Monday, 30 April 2012

Pollyanna vs Goth

In the Romance Writer’s Report last month, there’s an article about using your pain as a source of creativity.  It talks about how you can use your personal experience to make your character’s experiences (and by extension, your readers’) deeper and richer.  I won’t be arguing any of those points.  Art is one of the ways you can transmute pain into something meaningful.

However, there was a lot of talking about looking on the positive side and seeing silver linings and the rest.  Therein squats the toad of my problem.

I believe that encourage people to find the positive side of obstacles, difficulties and tragedies can be an important part of the recovery process.  But not while dealing with the event or challenge itself.

I think we’re too quick to dismiss pain and sadness.  We want it safely banished away from our comfortable lives.  We don’t like seeing people we care about in pain and so we push them to lock away their negative feelings so that we can feel better.

I’ve undergone grief counseling at various points in my life and one observation struck me.  We teach people how to do the Heimlich maneuver so they can save someone’s life, even though the vast majority of people will never need that training.  But we don’t teach people how to be there for someone who is in pain, who has been diagnosed with a frightening disease, who is going through a divorce or is dealing with a death.  Everyone knows someone who has gone through one of those things and possibly all of the above.  But there are very few resources to help you learn what is helpful and what isn’t.

Seeing someone who is in justified pain is awful.  We feel awkward, not wanting to make things worse.  Because we don’t know what to say, we end up avoiding the person in question, isolating them at a time when they need all the support they can get.  Or worse, we spit out clich├ęs about God’s plan or finding silver linings.  Almost anyone who has been on the receiving end of those can tell you how hurtful they are.

Maybe instead of being Pollyanna and playing the Glad Game to find the positive in tragedy, we ought to take a lesson from the Goth community.  Granted, I’m not saying bad poetry about how awful life is and how your parents don’t understand you is actually any better.  But they’re facing the pain and rather than turning away, they acknowledge that it sucks.  It just flat out sucks.

Pain hurts.  Having to suppress your pain hurts even more.  Eventually you can reach through to the other side and then you can start to find the meanings and interpretations which will let you process the pain into your life.  But you can’t do it until you get to the other side.  So be gentle with yourself, let yourself listen to sad music and wallow for awhile in the colossal unfairness of the universe.

And if you write some bad poetry bashing your parents, I won’t tell anyone.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

A Wedding and Dancing Til My Socks Melt

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching my two friends, Kevin and Michelle, as they joined together in marriage.  This is likely the last wedding for our group for awhile, since we've all visited the altar at least once.

Weddings are always magical, emotional times (particularly when you are not the bride and trying to co-ordinate the fifty billion different details).  No matter how cynical and practical a person you are, there is something beautiful and transformative in a wedding.

Kevin is known more for his ready wit than his sentimental leanings but I have never seen him look so happy and incredulous as when his bride walked into the ceremony.  He wore the widest grin I have ever seen on him and the light in his eyes found its match in Michelle's radiance.

Her dress was beautiful, like layers of creamy satin confectionary.  It just seemed to pour from the bodice like a fountain.  She floated across the floor with all the grace and aplomb of the princesses of centuries ago.

The ceremony was short but poignant.  There were no wasted words or long-winded lectures.  The vows were simple but heart-felt, an affirmation of what already was rather than a hopeful promise.  In some ways, the ceremony seemed almost superfluous because it was difficult to imagine how they could be any more in love or any more committed to each other than they were at that moment.

Our group of friends has been together for almost twenty years now and still see each other regularly.  As Kevin commented, we have seen each other through the best and worst of our lives and the bond is still strong.  However, despite the trappings of maturity such as homes and children and responsibilities, we have maintained our childlike glee.  Especially when we get together.  The years vanish in a twinkling and we are once more giggling adolescents with all the world at our feet.

This time we indulged our boomerang-like waves of immaturity by tossing coins in a fountain.  Doesn't sound so bad, right?  Until you realize that this was a tiered fountain rising up through a gap in the floor.  And we were on the top floor.  And we don't have very good aim.

So we sent pennies and nickels pelting down onto the floor below, much to the amusement of the children who were waiting by the fountain.  And drawing some very odd looks from their supervising adults.  Especially when we were collapsed against the railings with laughter-induced tears running down our faces.

The staff kept offering us canapes.  Privately, I'm convinced it was a discreet and subtle tactic to discourage us since canapes disappeared when we ran out of coins.

The meal was excellent and punctuated with much laughter and reminiscences.  I'm still unsure how Andrew acquired the evening's nickname of "Snowflake" but it was certainly brought up frequently.  I came in for my fair share of mocking for being a little too desperate in my request for butter for my bread.  (Can't wait too long or the bread cools and the butter won't melt.  It's my theory and I'm sticking to it.)

We all had a challenge with the elegant course of strawberry ice served between courses.  All of us are much more at home with pop and pizza than multi-course meals.  The scoop of sherbet was served in a tall champagne flute with a small amount of soda water and sugar crystals around the edge.  We all stared, unsure if we were supposed to use a spoon or drink it.  Luckily Andrew's wife, Evy, possesses more sophistication than any of us could dream of and she guided us through.

After the meal came the speeches with many congratulations to the happy couple.  And then came my favourite part of any wedding.  The dancing.

I love dancing, although my enthusiasm outstrips my talent by a fair margin.  There were many classic favourites of our group, Spirit of the West's Home for a Rest and the Village People's YMCA.  Over the years, we've developed our own choreography and never hesitate to share it.

There were touching moments.  Kevin and Michelle's first dance was lovely, although I have my suspicions that he may have been trying to maneuver to minimize photos of him.  Andrew and Evy got a chance to prove that their ballroom lessons have stuck with them.  And even my husband was dragged onto the floor to participate in ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man.  I was reminded of my boys with the second dance, What a Wonderful World, which is one of the songs I sing to Nathan before bedtime.

All in all, it was a fantastic evening full of friends, love and laughter.

And yes, my stockings were melted by the end. 

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Documentary Feature

I was asked to participate in a documentary about my experiences raising two children with autism, specifically about the government therapy programs available.  The documentary is being created by Quickstart Autism, a local charity which provides help to parents before diagnosis.  The purpose is to allow children to get started sooner and prevent parents from making common mistakes.

It was a little difficult to go over some of the material.  The day Alex was diagnosed was unquestionably the worst day of my life.  In the moment, it felt like every hope I had for my beautiful little boy was being taken away.  Even worse, there were no treatment suggestions.  Had Alex been diagnosed with cancer, there would have been a treatment plan.  Not a pleasant one, but we would have been given odds of success and ideas about different treatments.

With autism, there are no answers.  Some kids respond to some therapies, others respond to different ones, some don't respond to any.  As a newly diagnosed parent, that is incredibly overwhelming and I suspect it's why some families go broke chasing miraculous "cures" again and again.

I'm proud of both of my sons but I also have to be aware that their horizons have been limited because of the autism.  Particularly Alex.  Perhaps he will be able to learn to overcome the obstacles his own mind places in his path.  We don't know.  All we can do is keep trying.

That was my final thought for my interview.  People with autism can become contributing members of society if they get the help they need.  They can be valuable, able to see things in different ways, able to find patterns in massive amounts of data, able to serve as human databases for incredibly detailed knowledge.  But they need to learn how to interact socially, even if minimally.  They need to learn how to tolerate the everyday occurences which are intolerable to them.  And they need to learn how to overcome the obstacles their unique minds place in their path.

Not everyone with autism may want to become part of society.  I can accept that as their choice.  But those that do should have the opportunity.  Early intervention produces faster and more significant results than later.  It's simple economics.  Spend money now to help them, or spend a lot more later trying to clean up the mess.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Hallmark's Firelight (Contains Spoilers)

I’m not generally a fan of Hallmark movies.  They’re inspirational and full of good moral messages, sometimes a little too obviously so.

However, I noticed that last week’s offering, Firelight, was starring Cuba Gooding Jr., a favourite actor of mine.  I decided to give it a shot and taped it on the PVR.  The story is based on a real program in a girl’s youth correction facility.  The girls are trained to be firefighters and do search and rescue.  I was braced for something overly saccharine but was pleasantly surprised.

The movie follows a young woman, Caroline, who is sent to the facility after helping her boyfriend rob an electronics store.  She is sullen and withdrawn, rude to the staff.  Gradually one of the other inmates, a member of the firefighting crew, wins her over with steady support and attention.  Caroline starts to improve herself, taking classes, severing her ties to troublemakers and in the last fifteen minutes, joining the firefighting crew.

I liked the fact that the movie focused on her journey of increasing self-awareness and her struggle to figure out what course of action is best for her.  There wasn’t a blurry montage of weeks passing.  Instead it was drawn out, with setbacks included.  Changing yourself is a difficult job.  It takes time and a lot of effort and you still won’t always get it right.

I also liked the fact that the firefighting crew wasn’t portrayed as a cure-all for the girls.  One was released and ended up returning to the facility after committing more crimes.  Being on the crew wasn’t enough to get parole for another of the girls who fled the scene after hitting a pedestrian while driving and texting.  Caroline’s journey is about her getting the courage to try and improve her situation, not about making a lucky draw in corrections programs.

It was the sort of inspirational story I liked.  There wasn’t a happily ever after but there was a possibility of a happily ever after.  I prefer that to a guarantee because in life, there’s always more after the happily ever after.  The difficulties in getting there weren’t minimized and it wasn’t a success-only journey.  I’m always more impressed with people who admit they thought they might not make it than those who insist they always knew things would work out.  The character Caroline isn’t sure what she should do.  She’s afraid to try and fail, proving she doesn’t have what it takes.

The story was a little shallow, but did very well for a made-for-TV presentation.  It was worth seeing.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Hockey Heresy

I’m not a hockey fan.  This is fairly close to sacrilege for a Canadian but it’s the truth. 

I don’t like watching sports in general but I find professional hockey particularly hard to follow.  I probably could learn the subtleties of the game if I wanted to but there’s a substantial reason why I don’t.

I don’t like the violence.

Physicality doesn’t bother me.  I enjoy seeing a bunch of athletic strong men moving swiftly and precisely.  But a game which allows flat out hitting of other people in order to gain control of the puck (or ball) diminishes that.  It’s cheap.  It’s much easier to hit someone and then take what you want than to be good enough to finesse it away from him.  That’s one side.

The actual fist fights are worse.  Two grown men squabbling and pounding each other like two toddlers in the sandbox removes any pleasure I might have in watching athletic men in competition.  It changes them from men into children, at least in my eyes.  In the sixth Senators-Rangers game, I watched one of the players slam his stick down on the ice in a tantrum after the other team scored a goal.  It’s evidence of a basic immaturity.

Ironically, I don’t have a problem with martial arts or boxing matches.  There’s a certain violent grace to it, watching two people compete physically.  But whatever Don Cherry says, the point of hockey is not to beat up the other players.  People who compete in fighting matches know exactly what they’re getting into, there are enforced rules and they take their training and matches seriously.  Hockey is supposed to be about playing the game.  A team composed entirely of brutes would still lose because they wouldn’t score any points.

If people want to see on-ice violence, they ought to start some kind of ice rink martial arts franchise.  Hockey should be about precision, speed and stamina, not fists.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Still Waiting

Still no word from Harlequin about my first three chapters.  I've been told it can take quite awhile for a manuscript to work its way through the pile so no word means either the manuscript hasn't been read or it was so awful that it's not worth replying to.  I feel fairly safe in assuming mine is not that horrible.

The first week was definitely the most stressful.  I must have checked my email five or six times a day looking for a response.  But now I'm calmer about it.  One way or another, it doesn't really matter.  If Harlequin wants to pay me to publish it, great!  If not, then there are still lots of other avenues to explore.

Teresa Wilde, from ORWA, made a great speech during the February brunch about how the publishing houses no longer have absolute control over the market.  She's self-published a great series of books that were turned down by the major houses.

I still want to try traditional publishing but there is a reassurance in knowing that my belief in my story is the most important part.  With that, even a "no" is only a temporary obstacle.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Flight of the Navigator

I was in Walmart and as I passed the cheap family movie DVD bin, I spotted an old favourite which I hadn’t seen in well over a decade.  Disney’s Flight of the Navigator, the story of a twelve year old boy who is abducted by aliens in 1978 and returned 8 years later, unaged and with no conscious memory of where he’s been.  When he’s studied by NASA, his brain is able to communicate directly with the computers and is full of unknown star charts.  NASA is also holding the space ship, which crashed into power lines after returning the boy.  The boy returns to the space ship where the computer controlling it downloads the charts (and some eighties pop culture) and the two embark on a journey to return the boy to his home and family.

It’s a pretty good children’s science fiction story.  Nothing too scary, fun Jim Henson puppet aliens.  Some surprisingly long sequences of dogs catching Frisbees.  But overall, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it had aged well. 

I’m always hesitant to revisit these childhood classics.  Things are so much more impressive when you’re six and seven.  Some unfortunate experiences with Thundercats, Jem and the Holograms and the saddest discovery of all, Mr. Rogers, have taught me that just because I loved it as a kid doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to tolerate it as an adult.  Some things are better left in Nostalgialand. 

We sat down to watch it with Nathan and he enjoyed it.  And more importantly, I enjoyed it.  It didn’t wow me like it did when I was a kid but it was a good children’s movie.  Highlights for the grown-up: a fun performance by Sarah Jessica Parker and a surprisingly serious one from Howard Hesseman.

I think it’s a good introductory science fiction movie.  Much friendlier than E.T., the one my parents chose to take me to.  (Don’t let children under six see that movie, everyone my age who saw it in theatres was traumatized.  Or at least, everyone I’ve talked to.)  When Nathan gets a little older, about seven or eight, then we’ll bring out E.T. and the Back to the Future movies.  But for now, he’s had a good experience and a good introduction.

Monday, 23 April 2012

A Modern Modest Proposal

I read an article in the Globe and Mail by Miles Corak, a professor of economics, who suggested that parents should have the right to exercise votes on behalf of their children.  I.e., since Dave and I have two children, our family would get four votes.

It’s an interesting theory.  When I first read the title “Why We Should Give Children The Vote” I thought I would be reading something about how children would expect honesty out of politicians and hold them accountable for breaking promises.  Those with small children know they can be relentless about pursuing something you’ve promised them.  But it turned out to be something quite different.

There’s been a lot of articles in the Globe lately about how the choices the boomers made have impacted their children and grandchildren.  A massive debt has accumulated, forcing future generations to accept fewer services for more tax dollars in order to repay the money which has been borrowed.  This has certainly caused some intergenerational strife, from resentment from younger generations to a confused denial of modern circumstances from boomers.  (They were able to buy a home, raise a family and indulge on single family incomes, so why can’t modern families do it?)

The theory behind the proposal was that if children’s interests had been represented by actual votes, it would not have been possible to sell out their futures.  This strikes me as overly optimistic and altruistic.  People do things against their children’s interest fairly frequently.  And I don’t honestly see how this would have restrained the boomers from making the decisions they did.

When the boomers were making the decisions to spend more than the government earned, they were riding a wave of euphoria at having changed some fundamental injustices in society (gender roles and civil rights).  The economy was on a long, steady boom and there was a real belief that things were only going to get better.  It was okay to borrow from the future because the future would always repay you with interest.  They weren’t being malicious or consciously selfish.  They believed it was possible to have it all and more besides.

Reality was somewhat different than they’d hoped.  It’s easy to criticize from hindsight and I’m sure there were those who urged caution at the time.  Just like the people who argued against sub-prime, zero down mortgages.  But when the gravy train is flowing, those people are seen as being anti-progress.

Humans are astonishingly short-sighted.  We aren’t good at making short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits.  Our very biology is designed for a glut and famine cycle.  When things are good, we stuff ourselves as much as possible, trying to accumulate enough to ride through the inevitable wave of famine.  This works pretty well in a hunter-gatherer subsistence environment, but not so good when our attempts to glut can affect the entire global ecosystem.

I don’t accept this as an excuse.  We have a lot of “natural” tendencies that we’ve overcome.  Fear of strangers, fear of change.  We’ve got brains as well as instincts and when we acknowledge those instincts and want to overcome them, we can.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A Cool Theory Which Proved To Be Absolutely Wrong

My husband and I are avid Fringe watchers.  We love it, we talk about it, we try to guess at the show’s mythology.  (I try not to be grossed out by some of the more graphic and disgusting weird events and diseases.  He tries not to get too impatient about screen time spent on Peter and Olivia’s relationship.  It’s all about compromise.)

For those who don’t follow the show, the characters are investigating a series of strange incidences and events, called fringe events.  Throughout their investigations, they’ve become aware of a group of people called the Observers.  These bald men with impeccable fashion sense appear at key junctions of history to observe (and occasionally interfere).

There’s also an alternate universe which is close to our world but subtly different, populated by identical characters with slightly different histories and personalities.  There have been strong implications that these are the only two universes, rather than exponential numbers resulting for a different universe with every choice made.

Most geeks have heard of the Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment.  But for the more socially adjusted among us, Schroedinger’s theory goes like this: if you put a cat and an open bottle of chloroform in a sealed box, the cat will eventually die.  But until someone opens the box, the cat is both alive and dead because both potentials are equally possible.  It isn’t until someone opens the box and looks that reality picks one or the other.  (Don’t try this with a real cat, please.)  I prefer the explanation of the covered dinner plate.  If a customer is served a covered plate, underneath is every possible meal the restaurant serves.  It isn’t until someone looks that reality is fixed in place.  Not until someone observes.

Still with me?  Now comes the really cool theory part and I have to give my husband the credit for coming up with this one.  In the Fringe universe, they have been trying to figure out what on earth the Observers are actually doing?  Why are they collecting all this information?  Dave guessed that the Observers are there to keep the two universes stable and parallel.  By observing key events, they prevent multiple alternate universes from springing into existence.  They’re here because of Schroedinger’s theory.  They choose which events to observe, making those events and outcomes “real”.

It was neat.  It fit the mythology as presented and frankly solved some of the science problems of their science fiction.  It was a brilliant meta-theory.

But it was wrong.  On a recent episode, it was strongly implied (if not outright said) that the Observers are scientists from the future.  Slightly more boring than our theory.  And with the most recent episode, the Observers are no longer the mystery they once were.  They are from the future and their goal was to take over our planet and timeline.  It's an interesting plot twist, especially since they jumped twenty-odd years into the future.  I'll be avidly waiting to discover if this is a one-off plot line or if they're trying to reset the series.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Finding Opportunities

With two active and high demand children, my writing time isn't as regular as I might like.  But I'm getting much better at finding opportunities.  Nathan has a weekly forty-five minute hip-hop class.  I could drop him off and then run errands but instead I bring my little netbook with me and sit on the hall floor and write.

I have discovered I don't do well with continuing projects I've been working on through the week.  Instead I have one project that I work on specifically at that time, my short story Got Ghosts?  It gives me a little mental refresher, the equivalent of a writing palate cleansing.  A lot of writers advise sticking to one thing and working through it so that you don't lose momentum, but I seem to do better if I have multiple stories on the go.  Of course, if I go too far in that direction, I end up scattering my attention and nothing gets finished.

I've always done better with a little distraction in my life.  It's why I listen to music constantly, particularly if I want to get a task done quickly.  Otherwise, my brain comes up with its own distractions and those can take over the whole brain, leaving me standing there daydreaming.  It used to drive my parents and teachers nuts because I actually got my homework done faster and better in front of the TV.

Things change and I find I can't pay attention to as many things as I used to.  I used to be able to read a book, watch TV and listen to a radio program all at the same time and I could tell you what was going on in each of them.  Now I might be able to follow two things at once, but only one of them will stick in my long term memory.

I think it's important to pay attention to what works for you as an individual.  We have so many experts telling us so many conflicting opinions.  We're bombarded with dire advice about our character, habits and prospects.  But people are different.  What works for me might not work for you and vice versa.  What's important is to be honest about what is and isn't working.  Don't get caught up in what you think you "should" be doing.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Update on Medication and School

A week ago, we began a very low dose of an anti-anxiety medication for our son, Alex.  We're seeing some mixed results but nothing beyond what we've already seen.  Several of our therapists and helpers have said that Alex seems calmer this week, more willing to work on tasks.  Aggressions are actually up in number, but not beyond what we've seen before during difficult weeks.  He has been indulging in less self-stimming behaviour but we've seen an upswing in verbal stimming, where he repeats bits of commercials or television shows over and over and over again.

Figuring out if the drug is helping or not has been complicated by a loose tooth.  It finally came out on Thursday, the last of the baby teeth to fall out until the molars start going in a few years.  With Alex's oral sensitivities, loose teeth are always a difficult time.  He yanked it out before it was quite ready, so I suspect his mouth is still sore.  He hasn't been eating well this week, which might be a sign of tummy aches, which is a side effect, or might just be the result of the tooth. 

This is the really frustrating part.  People want answers and aren't shy about demanding them.  The doctor is going to want to know if the drug is helping and if we want to increase the dosage.  And right now, I have to say that I honestly don't know.  The amount of information we have is incredibly limited and could point in multiple directions.  What we need is more time. 

We have another week before we have to decide about upping the dosage.  Hopefully some of the picture will have changed by then which will give us a clearer idea of what we're dealing with.  All of what we've observed might have nothing at all to do with the drug.  Since it's not beyond what we've experienced before, it's a distinct possibility.

Alex's school is still having an extremely difficult time with getting him to work with them.  It's discouraging to have the behaviour problems continuing even with the expert support.  The longer this goes on, the more it will limit his potential.  However, these problems weren't unexpected and we have a plan B in place.  I suspect the majority of Alex's academic learning will come from his tutor.  The school's job is to teach him to comply with instruction and authority figures.  It's the harder job by far but it's the key lesson which will allow him to integrate into the rest of the world.  If he can't learn it, he will have to be segregated.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Misunderstood Hades

This is a little pet peeve of mine.  Hollywood often conflates the Greek god Hades with the Christian devil.  Disney did it in Hercules and I’m seeing it again in Clash of the Titans, which I watched last week.  (I know, I’m out of date with my movie complaining.)

Hades was the god of the underworld.  He collected the souls of the dead and put them in their appropriate places ranging from the Elysian Fields to ironic manual labour punishments.  But here’s the thing.  He’s not evil.  He doesn’t have to buy souls, he gets them all at the end.  Most of the time, the mythology actually portrays him as fairly meek and businesslike.  The only exception is when he kidnaps Persephone.

He does have a lawyer-like appreciation of a bargain though.  When Orpheus goes to retrieve his dead wife, he’s told he cannot look back until he is out of the underworld.  On the threshold, he can’t resist a peek and his wife is sucked back into the underworld again.  Not an evil act but emphasizes the importance of keeping your word, an important lesson in a society which relies on verbal contracts.

I can see how the two get confused.  Hades is a god of death who lives in the underworld.  The Christian mythology doesn’t really have a benign, neutral death figure.  Hades is an easier symbol to adapt than, say, Ares, who would be my first choice of a Greek god to pit against mankind (being the god of war, strife and discontent).  Most people have heard of Hades, or at least some version of him.  Only those who watched the Raimi brothers’ Hercules and Xena or who study classical mythology know who Ares is.

There are times when being familiar with the source material can really suck the fun out an epic action pic.  I've enjoyed much worse movies and this was no exception.  But I'm not rushing out to pay money to watch the sequel.

Urban Wildlife Encounter Update

According to the ever useful and accurate Internet, the butterflies in question were actually Red Admirals.  It was still a great moment.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Urban Wildlife Encounter

Today we had over two dozen orange and black butterflies feeding on the wild flowers in our backyard.  With my very limited knowledge of insects, I pronounced them to be Monarch butterflies as I pointed them out to Nathan.  We sat quietly at the back patio door and watched them flitter from flower to flower, their bright wings flashing like winking eyes against the grass.

At four, Nathan doesn't have much patience for any activity which requires him to be quiet and still.  But there was enough motion with butterflies constantly flitting back and forth and occasionally chasing each other in tight spirals.  After a few minutes, he asked if we could go outside and get closer.  I didn't want to frighten them away but I thought it would be a great opportunity to practice his slow and quiet moves (we've been working on them with larger animals, especially dogs).  And if we frightened them, at least we wouldn't be at risk.

Nathan collected his sunglasses and his magnifying glass and we went to sit on the back steps.  The butterflies flew off in a cloud as we came out but they only fled to the far side of the yard.  Once we settled ourselves, they started to flit closer and closer.  I picked a few flowers and held them in one outstretched hand to see if we could tempt any of them to land and feed.

I was very proud of Nathan.  He sat on that step absolutely frozen for almost fifteen minutes, barely breathing to avoid disturbing the butterflies.  He whispered a few questions, wanting to know why the butterflies were chasing each other and why they were frightened of us.  I told him butterflies chase each other because they're playing, just like he plays tag.  And they were frightened of us because they were afraid we were big animals who wanted to eat them.  He accepted the information.

After awhile, he decided he'd rather play in the backyard than watch insects, no matter how colourful.  He dashed off through the grass and the butterflies scattered on the wind around him.  It was a really beautiful image and he was delighted, spinning around and around to watch.  But he never tried to catch one.  I'd warned him we couldn't touch the butterflies without damaging their wings and even in the middle of all the excitement, he remembered.

That's a parenting moment to hold on to.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Difficult Decisions

A little while ago, I wrote a blog piece on the traumatic effect of having to make a morally difficult decision.  Then on Friday, Dr. Phil had a woman on who is facing one.  Her children have an incurable and untreatable degenerate disease.  They are in their forties, reliant on feeding tubes.  The doctors think they cannot see, cannot hear and may be trapped in a world of unexpected pain and stress.  But they can’t know because the two of them are completely non-responsive.  They are completely reliant on outside help, unable even to sit up on their own.

Their mother wants to be able to humanely euthanize them so that they aren’t trapped in their own bodies any longer.  She believes they are suffering each and every day with no hope of a cure or even relief.  The law permits her to suspend feeding so that they die slowly of starvation and dehydration.  She doesn’t want to put them through that, so she is fighting to change the law.

As a parent of a special needs child, I’m afraid of a legal precedent allowing parents to euthanize their special needs children.  It’s a slippery slope.  I would be worried that the government might be able to take the decision out of my hands.  They already do in medical cases where parents refuse treatment for their children.

On the other hand, my heart is full of compassion for her and her dilemma.  If I truly believed my children were suffering intently each and every day and that death was the only way to relieve that suffering, I would hope that I would have the option of helping them without having to make them suffer more.  Robert Lattimore had to make this decision over a decade ago and he spent ten years in prison for it.

They had a different special needs mother on to argue the other side of the case and I was offended when she accused the woman of wanting to kill her children because they were inconvenient and because of the medical expense.  It irritated me because she never once mentioned expense or difficulty.  The only thing she talked about was her children’s experience and her belief that they were suffering.  People who resort to hyperbole and distortions to win arguments irritate me.  We should be discussing the implications of changing the law and the needs of this case in particular.

Personally, I think if a compassionate euthanasia law is put in place, it should be something that you have to argue in front of a court.  You should need to convince an impartial judge and possibly a panel of doctors that the situation can only deteriorate and that the patient in question is suffering.  Then you get an exemption.  There aren’t many of these cases so checking into the facts of each one shouldn’t be too big a burden on the court system.  And it doesn’t give blanket permission which can be twisted after the fact.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Raw Weekend

After an upsetting conversation on Friday, I ended up losing most of the weekend to dealing with overwhelming emotions.  Most of the time I can keep myself on a fairly even keel but once my emotions get wound up, it takes me awhile to cycle down.

It didn’t help that on Saturday we hit another roadblock with integrating Alex with his peers.  I had signed him up for an integrated gymnastics program.  Alex is pretty active and has an amazing sense of internal balance.  He need regular activity and we’ve been racking our brains to find sports which are high energy and not team-based (and which are open to his age group).  Gymnastics is a natural choice (we’re also looking into track and field and swimming).  My father competed in gymnastics when he was in college and has trained children before.  He offered to go as Alex’s aide and coach.  I was feeling pretty hopeful about it.

I hadn’t realized there were actually three or four classes happening at the same time in the gym, making it incredibly noisy and busy.  I hadn’t realized all the equipment would be in use, not leaving Alex anywhere to go if he felt overwhelmed.  He walked in, threw a twenty minute tantrum and then was brought out.  Our money will be refunded.

There is a special needs gymnastics class and they’re willing to let Alex join if he brings an aide.  My experience is that he has an even worse time in these special needs classes.  The staff has been very optimistic but they usually are.  I’m hoping I’m wrong.

It was very frustrating to have yet another example of his tantrums closing yet another door for him.  They closed off his opportunity for integrated schooling.  And now another opportunity gone.  The gap between him and his peers is getting wider.  It was one thing when he was four or five and everyone was running around.  Now when his peers go to class, they’re more focused and ready to learn.

When you have a special needs kids, these moments will periodically slap you in the face and shatter your impression of progress.  If you don’t want to get trapped in a vicious blend of bitterness and anger, it’s important to let yourself feel the emotions in the moment.  So I’m angry, but it’s okay.  I’ll let it run its course and then it’ll be over.  I don’t need to feel guilty about it.  Suppressing those feelings mean that you end up getting trapped in them.

Alex is who he is.  I could try and force him into an image of what I want him to be but I’d just end up making us both miserable.  All I can do is try and help him to overcome the obstacles he’s putting in his own way (like the tantrums).  We’ve begun the medication to see if it will help.  It’s too soon to tell anything yet.  I love my little boy and at the end of the day, I want him to grow up to be happy and a productive member of society.  I don’t want him to have to fight for every day of his life.  I don’t want him to be institutionalized to protect himself and others.  He may not ever be able to be independent, but if he’s happy and productive, I’ll be good with that.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Fiction vs Based on a True Story

I read a column in the Globe and Mail talking about the cathartic effect of sad stories.  We read or watch sad fiction and often walk away feeling better.  We feel sympathetic to the characters but feel better about our own lives or resolved for improvement.  However, when the story is real, such as the murder of little Tori Stafford or the torture of women in the Middle East, we don’t get the inspirational effect.  Often, it makes the world seem more frightening and out of control.  It is only when the “real” story is packaged in an inspirational framework that we can start to feel better.  Hence those five magic words: based on a true story.

I’m one of those people who actually have trouble when I know the story is true (or based on something true).  I’ve been refusing to watch the little dramatic re-enactments of the tragic last moments of doomed passengers aboard the Titanic.  While I’m curious about some of the research and quite enjoyed some of the stories about people dealing with the tragedy, I don’t like getting involved in someone’s life and knowing they’re going to die.

My husband likes to amuse himself by coming up with backstories for the nameless victims in action films so that I’ll feel bad about them, too.  The bad guys will kill a guard and he’ll start talking about how the guy secretly wanted to be a painter and had all these folios stashed in a storage locker that his family will never know about.

This is probably the main reason I don’t like horror films.  You know the people you’re getting involved with are going to die.  That’s the reason they’re on screen.

Ironically, I can deal with quite violent films as long as I believe there’s a reason for it.  I love the movie 300, even though it’s every bit as gory as Sin City by the same director.  Sin City is one I won’t watch again because the violence doesn’t go anywhere.  In 300, they’re defending their home against an invading army.  They die just the same but it’s a meaningful death.  (I’ll be honest and admit that the lovely scenery of Gerard Butler and the other Spartans in a few strategically placed strips of leather also factors into my enjoyment.)

Further irony.  The battle of the Spartans at Thermopylae is historically based, at least as much as the inspirational miniseries that begin with “based on a true story”.  Whereas Sin City is entirely fictional.  Meaning is important.  Life doesn’t often have meaning.  Bad things happen to good people.  Worthy people get trampled down by events and can’t get back up.  Bad people prosper at others’ expense.

That’s why we have stories.  To keep our hopes up that maybe, sometimes, if we really believe, things will work out.  To misquote JMS, there will be good guys, there will be bad guys and the bad guys will make a satisfying thump when they hit the floor.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

In Memory of the Titanic

It is one hundred years to the day since Titanic sank and I’m sharing some thoughts and trivia.

The television has been inundated with specials and series.  The movie has been rereleased in 3D.  Titanic is everywhere.  There’s probably no one in Western society who doesn’t know about this ship and its testament to humanity’s arrogance.

I watched Titanic: the Aftermath, talking about what happened after.  I knew the people in Halifax played a crucial role in recovering the dead and sheltering the survivors.  But I didn’t know that the fishermen set out with their decks and holds filled with coffins to recover the bodies.  They cleared out all the morgues and brought in undertakers from around the province so that no one would have to wait for proper burial.  I didn’t know they’re still trying to identify some of the dead from Titanic.

John Henry Barnstead, a county record keeper in Halifax, was determined not to let history repeat itself.  In previous wrecks, identification of bodies was almost impossible and personal effects were stolen, leaving grieving families with nothing.  He came up with a threefold plan: identification, number and effects.  All bodies would be numbered and that number with a description and list of effects will always stay with the body.  He had the sailors sew sailcloth bags with numbers to hold the contents of each corpse’s pockets.  Two people worked on each body to prevent theft and inventories were made for each body.  He was also the first to take photographs of the dead and use them for identification.

I didn’t know the life preservers had drastic design flaws, snapping people’s necks as they jumped for the presumed safety of the water.  I didn’t realize it took three days for boats to reach the wreck site and thus bodies drifted up to 75 kilometres from the original site.  Or that other ships passing through the steamer tracks said they had to pass through great masses of them.  A newspaper account said there were too many to count, the sea was carpeted with bodies.

Facts: only one third of passengers and crew made it onto the lifeboats.  The rest were left, dead and dying.  Only 306 bodies were recovered out of almost 1500.  Of those, 116 were buried at sea from the deck of the recovery ship, 60 of them not identified.  Of the 190 brought back to Halifax, 125 were not identified.  150 were buried in Halifax.

The White Star company refused to ship bodies home to their families unless the families paid for it.  Contrast that with the crew of one of the recovery ships.  They got a $10 000 reward for recovering John Jacob Astor’s body and used part of that money to pay for the individual church burial of a three year old child who was never identified.

There is a de-motivational poster showing Titanic sinking, entitled: History.  The quote is: Sometimes your role in history will be to serve as an example to others.  I keep it as a reminder not to get too confident and arrogant in my assumptions.  When it comes to a battle of humanity’s work versus the forces of nature, nature wins every time.  Without breaking a sweat.  Nothing we do is invulnerable to attack.

The White Star Line is a classic example of a corporation driven more by short-term profit than long-term consideration.  I will grant potential ignorance about the frailty of the steel used to make Titanic’s hull, although I wonder if it was chosen because it was cheap.  The design flaws of the watertight compartments is inexcusable.  They knew the compartments only extended a few feet above the waterline.  The lack of sufficient lifeboats was a combination of sheer arrogance and uncaring cruelty.  That’s the setup for disaster.

The crew were effectively handed a loaded gun and then their decisions pulled the trigger.  Racing through the night when visibility was low and icebergs were present was a foreseeably stupid decision, likely done because of pressure for a grand gesture to gain publicity.  Choosing to underload the few lifeboats available cost precious lives.  Locking the third-class passengers below decks was just cruel. 

The loss of life sickens me.  Especially because it was absolutely unnecessary.  But most of all because I think we still suffer from the same arrogance.  We reduce safety measures, believing the worst cannot happen to us.  We are still more impressed by a grand gesture, even if risky, than a well-thought out and carefully executed plan.  We dismiss and decry those who try to warn us as alarmist.

So take a little time today to think about what you will do if disaster strikes.  A house fire, a car wreck, pick something and think about it. 

Friday, 13 April 2012


A new Canadian documentary has come out: Bully.  It follows several children in their teens who are being bullied at school and includes the sad tale of one teen who committed suicide to escape his bullies.  I’ll be honest and say I haven’t seen it and I frankly have no desire to see it.  I understand the pain those children feel and don’t particularly want to go through the emotional stress.

I was bullied quite severely as a child and as a teen and it was awful.  The adults I had been taught to trust (teachers, administrators, other parents) either turned a blind eye or actively encouraged the bullies in their torment.  There were a few who tried some sadly-misguided techniques to improve the situation, like one teacher who took the biggest bully and put her desk next to mine and suggested that she could help me with my penmanship.  Clearly the teacher in question had watched too many after-school specials where the bully and the victim become friends after finding some common ground.

As the years passed, I was pleased to see so many anti-bullying initiatives springing up.  Perhaps foolishly, I thought maybe my generation would be the last one to suffer under both bullies and adult indifference.  Bullies will likely always be with us but they cannot reach the heights of cruelty without tacit adult support.  With a watchful adult who is ready to intervene, there is a limit to what a child can do.

Maybe there are schools where this is happening but Bully shows a different story.  The same tired old justifications of “kids will be kids” and universal punishments where the bullied are punished to the same degree as the bullies.  It makes me sad.  Not even angry.  Just tired and worn out sad.

There’s too much pressure from parents who don’t want their children’s records sullied with accurate accounts of their activities.  It’s too difficult and too expensive to make sure the staff deals with individual cases.  And finally, it is true that kids will be kids.  Kids and teens don’t have particularly developed empathy and understanding of consequences.  Which makes them some of the most vicious and persistent bullies.  They have no sense of when to back off.  If it’s funny to make some kid cry, then they’ll do it again and again, upping the ante every time to make sure they get the reaction they want.

Bullies aren’t monsters.  For the most part, they aren’t even bad kids.  But what they’re doing is inexcusable.  It’s up to the adults to provide perspective and boundaries.  It’s natural for toddlers to ignore street signals.  That’s why adults walk with them.  We know that children cannot regulate themselves so it’s up to the grown ups.  Bullying isn’t any different.

And for those who suffer the daily torments, a sympathetic ear can make a whole lot of difference.  It can feel as if the whole world is against you and will always be against you.  It erodes your confidence, making you an even easier target.  The messages the bullies fling with such casual indifference end up being written on the victims’ very bones, to be internally repeated long after the bullies have forgotten.  It takes a lot of positive messages to undo it but every bit counts.  It’s easier to believe in yourself if you know someone else believes in you, too.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Scarring Decision

A study was done to better understand what causes post-traumatic stress disorder.  It had been noted that some veterans had PTSD even though a last minute reprieve prevented them from having to carry through the awful choice they had made.  So they put people in an MRI and asked them for a decision about the following scenario.

You and others are hiding in a concealed shelter while enemy soldiers are searching for you.  If they find you, they will torture and kill you all.  One of the women hiding with you has a baby and the baby starts to cry.  If the soldiers hear the baby, they will find you.  Nothing the woman does stops the baby from crying.

The question: Do you kill the baby to save yourself and the others?

Most people react with recoil and disgust.  They won’t even consider the option.  Never going to happen.  The researchers then pressed the research group and forced them to enter a decision of yes or no.  A control group was allowed to leave without entering the decision.

Interestingly, those who were forced to make a decision showed initial signs of PTSD regardless of whether the decision was yes or no.  It was the act of having to make such a monstrous decision which caused the trauma (although I’m sure the necessary follow through would make it worse).  Either you commit the monstrous act of killing a baby or you become potentially responsible for the pain and death of an entire group.  There’s no good decision there.

It gives us a better understanding of how our brains and emotions work.  Being forced into an impossible situation is traumatic, even if you make the “right” decision.  So our emphasis on reassuring people they made the right choice isn’t helpful.  Giving them a chance to release the stress without judgment and empathizing with the difficulty was more useful in helping the test group reach some peace of mind.

Granted, this was only a hypothetical situation and the people in question weren’t asked to carry through with their decision.  But it still gives us insight.  Actually, I wonder if the public nature of the decision also plays a factor.  Presumably some of the control group had an idea of which choice they would make but weren’t forced to reveal it.  I would be curious to see if there was a followup to see if their potential choice weighed on them later.

There could also be some interesting parallels with the Milgram experiments where people had to choose whether or not to give a fatal shock to a fellow experimentor (who was actually an actor).  How many of those people ended up with traumatic issues from having to make that decision?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Problem with Battlestar Galactica

I was asked recently what my problem is with Battlestar Galactica.  The person in question reminded me that I used to love the show (which is true) and that I’ve been forgiving of other shows with plot issues.  So why did this particular show get my back up?

I believe you learn much more from things you don’t like and ideas you don’t agree with than those you do.  Disagreeing with something forces you to isolate what it is that you don’t like.  I suppose you can just keep sitting in a corner somewhere repeating “it sucks” over and over (and some corners of the Internet prove it).  But it’s a lot more useful if you can articulate matters.

Beginning with a little history, my husband was a fan of classic Battlestar when he was young.  The show didn’t age well but he had many fond memories.  When Ron Moore announced he was doing a four hour miniseries with an eye to reviving the series, Dave wasn’t sure if he wanted to taint those memories but was too curious to stay away.  I had no particular preconceptions, aside from having watched a few of the heavily 70’s-stained classic episodes and trying to keep a straight face.  So we tuned in.

It was fascinating.  The standard Frankenstein story of mankind’s creations turning against us.  The space battles were amazing to watch.  And I loved how Ron Moore had turned Galactica into a museum.  The crew is frantically trying to fight the invaders with outdated technology and ripping down little helpful signs directing tourists around the ship.  The best moment was when Captain Odama orders his fighters out of the port fighter bay only to be told that it was now a gift shop.

There were agonizing moments.  Battlestar finds a convoy of unarmed civilian ships trying to evacuate the planets against the Cylon invasion.  They know the Cylons are coming.  They know a single fighter ship cannot protect the convoy.  Only some of the ships have faster-than-light travel.  The decision is made to jump away where the Cylons can’t track them but it means sacrificing those civilians who cannot follow.  It’s a painful moment and you can feel how it affects the crew.

There were also outright sickening moments.  A Cylon infiltrator is checking on the plans in the last days before the invasion.  While moving through the crowd, she picks up a baby and then kills it by snapping its neck.  I almost stopped watching after that.  It was so sickening and frankly, unnecessary.  They’re about to kill everyone in a few days and they take the time to individually kill a baby?  I told myself it was part of showing that the Cylons are evil, establishing that they will show no mercy.

Those three facets pretty much cover the show.  The fascinating and agonizing kept me going through the few outright sickening parts.  But the sickening parts kept showing up more and more frequently as the series went on and they became less and less justified by the plot.  We cared about the characters and the writers kept kicking them in the teeth or making them do these horrible things.  Eventually by the third season, it was pretty much all agonizing and sickening.  There was nothing good to balance any of it.  And they were going out of their way to undermine and take away any of the earlier good.

That’s what made the show dark.  I can accept dark, even if I don’t care to watch it.  What made the show bad was the lack of planning.

Just before every episode, we got little flashes followed by words.  Man created the Cylons, etc, etc.  The last line was always “And they have a plan.”  It was a good device to build tension, suggesting some kind of master intelligence running the humans through a maze.  Unfortunately, the Cylons never shared their plan with the writers.

Halfway through season four, Moore admitted that he and the other writers made plot choices based on what would most surprise the viewers.  This made a lot of the choices incomprehensible to those watching.  They didn’t make any sense and they didn’t follow a coherent structure.  I can tolerate a fair bit if I think it’s going somewhere, but to know all of these things were just senseless bothered me.

The first two seasons of Battlestar are really good, particularly the first episode “33”.  Edward James Olmos is a fantastic combination of warrior and priest.  Mary McDonald is amazing as the President and the plot line of her finding out she has cancer right before the invasion is very touching.  Katee Sackoff’s Starbuck is a refreshingly brash female warrior.  The characters are detailed, the tragedy is explored fully and with sympathetic realism and the plots are realistic for a group of ships trying to survive in space.  There are tantalizing bits of evidence for a conspiracy which runs through the episodes and strange occurrences that had all the fans trying to guess what they meant.

If the writers had not gotten caught in a dark spiral of competing to see who could make the character’s lives suck worse; if there had been a coherent metaplot which kept things consistent, then the show would have been brilliant.  Perhaps I’m hard on it because there was a time when I believed and then the belief got yanked out from under my feet.  Maybe it’s sour, disappointed grapes.

But I take the lessons of Battlestar very seriously.  It’s easy to make things worse in a story.  It’s dramatic and adds tension.  But there always has to be a reason.  The pain has to lead somewhere.  Real life has lots of examples of pain that doesn’t go anywhere.  Fiction is supposed to be better than that.