Thoughts on this Remembrance Day

Some thoughts for Remembrance Day. I have always worn a red poppy to remember all those who’s lives were affected by war. I read a Toronto Star article about the white poppy, and its pacifist roots. I don’t have any quarrel with those who wear the white poppy, although the phrase “war is stupid” struck me as reducing the idea too much. War is complex. I don’t like war, few of us do. I prefer the phrase “Give Peace a Chance.” Chance involves failures. We can fail at peace and then try again, and again.

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Many of us only think of our soldiers on Remembrance Day. I understand that. Thinking of 17 and 18 year old boys getting on ships and sailing to England and eventually fighting and then dying while facing conditions I can only imagine is certainly worth remembering.

I also remember the millions of civilians whose lives ended or is affected by war. I think of the Queen Mother of England remaining in London out of solidarity with her subjects while bombs rained down. I also think of my grandmother is Bristol deciding which child to take to the bomb shelter first: my father or my aunt. She decided to leave my father since he was an infant and wouldn’t walk or crawl away while she carried the more mobile toddler. I also think of her husband, my grandfather, whose company, Bristol Aerospace, built many of the war machines that were dropping bombs on my relatives in Germany.

I think of my German grandfather, a career military man, who spent the 1930s conflicted between choosing between his country and his weariness towards the increasingly oppressive regime that was taking over his country. He had friends and contacts in England, and came close to leaving. He chose to remain loyal to his military and country. I think of a power-hungry politician who made incremental changes to Germany’s democratic constitution to slowly cement his position as a permanent leader and his use of terror and intimidation on his own population to push his own ideology and agenda. I also think of how much praise he got in England and North America before the war for being a potential ally against Communism. I read a book about the heads of the German and British spy agencies who were very close at negotiating a British-German alliance. War is complicated. I am also thankful that he attacked the Soviet Union against the advice of his generals, because if he didn’t Germany may have won the war.

These two men of war. One is easy to damn a perpetrator of hate and terror. I have visited Auschwitz and was invited by a Jewish man I met in Warsaw to accompany him to find his relatives’ graves in an abandoned Jewish cemetery. I will always remember. The other man is complex, like war. I sometimes damn him; I always think about him. Towards the end of the war, after a failed attempt on Hitler’s life, my grandfather’s life changed. He was demoted and sent from Berlin to the eastern front, which was rapidly retreating. He told my grandmother to take my mother and her siblings west into what would eventually become West Germany. They ended up close to the border. He knew exactly where that border would form. His life ended in mystery. One of my cousins did some research and discovered that a bomb went off while he and three other men were driving in a car. Only he perished. It is suspected he was assassinated for some role in the attempt on Hitler’s life. I wish I could say he was the head of the plot, but it appears that he simply knew of the plot, and remained silent in tacit support.

So don’t make remembrance day about t soldiers versus civilians. Make it about the affects of war and peace on all of us. It is about the end of war and remembering the cost of war.

The Ottawa Shooting and Mental Health

The question of the day is how the shooting will change Canada. I fear it won’t change us at all. Some have talked about our country’s lost innocence. A country is never innocent. In its past and present, Canada has both scars and glories.

Of course this was something will add to our collective injuries. It was the killing of an unarmed soldier standing guard over the poetically named Tomb of the Unnamed Soldier, which represents the millions of soldiers around the world who never got a proper burial. This is a heart-aching symbol of this tragedy.

My fear of not changing lies elsewhere, although one has to assume they’ll figure out a way of a least remotely locking the front doors when someone is running towards them with a gun. I have focused on the profile that is emerging of the man who shot the soldier and got into a gunfight in the Parliament buildings. He obviously led a troubled life culminating in the violent death we all are talking about now. What troubles me the most, is that he acted out many times in his life, including robbing a McDonalds in the hope of being arrested. He also tried for a fresh start in Vancouver. This tells me he knew something was wrong, and he wanted help.

He never managed to get any help or prolonged attention from either the criminal justice system, or more importantly, social and health services. This is because they are not designed to deal with mental illness very well. The closest he got was a court report that found no evidence of mental illness, but stated that he was “deeply troubled.” Do we really want courts deciding this? I don’t doubt the sincerity of the judges and even the court psychologists or psychiatrists who would have assessed him in one or two sessions. This is where our system fails us. A diagnosis of “deeply troubled” should have triggered a more in-depth program. This was a man who wanted to stay in jail because he knew he had problems. After his McDonald’s incident, he was jailed for one day and then released.

There are many profiles written about him. They all stress his drug addictions and mentally instability. Most of these pieces are framed as “exclusive looking into the life and mind of a criminal.” I think we should read them as a chance to get inside the life and mind of a Canadian with drug addictions and mental illnesses who was ignored and left to descend into the state of mind that decided a good idea would be to gun down a soldier and then charge our Parliament. This blows me away.

One specific detail was his use of crack-cocaine. Toronto’s mayor used crack-cocaine. I don’t raise this because I want to further highlight my mayor’s behaviour in a salacious way, but because I find it interesting to compare their lives and circumstances. The mayor is lucky to have friends, family, colleagues, and public scrutiny to push him into rehab after many incidents of erratic behaviour, many of which were fuelled by drugs and alcohol. He also had the personal wealth to afford an expensive rehab clinic.

Even for those of us lucky to have this sort of support group to intervene when things start to spiral downwards, it is often not enough. It is exhausting and can be even frightening to deal with people who are depressed, angry, or any of the other manifestations of mental illness and drug addiction. This is where we need professional help in order to better identify and treat people who need help to prevent their descent. I remember listening to the CBC radio programme White Coat, Black Art that did an episode on mental illness and the main point was that our medically trained hospital staff, including nurses and doctors, aren’t even that good dealing with the mentally ill. This must be a sign for change.

But this is hard for politicians to undertake because it is hard to measure short-term success in this area that translates into votes. It is easy to throw someone in jail. It is harder to identify a suffering person and to treat them. This is because of the relentless nature of addiction and mental illness. They are conditions that can’t be cured; you can only adapt and to learn to live with them, and they can overpower you again in times of stress and anxiety.

This man was estranged from his family and had tried moving to Vancouver for a fresh start, and turned to religion but obviously never found an effective support group for his problems. If, as is being speculated, he was influenced in some way by ISIS, then I am troubled that our society was unable to reach out earlier in his life. It is damning if he ISIS as more welcoming and understanding than Canada. He was Canadian, as much as you or me, and the fact that he was missed on many occasions and ended up killing, should surely serve as a call for change.

So, instead of taking some morally high ground such as Rex Murphy proudly saying that he wouldn’t even state his name, or Stephen Harper, mocking Justin Trudeau for even suggesting that we should figure out what the hell is going on inside the heads of people who commit violent acts, we should focus on improving the services designed to intervene and prevent people getting to this point. My desire for change is not only motivated from my bleeding heart liberal perspective of trying finding good in all humanity, but as a matter of prevention and public safety as well. So I call out our political leaders, many of whom experienced this horrible shooting first-hand, to not solely focus on the security aspect of this event, but also focus on improving our country’s ability to help those with a severe need for help.

Coffee published

I have exciting news. I have collaborated with Carolyn Eady from Sprouts Press to publish my short story Coffee. It’s a story about readjusting one’s life after finding yourself suddenly alone after the death of loved one. I hope you all enjoy it. I learnt a lot from laying out a book for publishing. I used Scribus, free software that is relatively easy to use. It was a real mind teaser to figure out the page order. Page 12 on the left and page 1 on the right.

I hope all of you in Toronto can make it to the Gladstone Hotel tomorrow from 10:30-4:30. For those of you who can’t make it because you’re busy or live somewhere else, I might try my hand producing an e-book that I’ll either sell myself or through Sprouts Press’ Esty site. But that’ll be another project. Printing the hard copy version was enough work for now.

Here are the first few paragraphs of the story as teaser for everyone:

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A relief arrived when he finally died. Many people expected grief, but for me it was relief. Relief from the continuous pain of seeing his body wither like a dried out petal.

On September 2 last year, Russ came home and told me the Doctor had diagnosed him with cancer. It was the first time in years I had wanted to cry. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, not in front of Russ. I wondered then if he had cried, on his way home from the doctor. He certainly never cried in front of me. Throughout last year I promised to let myself cry after he died, when he could no longer see me, when he no longer needed my strength to help him through the pain. But now, two days since the funeral, I am sitting alone in our house, without any tears.

I once did cry over Russ. It was fifteen years ago, before we were married, when we were still courting each other. We met at university in Kitchener. It was near the end of the semester, about a month before the summer break. I had seen Sarah, a mutual friend of ours, standing in the lobby of the library, and went over to say hi. Russ was there, talking to another guy in our circle. I talked mostly with Sarah. I don’t think we really even noticed each other. But over the next few weeks, we ended up bumping into each other all over campus. We just joked, and made each other laugh. We never asked each other out, it never seemed right. We didn’t even exchange phone numbers or emails.

Finally one day walking across the main green with the end of the semester, and our chance encounters, quickly approaching, Russ finally asked what I was doing that summer. I was going to work and stay in Kitchener. He said that he had gotten a job in Toronto, but planned on coming back every now and then. I gave him my number and told him to call me some time. I don’t know if I expected him to call or not.

He did call. We met up for dinner and he actually spent the night. We didn’t sleep together; he just crashed on my couch downstairs. The rest of the summer we ended up spending hours together, just talking and laughing, without it ever getting romantic, it wasn’t our style. Then he asked me to a show in Toronto he somehow had tickets for. God he fumbled through that, saying something about asking other people to go who couldn’t, and that I was the last person he could think of asking. Neither of us called it a date, he just had these tickets to use.

After the show he dropped me at the bus station. It was the first time we hugged. We didn’t linger in each other’s arms, but later both admitted it felt special. The next semester, we continued to hang out a lot, never having the guts or confidence to push it to the next level. It’s funny thinking that now, how we could have resisted each other all that time. We were in love, out-shying each other. Eventually we needed to say something, the semester was coming to an end and he was graduating.

Bad Dream

Last night I had a plane crash dream. I was on the plane. My girlfriend says she has lots of violent dreams in which she’s stabbed or falls to her death. She says she doesn’t end up carrying them around with her all day. My nasty dreams usually involve more psychological worries and terrors like missing a deadline and then transferring the dream’s anxiety onto my waking life’s problems. These negative feelings can haunt my entire day, drawing a negative pallor over my emotions and thoughts. Luckily those dreams don’t come around too often. Many of my dreams involve me flying, but not on a plane. I can glide through the air without the restraints of gravity. They usually have a positive feeling about them. Interesting, their positive resonance is not as impactful on my days as the negative ones.

This one last night had me participate in a crash. I remember knowing that something was wrong and feeling the plane falling. I next remember seeing the plane touching the ground without landing gear. My perspective was from outside the plane now, but I think it was like another camera angle rather than me being out of the plane. I was still in the plane. Like many dreams the images are fleeting and disconnected, so the next image I have is the plane skidding along a narrow laneway between two farmers’ fields lined with telephone poles. I remember thinking “hmm I guess the wings are gone for us to fit through here.” But it was definitely still the plane rather than transforming into a bus or a train. Now the next phase of the dream is the passengers off the plane and trying to find a car rental agency. And the only thing I salvaged from my luggage was a shop-vac! I love dreams. They’re so weird.

When I told my girlfriend about the car rental agency. All she said was “so it was more about inconvenience than anything else.” I’m not one to really examine any meaning behind dreams. There was no emotional legacy of this dream on my day.

Review of Burnt River, Kate Sorbara

Last month I attended Quatro Books’ Toronto WordStage at QSpace. My friend Lisa Young hosted it. Usually when I attend readings, it is the fiction that catches my ear; that night though it was an amazing collection of poetry called Burnt River by Kata Sorbara.

I arrived late, and found a seat far from the stage. I was still thinking about my streetcar ride down Bathurst while the first reader finished. When Kate started reading her direct verse penetrated my distracted mind. I suddenly could do nothing but listen to her poetry that uses emotional descriptions of nature as starting points to review and contemplate life. Kate’s poetry combines vivid imagery of leaves falling, a river flowing or snow drifts blowing and piercing human emotion that is at the centre of all our lives.