The Bootstrap Lie

119 a house

The dream house on 119a Street.

When do ideas become stories? When do stories become myths? When do myths become harmful?

Post-colonization North American culture is young compared to the rest of the world. Our stories are new but our identities have already been hammered into stone—America the independent rebel, Canada the polite do-gooder, Mexico the feisty outsider.  But there is one myth that binds us. It is, for the most part, an American myth, though aspects of this myth bleed regularly north and south.

The myth is that of the plucky-yet-poor individual who, by sheer hard work and determination, pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and succeeds. Only in a free and democratic nation could this happen! Only in the land(s) of opportunity can peasants become wealthy.

I have my own bootstrap story. Had my father been an American, his story would have been a prime example of that oft-touted and mythologized American Dream.

Except when it became a nightmare. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My father, Robert, as I have mentioned here before, grew up poor in a family of seven. A depression era baby, he was raised and nurtured on frugality. Cleaning up after his death, I found a drawer full of bread bag clips—because you never throw away something useful.

I don’t know how my dad landed his job with Western Canada Steel but it would prove to be his golden ticket. With not even a highschool diploma to his name, Dad’s career options were limited. Steel work was difficult and dangerous. Loud, hot, stifling, the steel mill was not for the faint of heart, but my dad had a dream. And so, without eye or ear protection, without steel-toed boots or safety helmets, he slogged away, pulling up those bootstraps, dreaming of better days.

And the better days came.

In 1974, he and his wife moved to the suburbs with their two daughters, into a brand new house, and an idyllic world of summer barbeques and winter snowball fights, dance recitals and Christmas feasts, three-week summer driving holidays and weekend camping adventures. Paradise.

My parents both worked full time jobs. My grandma lived with us and functioned as housekeeper, cook, and babysitter. We always had two cars and usually traded one or both in for a new car every four or five years. My sister and I never had to wear hand-me-downs and you could always count on a pile of presents under the Christmas tree.

And while he enjoyed the fruits of his labour, my dad never “settled”. He often worked graveyard shifts, arriving home close to 9am, falling into bed for a few hours of heavy-snoring sleep, and then waking to chop firewood, fix something around the house, bake a pie, drive me to dance lessons, or any of the other hundreds of odd jobs he always had on the go. He was an avid gardener—I grew up with every vegetable known to humankind in my backyard—and builder. You could say a lot of things about my dad, but you could never, ever, call him lazy.

Just as the myth promises, my dad rose from his humble beginnings by the sweat of his brow and reaped the bounty of toil and sacrifice. And then, because life loves a good joke, he lost it all.

When I was seventeen, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t so bad that she would need chemo, the doctors told her, but bad enough that she would have to go through radiation and possibly take some time off work. When I was eighteen, the steel mill my dad worked for locked its doors. There were cheaper places to mill steel and so…poof…gone.

My parents had to sell our family home and, of course, the university tuition they had promised to help me with became my responsibility alone. My dad, now in his mid-fifties with no work experience other than steel work, took a job with a window manufacturer for less than half the wages he had been making. He considered himself lucky to get a job at all given his age and lack of education. They bought a condo in Surrey, BC. By this time, my mom had been through one round of chemo and could no longer work at all. When her cancer came back, digging into her spin like a rabid vole, my dad had to leave his new job to care for her full time. A year later he took an early pension and they were both officially retired.

Mom chemo

Mom and me during her first round of chemotherapy

My mom died in 1996. My dad was an empty soul. Of all the losses he suffered, that was the one from which he could not recover. He stayed in the condo for a long as he could afford it but with one small pension and a rapidly rising cost of living that was not long.

Life got in one last laugh. The condo turned out to be one of BC’s infamous “Leaky Condos” and so he had to sell it at a loss. The final years of his life were spent in a moldy, tumble-down mobile home in Coombs, BC, where the lingering aftereffects of a life of hard labour—arthritis, respiratory illness, tinnitus, and more—rendered him barely able to walk from bedroom to living room.

I think he embraced death, when it came, as an end to loneliness and pain.

In some ways, my dad was lucky. He was born of an age that provided opportunity. My parents, with little education, could afford a new home, two cars, family vacations, and a decent standard of living without sinking into a bottomless pit of debt. The percentage of North Americans who can claim that lifestyle shrinks every year.  Near the end of his life, my dad and I often talked about how well he could live off his meager pension back in 1996. Less than twenty years later, living much more simply than he ever had, he would frequently put off buying much-needed medication because he could not afford it. When I could, I offered to help, but Dad was a proud man who would not take “charity”, even from his daughter.

Now that you have read his story, tell me, at what point could he have pulled himself up by his bootstraps? Should he have left his wife at home alone when she was so weak from chemotherapy that she couldn’t get out of bed? Should he have lived out of his car to save on rent? How? Where? What could he have done to change his fortune? And, please, tell me he was lazy or a drain on society, I dare you.

Here’s the truth behind the bootstrap lie: fate doesn’t care about you.

There are people in this world who will work their fingers to the bone until the day they die and never rise above poverty. There are people like my dad who will rise on hard work and then fall on the whims of fate and chance. And there are some who will be born into wealth and privilege that they will never earn and most certainly never deserve.

A good work ethic is a desirable quality and your chances of a better life do increase with your willingness to learn, work hard, and sacrifice, but assuming that everyone who is poor is so because they lack the gumption or the wherewithal to grab hold of those bootstraps and tug is wrong and dangerous.

Dangerous because it takes our attention away from the real, systemic causes of poverty. Dangerous because it encourages derision, and even anger, toward some of the most helpless in our society.  Dangerous because the guilt of failure, even when the failure is beyond our control, can be crippling. Dangerous because it makes necessary social safety nets seem like a luxury.

I’m going to take a wild stab and guess that a significant chunk of you reading this are carrying your own secret shame and guilt thanks to the bootstrap myth.  You put on a brave face with the outside world, you keep up the best possible façade of success and happiness, but secretly you face mounting debt and shrinking opportunities to improve your situation. But what can you do? Isn’t it your fault you’re not a millionaire? And so you lie awake in the middle of the night, quietly panicking.

This is the legacy of the bootstrap lie—a society of people desperately pretending that the dream is still alive and achievable if we just work a little harder.

I’m tired of pretending.

Posted in Family & Children, Grief and Mourning, News and politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Stray Dogs and Immigrants

Young stray dog sleeping

On Friday, February 24th I spent a few hours volunteering for the SPCA’s annual Bake a Difference fundraiser. The event is tied in with National Cupcake Day. Helping animals and eating cupcakes, could there be a better way to spend my time?

Um, no.

This year the event was not held at the local SPCA branch but at the Bank of Montreal in downtown Campbell River. The location was perfect. Not only was it easy for regular supporters to come in and donate money for cupcakes but the SPCA also reached a lot of new folks who knew little or nothing about their activities.

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. There were stacks of delicious home-baked cupcakes donated by volunteers, and the bank clients enjoyed having treats to munch on while waiting in line. We even had a couple come in and ask how many cupcakes they could get for a $60 donation. We filled up a big box with an assortment of the baked treats, while we offered our sincere thanks. It turns out this couple owns the local McDonald’s franchise and were going to bring the cupcakes to their staff. Lots of happy feels all around!

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Nom, nom, nom! Spreading cupcakey cheer and goodwill toward animals with the good folks of the Campbell River SPCA.

Though we had a couple of banners, we didn’t have much else in the way of signage and more than a few bank customers came over and asked us what we were raising money for. Usually, as soon as we said, “The BC SPCA”, there would be an instant flash of recognition and then they would drop some money in the box and take a cupcake.

But there was one gentleman, standing in line for the tellers, whose response was not only different but also crystallized some thoughts that have been swirling around in my cranium.

“What’s this for?” the man asked, gruffly.

“We’re fundraising for the BC SPCA,” I said, cheerfully.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” I said.

Before I could explain any further, his face darkened and he sneered, “Hmmpf, stray dogs and immigrants!” He turned away from me, indicating that this was the end of our conversation.

His obvious displeasure didn’t bother me. I am well acquainted with the SPCA and the good work they do—from the first dog I adopted in my early twenties, through my work as a veterinary assistant, and most recently as a kitten foster volunteer.  His comment and attitude, however, was a jarring reminder of the narrow world view some people cling to.

How do we form our opinions? When do they become set in stone? How much of what we believe is based on facts and how much on emotion? These are the questions I have been asking.

The unspoken subtext of this man’s comment was that we were bleeding heart liberals—or Social Justice Warriors in today’s parlance—talking people into wasting their money and time on lesser life forms. He could not see beyond his bias, could not see how helping the less fortunate or the voiceless actually helps us all.

Stray Dogs

As a kid in the 70’s, a few dogs running around loose in the neighbourhood wasn’t a huge cause for concern unless you were, like my best friend Trish, terrified of dogs. But those dogs all had homes that they would eventually return to or owners who would go looking for them, or we all knew who they belonged to. In other words, these were not really stray dogs. Occasionally the dogs fought with each other, pooped on people’s lawns, or bit someone, but most of us accepted these free roaming canines as a fact of life. When most people in North America think of “stray dogs” that is likely the image or memory that springs to mind.

It wasn’t until I started traveling to Baja, Mexico that I understood just how much of a hazard stray dogs can be. Anyone who has traveled to or lived in in developing or third world countries knows how it feels to find themselves confronted with a pack of stray dogs. These animals are dirty, often diseased, usually hungry, carrying fleas or parasites, and sometimes aggressive. To be bitten by one of these dogs is to face the possibility of rabies and a painful course of rabies vaccines.

As a runner, this is special problem for me, since running triggers pack hunting instincts. I do not go for a run anywhere without a small canister of bear mace on my hip.

Stray dogs breed more strays. The problem escalates until it is a public health hazard and extreme measures must be taken. In some places, dogs are shot or rounded up and euthanized en masse. Sometimes locals will leave out poison meat and inadvertently kill not just feral dogs but a host of other animals, including beloved domestic pets.

The good news is that it doesn’t take all that much money and work to prevent a stray dog population from reaching that point.

In Mulege, the little city near where Fred and I had our beach house in Baja, an American vet moved in and started to offer free spaying and neutering for local pet owners. She also provided free or low cost services, including “puppy packs” to educate owners on the importance of vaccines, hygiene, and general health practices for their dogs. I volunteered with her a few times. It was a bare bones operation but in a few short years I saw the rampant stray dog population dwindle to almost nothing. The local dogs I saw began to look healthier and more content. I felt better about walking the streets and I know I wasn’t the only one.

In the Cook Islands I volunteered with a group of international veterinarians who made an annual visit to spay, neuter, deworm and vaccinate the island’s cats (there were no dogs on Aitutaki). They also rounded up as many feral cats as they could to spay and neuter. Feral cats may not be as much of a threat to humans as stray dogs, but an unchecked cat population can quickly wipe out indigenous birds and small mammals, which effects the local eco-system, which, you guessed it, effects humans.

These are two cases I witnessed first-hand that showed how caring for animals improves the lives of humans. But if I had not visited or lived in these places, had not seen and felt the hazards posed by stray and feral animals, would I still feel as strongly as I do about animal welfare? Sure, I would probably still care about animals but perhaps not as fervently and definitely without the same depth of understanding of the big picture.

Luckily, the generations of Canadians coming after me have been raised in an environment where animal welfare is the norm. That is due in large part to organizations such as the SPCA who have worked tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to educate us all and broaden our world view.

Immigrants

The issue of immigrants and refugees is infinitely more complicated than animal welfare but negative attitudes come from the same place.

Over the years, new people I have met, upon learning of my nomadic existence, have reacted with awe, confusion, envy, or admiration. I’ve heard a lot of “Wow!” in my lifetime. A lot.

The wow is because for most people home is a sturdy, solid, fixed place. For most people, there really is no place like home. Home is comfortable. Your friends and family are there, your job is there, your hobbies are there, your whole life revolves around that one dot on the map. It may not be perfect but it’s your place and that makes it special. Most people I’ve met consider moving any distance more than an hour from their current home a BIG move. Out of their province or state? Enormous! Out of their country? Whoa! To the other side of the globe? Nope. To a place where they don’t speak the language, know the culture, or practice the dominant religion? Ha ha ha ha. No thank you!

Yes, lots of folks dream about running away to a tropical island to live but for 99% of those people it will remain just that—a distant, safely far-fetched fantasy.

This is not an insult to folks who are happy staying right where they are thankyouverymuch, it is an explanation of human nature. We are tribal. We naturally cling to people who look like us, speak our language, and believe what we believe. Why on earth would any sane person pack up and move away to strange place where they didn’t know anyone?

Exactly.

If you are a person who has lived in roughly the same area for all or most of your life, consider for a moment what it would take to motivate you to move to, say, China, or Pakistan, or Iceland, or any place that’s far away and very different from where you live now. What would it take? A job or business opportunity that would catapult you ahead in your chosen career or would pay so much money that you’d be crazy not to take it or your absolute dream job on offer? Falling madly in love with someone from that faraway place? (Someone who could not move to your part of the world.) The rest of your family moving there?

How about a serious threat to your life or safety? Your family’s life or safety?

What I’m saying is that all humans like to be where they are. Even if it looks like hell to you, to the person living there it is home sweet home.

People who leave their home and move far away to a different country where they don’t speak the language, practice the dominant religion, or know the customs, those people are either a) born with a deep-seated instinct to wander b) have some extreme motivation or c) are desperate.

Legal immigrants tend to fall into the second or third category, depending on their country of origin. Illegal immigrants or refugees are more often desperate, terrified, willing to live anywhere that they and their family will be safe.

Think on that for a moment. These people are not traveling to your country on a whim. They know they will have years of legal and bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and—even for refugees—fees to pay. They are not sitting in their homes, twirling their black mustaches and plotting how to take your job and suck your welfare and health care systems dry.  These are highly motivated people who are determined to make a better life for themselves and their families no matter the obstacles. They are industrious, willing to take jobs well below their skill level and outside of their field just for the privilege of living in your country. They are people who want to be good citizens and contribute.

Immigrants are exactly the kind of people we want in our society. They are the doers. They are the risk takers. They are the ones who appreciate how good life is in our part of the world. They bring new ideas, new ways of seeing the world, new cuisine, music, fashion and art. Canada and the USA have been enriched and strengthened by cultural diversity.

There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about immigrants and refugees out there, many of which get spread around the internet like social media herpes. I’m not going to refute them here—that’s not the point of this little rant—but I will encourage you to seek out the facts before you judge.

Here are some facts about Canadian immigrants and refugees and some facts about American immigrants and refugees.

And, yes, some freeloaders and bad apples will always slip through, and if you live in an area with a lot of immigrants and refugees you will likely have a bunch of anecdotes about how lazy and thieving and terrible they are. I will only say a) every wave of immigrants through the ages has been painted this way until they eventually integrate and the next wave takes their place  b) the actual numbers of “bad” immigrants and refugees is statistically insignificant.

Now, getting back to the cranky gentleman at the bank who lumped immigrants in with stray dogs, again, this is a person who can’t see past the tiny sphere of his own existence.

As someone who has traveled, lived and worked in faraway countries I can tell you this: it’s tough. It’s a lot of work; there are more papers to fill out and hoops to jump through  than you can imagine. It’s hell saying goodbye to the people you love, even when you know you might be back in a few years. Some friendships cannot survive the separation and that hurts too. It’s expensive. And it’s frustrating to get to your new country and discover everyone hates you because they think you’re taking their jobs. It’s embarrassing to know that people are making fun of you in the language you can’t speak—and if you think learning a new language as an adult is easy…HA!

HA HA HA HA!!!

It’s also amazing when you finally make a connection, when you meet a local person who is kind and patient and wants to help you. What a feeling when you are able to share some of your culture that enriches the people around you, and then they share their culture with you, and you all walk away feeling better and wiser and more compassionate for the exchange.

It makes me sad to know that the Gentleman In The Bank Line will never know that feeling.

Almost as sad as it makes me to think that he missed out on some damned delicious cupcakes!

The Gentleman In the Bank Line was a good reminder to me to guard against the natural human instinct to settle, to refuse to examine our beliefs, to narrow our view until we are looking through a pinhole at our big, beautiful, complicated, glorious world.

May I always choose to eat the cupcakes and care for stray dogs and immigrants. May we all.

Posted in Aitutaki - Cook Islands, Animals, Baja - Mexico, News and politics, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fool Me Twice: My Journey Into Pseudoscience

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Me in Costa Rica, 2003. Don’t let that smile fool you.

It is the winter of 2003. Fred is helping me out to a van; I am doubled over with pain, barely able to breathe. The van’s driver is Christian, the manager of the yacht club in Golfito, Costa Rica. He has kindly offered to take us to the local hospital, which is tucked away in the jungle.

We are at the southern tip of Costa Rica, the jumping-off point for tourists on their way to the Oso Peninsula and its magnificent park land. Golfito is not magnificent. Dirty, poor, sparsely populated, I worry about the level of care I will receive here.

I arrive to find all the local “Ticos” in the waiting room dressed as if they are going to a job interview or to church. Apparently going to the hospital is a big deal here. I am in stained sweatpants—getting dressed into any kind of pants was hard enough without worrying if I was fashionable before my appendix burst, or whatever tragedy was about to unfold in my body.

As it turns out, the doctors in Golfito are no worse, or better, than the Canadian doctors who brushed off my complaints of severe abdominal pain and menstrual cramps for almost a decade. The diagnosis, this time, is irritable bowel syndrome.

It is not irritable bowel syndrome. More about that later.

*

I’ve thought about writing this Coconut Chronicle for some time but could not seem to articulate the vague and growing unease I felt about the rise of pseudoscience and decline of critical thinking. Lately, however, lies of all varieties have taken center stage and people seem to be taking notice. When I heard that the Oxford Dictionary had chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year, I knew it was time for me, and others, to start talking.

If you think I’m about to stand on my soapbox and wag my finger, think again. What I want to do is show you how even someone who considers herself logical, skeptical and a critical thinker can be sucked in by well-meaning hucksters and pseudoscience. And, hopefully, I can also show you a path out.

Regular readers are well aware that I am an atheist and grew up with no religious background of any type. But that doesn’t mean that I was immune to myths, superstitions, and questions about god. As a young person, I believed in ghosts, astrology, ESP, past lives, UFOs (the kind the government wants to keep secret!), conspiracy theories, you name it. I may not have been technically religious but I Iingered in the “undecided” column for years, sometimes praying to a god I didn’t really believe existed just, you know, to cover bases in case I was wrong.

Science, as interesting as it was, did not and could not match these mystical fields when it came to sheer amazement and wonder. At least that’s what I believed.

Then, one day in my early twenties, a book fell into my lap that would open my eyes and let me begin to look at the world thoughtfully and critically. It showed me that science and spirituality are intertwined and full of enough wonder and mystery to last an eternity.

The book: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The author: Carl Sagan

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What I loved about Sagan’s masterpiece (yes, I will call it that), is that he never once made me feel stupid or weak for believing in things that were, in retrospect, pretty silly. He lifted a veil for me and instead of looking out on a world that had lost all its magic, I saw a world so steeped in magic that there could be no possible reason to invent false magic. More than any piece of writing I’ve come across in my 47.5 years, this book fundamentally changed me and my relationship with the world around me. I am forever in Sagan’s debt.

“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” ~ Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I still glance at my horoscope if I see it in the newspaper. For fun. And I still keep some of my quirky superstitions (I always knock twice on the door of an airplane when I’m boarding, for good luck), but I am fully aware they are superstitions and in no way effect how events unfold in my life. Understanding that all these things I once believed were lies liberated and empowered me.

And, like any good born-again anything, I made it my mission to convert others to “the truth”. To anyone who had to listen to my Sagan sermons in my early days, I am so sorry.

Really. So, so sorry.

You see, in the years to follow, I would learn that when people hold tightly to false beliefs or pseudoscience, there’s almost always a deeper reason behind it. I was liberated by Sagan’s words because I was at a place in my life where those old beliefs no longer served me. I was ready to toss aside my security blanket and face the world alone. I’m not sure that book would have had the same impact even a few years earlier.

I also learned that critical thinking can easily be derailed in times of desperation.

In 2003, I was desperate.

*

When Fred and I abandoned our dream of tropical living and decided to return to Canada, part of the driving force behind that decision was my health. The chronic abdominal pain and painful cramps had worsened, as had my frequent debilitating headaches and lethargy. My Canadian doctor was less helpful than the nice man in Golfito who had diagnosed me with IBS. She told me, as had so many before her, that some women simply suffer from painful periods and I could take up to 1200mg of Advil per day if I needed to. That was it. My life was now constant pain and frustration. My marriage and my mental health were both taking a regular beating thanks to my mystery illness.

And then, a miracle! I was reading a magazine article in which a woman described how she had, after many painful years, discovered that she had endometriosis. As I read the bullet point list of symptoms, my eyes widened. I had every single symptom. This was the answer. Eureka!

I hurried to make an appointment with my doctor, overjoyed to share the news that I had solved the mystery.

Cue the sad music.

Yes, she agreed that I most likely had endometriosis, but the only treatment for that was for me to get pregnant or have a hysterectomy. Great. Two treatment options, neither of which I was going to choose.

I felt worse than ever.

And then, another miracle!

Two good and trusted friends, each of whom had battled untreatable mystery ailments of their own, had found a naturopath in Vancouver who had diagnosed their problems and given them treatments that cured them. I was desperate for any kind of help and so I made an appointment.

I was prepared to be skeptical. I believed in science! I believed in real medicine!

What I saw and experienced wiped away any misgivings. The office looked just like a real doctor’s office. The naturopathic doctor looked just like a real doctor. They didn’t chant or wave burning herbs around. They took blood and urine samples, discussed my medical history, took my temperature and blood pressure, weighed and measured me. So professional!

They were also the first medical persons who ever took my complaints seriously. Endometriosis was serious! They treated me like a real human, were compassionate, and offered me hope. I was hooked.

Oh sure, a few of the tests were…unusual, but real medicine hadn’t helped me so why not give this a shot? One of the “specialists” brought in a kit to test my allergies and sensitivities. The kit was a big wooden box filled with vials. The vials, she explained, contained various ingredients. All I had to do was hold the unopened vial in my hand and lift my arm up at about a 45 degree angle. The specialist would then push down on the top of my hand. If she had difficulty moving my arm, that meant I was fine. If my arm moved somewhat easily that meant I was sensitive to the ingredient in the vial. If my arm was very easily pushed that meant I was allergic to the ingredient in the vial.

“Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves.” ~ Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The test showed that I was allergic to wheat, corn and cow dairy and sensitive to MSG. It never dawned on me to question why she only tested a few of the vials in the box or how she could be sure that it was my arm giving way easily and not just her pushing harder.

After a few visits and more tests, I was given a “prescription” for several pills and potions and put on a very strict diet to “reset” my system. I was thrilled! At last, a cure!

My husband tried his best to be happy for me but these visits and my prescriptions were expensive, at a time when we were on shaky financial ground. Oh, and none of this was covered by our medical insurance.

I followed the diet. I took the pills and potions. I did feel better. I lost some weight without even trying. My headaches gradually went away. My energy increased. My stomach pain lessened…somewhat. My painful menstrual cycle was still painful but I had been assured that it would take time to fix my broken body.

What I couldn’t see then, what I didn’t want to see, was that mostly what I was experiencing was that age old trickster: the placebo effect.

Yes, I felt better because I had stopped consuming so much damned sugar. A fact that any half-decent nutritionist could have pointed out. I was drinking more water and eating loads more vegetables than I ever had, too. But I was convinced it was the naturopathic miracle. The tension in my marriage didn’t go away, it simply switched from being related to my health to being all about the money we had to spend on my miracle cure.

Then, a setback. The cramps returned with a vengeance. We were now living in Ucluelet, which was as remote as Golfito in many ways, and the pain was debilitating. I broke down and went to another “real doctor”. I explained that I had endometriosis and was using naturopathy to treat it (bless his heart for not laughing) but that for whatever reason it had flared up again.

“Have you ever had an endoscopy?” he asked.

“A what?” I replied.

In a matter of weeks, I was in surgery. They scoped me, found the endometriosis and burned it out. This time I was cured for real.

I stuck to the naturopathic diet but gave up the pills and potions—we simply could not afford them. Despite what should have been obvious, I still clung to the belief that I was allergic to wheat, corn and cow dairy. It took moving to another far, far away place, Aitutaki, for me to finally, slowly let go of that last piece of my security blanket. On this tiny island, food supplies were limited. I had no choice. I broke down, ate wheat, corn and dairy products and…I was fine. Nothing happened. In fact, I soon found myself in the very best shape and health of my life.

I like to imagine Carl Sagan smiling at that.

“One of the reasons for its success is that science has a built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.” ~ Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

*

My return to critical thinking in matters of health, medicine and diet has been slow. It’s difficult to let go of beliefs that comfort us and for a long time my beliefs—my very non-science based beliefs—sustained me and gave me hope. I could feel ashamed about having been so fooled but, like I said, I was desperate. I could be angry at the naturopaths who fooled me and took me for money I could not afford to give, but I honestly think they believed in what they do and wanted to help me. I could rant and rave and call out every bit of similar pseudoscience I come across but people have to give up their security blankets willingly—no amount of preaching can make that happen.

No one likes to be fooled. No one likes to admit (even to themselves) that they can be fooled. Looking critically at our beliefs is scary. It is hard to imagine how we will go on if we learn that our deeply held beliefs (so deep we consider them true facts) are a lie.

So here’s what I will say to you: Life will go on and it will be better.

You don’t have to dive into the deep end. Try critically examining one belief. Maybe it’s one you’re not even that invested in. Read opposing viewpoints, talk to people who don’t share your belief. Ask them why they don’t share that belief. Consider your sources: Who advocates for this belief? Do they have something to gain from their position? Ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Step outside of your echo chamber for a little while.

If you do all that and you still come away believing what you believed to begin with, fair enough. Maybe your facts are true or maybe you’re not yet ready to give up your security blanket. Either way, it’s good to practice not simply taking everything on faith.  Critical thinking is a learned skill. The scientific method is also a learned skill. It’s never too late to learn!

And to you practitioners of real science, of real medicine, don’t forget that human beings require more than facts. If just one of my medical doctors had ever shown real concern for my pain and expressed a genuine interest in helping find some long term relief, then perhaps I wouldn’t have been so ripe for the picking when the hocus-pocus pseudo-doctors came along.

Now, if you’re saying, “What’s the harm in _____?” (Fill in non-scientific belief or superstition of your choice), consider the Alberta toddler who died of meningitis because his parents chose to give him a homeopathic remedy instead of taking him to the hospital. Consider the grieving parents of the Sandy Hook school shooting who are harassed and even receive death threats by conspiracy theorists who claim the tragedy was a hoax. Consider the seniors who are targeted by psychics and other scam artists and bilked out of their life savings.  There are tens of thousands of stories that show just how much harm can come from pseudoscience, false news, conspiracy theories and fakery.

And now…

Now that the highest office in the United States of America is filled by a person from whom lies flow like a river, now that harm could spread globally. Now it falls on the shoulders of each of us to be extra vigilant, to dust off our critical thinking caps, to verify news before we spread it and contribute to the problem.

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” ~ Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I’ve read lately suggestions that we should read dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984 to understand the age in which we now live. I disagree. I have learned to be careful about who I turn to in times of desperation.

I suggest we all pick up a copy of Demon Haunted World and devour the words of a passionate scientist who offers not only a warning but also that most necessary and precious commodity: hope.

Let’s not get fooled again.

Posted in Health and wellness, News and politics, Women's Issues | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

They Can’t Take That Away From Me

Grabbing hand

Don’t close your eyes yet. For now, I only want you to think back to a time when you found yourself in “the wrong part of town”. Maybe it was an accident, a wrong turn, bad directions, or maybe you simply didn’t realize that zone was dangerous until you were there. Whatever the reason, take a minute to remember a time that happened to you. Hold onto that memory for later in this post.

I have been writing these Chronicles, in various incarnations, for almost fourteen years now. In all those years, I have never felt less capable of articulating my thoughts and feelings. Like most others, the recent US election left me stunned, and what has followed leading up to and beyond the inauguration has chilled, angered, and frustrated me.

I was living on Aitutaki—a pinpoint of an island in the South Pacific—in 2008, when Obama was elected. Even on that dot of land, thousands of miles from the US, there was jubilation. Businesses and cars sported pro-Obama stickers and visitors from all countries expressed their happiness with a leader who promised hope, thoughtful governance, and better international relations. Our hopes may have been a smidge too high but the change was refreshing.

Today, only eight years later, I feel the exact opposite of everything I felt back then. And, clearly, I’m not alone.

The question that’s troubling me is: What should I do about it?

If I was an American, there would be countless answers—protests, letters/emails/phone calls to government representatives, consumer boycotts, etc. But I am Canadian. Not my country. Not my president. Not my problem.

Until, that is, it becomes my problem.

It could become my problem.

The ascendance of a narcissistic, tantrum-throwing, barely literate buffoon to the highest office in United States of America—something I believed impossible right up until the moment it happened—gives me pause. Already, Canuck Trump clones like Kevin O’Leary and Kellie Leitch are popping up, declaring solidarity with the buffoon, and announcing their intentions to move our quiet, peace-loving little country in a more Trump-like direction.

Some people say we shouldn’t care what the US does. I say if there are powerful people next door to us promoting hate, fear and bigotry, we should care very much.

Which brings me back to the same question: What should I do about it?

I’ve read, watched and listened to more political banter than I’d ever hoped to in my lifetime. Because I’ve long advocated for understanding over fear and hate, I have tried to genuinely listen to the handful of my friends who agree with or support Trump. These people, my friends, are intelligent, kind, hardworking, male and female, and come from a variety of backgrounds. Their support does not spring from racism, misogyny or homophobia. Most of their arguments come from a place of logic and reasoning, though I’m sure more than a few would admit to a degree of satisfaction at the defeat of liberalism. These are good people and I love them, but I remain troubled.

On January 27, 2017, Vice President Pence attended and spoke at the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. with the full support of the President of the USA. Now, if you are anti-abortion, I am not going to try to sway you. Believe what you believe. But if you think for one second that going back to the way things were pre-Roe vs Wade will make your country great again, if you believe that women will not suffer and die without access to safe, legal abortion, you have not studied history.  If you think that the leader of your country declaring that women who seek abortions should be subject to “some form of punishment” is not a threat to women (and, no, I don’t care that he later retracted the statement), you are delusional.

How can this be overlooked? How can otherwise kind, compassionate and intelligent people turn a blind eye to this? And, bear in mind, this is one example, one small example of the threat to anyone who is not Christian, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and white.

For generations, women, the LGBTQ community, non-whites, the disabled, and various religious and atheist groups have fought for equality. We have fought to make the world fairer and more inclusive. We have scratched and clawed and bled for the kind of rights others took for granted. And just when we felt as if some real progress has been made, here comes a fascist and his goon squad prepping to drive us back to darker days.

And still: What should I do about it?

Perhaps, in some small way, I can enlighten?

Remember how I asked you to recall a time when you had ended up in “the wrong part of town”? Close your eyes for a minute and really put yourself back in that moment.  I’ll wait.

Did you remember how it felt? How your senses all sharpened? Did your stomach tighten just a little when you realized where you were? Did you suddenly start looking at the people around you and measuring them as possible threats? Did you start planning what you would do if things went wrong? Did you call a friend or spouse or family member for help? Did you vow to pay more attention to your surroundings in the future?

If you are pro-Trump, remember that feeling and hold it fast. Why? Because that is how many, many people feel every day of their lives. Not to the same level all the time, but that constant low-level vigilance is the reality of being among those who, in the scheme of power, are the minority. I’ve always been a happy, carefree person but that doesn’t mean I haven’t spent the better part of my life with my radar always activated. I know my rights are a recent phenomenon, I feel how fragile they are, how easily removed. There’s a reason Atwood’s classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, is so terrifying–because it’s so damn plausible. I know several women who, in their lifetime, were not allowed to wear pants in school or at work, who could not own a credit card or open a bank account without their husband’s permission, who were unable to pursue their career of choice due only to their gender, who had no choice when it came to bearing children. These things didn’t happen “way back when”, some of these women are barely sixty years old!

The next time Trump does or says something that sends millions of people into a panic, before you brush off their concerns as hype or paranoia, revisit that memory of being in the wrong part of town and imagine how you would function if you experienced some degree of that sensation every day of your life. Perhaps it won’t be so easy to turn a blind eye when you see the world through someone else’s point of view.

So, that’s one small drop in the bucket and I don’t hold out much hope that my words will change any minds.  The threat is as large as ever and the question remains unanswered: What should I do about it?

I may not have all the answers to that question but I have one: fight.

However I can, I will fight. I will stand against the man who speaks publicly of punishing women and who privately brags about forcing himself upon them. I will not let this ideology find its way into my own country.

As a woman, I stand on the shoulders of generations of courageous females who risked everything for basic rights and equality. I may lose a few friends in the next four years but that is nothing compared to the sacrifices made by my ancestors. They fought for our rights, they’re ours now, you can’t have them back.

You can’t take that away from me.

I won’t let you.

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Process: The Most Important, Least Teachable, Skill Every Writer Needs to Learn!

Any student of the writing craft will, at some point, encounter the phrase writing process, often shortened to simply process.  “What’s your process?” We learn that every author has their own unique process that takes them from blank page to completed manuscript. What is not often discussed is how you develop that process or just how important a good process is.

Google “writing process” and a list of dry, step-by-step instructions will appear.

  • Pre-writing
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Editing

Yes, technically, these are writing processes. But the process I speak of encompasses a bigger picture.

How do you start? How do you keep going when you lose interest or the story hits a wall? How do you solve plot problems? How do you choose POV’s? How do you know when something is working…and when it’s not? How do you decide where to start or end scenes and chapters? How do you stay sane and smiling through the grunt work of story creation? When do you write? For how long? Where?

Some writers do their best work in busy coffee shops—a nightmare to me. Others feed the muse late at night—I’m a morning person. (Yes, I know you hate me). Some writers have specific rituals to begin every session—I’m a nomad, which means I need to keep my routine open and flexible because of my ever-changing surroundings. (But I still hate writing in noisy public spaces).

leo-interrupts-proofreading

Sometimes proofreading and editing requires strategic cute-cat avoidance. Process Skill #13

I’m thinking about process today because, during our outlining session yesterday, Josh and I ran into a significant problem. We had ended our previous book with several characters in a kind of limbo. Not a big deal, since we had a rough idea of the coming plot and where those missing characters would eventually re-appear, except…

Oops! When we actually sat down to outline, we changed the planned plot. We changed it in big ways. We changed it in ways that made us both happy. We changed it in ways that made sense. We changed it in ways that seemingly allowed no room to re-insert three important characters.

Like I said, oops!

Josh called this problem to my attention and for about an hour we banged our heads against our keyboards trying to make it all work. But it wasn’t working and I was frustrated at the sudden halt to momentum. We’d worked so hard to address all the flaws of our original idea and streamline the plot into a thing of beauty and now it was all being undone by these three stupid characters?  Are you kidding me?! *rageflail*

Then, Josh said the magic words, “I have complete and utter faith in our process.”

Our process. Our hard-earned, time-polished process. Our self-taught, oft-tested process. Our process would save us if only we could believe. We did. And it did.

Here’s how our process works in moments of frustration and difficulty:

  1. We acknowledge the problem.
  2. We acknowledge that, even if we don’t agree on a solution, we share the same goal—create the best story possible.
  3. We agree to walk away and let our brain meats churn on the problem.
  4. We churn our brain meats.
  5. We come back to the problem later, often the next day, fresh and ready to go. Usually one of us has come up with a new idea or a fresh angle of attack.
  6. We work until the problem is solved OR we go back to step #3 and repeat.

That process may sound simple but the next time you are in a heated debate with someone try saying, calmly, “I know we don’t agree right now but you’re awesome and I’m awesome and I know we can work this out! Let’s walk away, sleep on the problem, and come back tomorrow with a fresh perspective!”

It took Josh and me a while to figure out that there’s no winning in story collaboration if your partner isn’t comfortable or happy with your choice. If I love an idea and Josh hates it, then it’s the wrong idea. Period. Once we learned how to walk away peacefully, cool off, and let go of our ideas, everything started moving more quickly and easily.

That’s the critical role of a good writing process: save time.

Time is not a writer’s friend. Most of us have “real jobs”, the ones that pay the rent and buy groceries, not to mention spouses and children and an assortment of chores that lay claim to our time. The sliver of time we carve out for writing is precious. If I have only two hours in a day to write, I sure don’t want to spend ninety of those minutes going in endless circles trying to fix a problem, only to walk away no further ahead than where I started. Far better to walk away after thirty minutes and tackle Mt. Laundry or go for a walk or play with my kittens, while the brain meats do their thing in the background.

Last night, just before bed, while I was busy not thinking about the story problem, my trusty brain spit out a solution to our three missing characters problem.  Hooray, process!

Here’s the bad news: You have to get your own process. I’ve talked to a lot of writers over the years. Our processes may share some similarities but no two are exactly the same. Process is not something that can be taught. I can give you ideas and suggestions, and you can try them, and maybe they’ll work and maybe they won’t—that’s as good as it gets. Process may be one of the most important and least teachable aspects of a professional writing career.

But here’s a tip that may be helpful: Don’t confuse process with skill or talent.

If I had stuck to Stephen King’s advice in his opus On Writing and pushed myself to write at a desk in a room with the door closed, I would have quit a decade ago. Either that or I would still be staring at the same blinking cursor on the same blank page.  Part of my process is that I create best when I’m typing on my laptop on my little lap desk on a couch, or a chair or a bed…anywhere but at a desk. I can edit at a desk but something about my brain makes me feel more comfortable creating in a less rigid setting. The minute I walked away from the desk, words flew from my fingers.

If you’re feeling stuck, feeling like the muse is on strike, feeling that old familiar ghost of Imposter Syndrome hanging over your shoulder, try mixing up your process. Keep testing and experimenting, you never know what strange little element might be the spark to ignite the bonfire. And don’t ever think, for example, that because Big Important Author only writes at night that you must also write at night to be successful –you might be a morning person.

We’re not that bad, honestly!

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I Used To…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An alien is about to burst out of my chest. Or perhaps that’s my heart. We are doing atomic push ups. Three sets of ten reps is the goal. I have done three reps. Two and a half? I have collapsed on my mat. I pant and savour the blessed relief of surrendering to gravity.

I see the TRX instructor’s orange shoes headed my way.

No, just keep walking. I’m going to lay here and sleep and possibly die, I think.

“This used to be easy,” I pant.

“This is never easy,” he says, jovially. “This is one of the hardest exercises.”

I want to tell him, “No, you don’t understand. I used to spend hours every day in the gym. I used to run the Grouse Grind twice a week—run, not hike. I used to skip rope for thirty minutes without breaking a sweat, do three sets of ten chin-ups as my warm up, finish off every gym day with an hour and a half of cardio. I used to swim twenty-five 50 meter laps every other morning. I used to run 10K three times a week and three times that on Sundays. I used to fight men who were bigger and stronger than me, and win. I used to reel in fish as tall as me and a hundred times as powerful. I used to ride my dirtbike until my legs were on fire. I used to be strong. I used to have stamina. I used to be young!”

Instead, I grunt and re-position. I grind out three more repetitions. They are ugly and imprecise but I do what I can.

The instructor congratulates me.

I am exhausted and want to vomit. I laugh. I take a drink of water.

I tell myself, It doesn’t matter what you used to do, what you used to be. The only thing that matters is this moment and what you choose to do with it.

I don’t want to be one of those people, you know the ones. They used to be something special and now they aren’t and they can’t get past it. The actor who used to headline major motion pictures and now sells cheap jewellery or home cleaning products on late night commercials on network TV? Yeah, I don’t want to be that.

I’m 47.5 years old. I’m never again going to have the speed, stamina or strength of my younger self. There are physical goals I’ve had to let go of, and it stings. I once promised myself I would compete in one Ironman before I was fifty. Realistically, now, I just want to be able to run 10K a few times a week and keep up with my more-active friends.

When I feel sad about this, I remind myself that I now know plenty of people who would love to have what I consider my deplorable state of fitness.  I know plenty of of people who didn’t even make it to 47.5 years old.

That’s not a free pass for me to eat junk food and pass my time watching bad TV but merely an unvarnished look at reality. I’ve long stood on my little soapbox and shouted at people to resist society’s obsession with youth…but that was all about youth on the surface. Embrace your wrinkles and grey hair! But can I embrace the limitations of my aging body combined with my new, often stationary, lifestyle? Can I practice what I preach?

I’m working on it.

In the previous Coconut Chronicle I talked about shifts, and this is part of that change. I may never be happy about losing what I once had but that doesn’t mean I am chained to the memory of the body I used to have.

Yesterday I played tennis with three women who were older than me, but far more skilled at the game. At least one of those women only picked up a racquet within the past five years. So what we lose in speed and strength and agility we can gain in patience, persistence, and enthusiasm. When we stop learning…we stop. My new physical goal is simply to keep trying new things, keep testing my boundaries, keep pushing myself to go further.

My immediate goal is to be able to do ten atomic push-ups in a row by the end of this month.

Why?

Because 47.5 years from now, I want to say, with a glint in my eye, “Atomic push-ups? Oh, I used to do those!”

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Shift

Seismic Activity Graph

“I’m not feeling it.”

These words, written by my friend and co-author Josh, were like a bucket of cold water being dumped on my head.  Here we were, sixteen chapters into the outline for our fifth and final novel in the Warpworld series, making excellent progress on a complex and multi-storied plot, when he announced that he didn’t think it was working. His arguments were sound. I knew they were sound because they were the same kind of arguments I’ve made in the past when I’ve stepped in to stop work in progress. Even so, I put up a mild fight. At first.

The feeling you get when realize something you think is going well actually isn’t going well at all? Unsettling. Uncomfortable. Disheartening. It doesn’t matter if the something is a manuscript, a marriage, a job, a chosen field of study, or a vacation, the feeling is always the same.  Something has shifted. Your perception and reality are out of sync and you can see the disconnection like a crack in the earth.

Shifts have their own seismic scales. Small tremors, big shakers, deep and profound, superficial yet disruptive and damaging. Most are survivable, some are barely noticeable, others permanently alter the landscape of our lives.

I’ve had a few memorable shifts in my life. In my late-twenties, post-divorce and midway through my new career, I discovered that most everything that had once brought me joy was now only making me feel trapped and tired. I recall sitting at a table with my live-in boyfriend and another couple we spent much of our free time with. We had eaten dinner (barbequed steak and roast potatoes, as always), were drinking a lot of red wine (as always), and had just started a game of dominoes (as always). We were telling the same jokes, sharing the same gossip and stories, and making the same plans as we had been doing for at least a year.  I looked into my future and saw nothing but endless Saturday nights like this one, perhaps with some variation but not enough. Not nearly enough.

This isn’t me. This isn’t what I want, I thought.

But it was more than just the repetition and lack of novelty that bothered me. Without knowing exactly when or how, I had changed.  Stability had been tossed to me like a life preserver and, in the tumultuous ocean of my failed marriage, I had grabbed it and refused to let go.

I had always been an adventurous person, desperate to see the world and experience…everything. Yet, here I was playing the role of happy suburban worker bee. There’s nothing wrong with that life, if it’s what you want. I didn’t want it. I never had. I needed it, for a while, but that time had come to an end.

Sitting at that table, looking out at the smiling faces of my partner and our friends, all I could think was, I’m not feeling it.

Not long after that, I ended the relationship and walked away from that life. Not long after that, I met the man who would become the other half of my soul. Not long after that, I was driving down to Baja, Mexico. And the adventures have never stopped.

None of that was easy. None of that was comfortable. In some ways, it would have been easier to ignore the shift but that would have meant living the rest of my life as a lie.

I shifted again in my thirties, this time with the realization that the voice in my head that longed for creative expression through writing was not going to shut up. Fred and I had planned out one kind of life together, working as partners toward the same goal of owning and running a small resort in the tropics, and now I realized that this was his goal, not mine. What I needed for happiness was different than what he needed. More discomfort. More painful change.

Thankfully, I married a man who supported my shift.

And I shifted again in my early forties, when I realized that I’d spent far too many years worrying about making other people happy, worrying about what other people thought of me, letting myself be directed by guilt. I had a voice, a mind, a will, and it was time to start using all three to their potential instead of playing it safe.

Now, at 47.5 years old, a feel another shift coming on. The earth is shaking beneath my feet. Something has changed inside me, something big, and it has yet to reveal its form. What I know is that I feel less joy and more grim determination. I feel less need to be seen and heard, and more desire to be useful. I have less tolerance for bullshit and group think. I worry more than I should. I am frustrated by the patterns in my behaviour that constantly paint me into the same corners. I have become nervous about the lack of critical thinking and the potential for mobs of misinformed or under-educated people to inflict their collective will on the world. I am angry at the continued dumbing down of society and the swell of materialism that refuses to subside. I am possessed with a desire to learn.

I’m not sure who I will be when the shift is over. It is unsettling.

After Josh’s announcement that one of our three main story-lines was falling flat, and my short-lived argument to the contrary, we agreed to sleep on it and come back in the morning to talk again. Our writing partnership over the years has brought us to the point where conflict resolution happens without much conscious thought. We know we can stand on our chairs and stamp our feet and beat our chests to get what we want…or we can just agree to walk away and think on the problem until we find a mutually agreeable answer. These days, we skip the dramatics and go right to the “walk away and think” option. With great success, I should add.

The shifts in our writing process remain uncomfortable but, when they’re over, we’re happier with the work, and proud of ourselves for refusing to settle for less than our best. Real life shifts don’t feel that simple, even if the end result is the same.

So here I am, fittingly, in California, hiding out from another Canadian winter and feeling the rumbles of a new shift as I look toward 2017. What will the landscape of my life look like when the earth settles once more?

Who will I be?

031

On the road to Palm Desert, California. In the land of shifting earth.

Posted in Friends, Health and wellness, Life, On Scribbling, Travel, USA | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments