Triggers

Standard

I have a friend who has a colony of feral cats living close to his house – well, practically right outside his house. He feeds them – a bit – but mostly they are on their own. He lives in the country, well away from his neighbours and his property is also home to hawks, coyotes and weasels. Not surprisingly, the number of cats goes up and down over the course of the year, reaching their peak at about this time of year.

Most of the cats are pretty skittish. Most will accept food but won’t be touched. A few, especially the younger ones are a bit friendlier and will purr and accept pats. One black and white kitten was particularly cuddly. Was.

Recently a relative was visiting with his dog. The dog had had previous run-ins with the cats and had not come out well. This time he chose his target well. He killed the friendly kitten.

When my buddy told me about it, I was upset and angry. I told him I would have kicked hell out of the dog. At the very least that dog should have been muzzled. I’ve thought of that little kitten several times since then and it still upsets me.

So why did I tell you that? Some of you are probably as upset as I was. Some of you might now be upset, angry, grief-stricken, remembering when one of your pets died. Some of you probably feel I should have warned you.

I should have started off by saying: Trigger Warning – dead cat. But I didn’t. On purpose.

Being upset by life is part of the process of living. It also part of the process of finding your moral centre. Confronting events or ideas that upset you help define who you are. To some extent the desire to avoid them is understandable. I certainly turn away from racist or misogynistic remarks and from those who make them. But turning away does not make them go away.

Not that some people haven’t been badly traumatized and need help to get over their pain. Sometimes that means protecting them or letting them protect themselves from painful reminders. But sometimes they need to confront their pain and figuring out what it is about the world that you need to try to change.

A couple of years ago (has it really been that long?) I witnessed the shooting of Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial. It made it hard to go to work – to be anywhere near the memorial or even Parliament Hill. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I also had mild depression, compounded by anxiety. For the former, the treatment was straight forward enough. My doctor told me to go to the site of the shooting every day until I could define it as a safe place. I had to exercise agency to reclaim that place for myself. Avoiding it would have made my condition worse and made it last longer.

The depression and anxiety was another thing. Those I needed to work through rationally and slowly, identifying the things that made me feel that way and figuring out alternative narratives or possible actions that would resolve them. It was a real thing and it gave me insight into what people who have faced much worse go through. Sometimes alternative narratives are hard to find; actions hard to take.

Which is why we do need trigger warnings and safe places sometimes – but not to protect us from being upset or angry or sad. Being emotionally engaged – even painfully – is not the same thing as being traumatized. And treating them the same does nobody any good and may well do them harm. And using other people’s trauma to shut off discourse we don’t like is just plain wrong.

And useless. It will make no more difference to the world than wanting dogs to stop being dogs. And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

 

Purpose

Standard

“A life without purpose is like the life of a dog.” I’m not sure who first said this. Me, maybe. Don’t get me wrong; a dog’s life might not be so bad. You sleep until someone – or your stomach – wakes you. You eat whatever is available (though it may well make you sick) and you hump whatever you can. Best of all, you always know where you fit in – alpha dog, beta dog, gamma dog.

No alarm clocks, no going to the office, no worries about what is right or wrong. Nothing to do but live in the moment. A great life. If you are a dog.

Humans are not so lucky. We are aware of our own death from an early age. We are prompted by religion, politics, economics and family to do something. Get a job or prepare for death. Be like Jesus or Buddha.

Yet, most of us go through life without any real sense of why we are here and what we are supposed to do in our brief span upon the earth. As noted, there are plenty who are willing to tell you, willing to take the answer out of your hands and mind.

Some tell us to practice mindfulness – which is to be aware of the forces, internal and external that act on us and to focus fully on the present. A bit like dogs, I suppose. The proponents have appropriated aspects of Buddhism (mostly stripping it off its spiritual elements) to create a ‘meditative practice.’ You can take weekend courses or go to summer camp to learn it. Those that love it love it a lot. Those who don’t suggest it might cause psychotic episodes.

But if it lowers your stress and reduces the chances of you beating your kids when they annoy you, I say meditate away. Even if all that focus on the self seems a little – well, selfish.

Purpose isn’t about you. Purpose is about what you do in and with the world. Some people discover that early on; realize that it is possible to make the world a better place through concerted and focused action. Often we can only make change in groups but some people express their purpose in small ways – helping neighbours or supporting candidates who are motivated by hope and charity rather than fear and anger.

Because of course a purpose-filled life is not much good if your purposes are self-aggrandizement and the oppression of others. But you know that isn’t what I mean.

It’s important to remember one thing: you can never fail when you lead a purpose-filled life. The meaning comes from the striving not in reaching the goal. If your purpose is to end world poverty, you are apt to end your life in failure – unless you accept small victories for exactly that.

I like to summarize it by saying you should always strive to live your values. Whenever you do something that is likely to affect your family, friends, neighbourhood, community, country, world, you can ask: is this consistent with my most deeply held and cherished beliefs.  This does not mean you will always do good – some beliefs shouldn’t be actualized – but it does mean you will always do something.

But of course, first you have to know what your values are. The good news is that, unlike a dog, it is something you can actually do.

And that’s ten minutes.

Focus

Standard

The ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others is a great skill. It is far superior to multi-tasking, which gets all the good press. But, really, multi-tasking is simply shifting your focus rapidly from one thing to another. Or it’s a sign you are easily distracted.

But focus is not something that can be achieved in a moment. Deep focus takes effort. You have to learn to push aside all other thoughts, all emotions, even all sensations. Focus is what lets athletes play through pain; it is what allows scientists to concentrate on a single variable at a time as they work to a solution. Focus is the only thing that will allow you to complete a significant work of art.

I’ve always been good at focusing on things – at least for a time. I can immerse myself in a complex effort, like doing the year-end books or writing a short story and lose all track of time. Later, when my back is throbbing or my eyes are itchy and irritated, I sometimes wish I couldn’t.

Focusing on tasks is one thing; focusing on a career is quite another. That is a skill I’ve struggled with. It’s not so much that I am easily distracted but that I am easily bored. I do something for a while but then it ceases to be challenging; it ceases to hold my attention.

For a while now, I’ve been multi-tasking my life. I have a job – one I’ve been doing for fifteen years. Trust me, there isn’t an issue I haven’t seen before. I’ve acquired expertise in a variety of topics only to forget it all when the job required a different emphasis. Well, it’s not really forgotten – just put aside until I need it again. I seldom find myself having to do anything original these days.

Publishing is a complex process, especially when you are pretty much managing or doing all aspects of the job from reading slush to marketing books to doing the books. Still, it has its rhythms, its repetitive tasks and while each book is unique, the work required to get it on bookshelves is not.

I’ve also been writing for years and, again, while each story I tell is different, there is a familiarity to the task of plotting and crafting and writing that makes it all the same. I wrote most of a short story this weekend and, at a certain point – about ¾ of the way through, I thought: I know how this all works out. And only an effort of will, an application of focus, actually made me write down the words necessary to get to the end. It was satisfying but…

Another thing I’ve been doing is experimenting with being a ‘public intellectual.’ It started as an off-hand remark to friends but I got such positive affirmation, I experimented with it, in part right here. Robert J. Sawyer thought enough of the concept that he made me a political pundit in his latest novel, Quantum Night. At the very least, I’ll be able to say: I’m not a public intellectual but I played one in a book.

So now, it has come time to choose: what will I focus on for the next 10 years, perhaps the last decade of my active engagement with the world? That’s an answer I’ll have to focus on before I can tell you. Or myself.

And that’s ten minutes.

Restless

Standard

Sometimes I feel restless. It could be my father’s genes showing through. He spent 6 years a hobo, riding the rails in the dirty thirties, then more than two decades as a travelling salesman, away from home two weeks out of three. But on the other hand, he lived in that home for more than thirty years and was married to the same woman for longer still.

More than I can say for myself. I worked it out – since I first married at 19, I’ve lived in 8 towns and cities in six provinces and territories. During that span, I lived in 18 apartments or houses, moving on average every 28 months. I’ve been in my current place for nearly twice that. I’ve practically grown roots. Maybe I need to move.

I’ve switched jobs a lot, too, not to mention careers. I started out to be a chemist – got a degree and even a publication in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry – before switching to political science (2 degrees) and working at the municipal and territorial level, holding 4 different jobs in a little over 11 years. Over the next 11, I was a writer, actor, arts administrator, bartender and telemarketer. So much for 7 years at university. In 2002, I came to Ottawa and went to work for a Senator. I’ve been here ever since. Maybe I need a new job.

Although since I’ve also written a number of novels and bought a publishing company, maybe I already have one. Or two.

Maybe it’s the promise of spring that has been given us this week as the temperatures rise and the snow melts – except, for me, the season of change has always been the fall.

And yet, some mornings I wake up and want to get in a car and keep driving until I reach somewhere I’ve never been before. That’s problematic since I’d have to steal one. I may want to travel but I don’t want to be on the run from the law.

Maybe I feel I’m on the edge of something new but I’m not quite sure what it is or even when it will begin. I know I’ll be retiring soon – from my government job at least – but when exactly? Six months or sixteen? Maybe even 30 or more. Not in my hands – though I suppose it could be. I know what walking away feel like.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve got a book done but not released, two more half-edited but months away from seeing the light of day. A third even farther down the road – and more and more until I turn off that road, too.

What it reminds me of more than anything else is how I felt my last year in university. One thing was done; the next not yet started or even clearly defined. I could feel it in my twitching hands and in my restless feet. I could smell the new on the air but I couldn’t taste it yet or feel it.

But if I look over my shoulder, I see so much behind me, but if I look ahead all I see is fog.fog-1

And that’s ten minutes.

Routine

Standard

Routine can be a good thing. It can help you keep your day productive and your life on an even keel. Some people can barely function without a level of routine; taken to extremes it can become obsessive compulsive. Others abhor the quotidian; they seek constant stimulation in the novel. Any kind of routine seems to them like a prison – the most routine place in the world outside a monastery.

Society, of course, relies on routines. We all go to work at more or less the same time, take our lunch at noon and carry on the rest of our day in a more or less predictable way. Even the cowboys of capitalism – stock traders – live their lives according to opening and closing bells.

It’s easy to see how all this comes about. We divide the year in weeks and weeks into days and each day has its own characteristic. Blue Mondays and Thank God It’s Friday. The cycles of the year become institutionalized into the cycles of life – each season having its own rituals and regular activities.

It’s hard to imagine a life without any routines. One would have to eat one’s meals at different times every day. Since the purpose of breakfast is to break our fast after sleep – without routine, you would have to rise at a different time each day – sometimes at 5 a.m., sometimes at noon. Who could sustain such an irregular life?

Yet one could imagine it. Sleeping only when sleepy and rising when awake. Freed from the routine of sunrise and sunset – say aboard a deep space vessel – would the clock cease to mean anything? For some, it might, but, for others – those drawn to military roles for example – they might live their lives even more by bells and signals. Imagine the conflicts between anarchists and martinets in a crew on a five year mission. Yet – that conflict of strict routine and those who flout it has never, as far as I can tell, been much explored in science fiction. Crews rise together, eat together and work in shifts – continuing the cycles that were set for them by the diurnal character of their evolution.

All this is to say that, while I generally embrace routines – getting up at roughly the same time every day and eating much the same breakfast before sitting down, each day, to write these ten  minute essays, occasionally my mind rebels at the necessity of obeying self-imposed schedules. Every once in a while I demand a change in the routines of life.

Every once in a while I need a vacation from my life.

So, I hope you enjoyed this last little ramble because tomorrow I’m going to Cozumel and I’ll rise when I wish and sleep when I must and swim at a different time every day and walk on the beach – sometimes going left and sometimes right as whim takes me. And I’ll even try new foods and drink different drinks and talk to strangers.

Then I’ll come back and see if life has changed. Think of it as rehearsal for the next phase when I’ll answer to no one’s schedule but my own. Well, and Liz’s, of course.

And that’s ten minutes.

Insomnia

Standard

Of all the things I’ve lost over the years, the one I miss most is the ability to sleep through the night. For most of my life, I fell asleep within seconds or at most minutes of my head hitting the pillow and remained asleep for eight solid hours or more, unless I was yanked untimely from my dreams by the bleating of an alarm clock. Blessed with a huge bladder (TMI, I know), I seldom even had to get up in the night to pee.

Oh, to return to those days. While my bladder remains huge, I seldom sleep solidly through the night. I wake up because I’ve gotten sore from lying in one position, because I need a drink of water, because my snoring wakes me or my wife up, because of no reason at all. On a very good night, I’ll awake once or twice. On a bad one, my eyes flop open every 45 minutes. Sometimes I can go back to sleep fairly quickly; others I lie awake for an hour or more, thinking circular thoughts about something that is troubling me.

On occasion, I’ve composed one of these little essays at 4 in the morning and then repeated it over and over in my head so that when I finally stagger up it is no effort at all to transcribe it. Then there are the times when I’ve thought of something brilliant to say only to have it slip away in the time between 4 and the dawn.

I’ve developed a few tricks to get me through. Breathing helps, especially if a press my face into the crook of my arm so the sound is loud in my ears. I’m sure the gradual buildup of carbon dioxide under the sheets helps bring a return of unconsciousness as well. My wife uses visualizations but these have never worked for me – they get more and more complex and pretty soon develop exciting plots which either promotes wakefulness or guarantees nightmares that, you guessed it, wake me up.

Whenever my mind is whirling with some task that needs doing, usually related to my day job or to the publishing work, I have developed a simple process. I ask myself if I’m going to get up and do what needs to be done. I stick my nose above the covers and notice how cold it is and I snuggle against my pillow and notice how cozy it is and decide that perhaps I don’t need to do that task right now after all. But about one time in ten, I actually get up, put on a warm robe and head for my computer to work for a few minutes or an hour or as long as it takes.

I then spend the rest of the day longing for bed while resisting the urge to nap – which would only guarantee another restless night.

Recently, I read a study that suggested that the idea of sleeping through the night is a relatively new one, brought on by the schedules of the industrial age and the demands of the ever ticking clock. Three hundred years ago, people went to bed when it got dark, but often got up in the night to do some early morning chore by the light of the moon or write letters or read by candle light. Sleep came when it was required. And maybe that’s something I can look forward to when I am freed of other people’s schedules and can finally just… zzzz.

And that’s ten minutes.

I Love Work

Standard

I love work. I must – I never seem to turn down the opportunity to do more of it.

Then there are the days when I want to get a big bag and sweep everything off my desk and pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s not as if the publishing business will fail if I don’t take care of all the details, right? And who needs detailed notes of future stories when we have NaNoWriMo?

As for the daily grind, why should I keep the household accounts up to date? As long as there is money in the bank, it must be okay, right?  Housework is also overrated. Personally I think that dust bunnies make great pets. You don’t have to do anything and they just keep on growing and growing. As for the drifts of detritus that eventually gather in the corners of your apartment – well it is a bit reminiscent of autumn leaves and sand dunes, isn’t it? Who needs to go outside when you live in a virtual wilderness?

Of course, that isn’t really ‘work’ work. Real work involves productivity – not merely moving dirt from one place to another. It involves cooking good meals for example – which inevitably leads to more housework. Those bathrooms don’t clean themselves, you know.

No – I get it – you think of work as the stuff you get paid for. Which pretty much eliminates writing and publishing. Oh, money flows through my hands alright but you wouldn’t want to calculate the hourly rate.

So there is the day job where I produce endless amounts of advice that no-one pays attention to and write countless speeches that no one listens to. It would be a full rich life if it weren’t so empty and soul-destroying.

Seriously though, we all have to work, right? Put our nose to the grindstone, our shoulders to the wheel, with our asses in gear. Which reminds me – it’s time for another visit to the physiotherapist. All those contortions are hard on an aging body.

People always say to me: what do you think you’ll do when you retire? As if the whole point of quitting your job is so you can start a new career. Nobody accepts the truth. When I retire, I will do nothing. I will simply sit in my chair and stare at the wall.

You know what they say – first of all, do no harm. You can hardly harm anyone if you do nothing. And it will be good practice for when they put me in ‘The Home.’

They also say do what you love. I suppose, but really, after 60, your libido isn’t up to doing that all day. And drinking is hardly a fit occupation for an old man. But I’d be willing to give it a go.

The real trouble with retirement is that it is just so damn expensive. Wine, women and song get pricier with every passing day – especially if it comes from America, what with the exchange rate and all. And who can afford to travel – the medical insurance alone could bankrupt you.

Oh, well, might as well keep working.

And that’s ten minutes.