Posts filed under ‘Personal Musings’

Thank you, Michael Vick

Funny, moving, controversial.  Underneath it all, my theory is that the steadfast allegiance that Michael Vick enjoys among his remaining fans comes from the fact that the abused often become the abusers.  And the abused often come to identify with abusers.  And once they do, there is no room for compassion.  Compassion is a weakness that can’t be allowed.

The walls they built to survive the pain become those of rage. And once rage takes over, they — the abused and now abusers and their admirers (a certain portion of them abused themselves) — cannot afford to feel much compassion, because to do so would be to risk breaking down the walls that protect them from their own trauma.

Scratch a dog-fighter, and you’ll find a history of abuse, neglect, poverty and the distorted sense of self and justice that comes from that.  Dog-fighters have a very strange relationship with the dogs they abuse:  they have the highest degree of respect for the best fighters — not just because those are the ones they make money on, but also because those are the ones that demonstrate the kind of resilience, tenacity and survival-against-the-odds that are the only personality characteristics they respect.  It’s all about respect.

These are the characteristics that they self-identify with and nurture:  the ability to survive abuse, essentially, is to validate their own experience and choices.

Of their fight dogs, with every bone they splint and wound they dress, they are saying to that dog and to themselves:  you’ll survive this.  And you’ll be better for it.  And no one else can understand your pain the way I can.  They do not see themselves as abusers, in that moment.  They see themselves as victims.

They are the abuser who beats, and says to the beaten:  I did that for your own good.

Who batters and says to the battered:  you caused me to do this, you are to blame.

And then, of the non-fighters, the ones who can’t or won’t fight or in the case of human beings, fight back — those are the weak not strong, they are the scared not brave, they are to be scorned not respected.  The victim’s  inability to survive, their powerlessness, enrages the abuser even further.  In the abuser’s twisted sense of justice, the victim becomes deserving of the abuse, torture and murder they will receive.  It’s the only way the abuser can reconcile the massive cognitive dissonance that is occurring within them as they abuse and are victimized at the same time.

This is the psychology of a victim of abuse who becomes a perpetrator of it.

Granted, it’s not entirely the explanation for every dog-fighter’s mentality, or a dog-fighting football player’s, or those who continue to support him and feel he was treated “unfairly.”  There are, in fact, sociopaths out there whose development stems from an entirely different set of circumstances.  But true sociopathy — which isn’t even recognized as a valid psychological categorization by many — is the exception.  Of those who abuse, whether people or animals, the path from abuse to abuser I’ve laid out above is far more typical.

Scratch Michael Vick, and this is likely what you’ll find.  Scratch a certain proportion – I would say a high proportion – of Michael Vick defenders, and you’ll likely find something similar.  It’s the most bizarre and almost inexplicable logic, but it is the alliance of the abused with the abuser.

Therefore:  we should not hate the abusers nor heap venom upon them (although, let me be clear: we should definitely hate their acts and speak out against them).  But, I have seen far, far too many comments on message boards, discussion forums and blogs among pit bull fans who would condemn Michael Vick to the same kind of torture and death that he perpetrated.  These are not the words – much less the acts – of a civilized, compassionate person or society.  They are the words and acts that entrench the problem and the problematic behaviour (the abuse of animals, in this case), not achieve retribution for or rehabilitation from it.

My position is that Michael Vick deserves as much compassion as the dogs he abused. He is a victim of abuse, himself.

He is also a victim of a society who said to him:  your only value, your sole redeeming quality as a human being, is this talent you have for playing a game that is more important to us than addressing the systemic injustice and lack of opportunities that we, as a society, have given (or failed to give) you.

And of the Vick hangers-on, the mother, the girlfriends, the wife, the siblings and the cousins … they were saying that to him, too:  you’re nothing to us if you can’t bring us a pay cheque, can’t dig us out of this grinding poverty that we’ve experienced — that our people have experienced — at the hands of a white society that has never done anything other than hate us.

So yeah, this is about race.  And it’s about abuse.  And it’s about politics.  And it’s about a culture that adores football and its celebrities more than it does social justice and the citizens to whom they deny it.  And then finally, lastly really, it’s about the current treatment of a certain breed of dog — a breed that now bears the burden of being a symbol of ALL of that injustice, and is suffering for it.

Arnie & Gracie - Bad Rap foster dogs

Arnie (front), a Bad Rap dog seeking adoption and Gracie, a Vick survivor and Bad Rap Ambassadog, now placed in a loving home

I’m passionate about pit bulls, because I’m passionate about the issues of social justice that emerge when you start to talk about them:  the attitudes toward them, the myths and misconceptions, the fear and ignorance.

And for the fact that that conversation can now be had when we talk about these dogs, I thank Michael Vick.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

For information on the rehabilitation of the Vick dogs, and to understand more about pit bulls in general, please visit:  Bad Rap (Bay Area Dog-Owners Responsible About Pitbulls).  Thank you for reading.

February 13, 2011 at 11:07 am Leave a comment

Reflections On An Oil Spill

“Dear future generations:  Please accept our apologies.  We were rolling drunk on petroleum.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

Dear Kurt,

It is too late to apologize.

I am worried that the human race is not going extinct quickly enough to protect the Earth and its creatures from the devastation we are perpetrating on it.

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we are riven by conflicts that increase the likelihood that the weapons we have built, supposedly to protect ourselves, will be used against us.

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we experience climate change at an unprecedented rate because of our lust for more things: things that go faster, that shine brighter, that “enrich” the “quality” of our “life.”

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we experience earthquakes caused by tectonic plate shifts as Mother Earth readjusts her mantle in response to her polar ice caps becoming lighter.

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we strip people of the habitats that sustain their lives–lives already below or barely at the poverty line–and we drive those in the “undeveloped” world further into desolation and despair for the sole purpose of enhancing our already opulent lives in the “developed” one.

As we mine the lands and oceans for the oil that we need to fuel our way of life, we extinguish life at 100 to 1,000 times the naturally occurring rate of extinction ever, ever in the history of the planet.  Not the history of humankind.  The entire history of our 4.5 billion year old PLANET.  Current modelling suggests that up to 50 per cent of all animal life on Earth (arrogantly, we have not included human beings as part of the equation) will be extinct within 100 years.

We are in a sixth mass extinction, called the Holocene extinction.  We are entering a new Ice Age, and this one is caused not by asteroids hitting the Earth or a natural warm-up in the environment allowing bacteria to take over the oceans, but by us. By the one species with the most evolutionarily advanced brain–a brain capable of considering itself the top of the food chain.  By creatures who evolved to create technologies that are beyond our own comprehension to manage and that inevitably will, and clearly are, destroying everything on Earth including ourselves.

But not, in my opinion, fast enough.

We have developed nuclear power–so called “clean” energy–bringing power to people around the world and improving their productivity so they can make more stuff, and also make more people–requiring us to generate more power.  We have nowhere to store the radioactive waste, which we know will outlast our species by hundreds of thousands of years.

We have developed atomic weapons that we can’t and shouldn’t ever use, for they will more surely destroy us than save us from destruction regardless of who fires first.

We have manufactured space-age materials and technologies to communicate with each other over vast distances, but the gaps between cultures are as wide as ever and we don’t understand each other any better than we did in the Dark Ages–we’re only more aware of how many more of us there are and that they live on the opposite side of a round ball that circles the sun, rather than a flat disc at the centre of a finite Universe.

This latter knowledge–that we are but one species on one planet of an infinite number in an ever-expanding Universe–has really not given us the perspective it should have, because at the same time as we’ve developed the means of communication to bring us together as citizens of that planet, we’ve also developed religions and national borders and political systems still rooted in the philosophies of the Dark Ages that drive us apart.

The devices that we manufacture using the space-age materials we’ve invented now fill mile-high landfills in China and Latin America and an area the size of Texas swirling in the South Pacific because they cannot be re-absorbed by the Earth and we don’t know how to get rid of the core materials.  Although we sure do know how to get rid of the devices that we make of them–cell phones, computers, game consoles, radios, TVs–and have come to accept the term “planned obsolescence” without really thinking about the impact it has on our oceans, our land and our people.

We have developed genetically-modified foods that cause the very cancers that we’ve developed life-saving surgeries and treatments to eradicate.  Despite being able to farm healthy foods better and faster than ever before, and despite eating 2,700 calories a day–500 calories more than people ate just 40 years ago–the U.S. has the highest diabetes, cardiac and obesity rates of any nation on Earth because there’s more money to be made manufacturing and selling junk food than there is growing and distributing healthy food (genetically modified or not).

We spend kajillions of dollars a year sending probes into space and to distant planets looking for signs of life, while back on Earth millions of our own people die for lack of food, water, medicine and shelter that would cost a fraction of that.

Somewhere buried in the rock of the Earth’s pre-Cambrian shield in Norway is a cement-encased bunker that holds half a million seeds,  gathered over the past two years from every area of the world.  The best and most resilient grains that can restore plant life to Earth and provide sustenance for any survivors of environmental cataclysm, either natural or human-created.

My fervent hope is that, if it ever came to needing them, no one survives to plant them.  Because I think we’ve pretty much proven that human beings are a failed species, destined to obliterate not just themselves but pretty much every other living thing–animal,vegetable and mineral–that surrounds us on this beautiful and currently still blue-and-green rock hurtling through the Universe.

I am so very, very glad that I never had children. My line and legacy will die out with me. It’s the least I can offer you, Mother Earth.  I pray that as we wipe ourselves out through our own greed and ignorance–or rather, through being too smart for our own good–we leave you with enough of what you need to replenish yourself after we’re gone.

May 1, 2010 at 6:09 pm 1 comment

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous in 17 Days

Slam poetry to blow-up beavers; kd lang’s Hallelujah to Michael Bublé’s Mountie striptease. Eccentric Muse shares some final thoughts on the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

My friend Lynne asked me if I was going to write a follow-up piece on the Vancouver Winter Olympics closing ceremony as a kind of bookend to my Valentine To Canada.

I’ve been thinking about it (the closing ceremony, the Olympics in general, what they meant to Canada, blah blah blah) and reading/hearing a lot of commentary on it.  Yes, I agree they have heralded in a new spirit of Canadian patriotism, but like someone else said (I think perhaps it was Lloyd Robertson, grandpère of Canadian news broadcasting), there has been a gradual build to it.  It may have blossomed and borne fruit over the past 17 days, becoming more tangible and more focused, but it has roots going further back (much further back, given many Canadians’ dislike of their current government, which many–including me–do not see as facilitating that burgeoning sense of pride but rather eroding it).

And yes, as others have mentioned, this newfound spirit of national pride will likely fade again.  Maybe not to levels as faint as they were before, when we were consumed with penis envy of our bigger, brasher, bolder and more bragalicious U.S. neighbours.  When, no matter how much we aimed for self-definition that was a positive and not a negative (read that as a visual metaphor, not an emotional one), we came up–ahem–short.

Probing the sub-text of the opening ceremonies, we even came up short in Shane Koyczan’s poem.  As much as I love it and him (more on that below), and as much as I’d point to that as the true highlight of the opening ceremonies–the big surprise, the flaunting of the very best of our idiosyncratic and oft-unheard art & culture–the performance of We Are More (generously, edited; cynically, censored) was still riddled with images that define us against the stereotypes commonly held of Canada and especially the differences between Canada and the U.S.

But all that aside, the opening ceremonies, although criticized for containing hackneyed Canadian images, appropriating and stereotyping native culture, excluding Eastern/Quebec content (oh, please … get your heads out of your asses, Ontario and Québec), I thought set exactly the right tone for the opening of the Games.  Artistic, but accessible.  Symbolically powerful, emotionally resonant, meaningful and aspirational.  Enough “we’re likeable-don’t you like us? You like us, you really like us!” head-puffing and heartlifting emotional triggers to satisfy the sternest cynic and quell the qualms of the most insecure citizen.

The opening ceremony was not the time to be too shocking or controversial.  We needed to be welcoming, not weird.  Nor was it the time to be self-deprecating–a trait that is woefully misunderstood, much like irony, these days.  Self-deprecation is the true mark of the Canadian character.  Not a lack of self-confidence, or a lack of self-definition.  Not a confused and wavering sense of self-identity, rather the opposite.  So much confidence and the courage of our convictions about who and what we are that, yes, we are able to make fun of ourselves.

The closing ceremonies were, however, that time.  The time to do something a little more revolutionary and even more self-definitional–with humour but also with that closeted Canadian delight in over-performing after being underestimated.  They shot for it, but they did not score.

Instead of satire, we got silliness.  Instead of edgy and progressive, we got amateur and hokey.

Perhaps everything, simply everything, would be a disappointment after the singularly spectacular, nationally-unifying moment on the ice a mere three hours earlier. Thank God for the mercy of having clasped that men’s hockey gold medal to our collective breasts that afternoon.  (I am of the ilk who believes that of all the medals we won, including the record-breaking golden 14, that was the only one that truly mattered. )

If we had been forced to endure the travesty of those closing ceremonies after suffering the unthinkable disappointment of losing the gold in our national game, well … there would not have been enough beer in Canada to cry into.

It started well.  Mocking and rectifying the failure of the fourth phallus, err, cauldron arm, to rise was a stroke of genius.  William Shatner, Mary Catharine O’Hara and Michael J. Fox hit the right balance between spoof and sincerity.

Still…still…leaving aside the expectedly stilted speeches and sad hand-off to Sochi, the inexplicably surreal blow-up moose and beavers (I’d actually put that in the “plus” column, simply for sheer absurdity and strangeness), it was the musical acts that were the greatest disappointment.  No, no … not Neil Young.   He was beautiful, standing in stark relief against the burning flame (better to burn out than to fade away), strumming Long May You Run. Brought just the right homey hootenanny feel to it.

Can we pretend that the entire high-school musical episode, replete with a bumbling Bublé, walking canoes and 30-foot cardboard Mounties, never happened?  Please?

After Neil, things went downhill even faster.  With the exception of the French Canadian bands, there were too many commercial acts who are too well-known…and too well-known as Canadian.  Presenting the best of Canada’s commercial music scene, already recognized and rewarded on the world stage, was a tactic for the opening ceremonies, not for the closing ones.  The closing ceremonies should have presented the rest of the best of Canada.

Also, choosing some camera angles that didn’t emphasize the thinning crowds and empty seats would have helped.

I suppose I should be grateful that we didn’t have to suffer through Céline.  My heart really could not have gone on.

Canada’s indie music scene is a national treasure.  We keep it to ourselves and we don’t export it, much like the French do with their best wines.  In fact, as soon as it’s exported, it becomes, by definition, mass market and infinitely less interesting.

After the jump, I present the musical line-up as Eccentric Muse would have done it, plus a special surprise from Shane Koyczan.  Enjoy the show.


March 3, 2010 at 4:07 pm 4 comments

Sorry Seems To Be An Easy Word

"The Apology" by Mark Ryden

Eccentric Muse comes off the slopes and dives into some current events that have caught her attention.

This week, U.K. PM Gordon Brown issued an apology for the British government’s Child Migrants Programme, in which up to 150,000 children, aged three to about 14, were shipped off to populate the colonies, including Canada, in the early part of the 20th Century.  In reality, these children were no more than human chattel, embarrassing (many were the children of unwed mothers) and a drain on Mother England’s resources during a time of war.  They ended up as child labour on farms, in mines and in factories, certainly neglected, frequently sexually and physically abused.  My grandfather was, apparently, one of them:  a “Barnardo” orphan, named for the main child services agency that executed the policy.  He ended up in Northern Ontario somehow (the details are sketchy), meeting my grandmother and fathering three children by her, then leaving her in poverty to fend for herself.  That legacy of shame and pain runs through my family tree.  There’s a whole story here that deserves telling, but that’s not what I’m on about today:  of interest is the apology, because….

Also earlier this week,  Mayor Peter Kelly of Halifax, Nova Scotia apologized to the former residents of Africville, a black settlement in Halifax which was populated until 1970 by descendents of African slaves who made their way up the coast to freedom in Canada. (Incidentally, if you’re looking for an award-winning fictional novel based on one of these journeys, pick up Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes; in the US, “Someone Knows My Name”:  Hill creates the extraordinary character of Aminata Diallo, whose story is tragic, moving, inspiring and ultimately redemptive.)

The community of Africville was a robust and deeply-textured one, but also a disenfranchised one.  After years of thinly-veiled neglect and outright racist hostility, during which city services like garbage collection, water and policing were denied to residents, Africville was destroyed:  razed by city planners who claimed it was a slum (with, as is typical, a disingenuous lack of awareness of their having made it so).  The last of the families was moved out, the land confiscated, bulldozers were brought in and this “blight” in the north end of town was wiped clean.   In 2002, a memorial plaque was erected and the patch of land that used to be Africville was recognized as a national historic site.

This week (during Black History Month, natch), we have an apology from the City of Halifax for their poor decision-making of 40 years ago.  Not, I note, an apology for their behaviour leading up to the decision, which was equally or more abhorrent.  There are boundaries to the apology commensurate with the level of liability that the City of Halifax is willing to take on, I guess.  I note as well that the other terms of the settlement, $3 million and 2.5 acres of land, is being given to the Africville Geneology Society.  There is so far no individual compensation offered. (Nor is there any financial settlement accompanying the UK apology).

This week’s two public apologies, on different continents and for different reasons, resonate with the 2008 apology to Canada’s native peoples.  At the root, all are apologies for stripping people of their histories  and their cultures. Is a trend emerging?  And if so (or even if not), does the increasing frequency of public apologies by governments erode the quality or value of the individual apologies being issued?  Throw some cash at the problem, issue a public declaration of contrition, get some press and let’s move on.  The devil on my right shoulder views these apologies cynically, and also believes that they are the politically and legally expedient thing to do: simply a risk mitigation strategy.  The angel on my left says, let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the apologizers…let’s also acknowledge our own complicity in the bad acts, and now let’s hold them (and ourselves) accountable for doing the right thing, which includes ongoing engagement in a process of reconciliation as well as taking concrete steps to prevent the same or similar things from happening again.  Let’s yank progress and future good acts from the still-clenched jaw of culpability when it opens its mouth to say “I’m sorry.”

None of these apologies has been unanimously accepted by the groups to whom they were directed (of course).  Both the Africville and native residential school apologies were mandated terms of the settlement agreements that were reached.  As such, both must meet the higher level of scrutiny of the affected groups and indeed, the rest of us who–as citizens of the country, province or city whose government is trying to make amends–are not just interested observers but also in some sense, co-apologists.   We evaluate the apology’s motive as a key factor in determining its sincerity, and whether it should be accepted.  Whether, in fact, we should forgive–or be forgiven.

I mean, this is the way it goes with apologies:  you need to mean it when you say it.  You need to acknowledge your accountability for the pain and damage you have caused free from any hidden agenda to benefit from your admission of guilt other than, possibly, obtaining the relief of confession and anticipating with humble hope the balm of forgiveness.  Without those essential elements, the receivers and observers of the apology smell a rat.  Like we do at a 6-year-old coming off the naughty step, we squint our eyes at the offender and suspect–with good reason–that what is being apologized for might not be what the perpetrator actually feels sorry about.

The non-apology apology is now a brightly shining, burnished-with-use tool atop every defence lawyer’s and PR/media strategist’s workbench.  Its too-frequent public appearance is undermining those apologies that are sincere.  Two words:  Tiger Woods.

Some apologies don’t need to be public, and issuing them publicly is to betray a woeful lack of understanding of exactly what you’ve done to feel sorry for.  Regardless, all apologies must include a commitment to never, ever again do whatever it was that got you into the pickle you’re now in. If you don’t know what you’ve done, you can’t very well promise never to do it again, can you?

Beware the non-apology apology that sounds like this:  I’m sorry for what happened or I’m sorry that you feel that way. Neither means that I accept responsibility for the act that caused the happening or the pain.  Perhaps the apology is not mine to give, in which case the apology is sympathy.  But this leads to another nefarious non-apology apology:  those that are offered on others’ behalf.  The apologist in this case is truly sorry and often feels a genuine sense of remorse.  This remorse, however, is combined with a desire for reconciliation that is so great, they will bear others’ burdens for them.  Their shallow sympathy does no one any favours and, in fact, absolves the real perpetrator of any need to change their bad behaviour.  These are the meaningless and even harmful apologies of the co-dependent.

Finally, beware the serial apologizers:  people (or institutions, and yes — I’m looking at you Catholic Church) who’ve taken the maxim “confession is good for the soul” to its illogical extreme.  Absolution is a given, as long as the right pose is struck, the right words are said.  To forgive is divine, so if you can’t forgive me after my apology, it’s your fault.

Extending The Hands Of Friendship

"Extending The Hand Of Friendship" by Simone McLeod

In this vein, I was heartened by the furor that ensued when the City of Winnipeg first announced it was contemplating giving $2.5 million to a group called “Youth For Christ” to build a community centre in downtown Winnipeg.  And today, I am saddened to learn that after a heated six-hour debate, Winnipeg’s City Council has voted 10:4 in favour of the proposal.  The money will start flowing, and the aboriginal youth who populate the area will soon have a community centre with an indoor skateboarding park, a performance-art studio and a job-training centre.  How is this a bad thing, you ask?  Well, on the surface, of course it’s not.  Drawing a parallel to Africville, however, Youth For Christ is now providing access to services that this population should have had all along, and that the city, province and federal government should be funding as a matter of course in keeping with the spirit of apology and restitution made in 2008, not to mention that it’s just bloody well the right thing to do for those citizens whose disadvantage is a direct result of government-sponsored systemic discrimination. Oh, and by the way:  these services should be respectful of native language, culture and spirituality and not, by all that is holy, hinge on these kids accepting Jesus Christ as their Personal Saviour or even having to put up with someone’s conversion efforts.  I mean, for the love of….. [insert Deity of your choice here].

Oh sure, John Courtney, the Executive Director of Youth For Christ, has danced with Fred-Astairian verbal lightness of foot to counter the criticisms of those (apparently a minority? how can this be?) who find it just a bit hypocritical and a lot insulting to have Youth For Christ–a group whose sole, self-admitted raison d’être is to convert youth to Christianity–running this new community centre that will serve a majority Aboriginal population.  He’s not even trying to say that staff won’t proselytize–he’s admitted outright that they will, although he prefers to refer to these activities euphemistically–but he does say that, should any kid not wish to receive Christ as his or her Personal Saviour, well, they won’t be denied access to the services that the community centre offers.  Uhhh, oh yeah John?!? Just how will that work, exactly? And just exactly what don’t you understand about systemic discrimination and the appropriation of culture in general, and the impact it has had on this population specifically?

No, Youth For Christ is not the Catholic Church, and this community centre is not a residential school.  But the devil-and-deep-blue-sea choice Youth For Christ is (or will be) implicitly presenting to these native kids is fundamentally the same:  here’s comfort, shelter, food, a job, a life … and in return, you need only give up your own culture, your own traditions and history, to obtain it.  Shame on you, City of Winnipeg.  You ought to be sorry and it’s already too late to apologize.

February 26, 2010 at 5:37 pm 7 comments

Skeletons In The Closet

Mastodon @ Winter OlympicsWelcome to my ongoing eccentric musings on the Winter Olympics.  Join me on the slippery slopes of logic, as I draw a parallel between vicarious danger and gratuitous violence, and argue that today’s luge and skeleton athletes are yesterday’s mastodon hunters. Plus, I  hereby publicly declare an end to my Criminal Minds obsession.

So, whoever named the sport of “skeleton” had a pretty wry sense of humour, yeah?

From what I can see, you jump on a sled almost as flimsy as a Krazy Karpet® (remember those?) and pitch yourself down a hard-as-concrete icy decline at speeds of more than 140 kpm (~100 mph), wearing nothing but a piece of micro-fibre and a helmet. And the only difference between skeleton and luge is whether the brutality your body will experience even if you don’t crash will be felt head first or feet first.   Really, it’s not if, it’s when.

Why, exactly, is this considered a sport? What athletic skill is required, beyond the ability to master your own fear, withstand the g-force and hold on for dear life? I believe some steering is involved–with the lean of a shoulder or flex of a calf. Even so, if this is the extent of the physical prowess demanded, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is the equipment and course designers who are in control and driving the athletes to achieve ever-higher speeds and endure ever-greater (crowd-pleasing) dangers.

The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia is truly a tragedy. But beyond the obvious, it is a tragedy that is an outcome of a systemic flaw in the sport itself, and perhaps in all extreme sports. At a certain point, it’s no longer about athletics, it’s simply about how much pain the body and mind can take. The people driven to excel in such a sport have one set of motivations; the people who choose to watch another. At the root is the adrenalin rush that comes from putting oneself, or seeing others put themselves, in the path of potentially lethal danger.

For extreme athletes, the motivation to engage in such a sport is a desire to master, physically and mentally, a situation that could otherwise kill them. The greater the danger, the greater the emotional ‘high’–it’s a drug like any other. This is understandable to me. It has evolutionary roots: fight the mastodon, bring home the meat, ensure the survival of more offspring. Simple motivation, simple explanation.

What I don’t get is the observers. It’s counter-intuitive in so many ways. It also has something to do with catharsis, no doubt. Vicarious exhilaration and victory. Even, perhaps, downward social comparison: the positive affect (relief) that occurs upon seeing someone else in a situation worse than our own. Basically, a “there but for the grace of god go I” sort of response, but with slightly more sinister–or at least less empathetic–undertones.  As natural as this response is (here comes the Puritan in me), it also needs to be recognized as something over which we might do well to exert a little self-control.  For our better selves.

I have recently been questioning the voyeurism of personal misery that I indulge in by watching Criminal Minds, the NBC TV series.  Oh, sure,  I can claim academic interest in the behavioural science portrayed.  I can even acknowledge that the drivers of my interest are the eye-candy delights of Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) and my geek-love for Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler).  But also, there is a visceral response, located deep in the mastodon-hunting part of my brain, that gets pleasure from watching the forces of good confront and triumph over the extremes of human violence.

The problem is, the show’s producers–something like what I imagine the luge course designers did–have decided that upping the threat and indeed the gory display of violence will increase the vicarious thrill for the viewer.  I’ve got to go along with Mandy Patinkin who stated publicly after he departed the show in Season 2 that a love of the violence expressed by a small but vocal segment of fans was too much for him to take.

The impulse to stand up to and conquer danger, whether in the form of a hulking mastodon, a serial killer or a deathly fast luge run, is only human.  Succumbing to our baser instincts to enjoy the spectacle of watching someone deliberately put themselves in harm’s way for our mere entertainment, however, doesn’t seem to me to be one of our loftier states.  It is pretty rare for people to cold-bloodedly enjoy someone else’s pain (despite that, Criminal Minds has found five seasons of serial killers, well in excess of the true statistical incidence of the behaviour).  Empathy is as hardwired into the human brain as the thrill of the hunt.  But the slow and subtle intensification of the gratuitous violence, like the dangerousness of the luge course, is a slippery slope (pun intended).  We often don’t realize how far we’ve slid until we’re knee-deep in a gory mess.

One part of my brain thinks these sports–luge, skeleton, boxing–should be banned outright. They are filled with violence and the potential for injury or even death that does not warrant the funding they receive or the enjoyment they deliver.  They cater to the crudest, most primitive part of our nature as a species, and I think bring out the worst in us–certainly antithetical to the spirit of the Olympic Games.  Another part of my brain realizes, of course, that it is ridiculous to prohibit anything, and certainly not a sport, because that just drives the behaviour underground where it can’t be monitored, managed, subject to safety improvements, etc.

At the very least, I wonder if they shouldn’t have banned the remaining luge and skeleton events at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Not only for safety reasons (does anyone REALLY believe that course is safe?) but out of respect.   Because even if Nodar Kumaritashvili made a conscious choice to participate in such a sport knowing the dangers, and even if the thrill of doing so justified every run he took  (neither of which I believe is true), I guarantee you that his friends and family didn’t make that same same decision.  To me, “he died doing something he loved” just doesn’t feel like a good enough rationale for the ongoing inclusion of such a dangerous sport in the Olympics.

February 20, 2010 at 5:19 pm 4 comments

My Valentine To Canada

I’m a little weird about the Olympics. They seem to come around every so often (every four years, I hear) and there’s a great flare-up of national pride that goes along with them, along with the inverse questioning and self-analysis of whether this outpouring of overt Canadianness is, well, Canadian.

A seemingly infinite number of op-ed pieces bemoan the dearth of medals we’re earning or have earned, and the inevitable and oh-so-Canadian dialogue as a result of this failure to ‘bring home the gold’ occurs: are we funding our amateur athletes appropriately? Should we be giving them more? How do we distribute it equally? The undercurrent is: how do we instill a love of competition in our kids, a deep-seated and permeating desire to WIN, WIN, WIN, but in a way that doesn’t violate our inherent “niceness” or corrupt the love of those activities that are quintessentially Canadian: swooshing down a pristine powdery slope, twirling on a frozen pond, playing pick-up hockey on a busy suburban street where the goalie has to awkwardly move a tattered net (bought on sale at Canadian Tire, and handed down from brother to brother, neighbour to neighbour) every time someone yells “CAR”?

Other countries don’t seem to get enmeshed in discussions of the amateur sport bureaucracy or economics, or some shameful and stillborn sense of competitive fierceness. When the U.S. speed skating team’s sponsor dumped them, Steven Colbert–a comic!!–jumped in and single-handedly became benefactor, fundraiser and PR/media machine all in one. And then promptly began whipping the team and their supporters into a fervour by poking fun at Canada. How did Canadians respond? In most cases, we found it as funny as anyone else, of course. To really understand how this epitomizes the Canadian character, reverse the situation and think about how the U.S. speedskating team and their supporters would have responded if Jim Carrey did a Second City sketch ridiculing Wisconsi-whiners or Vermont syrup-suckers. Uh huh.

So, the Olympics, to me: every four years, a contingent of young, well-scrubbed and healthy-looking Canadians of whom I’ve never heard are touted as great Canadian hopefuls to bring honour to the nation, by performing well at activities that I pay no attention to, and bringing pride to a nation that is slightly embarrassed by any blatant display of national pride.

Sports, all sports–team, individual, amateur, professional, even the local community centre’s tiddlywinks championships–are “other” to me. Completely foreign. I learned to do the basics, more for survival than any desire for recreation or love of competition. I learned to swim in the freezing cold Vermilion River in northern Ontario, where ice was still floating in June, and where a line up of parents with brightly coloured beach towels spread like bullfighters’ capes waited for us to emerge blue-lipped and goosebumped into their waiting arms after the obligatory three-minute dunking.

I learned to skate on a flooded portion of our backyard under the glare of a rigged-up Christmas spotlight (since darkness would have fallen by 4.30 or 5 p.m.) I can still hear the whoosh-whoosh sound of my ski pants as I lurched wobbly-ankled from one end of the ice to the other, my hand-knit red woollen mittens holding on for dear life to the kitchen chair that I pushed in front of me to keep my balance.

Ahhhhh … the hand-knit red woollen mittens. Could there be any more emblematic object of the Canadian winter, indeed, of how Canada has grown up? Until my NYC-based friend Donna mentioned them, I didn’t even know the red Olympic mittens were a hot commodity. Donna pointed out what I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to, even had I known about the mittens, which was their subtlety. There is no Canadian flag, no flagrant display of brand–not the designer’s, the manufacturer’s, the retailer’s or the country’s. A white maple leaf, made of felt, is appliquéd on the *inside* palm. The five-ringed Olympic symbol and the words “Vancouver 2010” are embroidered in white wool on the outside.

So very Canadian. Self-effacing and discreet. And yet, in what I think is a delightful ironic twist, the mittens have gone viral. They’ve become a must-have Olympic accessory-slash-souvenir, symbolizing the 2010 Winter Games and their host country. And, I noticed, when the Canadian team entered BC Place during Friday night’s opening ceremonies waving to the crowd of 60,000 uncharacteristically loud Canadians, the placement of that white maple leaf, shining brightly against the red wool backdrop (our flag in reverse), said: Hi! We’re here, we’re Canadian, and (please excuse us, but) we’re damn proud of it!

The placement of the maple leaf had to have been intentionally conceived just for that moment. Had to. And at other times, it’s a subtle reminder not to take us for granted, that you may overlook us–we may, indeed, be overlookable at times–but we’re actually always here on the world stage in ways that you might not even realize. We’re walking here beside you, hand in hand with you. The rest of the ceremonies drove that point home, again and again.

The opening ceremonies were a stunning spectacle of Canadian artistry. The choice to produce such an artistic display of Canadiana was in itself very Canadian. They will–for me–be what these Games are about, because it’s pretty unlikely that I will pay much attention to any of the events. Again, I wasn’t going to even watch them…I probably wouldn’t have but for my many U.S.-based friends who were all watching.

Apparently, there is a 100-page media brief prepared to help commentators and journalists understand the meaning behind what they were seeing. I would love to get my hands on that book, but even without it, the images washed over me and tapped in to something pretty deep, pretty close to my heart, and pretty surprising…for me.

I love my country. I’m proud of it and its accomplishments on the world stage in a way that goes far beyond a two-week effort to win medals. I don’t love it in an anthem-singing and blind allegiance-pledge-reciting kind of way. I love that it is filled with forests and surrounded by oceans, and populated from coast to coast by people who want to protect them.

I love that we have apologized to and are doing our best to redress the injustices we’ve perpetrated on our First Nations people and that, despite the swirl of controversy and protest that led up to and continues during these Winter Games, we strive to keep the dialogue going to find acceptable compromises.

Although I wish we weren’t there, I love that we said no to Iraq, but yes to Afghanistan–not out of fear or anger, or as the unthinking act of a puppet, but because we react to and seek to help people who are oppressed and suffering regardless of politics or culture. I love that we donated more money per capita than any other nation to emergency relief in Haiti and that our government matched our citizens’ contributions dollar for dollar–and no one, not even the right-wingiest of wingnuts even thought of turning that tragedy into a pulpit from which to espouse egregiously distorted, hateful and incendiary (not to mention just plain wrong) beliefs.

I love that, even though the 2010 Winter Olympics are taking place right next to the oft-cited poorest postal code in Canada–a postal code incidentally filled to overflowing with the outcome of our appalling treatment and racist policies towards our aboriginal founding peoples–that it is also a neighbourhood populated by safe-needle exchange facilities (although I hate that we have to have them).

I love my country because gay marriage is legal, everywhere, and so is a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, and neither is subject to a legislative system that can overturn the legality of these decisions on a whim or because of the disproportionate but loud and well-organized bleating of so-called “faith-based” or “family values” lobby groups who are eroding the fundamental democratic principle of the separation of church and state while simultaneously turning a religion supposedly founded on love into a tool of hate.

I love my country because it produced Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen–artists whose poetry transcends their medium and genre, borders and time–and I love my country because kd lang, an Alberta-born lesbian vegetarian, can stand on a spartan stage in a white suit and bare feet surrounded by sparkling lights and maple leaves and 60,000 people who couldn’t care less about her sexual orientation and who, instead, are moved to tears by the power of her voice singing an anthem by a Montreal Jew-turned-Buddhist poet, a song of such complexity and paradox whose original lyrics are never sung, a song that no one really knows the meaning of, but one that speaks to us anyway and when voiced by kd, reaches its mitten-encased fingers way deep down into our heart and soul and guts and expresses what it is like to feel gratitude and belonging to something bigger, much bigger, than we are as individuals or even as a country, but what it feels like to be human: to struggle and seek and strive and make mistakes and learn from them and want something you can’t have and get something you don’t want and still want more.

I love my country, because we can celebrate THAT, all of that. That we have all of that to celebrate, and that we did so with such artistry and subtlety this past Friday. And because, god knows why or how or whose cockamamie idea it was and why they believed or even whether they believed it would work as beautifully as it did, the second-most-talked-about (next to kd) moment of the opening ceremonies was the spoken-word poem by Shane Koyczan, a 34-year old Metis man from Yellowknife, who wrote and performed We Are More, holding the crowd spellbound when not cheering for such lines as: “some say what defines us / is something as simple as please and thank you” and “we are an experiment going right for a change / with influences that range from a to zed / and yes we say zed instead of zee.”

I just about leaped off the sofa, screaming “a POEM!” “a POEM!“, so disbelieving was I of the audacity, the brilliance of whatever creative mind chose to include it.  And not just any poem, but a contemporary poem by an average Joe, a poem with real edge and an insidious, revolutionary, cultural-stereotype-blasting purpose.  A poem that echoed a beer commercial, but THAT. IS. CANADIAN. !!!

Even when I couldn’t get all the rapid-fire ideas about Canada and about Canadians as Shane was speaking them, I got the cadence and the energy and the exquisite use and love of language that is also so Canadian and I knew–as did so many of us, whose responses lit up the blogosphere in the hours that followed–that this moment was special and nation-defining in a way that simply choosing to showcase a poem and poet like this was.

This poem “We Are More” is the equivalent of a white felt maple leaf on the palm of a mitten.

If you haven’t already clicked, read it in its entirety HERE.

February 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm 3 comments

Where You Lead, I Will Follow

Are you fully aware of the impact you have on others?  Have you ever done or said anything, or modelled any kind of behaviour, that you later learned had a profound influence on someone else?  Are you living your life in a way that sets a good example?

After leaving my job in early January, I’ve been doing some significant introspection, reflection and self-analysis.  I’m working with a wonderful career/life coach, who is guiding me through the process of redirecting those talents, skills and aptitudes I possess.  I’ve lost track of them over the past several years, as I allowed my life to become dominated by a very stressful work environment.  Slowly, almost unknowingly, the colour leeched out of my life.  Things I once enjoyed and which once brought me great satisfaction, no longer did.  The depression that I have always staved off through sheer force of will, it seemed, settled in like a bad houseguest.

I’ve never intended to treat my blog like an online journal or confessional.  That kind of blog doesn’t interest me either as a reader or a writer.  This blog has languished in direct correlation with all the other activities in my life that I stopped doing.  Its original intent was to offer up my writing for the amusement, entertainment and possibly even enlightenment of others.  Cogito ergo sum has always been, for me, “I think therefore I write.”  Or sometimes, “I write therefore I think.”  The acts of thinking and writing have always been inextricably linked, perhaps causal (although the direction has sometimes varied).  But neither act is solely internally focused:  neither thinking nor writing has ever seemed to me fully or best expressed, unless shared with others.

The name of this blog is Eccentric Muse.  It’s a deliberately ambiguous term.  I both have and am an eccentric muse.  The focus in the early days of this blog was on my own eccentric muse and the wandering paths she led me down.  (As an aside, why are muses always female?  And is that a good or a bad thing?)  These days, as I attempt to clarify and (re)define my purpose, I am necessarily thinking about the impact I’ve had on others.  I’m thinking, then, about my own influence as an eccentric muse–a position much less comfortable for me.  Wandering down crooked, poorly-marked paths is not for everyone, although I find it exhilarating.   Asking others to walk down those paths is far less comfortable but here in the relatively safe virtual world, with material that is intended to be whimsical and inconsequential, the risk is slim.  Even so, I’ve been surprised at the impact I’ve had.

I have often been in positions of influence.  I have been and in some cases still am: an older sister, a friend, a manager, a community organizer, a caretaker.  Heck, even a pet owner.  All of these positions confer upon one authority and power; responsibility and accountability.  The mantle of leadership has not always rested comfortably upon me (and the mantle of followership chafes even more).  I know too much about the perils of following.  I’ve looked at that cloud from both sides now, from up and down … you know the rest.  The all-too human tendency is to accept leadership blindly, especially when it is offered by someone charismatic, persuasive and confident.  In extreme cases, to follow a leader like that is to put your very life and soul into someone else’s hands. One relies on his or her benevolence and purity of motive.  In a corporate setting, such as the one I was in, the chance of running in to a truly destructive, sociopathic leader is relatively rare, and there are usually checks and balances that prevent a leader like that–even on a small scale–from attaining a position of real power.

Usually, but not always.

And so, what do we do when we encounter a leader, or leaders, like that?  Leaders whose lust for power overshadows their capacity to behave with integrity, or who never had the capacity for it in the first place.  This is what I’m asking myself now, and being as clear-sighted and analytical as possible in formulating my response.

I have always led by example; I have tried to lead with authenticity and in good faith.  Whatever success I’ve had in bringing people along on the journey has been because of the honesty and integrity* I tried always to keep at the forefront of my mind as I performed the role. I have tried to be fully conscious of my influence as a leader.  I recognize now, however, that I failed in one central and critical aspect of leadership, and that failure was founded on a dislike of conflict so intense that I sacrificed my common sense and my own values to it.

* as another aside, integrity is such an interesting word and concept.  There is no adjective or adverb.  One’s acts cannot be “integrous”.  One cannot behave “integrously”.  It is a noun and a noun alone–a thing of such substance and import as to occupy physical space .  You must “have it” like you do an organ, like a lung or a pancreas.  You behave “with it”–as intimate but independent as a lover.

Alexander Hamilton said:  “Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.” One could even say, those who stand for nothing, follow anything.  Faced with a leader who was manipulative, egocentric, a pathological liar and a bully, I decided to stand as a buffer between that malignant force and my team.  Instead of the harder (impossible) task of confronting her or challenging her, I was able to rationalize my enabling behaviour.  I believed, arrogantly but not incorrectly, that I understood her better and therefore could manage her better.  I suppressed my own discomfort and in its place, nurtured an, albeit well-intentioned, ultimately futile belief that I could protect others from her.  I allowed my fear of conflict to triumph over the courage of my convictions–because at some level, I didn’t have any.  My integrity was compromised because–by definition–to behave with integrity is to behave in accordance with ethical principles.

It took me about two years too long to realize that not only was I sacrificing myself, but in fact I was setting an example that I wouldn’t want others to follow.  Regaining some sense of proportion, finally reaching a point where the compromise to my values was causing more anxiety than my fear of the unknown or of the conflict that would inevitably occur were I to take a real stand, I took action.  Instead of standing as a barrier, I fled … which even as I write it sounds like I backed down or gave up or abdicated some responsibility, when in fact I took myself out of an unwinnable fight in order to survive.  I surrendered so I wouldn’t be defeated.

As I watch people leave the department I once led, I realize that–indirectly–I have taken people down another crooked, unmarked path.  Yes, their choice to take the walk and their reasons for doing so are entirely their own, but I provided them with an example that turned into an option.  It reinforces for me the ripple effect our actions and our words have on the world.  Eccentric Muse-The Blog was intended to offer up my random journeys so others could enjoy and experience them vicariously and it will continue to do that.  Now, though, as I contemplate my real-world actions and their real-world meanings and consequences, I am aware that my musings have the potential to offer something more by way of example, and I intend to write with that in mind.

February 8, 2010 at 5:39 pm 2 comments

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