Saturday, April 08, 2017

To all the dogs I've loved

I can’t imagine what the dogs that run into Paul and I must think of us these days, trailing what must be bits of the scent of a dozen or more dogs on us at this point. Our itinerant way of life this past year has brought us many animal companions for periods of intimate living, and I’m sure it doesn’t all come out in the wash.
    It’s been quite the animal-companion year since returning to the Island last May: standard poodle; Chinese crested hairless; Australian shepherd; Chihuahua; pug mix; poodle mix; shepherd mix; fluffy-dog mix; Schnauzer mix. Cats that live indoors. Cats that live outside. Alpacas, a llama and 28 chickens. We’ve gotten to know so many animals in the intimacy of their own homes.
    You definitely end up sharing a lot of experiences with animals when you look after other people’s pets. I’ve slept with dogs I barely knew. All of us learn each other’s food quirks, poo quirks, good and bad habits and lines in the sand in very short order. It’s a bit like a longish fling, where both of you know it’s not going to last and so just plunge in head-long.
    As you might expect, people’s pets are often quite unsettled initially to find you moving into their home. Imagine how any of us would feel if a stranger announced herself at our door and set about doing things differently. Meanwhile, your own beloved pack members have inexplicably flown the coop. Any animal would be weirded out by that turn of events. 
    But here’s the glorious secret about dogs and cats: As long as you start right in consistently feeding them, petting them, treating them kindly and taking them for fun walks, you’re going to be their good pal in about two days. They still love their owners the most, of course, but you will be a fondly regarded substitute, like a favourite relative who can be counted on to sneak you a raw marrow bone once in a while, throw in an extra scoop of kibble, take you on a ramble up Mount Doug.

(The one glaring exception is our friend Kim and Adrian’s cat Joe, who we have yet to see in any of our stays and know only for his waste in the litter box and gradually emptying kibble dish. I accused Kim of making Joe up, but other housesitters then posted Facebook pictures of the elusive cat happily receiving their cuddles. Knife in the heart, Joe.)
    I’ve always loved all dogs, but it was our two-plus years in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, that got me thinking about them in a completely different way.
    The small gated courtyard at our house there turned out to be a refuge for medium-sized, skinny stray dogs - usually nursing females– of a size that could squeeze through the bars and take a break from the scene in the cool of our patio. Naturally, we set out food and water, which brought even more, although almost everyone initially turned up their nose at dog kibble. (I used to make chicken gizzard toppings to lure our fussy visitors into eating dog food.)
With nobody but themselves to govern their lives, the dogs socialized themselves. They knew which streets to walk on, which dogs and humans to give a wide berth to.  They’d figured out that battling over nothing was a tremendous waste of energy in a town that never had enough for a dog to eat, and so fought with each other on only the rarest of occasions.
    As for humans, virtually all of the dogs categorized people as beings that were best mistrusted but at the same time coveted, because they had the food. So once a Copan street dog trusted you enough to let you touch it, the dog was yours, a realization that brought me all kinds of guilt when we came back to Canada and could bring only one dog back.
    I also saw that many of the dogs loved the freedom of street life, some even more than they loved the certainty of a comfortable home. A domesticated dog in a pet-loving society like ours gets a longer, safer and more consistent life out of the deal, but that’s not to deny the appeal of a life of genuine freedom and all the food-laden garbage cans a dog can toss in a night.
    A Canadian dog lives a life far removed from that of a Copan street dog, which on top of going hungry also exists in a culture that doesn’t do dog worship. But Adored Pet status does mean giving up freedom. My favourite times with other people’s dogs are when the dogs and I go off on a mild adventure to someplace where they can sniff, dig, and look completely excited to be alive while enjoying the illusion that nobody's the boss of them.
The long off-leash foray through the forest. Bounding along a rocky shore. The chance to check out other dogs without your human getting overly involved. The pleasure of a dog treat from a stranger’s coat pocket. A taste of the wild life.
    And then home shortly after to a warm bed, good food and maybe even a free lap. Who’s going to argue with that?

Friday, February 17, 2017

May we be bent but not broken by the grief and despair of a post-Trump world

    Ever since the election of Donald Trump three months ago, it's like I can't get my feet underneath me. I’m not even sure what I mean by that – just that it’s like having firm ground that you’ve always stood on suddenly rocking beneath you, shaking up everything you thought you knew.
    On top of that, my mother died Jan. 7. The impact was something the same. Both things amounted to the painful destruction of fundamental beliefs that I built my life on.
    In the case of Trump, I realized with his election that contrary to what I’d thought, we weren’t getting better as a society - that all the positive social and cultural changes I’ve seen in my lifetime in North American society aren’t real changes at all, because a frightening percentage of the public is just aching to hate somebody as a stand-in for all the things that haven’t gone right in their own lives.
    In the case of my mother, I lost the one person who could always be counted on to show up for me my entire life. Between her and Trump, it ended up being a one-two combination that has really knocked me off my game.
    I think it’s a type of broken heart, this feeling. I feel it like a psychic illness, making me huddle into myself and minimize contact with the outside world. All the things I cared about passionately just three short months ago now feel pointless, because the solid ground that I thought we were building on for social change turned out to be shifting sand.
    I’m aware that I have to get through this slump. Otherwise, I risk becoming one of those people who end up bitter and chronically sad. I don’t yet know what “getting well” will entail, but figure I’ll know it when I feel it. I’m counting on spring.
    I was bound to enter a period of mourning after Mom died, but I’m pretty sure the Trump election has actually been the bigger blow to my psyche. My mother’s death was sad but inevitable, after all, while the ascendancy of Trump is a horrifying development of global magnitude.
    It would be handy at times like this to be able to disconnect from the world and just shut the door on all the bits of news and “alternate facts” contributing to this paralyzing state of low-level despair. Could I just turn away from it all and live in happy ignorance?
    Alas, not only would my inner journalist never tolerate such a thing, I am a mother and grandmother, with an extended family of people I care about. If nothing else, I must find hope again so I can continue the fight and not just crumple to the ground under the weight of all the ugliness. I did not have children so that they could live on a planet in which a man like Donald Trump runs a major civilized nation.
    One of the things I liked best about living and working in Central America is the feeling of being in countries that were on their way up. They’re not there yet, but they’re working on it. There was always such a sense of possibility.
    In the U.S., and at times in Canada, it feels to me like we’ve peaked and are on our way down. Our laws and fancy declarations still make us appear like we’re committed, but a lot of times it feels like we’re devolving. And while people like me have been thinking that the goal was to build an ever more inclusive, tolerant and equal society, it’s clear now that there are a whole lot of people who aren’t like me.
    This is particularly true in the United States, though not exclusively. (We will not soon forget the former Harper government’s promise of a “Barbaric Cultural Practices” hotline.) I do understand the righteous rage that fuelled the U.S. election upset, if not the dangerous clown that the populace wrongly thought would be their saviour. There has been a big price to pay for these last 30 or so years of political drift toward global markets, fewer taxes, and increasingly self-interested governments that aren’t concerned with growing inequality because they’re always the ones on top no matter what.
    Anyway. I have nothing but words at the moment, and we all know now that all the words in the world don’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. These days I feel like I have nothing more to say, and that I’d be better off to just go bird-watching or for long walks with somebody’s dog or small child, talking about nothing more than the seaweed at the shoreline or the snow in the trees. But I think that’s probably just a part of this grief.
    I know there are many other people out there who are as affected by Trump’s election as I am. I feel sure our energies are going to find each other one day soon and lift us out of this ennui. I think I need a good old-fashioned protest – a sign in my hand, a whole lot of people in the street to remind me that yes, we stand up for ourselves when challenged.
    Two things I know: I won’t always be sad; and I am a hopeless optimist, a genetic characteristic that can’t be beaten out of me even by the likes of Trump. This too shall pass.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

U.S. is getting sicker in all ways

I find my eyes turned southward more often these days, hardly surprising given that each day brings some new and usually revolting turn of events in the troubled U.S. (Today: Donald Trump picks Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whose state is currently suing the Environmental Protection Agency, to head the EPA).

But today's news brought unsettling news of another kind for Americans: Their life expectancy fell in 2015 for the first time in more than 20 years. And what marks this decline as different from the last one in 1993 is that it came after three years of flat-lined life expectancy - unusual in itself given that in the last 50 years, U.S. life expectancy has tended up until now to increase each year.

Overall life expectancy is now 78.8 in the U.S. Break that 0.1 per cent drop down and what it means in real terms is that Americans are now living one month less on average - and if they're men, two months less.

While the thought of living one month less may not seem like a troubling detail in the grand scheme of a life, it's the demographic trends and the  kinds of things that are killing Americans that ought to be sending up the red flags. Death rates have risen for eight of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S.: Heart disease (0.9% rise), chronic lower respiratory diseases (2.7%), unintentional injuries (6.7%), stroke (3%), Alzheimer's disease (15.7%), diabetes (1.9%), kidney disease (1.5%) and suicide (2.3%).

A number of those eight causes are related to health conditions that have been on the rise year after year in the States. Diabetes rates are soaring; some 29 million Americans now have the chronic disease - more than nine per cent of the population - compared to 1.6 million in 1958. More than 95 per cent of those cases involve Type 2 diabetes, which is caused by lifestyle-related issues such as obesity and insufficient exercise.

Stroke rates have fallen among older Americans, but risen among younger ones. Americans born between 1965-74 - Generation X - have a 43 per cent higher chance of having a stroke than do Americans born 20 years earlier (1945-54) during what health researchers have dubbed "The Golden Generation."

And if all that isn't alarming enough, 2015 also brought a startling 11.4 per cent rise in accidental deaths of babies under the age of one. The majority died due to suffocation or accidental strangulation in their beds. In the BBC piece I linked to higher in this post, the medical director at Northwell Health's Huntington Hospital in New York said accidental deaths include car crashes, falls, suffocation and fires, but linked the rise in accidental infant deaths to "social stressors" such as financial pressures and addiction.

"The dramatic upswing in the use of opiates and narcotic use across our country is potentially a big factor in driving a phenomenon like accidental injury," he said. Like Canada, the U.S. has seen a staggering rise in opiate use and overdose deaths in the last few years, with a record 28,000 Americans dead from opiate overdoses in 2014 alone. (And check out the rising number of deaths from prescription drugs - frightening.)

The depth of the problems become even clearer when you look at how American health compares to health in other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) It now ranks 28th out of 45 countries - below the Czech Republic, Chile and Costa Rica.

Sadly, all the wealth in the world can't buy the U.S. out of this crisis. Its health-care costs per capita are among the highest in the world at $9,403, more than double the OECD average of $4,735. Next time someone tries to pitch you on the benefits of a privatized health-care system, remind them of that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Is the lure of authoritarianism what got Trump elected?

I'm feeling rattled by Facebook, no longer sure if there's any point in sharing serious things there. It was the Trump election that did me in - things just got too weird. But then I see a story like this and I want to share it with people, because it's so damn interesting, so what can I do? When I want to be able to find something that I think is important enough that I'll probably want to track it down later when it's all coming true, I post it here.

The March 2016 piece in Vox  posits the theory that the U.S. is experiencing a rise in authoritarianism among its citizens, and that a guy like Donald Trump was pretty much the dream candidate for a period in time when this authoritarian tendency happens to be in full bloom.

"Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force,"notes the article. 

"They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians' fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms. A candidate like Donald Trump."

As you'll see in the piece, the people trying to figure out how to measure degrees of authoritarianism went with parenting questions. I've got no clue whether that's a valid comparison, but at the very least it does sort respondents into categories of people who think one way or the other. They're quite profound questions when you get to thinking about how you might answer them yourself as a parent.

Read the piece and weep, I guess. Personally, I'd hoped human rights, mutual respect and informed decision-making would get a longer run at being important issues, but things are not looking good for that line of thinking. I'm still struggling to know what to do about any of this, other than to talk about it with literally every person I've come in contact with since Trump got elected. I'm desperate to find pieces that help me understand at least a little more about how this can be happening, and this Vox piece was one of them. 

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Information dumps as a tool to smother dissent

    This feels like an important piece. It's a New York Times commentary from Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science who writes for the Times on occasion.
    Her point is that massive information dumps like the ones WikiLeaks is known for, one of which is currently making life miserable for U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, only look like strikes for freedom. In fact, they are tools for smothering dissent, says Tufekci. 
    "This method is so common in Russia and the former Soviet states that it has a name: kompromat, releasing compromising material against political opponents," she writes.
    "Emails of dissidents are hacked, their houses bugged, the activities in their bedrooms videotaped, and the material made public to embarrass and intimidate people whose politics displeases the powerful. Kompromat does not have to go after every single dissident to work: If you know that getting near politics means that your personal privacy may be destroyed, you will understandably stay away."
     Tufecki also notes the vast amount of collateral damage that a massive information dump causes. It's not just Hillary Clinton who is suffering. "Demanding transparency from the powerful is not a right to see every single private email anyone in a position of power ever sent or received. WikiLeaks, for example, gleefully tweeted to its millions of followers that a Clinton Foundation employee had attempted suicide; news outlets repeated the report."
     So yes, we live in an age where information is "free" in unprecedented ways. But what information? Made public by who, and for what purpose? Say what you will about mainstream media, but they did used to pay attention to such things. The wild and woolly world of wide-open public journalism has no such ethical base.