

For what small good it does, if you believe in such things as chaos theory, I’m going to light some incense tonight. In memory of all who have died, and in faint, fragrant hope that some solution is imminent.

Dachau 1 comment

The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site is set up to educate with as much clarity and sensitivity as possible while also IMG_2232memorializing the tragic brutality that this ground witnessed. There are multiple sculptures, plaques, monuments, etc. that commemorate the victims and the crimes perpetrated. Newer buildings are on site as memorials, sponsored by multiple faiths that had clergy/leaders/members in the camp, including obviously a Jewish representation but also Catholic, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox. One of the buildings is currently in use as a nunnery.

There is no minimizing, dodging or obfuscating the role of this camp, the first concentration camp, in setting the tone for other camps. Everything that was done elsewhere started here. Given all the things I saw as testament to the crimes and death that occurred … what is really a struggle for me is understanding how vast the network of camps and sub-camps was. We were shown a map of the territories held by Germany at the peak of the war and the map was filled with literally hundreds of locations where versions of this place, in smaller and larger scales, were located. We have heard only of a handful of the usual names – Auschwitz-Birchenau, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau. But there were literally hundreds of camps and sub-camps. I was aghast at the breadth and scope of barbarism undertaken across such a wide geographic area.

Grave to mark ashes of thousands of unknowns (Jewish Memorial)

Grave to mark ashes of thousands of unknowns (Jewish Memorial)

During my visit, it was (mostly) quiet.  People were respectful and clearly there to learn, to try to comprehend, to absorb. Entrance to the site is free. I’d estimate there were a few thousand people there while I was there, so it is well used. There are lots of trees around the exterior of the camp proper, and thus lots of birds singing. That seemed out of place, as if the birds should know better. It poured rain, on and off, and that seemed entirely in keeping with the mood. Our tour group had 15 high school kids from Indiana and it was interesting to watch them go from being “too cool for this” and sort of detached to being really quite sober. I overheard discussion of the use of this memorial site for school groups and it appears that schools from all over Europe and North America make stops here. That feels like a good thing, but it does make it a bit of a challenge for maintaining the appropriate decorum when pre-teens and teens are responding to what they see with humour or (feigned) apathy. I think Dachau has an impact on everyone who visits and I think it is important for as many young people from as many different backgrounds as possible to see it – and I also think that kids don’t always know what to do with their emotional responses “in the moment”.

The Original Pink Triangle

The Original Pink Triangle

It felt oddly synchronous to be looking at the actual original pink triangle symbol, as deployed to identify a homosexual “enemy of the state”, the day after World Pride had  wrapped up in my home city of Toronto. There is no more clear reason to justify the existence of an event like “World Pride” than standing in an original building at Dachau and looking an original wall chart of symbols used to identify people, one of which was a pink triangle. Interestingly, there is a committee of survivors that has a crucial role in determining the types of memorials that will be allowed. A memorial focusing on homosexuals is absent because, in the hierarchy / social structure of the camp at the time, homosexuals were at the bottom of the barrel along with known criminals and other “asocials”. The committee of survivors isn’t comfortable acknowledging the targeting of homosexuals by approving a memorial for this group. When I spoke to our guide about this privately, he suggested that people were waiting for the committee of survivors (which is quite small now) to hand over their legacy to perhaps a more current committee with a more current perspective.  I would have liked to have seen something there as an acknowledgement that gay people were one of the many groups identified as “enemies of the state” – and I also think this can wait until the time is right.  Homosexuals are identified within the part of the exhibit that describes all the targeted groups, and our situation is given as much detail and focus as most of the other groups.

I took only a handful of pictures. It didn’t seem … seemly.

Dachau is just outside of Munich and the typical journey one takes to get there is from the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in Munich. It is a short 10-15 minute ride. German citizens in Munich are extremely sensitive about people coming to visit to learn more about Nazis and about concentration camps. I knew about specific laws around giving an Nazi salute (even in jest, this will get you arrested) and I didn’t realize Mein Kampf was still a banned book. It was odd to be taking a tour with a group to specific sites relevant to WWII and to be scrutinized by the locals. They will listen and try to be sure the guide isn’t Munich-bashing or sensationalizing. Locals are also concerned with Neo-Nazis using specific sites as touchstones for their own purposes. As much as they don’t want their quite beautiful city associated with the rise of the Nazi party, as it happens, this is now a key part of the city’s past. Never mind that the PLO leveraged this association with the murders during the Olympics in 72, which adds another horrific piece to the global perception of Munich. I don’t want to suggest that Munich has had a bad rap – it is what it is – but it is a pleasant place, rich in layers of history beyond the 20th Century, walkable, reasonably friendly – I quite enjoyed it.

There are lots of very subtle, slightly subversive, commemorative elements in Munich. Many bullet holes and other types of damage have

Dodger's Alley

Dodger’s Alley

been left, on purpose, unrepaired, in the architecture, like reminders. Scars. You have to look for these, but they are there. A more deliberate, striking example is a metallic (gold? bronze?) shimmering trail down the cobblestones in an alleyway known as Dodger’s Alley. In the 30’s/40’s, citizens of Munich who walked by a specific Nazi plaque on the corner of one of the main squares had to give a Nazi salute or be arrested for not doing so. There were lots of people who didn’t want to give a Nazi salute. So, to avoid walking by that plaque, many would take a detour down Dodger’s Alley. Nazi authorities caught on to this and started policing the use of the alley, interrogating people found in the alley as to their purpose for being there. If no satisfactory purpose was offered, a person would be thrown immediately into Dachau. Just for taking a detour to avoid giving a salute. Even these people were “enemies of the state”. As to the metallic trail, there is no plaque or explanation. You need to just know, or be told, why it is there and what it signifies. Apparently, there are lots of these sorts of things all over the city, commemorations of resistance. I didn’t have time to go find more, unfortunately.

Four Heros You Need to Know About

Four Heros You Need to Know About

I will close by noting this plaque. It is almost hidden behind a door that leads from the gas chamber into the crematorium. (Please don’t imagine that I typed that sentence with any degree of casualness.) There is a railing in place, making it harder to get a straight on, close photo.  Since it is hard to read, I’ll type out what it says here. They gave their lives – the least I can do is try to get this right.

Here in Dachau on the 12th of September 1944
four young Woman Officers of the British Forces attached to Special Operations Executive
were brutally murdered and their bodies cremated. They died as gallantly as they had
served the Resistance in France during the common struggle for freedom from tyranny.

Mrs. YOLANDE E M BEEKMAN (née Unternahrer)
Croix de Guerre avec Étoile de Vermeil
Women’s Auxiliary Air Force seconded to Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.)

Miss MADELEINE DAMERMENT
Légion d’Honneur    Croix de Guerre avec Étoile de Vermeil
Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.)

Miss NOORUNISA INAYAT KHAN
George Cross Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
Mentioned in Despatches Croix de Guerre avec Étoile de Vermeil
Women’s Auxiliary Air Force seconded to Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.)

Mrs ELIANE S PLEWMAN (née Browne-Bartoli)
Croix de Guerre avec Étoile de Vermeil
Women’s Transport Service (F.A.N.Y.)

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall be no torment touch them”

Bravery, compassion and a complete and utter focus on their missions, to the exclusion of all else, including their own lives.  This was a surprise find towards the end of my visit to Dachau – but it shouldn’t have been. I feel like I should know these names and that I should know more about these stories.  Their world, a world in which their skills and dedication were needed at extreme cost, is not that far removed from our current time of social media, popular culture, ridiculous fads and trivial pursuits.

Do not forget.

Understand or Repeat 2 comments

Of the three purposes of my visit to Austria (Sound of Music / WWII / Mozart), it is Mozart that has gotten short shrift, I’m afraid. I’m headed to Vienna so I expect I’ll rectify that.

The Salzburg Museum has an entire floor dedicated to the times leading to WWI, the war itself from Austria’s point of view, and the aftermath in Austria. Without knowing a bit about WWI, WWII is completely lacking in context. It isn’t until you get to that last bit about what happened to Austria, Germany and other European economies and societies after WWI that the context for the rise of the far right/Nazi movement becomes clear. The war devastated this central part of Europe. People were starving, dying and completely demoralized. They had no particular reason to hope given that the particular depression they were experiencing was underpinned by a new type of class system.  Let me frame that differently – people who worked hard, who existed in a working class space and never expected to struggle beyond the normal challenges of life, who never had ancestors struggle without resources to be self-reliant – these are the people who were in trouble. Consider that generations prior to the industrial revolution trained men (specifically) in skills and trades passed down and valued over centuries. With the industrial revolution, people started to rely on a system not of their own choosing or making rather than relying on themselves. The system failed. In that kind of environment, any voice that comes along to blame someone else (Jews, perhaps?) for your troubles will eventually get air time.

Currently, we do see the rise of the far-right in Europe, and lots of blame-naming (foreigners, perhaps?) and a drive by some countries to isolate from the EU. It seems a relatively small movement, perhaps. Remember that Hitler was laughed off the stage the first few times he tried to get some public traction for his ideas. He had only a handful of followers, at first. But the public context for his views shifted, moreso than his views did. The times changed. The people changed. Economies all over Europe collapsed.

Now? Speaking from a North American perspective, ordinary working people have trouble finding meaningful work, the kind that both satisfies their souls and keeps them in a positive cash flow and a decent standard of living. Low-paying, low-skill jobs keep even experienced workers at entry level work, often at more than one job. Personal and public debt is rising. This makes people scared and vulnerable. Education is becoming positioned for the elite – intellectualism and scientific pursuits are seen, by some in the far-right, as oh so much nonsensical waste of time. A lack of access to education within a general population makes simple political messages have wider appeal.

We, globally, need to tread carefully at this particular juncture in time. Thanks to the recent study tour I had the crazy wonderful opportunity to be on recently, I’m understanding more the true purpose of the European Union, as complex, unwieldy and expensive as it is. The core purpose is the avoidance of war through dialogue and highly structured, regulated interdependence. The rest – economic leverage to participate in a global market, free movement of goods/services, a mobile labour force – is fine print.  A key success factor, pardon the MBA-speak, is maintaining an internationalistic, rather than a nationalistic, perspective.  We need to listen carefully and select out voices that seek to elevate, or isolate, one group or culture of people to the exclusion of all others. We may start hearing more such voices … and we need to remember where such sentiments can lead.

Sock Popping Click Here To Comment!

I have a lot to do today. There are work demands, with deadlines. That has to be addressed so I can tackle publisher demands this weekend, with deadlines. And there is life up here – about 18 inches of snow and ice, in layers, that need to be removed from the upper deck today before the big melt tomorrow. Otherwise, it will all melt against the brick and wood construction which can cause bad things to happen over time. Icicles have to come down so they don’t fall down and do damage.

upper deck in winter

Snow on upper deck, January 10, 2014

And I get to fetch, feed and entertain children today while Knotty Girl is off in the city, painting.

I was thinking about all this as I popped open a pair of fluffy thick socks this a.m. Popped open? What do you call it when you unfold socks that have been folded into a nice neat ball?

Anyway, the act of sock popping gave me a moment of nostalgia. There is a moment that happens in early fall most years. The moment when, after three or four months of not wearing socks, it is time to put socks on again. And it is a bit sad but also a bit comforting, the feeling of protecting feet with something soft and warm for the first time in a long time. The act of transitioning to a new season, a change of gears, as signified by socks.

I’ve just come off a time of relative calm in my work life, transitioning into what looks like a busy time. It is a gear shifting. I didn’t want the moment to pass without note.

I have fluffy socks to pop and cushion my feet. I’m ready.

Bodies of Future/Past 3 comments

There is a video making the rounds at the moment, a three minute clip from an interview about Dustin Hoffman’s experience preparing for the role of Tootsie.

Dustin’s moment of clarity

I don’t always “buy” celebrity “moments” in interviews, but this one rings true.*  I admire him for connecting the dots with such resonance.

I had a rather personal response to this video. I lost 95 lbs over 18 months, roughly between 2008 – 2009. I held steady there for a while but gradually – with all the changes and stress – my weight has crept back up, close to where I started.

When I was losing weight, I noticed that more people talked to me. Men and women. Between having a year off work to consult independently, being in an energizing new relationship, and feeling more attractive, I was certainly projecting a happy, vibrant energy. Undeniably, it helped that I was also fitter, not just more proportional. I had more energy, more muscle shape, and I was really happy with this – especially the muscles and the cardio fitness. Happy people are more attractive people, of course. It is a non-vicious cycle.

Face Too Skinny?

Face Too Skinny?

I’m thinking about Dustin’s comment in his video in which he says that he wouldn’t go and talk to himself as a woman at a party, for example, because he didn’t meet his own brainwashed standard of beauty. When I say people were more interested in talking to me, this is what I mean – the simple act of choosing whom to have a conversation with in a social situation. This too is a variable, and a highly prized one in our society. Feeling attractive in these moments means feeling valued.

There was a very specific point at which, from my point of view, I became “visible” and “viable” to people around me. It was really at the point where I’d lost about 35 lbs. with ultimately 60 more to go in the overall attempt. I wasn’t “skinny” by any means but something happened in the perception of proportions that changed my look. I started wearing different clothes and that accented the change. From my perspective, the more weight I lost from this point onward, the “chattier” people got.

As I got down to my lowest weight point – still by no means “skinny” – I thought my face didn’t look quite right. Too harsh or hard, perhaps? The photo here is at close to my lowest weight.

My life has changed enormously since this time. New routines are hard to establish and maintain, especially given the amount of driving I have been doing.  All the changes have taken an emotional toll on both Knotty Girl and myself.  When there are stressors and demands, I’m not programmed to run to the gym and sweat it off. I’m programmed to consume foods that I shouldn’t.  Thus, in all of the hubub, the weight has almost all come back and I don’t look like this anymore. I’ve certainly been conscious of this trend, I’ve felt a bit powerless about it, and I have tried to note at what point I appeared to fade from visibility, generally speaking. At what point am I less likely to be the person spoken to at the party? Not surprisingly, it was right about at gaining 60 of the lost 95 lbs back. So, in other words, there is something magical in terms of the perception of the exterior self that happens right about at that fulcrum point.

This is a non-scientific experiment of course. The other variables – like my own moodiness or sleep deprivation or what have you – are hard to account for.  My own sense of feeling less confident, less sure-footed in my new roles at home and in the ever-changing tides at work, hasn’t helped.

Biceps of Future/Past

Biceps of Future/Past

If I were talking to Dustin about this, I’d tell him not to feel too hard on himself. We are all subject to the “physical attractiveness brain washing”, both men and women. We look at ourselves and judge. We look at others and draw conclusions, often within seconds. I know I do it. The trick is to become self-aware of this behaviour and to try to manage it somehow. I remember hearing Susie Bright say something like this (apologies for inaccurate paraphrasing): the most interesting person in the room is the least “attractive” one because they have to work their other skills – charm, humour, sexiness, intelligence – to gain ground lost by not being “attractive”.

So now what? When I reflect back on the weight loss adventure, I’m remembering how good it felt to be strong and fit. I’m going to aim for that. I’m not sure I’m going to even weigh myself, although those numbers are good guideposts. I’m not aiming to raise my visibility, per se, to anyone but myself. I’ll know I’m getting somewhere when I can walk nine holes without huffing, skate three periods without collapsing, and find myself admiring the curve of my own biceps.

*It is hard to view Dustin’s reference to his conversation with his wife, Lisa Hoffman, without a sense of irony.

Shakespeare Would Have Had One Ball Click Here To Comment!

Recently,  I have had occasion to have several windows open in my operating system as I attempt to achieve some kind of productivity. In addition to having two monitors on in my home office, from time to time, I may also have my work laptop open on a separate desk behind me, displaying yet more programs or activities. As I work my way through my  to-do list, I am aware of how I’m “matrixing” my time, as a former boss used to call it. I will work away at one project and will need to wait for a screen to refresh, or for a distant server to respond to a request. This causes me to bump over to the next task, or screen, (or Spider Solitaire) and continue working away at what had been going on there before needing to wait for something to happen.

Thus, one modern version of “multi-tasking” has been born from all the forced “waiting” that our otherwise lightning fast computer systems impose upon us.

Much of what I need to accomplish depends on the speed and reliability of my Internet connection, and the speed and reliability of remote systems, be that a remote webmail server or a remote learning management system server or a remote software application server. As we move more and more of our computing power to the cloud, we will inevitably experience greater wait times. I don’t care what the hype says about solid state servers or increased bandwidth to the masses.  Working remotely might get faster but it won’t be as fast as it would be if all the processing were happening right here on my desk.  In any case, many of us have chosen to fill those wait times with Spider Solitaire productive activity working on the next task while we wait for the results of our previous task to take effect.

Add to this multiscreen, multitasking behaviour the constant presence of our new appendage – the mobile device with all its apps. We are all mental and cognitive jugglers with – dare I say it – a plethora of virtual balls.

We are evolving into a de facto multitasking workforce and I think this is simultaneously expensive and not very productive. A lose/lose situation. We are told by experts that single-tasking is really the only productive way to work. Multitasking is a fallacy, existing really as a series of single-tasking events in sequence. (Here is an article about this. Here is another one. Take your pick.)  As our brains attempt to manage the switching costs, paid out in loss of cognitive function, of repeatedly leaving one task unfinished in favour of proceeding to continue on with the next incomplete task, we lose time, energy and the ability to synthesize complex ideas.

The actual cost? Although this is a vast generalization, we are losing the ability to focus deeply and think creatively.  I think this is a huge loss and I do see this loss on a grand societal scale. It takes time to consider and reflect on our lives, our families, work, passions – all the elements that make up for a balanced way of living. We are, collectively, moving away from being a thoughtful society and into being a busy society in which ADD behaviour is rapidly becoming normative behaviour.

Real creativity, real revelation, true innovation – these valuable and expected outcomes of “successful societies” – these traits can’t arise out of a society that can’t focus long enough to complete one task well, from beginning to end.  If our political leaders  wish to be truly focused on closing an innovation and/or productivity gap, I would strongly urge them to consider working on forging some new cultural expectations on what true productivity looks like. It doesn’t look like “always being busy”. It looks like “producing well-thought-out, well-planned, quality output”.  We need to reward thoughtful behaviours, single-tasking, creative and artistic endeavours, and any type of task that requires focus and clarity of thinking. And I think we need to pay attention to this sooner rather than later, before we devolve into a jumble of tales, told by idiots, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.*

*Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 26-28) Wanna bet that Shakespeare would have had only one screen open at a time?

Today, It Is All About The Light Click Here To Comment!

Today seems to be all about the light.

I have just pulled away from having my headlight bulbs replaced in my car as they were inadequate for deep, dark, rural nighttime driving. While that was being done, I managed to find a powerful rechargeable spotlight/flashlight on sale which will allow all of us to go owling in our deep, dark, rural winter evenings. As I’m driving into the city this morning, it feels like a beautiful spring day although, in fact, it is a beautiful January day. The  quality of the light hitting the vistas before me makes the world seem to glow. This type of day reminds me of the kind of spring day I remember growing up on the farm, with the sun thawing out the soil. You can smell everything loosening up and getting ready to grow.  I loved this kind day as a child and I’m looking forward to experiencing this yet again when real spring hits in a few months.

Today is also about the light because I am on my way to a funeral. We have lost a bright and beautiful colleague to cancer and it has taken us all a bit by surprise.  Although I didn’t know her well,  Sue struck me as being one of the most positive people I know at work. She was upbeat, always, and the picture of health and wellness. Most of our conversations revolved around diet, exercise, living well and loving life. It is a bit of a shocker that cancer claimed her so quickly and completely. It feels important to respect and acknowledge this very bright light having left our particular corner of the world although, knowing Sue even the little bit that I did, I don’t think she would be interested in having us wander around in despair. I think she would want us to have a glass of wine, a good meal and a good dance party.

This light we have lost makes me reflect on the kind of legacy that I might be leaving behind one day, hopefully far in the future. I pause to wonder whether everything I’m putting the world is as positive and as straightforward as it could be. I wonder if I allow my inner demons to shout down my better angels.  I fear that the answer, all too often, is “yes”. I over-think things, I over-analyze, and I make situations far more complicated than they need to be. I get lost in it sometimes, as one might in a deep, dark, rural night without good headlights or a decent flashlight. I don’t think it is possible for me to be a relentlessly positive and cheerful person, and I think my analytical skills are valuable at times, yet I think I can do better at not getting so lost. At curbing my tendency to wallow with my demons rather than celebrating with my angels.

Although I didn’t make specific New Year’s resolutions, I am going to take this opportunity to commit to dancing more and wallowing less. To celebrating that which is right in my world rather than highlighting that which is not right.  To remembering that light exists, somewhere, even when I’m lost in the dark.

Easy Is In the Eye Of The Beholder Click Here To Comment!

About nine years ago, I had a short but mind-blowing chat with a woman in the choir-of-my-past. She had gotten involved with a woman who was living at quite a distance from Toronto and I had just struck up an intense long-distance connection with a woman in Copenhagen.  As one does, one tries to seek some common ground and I said to her, “It is hard, isn’t it? Trying to manage building a relationship, a connection, at a distance?” And she looked at me with a penetrating, quizzical expression and said, “Why does everyone say that, that distance relationships are so hard? Who ever said that moving in together or getting married was easy? It is just what people are used to, what they view as ‘normal’. But in fact it is very hard. But people are used to that pattern so it gets called ‘easy’.  You and I know that it isn’t easy, either way. So follow your heart.”

She gave me a lot to think about, as she usually did, in our little mid-rehearsal chats.

I’ve thought about this a lot lately, and not so much in relation to the fact that I have, indeed, moved in with the lovely Knotty Girl and her (mostly) adorable children. That part is as hard/easy/magnificent/mundane/challenging/fun/exciting/surprising/normal/frustrating/puzzling/funny/beautiful as it is supposed to be. I’m thinking more about the reactions people have had to me appearing to have gone mad by moving a vast distance out of the city.

The established, expected “pattern” would be to live close to work and to stay within spitting distance of the city that I’ve come to love and feel nurtured by. But is that truly the “easy” choice, or just the “expected” choice? How “easy” is it to live in very dense proximity to strangers who behave in unexpected ways, to cope with traffic that is worsening daily, to have very limited access to greenspace, to have to plan carefully one’s route to across town and back to account for time of day, traffic, road closures, protests, events and water main breaks?

The breaking point for me, where the rose-coloured glasses filtering “easy” fell off my eyes, happened one day when Knotty Girl and I pulled up to the arena for a hockey game and were astounded to witness a man stopping on the lawn in front of our car, pulling down his pants and defecating right in front of us. He just did his bidness and pulled his pants up and walked on. That was the beginning of the end for me living downtown. It was no longer “easy” and I could no longer pretend that I found it to be so.

I am, after all, a country girl. I am used to having cows, horses or pigs poo’ing in front of me. Not people.

My gorgeous condo was starting to feel cramped by lack of access to the outdoors and hauling bags of heavy groceries and hockey gear up three flights of stairs no longer seemed as easy as it once did.  In fact, everything about city living started to feel cramped. Space is entirely at a premium, be it space to put a vehicle or space to put a desk to work at. Even space at Starbucks, for those with laptops and that need for the unique focus that public space can provide, can be hard to come by.

I was raised in a huge, rambling, rickety farmhouse with seven bedrooms and two kitchens. We had 750 acres of land, much of which was at my disposal to roam, plow or play cops/robbers/army/spy or whatever, with or without my little buddies. The brickwork in the house was so weak in some spots, like “my” tv watching spot in the living room, that you could feel the wind blow against your ankles for six months of the year. But it sure was big. And there was room for everyone.

Is it “easy” to live far from the city, work, friends and hockey? Not always. Does it feel more “normal” to me? Yes, actually it does. We watch the weather closely, we plan and prepare for things (usually) in a more considered way. We are distracted by birds at the feeders, by the arc of snow blowing in clumps off the trees and glinting in the sunlight, by the size and proximity of the full moon against a black sky, by the wild turkeys and their crazy footprints across the snow on the ice rink. This feels preferable to being distracted by car alarms, traffic tie-ups, unintelligible arguments in grocery stores and sirens. We are responsible for solving a lot of our own problems out here, or at least being somewhat prepared for them.

A few months ago, as Hurricane Sandy approached the North American coast line, Knotty Girl and I spent about two hours getting ready. We gathered up all that might blow around on our property and stashed it safely. We shopped. We parked our cars out of possible treefall zones. We charged up all our flashlights and other devices. The weather models didn’t really suggest we would get hit hard but we’ve come to learn that weather forecasting is a less-than-exact science. It was best to be ready. And we were. I slept so well that night, having done all that we could think of to minimize damage and maximize continuity of lifestyle. We woke up to a few small branches down on the lawn. The hydro didn’t even go out.

My point is that we had some things we could do to make ourselves as prepared as possible. I don’t find this as easy in the city, especially in living spaces like condos. I did make sure that I had a gas fireplace and a gas stove in my place and hoped I could operate them if the hydro were out for an extended period. Hauling items up and down the three flights of stairs was a trade off for not having to rely on an elevator. The hydro did go out a couple of times in the nine years I lived there and I was grateful for having heat, cooking ability, and normal access to my abode.  But I couldn’t make my neighbours take their patio furniture and flower boxes off their balconies so that these items wouldn’t blow through MY windows. I’d be rewarded with a door slammed in my face if I tried such a thing. I couldn’t make all my condo neighbours be mindful of allowing strangers into the property and many of us were rewarded with an expensive overnight car break-in spree a few years ago.  Hell – the city can’t even make dog owners be accountable for dog poo and that problem seemed to get worse and worse in my neighbourhood over the years.

I apologize for the poo theme. One might think that I have a shitty opinion of downtown life. I don’t entirely. Let’s just say it lost its glamour for me and I’m feeling less claustrophobic and more able to make choices about how things happen out here, away from the city lights.  Easy? Not entirely. Preferable? Yes. More deeply familiar to me? Completely.

It Got Better 7 comments

It is late evening, and I’m exhausted and frustrated. Grading deadlines are slipping by me as the technology I’ve relied on to exchange work and feedback with students is letting me down. I’m beginning to believe that the process whereby any young person in this age learns how to communicate is quite broken and, as a communicator, this leaves me despondent. My apartment is a disaster, from a hygiene standpoint, and I’m not really all that special myself at the moment. My dog is unwell, again, and that is frightening and expensive. After the grading deadlines are dealt with, there is another – slightly less intense I hope – wave of activity on the horizon. I fervently hope, daily, that the social connections and opportunities I’m missing out on will still be there when I’m in a more balanced place.

That is really the issue: everything is just a bit out of balance – some days, a lot out of balance. I’ve been through this before, and it does pass. I know that. When I was 17, however, this lack of balance felt profound and cavernous. Insurmountable. Unending.  My father had shown up the summer previous, and after a five year absence, announced that he was selling the house and “moving us to town”. Just like that – he decided. It took a year to find a buyer and to negotiate the purchase of a house in town. My estranged parents did not speak to each other and avoided even being in the same room. There were opinions to share on potential homes, and instructions to relay between parties – parents, brothers, real estate agents, potential purchasers. I was the interpreter / go-between.  My father, suffering then with a not inconsequential onset of early senility, had the habit of yanking me out of class, without warning, and hauling me off to look at a house “for your mother”.  And … we were selling the most precious place on earth, as far as I was concerned. I’d lived on that farm all my life. Thus, the Great Move off the Farm in the summer of 1981 was the last chapter in what had already been a year-long, rather harrowing, squabbly saga.

We moved on Friday, June 5 and there was a party at a friend’s house that night. I remember getting very drunk and staggering home to a bed that was not properly constructed and subsequently sleeping at a 45 degree angle all night. My grandmother died, suddenly and unexpectedly, on Sunday, June 7. Or at least they found her that day. She didn’t get to see our new home.

My summer job had started. For the second or third year running, I was part of a traveling children’s theatre troupe, performing at day camps and libraries across our part of the province. Several of my friends were involved in this troupe as well.  Long days of bouncing around in a van with no seats – certainly not meeting any safety code of any kind – and leaping out, setting up, performing, loading up and moving on. Some days, we had three locations to hit in quick succession. It was fun, but it could be gruelling, hot and monotonous.

Somewhere in the year leading up to that summer, my inner life had shifted. I became slightly more aware, without language or even strong consciousness, that I was attracted to women. I abhorred this knowledge, floating somewhere below my articulated thoughts. I remember looking at my hands one day and thinking, “God – please don’t let these be the hands of a homosexual.” Every time I had a thought like that, I pushed it very far down. I had deeply, deeply internalized the wrongness of these attractions. And, being a good student, I paid attention. I didn’t need external bullies – I bullied myself.

But, when you are 17, sexual energy is everywhere and it was certainly present that summer in our little theatre troupe. We had the two Ds – boys, my best friend A, J the older female chaperone “adult”, and me. The five of us, bouncing around the province in a VW van. I remember getting quieter and quieter as the summer unfolded, and I remember that the only top I wore for weeks was my orange hockey jersey from my winter rec hockey team. It has only just struck me now the protective nature of this choice – my jersey, which originated from the only group of women that included people like me. Even on the hottest, sweatiest August days, I would sit sullenly in that van, in my orange hockey jersey, watching the two Ds flirt endlessly and mercilessly with A.

Included among the many attributes of that summer is that it is the first time any of us ever witnessed A telling another person to “fuck off”, her frustrated response after the playful, raucous flirtation crossed some line or other.

I didn’t “get” the flirtation. I didn’t speak, hadn’t learned or understood, the language of it. The meaning of it. I understood the textual, obvious meaning, but the subtext of playful meaninglessness eluded me. It did not elude me that I was not included in this ongoing, electrostatic, summer-long exchange between these three people who were my friends. The exclusion became more painful than anything I’d experienced. I remember my frustrating inability to just be like them and join in, even lightheartedly. Girls didn’t flirt with boys directly and if I tried, it would be like sawdust. There was no energy in it. It was impossible. I withdrew, further and further. I was deeply angry, hurt, and confused.

Mid-August, we had a booking at the Pinery Provincial Park. There was to be an late morning show and then a “just before bedtime” show for the campers and their kids. Lots of free time before and after both shows. A and I decided to have our lunch in the woods and a “friendly” raccoon wandered over to check out our offerings. A, not having knowledge of wild things, tried to pet the raccoon and soon learned that one gets bitten when one attempts such a thing. Then followed a “search” for the specific raccoon which was rather ridiculous really. How many raccoons are there in the Pinery, anyway?

I had reached some kind of nadir of my despondency that day, and I don’t recall if there was a specific thing that happened to drive me there. We had brought our bathing suits and had planned to have a bonfire on the beach after the early evening show. There I sat on a log on the beach, with my orange hockey jersey on over my bathing suit, the sun setting across the horizon and my friends cavorting in the surf of Lake Huron. I sat there for a long time, watching. Finding the mystery of how people get connected to be too difficult. Simply not believing that I would ever be one of those people to experience a human connection. A sexual connection. I didn’t have or develop what it takes for this mysterious thing that clearly comes easily to everyone else. I wasn’t good enough, nor would I ever be.

Sunsets over Lake Huron are among the most beautiful on earth and I suddenly thought it would be a good idea for me to just get lost in it. Just swim until I no longer existed, and had become one with the Lake and energy of the sun. I remember clearly peeling off the protective jersey and wading into the cold lake water. I started swimming, right past my friends. Further. I kept going. Steadily. I could hear my name being called. I kept going. And the sun kept going down.

I was a very strong swimmer at 17, and quite a determined one in that moment. I had gotten a long way out before I heard splashing behind me. One of the D’s, the weakest swimmer ironically, had bolted after me which was quite an impressive feat, really. He grabbed my foot, I think, and then my arm. He yelled something at me, right in my face, in a scared, angry voice. He was struggling to stay afloat himself and that hadn’t been my intent. So I let him steer me back to shore and “save” me. If memory serves, and it does get a little foggy at this point, I think I put my hockey jersey back on and sat back down sullenly on my log while he sputtered and stamped around our bonfire. It was all a bit surreal.

Later that weekend, there was a kitchen table meeting with A’s parents and my Mom, discussing how to handle treatment for A’s raccoon bite. She was furious at me for making my big swim and she brought it up at this discussion. I had nothing to say for myself, as I recall, so the subject was dropped. No one ever brought it up again, as I recall. I remember accompanying A to the hospital for those horrid rabies shots. She tells me that I went with her for every single one. I honestly don’t remember that.  I do remember feeling that the raccoon bite had made a more lasting impression on the adults than my big swim had.

Being a teenager is really hard. Emotions loom large and they all feel complex, entangled and frustrating. Suicide attempts happen in a larger context than simply “being gay” and “being bullied” although these things have enormous impact. Being able to talk about whatever it is that makes us feel apart and isolated, being able to really appreciate a healthy, whole reflection of ourselves, to see all the beauty each individual brings BECAUSE they are individuals, not part of a mass-produced mind-meld – these are important gifts that young people need.

For the record, I more than made up for the absence of teen flirting later. I was a late bloomer in that regard. And I’m very, very grateful that D swam after me that August evening in 1981. Because having too much work, an attention-seeking feline, an elderly canine, a beautiful girlfriend, a dirty apartment, a drawer overflowing with hockey jerseys, too many invitations and not enough time … these are all the blessings of a full, if not always balanced, life. And I am indeed blessed.

We Live In A Data-Gatherer Society Click Here To Comment!

We are all data collectors and data users. I bet if you thought about it, you’d realize just how much data you process on a daily basis, making your basic day-to-day operational decisions.

  • Surveying the fridge and the pantry before grocery shopping. Making purchasing decisions based on what you know you have, or are missing. Making other decisions based on what you know, or can predict, will be on sale at some later date, or in some different store.
  • Visualizing your day and how much time you can allot to certain tasks. Being able to estimate how long certain tasks will take, based on how long they took before, and taking into consideration new variables. For example, the drive across town to the grocery store took 20 minutes last week but will take 30 this week as the trip is being attempted at a different time of day.
  • Planning activities for children, based on what they have enjoyed in the past. Trying to predict, based on what you know, what they might like in the future.

These are all scenarios in which we, as adults, recall, calculate, remember, process and interpret data we have gathered unconsciously – even subconsciously – and stored over a lifetime. We do all that, then we make decisions.

So, what does it say about our government when it does not want to take time to gather accurate, detailed data on citizens in order to make their decisions? I know so many people, including myself, who are outraged about this. In my opinion, StatsCan has never collected ENOUGH data on Canadians. Certainly not enough on the issues that affect groups that are marginalized or otherwise poorly understood.

  • We know too little, and have therefore done too little, about the health and welfare of our First Nations communities. We have a fragmented, rather than a systemic, understanding of the factors that have led to disasterous conditions.
  • We have a national blood services agency that feels justified in voting an entire group of potential donors off the donation island as they do not have enough current data and must lead with assumptions instead.
  • We have only scant data what families really look like in Canada in 2010 and are still setting public policy based on 1950’s era assumptions about intact male/female partnered households, 2.5 children and sub-urban lifestyles.

Indeed, StatsCan has never gathered enough data, in my opinion. And we are right to be outraged. But, here is the real problem. This government does not wish to make decisions based on data. Facts are not relevant to their decision-making process. If facts were relevant, the G20 would have been held practically anywhere else in Canada BUT downtown Toronto. No, this government does not wish to act on a factual basis. It wishes to act on its own assumptions and biases, on “gut-feel” and “everyone knows …”. We have public policy based on the “gut feel” of the individuals who have wound up in the power structure in parliament, and their own particular views and biases that accompany them to Ottawa.

This is akin to going shopping without any data on what you have already, or where you might find the best or cheapest items. Like flying blind in the grocery store, you wind up with too much milk and it goes off before you can use it, and you pay too much for bread, and you bring home the wrong salad dressing.  Inefficient, and a poor attempt at meeting needs.

What if we had proportional representation? Surprise – the Harper Conservatives don’t like that idea either.  Here are some charming facts from the Fair Vote Canada site:

  • 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
  • In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
  • Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
  • New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

You see, if Canada had proportional representation, the census data issue would matter slightly (only slightly) less because the parliament would be comprised of elected officials who actually represented the choices made by voters on election day.  And, therefore, the issue wouldn’t come up at all – because if the people we had actually voted for were in power, in proportion to the actual vote, Stats Can would get increased funding to gather more useful data to assist in the setting of public policy.

To make reasonable decisions based on actual data, not assumptions. Like we all try to do, every day.

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