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. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Still not sure whether climate change is real? Come to Nicaragua


   
Without irrigation, small farmers in dry regions like
Terrabona, Nicaragua wouldn't have had any crops in the last 3 years.
A dry summer in Canada means our lawns turn brown. A dry summer in parts of Nicaragua means dead livestock and families on the edge pushed into full-on disaster. 

    It's been during these last four-plus years living and working here in Central America that I've gone from being passingly interested in the concept of climate change as a potential future threat, to being fully engaged and very alarmed by the impact that it's having right now in countries like this one, especially for farming families with few resources.
    A Cuso International delegation from Canada is in the country right now touring projects that Cuso supports through its volunteer placements. I went out on a field trip with some of the Canadian visitors this week to show them a project that my organization FEMUPROCAN has in the north with women’s farming cooperatives around Terrabona, Matagalpa.
    The region is in the fourth year of a devastating drought. In all of 2015, rain fell just twice. Not a drop has fallen yet this year. Desperate local farmers are counting down the days until mid-May, which is when the rainy season always used to start, and praying that this year it finally does.
    The trip into the village of Los Mangitos on Monday was almost apocalyptic in its dryness: Shades of brown in all directions, leafless trees, dust layered on everything. Here and there, groups of skinny cows and horses clustered around tiny bits of greenery that were the last remnants of anything edible in the arid landscape.
    The project we were visiting is a simple irrigation system installed three years ago with the financial and technical help of FEMUPROCAN, a federation of 73 women’s farming cooperatives in Nicaragua. (I do communications work for them as a Cuso cooperante.) The system pumps water from an underground aquifer to irrigate a 1.5-hectare plot owned by Ricarda Mairena and her family, transforming barren land into cool, green fields of tomatoes, corn and the pale, long-necked squash the Nicaraguans call pipian.
The aquifer is still producing, but the water level has fallen
dramatically after 3 years of drought. 
    And for three years, things have gone pretty well. Irrigation lets the family farm year-round rather than only during the brief three months of “winter,” the wet season. That has substantially boosted their food security and income, especially given that there hasn’t even been a real wet season since 2012. The commercial produce buyers that Nicaraguans know as intermediarios now pass through the village regularly, picking up produce from Ricarda to sell at the public market in Managua.
    But one more year without a wet season would be disastrous, says the family. They’re scared by how low the water level is in their well these days, and scared by the absence of pasture for their 5 cows. The animals are getting by on corn husks and spent tomato plants these days, at least until the sorghum is ready to be harvested.
    The 24 families that live around Ricarda’s farm are at least still getting drinking water from the municipality, once every day and a half. In a neighbouring village, no one has had water in their households for five months. The nearest community well is a kilometre away.
    A fellow Cuso volunteer in the north told me last week of families in one village outside of Esteli that are having to get by on deliveries of five litres of water every five days. Water for drinking, animal care, cleaning, bathing, cooking – all of it has to come out of those precious five litres.
    Nicaragua counts on small farmers to produce much of its food. But many women farmers associated with my organization aren’t even sure whether to plant anymore, as investing in seed or agreeing to rent farm land for what ultimately ends up being a failed crop can sink a family. Farming is a low-margin undertaking at the best of times, and a bit like tying a rock to your ankle and jumping into the sea in these years when the traditional rainy season can’t be counted on.
Producer Ricarda Mairena grows sorghum as a
"living barrier"at the edges of her gardens, both to
reduce pest invasions and produce feed for her 5 cows.
    These are desperate days, in other words. Down in the south, commercial banana plantations are dying for lack of water, with only the ones planted nearest to massive Lake Nicaragua able to survive. Water levels in the lake itself are significantly lower than usual, and the river that the lake drains into along the Costa Rican border is so low that local fishermen can’t get their boats out.
    In the municipality of Terrabona where Ricarda has her farm, locals believe that there are vast quantities of underground water waiting to be tapped into. FEMUPROCAN’s financial support for the bricks, mortar, pumps and large quantity of tubing and hoses that are essential to even the simplest irrigation system has been warmly received by women farmers because of that belief, and so far the wells that do exist are still producing.  Ricarda’s family is in the process of digging a second one.
    But even aquifers need to catch a break sometimes. The proliferation of heavily irrigated commercial tobacco-growing enterprises in the area make me wonder if anyone has studied how much underground water is actually available. Elsewhere in the country, treasured waterfalls in protected areas are drying up due to unregulated upstream water use and the lack of rain.
    An acquaintance from back in Canada commented to me a couple weeks ago that he still wasn’t sure “whether to believe all this climate-change stuff.” Any doubters, come on down. It’s real and scary in lands like this one, with so much more at stake than nice green lawns. 

Thanks for supporting our work in Central America with a donation to Cuso International. Here's our fundraising site. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Hard lessons from the Ghomeshi trial

     As news of the Jian Ghomeshi verdict started coming out this week, I felt like a human version of those three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil - all stopped up so I wouldn't have to hear what was coming.
     I'd had a bad feeling about where things were going from the moment that the first witness was eviscerated by the defence lawyer about her behaviour after the alleged assault.
     The witnesses, like me, didn't remember things they'd done 13 years earlier, and clearly weren't prepared to have those things flung back at them in detail by the defence lawyer with the worst light possible shining on them.
     I don't know why they weren't warned in advance that unlike other crimes, a sexual assault allegation means everybody's going to be scrutinizing your behaviours before and after, looking for evidence that you're a lying slut. But the trial has certainly been a good reminder of that. We like our victims of sexual assault to be snow white, and immune to the complex feelings that come when you're assaulted by someone that you thought liked you.
    They also weren't prepared to go up against a man who obviously knew there might be a day in the distant future when the women he assaulted would disagree with his version of events, and so kept every email, every note, every easily misinterpreted thing that people say in the oh-so-complicated circumstances of being struck in the face or choked by celebrities they'd been attracted to.
     "I’ve never felt so bad about being myself than I do now," witness Lucy DeCoutere told Chatelaine magazine this week. Could there be a sadder statement than that about how well our court system serves victims of sexual assault?
     Read this post-verdict piece from Witness No. 1 and weep. The things this woman wishes she'd known before bringing her allegations are things that virtually none of us know. Most of us would come to the court system with nothing more but a few episodes of Law and Order to prepare us, and perhaps naively thinking that being a victim gives you some sort of protection from the violence of a criminal trial.
     Why is that? Why do we wring our hands about doing something about sexual assault - the vast majority of which happens at the hands of people we have invited to come closer, who we've initially given consent to, thus making things complicated and unclear from the outset  - yet still talk so little about what awaits people when they dare to bring charges?
     Ah, but now we're all quite a bit clearer about that last point. The Ghomeshi verdict hasn't brought any sense of resolution, but it did bring a crystal-clear focus on how inadequate our justice system is in handling complex cases of intimacy gone off the rails, especially when the accused is so very, very aware of masking his violent behaviours through the artifice of consent.
     The only good thing to come out of this is the web site that one of the witnesses has now launched, comingforward.ca. She told Chatelaine she hopes the site will help survivors of sexual assault "find some guidance before going to police and taking the stand.
     "Right now, there’s nowhere to look all of that up, and no one to talk to," she said in the interview. "I wish I’d known all of that from the minute I walked into the police station. But I still think — as horrible as the system is — more people have to come forward. If everyone stays quiet, it’s never going to change."
 
Find Canadian sexual assault statistics here.
     

Thursday, March 03, 2016

When all the smoke clears and you see

The median family, before the little girl on the right broke her leg
     I’m just back in Nicaragua after a couple of weeks in Canada hanging out with my family, and going through one of those re-entry things where I’m suddenly reawakened to the many sad stories in Managua.
      Mostly, people cope down here, and with a smile on their face. But when you re-enter after two weeks of happy family time with all your healthy, well-fed and extremely well-tended grandchildren and their many friends, there can be this brief period where you see the place as it compares to where you just came from. And that can really get you down.
     First thing I saw after I hailed a cab near the airport Wednesday night was a motorcycle accident in which the stunned driver sitting on the roadside appeared to have his lower leg nearly severed. He sat bleeding and in shock as a huge crowd of people tried to wave down people with trucks and vans who could take him to hospital.
     The ambulance will come, my taxi driver assured me. But all I could think of was the legion of first responders who would have been all over that guy back in my land. And what will happen to him once the ambulance comes? There are good hospitals in Nicaragua, and the people tell me there are decent public ones. But the life of a young Nicaraguan with a serious leg injury and a long recovery ahead of him will be difficult well after the hospital work is done.
     And how will he work? Because if he can’t, there’s nothing for him other than to depend on his family to help him. There’s a form of social security here for people of a certain age who have had many years of steady employment in the right kind of jobs, but other than that there is very little for anyone who can’t pay their own way. No worker’s comp, no unemployment insurance, no income assistance, no special help for people with disabilities. I suspect we sometimes forget that ending global poverty isn’t just about wages and access to work, it’s about state-managed social support and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of all citizens.
     So that leads me to my next sad story, of a four-year-old girl with a broken leg who begs with her mother in the median near one of the malls not far from our house. I met the family when I took their photo playing Monopoly on the street, and now that I know where they hang out, I am finding them in my view much more often.
      I brought some Value Village toys back for the kids from Canada. There are four of them, and they look to me to be roughly ages 13, 11, 8 and 4. They live near the bus station down the road. I think the oldest three go to school, but the mom is always on the median until about 5 p.m. with the youngest one, who broke her leg in some accident while under her aunt’s watch, the mother tells me. The mother has the girl on her knee and an empty paper coffee cup in her hand, hoping the motorists will toss a few c√≥rdobas her way.
     The girl is on her third full-leg cast. I feel like it’s taking really long, and today she looked quite listless and jaundiced. But unless it’s someone like me who steps up – and what exactly am I even proposing to do? – a family like that will just have to go along and see where it all ends up. They will accept the care they’re given and get by as they can, even if the next generation of median beggar is being born right at this moment, inside a little four-year-old girl who at this moment has a broken leg that just won’t heal.
     OK, so now imagine that whole scene again if they lived in Canada. And there’s the sad moment right there. It wouldn’t happen that way in Canada. But it does in Nicaragua and around the world, and sometimes it just gets me to see such a blatant statement of how unfair life can be.
     A good Canadian can end up paralyzed by Western guilt and pity at moments like that. But really, a better reaction would be to take the hit of sadness, think about how a society even begins to change some of that stuff, and then point a little well-aimed wealth from richer countries toward getting all of that happening in countries that are struggling.
     As for you and me, I guess our role is to elect governments that feel the same way while opening our eyes to the quixotic and cruel ways of the world, and doing what we can when we see a problem unfolding in front of us. Act locally, think globally.
          Because if all we do is fix our own country, we leave a whole lot of people behind solely because they were born in the wrong time, wrong country. What with all of us dependent on the other in so many ways in this modern world, that’s got to change. “Somebody has to do something about that, and it’s incredibly pathetic that it has to be us,” as Jerry Garcia once said.
     Anyway. Go hug a happy child – yours or someone else’s – and thank your lucky stars you are a Canadian in 2016. Then maybe just let the sadness come for a few hours and see what it tells you to do. That's what I'm going to do.