The Perimenopause Diaries

shutterstock_573523534****Warning! This post contains graphic “women stuff” AKA bodily functions common to healthy women over the age of 40. If that kind of stuff squicks you out, be thankful you don’t have to go through it yourself. You can also choose not to read this, unless you want to actually learn a thing or two about the reality of peri-menopause and the female body and mind. ****

Some of you may recall The Thing I Didn’t Want To Talk About. Well, it’s high time for an update because I’ve been banging my head against the wall of my uterus since that post but I finally acquired some useful information.

To update you: After I was diagnosed as perimenopausal at the ripe old age of 42, my doctor spelled out my options. Basically, I could go on low-dose birth control pills and take iron supplements or I could tough it out. I chose the former because collapsing into a sobbing mess and then passing out from anemia in the middle of Wal-Mart was oddly unappealing to me.

I did try going off the birth control pills for a short time because they make you break out and gain weight, and that did nothing to help with my general frustration and depression, but even the slight help they offered my tortured body was better than nothing. I have been on them ever since, feeling bloated and heavy and gross, but with 10% less bleeding so…yay?

And let’s stop here to talk about bleeding. (I did warn you this would be graphic.)

I have struggled with my periods for a long time. My first one was at the age of eleven—the horror—and those pubescent periods flowed like the mighty Mississippi. Pre-tampons, I used to be forced to wear the biggest, bulkiest pads made. Try to imagine an eleven-year-old girl trying to hide a pad the size of a guinea pig during PE and dance class. It wasn’t pretty. Or fun. And it didn’t help that no one in my family talked about anything even remotely sexual, which meant I spent my youth in a constant state of shame about this most natural monthly event.

I only learned about tampons by overhearing a conversation between my girlfriend and her fantastically progressive and liberal mother. Thank you Mrs. Craig for changing my life even if you never realized you changed my life.

By the time my cycle had slowed to a somewhat normal rate in my very late teens, I faced another problem: endometriosis. The excessive bleeding had diminished, replaced by pain that would drop a T-Rex to its knees. Hooray!

There were about six or seven awesome years, after the surgery for my endometriosis, where I had no pain and a normal period. The golden age, I like to think of it. Then, perimenopause struck and we’re back to the heavy flow. Oh, but with a twist, because life is hilarious! Now, the heavy flow is no longer the Mississippi, it’s Niagra Falls. WHOOSH! Out it all comes in one massive waterfall. Bloodfall? And it happens randomly. Like, I can be almost done with a cycle, down to teeny tiny spotting, then WHOOSH…ha ha, just kidding! Oh, and periods now last anywhere from 7 to 21 days, and the time between periods is about the same, plus I get wickedly painful cramps.  I am basically a non-stop blood factory.

Result: Anemia. I eat at least one steak per week and take iron supplements every day (when I remember, I’m only human).

All the other symptoms are still going strong. The hormonal narcolepsy hits me at all kinds of inappropriate moments. It hit once as I was parking my car and getting ready for an eight hour shift at work. Thankfully I carry caffeine pills with me—life saver! I get depressed and anxious for no reason. I go through crying spells for no  reason. Then I get frustrated. Then angry. Then depressed again. Because who doesn’t enjoy changing things up now and then? I’ve gained at least ten pounds and my fitness routine is wildly erratic (more about that later). On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being “teen boy horny”, my sex drive most often hovers between 0 and 3. You can imagine how happy Hubs is about that. Yeah, no stress there. Nuh uh.

What else?

My breasts ache and are ridiculously tender and sensitive. I almost slapped myself once for brushing a nipple while dressing. Also, not conducive to marital bliss. And when I do manage to pump myself up (pun recognized but not intended) for sex, ol’ Vaggy just ain’t as limber and moist as she used to be. Yeah, maybe TMI but I want to be bare-bones honest for the folks out there going through this who are, like me, going slowly crazy because they feel so weird and alone. I feel singularly unsexy to a degree I have never known.

My brain is in a fog. Pre-perimenopause, I could hold vast quantities of information in my head all at once. These days I’m happy to remember a single, simple idea, or why I walked into a room, or to turn the hot water pump off.

Along with the iron supplements and birth control pills, my prime source of therapy and coping has been alcohol and cats. Lots of both.

I think that about covers it.

Oh wait, not quite. Let’s talk about that alone-ness. There are a handful of people with whom I feel comfortable discussing my situation. But, even then, I’m not going to call or text or Facebook message them every time I feel like running screaming off a cliff because that would be almost every other day lately. This means that even though I have a small circle of trusted friends and confidants I can vent to, there are more days I spend pushing down all the emotions into a ball of tense unhappiness than days that I don’t. And as much as my husband loves me, he’s living this too and I’m not going to dump my woes on him at the end of a long, exhausting work day.

Long story  short, my perimenopausal existence feels isolated and lonely most of the time.

Yep, that’s everything.

Back to my story…

Every now and then, life throws you the proverbial bone. In my case, it was a friend of a friend. This angel in human form is a nurse and after listening to me rant briefly about my troubles, she told me that there is a clinic at the UBC Hospital that specializes in female reproductive health and has all kinds of resources for perimenopausal and menopausal women. She sent me a link to their website so that I might find some help, since I live far from the big city and resources are scarce out here.

I saved the link and promised myself to check it out. Then, as it does, life happened, I got busy, forgot, blah blah blah.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had a really bad run. Life on Quadra Island is fabulous and you couldn’t pay me to leave this paradise but there aren’t the kind of indoor fitness options you get in a larger city, even Campbell River. Yes, there are some classes at the Quadra community center but the times never seem to work with my schedule. And the record rainfall has made walking and running a soggily unappealing choice. Time was when I would just do my own fitness routine, using the body-weight exercises I know, but my motivation level seems to have headed off to Antarctica with my sex drive, soooo… bleh.

But finally, FINALLY, the sun came out, my bleeding was down to a mere trickle, and I found the gumption to go for a long, brisk walk! I geared up, including a fresh tampon (just in case), grabbed my iPod and audiobook and headed out. It was amazing! Fresh air! Blood pumping! Good book! At last, I felt normal!

Thirty minutes into my walk, Niagra Falls x 1000 hit.

There I was, way out in the middle of nowhere, hemorrhaging like a hemophiliac in a knife fight. There was nothing I could do but thank the universe that I had worn black pants and slowly shuffle back home.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I cried my eyes out when I got there.

Is it too much to ask just to be able to go for a damned walk???

The next morning, depressed and frustrated, feeling at the end of my rope, I posted a plea on Facebook for jokes and stuff to cheer me up. Thank the universe, also, for kind friends. Today I woke up and decided I’ve had enough. I found the link for that clinic and started to research.

Here’s the good news: There may be help.

I learned that I have menorrhagia, which is a fancy medical word for “very heavy menstrual flow”. I also learned that it’s really not uncommon, much the same as my other symptoms are not uncommon, including the diminished sex drive and crazy cramps. I learned that there are non-surgical methods that have been shown to reduce menstrual flow by anywhere up to 87%! One of the simplest is a very specific use of ibuprofen, who knew? I learned how to best record my bodily activity so that I can share that with my doctor and receive the best treatment for me. I learned that I need to be consuming at least 1 to 1.5 litres of salty liquid such as vegetable juice or bouillon on days of extra blood loss.  I learned that those oral contraceptives I’m taking that make me gain weight and break out? Yeah, not very effective.

I learned that there are health professionals out there working hard to learn all they can about perimenopause and menopause and sharing that information freely with the world.

I feel just a little less lonely today.

I’m going to start keeping a perimenopause diary—I’ll share the link to the template at the end of this post—to see where I’m at, to share with my family doctor, and to try and get back to some kind of normal. Until then, I want to thank all my friends who have patiently listened to my hormonal rants—they may not be over, by the way. I want to apologize to all the pre-menopausal women whom I have terrified with my stories. It may not be that bad for you (fingers crossed). I want to encourage every woman who is peri or menopausal, or who even suspects she may be, not to settle, and to keep seeking out the physical and emotional help you need! (Feel free to contact me at kristeneperron [at] gmail [dot] com if you want to talk privately.)To the husbands and partners living through this, hang in there, but mostly make sure you offer your unconditional support—this shit is tough, yo! To the girls and young women for whom menopause is still a distant possibility, your body is nothing to be ashamed of. Anyone who ever makes you feel bad for talking about “women stuff” is a jerkface meany and you have my permission to tell them so.

Thanks for listening now here are some links. Go get educated.

The Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research – The Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research (CeMCOR) was founded by Dr. Jerilynn C. Prior in May 2002. The Centre studies the physical and psychological causes and effects of ovulation disturbances on women’s overall health. CeMCOR publishes scientific results and disseminates information directly to women.

The Daily Perimenopause Diary – For perimenopausal women, including women with regular cycles who have hot flushes/flashes or night sweats.

The Daily Menopause Diary – For women who have gone at least 12 months without a menstrual period.

Heavy Flow – How to determine if you have a heavy menstrual flow and what to do.

Hot flushes/flashes

Posted in Health and wellness, Women's Issues | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

It Matters

Death's Head Moth from Silence of the Lambs

Can the past change?

Two nights ago, Hubs and I re-watched the brilliant, Oscar-winning thriller Silence of the Lambs.  The movie came out in 1991 and neither of us had watched it for at least a decade.

The movie I remembered watching in 1991 was a terrifying psycho-thriller, which I watched mostly on the edge of my seat and sometimes through the fingers covering my eyes. I remembered the savagery of serial killer Buffalo Bill, and the more refined horror Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter—a character that would become iconic and oft-copied in the years to come.  I remembered my held breath as FBI agent Clarice Starling hunted Buffalo Bill in the dark while he watched her—almost touched her—through night vision googles.  I remembered discussing Anthony Hopkins’s performance with friends and our poor imitations of that fff-fff-fff-fff-fff sound he made after telling Clarice about eating a man’s liver.  That is the movie I watched 26 years ago.

The movie I watched two nights ago was not that. The elements were there, certainly, but the past had changed. I was surprised to see that the most memorable character was not Hannibal Lecter but Clarice Starling. My shock continued as I watched a compelling recreation of a story untold numbers of competent women have lived through: trying to make it in a man’s world. Where did this story come from?

Through scene after scene I wondered why I had not remembered the countless examples of the kind of bullshit Starling had to navigate just to do her damn job. A job she was more than qualified to do, by the way. In 2017, the scene which stayed with me after the credits rolled was not Hannibal’s creepy teeth-sucking noise but a quiet conversation in a car, between Agent Starling and her boss Agent Crawford. Crawford had used Starling’s gender as an excuse to get a sheriff out of the room and she was obviously upset about what happened. Here is the exchange:

Jack Crawford: Starling, when I told that sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that really burned you, didn’t it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of him.

Clarice Starling: It matters, Mr. Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.

Jack Crawford: Point taken.

This tiny moment was ground-breaking for 1991. Starling points out something many women have always known—that males take cues from their peers, and other men higher up the food chain, when it comes to behaviour and attitudes toward females—but, more importantly, Crawford doesn’t try to brush her off or get defensive. Crawford says, “Point taken”, and you get the sense in that scene that it really is, that he has been given a new perspective and respects it.

“It matters.”

Hell, that’s ground-breaking for 2017!

The movie opens with a steady-cam shot following Starling as she doggedly runs through an obstacle course and I believe that sets the theme for the entire story. From the FBI cadets who ogle her ass as they jog by, to the nerdy entomologist who hits on her as she’s trying to solve a murder, to the serial killer who demands quid pro quo before he will assist her, this is a woman running through the obstacles of an archaic social system to simply, like I said, do her damn job.

Ironic, when I think about it, that in 1991 the story of Clarice Starling, which I see so clearly now, was lost behind the showmanship of the male lead. Hopkins was amazing, no question about that, but so was the rest of the story.

Except…

And here’s where the movie changed yet again. You see, I remembered the character of Buffalo Bill as creepy, twisted, and terrifying. I remembered the Death’s Head moth he used as a symbol of transformation. I did not remember that he was transsexual, nor did I make the connection between “transformation” and “trans”.

Through the infinitely more enlightened eye of 2017, Buffalo Bill’s character was awkward and problematic. The writers tried to deal with the problem through Lecter’s explanation that his former patient only “thought” he was trans and that he likely was rejected for gender reassignment surgery. But rather than making the plot easier for me to buy into that offhand dismissal made me even more uncomfortable. Who gets to decide whether someone is really trans or just faking it? What if they’d let him have the surgery? Would he have then not felt the need to go out and murder a bunch of women to make himself a new female skin? And what does that say about transgender people?

It’s all very dicey and ugly transphobic territory once you start digging.

Sad. Sad because the writer could have easily kept in all the details that made Buffalo Bill so utterly horrifying but with a different motivation attached to his actions. They could have steered clear of the gender quagmire and still had a story every bit as nail-biting. Sad because they told an incredibly progressive story about female empowerment but chose to throw transgender people under the bus to do it.

So how do I feel about Silence of the Lambs in 2017? Conflicted.

This movie did so much so right. There’s no wonder it swept the Academy Awards, taking home wins for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing. It pleases me that a film of this caliber featured a female protagonist who was never sexualized and who was allowed to be multi-layered. The scary parts still make me cover my eyes and hover on the edge of my seat, which is not always the case with aged thrillers. I tell myself that attitudes toward the LGBTQ community were vastly different in 1991—I know they were—but the transphobia in the story makes me cringe.

I took something else away from this movie: the past can change.

I bet that to many men out there, and to many conservative women, it feels as if there has been a sudden swell of feminism. A wave that came seemingly from out of nowhere. In practically the blink of an eye, great swathes of the female population started shouting about misogyny, #everydaysexism, the need for equity, sexual harassment, and on and on and on. The same language and behaviour that was no big deal ten years ago is now in the spotlight—and it’s not a flattering light. Women are vocal, they are frustrated, they are angry.  Where did this all “suddenly” come from?

In large part, I think we can thank the internet. Speaking for myself, it was reading the stories of other women that showed me so much of what I have experienced over the years was not fair or even normal—or at least should not be considered normal. For the first time, large numbers of women could connect with each other, instantly, and share their stories. Patterns emerged and what so many of us had all just unwittingly gone along with because “that’s just the way it is” appeared now as a problem that could, and should, be solved.

When I look back on my life, it’s a different movie in 2017. Scenes that I had brushed off as unimportant, especially when looked at collectively, reveal a re-occurring theme. And there are so very many of those scenes. Some are small, some are large, but all keep telling the same story—I was Clarice Starling, running that obstacle course, over and over again.

I had three close male friends in junior high and highschool—one of whom was my on-again-off-again boyfriend and a much bigger story—who I have always remembered fondly. But in the past few years, more and more, I am remembering the times when maybe they weren’t such good friends and, more and more, I wonder why I put up with it?

Some scenes are comical. I recall playing a new video game at one of the boys’ houses and wanting my turn at the control. Little did I know that the three boys—as a joke—gave me the wrong instructions for the game just so that my turns would end quickly and they would get to play more. Harmless fun, right? You might even be chuckling right now, I get it. Then there was the time we were all goofing around about something and two of the boys grabbed me, tackled me, and then dragged me by my feet through a bunch of bushes. When they let me go and I climbed out, covered in dirt and leaves and branches, they were doubled over, laughing so hard they could barely breathe. Ha ha ha! Such pranksters. And then there was the time we went to their friend Mike’s house for lunch. Nothing unusual led up to the moment. We were all eating sandwiches or whatever, complaining about school, talking about teenager stuff, being kids. For a reason I can’t remember (or maybe there wasn’t a reason), one of the boys grabbed a knife out of the drawer and started heading toward me. Very funny. I laughed because these were my friends and they were being silly. But then another “friend” grabbed a knife, and I was backing away and trying to be cool and not scared at all. And then the four of them were chasing me through the house and no one was laughing.

No, the worst did not happen. It didn’t go that far. I don’t recall exactly how it ended but I know that at some point someone realized we had to get back to school and the “game” ended. Ha ha ha. Funny, right? But when I look back at that scene in the movie now, I wasn’t having fun. I was scared. I was confused—weren’t these boys my friends? I was mad at myself for not keeping my cool. I considered myself one of the guys and that was a guy kind of horseplay, so why did it feel so real and so legitimately threatening?

What you need to know is that I have a long list of scenes that were one thing in the past and have changed to something else in 2017. Or, rather, I have changed. I will no longer see four boys with knives chasing a girl around a house as fun or as play. I no longer need to subject myself to threats and bullying for the “privilege” of being one of the guys.

What you need to know is that I have given you just the smallest sample of scenes from one woman’s life. And guess what? At some point, some woman will read about my scenes and start looking back on the movie of her life and seeing her own scenes in a new light too. This, my friends, is how we got to here.

This sudden wave of feminism is more like a Tsunami. It starts deep and far off shore. As it travels through the ocean, it’s barely detectable on the surface—a slight change of current, a slight rise in the level of the water. It’s only when all that force finally hits the shore that you can see the real size and scope of the wave—but, make no mistake, it has been there all along.

You may feel as if this wave of female anger and frustration has appeared out of thin air but, make no mistake, it has been there all along.

My feelings about the past are no different than my feelings about Silence of the Lambs: conflicted.

I can’t ignore everything that was brilliant and good but I’m never again going to feel comfortable with what was wrong.

What I know is that we need to fix the script. We need to make a better movie.

It matters.

Posted in Entertainment, Life, News and politics, Women's Issues | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

I’m Okay? You’re Okay?

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Adam Dreece discovers I have been a little cranky lately.

“Is everything okay with you?”

My dear friend Pat asked this of me on Sunday evening. As well as being one of my best friends in the universe, he is also a regular Coconut Chronicles reader and he noted that lately my posts have been on the negative side. Unusual, he thought, since there I was raving to him about how beautiful my new living quarters are and how happy I am that fate connected Fred and me with our fabulous Friendlord Kate.  Not to mention the joy of my quirky kittens and steadily growing Warpworld readership, and Fred’s crazy-successful new business.  For the first time in long time, life seems to have dropped heaps of good fortune in my lap.

But he was right, my latest posts have been more than a little cranky and/or gloomy, and it made me pause to reflect.

Yes, I still have stress, most of which I prefer not to discuss publicly, some of which anyone who follows me on Facebook is already sick of. Crazy menopause hormones anyone? And I still get sideswiped by grief now and then.  Overall, however, things in my personal life are on a ridiculous upswing.

So why, when everything is mostly good, do I feel compelled to write about the bad?

Short answer: lots of reasons but mostly politics.

Now, while this is not a feel-good blog or a self-help manual, it is a chronicle (hence the title) of my interior and exterior life, told in random brain droppings that fall like coconuts from my…errrr…metaphorical palm tree (did that work?), and when future me reads over my 2017 posts I want her to remember how I woke up every day and thanked the universe for my good fortune.

As it happens, today is the perfect day to drop a coconut of positivity on your head because I am sitting on a BC Ferry, heading back to that little slice of island paradise, to reunite with people and pets that I love, AFTER a weekend of joy and camaraderie. Whew. Happiness overload!

I’ve written many times about my friend Sandra Wickham and about the Creative Ink Festival but this year there were some added components.

  • Sandra invited me to room with her for the weekend. (Sorry about the 6:30am wake-up!)
  • My 15-year-old niece Abby attended the festival.
  • My sisters April and LeAnna and brother Glen  joined me at the festival Saturday night…the first time I and all my half-siblings have been in the same place together!

Roomies

Sandra AKA Ninja Mama and I are lucky if we see each other once a year, usually at her festival, and usually in brief snippets of time because she has a million things to do and her stress level is at “OMG!!! IT’S HAPPENING!!”  Luckily, we have one of those weird and rare friendships that cares not about time and distance. I suspect we could go without seeing each other for decades and then pick up right where we left off, laughing at each other and ourselves, venting about stuff that’s stressing us out, and just being in the moment with each other.

If you have one of these friendships, make sure to thank the universe and never ever take it for granted.

This year Sandra asked if I’d like to be her roomie for the festival—with a warning that her room would be festival HQ and, thus, not always a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the event. I said YES, YES, YES without a second thought.  (Okay, maybe a teeny second thought when Sandra explained we would likely host some folks in our room Saturday night after the day’s programming was over—I am generally not a fan of loud, crowded, hot, room parties).

We didn’t get much sleep all weekend but it was a small sacrifice. Lying in our beds, in the dark, trying to stop giggling; Sandra marveling at my “must be ready four hours early” morning routine; our almost-creepy similarities right down to the brand of facial wipes we travel with and the fact that we both have to completely unpack and “settle in” as soon as we check in; the Saturday night gathering that turned out to be a LOT of fun and not hot and crowded at all; the frank discussions about personal stuff we don’t share with many other people; the laughs and laughs and laughs…every minute made an already amazing event a thousand times more memorable.

If the stars align, we’ll get to do it all again—without the stress of event management—in August for When Words Collide in Calgary, Alberta. But no matter what happens from this point on, I return home with precious friend-time that is worth more to me than any book sales or five star reviews.

To my favourite Ninja Mama: *MWAH*! Thanks a gazillion!

Sandra and Kristene 2017 artsy

What’s not to love about Sandra Wickham???

The Next Generation

I can still recall, vividly, how it felt to be 15 years old, in love with the written word, and wishing that maybe, possibly, somehow, someday, I might be a famous published author.  (And a famous actress, famous dancer, famous singer, and an astronaut…but those jobs required talents I sadly do not possess).

There was no internet waaaaaaay back then, no writing festivals or conventions in my neck of the woods, no means for me to connect with professional writers other than fan letters, (which I would have been too shy to send, anyway). My friends weren’t into writing and my family knew nothing about the craft or the business, though they tried to be supportive in their own way. My goal felt impossible, my passion isolating, my skills trapped behind an invisible barrier preventing them from growing.

So when I learned that my young niece Abby was serious about writing—completing one NaNoWriMo, almost finishing another, and also participating in the NaNo spring camp—I knew I wanted to help give her some of the opportunities I’d missed at her age. After the 2016 Creative Ink Festival, I knew what I had to do! Between me, my sister LeAnna, and Abby’s mom (and my other sister) April, we arranged to get her from Kelowna to Burnaby for the festival weekend.

I wasn’t sure how Abby was going to feel about hanging out with a bunch of adult nerds for three days but I did know that there was no other writing event where she would be as welcomed and safe.

I needn’t have worried. Abby fit right in, soaking up the panels and presentations, taking copious notes, asking intelligent questions, and endearing herself to everyone. More than once I witnessed an author or publisher offer her one of their books—she went home with a bag full!

Because of geography, I haven’t spent much time with my biological family and even less with my nieces. Since I was also busy volunteering and presenting at the festival, I knew I wasn’t going to have a ton of extra time to spend with my niece but I knew the time we’d have together would be within the writing/nerd tribe—quality is more important than quantity, after all.  Every time I slipped into a convention room to take photos and spotted that little face in the audience, a burst of happiness exploded in my chest. Whether or not Abby ever decides to write professionally, at least she had the opportunity to experience what it’s like, to gather valuable insight from authors and publishers and editors, and to feel part of the community I love so much. For one moment in time we shared each other’s worlds…and what creative and fun worlds they are!

To Abby: thanks for letting me share this weekend with you and never stop being your weird, wonderful and talented self!

Me and Abby CIF

Nerdism, it’s genetic! Me and my awesome niece Abby.

A Long Time Coming

I was 25 when I connected with my biological mother for the first time. I’d never been one of those adoptees who obsess about their “real” parents but I was curious enough to sign up on the passive registry. It was fun to see the first photos of someone who actually looks like me (ah, that’s where my big, goofy grin comes from!) and a wonderful surprise to learn that I had three half siblings—two sisters, LeAnna and April, and a brother, Glen.

My siblings and I communicated for several years via letters and then email. There was some talk of meeting up now and then but, in all honestly, I was the one that held off on that. I enjoyed our written exchanges but, when I had signed up for the registry, in-person meeting was never in my plans. First, I’d heard too many horror stories about these kinds of “reunions”. Second, I still felt a bit like it would hurt my adoptive family and their feelings had to come first. Third, I thought one big heaping of family drama was enough, no need to court any more than necessary. Fourth, for all intents and purposes, we were a bunch of strangers who just happened to share DNA. Fifth, emotionally, it was scary.

Eventually, all those reasons lost their importance and one-by-one I connected, in person, with my shared-mother sisters and brother. And…it was awesome! The moment of awkwardness actually passes pretty quickly and then you just get on with the business of getting to know each other and becoming friends. And family.

We all share some similarities. Just like regular sisters and brothers. And we’re all different in other ways. Just like regular sisters and brothers. Genetics is definitely a factor—turns out clumsiness runs in the family—but our different childhoods makes for interesting conversation.

When I lost my sister Kelly, my bio-siblings were right there to support me. LeAnna and Glen even made a trip to the island for the memorial. LeAnna, ever the organizing whiz, actually helped me plan some of the event and made sure I had “emergency wine” for my speech, which turned out to be very much needed.

Every year, we get a little closer and a little more comfortable. I used to think of them as simply “Glen, LeAnna and April” but they have become my sisters and my brother, and it gives me the warm fuzzies to know I have a family out there that loves and cares about me.

But since that first day of discovery more than twenty years ago, the four of us had never been together at the same time, in the same place…until Saturday, April 1, 2017. It was April’s birthday and, fittingly for us all, April Fool’s Day.

As mentioned, my niece was attending the Creative Ink Festival  with me. She was staying with LeAnna in Vancouver and April made the trip down in order get together with us, celebrate her birthday, and drive Abby home on Sunday. All three grabbed a room at the festival hotel. Glen was a wild card. He works in the film business now (ironic, yes?) and puts in long shifts and late hours (ah, I remember it well!). Would he be able to stay awake long enough for a full on sibling party?

Yep.

Glen, me, Leanna, April

Together at last! (L to R): Glen, Kristene, LeAnna, April

So there we all were, sisters and brother, in the same room, sharing the same big goofy grins, for the first time in history. As historical events go, I doubt this one will ever make it into the books, but it’s one I’ll treasure for the rest of my life!

To my patient and wonderful sisters and brother: sorry it took me so long! Thanks for helping me get over myself and letting me join the weirdness that is our family.

Family goofy

Can you spot the resemblance now?

The Answer

So, there you go, three unbelievably positive things in one little Coconut Chronicle. Future me, you were smiling when you wrote all of this.

I can’t guarantee the next post won’t be sad or angry or full of ranting—these are turbulent times and the falling coconuts will likely reflect that—but please know that behind the negativity is a woman who has a whole heck of a lot to be happy about.

To answer your question, Pat, not everything is okay with me but most things are pretty f**king great!

Posted in Family & Children, Life, On Scribbling | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Walking the Line

tIghtrope

I would be a better blogger if I had fewer friends.

Correction: I would be a more honest blogger if I had fewer diverse friends.

Since I transitioned these Coconut Chronicles from “funny travel blog” to “blog about whatever I’m thinking about at any given moment”, I’ve walked the tightrope of honesty vs friendship. A walk that became somewhat easier as I realized that you cannot control what will offend people, even people you think you know well.

I’ve offended friends with my (sparse) political posts. I offended a friend because I joked about traditional marriage (aiming the comedy at my own first marriage). I offended a Christian friend because I compared the LAX airport at 3am to hell (actually, I think I said it was far worse than hell, and I stand by that).  I’ve offended friends by mentioning them in posts and I’ve offended friends by not mentioning them in posts.  I’ve offended friends by writing too honestly about my own failings. There is one small group of friends who have stated that I may NEVER mention them in these Chronicles or our friendship will be terminated.

It used to gut me when I wrote something that hurt a friend—even if we weren’t that close. I once shut down the Chronicles for almost a year after such an incident.  I’ve learned not to take people’s reactions to my writing so personally but if a friend reaches out to say I hurt them then I consider their words and try to reply genuinely. The closer the friend, the more thought I put into my response. I may not necessarily back down from my position but I do want them to know that we can disagree and still love each other.

It would probably shock my friends who have been offended by my posts to know just how much I angst about them. I’ve deleted untold numbers of drafts because I knew that my honest opinion and experience would really hurt a friend. And, even when I’ve made my peace with possibly hurting a friend, there are still Fred’s feelings to consider. It bothers me every single time I hold back, because I strive to be a better writer and good writing comes from truth. What use am I if I’m too worried what my friends will think to tell the truth?

As a writer, at least as a blogger, I think I am damned to mediocrity.

I wish I was braver.

I tell myself it’s okay to compromise now and then, because my friends are wonderful people and have done so much for me and for Fred. But how much compromise? Where do I draw the line?

You see, I have these moments that haunt me. Real life moments where I chose not hurting or offending a friend over doing the right thing.

A few years ago, two of our dear friends took pity on our suffering through the cold Canadian winter and invited us down to spend some time at a place they were renting in California. We happily said yes and zoomed south.  The sunny sojourn was just what we needed and we were so grateful.  One of our friends even thoughtfully arranged a tennis match for me with three other women, whom I’d never met.  Of course I was determined both to play my best and be on my best behaviour—I wanted to reflect well on my generous friend.

Shortly after meeting the three women, who were all white and retired and upper middle class (at the minimum), they joked about how many Canadians were showing up at the tennis club in the winter. “We’re taking over!” I said, jokingly.

“Well, you Canadians are welcome here,” said one of the ladies. How nice! “Better than those ones.”

On the last line, she directed her glance toward the Mexican groundskeepers.

All three women laughed.

My immediate feeling: rage.

I wanted to call out their privilege and racism. I wanted to tell them about all the years I’d spent in Mexico and how amazing and kind the people were to me. I wanted to point out that while we were prancing around in tennis skirts, those men were toiling away in the sun, doing jobs those women would never lower themselves to do.  I wanted to tell them to stick their racquets up their ignorant asses and then walk away.

But then that voice in my head told me to zip it. I was here as the guest of friends and how dare I do or say anything to cause trouble for them? My friends aren’t racist and don’t think like these women, and that’s what matters. Don’t make things difficult or uncomfortable for the people you love.

And so, I gritted out a smile and carried on.

To this day, I wish I had said something. Anything. Even just, “Oh? I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico and I’ve had almost all good experiences with the people.” I hate that I smiled. I hate that I betrayed good people simply to not rock the boat. I hated, and still hate, my cowardice.

I carry that memory in my head always. It may seem minor to you but to me it is a glaring failure. Every time I sit down to write a blog post and start to pull back from being honest because I’m worried about offending friends, I return to that memory and ask myself if I’m repeating the same mistake.  I ask myself how important honesty is in that particular post and whether I will regret not speaking truth down the road.

I still hold back, many times. There are stories I would like to tell you—important stories that I likely will never share because of how they would make some of my friends feel.  How they would make my husband feel.

So, these are the sometimes honest, sometimes heavily-edited, sometimes completely censored Coconut Chronicles.  And I remain a coward.

And things are about to get worse.

Generally, I confine my discussion of anything political to events and issues that either directly affect me or touch on issues about which I am passionate. I try to be objective (while acknowledging my own bias) and to keep a dialogue open between left and right and all points in between.  I believe we are all more alike than we are different and that our differences, for the most part, make us stronger.

But then along comes Trump.

Yep, here we go. Again.

I want to premise this by saying the following:

Long before he even announced an intention of running for office, Donald Trump represented everything I loathed in a human. Narcissistic, obsessed with wealth and the appearance of wealth, shallow, cruel, barely literate, misogynistic, attention-seeking, con-man… the descriptions could go on and on, none flattering. When he jumped on the bandwagon to hound President Obama for his birth certificate, he sunk to an even newer low. For five years he beat that racist conspiracy theory drum. And then, when it was proven beyond all doubt that Trump’s claims were false, he pointed to Hilary Clinton and tried to blame her. What the actual…?

There have been nine US presidents in my lifetime. I’ve liked some more than others, agreed with some more than others, but I’ve always seen them as people doing a job, and some were better at their jobs than others.  (I was too young to have an opinion on Richard Nixon, just FYI). I disliked and opposed what George W. Bush did in Iraq, and have always been clear about that, but I’ve never seen him as a “bad” person. (Can’t say the same about some of his cronies, however).

There is an important distinction between a person who is bad at their job and a person who is bad at being a human. This is the first time in my grown life that a person who I think is a genuinely bad person sits in the US president’s seat.

My opinion. My feelings. I feel strongly about a person of Trump’s character occupying that position. I feel strongly about the words he has spoken and the actions he has taken so far. I feel strongly about the kind of intolerance, fear, and hatred his campaign inspired and how it has begun to worm its way into my country.

Others feel and think differently, just as strongly. Some of those people are my friends.

So here I am on the tightrope.

Be a coward. Edit and censor myself. Keep some of my friends happy. Betray other friends.

Be brave. Speak my truth. Offend and possibly lose some of my friends. Demonstrate loyalty to other friends but possibly close the door to dialogue with more conservative friends?

Be silent. Be silly. Write about cats and cupcakes. Write about benign things, things I don’t care about?

Are my friends there to challenge and enlighten me? Are my friends there to gag and blind me?

Does anything I write here even matter?

Don’t fail.

Don’t fall.

Posted in Friends, Life, News and politics | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

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 , , , , , | 3 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.

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