The Dark

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The sun is shining this morning – though it won’t last, not with freezing rain forecast for later today. On the first day of December I am eagerly waiting for snow to come and cover the ground. Winter is coming but it hasn’t brought its mantle of white with it. Why would someone wish for snow? Because it provides some relief from the darkness of the next two months.

The dark of winter didn’t always bother me. I lived in the North for nine years and while I hated the cold, the darkness didn’t bring me down. In December, the sun would rise by 10 a.m. and set again by 3 in the afternoon. Farther north, it would go down at the end of the first week of December and not come back until January was well underway.

But I felt no different in December than I did much of the rest of the year. It is true I had more energy in June and July when it essentially never got really dark but the winter blahs? Not for me.

Things have changed. November is dreary. Long grey days and endless damp. The trees shed their leaves and colour leaches from the world, not to be replaced by white but by dismal browns and greys on land and black water in the river. I begin to long for snow simply so I can have the reflected light of sun in the days and streetlights for the 16 hours that don’t qualify.

December provides a bit of a break with Christmas trees and tinsel reflecting candle light. In fact as soon as it grows dim I close all the drapes and turn down the lights, filing the room with candles. Our candle bill gets quite staggering by March.

It seems the dark inside is better than the dark without. But it is the dark inside, really inside, that seems the worst. I know I don’t suffer much compared to some. I feel tired all the time and lack much in the way of ambition. I start later and finish sooner. It could be – it undoubtedly is – age. And it doesn’t take a lot to raise my spirits. For some, it is a heavy burden they carry all through the winter.

They even have a name for it – SAD: seasonally affective disorder – which reflects the way many people feel at this time of year.

Maybe that’s why in winter we fill our days with as much artificial light as we can. To call back the sun and stave off the darkness. It sort of works. But by January, the days are still short and the only relief is to pretend you like winter sports or to flee to the sunshine of Mexico and Cuba.

Or you can bury yourself in work and Christmas (or whatever light bearing holiday you prefer) and keep telling yourself in an ominous voice: Summer is coming.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

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Veterans

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Today marks the start of Veterans’ week in Canada. I’m not sure when we expanded from a mere day to an entire week but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. If we can run Christmas in the malls from the end of October, surely vets deserve at least a week of our attention and consideration.

Actually we should probably be paying attention all year long. Many of the men and women who served our country have suffered in silence and obscurity for far too long. Let’s hope the promises made in the recent election to address their needs will be fulfilled. Time will tell.

I’ve never been in the military; wouldn’t even join cadets when I was in high school, so perhaps I’m not one to talk. But my father served in World War II and I watched his fights with Veterans’ Affairs for decades. He battled not only for himself but for other ex-soldiers who needed help. He didn’t always win but he won often enough to show that it is always worthwhile to fight for your rights.

Still, isn’t it ironic that those who fought for all of our rights have to continue to fight for their own after they come home?

Everyone says they support the troops – though my view has always been that the best way to support soldiers is to ensure they never have to go to war. Naïve perhaps but wouldn’t it be nice if we could avoid putting people at risk as much as humanly possible. War is not inevitable but almost always driven by failures to find other solutions.

And of course we have no problem memorializing dead soldiers. Our heroes cause no difficulties when they are dead. It is living reminders of past wars that we seem to have so much trouble dealing with.

Like most Canadians, I was shocked to learn that experts have been warning of an epidemic of suicide among Afghanistan veterans for years but those warnings have largely gone unheeded. The new Minister says it is now on the radar. That’s progress, I guess.

War is a terrible thing – didn’t one general call it ‘hell’ – and the events of war cause terrible wounds on the bodies and the minds of those who participate in it or even witness it. We’ve known this for a very long time. Yet, we can barely address the physical disabilities that soldiers suffer let alone the mental ones.

We always talk about the price that soldiers pay. And they do pay it – often with valour and pride. But no matter what price they pay, society seems unwilling to pick up the tab.

War is expensive. Not only when it’s being waged but long after it’s over. Maybe if we – you, me, everyone – were willing to finally pay the piper, we might realize that the world would be a better place if we didn’t need to have armies, if we didn’t need to wage war.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a just war – but just or not, those who fight them on our behalf, deserve justice. Sad words and music and the laying of wreathes don’t even come close.

And that’s ten minutes.

Positive Thinking

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Relentless optimism is a pain in the ass. The idea that we should always face the world with a smile on our face — no matter how dismal the day might be — is advice that will occasionally illicit murderous responses.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m mostly a glass is half full kind of guy. In fact I’d even say that the glass was designed only to be half full in any case. Maybe that’s because I’m usually talking about red wine glasses. Whatever — they aren’t whine glasses.

Still, telling people to think positively when they are dealing with real problems is seldom helpful. There were times in my own life and in the lives of my closest intimates when things really weren’t going well — struggles with health, money, feelings that the world was out to get us (which as it turned out wasn’t true though some individuals in that world were). My ex-wife and I would take turns saying to each other: “Buck up, buckaroo!” as a sort of sarcastic acknowledgment that sometimes all you really can do is smile through the tears. But the smile doesn’t make the pain go away.

Still, for myself, as bad as things go, I usually bounce back. Or else I walk away. There have been times when my situation was simply so grim, with so little likelihood of improvement, that walking away, leaving behind everything was the easiest or at least less painful option. But I’ve talked about that before.

There are, in fact, some things you can’t walk away from. Ill health has this nasty habit of following you wherever you go. In those cases all you can do is try to get better or, if it is chronic, adapt to the condition, as I’ve tried to adapt to asthma and arthritis. I’ve known lots of people who have arrived at a place where their life is simply their life. They make the best of it and, often, they do amazing things. But they don’t get there by having their able-bodied or mentally healthy friends telling them to put on a happy face.

Some have argued that our way of dealing with cancer is plagued with a disease of optimism. People are told that the best way to tackle illness is to fight it, to have a positive attitude, to not give in to feelings of despair. Like paranoia, despair is sometimes just clear thinking. I happen to think that proper treatment — surgery, radiation, chemo — plus efforts at ‘wellness’ such as good food, exercise and the unconditional (that is unpreachy) love of others is more helpful. It doesn’t always work.

Then relentless optimism is a form of blaming — if you don’t get well, it must be a problem with your attitude. And when you have to face the fact you might be dying, who really needs that extra burden of guilt and shame?

And that’s ten dyspeptic minutes.

Stupidity

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This week I’ve been sampling a number of TV series on Netflix and Acorn TV. For the most part I haven’t managed to get through a single episode. The reason is simple: stupidity. Apparently, when you can’t think of a clever plot device, you can always fall back on stupid. In some cases, it is a case of portraying a group of people as buffoons — a village of idiots, for example, with our hero as merely the brightest of a bad lot. This is bad enough — a form of offensiveness that is akin to racism. The stupid as stereotypes. Most people aren’t stupid but they can be easily portrayed as such (or made to act that way).

But what really irks me is stupidity portrayed as any number of supposedly sterling qualities. It may be determination — the need to forge ahead based on firmly held principles, despite there being obvious evidence they are wrong. It may be portrayed as bravery or as rebellion against authority. All reasonable characteristics in fiction but, usually it would all fall apart if someone simply asked a few questions. Does that make sense? Is there an alternative explanation? Have you thought about how things will look tomorrow? Don’t you think that is unnecessarily risky?

These types of questions — requiring rational analysis and careful consideration of future consequences are never asked. The heroes and villains blunder forward and I switch to another channel.

I so wish I could do that in real life.

There is a current in popular “intellectualism” (and, yes, the quotes are ironic) that suggests reason isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that we would make better decisions if we relied on our instincts  and came to conclusions in the ‘blink’ of an eye. This is often called common sense (nothing so uncommon as). Not surprisingly these “ideas” are often put forward by people with remarkably right wing opinions on most things.

First thoughts are not always the best ones. There is a highly successful means of treating depression called cognitive therapy. What it shows is that our first thoughts are driven by our emotions and instincts — our moods — and most often lead to depression, anxiety, rage and guilt. Sounds like a formula for Tea Party membership, doesn’t it?

It is true — reason is hard work, it is time consuming, it can make mistakes but ultimately it is the only tool w have that will let us live together in peace and solve the big problems that a mass society will inevitably have. Reason is the basis of science, after all. Which may be why so many conservatives hate science.

Instinct is great if you live in a state of nature — the war of all against all where life is nasty, brutish and short. But, frankly, that doesn’t interest me any more than stupidity.

But that’s ten minutes.

Christmas Cheer(less)

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I spent last evening at a Christmas concert at the NAC. The Skydiggers, a band that has been performing for over 25 years, promised a slightly different take on the Christmas season — the one experienced by the lonely, the ill, the destitute, the unhappy. As the lead singer, Andy Maize, said: you can’t have joy without understanding sorrow.

There is a real truth to that. While we  — most of us , or at least the most visible of us — go around, eating and drinking and shopping and partying, filling the churches in some cases, singing songs and being with friends, we should remember those for whom this Christmas, maybe every Christmas (and substitute whatever holiday your culture might celebrate) is nothing but misery and heartbreak.

I thought about the family of Nathan Cirillo, for example, who must carry on despite the terrible murder of their son. But they are not alone. Many families struggle at the holidays when someone close dies in the weeks or months before this great celebratory season comes upon us.

My sister-in-law’s mother died a few days ago and I know that she and my brother and their kids — all of whom are great lovers of the festive season— will have a blue Christmas this year. I still remember the struggle my family had when we had to carry on with Christmas a few weeks after my father died suddenly — us boys going through the motions while my mother sat red-eyed on the sofa by the tree.

It all seems hollow in those circumstances; your grief overwhelms all your traditions. Yet, we tried to carry on (that phrase keeps coming up) because we didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s good time. Sometimes I feel that the entire cheeriness of the holidays is one big fake — everyone feeling miserable while trying to appear jolly for the sake of those around us.

I personally am the most Christmas loving atheist you will ever meet. I love the music and the decorations and the gift giving. But I also love the feeling for others that seems more intense at this time of year — though these are feelings we should embrace and welcome year around. The spirit of giving can extend beyond our own small circle.

But not everyone wants to be given to. Some people want to be left alone to their sorrow, not the addressee of your insistence to be merry. Try sympathy instead. And some people don’t want to be the Bob Cratchit to our generous reformed Scrooge. Receiving charity often feels diminishing. No one wants to go to a food bank; no one wants to see their children hungry either.

If the Christmas spirit really meant anything it should mean that justice prevails — not mercy, not charity, certainly not mere hope. But those are useful, too.

So, on that cheery note, merry Christmas. There are still a couple of weeks to go. Go out and do something. Give a present to the world by making it a little more just and a little more kind. Hold a food drive at your Christmas party (as my friend Marie did). Listen to your better self and do something. It’s what Santa would want.

And that’s ten minutes.

Blue

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Blue. Blue when worn by a witness in court inspires trust. Blue is the colour of truth. Blue skies are a symbol of good fortune. It is also a part of the imaginative process. We blue skied until we came up with an idea or a solution.

Yet we also have the blues. We feel blue. It is the colour of depression and sadness. Picasso had his blue period. Was he depressed, seeking the truth, freeing his imagination to find better times?

Or did he just get a deal on blue paint? Don’t laugh. I know lots of artists who do exactly that. The availability of materials driving the creative process.

That’s the nice thing about writing. Words are always there for you; picking the right ones is the hard part. As for ideas — well, we get our ideas from CostCo by the job lot. No shortage there. Ideas are cheap as borsch. So the next time you tell a writer that you have a great idea for a book, don’t be surprised if he snorts in derision. Maybe even turns his back on you with an elaborate shrug. Ideas I got millions of them; books not so much.

But back to blue.

I was struck by the power of blue as a pure experience while visiting the modern art museum in Paris (the Pompidou Centre). There was a painting of monochromatic blue at the tail end of an exhibit of post WWII artists. The artist, who was also a chemist of sorts, had made the paint himself. It was so pure that it only reflected a single frequency of light. Blue light. That’s right; paint is not the colour it appears, it is the colour it reflects. Twist your head around that — everything you look at is really the spectral opposite of what you see.

In any case this painting was so blue that my digital camera couldn’t focus on it. Couldn’t actually capture its purity, the photos simply weren’t right. But they were beautiful. At least I think so.

So I quite often look at them. Especially when I’m feeling blue. They remind me of better times both behind me and ahead. They generate ideas. They make me feel as if some larger truth is there waiting to be discovered. These pure colours — that are mere reflections (to reflect= to think deeply on something) of something else, make me think that life is beautiful.

Blue skies…. and it is.

And that is ten minutes.

Stress

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Everyone has stress in their lives. We cope with it in different ways. A friend of mine deals with stressful events amazingly well but, when they end, suffers debilitating migraines. A doctor once told me that he goes through his life in constant stress, functioning well except for the regular bouts of explosive diarrhea. Too much information?

Stress is not a bad thing. It can save our life. If, for example, we are confronted by a tiger, our stress response — a shot of adrenaline —gets our feet moving or helps us put strength into the spear thrust. But that’s the problem. Our automatic systems, the primary ways we respond to stress, were designed for simpler times. When we are faced with constant stress, that same shot of adrenaline over and over can eventually kill you.

PTSD operates on a completely different mechanism. There, our brains record traumatic things — say, the place where Uncle Charlie was eaten by a tiger. It marks that spot as particularly dangerous so when we see it again or something remotely like it we get a stress reaction. Given enough of these images stuck in our head, we are constantly beset by flashbacks and anxiety. It is all part of being human.

Being human in a simple low stimulus world is hard enough; in a modern complex high stimulus world, it can be hell. We get constantly bombarded by things that set off our stress mechanisms and we have to learn — using our rational brain — to deal with these instinctive responses.

So that’s what I’m going through now. This fall has been very stressful. There are a lot of things going on; some I’ve talked about, some involve things I can’t or won’t talk about. Some I can control; many I can’t. I was doing okay until I witnessed a murder — the shooting at the war memorial. It shoved me over the edge.

I won’t go into symptoms, those who suffer them will be all too familiar, the rest of you can look them up. But I’ve now been diagnosed with mild depression and PTSD. I’ve been given a program by my doctor to deal with both and told to stay away from work for three weeks. Stress leave they call it.

I recognize how privileged I am to be able to do that – to be given paid leave to get healthy (which everyone should have). I also know I’m lucky to be a basically happy, optimistic and resilient guy. So many others have it worse — by nature and by experience.

I’ve been asked if this embarrasses me. It doesn’t; no more than having a broken arm caused by an unavoidable accident would be embarrassing. I just have to do what is needed to heal.

I’ve also been amazed at how kind people are — especially those who have it worse than me. Maybe they have deeper empathy, maybe they know what this means, maybe it even gives them as sense of relief. If someone who has so much going for them can suffer from a mental illness — even a ‘slight’ one — maybe it means that what they are going through is not their fault. Maybe it, too, is something they can heal from.

So I’ll plod along. Part of my program is routine so I’ll still be doing my ten minutes every day. And I’ll take the steps needed to heal.

But I’m reminded of what Hemingway said (roughly): The world breaks everyone and when we heal, we are stronger at the broken place. But we’re still broken.

So, I may never be who I was but I’ll be who I need to be.

And that is slightly more than 10 minutes.