Sunday, October 2, 2016

On Dying and Grieving and Judgment

My dad passed away this week. He was older than the hills: 93 and a half years old. I’m not sad about his passing; he lived a long and fulfilling life. But I am troubled by how he went, and our expectations around grief. At his 90th birthday party, he was jovially talking with old friends and extended family. He lived a quiet life with his wife in a beautiful care facility. I once likened him to a cat, sleeping much of the day, and happy just to watch the world out his window. We don’t need to be doing things to be content. But the past few years haven’t done him any favours. He had a commanding presence that gradually shrunk until he disappeared into the ether, cremated a block from his residence.

A couple weeks ago he got pneumonia. He was verbal and lucid, but didn’t recognize anybody accurately. Last Sunday I visited, and he was no longer saying words. He could just make sounds. His mouth was slack-jawed, but he would grin reflexively and wide-mouthed from time to time, with the unselfconscious extended gaze of an infant. When we walked in the room, he was sideways on the bed (they're not allowed to use waist restraints), completely uncovered, and wearing only a diaper. His body was skin and bones, riddled with age spots and moles. As we tried to cover him, he kept throwing the blankets off his tiny body. His nurse said she tried to put a dressing gown on him, but he kept pulling at it, so she left it off.

It reminded me of being in labour. My body was working hard and heating up, and my instinct was to tie my hair back and strip down naked regardless friends and family coming and going, oblivious to typical standards of decency. My focus was surviving the ordeal of birthing. I wasn’t thinking at all of the baby I was about to have, but about my own ability to live through the process. My clothes were simply in the way, every fibre a distraction making coping with the task at hand all the more difficult.

And it reminded me of every Christmas and Thanksgiving of my childhood, when the house was so full of family milling about, and there were so many pots on the stove cooking that the windows would weep condensate. My dad would start carving the turkey in the kitchen, fully dressed, but by time he was digging the last bits off the carcass, he’d have stripped down to his boxers in fits of swearing and chasing all of us kids out of the kitchen. He couldn’t do things with his clothes getting in the way. A former student once astutely remarked on the new trend of falling asleep with phones in hand: “We’re too lazy to get ourselves to sleep.” Going to sleep is an effort. I wonder if dying is similar.

Or maybe he was just hot.

So there he was in bed, sideways with his legs partially over the edge, working, like he was struggling to get through it all. His toes were curled under and his legs bending and pushing frenetically, arms flailing, looking for something to grasp on to, like a baby thrashing and kicking but failing to have any useful effect on his surroundings. The movements didn’t stop when he was sat up and then was repositioned in bed. It’s hard to watch frustration. He looked confused and scared and agitated. My sister and I each held a hand to comfort him the way I was taught to hold a newborn’s hands during the first couple diaper changes to help them feel safe and secure. It seemed to help a bit, slowing the thrashing down and keeping him steady, but soon enough the nurse came in with more morphine. We waited with him until he was calm enough to fall into a light sleep, and loosen his death grip on us, then we stole away home.

Relief from the pain of bearing witness to his plight was much stronger than my sense of guilt and cowardliness. They crept in to show themselves later, after it was too late. It would have been nice to be with him when he passed, but nobody knew how long it would take. As it was, he left us the following night.

And I wondered at the possibility of the nurse giving him just that much more morphine to make this end a little sooner and with us in the room at his side. His days had tipped the balance into far greater pains than pleasures, with no hope for any improvement. Is there a purpose or meaning to be garnered from these last days? The morphine suppressed his coughing, and he was barely drinking or eating. He was essentially dying of suffocation and dehydration, and it’s lucky he had the means to do it with the best possible care so his pain was minimized. But does a natural death trump a peaceful one?

This might seem morbid, but I regret that I didn’t take photos of his body, so foreign to anyone raised in a world sanitized of death. But it would have felt objectifying and disrespectful. There were instructions in place to take his body to the hospital for cremation immediately, so I knew I wouldn’t have another chance to marvel at what becomes of us, to, at my leisure, stare prolonged in wonder at photos of his curled feet and aged-marked back, the skin hanging from his legs, and the twisted and contorted postures of his final days. As it is, I already can't quite remember what he looked like at the end. I also wanted to make a plaster casting of my mother's face when she passed at home, but my siblings don't see art as the useful path to healing that I find it to be. It can help mark that moment of transition from one form to another. It allows us to redefine the situation on our own terms and turns the chaos of being into a thing of beauty. Maybe I should leave instructions or permissions for my own children, all of whom have a creative bent.

I recently re-wrote my will because I’m taking a trip, and I’m always pretty sure I’ll die any time I get on a plane. I have a pull-the-plug clause, but, after seeing my dad, I asked about including instructions in case I’m mentally unfit or incapable of communicating but clearly languishing. My lawyer clarified that advance directives like that can’t be included in a will because, according to the new law, the patient must be mentally competent at the time of an assisted suicide to agree to it. I understand that it prevents people from terminating the lives of anyone against their wishes, but, in cases like this, I can’t see the point of a natural death.

I’m projecting my own preferences here, but I’d rather be surrounded by family at a predetermined time, allow my children to say goodbye and hold my hand while I’m given an injection, than to have my kids rush to visit one last time, one at a time, some of them too late, and know that I died alone essentially of dehydration or suffocation. I can’t see any way that it was beneficial for my father to continue struggling and suffering. Is there something to gain from seeing the end come naturally? Do we have something to learn from it? Or is it just our belief in life at any cost that maintains laws to keep suffering people alive? The only argument that I’d give some leeway to is one based on the family’s faith or tradition. For the atheists among us, it seems absolutely barbaric, and most of us wouldn’t let our pets die like that. But I really have no right to say anything. I was negligent in visiting since he first moved more than walking distance away.

I was never very close to my dad; I always found him difficult to be around. We’re both introverts who were awkward together once my mom was no longer around to carry the conversation along. Even before that, he spent much of his time in his basement study reading and playing music at ungodly hours of the day. I kept books on the register in my bedroom to muffle the sound of his trumpet playing or his opera records, cranked to ten, jolting me awake before the sun was quite up. My bedroom faced a forest, and I looked forward to waking with the sun filtering through the trees, not the pitch blackness of his pre-dawn rituals.

Unlike most family rifts, we agreed on every fundamental issue. He was very progressive for someone of his generation, and he held feminist principles even if he might never have used that word. He had a strong sense of equity and justice and was extraordinarily sensitive to the plight of others. When we were kids, he would sometimes walk into the TV room and then storm back out, revolted by the violence we took for entertainment. It didn’t stop me from enjoying those kinds of films, but it did make me question my choices. He made me think about a lot of things along the way. He was a brilliant man, and I greatly admired him, but largely from a distance. We didn’t talk much at any point in our lives together beyond sharing knowledge. Before the internet, he was my go to for translating the odd word from Greek, Latin, or German. As a kid, he let me break a thermometer and poke the mercury with a toothpick on a disposable plate, and he let me play with a soldering iron and his power tools with minimal supervision. I made a maze for my pet mice and an outhouse for my Barbie dolls. We spent the summers camping, and he told us the names of the plants and the types of rocks surrounding us, and he could name most of the stars in the sky, too. He admired the experiments I set up labelling rose petals coated with any liquid I could find in the house to determine the liquid with the best moisturizing properties. He was always there when there was something to teach. But that was as far as we ever got.

Truth be told, he was an ornery bugger. He was neither gentle nor patient. He wanted to spend his days reading and thinking and playing music, but he was surrounded by noisy children thwarting his efforts. His frustrations with us were duly noted. I added “irascible spirit” to his obituary to ensure we acknowledge the man he really was rather than mourn a glorified version of him. None of my siblings objected. It’s important to bury the right person. I’m so thankful to family members who did all the dirty work. I’m glad he was comfortable and cared for, and that although I largely ignored my responsibilities, my negligence had little impact on the quality of his life.

And then I didn’t mention anything to my friends or colleagues until yesterday. How weird is that? I found out about it at work Tuesday morning, and I wrote the first draft of his obituary at lunch, surrounded by colleagues who would have been very supportive. Because I'm not sad about it all, I was worried that people would misread my behaviour. There seems to be a narrow range of acceptable reactions to death.

I didn’t want to take any time off work because it’s always more work and stress than it’s worth. Taking three days off from teaching would have required a full evening of preparing, and another day afterwards of cleaning up and catching up. And I wouldn’t grieve any differently at home alone. It was in the forefront of the mind the whole time, but I wasn’t teary-eyed at all. I felt like since I wasn’t behaving in a grieving fashion, it might draw suspicions that I must be coldhearted. I’m not repressing emotions or distracting myself with work, and it’s not that I’m not affected, but sometimes it just doesn’t come out like it does for most people.

Times of trauma and tragedy bring out a lot of projecting. People look at someone going through a death of a loved one, and they overlap their own feelings and responses onto the freshly grieving. Any behaviour that doesn’t match their own expressions is sometimes suspect. People watch people’s reactions at these times and make assumptions about their inner life. That’ll happen in retrospect anyway, once someone reads about it in the paper and shares the news, but my silence on it got me almost a week to process without a battery of questions and concerns about my decision to be at work while I was most vulnerable.

It gave me time to steel myself for any possible onslaught of whispered accusations of heartlessness or aloofness, or of just plain being weird. If they think it must be a hard time, and you're as happy as ever, that disconnect begs for a label. Even the kindest people can sometimes fall into the trap of judging others. I needed private time to process. I needed a week to get my head around it all before I had people sharing their condolences and looking at me with sympathy, quickly followed by disdain. As soon as people know you’re going through something difficult, they pay more attention to you in a way that can be oppressive. Well-meaning people can feel intrusive sometimes, and I wasn’t ready to deal with that just yet.

And although I’m affected by it, it’s just not that sad to me. He had lived a really long, fulfilling life. This was a good death in that respect. I’m not beside myself weeping because it was long expected. I am still grieving a colleague who took his own life almost a year ago. That one haunts me, and I can't get over the guilt of not doing more; I'm sometimes ill with remorse. But my dad went when he should.

When my mother died, twenty years ago, we all expected him to go quickly after. They were a couple so united that it seemed impossible for one to live without the other. When students say that being raised with divorced parents makes it unlikely they’ll have a good marriage, I counter it that I was raised watching an intensely happy marriage, which totally ruined my chances at a relationship. Nothing could live up to that ideal. Yet after she died, he quickly re-married and moved and had a whole other life. Life's full of surprises like that.

So it goes.

So bring on the dancing girls!  (My dad's common refrain after an especially good meal.)

My Uncle Jack and My Dad

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Water Wars and the Last Straw

The next world wars won't be about land or oil. They'll be about water. And Canada could be the next Iraq, invaded and decimated for the abundance of our natural resources. We have to stop corporate control over our most necessary resource now before it all slips out of our hands.

I watched Maude Barlow speak Thursday night in Guelph, and it was fitting it was in a church. I was in turns choking back tears and roused from my seat to applaud more than any preacher could compel me. She's a fascinating mix of intellectual brilliance and folksy warmth. She can rattle off an analysis of facts and figures at lightening speed, but as she signed my copy of her book and listened to me rave like a teenager about having her picture and words on my classroom wall, she put her hand on mine and looked into my eyes to thank me for being part of the fight. I saw Maude speak before, decades ago, and despite spreading the word far and wide since then, educated people in my midst still buy bottled water. "But I like the taste." Drinking water from the tap is a small price to pay (actually you'll save a fortune) for public control over waterways.

The evening was hosted by the Wellington Water Watchers, a small group of dedicated people with a huge fight on their hands. Our hands. Spokesperson Arlene Slocombe referred to Nestle as a multinational predator in our midst. They've been drawing water from Aberfoyle (near Guelph) and Hillsburgh (near Erin) for years, and now they've gotten hold of Middlebrook (near Elora). Studies have found that the quantity water in Middlebrook was needed for the citizens. The township offered to buy the land, but Nestle outbid them with full knowledge of the effect it will have on the people in the area. Profits over people all the way.

When Nestle's permit expired in July 2016, the provincial government passed a law that allowed Nestle an unlimited extension without any transparency. Wynne thinks the solution is to raise the fees for corporate water extraction, but that will have a negligible effect on the outcome. Nestle will profit from climate change, which is the foundation of Klein's concerns around disaster capitalism. We must put the public's right for water first, and overwhelming public support and political pressure is necessary to stop the renewal of permits. Aberfoyle is up for renewal now, and Hillsberg is coming up next summer. Nestle pays fees and taxes to the municipality it's situated in (for Aberfoyle, money goes to Puslinch, but the water draw also affects Guelph), so sometimes poorer municipalities prioritize immediate cash over the future livability of the area.

(Barlow's words are further down, below the selfie. This is the important bit.)

Check out all that Nestle owns (brands are all listed here and in this graphic or get the buycott app for your phone), and boycott Nestle products. Then take another step to tell them about it.
Tell your friends and family about the issue. Tell everyone on social media. Start a petition. Tweet it to celebrities and TV producers en masse. Nothing changes a society's behaviour as quickly as regular-type sit-com characters changing their behaviour. Remember when Rachel changed her hair? Boom! If the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine carried re-usable water bottles and were shown filling them from the tap instead of carrying bottled water and hanging around the water dispenser, it could change people's mindless behaviours.
Call, e-mail, and/or visit your Mayor to insist we ban single-use water bottles in our city like Montreal's trying to do or, at the very least, ban them in all municipal events and buildings. The Blue Community Project can help it happen in your area. So far 18 municipalities in Canada have succeeded in this ban. They're early adopters of this new mentality. At times the speakers seemed to suggest that a Nestle boycott would be enough to save the day: "Just close your wallet!", but Chomsky says personal boycotts have the same effect as committing suicide. I signed the pledge card, but I'd argue that they're useful mainly for our own sense of integrity. To really fix things, we need to legislate Nestle out of business by petitioning municipalities (and provinces and the whole flippin' world) to ban bottled water everywhere.
Call, e-mail, and/or make an appointment to see your MPP. Tell them Wynne has to get tougher with Nestle. It's not enough to just raise the fees. She has to stop them from selling the water that our municipalities need to flourish.
Call, e-mail, and/or make an appointment to see your MP. Tell them that Trudeau has to reinstate the acts decimated by Harper: the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Navigable Water Protection Act. (See below for more info on this one.) Tell them that if he doesn't, then we may as well be living under Harper's rule. No shirtless photo op will make you forget that he allowed Harper's mess to continue unabated. (Maybe don't tell them that last bit.)
Still PUMPED about it?  Then get involved with...
The Council of Canadians, the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance, and/or the Wellington Water Watchers. If you're local, then show up to Guelph council this Monday, Sept. 26. There's a rally at 5:00 and you can try to follow Councillor James Gordon in at 6:30 (if they'll let everyone in). He plans to introduce a motion asking council to send a letter to the province opposing Nestle's application.


Here's what Maude told us (highly paraphrased - she spoke a mile a minute - and organized so I can make sense of it all, but linked. Note that some links go to corporate sites to illustrate the types of profit-driven arguments being made on the other side of the issue.):

We Don't Have as Much as We Think:

The world is in crisis, and Guelph is a microcosm of these world issues. We're in a place where we've been conned by a myth of abundance. Most of Canada's fresh water is in the north. The available water in the south is decreasing yearly. Canadian lakes are warming more than anywhere else, and there's no protection for groundwater. It hasn't even been mapped yet, so we don't really know how much we actually have.

We dump toxins and sewage in our water making it largely undrinkable. Europe has much higher standards around polluting water. CETA  (the new TTIP) will make this whole situation much worse. If CETA is passed (there are some constitutional challenges from Germany right now), and Nestle is denied rights to water, Nestle will be able to sue us.  Right now Coke and Pepsi can sue (with an ISDS) because they're American companies. But Nestle's European. CETA is not yet signed, so they can't sue yet. There's not enough public understanding of how CETA works and how damaging it will be.

Legislation has been Dismantled:

The National Water Act of 1970 handed power to the provinces, so most activist work needs to be done at the provincial level. Federally, Environment Canada's water budget is starved. There's a loophole in the Fisheries Act that allows the government to essentially designate lakes in order to allow dumping in them. About four years ago, under Harper, bill C-38 gutted the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and bill C-45 removed protection for 95% of our lakes and rivers originally protected under the Navigable Water Protection Act (which was originally drafted in 1881!). These moves were on a directive from the Energy Industry.

Our Jobs Shouldn't Destroy our Lives and our Future:

Our manufacturing used to be 26% of GDP, and now it's 11% because our jobs have moved overseas. We're turning to our natural resources for jobs, but it's having a disastrous effect. 11 million litres of toxic waste are leeching into water every day around the Alberta tar sands. Alberta will be first water-insecure province. The Energy East Pipeline would cross 3,000 waterways and put the drinking water of 5 million Canadians at risk. For the past 30 years, pipelines in Canada have averaged three breaks per day. It's not a matter of if they'll break, but when. BC and Alberta are fracking and mining due to a move to public-private partnerships (PPPs). Suez and Veolia, water 'servicing' corporations profiting off human need, argue that once we're in a PPP agreement, then they must be compensate if any municipality breaks their contract with them. There's also serious issues with allowing water trading (already started in Alberta), water pollution trading (euphemistically called 'water quality trading'), and water exporting. We already export bottled water, all in plastic, to the tune of close to 465 billion litres of bottles a year.

Politicians are Acting Cowardly:

This is a global fight. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, CEO of Nestle, thinks the human right to water is ridiculous. He's also the advisor to the World Bank Water Resources Agenda 30/30 that delivers water to poorer people worldwide. This is a conflict of interest, and an abominable abuse of power. It's also a local fight (that's being watched across the pond). Nestle pays less than $15 per day for the water they take in Aberfoyle. 11,000 people of the Six Nations have no access to running water. Two-thirds of First Nations have been under drinking water advisories here in the past few years. It's a travesty that's largely being ignored.

Provincial politicians "clearly don't know what they're doing." They just want to raise the fees attached to taking the water, which will have a negligible effect on a huge corporation like Nestle. This is our water, and Nestle needs to leave this community.

Federally, Trudeau had some positives in his budget. He added a lot to water and waste water services in First Nations communities and into the fisheries an oceans, but he didn't increase allotments to Environment Canada. If they don't undo the damage by reinstated the gutted bills, it'll be as if Harper is still in office. Trudeau launched consultations on those acts instead of reinstating them because the oil and water industries are pushing back. We must tell MPs that they have to fight for this for us.

This is all Possible!!:

"Boiling Point is a cry from my heart to yours." We have to abandon the erroneous belief that Canada has lots of water. We need a federal plan to protect our groundwater. We need to ban pipelines, fracking, and bottled water. We need justice for First Nations. We need a new water ethic that overrides all policies involving water use or that has an impact on water (agriculture, trade deals, etc.). Water is a public trust. It must not be allowed to be taken piece by piece.

Oscar Olivera was leader of first fight in the water wars in Bolivia. Bechtel privatized water and tripled the price and fined anyone capturing rainwater. People fought back and got Bechtel to leave. He explained his dedication with this line: "I would rather die of a bullet than thirst." This is similar to Mike Mercredi's struggle right here. He lives with the tar sands, and when children swim in lakes nearby, they get covered in sores and cysts. He says, "It would be kinder to come in with guns and kill them quickly."

At Site 41, near Barrie, people fought a dump being scheduled on top of an aquifer of exceptionally clean water. In the spring of 2011, Mayors were ready to go ahead with it for the tax money. Equipment was moved in, but First Nations women set up a peace camp and held prayers on the road in front of traffic. They were able to stall the equipment all summer until the frost made the work impossible. Their arrest was ordered, and the community was split three ways on the issue. Pro-dump, pro-water, and undecided. Then one of the leaders of the pro-dump group was presented, by his grandchildren, with the opposition's sign. They pleaded with him, and he announced his job description had changed to being a steward of the water.

THE LAST STRAW (my two cents on activism):

This event was covered by Guelph Today news, and the Council of Canadians site, where both report a 'packed hall' or a 'big crowd'. The thing is, it wasn't all that packed. I was worried about getting a seat, but there were many to choose from. Papers like to suggest that this is important news because everyone who's anyone was there, but in reality this is really important news because so few were there. So few people, particularly younger people (I felt like I was younger than most there), are concerned or "woke" enough to come to a talk or rally or write their MPP or try to fix this vital and life-threatening problem in any concrete way. Writing about small numbers won't sell papers, but it's an important part of reporting the problem. Hopefully it was truly packed in Toronto last night.

When I talk to students about what effective activism looks like, they often focus on people who became famous. Martin Luther King Jr. is a name they hold up as the model of an activist that changed the world. But then activism becomes something far too difficult for an ordinary person to do. How do we possibly get thousands of people to follow us? How do we write and deliver all those speeches? It's not in the skill set of the best of us.

I tell them to keep in mind that MLK didn't start the civil rights movement. He was there at a high-point in the movement, when things dramatically turned a corner. But, and he's said as much, the movement started decades earlier with thousands of people whose names you've never heard and wouldn't recognize. He happened to be the last straw that broke the backs of a racist system. He didn't make it happen. The people who paved the way before him, each one of them were absolutely necessary for the country to galvanize around him. And we never know when we'll hit that corner, when we could be that last straw.

We have to add ourselves to the numbers. We can't do this for fame or fortune; we can't expect that we will be the ones to save the world. We have to work on these issues knowing we likely won't be known or remembered for our work, but it's simply the right thing to do. That people are suffering, literally dying of thirst, so a corporation can increase its profits by duping the public is a travesty. Barlow said the fight is on our doorstep, but I say it's right in our home. This world is where we live, and Nestle needs to get the fuck out.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Irony of Advocating for A/C in Schools

This was a hot start to the school year. I taught a few classes with sweat dripping off my face as I spoke animatedly and enthusiastically about my courses. It was uncomfortable to be sure. And it was no better for students staring back at me all pink-faced and glistening. It's hard to learn when you're uncomfortable.

But when I discussed teachers who are advocating for A/C in the classroom (and a Premier who agrees with them), my grade tens were keen enough to pick up on the irony of it all, on the paradox created. Our excessive use of fossil fuels (and factory farms) has increased the global temperature such that we're seeing hotter summers, and we can expect them to increase in intensity in the years following. And this solution of adding A/C to all the schools will make the privileged few more comfortable in the short term, but it will actually exacerbate the problem for the many and around the world.

It's worse than a band-aid solution. A better analogy might be to rip the crap out of a mosquito bite (which we can also expect more of) to get some immediate relief and then put a band-aid on the bloody mess we created, which still itches but now it hurts too. It's a self-wounding-band-aid solution.

There are some immediate solutions that use less energy. I gave up time instead of money and went to school shortly after six every morning to open my classroom windows and those of the room across the hall to blow out the hot air. I tried to convince the custodians to turn off half the hall lights (emergency lighting only), but I got nowhere on that one. There are also more innovative solutions like running a fan through a cooler full of ice. You still have to make the ice block, but that might not take significantly more energy if there's room in your freezer for a large tupperware container (or old milk carton) of water.

But this attitude has to change dramatically if we're going to get out of this alive. Everything will have to shift to acclimatize to the new normals in temperature. Some teachers are asking to be allowed to dismiss students on very hot days. That could be a nightmare for working parents having to pick up kids suddenly, but perhaps we could allow siestas during particularly hot afternoons. It might be the case that we really utilize a daylight-savings-type system where schools start a couple hours earlier from late May to early October. Or maybe, once students all have their own computers that they carry back and forth to school, classrooms could keep their windows open at night without fear of computers being stolen. The schools are all alarmed anyway.

My point is that we can't keep looking at old solutions that are part of the problem to fix this situation. We have to develop more innovated strategies. And part of that is just getting used to it - just plain adapting to our changing environment. People who don't have A/C in their homes have an easier time in hot schools and outside because their bodies have been able to get used to the change. See here and here: "People who spend a great deal of time outdoors become 'outdoor acclimatized.' These persons are affected less by heat or cold extremes because their bodies have adjusted to the outdoor environments." And here:  "It takes one to two hours a day in hot temperatures to acclimate properly. You don't feel the stress of the heat. You feel more comfortable."

The more we add A/C everywhere, the more we'll need A/C to cope. We're starting down a spiral that will keep us unable to manage in the outdoors. Out of all possible solutions for the sticky mess we wade through at the beginning and end of each school year, adding air conditioning to schools is the worse.

Fixing French Immersion

The Agenda with Steve Paikin had a segment on French Immersion in the schools this week. The panel raised some interesting points but neglected a few issues.

A Bit of a Summary (skip down for more interesting bits)

The guests were Caroline Alfonso, an education reporter for the Globe & Mail (with a young child in immersion), Stuart Miller, the director of education (in Halton), John Lorinc, a journalist with older kids who went through immersion, and Mary Cruden the President of the Canadian Parents for French. Despite the fact that the show is titled, "The Problems with French Immersion," the journalist seemed the only critic of the current program with some concerns that led to one of his kids changing streams.  Stuart raised some issues with the cost to run the program born of the fact that some schools are left with only four or five kids in the English stream, and with the unequal access to the program. It's costly to run a class with such small numbers. But elsewhere he praised the educational benefits of a second language.

Enrollment in immersion programs is increasing across Canada, and Paikin asked the panel why so many parents want their kids in immersion. Caroline and Mary suggested parents want to have an extra tool in their tool basket, a leg up on the competition to give the kids an edge. Paikin offered that it might have something to do with being a proud Canadian, as was Trudeau-the-elder's dream almost fifty years ago, but nobody bit at that one. From this panel's perspective, parents put their kids in immersion to get them ahead of the curve. The fact that many students don't make it to the end, didn't seem to phase the guests. They believe that early intervention is key to greater success in the long run.

According to Stuart, immersion students don't do significantly better or worse in the long run, however an article in Macleans disagrees (but without links or references to see the studies):
Working memory, used in activities like math, is improved, especially among those aged five to seven. Even reading scores in English are significantly higher for French immersion students than non-immersion students, according to a 2004 study, which noted the higher socio-economic background of French immersion students alone could not account for the stark difference.... [However,] turns out native English speakers living outside Canada’s sole francophone province are rather poor at keeping up their French skills as they get older. In 1996, 15 per cent of 15- to 19-year-old anglophones outside Quebec could conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages. Fast forward 15 years and the bilingualism rate for 30- to 35-year-olds in 2011 was eight per cent.
If the results are accurate and statistically significant, then I still wonder if the immersion program itself is having the most significant effect on those results. Higher income might not be the primary variable, but students with parents who, regardless their income, advocate for them more, who push them more and who, therefore, might want them in immersion, will likely have kids who are higher achievers even if immersion weren't available. I'd like to see a study compare parents with immersion in the area and parents without, not parents of immersion and non-immersion kids in one school. Ask many questions about their attitude towards schooling, their own education, and their income, and then, compare results against the success of their kids on a general, comprehensive test to see if parental attitude towards education affects kids more than the immersion program.

Because the panel raised one important issue about the way the program is actually running...

Teacher Shortages

It's hard to get good teachers who are also bilingual. Stuart explained that, "Qualified and quality may be two different things," and cited stats that 80% of principals struggle to find quality French teachers who can speak the language fluently AND are proficient in the subject matter. If they're not francophone, prospective teachers have to keep up their French in university courses, but then take their teachable subject courses on top of that, all the science or math or history credits required to teach those subjects. It places an extra burden on the shoulders of teachers training to be immersion teachers who teach core subjects in a second language.

John spoke of a problem with many unqualified educators in the French stream; teachers have to teach multiple subject matters they're not qualified for, or else they're not strong enough in French to speak all day and they end up switching to English during most classes. Immersion students can miss out on some better classes with teachers stronger in the field in the English stream.

The shortage of good teachers is also a factor when students begin to struggle. There was much disagreement over whether or not it's a problem or a benefit not to have parents with a command of French, but John is clear that it creates an extra barrier for children with homework that can't be supported by parents at home. It creates an inequity if some parents can afford a tutor. Others thought that, if a student is struggling with the work, it should be the teacher that supports them at school. But, in my experience, that's just not the reality of some situations. Some teachers would add supports in English to ensure the students didn't get behind, but others were adamant that it would harm the integrity of the immersion program. I was lucky enough to tap into a group of parents who had copies of an English math workbook so I could help my daughter to understand the math concepts at home. But it was all very clandestine; we were sneak-learning the subject content. Learning shouldn't feel so weirdly criminal. But without that, it can be really unclear whether the student is having a problem with subject matter (math) or with the language of instruction. How do we know which part needs remedial help?

Mary explained that what is the parent's responsibility is to ensure that kids get authentic experiences in French in the community. I wouldn't know where to find that in my own area, but the Ministry developed to connect parents to French experiences, something I didn't know about until I saw the show. Unfortunately, most of the experiences are in bigger cities, adding to the divide between families of means and those without. I played tapes of French songs in my house from the time my kids were born, but I've never encountered a French experience in my community. That's a different kettle of fish.

Inequality and Self-Segregation

Is immersion elitist? Some suggested that the program isn't elitist, it's just that some parents act like it is. According to Mary the Ministry FSL framework includes students with special needs. The Ministry says they will get support they need. She insists that it's a myth that some children are more suited to FI than other, and that's not supported by research. If teachers identify the learning issues, they find students will have it whether they're in immersion or not.  She says we can't allow quiet conversations about the student who isn't suited to the program rather than actually supporting the struggling learning. FSL classrooms should reflect the demographic of all kids in that board. But Stuart added that this is all related to teacher shortage. Immersion should have the same supports, but they don't have Spec Ed teachers who speak French. All support is delivered in English.

To me, that the intention is to offer it to everyone is irrelevant when it's only offered to a few. That it's a scarce resource makes it desirable. The fact that some people have an easier time getting in than others, creates an inequity at the intake. The fact that some people have an easier time helping their children because of their own French background or their ability to afford a tutor and trips to Ottawa, creates inequity throughout. Any parent can cut an apple into sections to talk about fractions with their kids if they're struggling with the concept, but not every parent can help with the French instruction when their child hits a wall.

There's also an underlying sense, as Mary suggested, that students should be a "good fit" for the program, that it's really NOT for everyone, and some students are just not suited to it. How can it possibly be said to be offered equally if it's overtly stated that there's a type of student that should be admitted. And, as some suggested, there's not a significant effort to help struggling students. Students who have difficulties with French are coaxed to drop down to the English stream.

And this is the part that starts to feels pretty slimy. Immersion can be a way to get kids away from "undesirable influences" that might include students with behavioural issues, new Canadians, and students less inclined towards school. That's an unspoken piece of all this. Some parents might be streaming not for the mental benefits, but for the peer group. They don't want any weird kids in the class next to their darlings. Parents are more overt about this in some circles, and we all need to be reminded of the dangers of this line of reasoning. I would much rather my kid talk to all sorts of different types of people in a classroom than have aspiration for Harvard. That's what makes for a healthy society. Too many are forgetting that. It's like Chomsky was on about a while back - we've shifted from a mindset of solidarity to competition, and it's absolutely essential that we make the effort to shift back!

Stuart adds that there's a perception that the French stream is more rigorous but he denies that to be the case. There's a concern with the kids who are behind. There has to be better supports for students struggling in French without taking them out of French. Caroline suggested that the idea that the English stream is seen as a place for kids with behavioural needs is a mentality of parents and of teachers who encourage French as if the English program is inferior, which needs to change. John thought that kids should get into the program randomly to reduce the elitism of the program, but I don't see that as a viable solution. It would just cause different problems.

What They Didn't Say

They didn't talk about the overall results of immersion for Canada as a country:

When our cultural norms change, it can take a while for education to match it. When we were finally required to introduce people of a variety of ethnicities and genders in our history courses (surprisingly recently), that sent me scrambling for new resources because I had been teaching what I had been taught in university: all about dead, white men. It will be a few years and a lot of work for teachers to overcome our own narrow education of old.

But we've had immersion in our grade schools for many decades now. It's surprising to me that it seems we haven't actually produced a significantly more bilingual country, at least not significant enough to adequately teach the next generation. I would have liked to hear them address why immersion students aren't still fluent after university, and why there aren't more of them in education? If our goal is a bilingual country, and the middle-aged early adopters have forgotten all their French, we're obviously not going about it the right way.

They also didn't discuss one facet of the student experience that is my greatest concern:

Full disclosure: I teach in a high school that offers immersion, and I live an area that offers immersion at the local primary school, but I actually tried to have my first little one go to a different school. I discovered that parents can apply to have their child go to an immersion school far from home, but they can't apply to go to a non-immersion school. What I saw happening at the local school and in my neighbourhood was the development of a strikingly divisive student body, and I didn't want my kids to have any part of that.

Because of the attitudes of some teachers and parents who see the French program as superior, the students are living that artificial hierarchy. From what I've seen, they begin to treat one another differently as early as grade 1. It's the English Muffins vs the French Fries. Some students who struggle in the French, and don't get adequate supports, are loath to shift "down" to the English because of the stigma involved. That there's a palpable stigma that comes with being unilingual in a school that offers immersion is a serious problem. Schools should be about opening doors for kids, of breaking barriers and fostering a sense of equality, not arrogantly suggesting that one type of kid is better than the rest.  That attitude has no place in our school systems. But there it is. We've fought so hard to divorce ourselves from any notion of class divisions in our land of the free, yet we've created that very experience for our six-year-olds.

I mentioned on Facebook recently that a surprising number of my academic students didn't hand in their first assignment in my class this term. A former student commented to the effect that it's probably just the English stream students. The implication is that French Immersion students always get their work done on time and English kids are slackers. This prejudice doesn't go away after they leave school, even as they lose their French. They still see a division between them and us that we fostered in grade school.

Schools could help to override this by joining the classes together in each grade for co-operative games and dividing them differently for some classes, like phys ed. There has to be regular integration of the two streams from the first day on. We all promote integration in every other way, except this one. Schools must create an atmosphere of inclusion, and immersion schools have to work harder at this one.

Schools have become competitive in other ways with parents suggesting their child wants to take a subject they have no interest in just to get them into a specific school.  This further divides student bodies and divides communities. I want kids walking to the school down the street together instead of half of them being bussed across town for a special program that's rarely all that special. Some teachers promote their school, not just as another great school in the region, but the ultimate learning environment, without acknowledging the problems with this type of abject loyalty. I love my school to bits, but we have to keep an eye on the broader arena to ensure excellent education across the region, and country, and world. Solidarity is key.

Can it Be Fixed?

If we agree that learning a second language is good for kids's brains, and if our goal is to have a bilingual country, then everyone should learn French in school from JK on. When kids struggle with learning math, we don't stream them in such a way that they don't have to take it again until grade 4. They get lots of extra help to meet the standards required by the curriculum by the end of the year.  It's a serious problem to acknowledge that something is really good for kids' brains, but allow parents to opt out. It's an even more serious problem that some parents want their kids in the program but there are not enough available spots. Imagine if your kids couldn't learn math for a couple years because there's just not enough places for them. If we agree it's really good for kids, then we have to make it happen for all our kids.

And it has to start at junior kindergarten to take advantage of the younger sponge-like ability to learn a new language. According to recent studies, the optimal time to learn a second language is in the first two years of life, and the decline in the ability to learn one can start as early as age five. Grade one is way too late. We need more immersion in the early grades and in daycares where they're talking more and writing less (and no dictée quite yet, please), and then we can work on maintenance throughout the rest of the grades. The early years will help with the natural acquisition of verb tenses and pronunciation, and the later years can focus on developing better writing ability.

But I advocate for this instead of half day immersion in the later grades. If I were queen of the province, and I knew we couldn't provide enough French teachers to accommodate all students from grades 1 to 12 (because we didn't actually create a significant bilingual population...yet), then I'd move the available teachers to JK and SK classrooms for half days at all schools, and I'd offer incentives for daycares to have at least one French ECE on board, and for summer camps to have at least half the counsellors speaking French. I'd have rather my children played tag and learned how to canoe in French than have learned long division and how to memorize lists of words.

If the important thing is ensuring the best education for everyone, and we don't have the expertise to do it fully, then we have to offer a partial program to everyone rather than a full program for a select few. But from this panel discussion, and from discussions with students and parents, I don't get the impression that the best education system for all our kids is what's most important to people. What really matters is that some people get a little more than others. As they said right from the start, they want a leg up, an extra edge. That's a bigger problem of promoting the individual at the expense of the community, and it has to be ameliorated.

With full immersion in younger grades and only one class a term in later grades, students would still be able work towards a certificate, not through taking the right number of hours of French each year, but by having their fluency tested at the end. That would give them the incentive to maintain their French speaking and writing ability throughout high school at after school programs or just with conversations with peers - who would all have taken French since they were three or four.  It wouldn't be an extra, a burden, if it were learned well at a young age when all children are primed for language acquisition.

This would reduce problems with teachers who are less proficient in other subject areas in higher grades. And it would reduce the competition for an extra goodie for the select or lucky few. And, over another generation or two, we might undo the unsavoury class-divisions we've unwittingly established.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Wild Women in Temagami - On Doing the Heavy Lifting

I had an intense dream early in the summer that stayed with me for days. I was with some men in a cabin with stacks of bunks three high. We were preparing for a canoe trip. The main leader was indigenous, and he told me he liked how I braided my hair. I was bundled up for the weather but couldn't find my socks. I went outside without them to sit on the rocky shore of a lake on a misty morning just cool enough to warrant a sweatshirt, and I was euphoric to be there. Jack Nicholson was there - the Five Easy Pieces version of Jack - just sitting alone, quietly enjoying the view across the lake. He was alone at a picnic table, and I was alone. I asked if he wanted to play solitaire while we waited, then laughed at what I said (because I meant a game for two - two-handed solitaire maybe). He said ‘no thanks’ and went back to looking out at the lake. I wished I had said, “gin rummy.” He might have said yes. But really I knew he just wanted to look out at the lake. And I was trying to connect because I felt like I should, not because I really wanted to. I felt awkward that we were the only people not in a pair or grouping, but he had the confidence to be totally cool with being on his own in a crowd. He was finally content with his place in the world. I joined him in silence for a moment of peace.

I typically don't heed my dreams, but this time I immediately searched and signed up for a trip after waking. I miss being on a lake, and I don't have friends that feel the same way and have the time and know-how to make it happen, so an organized adventure was the only answer. The available time slot fit neatly between obligations on my calendar.

I used to have a beautiful piece of land north of Parry Sound - 24 acres with over 1000' of waterfront on a quiet lake. An old boyfriend and I bought it in March 2005, and we built a little cabin by paddling all the supplies in across the bow decks of two canoes held together by the weight of the lumber. We had a few priceless years there with family and friends. Then in 2010, the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, shortly after succumbing to the luxury of a propane fridge, lightening hit a nearby tree sending it careening down on the cabin. It went up in smoke, leaving only the wood stove and kitchen sink as markers of what was. Luckily it was raining hard enough to save the surrounding forest. That relationship ended, and, too mournful to try to re-build, we sold the land in July 2014. I've been sick with regret ever since, and I've all but stopped canoeing. I don't seem like someone who would be teary about land, but there it is.

The air is different up there. It feels like I'm breathing for real, kickstarting my airways and blood stream out of their usual grogginess. It's instantly calming to fall asleep to loons and frogs instead of the neighbour's dog barking at every passing car, and to leave our make-shift beds to see the sun just over the horizon each morning instead of checking out the world online. At home, I go days without noticing the sun or wind unless it's bothering me. Gratefulness for the beauty of our lives is closer to the surface when I'm surrounded by trees, water, and rock than by concrete, bricks, and steel.

I needed to get out there again, but I couldn't possibly go alone. I've been on backcountry canoe trips with every guy I've ever dated, but only with guys I've dated. They've always taken the lead, picking me up in the car with the canoe already on the roof racks. I've never chanced on friends who will take me tripping; I typically gravitate to friends who drink. Can't it be both?

I didn't go looking for a women-only trip; it just best fit my schedule. But that women-only element added a pivotal dimension to the experience beyond being comfortable changing outside the tent. If men are there, they'll often offer to do the heavy lifting or sometimes they'll just do it without a word, without looking around to see if they're possibly usurping an opportunity from someone. It's efficient for the strongest to do the heaviest work. But it's reminiscent of the time I played co-ed baseball and guys dove in front of me to catch the ball pretty much every time it came near me. I likely would have fumbled it or missed it entirely, and the more capable players definitely did a better job of keeping the game moving, but sometimes efficiency and ability and winning are not what's important.

Work is so rarely seen in a positive light as a means to build stamina or character. It's seen as a chore that everyone wants to avoid. But most chores can elicit a sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment; an opportunity is squandered when we avoid them willingly or without complaint. If someone's there to take up the slack, I'll totally slack-off. But then I end up feeling like a child who needs care-taking. It's disempowering to allow yourself to be helped more than is actually necessary, yet it's so easy to slip into that comfortable place of watching others do the work. At the time it can feel like a relief, but later there's a gnawing regret, like we weren't really on the same journey after all.

Without gender roles there to sub-consciously guide our actions, I was able to sit in the stern to steer a canoe through choppy waters, solo it up a steep and rocky portage, and dig out a new thunder box. I wouldn't have done any of those with a sturdy man there motivated by bravado to take on every challenge in a way that I might be less inclined. There's nothing like some hard work to forge a community of strangers into companions, and the stories we shared of our diverse trajectories to that place could fill a book.

On the final portage, I was brimming with confidence on my first pass with just a pack on my back, navigating down a steep hill after a good rain, until my foot slid the length of a wet root, leaving my knee an impressively bloody mess. Mine was not the only injury, but all were managed successfully with bandaids. Uncertain footing on the narrow path could possibly end at the bottom of a rocky slope. I think the guides managed all the canoes for that one. Without that help, we'd have had to step up and manage the pass, but ever so slowly. There's a time for standing back to watch.

I lasted seconds.
The guides made all the difference on the trip. They greeted us with an excited welcome. A brief mention of the expectation that we'll look to help each other and be compassionate and mindful of inclusivity at all times was enough to set the tone for the week. There was a bit of eye-rolling about any fear of bears - I admitted my own fears and started some tales of terror - yet it had a marked effect to see how relaxed they were.  It's like if a surgeon insists that your surgery will be easy-peasy and gently blows off any fears until it feels silly to be worried. It's not that the risk doesn't exist (enough that I wasn't the only one secretly harbouring bear spray), but that it's small enough to set it further back in our minds. They showed us the ropes and then encouraged us to do it all ourselves.

Guides bring their own knowledge and experiences to the trip, and I think we won the jackpot for the duo we had. Beyond the basics of outback camping and canoeing we tagged along for some morning yoga, learned some knots, and tried to start a fire with just the wood around us (and a shoelace) with Kie, of Lure of the North:

And we ended the days with a rousing sing-a-long from Pete Seeger to Taylor Swift with Jennifer, professional musician and knower of all the words, who, from time to time, would strike us silent with the power of her pipes!

Their energies were a perfect compliment of calm and spirited.

I came home feeling strong and capable. And a little sore and pretty much spent. But I won't miss another year on a lake with outcroppings of smooth rock slipping quietly into water that's sparkling with sunlight, with trees persistently stretching their roots into crevices of rock, twisted by the strong winds into a permanent tilt, and with that expansive horizon letting tired eyes rest on the distance. It's a recharging station for me and a reminder that there are still places where natural life is flourishing - although next time I'll leave room in my pack to collect litter on the way. Every chip bag or pop can at the side of the trail made me feel like Holden Caulfield seeing fuck you scrawled on the walls of his sister's school: "Certain things should stay the way they are." I know it's impossible to rub out all the signs of disrespect in the world, but we can made a dent in it for the people who come after us.

The trip gave me the courage to take the lead on a journey, to carry my own canoe, and the know-how to make a trip happen. And at the end, my least favourite chore of cleaning everything to be packed away for winter was relegated to an organization.

The Logistics: This trip was unbelievably well-organized. We were told exactly what to pack and what would be provided. The only thing really necessary to find that might not be in everyone's home is a sleeping bag and thermarest that pack small, although I plan to buy myself a lifejacket next time. Their one-size-fits-mosts ends up around the chin when you're 5'2" and sitting in a canoe. I old-schooled it with garbage bags instead of compression packs. The food was fantastic and plentiful, and despite all the heavy lifting, I gained weight. But I most appreciated the environmental advocacy of the trip leaders. I was on an organized trip as a teenager where we were told to lather up and jump in the lake every morning despite my quiet cautions that soap won't biodegrade in water. This group insisted on using any soap well away from the lake, separating garbage for composting, and they helped us organized carpools to decrease the impact of driving there. They offered tips on working out to get in shape for the heavy-lifting required, but everyone was accommodated as needed. I can't bring myself to work out to get in shape for later purposes, but I have just enough tenacity to muscle myself through the forest and across the lake as the need arises.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On Feelings

I was thinking about the fact discussed here that we only started acknowledging feelings as something to be concerned with or a measure of well-being when soldiers returned from WWII, a good half of them with shell shock. Freud had us actually ask people about what's going on in their heads, and this basic technique is with us today augmented with Aaron Beck's Cognitive Behaviour Therapy that digs for and replaces negative self-talk.  The Humans of New York series is currently focused on soldiers with PTSD. The soldiers who have had some therapy, some ability to talk through their past experiences, have been significantly helped by the process.

But I've been thinking of a side-effect of becoming aware of our feelings and how our experiences affect us: Some of us are becoming hyper-aware of every moment of fear or disappointment or grief or sadness to a debilitating degree.

Years ago I went on a road trip with some friends travelling from concert to concert around Ontario. Just before leaving, the driver of the wreck we were travelling in was cautioned to make sure it didn't overheat. Just that one word of warning from a random bystander sent us to the side of the road every couple of hours to open the hood and stare inside. The temperature gage never got anywhere close to the danger zone, but every time it moved, we had to pull over. Sometimes too much attention can be as bad as not enough.

After thousands of years of stoically forging ahead despite flashes of anxiety, in just 70 years we've shifted to a point in which every fluctuation in mood might be fodder for medical help. Instead of ignoring nervousness or sadness, we fixate on them, allowing them room to blossom, like a scab that won't heal because we can't leave it alone. Sometimes hyperawareness of anxiety can make it much worse until it becomes paralyzing and pleasurable events become mired in painful feelings of stress. Can something actually be enjoyable if we're barrelling through a sea of tumults, trembling with a heartbeat that is curiously inaudible to others in order to just get through it all? Does it really make sense to feel the fear and do it anyway when the dread of doing it might override the pleasure of having it done?

My youngest asked me recently, "When were you most afraid?" And I couldn't really remember ever feeling afraid. It seems to be like pain. During each childbirth, I got to a point when I was quite certain I was going to die. How can we possibly live through such a bodily trauma? But I can't actually remember what it felt like. I remember talking about it at the time; I remember my postures and my words and some of my thoughts, and they all lead me to believe I was in a ton of physical pain, but I don't remember the pain at all. How quickly the human race would diminish if women could physically remember the pain of childbirth.

Then a group of friends were recalling myriad scars and surgeries, and I had none to offer. Later I remembered getting many stitches in my thumb just last fall. You'd think it would be part of our survival instincts to remember trauma more immediately, but it seems a far more important survival instinct to forget. Remembering pain would keep us locked in our homes inert and lifeless.

Similarly, there are many times I remember exhibiting the actions of one who's afraid, of clasping the person next to me during a movie or speed-walking through bear habitat. But I don't remember how the panic felt, certainly not enough to avoid it.  I remember it intellectually, able to describe the events going on in my body and thoughts in my head, but I can't relive the actual feeling. It's different from anger, for instance. If I start to describe an injustice from my childhood, I can easily re-experience the rage first hand. Describing a sad tale can have me in tears, and a hilarious memory can leave me gasping for air. But, I'm guessing for most of us, fear and anxiety seem harder to re-establish emotionally. When I describe a frightening experience, I don't revisit the fear in the same way; it's more of a giddy excitement after the fact. Imagining a scary event about to happen has a much more intense effect than the memory of an event that ended. And pain seems completely impossible to re-live. Just as well. So, if fear is short-lived, and enjoyment has better sticking power, then the pleasure of a fearful event can far outweigh the pain in retrospect. And retrospect lasts a lot longer than the moment.

Often the fear I remember isn't even from the event itself, but from my perception of a potential worst-case scenario that typically never comes to pass. During a scary event, we're too busy to register our fear. But the anxiety anticipating the event can produce in our heads, merely from our perception of an event that we're not actually experiencing at the moment, and that might not even happen in such a dramatic way, isn't tempered by busyness. Before an event, we have all the time in the world to stew. But we mustn't. Not much anyway. If we can remember, like Epicurus would have us do, that it's ridiculous to worry about an event, to feel pain from something that isn't actually happening to us right now, it can help reduce the level of anxiety. We're safe at home but all tied up in knots - how silly!

Somehow it's heartening to know that, even thousands of years ago, people still worried over stupid things, and they were counseled to actively stop themselves from having those thoughts. We've come full circle again to recognizing that dwelling on our feelings just exacerbates them. Talking over trauma, over feelings around events in the past, can be life altering and miraculous, but scrutinizing emotions created from perceptions of potential experiences we haven't actually had, can be debilitating. Epicurus, William James, Aaron Beck... all recognized that a shift in perception and active shutting out of stressful thoughts is necessary to get on with thing. We will be scared and offended and enraged. Sometimes we just have to ride it out.

The trick is to figure out which emotional upheavals are better examined and which are better ignored. We don't quite know what a minor trauma is. Working in a high-school, there's been a clear change in the amount of attention and concern we give to heartbreak, for instance. It's par for the course in adolescence, but now we're understanding to a fault, postponing due date to allow extra time for students to process, which, I believe, makes that trauma larger than life. It hurts; there's no denying that. But is it a pain that will dissipate faster it it's attended to or ignored? And if we attend to lots of everyday traumas, will we be able to cope when something huge hits us? Suggesting as much is painted as heartless, so we get the illusion of the benefits of an immediate salve but no immunity in the longterm.

A bit of worrying can be useful if used to our advantage. That anxious hyperawareness we experience might help us ensure we don't miss a detail. I've written papers that I wasn't stressed at all about, and my over-confidence almost always led to a lower mark because I didn't have that adrenaline boost of stress forcing me to re-check everything a few more times. We need just the right amount of anxiety to help us rise to challenges, yet actually go through with them.

I'm thinking a lot about anxiety today because I'm off to Temagami on a canoe trip in the morning. I'll be in bear territory, and I'll have bear spray at the ready, but that's not the scary part. I rent a car only twice a year or so, and I always avoid driving on major highways. I'm picking up a fellow traveller on the way, so I'll have to manage the 401, and then it only makes sense to continue on the 400. And on the way back, I'll be desperate to be home before sunset so that I'm not driving in the dark. Backroads won't get me there in time. My passenger has no idea what she's getting herself into, how silent and still she'll have to be for me to manage all the lanes and signs and so many cars and trucks all over the place!

I've had one accident, and it was on a side road. It was a clear day, but snow was blowing across a field rendering the road indistinguishable and other vehicles invisible. I followed the line of hydro poles to try to stay in my lane, but I still managed to clip the front bumper of an on-coming car that materialized before my eyes. I partially blame having a passenger who kept leaning between the bucket seats to rifle around the back for another CD. There has never again been rifling around in a car I was driving!

I've driven myself to Parry Sound and back over and over, sometimes three trips in a day, but always on the back roads as far as I could, but I used to drive back and forth to Ottawa on the highway regularly when I had a friend living there. That was 20 years ago, but at least I know it's possible. It's something I was once able to do pretty fearlessly, like a normal human being.

So for the rest of the day, I'll be actively ignoring the waves of panic and shaking off the burgeoning flood of tears. There will be no blowing snow tomorrow, and it might not even rain. In the right-hand lane, doing precisely 3 km over the speed limit, and staying well back from other cars, I'm unlikely to have or cause an accident. I'll have a passenger to help navigate the signs for most of the trip.  If I miss an exit, I'll have plenty of time to take the next one and turn around. And my anxiety has done me the great service of forcing me to write out my planned routes and an alternative route, to mark a map with sticky-notes, and to print off magnified areas of concern from google maps. Handy!

And I'd rather die on my way to a canoe trip than slipping in the bathtub. There's always that.

Just imagine how good it smells there. Like suddenly breathing real air.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

Told in a series of personal interviews jumping back and forth between six different people, Scott Anderson's magazine-length article, "Fractured Lands," is the stuff of nightmares, but it's important we don't look away. This is the story of the last several decades in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt.

Here's what I took away from it: not the specifics of the individuals he spoke with, but the general feeling of the history of these events from the perspective of individuals who lived it. I'm interested to see what brighter minds (like Hedges or Chomsky) make of it all. I don't have the background to easily discern any bias in the reporting. Most of the names I learned as a kid from SNL "Weekend Update" skits!

Colonization made a mess of a lot of countries.  

At the end of WWI, Britain and France, and later Italy, determined new borders within the old Ottoman Empire. The new borders created some of the problems we're seeing now. Iraq is made of three provinces forced together (Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds - see this for further details), as is Libya. Greater Syria was carved up into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan (Israel and Jordan). Like the situation in Rwanda, colonists dominated areas from afar by empowering the local minority groups to be administrators because they'd be less likely to rebel against the colonists for fear of a majority uprising. Then colonists pitted groups against one another to distract them from the control maintained in Europe.

This is similar to what we did with Indigenous tribes here except in the US, Canada, and Australia, the European settlers stayed to see through the destruction of the tribal groups (until we developed a modicum of sympathy for their plight and guilt for our actions). In the Middle East, European colonists stared the fights and then left.

Anderson cautions us to remember three historical factors crucial to understanding the crises: the instability of artificial states, the precarious position US-allied Arab governments are put in when forced to pursue policies opposed by their people, and the US involvement in the partitioning of Iraq in 1991.

PART 1 - 1972-2003

In Egypt, beginning in the 1940s, Gamal Abdel Nasser helped Egypt be the birthplace of revolutionary movements. In 1945, he found oil fields; in 1952 he overthrew the Western-pliant king; in 1956 he bested Britain, France, and Israel in the Suez crisis and was seen as a hero. He advocated for Pan-Arab unity to end the domination by Westerners. By 1968, military officers were pro-Pan-Arab, and the ideology took over Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Western monarchs were tossed. Egypt has a strong national identity, but it's split into various political factions. Nasser was able to bridge them all through antipathy for the West.

In 1972, President Anwar Sadat wanted to recover the Sinai Peninsula seized by Israel in 1967. Nasser and Sadat could bring everyone together against an external foe, America. But then in 1978, Sadat signed the Camp David accords, the US peace treaty with Israel, and it was seen as a huge betrayal to his people. He was murdered in 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, increased security and "inherited the taint of capitulation" from Sadat. People were now being tortured for any negative comments about the government.

In Libya, in 1969, Muammar al-Qaddafi overthrew the king. He emulated Nasser at first, then became more similar to Hussein in Iraq and al-Assad in Syria. In all three countries, they develop personality cults, putting their faces on posters everywhere. They all were aligned with anti-imperialists and deepened ties with the Soviet Union, built ambitious public works project, hospitals and schools, through money from oil or from the Soviet Union, and they created huge state payrolls hiring numerous extended family members. They made alliances with various tribes and forged ties across divides.

Libya is mainly Sunni, but sub-divided into Misuratans and Benghazians. Iraq, under Hussein, was run by a Sunni minority but ensured significant token Shiite and Kurds in government. Syria, under al-Assad was a Sunni majority, but ruled by an Alawite minority aligned with Christians.

In the Kurdish region of Iraq, in 1975, fighters known as the pesh merga fought the Iraqi Army. Kurds got weapons through the CIA and Iranian advisers, but they were cut off when Iran and Iraq signed a peace treaty. In 1985, a US ally in Iran was overthrown and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The US partnered with Hussein to wage war against Khomeini, and gave Hussein weapons. Hussein was integral to the US at the time, so they looked away when they poison-gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988, going so far as to suggest that Iran did it.

In 1991, Iraq under Hussein invaded Kuwait, which upset the US. Bush implemented Operation Desert Storm, and encouraged Iraqi citizen to revolt with the American forces. The Shiites and Kurds did, but then the US stood down. The Iraqi Army counterattacked. The US established a buffer zone in Kurdistan to protect Kurds form Hussein, but they let the Shiites suffer. This move helped the Kurds develop a regional government (KRG) as a union of all Kurdish provinces in Iraq. It was the first dismantling of colonial borders, and many Kurds who had fled began to return to the area.

Syria is a religiously diverse country with 70% Sunni Arabs, 12% Alawites, 12% Sunni Kurds, and some Christians and smaller groups, but most were secular or loosely religious. President Hafez al-Assad was part of a religious minority, the Alawite, so he encourage secularism. This policy was carried on by his son, Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist who ended up in power by default. He wanted to recover Golan Heights, an area taken by Israel in 1967. He loosened his hold on Lebanon to be seen favourably by the West.

Meanwhile in the US, in 2002, Bush laid the groundwork for an invasion by accusing Hussein of pursuing WMDs. He linked Hussein to September 11th in the mind of Americans. Qaddafi was clear that an Iraq invasion by the US would benefit Bin Laden:
"Iraq could end up becoming the staging ground for Al Qaeda, because if the Saddam government collapses, it will be anarchy in Iraq. If that happens, actions against Americans will be considered jihad." 
In 2003, when the US Army pulled down a statue of Hussein it started the process of disintegration in the Middle East as they saw that a figure of that magnitude could be easily cast aside. It served to reawaken tribal ties.

PART 2 - 2003-2011

In Iraq, people's lives were interrupted by the invasion. Women were not allowed out of their homes. At first, to some, the US was seen as liberators in the area. But in other areas people were taken off the streets and tortured at Abu Ghraib. The invasion caused economic turmoil. Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi military, and dismissed any Baath Party members from government positions. Many in the party were from the same families and compelled to join the party by Hussein years before. Over 85,000 people were fired causing instant impoverishment. Hussein was found and later executed.

In 2004, a new constitution was signed. It guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament to women because of the work of Fern Holland, who was then murdered by the transitional Iraqi government (CPA). A radical Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, demanded the withdrawal of coalition forces and unleashed a militia, the Mahdi Army, to fight CPA installations. Sunni and Shia groups attacked the CPA coalition forces, but the CPA went ahead and ceded control to a new government. Christians left the area.

In Egypt, people opposed the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. His strategy allowed political dissent among small educated groups, but crushed influences from Islamists. This changed after the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Most people thought Egypt sold out the Palestinians in 1979, and Mubarak couldn't stop all the pro-Palestinian demonstrations. People could suddenly organize openly. There were huge anti-American invasion demonstrations in Cairo.

In Libya, in 2005, Qaddafi started taking down posters of himself to appear to appease the West. He thought he might be next, so he made amends with the US. offered a settlement for a 1988 bombing of a Pan Am Flight 103, and shared dossiers with the US on suspected Al Qaeda operatives. In 2006, the US restored diplomatic relations with Libya, and Qaddafi abandoned his reform drive.

In Syria, Assad wasn't afraid of the US, and his spying apparatus made citizens fearful. Nobody dared to speak about the government.

PART 3 - The Arab Spring - 2011-2014

The US invasion of Iraq laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring revolts. It all officially started in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, protested constant government harassment through self-immolation on January 4, 2011. People called for the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who had been president for 23 years. Once it was possible in one country, it seemed plausible elsewhere. By the end of January, there were protests in Algeria, Egypt, Oman, and Jordan. By November, four dictatorships had been toppled, and six others promised reforms.

In Iraq protests lasted for days, until soldiers dispersed them with tear gas, but they stayed and kept fighting. Soldier traded tear gas for ammunition. On February 1, 2003, Mubarak said he'd never leave, and, as protest increased, he resigned on February 11. The military served as an interim government, which worried citizens.

In Libya, cadets were called to arms in February due to protests. Qaddafi blamed the unrest on foreigners, and he vowed to purify Libya person by person. In March, people were told that criminal groups of foreigners were fighting Qaddafi, to persuade more militance in the citizenry. In October, there was a fierce firefight, and Qaddafi's men surrendered. The Transitional National Council paid a stipend to anyone who fought against Qaddafi, and the number of revolutionaries grew tenfold. The cash created an incentive for armed groups to remain independent of central command. By December 2012, Libyan militias had carved the country into rival fiefs unwittingly bankrolled by the transitional government.

In Syria, in March, people were protesting over the torture of a group of high-school students. Secret police were everywhere. Assad accused protesters of helping Israel, and people became fearful to protest. Then in April, 40 demonstrators took to the streets, and the police shot 25 of them at point-blank range. Then thousands came out to demonstrate, and police took to the roofs to shoot them. Funerals became rallying point. By May, the Syrian Army had shut down the cities. Everyone liked the soldiers as they stopped the killings by police, but the regime withdrew, and there was more bloodshed. By November of 2011, people were being taken and murdered for no clear reason. By the fall of 2012, a popular militia arose, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They were taken over by an Islamic group. People who joined liked to carry guns and scare people, but were easily frightened off by other groups. In May 2013, the Free Syrian Army moved into neighbourhoods, and people began to flee the country. Poverty was rampant and some were surviving on leaves and weeds. New militias were competing with existing ones, and ISIS stood out for its daring and cruelty.
"Amid the chaos, the remnants of Osama bin Laden's old outfit, Al Qaeda, gained a new lease on life, resurrected the war in Iraq and then spawned an even more severe and murderous offshoot: the Islamic State." 
In Egypt, in May 2012, it was announced that only two of the 13 possible candidates for election were actually eligible, but they were the two worst choices: Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (who had a hand in killing Fern Holland), or Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's Prime Minister. Morsi won by a hair. The military junta that ruled Egypt since the overthrow transferred all the powers to the military and dissolved the sitting parliament. Morsi ordered parliament reinstated and dismissed the senior military. He promoting his own Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run the military. The state blocked Morsi's actions and fed the public fears about him, which was easy because the Muslim Brotherhood did have some ties to terrorist. In July 2013, al-Sisi, now the Defence Minister, told Morsi to meet people's demands or the army will step in. Morsi ignored him, and Sisi overthrew him. Sisi was much more brutal with dissenters, particularly working-class Muslim Brotherhood followers who were ruthlessly hunted down.

PART 4 - 2014-2015

Iraq citizens saw ISIS recruitment videos on social media. They were presented as warriors and knights in smart uniforms. In June 2014, ISIS entered Iraq, and a small group of 1,500 fighters scared away thousands of Iraqi Army forces. The army fled leaving the locals defenceless. Under the Prime Minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite majority dominated the government. The Sunnis developed contempt for the government and army, and the army distrusted the Sunnis, so they left when a few vowed vengeance. ISIS had money from control of the oil fields in Syria, and it offered cash for new recruits. When they came across Cadets in Iraq, they separated them in to Sunni and Shia, then murdered hundreds of young Shiite men.

In some villages, people were saved by painting "Arab family" on the outside of their homes. In Kurdish areas, some Kurds would destroy these homes for fear that Arabs would come back to live in them in years to come.

The KRG wanted to create a true Kurdish nation, which meant not just defeating ISIS, but getting rid of all Arabs in the area. Some Kurds trusted Daesh more than Arabs because they were more honest about their intentions. Some Kurds naively felt safe from ISIS because they shared a common enemy, but ISIS wanted to attack all groups outside of Sunni Muslims. By August they were killing thousands of Kurds and rounding up girls for sex slaves. Kurds took up arms to fight them back and were successful. The KRG was good at fighting them back, but only in Kurdish areas. They didn't risk their men in Arab villages.

But, the KRG had some infighting between the tribal groups within, the Barzani and the Talabani. They blamed fighting issues on the Iraqi Army, but a big factor was the two rival groups within. ISIS took advantage of that. They used sexual slavery as a weapon of war. When women returned, they didn't speak of what happened, but the fortunate were able to claim ill and get reconstruction surgery on the sly to come back to town as virgins. It's the only way they could be accepted or ever married. They can never speak about what was done to them.

PART 5 - 2015-2016

Almost a million Syrians and Iraqis flooded into Europe to escape. After the terrorists attacks in European cities, anti-immigration sentiments were the norm with mass demonstrations against them. Some hope to return to Syria, but expect at least ten years before there will be peace as "blood brings blood." Once ISIS is defeated, there will be further revenge against Sunnis.

Some walked for weeks to leave. Others paid for travel on a raft meant for 8, but overfilled with 30. Some turned to the government for help, but found help wanting and dangerous.


Anderson suggests a "trifurcated nation" in Iraq might be the answer, which might work for Libya as well, except everywhere there are schisms inside of schisms. Things look worse today. Sisi's repression of Egypt has deepened, the war in Syria has taken more lives, and Libya is becoming insolvent. The only bright spot is the international coalition working towards destroying ISIS, but "ISIS isn't just an organization, it's an idea." The conditions that created ISIS continue: disaffected and futureless young men who only find purpose and prosperity through holding a gun. Solutions are complicated:
"This journey has served to remind me again of how terribly delicate is the fabric of civilization, of the vigilance required to protect it and of the slow and painstaking work of mending it once it has been torn. This is hardly an original thought; it is a lesson we were supposed to have learned after Nazi Germany, after Bosnia and Rwanda. Perhaps it is a lesson we need to constantly relearn.
So it goes.