Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Cranky in Paradise: How life in a fairly perfect place makes us angry


     I felt a quick flash of annoyance during a swim this past weekend at Thetis Lake when a group of young people on a raft of floaties cranked up their music a little too much. I then felt an immediate and sobering flash of alarm that a bunch of mild-mannered young people having a little fun in the sun had annoyed me.
     Could it be that Cranky Capital Regionite Syndrome is already upon me, a mere three months after arriving back on the Island? Please say it ain’t so.
     That pervasive air of easy annoyability that has always characterized CCRS in the region has been wonderful to get away from these last four and a half years in Central America. I thought I’d put it away forever at this point, but now I see that it has just been lying in wait for me back on the Island.
     It’s all got me thinking hard about what that cultural state of annoyance is really about. Why is it that I never got jangled by all the unpredictable happenings of daily life in Central America –noise, smells, traffic, gaping holes in the sidewalk, garbage, a constant sense that any crazy thing could happen at any moment – yet I come back here and find myself bugged by minor stuff?
     I’m not alone. I see motorists yelling out the window at each other over perceived infractions that not only didn’t cause an accident, but probably wouldn’t have even if imagined through to their low-impact conclusion. I see genuine fear in dog owners’ eyes when their unleashed dogs come bounding toward me and their owners brace for yet another tight-lipped lecture about leash laws and controlling your animal.
     What is it about this place? Why does it feel like we're looking for reasons to be angry at someone for something? My sense of it is that we have expectations of how our perfect day will go, and any breach in the plan feels like a personal affront. We’ve come to believe that with enough regulation, rule and law, citizens can be guaranteed a day where nothing untoward happens to them.
     Everybody’s going to drive exactly right. All bylaws will be observed. No dog poo will adhere to your shoe. The peaceful day at the lake you’re imagining will proceed exactly as you had hoped, and never mind that all the other people sharing the rocks with you have arrived at the same lake on the same day with completely different expectations of how the day will go.
      I guess with the bar set that high, we’re bound to end up cranky when life gets in the way of our elevated expectations for our day. Evidence of our pissed-offedness is everywhere: We shake our fists; bristle at our neighbour’s poor boulevard management; rap loudly on the hoods of cars stopped too close to a crosswalk; make angry phone calls to whatever regulatory body we think should be doing something.
     In countries like Honduras and Nicaragua, where my spouse and I have been doing long-term volunteer stints with Cuso International, there’s so little regulation that all bets of a perfect day are completely off. You don’t even bother thinking that way. You just step out the door and try to stay prepared for what might happen next. I’m not suggesting a war-zone scene or anything truly dangerous, just an environment that laughs at anyone’s expectations of a managed experience.
     The Victoria experience imagines that through regulation and law, we can control the environment to create a pleasant space for all, where unpleasant surprises are kept to a minimum. I think of it as a very European way of doing things. (I particularly appreciate such an ordered culture whenever I go bike-riding, an activity so risky in Central America that I wouldn’t dream of doing it there.)
     In Central America, it’s the environment that’s in control. You enter it knowing that you are about to have whatever experience it’s delivering that day, and that your wish to have a managed experience is neither here nor there.
     You’re going to walk past speakers so loud and distorted they’ll make your ears hurt. You’re going to step in garbage. You’re going to enter every crosswalk knowing it represents nothing more than white lines painted on pavement. You just have to hope that everything turns out OK, but there’s no saying that it will. (Guess that’s why religion is popular in such cultures.)
     And so you relax, genuinely relax, because you know there’s nothing you can do about any of it. Far from feeling hopeless, it feels freeing. You let go of every expectation and just go where the day takes you. A dozen things happen on your daily walk to work that would annoy the hell out of you back in Victoria, but you carry on without a flinch.
     I’m not saying that their way is better than ours. I do like that cars stop for me here in Victoria, and that green space is everywhere. I like not seeing garbage in the street. I like not having to dodge motorcycles driving down the sidewalk, or eye up every building I walk past for the possibility of a rusty metal pole sticking out of it at head height. I like knowing that if I wanted to, I could buy a small house on a quiet street with no fear that a five-storey, all-night disco might open next door in the following month.
     I guess that means I’m not yet a full-on libertarian. But please, please, save me from CCRS. I don’t want to be that boring old lady railing against noisy kids at the lake and unleashed dogs on my street. I pledge here and now to stand on guard against any creeping sense of entitlement, to reject the (admittedly alluring) notion that the world ought to mould itself to my needs. Yes, my body is living in Victoria right now, but I will fight to keep my spirit Central American.
     Party on, gentle Thetis teens.


Friday, July 22, 2016

On the road again: My writing goes wandering

Delighted to have my writing appearing on other sites every now and then, the most recent examples being in the online B.C. newspaper The Tyee and as a guest blogger on the web site Naked Truth run by self-described "anarchist stripper mom" Annie Temple.

Hope you'll check them out! The piece I wrote for The Tyee grew out of some conversations I had this week about my own experiences with the people who these days reveal themselves as nasty internet trolls, like the kind who have shouted down actor Leslie Jones with the worst racist, misogynist, super-ugly stuff.

And the piece at Naked Truth builds on an earlier blog post I did about the deliberate campaign to silence adult sex workers by building a myth of trafficking and exploitation around them.

As you'll see in my piece - and I've included all my sources at the bottom of the piece to encourage readers to see a little more clearly - trafficking is being manipulated into a far bigger issue than it actually is. This is not being done as a means to draw scant public attention to an important issue, but rather as a political campaign against adult, consenting sex workers that's high on emotion and really low on fact.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

When good words go bad: The usurping of trafficking as a weapon against sex workers

Were I a cartoon character, I expect I'd have big red flags and maybe some small explosions coming out of my head these days after reading the Ontario government's news release this week about its big new anti-trafficking initiative.

I'm all for ending trafficking, of course. But the issue is increasingly emerging as some kind of stealth instrument for attacking people working in the sex industry, so I've learned to read every announcement of new anti-trafficking measures in a state of acute hyper-vigilance for what's really being said.

The Ontario news release offers some worthy examples of what I'm talking about. Scroll down to the "Quick Facts" in the release and you'll see this one:

"In many cases of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, trafficked persons may develop 'trauma bonds' with their traffickers, and may not view themselves as victims. As such, human trafficking is believed to be a vastly underreported crime."

Once upon a time, I would have read a paragraph like that and thought, yeah, that has the ring of truth. But having seen repeatedly just how expertly the movement that hates the existence of sex work uses the hot-button trafficking issue to whip up political support against the adult sex industry, I read it with a whole other set of eyes now. 

Let's consider "trauma bonds," for instance. That's a phrase coined 20 years ago by U.S. author Patrick Carnes to describe people who stay in exploitive relationships even when it's hurting them. It's roughly comparable as a term to Stockholm Syndrome, named for a 1973 bank robbery in Sweden in which several kidnapped bank employees grew emotionally attached to their kidnappers and even rejected help at one point so the kidnappers wouldn't get hurt. 

And yeah, those kinds of things exist. But when you're a jumpy sex-workers' rights type looking for where the next surprise assault is going to come from, you read a paragraph like that and see it as a weapon, the perfect tool for silencing sex workers still in the industry who might have something positive - or at least neutral - to say about their profession. It lays the groundwork to dismiss anything that a sex worker says in defence of the industry or his or her role in it as nothing more than the tragic thinking of someone too bonded to their captors to know how traumatized they are. 

It also lets trafficking be as big a problem as it needs to be for political purposes with no proof required, because we've established that it's "vastly underreported" and thus can't be judged on the seriously skimpy statistics that actually exist. It justifies vast sums and airy-fairy action plans for an issue that in Canada, represents 0.0004 per cent of the crimes reported annually in the country. (Sources here and here, but I did the math.) 

Add this to the fact that trafficking is already a crime in which authorities have the right to deem that you are trafficked even if you disagree, and you can see where this could go - especially in the hands of those who believe their right to loathe that sex work exists trumps the rights of sex workers to safer workplaces and basic rights. 

I browsed a lot of sites yesterday looking for hard facts about trafficking in Canada and the U.S., and came away unsettled by just how little facts there are in any of the discussions. Hyperbole and high emotion are the rule anytime that trafficking gets mentioned. When you get this many police initiatives, community groups, NGOs and government departments dependent on sustaining the trafficking narrative in order to keep the funding coming, the public conversation gets pretty dramatic, stats or not. 

I finally found some real numbers in the U.S. State Department's 2015 report on trafficking, which is way clearer about the figures on trafficking in Canada than anything I ever found among our own government's materials. As of 2015, there have been 85 convictions for trafficking-related crimes in the history of Canada, and one conviction - later overturned - under the Immigration Refugee and Protection Act. (Update as of July 7: Simon Fraser University Professor and researcher Tamara O'Doherty notes that  the majority of those convictions have not used Canada's trafficking laws, but rather the sex-work laws. The old "living off the avails" charge is now being publicly presented as being about trafficking.)

I'm a supporter of genuine initiatives that prevent and stop trafficking. Nobody should be exploited, abused, coerced or taken advantage of. If Canada is truly a "Tier 1" country when it comes to trafficking, let's address that. (Though I struggle to see how you could establish that with the scarce statistics that currently exist.)

But the word is being twisted. It's being stretched far beyond its boundaries to include people who are in no way trafficked, and hammered down tight over sex workers who dare to talk about rights rather than rescue. It has become a morality-based weapon to shut down any public conversation on sex worker rights by setting up workers as traumatized victims too messed up by their "captors" to be worth hearing from. 

Do I sound paranoid? Well, maybe you would be too if you'd seen for yourself just how fast and loose with the facts the anti-sexwork movement is, and how effective they are at convincing decision-makers to do the stupidest, most harmful things in the name of "ending demand" in the sex industry. It's a goal that no country in the world has ever achieved in the history of humanity, and it flies in the face of considerable research establishing decriminalization as the best approach for keeping sex workers safer. But hey, who needs research when you can have rhetoric?

This movement's moral judgment guides public policy around sex work in Canada and the U.S., increasing the risk of workplace violence for tens of thousands of Canadians. It denies them agency. The right to association, and normal interactions with police. Respect. A life without fear of exposure or arrest. Access to the basic tools of civil society such as small-claims court, employment tribunals, and human rights processes. 

So yeah, down with trafficking. But please understand that much of what passes for a discussion on trafficking these days is actually a calculated, highly emotional and very well-funded campaign that aims to make it publicly palatable to silence the voices of anyone in the sex industry who won't play victim. 

Further reading:

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Should I forget who I am, please give me the music to remind me

 
     If you haven’t already seen the 2014 documentary “Alive Inside,” fire up Netflix tonight and watch it. And as soon as it’s done and you’ve mopped up what might very well be a small bucket of sad-happy tears at all the lives changed by something so small, you just might want to get started on your own music playlist.
     The documentary is about a quest to give people back their music, most especially those living with dementia in U.S. care homes.
     The film opens with a scene of a near-comatose, non-verbal old man being outfitted with a headset and iPod loaded with all his favourite music, and his instant transformation into a wide-eyed, smiling guy singing along and recalling a dozen stories from his youth. (Maybe you were one of the 2 million people who viewed the clip on YouTube?)
     Anyway, it’s an amazing scene, but there are many more equally powerful ones in the full documentary. I felt like evangelizing after I saw the film. I wanted to start calling up care homes in Canada to ask if anyone was doing something similar, and how I could help. Anyone who ran into me in the days that followed had to put up with me exhorting them to see the film.
     And then I got thinking about what songs some good-hearted person might put on my own personal playlist should the day come when I can no longer remember who I am. That kind of freaked me out.
     I mean, what if the nice people looking after me presumed that because I was a teenager in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that’s the only kind of music I want to hear? I’m sure grooving to The Night Chicago Died or Sylvia's Mother would bring a smile to my face, but being stuck until I died in the memories of my early teenhood would be its own kind of nightmare.
     If the goal is to evoke the memories of a lifetime, who but me really knows what those songs are? I’m practically like the guy in the movie “High Fidelity,” with a different signature song for each profound memory. But it’s not like I share much of that with people as a general rule. (“Hey, honey, did I ever tell you that even 45 years on, hearing Me and Mrs. Jones makes me feel nostalgic for the boy who first broke my heart?”)
    Were I to be heading into the dark night of dementia, I’m pretty sure I’ll want all the memories I can get my hands on. Which means I’d best get my list together.
     I doubt that even my kids would think to include Blue Rodeo’s Rose-Coloured Glasses, which would deny me a magical day in my late 20s when my three young kids and I were singing that song at the top of our lungs after a day on Denman Island, and I suddenly felt free for the first time in my life. No one would know to put on Bob Seger’s version of  the Tom Waits song Blind Love, which would mean I’d never go back again to those three weeks in 2013 when the bar in the scary little Moskitia town I was staying in mixed that song in with its many narco-corridos, and I felt less lonely.
     Just When I Needed You Most – my son’s first heartbreak, and an important memory for me because I realized for the first time that my own heart would be breaking right along with my children’s as life brought its cruel lessons. Murder In The City  – the song that made us laugh through our anxiety as we headed into our big Honduras adventure. One Hand In My Pocket – me and a vanload of Grade 7 girls coming back from my daughter’s field trip, stereo cranked so loud that we proudly earned a look of disapproval from a fellow motorist at a red light.
     Bizarre Love Triangle, the stripped-down Frente! version that made me cry and cry in my early days with Paul because I thought he’d put it on a mixed tape he made for me as a hint about how he felt about our relationship (when in fact, he’d just recorded a whole Unplugged album that it happened to be on). Teddy Thompson’s I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye,  because it conjures a misty morning kayaking in Saanich Inlet when I was listening to it on my headphones as geese took flight, and I paddled through the breathlessly still waters thinking that if I were making a movie of that moment, that song would be perfect for the soundtrack. Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, because my grandsons (and Paul) still love retelling the story of me hearing that song on a road trip to Idaho and mishearing the chorus as, “Grew up on Mexican hockey.”
     At any rate, you get the picture. My personal playlist is deeply personal, and in all likelihood will span all the decades of my life. So yeah, please do throw some Beatles in there, but don’t forget Sweet Cherry Wine  or Which Way You Going, Billy? Don’t forget ACDC, because nothing puts me back on the road with the 2001 Tour de Rock quicker than the distinctive opening of Thunderstruck.  Don’t forget Barbie Girl, because I know I'm going to want to think back on the sweetly astounding sight of my very serious and quiet five-year-old grandson dancing like he was possessed when he first heard that song.
     May the gods trigger someone who loves me to go carefully through whatever musical catalogue I’m keeping at the point that I start to lose myself, and find a way to give it all to me.
     Even better, they could throw in some new songs that will be the background for whatever memories I’m laying down during those intense final months or years. Nothing would make me happier than to be listening to some cool new tune when the end finally comes, and thinking to myself, “Wow, what a perfect song to remember the moment I died.”
     Now go watch “Alive Inside.” And may your greatest-life-hits list be as fun to remember as mine has been.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Taking it to the max: The life of a serial obsessionist

  
   I’ve always been mad for the rush of falling head-first into new things. It’s a habit that made my love life a bit challenging for many years, but I’m much better at channeling that intensity into more constructive pursuits now that I’m older.
     Whatever it is that I’m falling into, it’s got all my attention.  
     If it's romance, you're going to feel profoundly treasured, at least for a little while (and much longer if you're Paul). If it’s a work project, I’m going to be your dream employee, because I will think non-stop about that project from a million different angles to get it as right as possible. 
     If it’s a recreational pursuit, just accept that I'm going to be beating on a duct-tape-covered tire in the basement for a couple of years (my taiko phase). Or bringing home yet another finch for the enormous and cacophonous bird enclosure in the living room window (caged-bird phase, although damn, the baby quails were cute). Or returning from the paint store with armloads of discounted spray paints in strange colours and textures (reviving-tired-furniture phase).
     My choices haven’t always been healthy, but they’ve definitely been diverse. Body-building; “mixed-tape” CDs for every occasion and everyone I knew; photo videos for every family member’s birthday; a rather odd period when I built and decorated giant picture frames and hung the unusual creations all over the house. When an obsession’s got me, you'll know it.
     The really big obsessions drive my career choices and my romantic relationships. The lesser ones guide how I use my free time. Most last four to five years. Some are shorter but no less intense, like when I got obsessed by the sheer wrongness and stupidity of the leaky-condo scandal and could barely talk about anything else for a year and a half.
     The intensity dies down eventually for me, but no obsession goes away completely. It just assumes a less high-profile position in the hierarchy of my interests.
     I still enjoy bird-watching, for instance, but no longer feel compelled to note every single cheep and who might be making it, or to keep a stack of eight or nine bird identification books always within arm’s reach.
     I still care passionately about issues around sex work, but I no longer pin unsuspecting people to the wall at social gatherings with heated rants about why they should give a shit (well, not as often, anyway). I can drive down a Vancouver residential street now without checking every apartment for signs of moisture ingress.
     Working in journalism and communications all these years has been a perfect career fit for my obsessiveness. The work is fundamentally a series of short-term projects that really suit an immersion approach. I was very happy at the Times Colonist for 15 years because there was no shortage of new civic or social issues waiting for me to obsess over them.
     My spare-time obsessions have been more variable. My current one, which is still very much in its early heady days, is learning how to accompany myself as I sing and play the accordion.
     I’ve been through several versions of this obsession – let’s call it “Jody Experiences Music.” Performing music and singing have been life staples since long before my pre-teen cousins and I first picked up brooms to "strum" in the Saskatoon PMQs where they were living and pretended to be The Beatles. But every new manifestation is a rush.
     Just on the music front alone, I’ve been a piano teacher; singer in a band; choir accompanist; taiko performer; house-party pianist; seniors’ home entertainer; amateur opera singer (that was a particularly weird one). I spent two summers not too long ago testing out busking in Victoria, but gave it up after I realized passers-by assumed me to be a sad and desperate homeless woman left to eke out a living with my accordion.
     I’ve secretly dreamed for decades of a gig playing music to an inattentive crowd in some sleepy beachside bar somewhere in Mexico, and suspect that my current accordion/singing obsession is related to that. Last week I also caught myself wondering about joining a choir again when we’re back in B.C., or starting a strange little band dedicated to playing surprising covers in surprising ways.
     Like I say, there are dark sides to my obsessions. Just ask Times Colonist editor Dave Obee about my Andrew Yam period, which he had no choice but to endure for one long year back when I was a columnist and shared a tiny office with him. Or talk to my kids about the time when they were teenagers and I would snatch whatever food or drink they were about to consume out of their hands and ask them if they had any idea how many carbohydrates were in it.
     But mostly I’ve loved this life of serial obsessions. It drives me to learn all kinds of things I wouldn’t have thought to learn. It pushes me out of my comfort zone to have new experiences that I wouldn’t have thought to have. It helps me shed that which has lost meaning, making room for something new.
     There can be a blah period in between the end of one obsession and the start of another. I don’t like it, but it’s necessary. You need a little breathing time between the fading light of the last obsession and the dazzling brilliance of the next one. (Every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.) Plus the whole point of obsession is that it’s a surprise, which means you never see it coming.
     But then it’s there, so sweet with its promise of discovery and newness, luring me up to play the accordion in the overheated second bedroom when I ought to be working, rekindling my hopes for a late-life career as a Mexican lounge singer. And just like that, I’m in love again.