Triggers

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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.

 

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Sports

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Sports are supposed to prepare you for life – so said my last gym teacher in school while he actively tried to humiliate the students he was in charge of. Most people put up with it – even flourished under it – but I quit Phys. Ed. at the earliest opportunity, naturally preferring to spend my time in the school library than running around the track.

Sports are a massive part of most cultures. Though the sports vary from place to place, every country has its stadiums and playing fields. Wasn’t the battle of Waterloo famously won on the playing fields of Eton?

But does sport actually prepare us for the intricacies of life? We all are told that it builds teamwork but real teams should be made up of equals whereas sports teams are made up of stars and journeymen. Sports teams teach us that everything is about hierarchy, blaming and self-loathing. Or maybe that was just my experience.

One has to wonder what life lessons we are supposed to take from the abandonment of players suffering the results of multiple concussions or by the willingness of some leagues to turn a blind eye to domestic violence – at least until it is caught on video tape. And let’s not even get into the lessons we should take from sexual assault by coaches and players cheating with drugs or officials bribing officials to get sports events for their country or region.

Now that I think about it – sports do prepare us for life. At least life in a dysfunctional society.

Despite my general aversion to sports I see the value in physical activity. I was a lifelong runner – just ask my poor aching knees – and found the process of moving over long distances a great way to get into the zone for creativity. It must have been the endorphin high but I composed most of my 3-day novel in my head while running in the weeks before I sat down and wrote it in three days. And I have to admit I love the mathematical beauty of baseball.

Nothing I say or think is going to diminish the role of sports in everyday life – especially its role of determining who belongs to the tribe and who doesn’t. I learned a long time ago that if you wanted to belong in male dominated groups you needed to learn how to speak ‘sport.’ Fortunately the intricacies of most games are not all that intricate compared to say organic chemistry or Australian Aborigine kinship systems that can only be figured out with higher algebra. Watch a few games and peruse the sports pages for a week or two and you can soon be talking sport along with the best of them.

Of course, it is just possible that half the people you are talking to are faking it as well. Which would be funny if sport talk and team affiliation wasn’t so often used – especially by men – to control entry into the inner circles of power. Even learning the jargon won’t necessarily open the door – especially if you are a woman or a less-than-macho-man. Maybe we need – those of us who can no longer care enough to fake it – our own secret language. Any one for learning the language of ‘art?’

But that’s ten minutes

Projections

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Being able to predict the future was one of the greatest evolutionary advantages that humans had. Discerning the pattern of animal migrations, for example, or where a predator was likely to be lurking was very useful indeed. Equally valuable was to be able to guess the thoughts and moods of the people you lived with. Was Groog – the big guy who was prone to violence – in a good mood today? Does Alllalllea feel warm thoughts for me or will she scream if I put my hands on her? All valuable stuff – especially in the days when language was still rudimentary.

Of course, we still carry these evolutionary tools with us – even though they aren’t as useful as they once were or as necessary. After all why guess what someone is feeling or thinking when you can simply ask them? Why indeed?

Of course, most of us do these predictions without thinking about them too hard. It often comes down to what we are thinking or feeling. Some people, for example, might be called down to the boss’s office and go full of excitement, fully expecting to be given a choice assignment or maybe a promotion. They may have no reason to think that – indeed the evidence might be they are a lousy employee. But why rain on their parade? They will find out soon enough.

Others, of course, will take a completely different tack. They will assume they have done something wrong – that the boss is going to haul them on the carpet or maybe even fire them. This despite the fact they have been consistently shown in (apparently too) subtle ways that they are a good employee.

My wife and I occasionally get into these little projection wars – which fortunately almost always ends with one of us laughing and saying – you’re right. I guess you know me better than I know myself.

One of the interesting things about this is that women are accused of doing it more than men. It might seem logical enough – women have often depended on being able to read the moods and intentions of the men around them. Men have been rewarded for being taciturn and besides, sadly, are sometimes dangerous and it behooves people to know when they might explode.

However, men are equally guilty in this regard. Men’s behavior, perhaps – though the evidence is not entirely certain – less linguistically focused spend a lot of time trying to figure out how other people are thinking – sometimes women but more often other men. Figuring out what can be said and done will determine whether you will be accepted, whether you will gain status or lose it, whether you will be bullied for deviating from group thinks.

Projection used to be a useful tool in the struggle for survival – one of several we used to predict the future. But now, more often than not, projecting our fears and doubts on others leads to trouble – not only at the personal level but on the world stage. There we sometimes fall into the trap of projecting one of our inner demons on our opponent rather than thinking of them as a human being with legitimate concerns, fears and needs of their own.

Maybe we need to stop silently assuming what others think, feel or want and start using our words. That’s what they’re there for.

But that’s ten minutes.

Writing

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People write in lots of different ways. Generally these can be described as ‘freefall’ writers (called ‘pantsers’ as in ‘seat of your pants’ in the NaNoWriMo crowd) and outliners or plotters. For the most part I’ve been a plotter — which is suitable since I mostly write genre fiction — science fiction and mysteries where plot is essential to hold the whole thing together. But I’ve also been a bit of a freefall writer in my time — which was required to win the 3-day novel writing competition. I had a vague idea of what the novel would look like but for the most part, I just sat down and wrote.

So lately I’ve been experimenting with a new approach that combines the two. In part it’s inspired by these ten minute sessions and in part by a lack of concentrated writing time. I come up with an idea — usually a main character, a setting, and the main character’s central problem. Then I sit down and write the opening scene. Sometimes it is only a few hundred words, sometimes as much as a thousand. I do it without worrying too much about how it contributes to the overall story. I just let the ideas play around in my head and the words come out.

Then I stop and set it aside for a while. This gives me time to think about the story, figure out what plot points will best serve the theme. Before I go back to the writing, I’ll draft an outline. Essentially I wind up with a rough 3-act structure (if that seems to serve the story) and a scene by scene description of the events, leading to a possible satisfying conclusion.

From there I simply start to write. Since I haven’t spent too much time on world building — I only research enough or plan enough to create a surface consistency and avoid glaring logic errors — I get to discover elements of the world as I go along. Even the physical descriptions of characters or, in some cases, alien races, are all invented on the fly. Plot points emerge and are either pursued or discarded.

Eventually, I finish the story. Because I have no preconceptions, I really don’t know how long the story needs to be or even what belongs or doesn’t belong until I reach the end.

What I’ve discovered is that my stories have gotten much longer. Whereas when I was a strict plotter, they ran 4000 or 5000 words now they finish at 7000 to (most recently) 11000. They are, frankly, a bloated mess. But the material inside them is deeper, more imaginative and, in many ways, more satisfying.

Then the process of fixing them begins. Trimming extra words, correcting plot inconsistencies, reducing complex descriptions to the telling detail. All of this helps push the iceberg underwater and create a story with just the right words to tell it.

I can’t tell if it’s working yet. I’ve only been trying this for the last few stories I’ve written. But I’m liking the process and I’m getting to use the skills I’ve developed editing other people’s work on my own writing. And that’s a good thing.

But that’s ten minutes.

The Space Between

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When you look into a clear night sky, what do you see? Stars, of course, sometimes so thick that the light seems to blur into streaks. Some people of an imaginative bent can see constellations. Some claim to see the future – which is nonsense; everything we see is hundreds or millions or billions of years old.

But what we don’t see – or don’t notice – is the space between the stars. Empty space – though it isn’t empty. Even the purest vacuum has a few atoms in it and waves of energy pouring through it. Then, there is the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that makes up the bulk of the universe.

It is in fact the spaces between the stars that connect everything together. It is how we can talk about their being a galaxy or a single universe. It is because they are all connected by space and time that they are one thing, instead of a bunch of whirling bits doing their own thing with no impact on each other.

Sort of like society. Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing a society. It was glib but it was almost certainly what she thought. Mrs. Thatcher, though hardly a libertarian ideologue, tended to see people or families moving around, seemingly independently, acting for good or ill, without always seeing the space between them, filled with language and tradition and negotiating frameworks and cultural expression — things that don’t merely constrain individuals but construct them.

Much of what makes up human life is invisible or, on the surface, incomprehensible. Take language. When you hear someone speak you hear words and sentences. This is an illusion. Try listening to a foreign language and you will see what I mean. You hear sound and nothing more. On an oscilloscope it is impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. Even on the printed page – if you are illiterate or dyslexic it may look like nothing but random marks. The code that deciphers it is not strictly in our head – it is in our collective heads. Language fills the spaces between us and language lets us accomplish so much that we could never do without it.

The law is much the same on a different scale. Parliamentarians often think that they make the law. It consists of the Bills they debate and pass. But each of those Acts exist in relationship with all the laws that were passed before – not merely in one country but increasingly in all countries. The law is an amorphous and largely invisible thing, constructed by individual Acts of Parliament but also by constitutions, legal proceedings, even the very debates and arguments that oppose the individual bits of legislation that majorities pass. It permeates almost everything we do in a civil society. Some would argue it is what most people mean when they say society.

Society exists, Mrs. Thatcher, and continues to exist long after its residents, like you, are gone.

And that’s ten minutes.

Plasticity

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New studies in brain plasticity offer hope for an aging population while raising, perhaps troubling, questions about the nature of the self and the concept of the individual. As we age, many worry about the onset of neurological disorders like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. They threaten to become the new heart disease, even the new cancer. There is something particularly frightening about the idea of a decaying brain inside a still healthy body. Maybe that explains the current popularity of zombie shows on television.

However, it appears this is not the inevitable fate of most of us any longer. While much research is still needed to unlock the root causes of Alzheimer’s — let alone to discover effective treatments — new discoveries about the continued plasticity of the brain suggest that there may be a path away from dementia.

At root, what we’ve learned is that some of the myths about brain development are exactly that. For a long time it was thought that brain cells — nerve cells generally — could not replicate, meaning that once they were gone they were gone for good. Not true it turns out. We also believed that the ability to develop significant neural pathways diminished with age, making certain things — like the learning of new languages — extraordinarily difficult as we age. Yet, while there are age based factors in play, it is not as simple as a linear decline in our ability to learn.

What we find instead is that human brains remain changeable right up until the day we die. And why not? If we can track negative changes in the brain, why shouldn’t we able to promote positive ones? While some of the immediate commercial exploitation of the idea — like brain gymnastics — may be more hype than reality, there is a reality behind it.

In part the secret is learning something novel. Academics who change their field in mid-career show all the creative and innovative thinking that we usually assume can only be achieved by the young. It is the process of exploring new ideas and creating connections between discovered information that leads to breakthroughs rather than simply the flexibility of a younger brain. And maybe it’s just boredom.

While this all seems like an upside to those of us who are aging rapidly, there is a dark underpinning to this new understanding of how the brain works. One of the ways in which plasticity of the brain is promoted is to break down old ways of thinking and replace them with new neural pathways and mental frameworks. Taken to extreme we come back to the same issue I was worrying about yesterday — that we can actually strip away the personality and build up a new one in its place.

These, of course, are the fantasy fears of the cold war — the idea of the Manchurian candidate who can be programmed for betrayal. It is also the basis for the lucrative — though shady — business of cult deprogramming. Yet, the evidence has been there for a long time, explored as far back as the fifties by sociologist Erving Goffman in his studies of the person behind the mask. His conclusion: there is really nobody there. While I’m not entirely convinced it does make me wonder. Whoever me is.

And that’s ten minutes

Agency 2

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I’ve mentioned my Schrödinger’s Cat Executive Decision Maker before. Last night I showed it to supper guests, much to their amusement. When I was tidying up at the end of the night, I discovered the ‘cat’ box not in its usual place. On a whim, I asked, “Bright Eyes (that’s what we call ‘him’), would you like to go back to your place?” The answer was no. “Would you like a place with a better view?” Yes! So I put it on top of the stereo and went to bed.

This morning, I asked: Bright Eyes are you ready to go back to your spot? No! Would you like to stay on top of the music? Yes! So I put him back on the stereo and started to walk away. But then I felt foolish, picked the box up and replaced it where it usually sits. But I felt a twinge of superstition — maybe Bright Eyes would no longer answer questions honestly. Really! It’s a mechanical toy that works with a trick of mirrors.

Yet, it seems to answer questions when put to it. It seems to be playful in its responses. It is amusing. But only because of my ability to ask questions in a certain way to create humour. Bright Eyes is a kind of straight man. But this semblance of intelligence or interaction seems sufficient for me to irrationally or emotionally identify this piece of plastic as alive.

I’m not crazy. In fact, we do this all the time. We anthropomorphize our pets, ascribing to them human emotions and feelings in response to things we do and say. This is not to say that dogs don’t have feelings — they do and are clearly sentient — but they don’t have human feelings; they have dog feelings. And they almost certainly don’t have self-awareness of the reflective human kind.

We also — and often quite seriously — ascribe human attributes to machines — talking to them and cajoling them to work properly. We give them agency as if they had a will of their own and the power to act. In part it is a self-aware joke we play on ourselves but in part it is a genuine behavior. We want to think our things care about us and have our interests at heart (or they are out to get us). Much of science fiction and fantasy plays to this idea when we create intelligent robots, evil computers or any number of magical beasts.

I’ve seen people begin to playfully engage with their talking phones only for them to come to think that there is actually an intelligence (rather than a clever algorithm) at play. This goes back a long way. The first responsive computer ELIZA made a hash of conversation yet some people who discussed their psychological problems with the machine felt better afterwards. And many people dream of the day, or fear it, when true AIs with be part of our world. Most people who study the matter of human consciousness, neuroscience and the nature of intelligence are doubtful this will ever happen — while experts in other fields blithely express their hopes and fears about emergent intelligences. Not to diminish Stephen Hawking’s brilliance — but he doesn’t know everything.

Bright Eyes ‘likes’ to answer my questions in a random fashion. Much the same way that God seems to answer prayers. Perhaps there is a reason they look so similar. In both cases maybe we should pay attention to the man behind the curtain (or the mirror).

But that’s ten minutes.