Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Size Matters - 8 Ways to Make Truly Successful Resolutions

You've probably heard the Latin expression, carpe diem, or 'seize the day' as we say it in English, and the movies would have us convinced that we should go big or go home. It seems we've rather forgotten the moral of The Tortoise and the Hare. The fact of the matter is, people cannot sustain huge energy bursts. We burn out. And this is what happens to the big resolutions we make every year when the calendar flips from one number to another. We decide we're going to work out five times a week, for an hour, compared with approximately zero hours, zero times a week. We're going to quit smoking, cold turkey. We're going to stop drinking. We're going to go back to school. We make this huge list of all the things that made us hate parts of ourselves in the past year (or more likely the last ten years, because of the likelihood we've made these resolutions before), and most of the time we can't even cross off one item at the end of the year - for that matter I don't think I ever even found my list from the previous year.

Go big or go home is alright for a two-hour movie in which we can feel all of these life-affirming emotions in one sitting, but have you ever imagined - really thought about - what it means to sustain the level of work and energy required to accomplish what is shown in these movies? The Lord of the Rings is a good example, and only comes to mind because I'm re-reading the series at the moment, and this topic comes up repeatedly in my thoughts while I'm reading. Many people these days have a hard time sitting through even one of the movies, let alone reading the book that it's supposed to be about. Now, think of the time frame that those books cover. I'll make it even easier. The Hobbit, the precursor to the series, was a story about a quest that took a year. That's right. A year. Bilbo didn't return to Bag-End for a year after he left. For a large portion of that time he was walking around or riding a pony (being too small to comfortably sit a horse).

As for The Lord of the Rings (or TLOTR for those who can't be bothered to even spell out the whole title, let alone go on their own quest - which is pretty much everyone), they were traversing some serious terrain. Anyone who has done any hiking in the mountains (which I have actually done - the Rockies in Alberta, if you're wondering) can tell you that doing anything like that for months is not bloody likely. Not even for the sorts of people who are in love with extreme sports. It's downright exhausting to go for a weekend, let alone months. As I read through these books again, and try to imagine myself doing anything like that, I know very well I'd last about a week. I would never have gotten the ring to Mordor, and would end up being partly responsible for the destruction of Middle Earth by Sauron.

Now, don't jump to the conclusion that I'm anti-resolution or anything. As a species I do feel humans are naturally geared toward doing things with anniversary dates in mind. We're a sentimental group, in general, or we wouldn't be celebrating holidays of any sort. Perhaps we wouldn't even have created a calendar. Not everyone is sentimental in that way, of course, but most of us have a soft spot for certain days of the year, be it our own birthdays, our kids' birthdays, religious occasions, or wedding anniversaries. Some of us merely look forward to a day off work.

No, what I'm trying to stress is the difference between a quest and a purpose. It's a difference in sustainability, for one thing. A quest is exhausting, and it's what we tend to set ourselves up for every year. A purpose is permanent. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that human beings should always try to better themselves. We should strive to be more than what we are. We just shouldn't be striving to be everything we aren't in a single year. Most of us aren't trying to be healthier in general. Most of us are trying not to be fat, or not to be lazy, when we attempt our insane new exercise regime - a regime that's probably both dangerous and counterproductive, especially if you aren't already an athlete. Unlike Frodo, the fate of Middle Earth is not riding on our shoulders, so it matters little in the grand scheme of things if we lose twenty pounds, and usually the only person we disappoint is ourselves.

I know, I know. So what do I suggest? It's all well and good to say something won't work, and talk about all the obstacles, rather than talk about what will work. I'll never have all the answers, but I have learned what works for me, and for most people who have managed to make real changes in their lives. To start, here's a list of suggestion (I'll try to avoid turning it into a lengthy quest of its own):
  1. Congratulate yourself on everything you accomplished in the current year.

    This is a step almost everyone forgets to take in their lives. People focus on everything that's wrong with them and their lives, and forget about all the good things they've managed to do. Did you donate to your favourite charity? Did you take a class in a subject you have an interest in? Did you learn to do something you didn't know how to do before? Are there any goals and dreams that you fulfilled, and that you're forgetting to pat yourself on the back for?

    For anyone who is a parent, there are so many things that you've likely done throughout the year that no one is giving you credit for - least of all yourself. If you kept your kids in school, out of jail, off drugs, got them into college, or at the very least kept them at home instead of turning tricks on the street, then I would bet there are plenty of things you're doing right. (Just don't get big-headed about them, because complacency is the nemesis of any parent.)

    I suppose this is similar to a gratitude journal, which seems to be all the rage these days, but a gratitude journal appears to be mostly about external things, rather than personal accomplishments, and at a time many are beating themselves up about their choices for the previous year, I think it's necessary that we stop and look at our high points.
  2. Be honest with yourself about what you'll be able to sustain for the rest of your life.

    If quitting smoking is your goal, you certainly don't want to quit for a year and go back to it. If losing weight is your goal, short-term diets do not work and neither do excessive exercise regimes when they cause injury or you burn out in a week. What behaviour can you modify to help you toward your permanent goal, and what are the steps that follow after that first one, in order to lead you there? Can you cut down on one of your daily cigarettes every week? If you can, then you might start out at a pack a day, and you'll be down to none in less than half a year.

    Can you walk for 10 minutes every day, or perhaps 20 minutes three times a week? Can you get rid of the sugar-filled drinks in your diet? Either of those two things can make a huge impact on both your health and your weight (one does not necessarily impact the other, by the way). If you lost a pound every two weeks, rather than the 5 or 10 pounds a week so many fad diets promote, you will have lost 26 pounds in a year, and it will be weight that stays off - fat that will continue to come off next year and the year after, until you're at a more svelte size. Getting rid of the refined sugar in your diet will have an amazing impact on your health and any future possibility of diabetes as well.
  3. Make actual plans, not lists.

    If your goal is to travel more, book the bloody vacation already. If you can't afford it, find out exactly how much it's going to cost you to get there and do what you want when you're there, decide when you want to take your trip, divide up the amount you need by the number of months you have until then - or, conversely, figure out how much you can save every month and divide that into your total cost, to see when it is you'll realistically be able to go.

    I already gave examples for quitting smoking, losing weight, and getting healthier. I can't list every possibility, but you get the idea. Decide what you really want out of life. Find out exactly what it will take to get there. Then make a plan to make it happen. The thing is, if you're not willing to go through with your plans, then chances are good that these things are nowhere near as important to your life as you seem to think they are, which leads me to my next point.
  4. Make sure you really know what you want.

    You need to be certain that the things you're putting on your list are truly things you want, and not just things you're throwing on there because you think you should want them. Are you actually unhealthy? Do you truly need to lose weight, or do you feel you should because one jerk told you that you'd be really pretty if you lost a little bit of weight? Are you happy and comfortable with your current furniture, or have you decided you need to replace it because of what people might think when they walk in the door?

    This is one of the few things I think Dr. Phil is spot-on about, when it comes to the reason many people have such a hard time changing - usually there's a payoff when you can't force yourself to change. There's some reason, deep down, that makes you resist that change. Sometimes it's something as simple as a fear of change, and the comfort we have in a life that's like an old pair of slippers.

    Sometimes, though, there's a damn good reason you're sabotaging your own efforts - maybe some part of you knows that you will not be happy with the new & improved life you're trying to force yourself into. Maybe you've been told all your life that you're talented at something, and that you should really do something with it, but deep down you know you would never be happy turning your hobby into a job. I was like that with my artwork. I was on the verge of signing a contract to show at a gallery in Edmonton, and I walked away from it. Partially because I knew it would keep me in a city I wasn't happy living in, and partially because I knew I would end up hating doing the artwork itself. It wasn't my passion.
  5. Learn to be happy with everything you already have.

    Now, that may sound a lot like settling, but it's not quite the same thing. The difference may be subtle, but it's important. So many of us live our lives chasing after things, and even as we're grasping them we've got our eyes on something else. Yes, it's wonderful to have goals, and achieving a worthwhile goal is an amazing feeling. Once we have, however, we're often left with a feeling of emptiness if we can't immediately come up with a new goal. Granted, most of us have more than one dream in our lives, so we're always chasing after one thing or another, which means we're unlikely to feel empty for very long - it's mostly the rich kids that end up with the permanent sense of emptiness that comes with having no purpose in life.

    Some of us may never reach an 'important' milestone in our lives, or we'll have occasional disappointments or unattainable dreams. Sometimes we set the bar so high we never even start working towards our dreams. Yet, if we are content with our everyday life, disappointments can be cushioned a great deal. Being happy with the life we're currently living can also help us to separate out the things we really want, from what we think we should want. That means focusing on the things that are working, and that we enjoy. That will mean different things for different people, but we should all stop to appreciate what we have that is already worthwhile.
  6. Don't put off your happiness until you've reached your goals.

    I don't agree with the notion of living as if you were going to die tomorrow, because I think it leads to the idea that we have to cram everything into a short period of time, and we're right back where we started - new year's resolutions that don't work because they're basically insane. If you've spent the last 20 years living a certain way, that isn't going to change in a single year. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is. However, I also don't think we should be punishing ourselves, and living less of a life just because we 'should' have done a certain thing by now.

    I don't care how fat you think you are - buy yourself some decent clothes. Believe me when I tell you that you're going to feel a whole lot better about yourself if you're wearing something that's comfortable, and that you know makes you look your best (assuming outward appearances matter at all to you - a weird thing for me to talk about, since I rarely change out of my pajamas). Even if you haven't quit smoking, that doesn't mean you can't start lifting weights, if that's what you want to do.

    I know my advice goes against the advice of many so-called experts (usually the authors of trendy books, based on new fads), who tell you to reward yourself for achieving your goals, but achieving a goal is hugely satisfactory in and of itself. If it's not, then why were you chasing that 'dream' in the first place? If you refuse to allow yourself any happiness whatsoever, because you haven't (so far) followed through on your own aspirations, you're going to be feeling very miserable pretty much constantly - a state of mind that is not the least bit conducive to achieving goals. We have to feel positive if we're going to push ourselves to keep moving toward a dream. Negative reinforcement is not the way to go. The happier you feel, the more energy you'll have to put toward whatever dreams you've chosen to fulfill.
  7. It's okay to fall off the wagon. Don't forget to give yourself credit for the work you've already done!

    Almost everyone falls off the wagon on their trip toward fulfilling a dream. Almost everyone who falls off gives up the first time, and falls right back into their old patterns. They completely throw away everything they've done for one little mistake. I've seen it with alcoholics, drug and nicotine addicts, people trying to lose weight, you name it.

    Let's say you've been working out according to your plan, and then one day you don't. Think about it logically. Will that single day matter ten years from now when you've turned exercise into a lifelong habit? No. It will only matter if you use it as an excuse to forget the whole thing. I know a little about that myself. It's very easy to talk yourself into letting it go, because it's easier not to exercise than it is to push yourself into doing it consistently. In part we get down on ourselves for our failure to be perfect, and in part we take the easy road.

    Try to remember that there were x number of days where you did do what you were supposed to do, and forgive yourself right away for any slip-ups. Otherwise you'll be too mad at yourself to get back to doing whatever it is you want to do.
  8. Prioritize.

    You can't fix everything all at once, even when you're doing it slowly. If there's one way that an annual resolution can help out, it's that you can tack on one additional item you'd like to work on. What do you really want to improve this year? Make a decision, and work on that. Pretend there's nothing else on your list. An added benefit is that it provides you with a massive amount of energy and focus - all on one thing.

    Trust me, you do not want to be quitting smoking, removing sugar from your diet, suddenly starting to eat a lot of vegetables and less meat, exercising every day, moving to a new apartment, working on a novel, and quitting your job all in the first week of January. (Especially if you have debt left over from Christmas - a topic for another blog post.) Actually, the amount of stress that each one of those things can put on you is something that needs to be spaced out over a period of years in most cases.

    I've seen the lists that people make. Not only are they planning to make those changes in a single year, but they often want to make them starting on January first. It can't be done. It's not just that it shouldn't be done, but that it can't be. Any change in diet can cause a major reaction in your body. You do not want to hear about my efforts to become vegan - let's just say my body reacts badly to large amounts of vegetables. Sudden cessation of smoking causes major stress in the body. Most of the changes that people want to make will have an impact on body chemistry. All of them at once are actually dangerous.

    If you're worried about 'explaining' things to other people, here's a tip: Just say, "This year I'm really concentrating on ____." If you say something is your priority or focus, it gives the correct impression that you're not wasting energy on anything that isn't a priority. It might be enough to shut up a busybody, though I very much doubt it. It's not really any of their business anyway.
How do I know these suggestions work? They worked for me on a wide variety of things. I had some pretty strong addictions at different times of my life, trying and failing to quit them, and finally being successful at doing so. I still feel a lot of temptation to force big lists on myself at the last minute, whenever the end of the year rolls around, and this blog post has been a reminder of sorts to myself. In fact, it goes right back to the first point. I actually accomplished more than I intended to this year, without putting insane levels of pressure on myself. The biggest was that I went back to school, which was a huge deal for me. Not only did I start, but I finished my course with great marks! It meant that I had to let other things in my life go a little bit, but that's okay with me. I'd rather have the education.

The truly remarkable thing I've discovered about dreams and goals, is that they often come true when we're not forcing them to happen. I was not actually planning to go back to school this year, though I've wanted to for a long time. I just sort of fell into it when the time was right. When I quit smoking a number of years ago, I had been cutting back for a long time. I was down to one cigarette a day, possibly two. I ran out of money and couldn't buy another pack for a couple of days, but then when I could go buy them I just shrugged my shoulders and said, "Why bother?" I like to tell people I quit out of sheer laziness. I walked away from a variety of drugs throughout my life, usually because I was content to move on. All of our dreams and goals will start happening for us when we're ready to make them happen, and not a minute sooner. Otherwise something inside us will always keep it from happening. This is why change can only come from within. No one can force another person to make permanent changes. We can't quit smoking because it's what our spouse wants. It has to be what we want for ourselves. Deep inside I think we all know what will make us happy, and until something is a key to our happiness we have no reason to change it.

That being said, I wish all of you a great new year. Do whatever makes you happy, as long as you're not hurting anyone else. My love and best wishes to all of you!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Why Victims Don't Leave - The Domestic Violence Stages

As my readers are aware, I'm the executive producer for The Kovacs Perspective. Regular readers will also be aware that I've had some experience with domestic violence, which is the topic for tonight's episode. What many people may not realize is what actually occurs in a domestic violence situation and household. If it has never happened to you, or you're in denial about your personal experiences, you may not have any idea what constitutes domestic violence. Well, here's what I know, based on my own experiences, as well as through the many hours of research that I've done in order to write about the topic from varying perspectives:
In any situation where your partner controls you in any way, you are being subjected to abuse.
Do not dismiss this notion, because at its core this is the absolute truth. We are all, every one of us, unique individuals who have the right to control every aspect of our selves. Why do I phrase it like that? What does that mean exactly? Answering those questions means jumping right into the initial stages of the abuse cycle.

Abuse begins slowly, and it begins in the most innocent-seeming ways. First it starts with suggestions about little things that you do. Maybe your partner doesn't like the way you wear your hair, or whether or not you wear make-up (along with how much you wear). Maybe they start picking on pieces of your personality, like how much you talk when their friends are around, or the things you might say. Maybe they start acting embarrassed when they're out with you, shaming you into changing small things about yourself, pushing you into the background of your own life choices.

You see, that's where the control starts. The first thing an abuser does, even if they're not doing it consciously, is convince you that you no longer own your own life. They convince you that they're the ones who should have a say, not you. There's no discussion, really. They just tell you, "I don't like your hair like that." Suddenly you're growing it out, dyeing it, or getting it cut. They say things like, "You should wear skirts more often," "You should get a toupee," "I don't like goatees," or "You look like a tramp wearing that much make-up." They make you feel bad about the decisions you made that day. They undermine your authority over yourself. The implied message is that they can fix you, that you're not good enough the way you are, and that in order to deserve their love you have to change.

Those changes don't seem like much. At first. Then the changes become more difficult to adhere to - after all, the new behaviour isn't your natural persona so you're suddenly putting on an act in front of everyone. Your new life is a mask, covering up the real you. However, in order to please your partner you submit to their wishes. Everyone wants to be attractive to the person they love, but what they don't realize is, if that person was really the right one for you, then they would be attracted to the real you. They would love that person, not the one they're trying to mold you into.

The more difficult changes that come can be anything from the type of job you have (especially if they feel threatened because you make more money, or maybe you don't make enough money), to the people in your life. Your friends and family are a threat to this person, because they know those people are important enough to you that you might actually listen to them over your partner. They get scared that one of them will tell you to leave. Isolation is the goal here, and it may not even be a conscious connection that the abuser is making. It would be hard to find out, even by asking hundreds of abusers, because they have a tendency to deny or justify their actions even to themselves.

So how do they get rid of your friends and family? Simple. They just make it easier for you to not see them. How? Imagine this: Every time you see your friend or family member you get into a fight with your partner. It doesn't even have to be a fight about that person. It can just be an associated feeling for you. You start to feel nervous every time you come home from being out with anyone who isn't your partner. You know, deep down inside, that there's going to be an argument the minute you close the front door behind you.

Sometimes it's more direct. There can be accusations about what you might be doing with those people, and there may not be any logic whatsoever to those accusations. Maybe the accusation are sick and twisted, like they accuse you of 'something funny' in your relationship with a family member. Maybe your partner believes what they're saying, and maybe they're just saying it to put you on the defensive. It's just as effective either way. You're defending yourself, which automatically puts you on the weak side of the argument.

So, you find yourself going out less and less often. Your phone conversations get shorter. It's just easier that way. You're trying to avoid the fights. It's still not enough, though. Your partner's insecurity is constantly lashing you. Criticisms spewed at you so that your partner can feel superior to you, and so they regain control. Without that control they're sure that you're not going to stay. That's not always the case, of course. Some abusers simply enjoy hurting other people, and that's because they're sadists. Those ones don't fear you leaving, but often they fear other people finding out their little secrets, and your leaving would mean you've gotten the upper hand with them. That's something a sadist will not allow. That behaviour may be rooted in insecurity at its core, but even insecurity has been bypassed by what is often sexual excitement.

There may be a great deal of time between these levels or stages of a person asserting their control. If there's a month between a criticism of your hair and a comment about your clothing, it's not going to seem all that controlling. It will seem like a suggestion at first, but then when you keep doing what they don't like they will express disappointment at the very least, and you will feel like you should be trying to please your partner. They will make it seem as though you're being petty and selfish, or you're unwilling to compromise for the sake of the relationship. Now it's suddenly your fault that the two of you can't get along. That blame will become a big part of your future, turning into statements like, "It's your own fault for pissing me off." Not only do they not realize they shouldn't even be asking you to change, but also that their response to their own emotions is not under your control in any way.

This is probably where I was lucky when it comes to my personal situation. Despite having a very rough childhood, or maybe because of it, I learned to take responsibility for my own actions. I've seen many cases where the opposite was true, however, and people blamed their actions on their childhood of abuse, never getting to the point where they said to themselves, "I'm now in control of my life, and from here on out I have a choice." So, when someone tries to tell me that their behaviour is my fault, I don't buy it. I can understand an eye for an eye, so if I had punched someone in the face I would expect someone to punch me back. However, if I haven't done that to a person, they have no business doing it to me.

People who remain in abusive situations, however,  have been subjected to behavioural conditioning. Much like Pavlov's dogs, they will react predictably to certain stimuli. In the case of the dogs they would start drooling at the sound of a bell. In the case of abuse victims they will start to feel debilitating fear at whatever they've learned as the signs of abuse to come. It could be a certain look, a phrase, or even their own actions that they know their abuser has reacted to in the past. It's not their fault or their responsibility to avoid abuse, however - no more than it's the responsibility of a rape victim to avoid being raped. It's the person committing the violence who is responsible.

It doesn't even have to be physical abuse, but verbal abuse is much more difficult to pin down and define - especially when it comes to a courtroom. Verbal abuse is grounds for divorce in many places, but courts have a hard time making consistent decisions about what really constitutes abuse. The second someone makes unwanted physical contact, that's a line that's been crossed that everyone is capable of seeing. Admittedly that line moves all over the place, because even courtrooms don't always recognize spousal rape. Small things like grabbing a partner's arm and pulling them where you want them to be - that's controlling, and it's abuse, because you're physically forcing someone to do something they're not willing to do on their own, and we simply haven't the right. We each own our own bodies. They belong to us and no one else. All decisions about that body should be coming from our own minds.

Of course, when the government clamps down and tells individuals what they can and can't do, for whatever arbitrary reason, it becomes a lot more difficult to recognize abuse in domestic situations. Rape goes unpunished, even when it's a teacher raping a student. Autonomy is undervalued in most societies. People are told they have no choices by the very governments and courtrooms that are supposed to be there to protect them. When it comes time for someone to stand up against an abusive partner, there's no fundamental legal support, despite the numerous laws that have been written. If the laws aren't enforced, abuse victims are left to fend for themselves. If they stand up and defend themselves against their abusers, however, they're often severely punished by lengthy prison terms.

Believe it or not, all of this is just the lead-up to the main event. An event which becomes the everyday life of the victim. We haven't really touched on the first time a person is hit, or their arm is twisted so hard that it breaks. We haven't even gotten to the part where their self-worth is completely stripped, so let's go over that. All human beings are susceptible to behavioural conditioning on some level, and that conditioning is what enables abuser to maintain control over their partner. The conditioning may be done gently or viciously, depending on what the victim responds to best. In most cases it's fear-based.

It may start out sounding like a joke, even. They might smile when they tell you, "If you ever left me, I'd have to kill you." Maybe something more subtle than that like, "I'll never let you go," or "I'd kill myself if you ever left me." How many people in this world would be flattered by that? How many people are flattered by jealousy in their partner? Even those who outwardly deny feeling flattered often feel all tingly inside at the idea that someone 'loves' them so much they can't live without them. The very things that may seem so loving and needy to a person seeking the love of their life, however, can be extremely dangerous. The healthy way to say those things would be more like, "I'd hate to lose you," or "As long as you want to be with me, I'll never let you go." Both of those things imply knowledge and awareness of the other person's right to choose.

Statements that imply the end of someone's life should the relationship end are a really big warning sign. "Until death do us part," a part of most wedding vows, becomes a lot more sinister in that context. In some cases there's a religious element, too, where a partner is controlled by their beliefs. That's true in Catholicism, certainly, where excommunication is an issue. Most people can't afford the $5,000 they can charge for an annulment. If you're an abused partner, hoping for support from your church, you may be correct in assuming that they will not help you leave your spouse.

Then there is the actual, hands-on, abuse. In many cases the first physical abuse may seem unintentional. For that matter it might well be an accident, but it can become a gateway to more intentional abuse. They might make it seem as though it was an accident, too. Victims of abuse aren't always sure they've been intentionally hurt by their partners. People brush off hurts and insults all the time in their daily lives. We have to in order to function in society. You can't react to every little thing, or people would be shooting each other more than they already are. Brushing things off becomes habitual, and quite often we're not sure when enough is really enough. For people who hate confrontation, the decision is even more painful, and people will question themselves and justify the behaviour of other people just to avoid that confrontation.

If you already fear a person's reaction, and are reacting to it yourself, you're being controlled by that other person's behaviour. Yes, you're choosing to let them, but it's usually because one thing is the lesser of two evils. When you have small children whose lives may be threatened by someone, you have no job, no driver's licence, no car, no friends and no family, the decision to leave is fraught with danger. One tiny mistake can mean a very heavy price to be paid. It's true that victims who are killed by their abusers are usually killed when they try to leave. It's a topic I've written about before, and probably will again. My aunt was shot and killed by her husband as she tried to leave. Their oldest son came in to wrestle the gun away from his father. The gun went off again and killed my uncle. Thankfully my cousin was not killed, but he lost both parents that day. The younger kids also becoming orphans. The police chose to write it up as a suicide, rather than subject my cousin to potential manslaughter charges. It might not have been strictly legal, but it was the right thing to do.

People who are in an abusive situation are at least subconsciously aware that leaving means putting themselves in mortal danger. They know it's going to be a triggering event if they don't get away cleanly. Many victims spend years plotting a way out. Sometimes there isn't one. Sometimes there is nowhere they can go, and no one they can turn to. Sometimes they don't have access to a phone, or their calls are all recorded and monitored. Internet access is checked. It's far too easy to keep tabs on the actions of a person who lives with you, and you legally have the right to access that information. After all, it's your phone and internet bill. There are no privacy laws to keep you from knowing exactly what your partner has been doing. So, the person being spied on can't reach out for help.

That may seem far-fetched to someone who has never been victimized by a partner, but it's actually very common. That level of insecurity is what usually leads to the abuse in the first place. The spying may start right from the beginning of the relationship. They read text messages from friends, looking for clues that their partner isn't being faithful. They go through e-mails. It's often very easy for them to convince a partner they should have all their passwords and the PIN from their bank card. "After all," they say in what seems a romantic fashion, "We're going to be together for the rest of our lives. There shouldn't be any secrets between us." This effectively removes all hope that a victim's actions will be able to pass under the radar of their abuser. Of course, it also means the abuser has access to all of the finances and can remove all financial independence or simply steal their partner's money.

It's similar to the argument people make against prenuptial agreements. They say there should be absolute trust, and everything should be shared in a marriage. Here's the problem with that: Just because someone gets married does not mean they lose their identity as an individual. We are not, and cannot be, half of a whole. The strongest, most successful marriages are those where both parties recognize the individuality of their spouse, and accept and support them as they are. Problem relationships are the ones in which one person has control over the other. That isn't trust, despite how much they talk about trust in general - usually in the form of expecting the other partner to trust them in every way, without giving back that same trust.

In that way it's also a lot like the age-old teenage attempt to convince someone to 'go all the way,' by saying, "If you really loved me, you would have sex with me," where the smart response would be, "If you really loved me you wouldn't ask me to do something I'm not ready for." When they say, "You should trust me enough to share everything," the best response would be, "You should trust me enough that you shouldn't even have to ask me for this stuff. You shouldn't have to have proof that I'm faithful." However, much like the teenagers, we often don't think of that when we need to. Then it's too late.

In my case my first husband ran up thousands of dollars in debt on my credit card that I didn't know about (and had to pay off when he left). He didn't ask anymore. He just took the card out of my wallet and felt entitled to whatever he spent. In a situation like that many victims are left not only without the immediate cash they need to survive, but also without any hope of borrowing the money to tide them over. Their credit is often destroyed, and it ruins their chances of building a decent future where they might one day buy a house. Instead their only options are the high-risk loans with interest rates so high that there's no way of keeping up with the payments. The financial impact can be very long-term.

There are three obstacles that come readily to mind when it comes to people leaving an abuser. First is the immediate physical danger of the victim and any children involved. Second, there are financial considerations - if you have no money there's almost nothing you can do, and a shelter is only an option if you have the means to get to it, and there's one close enough to you. Third, there are the pets in the home - shelters usually don't take animals, and pets that are left behind are often killed by the abuser.

So, why don't victims leave? If you haven't figured that out even after all this, you're not likely to understand unless it happens to you. When you get to a point where you feel like someone owns you, and that the person will kill you if you leave, a person you absolutely know in your heart will be able to find you no matter where you go, trying to leave is the scariest, most dangerous thing you will ever have to do in your life. When you feel like you're worth absolutely nothing in this world, and have no hope for yourself, you don't think it even matters if you get away. It's not the truth, but perception is everything in this life. What we feel and fear becomes our truth.

If you're in an abusive relationship, there is help out there. Tonight's guest, +Suzanne Perry will be talking about it. I hope you'll tune in. For your own sake, and for the sake of any other living beings in the house. Staying for the kids is a very bad idea. It's usually the kids that get hurt the most when we choose to stay. Get the help you need in order to leave in the safest way possible, and get it from someone who has really been there. Tonight at 7 PM eastern you can find out how at this link, and careful.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

What's in a Name? Kin, Labels, Etymology and More!

The seemingly simple topic of names is actually chock full of complexities that nobody fully understands. There are so many layers and levels to it, that it boggles the mind. Every one of those areas has differing schools of thought, too, and all cultures are different. When you're talking about something so personal as a name, people can't even agree on whether or not it is personal. For instance, there are those who think it's nothing but a label, and we should do without labels entirely. I have to say, this would be a very confusing world if we had to say, "Hey you!" in order to get someone's attention. The artist-formerly-known-as-Prince-and-was-subsequently-known-as-Prince-anyway is probably the best illustration of what happens when someone doesn't have a name (or label if you will). Most of us would agree that we prefer to have a name rather than a serial number, and find even social security (US) or social insurance (Canada) numbers to be dehumanizing. Besides, names are easier to say. Usually.

So, let's all pretend to agree that we need names. On to the next step. You have a kid, you stick a name on it, you register the birth and name with the government - I assume that all depends on what country you live in, too, but I'm going with what I know. In Canada you can't even leave the hospital without register a name for your kid, and in the US you used to be able to wait a while before settling on a name if my understanding of the system is correct. I don't personally understand that approach, but at the same time I'm also reading the Game of Thrones books (no I have not seen the TV series - I'm debating whether or not I even want to - it is TV after all), and there are customs in there where people don't name their kids until they're about two years old because it's considered unlucky and too many kids die before that age. Hmmm. I'd think you'd want a name just in case they do die, so there's something to stick on a headstone, but I suppose the idea is to not get too attached to them. Good luck with that.

Now anyone I've ever known who has had a kid, myself included, has sweated the choices. Most of us realize that it's a bad idea to name your kid something they're going to be picked on for, but then there are those who don't want their kid to be like everyone else. Being one of the ones who was picked on, I would advise prospective parents to think twice about weird names. In fact, if you have a weird last name, it might even be time to bite the bullet and make some legal alterations to it, so future generations don't grimace whenever they speak it aloud, or get pissy when they constantly have to correct people who misspell it. My last name is the perfect example of that. Everyone assumes there's an R in it. There is not, and the last time it had an R in it was probably centuries ago. Just because there's another group of people out there who chose to leave the R in their name, does not make it true of my own family. In my case I no longer have to worry about spreading my name about. My daughter doesn't share it, and I'm beyond the point of having more children.

On the flipside there are those who have had family pride instilled in them, so that their name makes them stand a little straighter and throw their shoulders back. More power to ya. In my case I had some decent relatives, and then there were the ones with the yellow buck teeth - first cousins who tried to get me into bed. Yes, I know. Ick. Both the teeth and the cousin part. First cousins might be legal in some places, but I wasn't going there voluntarily. Those teeth were a good reminder of why first cousins are a bad idea, in fact. Not only inbreeding, but inbreeding with visible flaws.

So at one point I seriously considered legally changing my last name. I can't remember what it was that caught my attention, but at that time I realized something. My name would be what I would make of it. After all, it's not a very common last name, so there are no massively famous people (for their celebrity or for their infamy) that I had to live in the shadow of, or overcome their reputation. I'm not a Lincoln or a Sheen, or even a Smith, which is so common no one would assume any relationship these days anyway. Not being in touch with any of my family members makes this easy as well. I will make my name what I want it to be, and so it doesn't matter at all what it meant in my home town. This apple fell very far from the whole orchard.

Beyond what's common, popular, known or there's a built-in reputation that comes with it, there's the meaning of the names themselves. Now, looking at my last name you would think it means land of sticks. It doesn't. It translates from another word altogether and means land beside the hill. Weird huh? Of course, last names are like that. First name are usually the big conundrum for new parents. Boy names, girl names and gender-neutral names. I like the latter idea. If I'd had another child, Alex would have been a seriously-considered option. My daughter ended up with a name that was so common she usually had several other girls in her class with the same name. It wasn't like that when I named her, or I'd have chosen something different. Something not weird, but not overly common either. Instead she got buried unwillingly in the popular.

Baby naming books or websites will always be needed. We want to know we're not naming our kid something that means 'pile of dung' or something. Kids are cruel, and if they discover this, your kid is doomed. Yes, doomed. That will stick with them in every possible permutation for the rest of their lives. I was briefly nicknamed Spike in junior high (an 80s hair thing). People remembered. People almost got punched for remembering, but they remembered. I was okay with it in grade 8 - not so much in high school and later years. If I were faced with naming a kid now, I'd also be doing a Google search on the name, including middle and last, varying what I entered. You just never know. Maybe you haven't heard the latest news about that serial killer in California, or the politician who just got caught doing the nasty with a chicken. With the internet now, kids will find out about those things. Sometimes people are bored and Google a person's name at random. It's not possible to completely avoid that kind of thing, but do your kid a favour and at least make an effort to do so.

Finally there's equality. Woman got sick and tired of losing their last names, for one thing. For another, when you have a career and have built up a reputation, changing your last name can do a lot of damage. There's no way to properly format a resume to state that at one place your name was one way, but then at another it was a different way. It might be alright if we all married once and stayed married. We just don't now. Or very rarely. Sure, you can use the antiquated "nee" with your former last name after it, but seriously? Let's be realistic about corporate life. Women who do that are looked at more than a little contemptuously. It tells everyone there that you gave up your identity for a man. If you're willing to do that, the assumption may be that you will not take your career as seriously as a man would. Then starts that whole, "Women don't belong in the workforce. They just can't be relied on to stick with it." They also tend to assume you will be taking time off to raise a family, and they will not make that same assumption with a husband. They don't have a clue what you and your partner have decided to do about a family. They simply assume, and it's not a career boost.

Beyond getting married and women not always changing their last names, or at least hyphenating them, babies come along to challenge your equality ideas yet again. After all, it's no longer written in stone that children automatically take their father's last name. Women are starting to say, "What? My last name isn't good enough? My family is less important than your family? I don't think so!" In fact, this isn't such a new phenomenon as we might generally think. Royal families intermarried - one country's prince to another country's princess, and that sort of thing. These high-level marriages did not completely subjugate the family names of the brides, simply because that would have been an insult to an entire country. If the idea behind the marriage was to bond two countries, that sort of insult would nullify any benefits achieved by the marriage. Even among the lesser peerage, especially when the woman's family was considered a station or two above the family of the man, women often retained their own titles of some sort. I'm foggy on specifics, but I remember seeing it on many occasions when I was doing research. Titles would be handed down to the children at any rate.

What I've been seeing as some of the latest trends are girls being given their mothers' last names, and boys getting their last name from their fathers, or even the reverse. Sometimes the couple each retain their own last names with no hyphenation, but the kids get the hyphenated name and the boys & girls have the same last names. Again, there's very old precedent in a way. Think of Nordic last names. The son of Odin was Odinson (like Thor Odinson). His daughter's would have been Odinsdotter or Odinsdatter. They're called patronymic names when they're named after the father, but there were matronymic names, too, apparently. Laws changed and in some cases this practice was forbidden, but then laws changed again so people could go back to doing it.

I guess in a world where English-language people (like myself) are so openly egocentric that they assume the world revolves around their own basic culture, there were many who got confused by the 'alternative' practices. Then again, there's a large portion of the world that places the family name first, and the given name second. So, in those countries the custom would be for me to be called Stickland Rain. I know that it's like that in China, as well as in Hungary (or was anyway). Certain Chinese celebrities have swapped their names back and forth, confusing the masses of movie-goers, but if those movie-goers are too lazy to learn about other cultures I feel no empathy for them. Having worked in payroll and human resources, it was my job to know this stuff. In one place we had a large number of Chinese employees who were permanent residents, and I needed to know which name was the family name. As far as I was concerned, I needed to be respectful of the differences.

This brings up other issues with regard to this topic, doesn't it? The whole thing about being an immigrant. See what I mean? A seemingly innocuous topic has turned into something fraught with meaning on every possible level. There are many who feel that if you come into a country then you should adopt your new country's ways. Sure, legally I can see that. You obey the laws already in place, because by crossing that border it's tacit agreement that you will abide by them. That does not mean your culture needs to be tossed out the door or disrespected. I know in Canada it's always a struggle to accommodate certain religious beliefs, particularly in employment situations where there's a uniform involved. When it comes to names, though, there are many who sneer at foreign names. I see it more in the US, but I see it in Canada as well. Racism is nowhere near dead, folks.

I have a friend whose last name is technically pronounced differently, but in high school he chose to anglicize it for ease of use. He refers back to the 'when in Rome' analogy. His family members were adamant that it should be pronounced the original way. I pronounce it the way he wants it pronounced, but my ex's family is from the same country and he was taken aback by the way I said it. My only response was, "If that's what he uses, that's what I'm calling him. It's his damn name."

In the end that's really what it should be as far as I'm concerned. My daughter is debating on changing her name. She does not like its popularity. She's considering a variety of options, and some of them I think she would later regret. However, it's her life, and I really don't blame her for not being happy with what she has. Maybe George R.R. Martin and his Game of Thrones are closer to the truth on this one, though we certainly need to be able to call our kids something other than, "Come here you little..." when they've drawn on the walls in Crayon for the umpteenth time. The thing is, do we even know what to call ourselves as time goes on? Do we pick a name that sounds cool later in life, but then realize ten years down the road that it wasn't exactly our best idea?

Thankfully it's not horrendously expensive to change your name these days. I think it's only about $170 in Canada, for a full, legal name change. Less than the price of a DIY divorce at any rate, and probably a lot less confusing. Having gone through umpteen dozen name changes myself - two marriages where I actually changed my last name, and the rest were from childhood and were not by my choice - I can tell you, it takes people a while to get used to the new name, yourself included. By the time I got married for the third time (and no, that one didn't stick either), I was really sick of changing my name. My ex didn't like it, but by then the most I was willing to concede was a hyphenation. We didn't last long enough for me to make the change, which at least saved me from having to change it back.

Would a rose still smell as sweet by any other name? You betcha. It would just have to hear it a few times before it would answer to it.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Tune In for the Dulcet Tones of My Voice

Howdy, y'all! No, I don't really talk like that most days, though a 'y'all' slips in there every once in a while if I'm feeling laid back. However, if you tune in to the show at 7 PM tonight (that would be 7 PM eastern, Wednesday, November 5th), you'll actually hear what I sound like in a semi-normal conversation. Maybe it's a bit more formal than general conversation, because I'm interviewing (and being interviewed by) Steve Kovacs on The Kovacs Perspective. If you've been reading my blog or following me on Facebook or Twitter, then you already know I've been Steve's personal producer for the show for almost two years now. However, there's been a bit of a shake-up in the way we have to air the show. WTOE is not currently broadcasting, so we've got to do things a little bit differently. Thankfully today's software, technology and equipment allows us to do just that. It took of bit of an investment in the show, but the end result is worth every penny.

We just didn't want to let the show go, especially with the loyal fan-base that Steve has accumulated over the six years or so that he's been on the air, so we decided not to disappoint them. As of 7 PM tomorrow I'll be uploading an updated website to accommodate those changes. There will be a new button on there for the WTOE archives of the show, which will link to their website for as long as it's available. There will be small changes on all of the pages, but the biggest change will be the player we've got now to broadcast our new shows, as well as the podcast archives we'll accumulate. Keep in mind, I'm uploading right at 7, so if you're on the site before then and don't see the changes, right-click and refresh your browser.

So, what are we going to talk about on the show? Well, I don't want to give away all our secrets, of course, but Steve will tell us a bit about his beginnings in radio and TV, and then he's going to ask me some questions about where we're going with the show and what mysterious functions I perform in the background. In the meantime I wanted to take the opportunity to thank the people who have made the show possible all these years. Len Azzarone and Lori Viscuso were absolutely indispensable on the WTOE team. We truly appreciate the work they've done over the years. They've given us a great foundation which allows us to continue the show as we're doing now.

The thing about asking all the questions in an interview is that the audience doesn't really get to know you that well. It's the host's job to get the guests to open up, after all. This time, however, we wanted to invite people in so they could get to know us a little bit. Steve has talked about me on the show from time to time, and he mentions the odd bit of personal history, but we thought it was time to open up to our listeners.

We're going to have some really cool guests on the show in the near future. It seems like our guests have just been getting more and more amazing, and that's not going to stop. I've got a bit of work ahead of me, but I tend to thrive on a crazy schedule so I look forward to it. I've finished my first MIT course (with a final mark of 92% I might add - w00t!), and I'm now into the second one. The website and show changes have been a part of my life for the last few weeks, on top of having a sick ferret to care for. I'd say it's a wonder I haven't lost my mind, but there's no real guarantee I haven't actually done so.

So, for those of you who are just a touch curious about what I sound like when I'm carrying on a conversation, rather than just the voice-overs and commercials you may have already been subjected to, be sure to tune in tonight! We have a great time with the show, and Steve's a good friend of mine, so every conversation we have is a lot of fun. We're betting it'll be fun for you, too.

And if you haven't heard my voice at all, might I suggest the new commercials I just recorded to be aired during the show? I know - shameless plug, but it's the way of the world. In case you do happen to be curious, though, check them out! The first one is for Steve's book, Protect Yourself: The Simple Keys Women Need to be Safe and Secure, and the second one is for, my web design service company. I had a lot of fun making them, so hopefully y'all enjoy them. Just call me shameless!

Friday, 31 October 2014

My Favourite Day of the Year - Hallowe'en!

I don't know what happened to the way people spell it, but I'm sticking with Hallowe'en. It's indicative of its origins as All Hallow's Evening. A few letters got taken out of 'evening' and so an apostrophe was used to replace them. That's true of all contractions, and so I don't see why it should be any different for Hallowe'en. Mind you, if they really wanted to be precise about it, I suppose it would be more like:
I guess it's a bit bulky to have four apostrophes though. Never mind the fact that a large number of people don't know the difference between there, their, and they're, so that many apostrophes in a single word would have been a nightmare. Imagine if we used an apostrophe for every single letter that was missing in our contractions! Of course, I will never for the life of me understand where the word "won't" came from. That's not a contraction of anything. We certainly don't say "wo not" if we say it straight out. It's supposed to mean "will not" and to me the contraction should then be "willn't" and that sounds silly even to my own ears. Maybe at one time that was used, along with words like "whilst" and such. Then again, I used that word recently - possibly in my last blog post, but I don't remember exactly.

Not that any of that has to do with Hallowe'en (there, I did it again), but that's a normal segue for me. I meander down strange and looping paths.

Having grown up with Trick-or-Treat as part of every year of my childhood, I was more than a little surprised to learn a few years ago that it's only popular in North America. The day itself is based on very, very old religious stuff, but the candy thing is all on this side of the world. In fact, I was even more surprised when I learned that Canada is the country that is apparently responsible for it as we know it today. The first real trick-or-treating supposedly began in Alberta of all places. Not the sort of area where you'd expect it, really, with the whole cowboy reputation they've got over there. Not that it's actually like that in a lot of places. Calgary may have its stampede, of which I heartily disapprove (I'm not fond of spurs being raked into animals myself), but for the most part Calgary and Edmonton are shiny urban cities. Lots of modern buildings and the like. I ought to know, seeing as I lived in Edmonton for far too long.

Oil refineries are the thing in Edmonton, and since the whole geography of the province is being destroyed by Stephen Harper and the oil sands being processed, I doubt very much that I'll ever be back there. Y'all thought the chemical spill in West Virginia was a big deal? You should see the spills they have there! In June of 2013 a pipeline leaked 9.5 million litres of industrial waste water. How does that compare to West Virginia? Well, their leak was 28,000 litres. Yeah. Alberta's was about 340 times the size. Killed off boreal forest (like the taiga in Russia), and affected about 103 acres of land. According to a database report obtained by Global News (a Canadian media company), there have been over 61,000 pipeline incidents in the last 37 years. But for some reason we want to put in the Keystone XL pipeline so Americans can have their oil. In fact, the vast majority of the politicians in my country's government have voted to press on with it. Not surprising, and the reason I will never vote liberal or conservative again - we have another major party in Canada, which is the NDP, or New Democrats, but we have a whole slew of smaller ones, too.

Okay, so I did a wild detour from the subject at hand, I know, but really there isn't all that much to say about Hallowe'en in and of itself. It's fun for kids, and it's a time of religious significance to anyone who celebrates and follows the earth-based religions. I've had friends who were Wiccan, Druid and Pagan. I studied the Wiccan religion at one time, myself. It was interesting, and is about 28,000 years older than Christianity, so I figured maybe it had a little more legitimacy than the more popular religions today, but I wasn't about to prance around skyclad (otherwise known as 'naked') to honour the Goddess, Diana. Of course, it all boiled down to the fact that I simply wasn't a follower or a believer in any of them. I'm a spiritual person in a lot of ways, but it comes down to morality more than it does any written texts - which is maybe a bit funny coming from someone who cherishes books so much. That kind of thing has to come from within, though. My whole spirituality is based on doing what I honestly believe is the right thing. Not that I'm always successful, but I do have a conscience that leads me. More than I can say for the zealots who are persecuting anyone who isn't of their personal faith.

So why is Hallowe'en my favourite day of the year? Well, it is a day that I do feel a spritual connection to, though maybe it's more the season. In my childhood and young adulthood, it was almost always the day that I experienced the first snowfall of the season. Maybe I'm 'misremembering' it, but that was how it seemed even then. I specifically remember some years where I was out walking in the wee hours (my night owl tendencies have been with me my entire life) and the first flakes would flutter down past my face. Now, I can't start getting all poetic because it just isn't my style. Sardonic would be a closer approximation if we had to put a label on it. I just loved the crisp air, the beautiful leaves of my home town (Huntsville, Ontario - a stunningly gorgeous place for seeing the fall colours), and the smell of woodsmoke on the air.

It was cold by then back in those days. Now we live in southern Ontario, and despite the fact that we're still in Canada we're actually farther south than most of the Canadian border. I don't like it. I miss the north. Global warming has had a hand in it, too. It's nowhere near as cold as it used to be, on average. We might get one cold year that would compare to an average year twenty years ago, but in general the winters are much warmer. Last year's polar vortex? According to The Weather Network it wasn't any colder than a regular winter a couple of decades ago, but suddenly schools were being closed because of the 'extreme temperatures.' Little do they remember!

I remember one winter in Huntsville that was so harsh, that even with a block heater and a battery blanket you were lucky if your car started. If you're from a warmer climate, you probably don't even know what block heaters and battery blankets are. Wikipedia's description of a block heater:
The most common type is an electric heating element in the cylinder block, connected through a power cord often routed through the vehicle's grille.
Battery blankets wrap around your battery, and plug in to keep the battery at a decent temperature. Our temperatures during one cold snap went down to minus 50 Celsius, which converts to minus 58 Fahrenheit. That was before the wind chill factor. It was minus 70 with the wind chill (minus 94 for my American readers). No, I'm really not kidding. It's not like we were living really far up north or anything either. Huntsville is nowhere near as far north as Edmonton is. In fact, it's also very far below most of the Canadian border if you care to look at a map. You might even have heard of it from when the 36th G8 summit was held there in 2010. Its global coordinates are 45° 20′ 0″ N, 79° 13′ 0″ W, whereas the large part of the Canadian border sits at around the 49th parallel, 4 degrees further north, which is actually quite the distance in global terms.

Temperatures like those will cause your engine block to crack. Even a lot of the antifreeze we use up here can be useless against that kind of cold. Some of the most expensive stuff will only guarantee protection down to about minus 36 or 37.

So, again...why is Hallowe'en my favourite day? I think the more I try to explain it, the less enticing it sounds, even to me. However, I do actually enjoy winter. Mostly because I'm indoors for almost all of it now. There's something so homey and inviting about thoughts of snow outside and perhaps hot chocolate inside, with a good book of course. Hallowe'en is the day when I can feel that coming. I've still got the warmth outside, with the beautiful leaves on all the maple trees, but it evokes the silence of winter. There I go waxing semi-poetic again, but winter is so obviously quiet and I do love my silence. Snow, whether on the ground or in the air, muffles a lot of the sounds we're subjected to in the city. The cars aren't as loud, unless they're crashing into one another on icy roads. People talking and yelling get muffled and absorbed. It's nature's soundproofing.

Maybe you wonder what's so appealing about silence, and quite frankly most people can't stand not having some sort of noise around them. They like having the TV on 'for company' apparently. Why do people need company so badly? Why don't they like to hear their own thoughts. I rather enjoy mine. (So much so, that I inflict those thoughts on everyone else, such as when I write my blog postings.) My best creativity comes from the wee hours, when people in my apartment building are mostly bedded down for the night, and I know it's not bloody likely anyone would have the nerve to knock on my door. No phone calls from people I don't wish to hear from - the people I do like hearing from know it's actually the best time to call me.

Silence is one reason I'm so entranced by ferrets. The only sounds they make are happy little chirps and squeaks (called dooking). They'll squeal when they're in serious trouble (like when one is being bitten by another one a little too hard), but generally the decibel level is very low. You'll never have neighbours complaining about the noise from them. Cats & dogs people will complain about, especially if you have a cat that goes into heat, or a dog that's always barking.

I do love the costume part of Hallowe'en, though, and some of the very few happy memories I have from childhood are based on the costumes I wore. I created a 'Ms. Pacman' costume one year. I had two big cardboard pieces that I cut into the right shape, and then wrapped yellow material around them with me in the middle. I even had little ghosts dangling in front of the mouth. No other kid had a costume even close to that. Most were wearing the pre-made pieces of crap they sell in the stores. No creativity and ingenuity - just money spent.

Of course, I was used to having to make and wear costumes. Or my grandmother made them for me. Figure skating required a lot of them. What people see on TV is only a tiny portion of what figure skaters do on the ice. Ice Capades will give you a larger perspective. We had a skating carnival every year, and quite often every one of us were in many different numbers. I had solos as well, and a few quick-changes (much like stage actors do). There were group numbers and duets that I had to perform in as well. Each had a different costume. I was a pink panther one time, a chicken another time, an owl, a rag doll, Pinocchio, Minnie Mouse, you name it. There were also competitions that required costumes. It was how I learned I was allergic to Noxema and Elastoplast bandages. So much make-up to take off with creams that turned my skin bright red with bumps all over it, and being Pinocchio required a long nose that used flesh-coloured first-aid tape to stick it to my face. It wasn't until the nose was peeled off that the rash became obvious.

I loved the costumes. I wasn't much for the 'win-this-competition-or-else' part of things, but the costumes were fun. This is the only time of year where I have a vague wish that I was more social face-to-face, so there would be a Hallowe'en party I could go to in costume, or I could host one where a few people might show up. I guess they have the public ones where you can buy a ticket, so that's an option I suppose.

I do have one really weird memory of a Hallowe'en that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It's one of those, "You haven't lived until..." moments. For me anyway. I wasn't actually in a costume, but I was dressed up 'to the nines' as they call it, which my friends laughingly said might as well have been a costume since it wasn't my normal wear. I was at a bar in my home town. One friend was a bouncer there at the time, and my other friend was also a bouncer part-time, but he wasn't working that night. Well, wouldn't you know it but that I got hit on. Here's the strange part. The guy who hit on me wasn't hitting on me for himself, but for his friend who wasn't quite brave enough to take on the risk himself. This friend who was taking the decisive action happened to be dressed as a woman. It was more than little surreal. Especially when it came out that they had apparently 'called dibs' on me. Uh, what? The whole thing was probably really insulting if I think about it, but I've never been able to do anything but laugh at the experience. I was hit on by a man...dressed as a woman...for his friend...who was too chicken to approach me himself...but he got 'dibs' on me. Again I say, uh, what?

In case you're wondering about my response to the above approach, it wasn't in the affirmative. I've got no interest in someone who won't approach me on their own. It's one thing if they met me through a friend, and didn't have a way to contact me. That's happened to me any number of times, and I'm okay with them asking the mutual friend to talk to me. How else are they going to reach me? I'm not always going to be interested, obviously, but I'm never mean about it if they're decent guys. I probably come off pretty blunt and harsh in my writing, but I honestly hate hurting or humiliating anyone. It takes guts to tell someone you're attracted to them.

So, those are the best of my Hallowe'en thoughts and memories. I hope everyone stays safe, happy and healthy for this really cool day. Happy Hallowe'en everyone!!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Appendix, and Other Organs You Thought Were Useless

A few years ago I got a bee in my bonnet about vestigial organs - organs that a species has no use for, and that have often shrunk or disappeared as the species evolved. It all started with a movie, as my weird 'thinks' often do. I was watching something called Lake Placid, which is actually a really funny movie. Betty White and Oliver Platt just killed it for me. "If I had a dick, this is where I would tell you to suck it!" Pretty much the ultimate Betty White line. Ever. Sorry for going off on a tangent, but it's what I do best, and quite frankly that's probably my all-time favourite movie. A lot of people didn't see it, because most figured it was a horror movie with a crocodile, which is a pretty lame concept. The people who marketed the movie that way should have been shot, or fired, whichever is easiest, because it was a comedy from start to finish.

In the movie Oliver Platt's character, Hector Cyr, talks about crocodiles having nictitating lenses. Having had pet cats for many years, I already knew what they were, but for anyone who doesn't have cats or hasn't made the connection (or maybe their cats don't fall asleep upside down like some of mine have), they're a second set of eyelids. You'll see them in cats when their outer lids fall open while they're sleeping, and the inner ones remain closed. Sounds like something from the first Men in Black movie, I know, but there are a lot of creatures on this earth that have them. Birds, crocodiles, etc. In birds they're meant to be closed while they're in flight, because it keeps the dust and debris from getting into their eyeballs. The lids are very thin so they can see shadows and such, but they can't see with any detail when they're closed.

So what's the connection with the appendix you ask? Well, the first connection is that humans actually have vestigial nictitating lenses. If you look at the inner corner of your eye you'll see a tiny lump of tissue. It used to be a second eyelid, or was intended to be at any rate, but we didn't need them. I don't know if it's because we don't spend a lot of time in the water, or that we don't move fast enough on our own to get that kind of debris in our eyes, but whatever the reason we've evolved to where we don't have them.

Now the second part of the connection has to do with the common misconception that the appendix is a vestigial organ, and to be fair even the doctors and scientists believed this to be true until recently. They didn't believe we needed it, or that it was used for anything, but it turned out that we actually do. The purpose of the appendix is somewhat gross to explain, but then a lot of fascinating topics are more than a little bit disgusting. The appendix stores and protects beneficial bacteria for those uncomfortable times when we experience severe diarrhea. Our intestines need that bacteria, particularly when recovering from bad bacteria that made us sick, so the appendix keeps some tucked away until the episode has passed - no pun intended - and then reintroduces it into the intestines that so rudely shoved out the bacteria in the first place. Once reintroduced it doesn't take long for it to multiply back to its former levels.

Sure, we can do without the appendix, but like any other organ in the body, we're better off having it in place usually. The spleen, gallbladder and tonsils, along with a single kidney, can be removed as well, but we're still better off with all our parts in order. After all, the kidney is such a vital organ that we require two of them to operate at peak efficiency when it comes to voiding the toxins and useless liquid wastes in our body. If our spleen gets damaged, however, it can be necessary to remove it to prevent a patient from bleeding to death really fast. Unless these necessary organs get damaged or severely infected, removal is just stupid.

Now there's no particular reason I decided to ramble about this tonight. It all popped into my head without so much as a by-your-leave, so I just went with it. If the topic were a little more important and interesting, one might actually call it inspiration. Instead this is more likely to be termed cerebral flatulence. There are days when I write about things that are important in life, but then there are days like this where I just feel like sharing knowledge about things no one really wanted to know. I actually had a friend once who told me I should write a book about thing nobody ever wanted to know. The idea stuck with me, despite the fact that it would obviously be a wasted effort if people really didn't want to know any of those things. Why the hell would they buy the book then? Still, the suggestion has lasted in my brain for the last 25 years or so, so maybe I'll write it just for the hell of it.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Terror, Stress and Mayhem...and a Few Changes, Too

Okay, I've been shamefully remiss. I get that. It's very bad blog practice to leave your readers hanging for long stretches, as they tend to move on to more productive bloggers. For those who have remained to see what I have to say for myself, there is a great deal to cover.

Where I left off...well, I went back to school in an esoteric, online sort of way. I'm still taking my online classes through MIT, which would be plenty to stress me out I suppose. I'm taking two classes in computer science, rather than the four classes a full-time student would be taking. Technically I've already passed the one course, though I'm not yet finished with it. I still have two more lecture groups to go through, homework assignments from the previous two, and one final problem set. Plus I have my final exam which is probably worth a quarter of my final mark. However, with everything I've done so far, my grade is at 66% I think. If I stopped completely I believe I would still pass. That's a bit of a relief in one sense, but I'm pretty hard on myself and intend to finish it out as best I can.

The real issue has been the fact that I've had a very sick ferret for a few weeks. He stopped eating and drinking, and had very bad diarrhea. They already poop about 6 to 8 times a day, so when they have the runs you can imagine how much poop that might be for clean-up detail. I couldn't care less about that, though. I was too busy syringe-feeding Pepper every two hours. I have this stuff the vet gave me, called Carnivore Care (ferrets are obligate carnivores, and can only eat meat - cats are, too, but most people don't know that). It's a very expensive powder that gets mixed with water to varying consistencies, depending on feeding method. Well, it was expensive for the 70-gram pouch anyway. That was almost $40. I found out they had bigger packages, which were 340 grams (almost five times the amount), and they're only $55. I was shocked at the price difference, as was my vet. So the last time I was in there, which was on Friday, I got the bigger bag. The bigger one should last me about a month. The small one lasted a week, so we're talking $140 a month to keep him on this stuff if I hadn't done a bit of research.

Pepper was exhibiting a lot of the same symptoms as my ferret that died a year and a half ago, so I was quite literally terrified. I thought I was going to lose him. However, I checked him for masses, and then my vet did, too, but he doesn't appear to have any. We both think it's an intestinal infection. He was put on one type of antibiotic right when he was starting to show interest in his kibble again, and it made him really sick within a couple of days so I was back to square one with him refusing to eat and being skin and bones again. I had to take him off that, but I did check with the emergency clinic first (it was a holiday weekend here in Canada - our Thanksgiving).

When I brought Pepper back in for a blood test, he was getting healthier again already, and now he's on a different antibiotic. This one doesn't seem to be making him sick, though I have to force him to take it. He completely hates it. If you've never had to scruff an animal that's wriggly like a ferret, in order to force-feed them by syringe when it's something they either despise or it makes them nauseous with the smell, it's hard for me to describe how difficult it can be. You have to be heartless about it, and the only way to do that when you feel empathy toward animals is by loving them so much you refuse to let them die.

Without intervention Pepper would have died, there's no question. It happens extremely fast with ferrets, too. Within a couple of days they can be nothing but skin and bones. Their high metabolic rate means they constantly have to be ingesting calories. They eat about six times a day. Once they stop, what little body fat they have just disappears. Pepper had become a skeleton with a very thin fur coat. That's another thing that changes with the health of a ferret. You can see it in their fur. It got to the point where Pepper looked nothing like himself. His face completely changed. My vet used the word 'gaunt' which is probably the most appropriate description.

My vet couldn't draw any blood from him, sadly. She said it was only the second time in 27 years that she'd failed to get a blood sample from a ferret, and it's not as though he was completely dehydrated at that point, either. I'd been syringe-feeding him for a couple of weeks by then. She said she's had ferrets that weren't even moving they were so dehydrated, so he must have really tiny veins. She'd like to try again, just for us to be sure this isn't something that going to be a chronic issue that needs treatment beyond antibiotics. I think I'm going to wait a few weeks, though, now that Pepper is starting to plump up again, and he's certainly getting his appetite back whenever there's chicken involved.

I'm still syringe-feeding him the Carnivore Care. I've got a good supply of it, and he badly needs to gain weight. Our other ferret, Scooter, loves the stuff. When I have a syringe that's only been partially finished by Pepper, I give the rest to Scooter. He's packing on quite a bit of weight, and his coat is gorgeous now. No, he's not actually getting fat, though I do call him my fat-boy. It's almost unheard of for a ferret to become overweight. They burn calories too quickly.

The end result of it all is that Pepper is slowly putting some weight back on, which means he's getting better, and the diarrhea seems to have gone away. He's been on the new antibiotics for about four days now, with six days to go. I'll be glad when that's over with, because I hate forcing him. It's a liquid, and I have to squirt it toward the back of his throat in order to be sure he swallows it rather than drools it back out. The danger is that animals can aspirate liquids when they're being syringe-fed - especially when they're struggling not to swallow it. It's quite possible to drown them without intending to, so it has to be done at an angle. Same with the food, even when they really like it and they're cooperating.

In the meantime, everyday life will intrude even under the most dire circumstances. I've got websites to maintain and change, I've got show stuff to work on to try to keep us on the air (our station is not broadcasting at this time, and there's no guarantee they will in the future, so we're making some changes to do it on our own for now), and I've got my schoolwork. This is why there haven't been any new articles or blog posts from me for weeks now. Thankfully the people in my life that I have to answer to - to some extent anyway - completely understand my commitment to my pets. I would still do whatever I had to do, with or without their understanding, but it eases the stress to know they're behind me when I make those choices.

I actually blew one of my assignments for my MIT course, because I couldn't concentrate (feedings every 2 hours means almost no sleep, just like having a newborn). I was at the point where it just didn't matter a damn to me. Thankfully they wipe out your lowest assignment score, because all my other assignments had 100%, and my mid-term was 87%, and this one I failed with 41%. That tells you where my priorities are anyway. It didn't help that it was multiple choice, rather than coding. That's where I fell down on my mid-term, too. I hate multiple choice. They're wishy-washy, when they use terms that haven't been covered in the course, and you only get one shot at answering them. I can test my code on my computer before submitting it, and correct any mistakes, so I get those ones right.

I've got a lot of catching up to do with my life right now, including my writing. I've got studying to do, because I'm behind on the lectures and homework. The assignments have due dates, so I've done those, but I haven't bothered doing the day-to-day stuff that doesn't have a deadline. I let everything go that I could, in order to get as much downtime as possible.

There are going to be small changes to The Kovacs Perspective, by the way, but I'll fill everyone in on that as soon as we've worked out the details. I have to make some changes to the website to accommodate what we're having to do, and I'm just now getting the time to work on it. We were hoping we wouldn't have any downtime at all, but when Pepper got sick he became my priority.

For those of you who have stuck around to continue reading, thank you for your support and understanding. For those that didn't, though they won't read this, I do understand why they're not still here. It's the nature of the beast when it comes to blogging. I went from posting every single day, to posting maybe once a month. Hopefully that will change in the near future. I've still got the second programming course coming up, but I'm kind of in a rhythm there now and getting used to the one day a week where my head goes nuts. Oh, wait, I forgot...that happens every day in my head.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Bisecting Algorithms, Calculus, and Monty Python

I feel bad for leaving people hanging, but if you follow me on Facebook you already know why. At least this time it's been for a far better reason than pain. You see, I finally bit the bullet and 'went back to school' if you can call it that. I found out a year ago about something called MOOCs. It stands for Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs are usually free, and they're provided by some of the most prestigious universities and colleges in the world.

I was reading about something to do with Bill Gates, I believe, when they mentioned this initiative he'd been a big part of. The idea was to provide real educational instruction to anyone in the world so long as they had access to a computer and internet services.At first I didn't think it would apply to me, since I don't exactly live in a underdeveloped country - it's a little to over-developed if you ask me. Turns out the courses are available to anyone in the world.

It took me a while to get up the energy, and I really had no idea what I wanted to get into, so there I was a year later and still not taking advantage of this amazing resource. The more I started building websites, though, the more I started to see that my knowledge belonged in the realm of antiquity, collecting dust while the young 'uns zoomed past me. Some of my knowledge is still relevant, and having it was a good base for me because I could usually figure things out quite nicely, but with every website I created I was left frustrated and wanting to do more, without the ability to do so.

Most of the answer I was looking for were readily available online, so whenever I wanted to try something knew I could always figure out how to do it, but it felt a bit like cheating. I really wanted to know what to do and how to do it without looking it up all the time. So, I kept going back to a site with free course listings. It's in case you're in the market for a really good, free education. I finally decided I would concentrate on programming more than web design, because I was starting to get a decent handle on that from hands-on experience. They had courses on there through everyone from Harvard to Yale, and from MIT to Oxford. You could say I was a little surprised. Some of those schools are damn near impossible to get into, and they cost a fortune. led me to edX. Originally I followed a Harvard course link, but within minutes I was looking at Intro to Computer Science and Programming from MIT. Harvard is great if you want to be a lawyer, but I don't think anything beats an education in tech from MIT. I screwed up my courage and determination, and forged ahead with registering. It was totally painless. I could have taken the course completely free, but I decided to go the route of being a verified student for $50. The fee is just for administration costs for looking at your ID and comparing it to you webcam shot, so they know it's really you taking the course. Then when they hand out the certificate at the end, your name is actually on it, rather than just getting a generic one that could belong to anyone.

For the time being I'm learning Python, a programming language that was actually named after that well-known comedy troupe, Monty Python. Apparently it's supposed to be hilarious because of references within the language. I haven't dissolved into gales of laughter just yet, but I'm only about a quarter of the way through the first part of the course. The second part is Computational Thinking and Data something-or-other. That starts at the end of October, a week before my first course is finished. Right when I'm dealing with my final exam, I'll be delving into fresh territory. Of course, I'm doing that already because I'm also taking a course on solar energy from Delft University of Technology. By the time we're done we're supposed to be able to design our own PV (photovoltaic) system, and since I plan to run my home off solar I'd like to know what I'm doing (and whether or not my contractor is installing the right panels in the right configuration).

So far I've got 100% on everything for the programming course at a quarter through the lectures. I haven't done much in the solar course, but my first assignment for that isn't due until September 22nd. With the programming stuff I had two assignments two days apart, so I've been concentrating on that.

I don't think I'm as smart as I used to be (or thought I was), because this course is supposed to be for people with little or no programming knowledge. Algebra is required, though it's supposed to be at a high school level. It's been nearly 30 years since I took algebra, though. It may not have changed much, but I sure haven't been using it in my daily life - all the teachers said we would need algebra one day, and apparently my time has come. How I'm supposed to remember math I did more than half my life ago, I couldn't tell you, but there it is. I didn't feel all that old until I went back to school. The program information regarding prerequisites said we wouldn't need calculus...but they lied. I need it, and I've never taken it.

There you have it folks. I thought I was glued to my laptop before - this is ridiculous. So hang in there for a bit. Once my head stops spinning I'll be a little more attentive to my writing. In the meantime, I hope everyone out there is doing well. And remember, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."

Friday, 8 August 2014

A Seed Ark to Protect Our Food Supply Diversity

I received an e-mail some time ago about a group of farmers that are trying to store up seeds in order to protect our planet from companies that are trying to gain a monopoly on our food supply, (and by so doing these companies are risking the lives of everyone in the world). When I saw the e-mail and petition, I asked permission to re-post it, because I felt it was an important thing these farmers are doing, and I'd like to spread the word as much as possible. Here's the e-mail in its entirety:

Dear friends,

Click to pledge what you can:

$3    $5    $10    $20    $40

Pledge another amount
The source of our planet’s food is under threat. Ten agro-chemical firms own 73% of the commercial seed market, and as many as 93% of seed varieties have gone extinct. In the US alone 85% of apple varieties have disappeared.

Monsanto and co. are privatising the genesis of nature. And this corporate takeover is decimating sustainable farming, destroying the diversity of our crops, and making them vulnerable to diseases that could threaten our food security.

But farmers are resisting, saving seeds in banks and barns across the world. Now they have devised a revolutionary project -- the first ever, non-profit “eBay” of seed where any farmer, anywhere can source a wide variety of plants cheaper than the genetically modified seeds from chemical companies. This global online store could re-flood the market with all kinds of seeds and slowly break the monopoly that is putting our food future at risk!

This could be the most innovative agricultural idea in decades -- a Noah’s Ark of seeds. But chemical companies often bully and sue those that get in their way, and farmers are calling on us to support them. If we raise enough now we can help them launch the online site, support seed storing in key countries, finance marketing and advertising, and fund the legal defence to fight back.

Pledge to help kick start the Noah's Ark -- Avaaz will only process donations if we raise enough to launch the whole initiative:

For thousands of years agriculture was driven by farmers selecting, replanting, and breeding seed varieties. Then the agro-chemical companies persuaded many governments to promote a corporate system of industrial, single-crop farming. Companies promise farmers higher yields and bigger earnings, and often lure them into multi-year contracts for GM (genetically modified) seeds and pesticides. Then they rely on patent laws and use agreements to strong-arm farmers to abandon their traditional practices of seed saving and innovation.

There is still no consensus on the long-term effects of GM crops, but experts say that the lack of independent scientific studies means there may be serious risks to our health from some GM foods. And there isn’t clear evidence that the introduction of GM seeds has improved farmers' incomes or provided more food for the world's people -- in fact in many cases it has driven small independent farmers out of business and in extreme cases to suicide to avoid debt.

The dire consequences go way beyond the farmers. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation more than three-quarters of the genetic diversity of our crops has been lost due to seed consolidation and industrial practices. This matters because when we cover large swathes of land with just one cash crop -- instead of rotating or diversifying them -- our farms are more susceptible to diseases. While genetic modification may increase some crop yields, it's clear that without seed diversity and locally-tailored sustainable practices to confront changing environmental conditions -- our global food security could be at risk.

But this crisis isn’t insurmountable. The takeover is only decades old, farmers have saved seed everywhere, and if supported widely, this online seed market could help recover our food. A coalition of more than 20 groups and leaders in the field of sustainable agriculture like the Center for Food Safety and activist Vandana Shiva are standing by ready to launch the project. Here’s how our funds can help:
  • directly support seed-saving initiatives in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.
  • create a world class website for the online store that connects farming communities everywhere, allowing them to legally sell seeds and share best practices globally.
  • help fund legal defence of this non-profit seed market from legal attacks by Monsanto and others.
  • market and advertise the exchange so that farmers all over the world join up.
  • campaign for better protections for our existing seeds from corporate takeover and patents.
Monsanto’s been forcing their GM seeds and vision of mass industrial agriculture on farmers (and all of us) for years, but if we all pitch in we can build this Noah's Ark for our remaining seed species! Chip in now and Avaaz will only process the pledge if we raise enough to make this plan work:
“To plant a seed is to activate the deepest mysteries of the Universe.” These seeds hold the origin and mystery of so much of life as we know it. Let's support this movement to protect that mystery from complete corporate control and help bring back thousands of food plants we thought were already lost.

With hope and determination,

Alice, Maria Paz, Nick, Emma, Ricken, Antonia, Patricia, Mais, Emily, Diego and the whole Avaaz team


2013 Report: Wake Up Before It's Too Late (UN Conference on Trade and Development)

On India’s Farms, a Plague of Suicide (New York Times)

How many farmers plant GM worldwide? (EuropaBio)

Ministry blames Bt cotton for farmer suicides (Hindustan Times)

Monsanto Lawsuits Pile Up as American Farmers Demand Rights (Mother Earth News)

Life in the Rural Police State of Monsanto (Truth Out)

From 1903 -1983 the world lost 93 percent of key seed varieties (National Geographic)

The pernicious characteristics of monocultures (PBS)

Norway invests $23.7 million in crop diversity to help farmers face climate change (FAO)

World Food Day 2004 highlights the importance of biodiversity to global food security (FAO)

Political Power of the Agribusiness & Crop Insurance Lobbies (Taxpayers for Common Sense)

Putting the Cartel before the Horse (ETC) is a 37-million-person global campaign network
that works to ensure that the views and values of the world's people shape global decision-making. ("Avaaz" means "voice" or "song" in many languages.) Avaaz members live in every nation of the world; our team is spread across 18 countries on 6 continents and operates in 17 languages. Learn about some of Avaaz's biggest campaigns here, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

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