And now comes the time when I resume posting schoolwork

(For World Religions class we had to write a one-page piece about a moment of awe in our lives. I wailed and fretted all around the internet, but I’m not actually too ashamed of this page. So I thought I may as well put it up here.)

In Awe

Last Thursday, I rode three planes as part of my quest to make it home to rural Newfoundland for my brother’s wedding. The third and final flight was a tiny propellor plane, the type which has rows one seat wide and which holds a maximum of 18 people. It took off out of St. John’s in the dark, after nine. I had made my connection with six minutes to spare, after fog delayed the flight out of Halifax. We had been flying in fog most of the day.

When leaving St. John’s, airplanes take a course over downtown and out to sea, turning to head down the flight path to their destination once they’ve come abreast of Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. As the plane started to turn in the air, I realized that I’d see my family again in just half an hour. I could probably count the minutes to reunion.

And then the flight tipped to the left, in that curious gravity-confusing effect of sharply banking aircraft. The horizon twisted away, and I was either looking at the ground or the sky, but for a moment it was hard to tell the difference. The view outside my window had turned to a jewellery-counter spill, gold, silver, emerald and ruby on black velvet. I recognized familiar city landmarks as the lights outside my window resolved into a net of gold underneath us.

I don’t see well enough to see the stars. Most evenings can provide christmas-card smears of brightness. But this moment was clear and wondrous, and in that moment these familiar man-made constellations held all the wonder of the cosmos.

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Occupy a Charity! Or wait, what?

I started this blog post back in October, so it’s probably time to unearth it from my drafts and actually post it. Onwards!

Back in the fall of the year last year, during the Occupy movements, one of memes that was circulating the internet was of people saying “I am wealthy– tax me more!” I, being the cynical person that I am, wondered aloud why these people didn’t give the money they thought should be taken in taxes to charities, if they really cared so deeply.

Then I thought about that more, and it actually seemed an excellent idea. If you think you should be taxed at a higher rate, or if you feel that the government is falling down on the job on a certain issue– give a bunch of money to a charity! That way you actually know where the money goes, and you don’t have to wait for tax reform to roll around, a process that might take five or more years.

Side note: I am not advocating for high-income persons paying taxes at a lower rate than middle-income people. That is absurd. I’m thinking about the possibilities inherent in making 200k or more a year, which is the benchmark for the Canadian 1%.

At any rate, I was so taken with my idea that I mentioned it to someone else who was taking an interest in the Occupy movement. His reaction was first to accuse me of conservatism, and then when I requested an answer to why this idea I’d just come up with would be bad, he responded.

“Well it doesn’t work to just have people give money to charities, because then it gives people free rein to be bigots with their money.”

Now I found that to be a fascinating response, primarily because of all the assumptions it contains. The first one is that it presumes that the government is free of prejudice and/or bigotry. Is that true? On the one hand, no, because no choice can be free of a value statement. Every decision is prejudiced one way or another. But semantics aside, is our government free of prejudice?

I have been thinking about this, and I don’t believe that simply because the government is the government it is imbued with some quasi-mystical protection against awfulness. The record of history is that governments make mistakes, and usually when they make mistakes they make horrible ones. They also do good things, but it is far from a 100% skew in favour of infallible government. Yes, our governments are committed to justice and equality. In Canada we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which the government is committed to upholding. But so is every other institution– and  by law. If I want to go around discriminating against people on the basis of age, class, race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, etc, I am prohibited by law from doing so. I could be working for the government or the local corner store, it makes no difference. So there’s that.

And the second presumption which that statement contented is that it’s the government’s role to stop bigotry. And that also, I think, is incorrect.

Please don’t stone me.

I don’t mean that the govt should be advocating or turning a blind eye to bigotry. Our duly elected officials, as representatives of the people, should be fighting grossness and injustice, protecting the powerless and disenfranchised, and helping those who need it. But that’s just it, as representatives of the people. Change shouldn’t come only from the government, it should come from the people, with “official” channels being only one of the channels which change travels.

So yes, it is government’s role to stop bigotry and grossness. But it is also EVERYONE ELSE’S role to stop it. If we rely on legislation as the only path to change things, I think we make a mistake. Social change usually comes in small increments, on the community and household level, after all.

So that is how a simple statement about charity and taxes opened up a whole can of worms in my head about the role of government and re-established in my own head that legislation is not the end-all-and-be-all of society. Feel free to point out my mistakes and mental flaws in the comments. 😀

What 2012 looks like for me.

It doesn’t include the end of the world, let me tell you that.

Nope

If the apocalypse comes, I am not at home. I’ve read enough fiction to know that. Sheesh.

I should probably disclaim at this point: my plans are always nebulous. I’ve had enough curve balls thrown at me to (hopefully) not be too set on any plan I attempt to predict the future with. I am no prophet.

Anyways, my plan for the next year comes in three parts. I had originally planned to go back to school in January. I was gonna take 6 courses, it was gonna be awesome. And then, (curve ball ahoy) my funding (in the form of a long-shot bank loan) for next term did not appear. At that point I took a long hard look at my bank account and– I get to work for the next term!

As much as I am regretful about not being able to go back and study Celtic History and Logic and Greek/Roman History and Psychology and French and Global Short Fiction– all those courses should still be offered when I get back Next winter. And I am so looking forward to being able to look at my bank account and feel I’m snubbing bankruptcy. (Right now our flirting is about toescalate to tongue-kissing, to illustrate the state of my bank account.)

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Why I’m a genre snob

I have a long and sometimes not-so-amiable history with reading. Or rather, with reading certain things.

You see, when you present at age eight reading books of 300 pages within a day, people are impressed– for about 12 seconds. (Sometimes this period of “impressed” takes longer, as people refuse to believe that you are actually reading the book you’re holding in your hand.) However, shortly after the people get over the shock at your feat, they immediately try to better you by suggesting you stop reading whatever trash you’re putting into your brain currently. You should read CLASSICS! You should read LITERARY works!

You may be able to gather from my tone that this attempt to better me didn’t work out with 100% success.

I mean, when I was little I was an avid devourer of adventure stories. I still really enjoy reading them. I wanted peril, physical drama, and last minute saves! I wanted witty jokes and sarcasm! I wanted happy endings. (Seriously, I had almost no tolerance for any kind of darkness until about four years ago.) And I wasn’t always very forgiving when I didn’t get this.

On one notable occasion I read Oliver Twist somehow under the impression that I was reading an adventure tale. Everything was going along well until the end, when suddenly people were dying left right and centre. After reading in vivid detail about a guy who beat his girlfriend to death and then hanged himself accidentally I wasn’t really open to seeing the end as a “happy ending”. (Trauma R Us, instead, I was kinda under the impression the ending could be filed there…)

I think, on reflection, while my language comprehension was very high, and my technical reading level was quite precocious, I wasn’t always good at picking up subtext. I focused on details, to the exclusion of the big plot picture. After all, I was reading for fun– I mean who wants to have to WORK to pick out who the bad guys are when you’re reading for fun? Moral ambiguity is hard stuff!

And then I grew up, and spent four years writing approximately six hundred thousand words of fiction and thinking a great deal about story structure, while simultaneously spending a year and a half reviewing every single book I read. Better with subtext now, thank you.

So now I’ve eschewed all my adventure books and happy endings, and I’ve moved on to reading wonderful classics and delicate, nuanced literary fiction, with refreshing jaunts into magical realism for the relaxation?

Not– quite. (Yes, my friends who know my reading tastes are laughing a lot right now, I’m sure, at the idea that I willingly read litfic.) Now I read primarily Science Fiction and Fantasy in the Young Adult/Middle Grade section. But why would I restrict myself so, you ask? Why don’t I read books for adults? What is the point of this blog post anyways?

The point of this blog post is that I think I am finally able to put my finger on why I keep reading a certain type of book. I can finally identify what it is about a story that makes me go “YES, this is AWESOME. THIS is why I read.”

It comes down to a matter of tone, of (dare I say it?) subtext. I realized this in English class, where we were discussing magical realism. I asked what made that genre different from urban fantasy. (Protip: Do not mention urban fantasy in an english lit class as though you’re familiar with it, unless you’re aiming to be hilarious.) There wasn’t an easy definition of urban fantasy handy, but magical realism is typified by nostalgia.

It harkens back to a “more simple,” pre-moden time, when the lines between magic and science were fuzzier, and things could be simply accepted at face value. There is an underlying discontent with the world as it is, and, depending on the author, the statement is either that things used to be better, or things used to be simpler, but were never better.

And then because there wasn’t a definition of urban fantasy handy, I made one. Urban fantasy (at least the stuff I like to read,) looks at the world and says “things are awesome. But you know what would be more awesome? If we added DRAGONS.”

Firefighters with WINGS.

The basic tone is hopeful, saying that things are cool, and okay, there’s a monster outside my door that wants to eat me, but I can totally beat him with the help of my friends and my endless stubbornness and some ingenuity. There is an underlying fight against despair. (Sometimes the monsters are literally despair-inducing and need to be fought.) The message is that there are monsters, but they should be and can be fought, and can and should be defeated.

"I may have been bitten by a genetically modified spider which actually messed with my DNA and made me semi-human, but I'm gonna use that to help people! Also, I don't need glasses any more-- this is the best day!"

This also applies to straight up fantasy, with terrible costs and eventual bittersweet endings and ALSO DRAGONS. And it also applies to Science Fiction, which gets adventures, peril, and also ROCKETS. And ROCKET TRAINS.

No big deal, we're just living in a science fictional universe.

Of course, not everything in these genres fits those tone categories. *looks sidelong at all the “edgy” dark stuff with “edgy” nihilistic endings*  *goes back to frequenting the YA and MG sections* *pointedly eschews the Dystopian section* But overall, I feel like my odds of coming up with a story I actually like are higher if I stay with stories which embrace the world and imagination hopefully, not despairingly.

The Bottom Billion: The Head and the Heart together.

I really enjoyed The Bottom Billion. I read it after Stephen Lewis’s Race Against Time, which was a bit of a shift. According to most of the information we covered and books we read, what will fix the situation is more money. This book presents a different view of the efficacy of aid, and I think it has at least something to do with where the authors are coming from.

Stephen Lewis, as someone who works for the UN, doesn’t have a great deal of actual power. The battle he is fighting is for awareness, for the “hearts and minds” of people in power, so that– once won over– they can put money where he thinks it’s needed. Also, in Race Against Time he was dealing with a humanitarian crisis. In a medical situation money is very much needed to buy medical supplies, hire nurses, etc. His call is always for More Money.

And on the other side, we have Paul Collier, who has worked for the World Bank. (I know, that den of all evil. BOO, HISS… wait.) His position is not to make people aware of bad situations– there are people like Stephen Lewis to do that. Rather, his job is to look at economic situations and make sure that the money given helps as much as possible. It’s all about looking at the big picture, with all possible factors and positions, and making the best decision with what you have to do. The head and the heart together. The call is for Smart Money.

Unravel that at one stroke.

I like the big picture. I don’t really believe that problems arise in isolation, and I love seeing connections made between points. (Makes me feel like I understand what’s going on.) So yes, I really liked Bottom Billion. It doesn’t make me feel like I know WHAT to do, but at least I know more of the complexity of the situation.

What complexity, you say? WELL LET ME TELL YOU.

Paul Collier opens the book talking about how we’re used to hearing the world described. There are six billion people (at the time the book was drafted), and of those six one billion are in the “developed” nations. The other five are “developing,” and they need help. He says that this is not really true. Yes, there is a top billion, but of the “developing” nations, four billion of them are doing quite well at catching up. They have growing economies, and more importantly, they have a clear path forward to get to “developed” status. The problem lies in the bottom billion (ah-hah, seeing the connection with the title now, eh?) which are not improving. While almost every nation on earth has grown and improved over the past 50 years, these nations have just stayed put in miserable conditions. It’s the bottom billion where attention needs to be fixed, he says.

So, how do we go about helping? And how come these nations are stuck in the first place?   Fascinatingly, Paul Collier points out that these nations who have failed to grow are in one or another of a certain list of bad circumstances, and explains why these bad circumstances (he calls them “traps”) are a bad thing.
The traps are:

  • Conflict.
    • It is pretty self explanatory as to why this is bad for a country. People die, economies stagnate, disease spreads, a legacy of organized killing creeps into the culture, and other nations don’t want to deal with you.
    • But even worse, once a nation falls into a cycle of civil wars or coups, it just keeps happening. This is not to say that any nation that has a civil war is going to be stuck in an endless cycle of war, just that once you have one, you have a 50% chance of having another one within the next ten years.
    • 73% of nations in the bottom billion are either currently engaged in a civil war or have just been through one.
  • The Natural Resource Trap
    • At first glance this appears to be a good thing, so why are natural resources a trap? First of all, the high amount of resources being exported causes the country’s currency to rise– and other exports (including food, in many places) becomes uncompetitive. Oil (or diamonds, or lumber, or mining) is suddenly the only game in town. This is bad for the overall economy, and also bad for when the resource runs out.
    • The large amounts of natural resource money also floating around an economy also tends to make a democracy corrupt with startling rapidity.
    • Therefore; resources = good, only resources = bad in unexpected ways.
    • 29% of countries in the bottom billion have economies dominated by resource wealth.
  • Trapped inland with bad neighbours
    • Being landlocked severely restricts trade, both moving in and out. If your neighbours don’t feel like letting you use their roads, or they’re locked in another civil war (sadly common) or if the roads out are terrible, you’re just stuck. You can’t get things you need in, and you can’t get things you want to sell out. You’re just on you own.
    • Another factor to consider is that your neighbours are in many cases your prime trading partners. (As Canadians, we should understand that.) So if your neighbours are not buying, you do not end up looking like Switzerland, you end up looking like the Central African Republic.
    • 38% of countries in the bottom billion are landlocked.
  • Trapped in a small country with bad governance.
    • Basically, the opportunities for a government to improve a country are a bit hit and miss, but it is sadly easy for a bad government to utterly destroy an economy– and shortly after that to become a “failing state” and destroy a country.
    • Not all bad governments result in bad economies– he contrasts Chad and Bangladesh, which tie for “most corrupt governments in the world” (now that’s a title you don’t want) but which have very dissimilar economies. The difference is that Bangladesh is in a position where if it avoids making actively terrible decisions it can get along okay (it’s not stuck in any of the other traps), whereas Chad is landlocked, and its economy is based primarily on aid and oil. To get ahead it would need really good, non-corrupt government, which it emphatically does not have.
    • More than 75% of the nations in the bottom billion live in what can be defined as “failing states,” where the government is actively making disastrous decision, corruption is rife, and there is little or no way for anyone to get ahead.

These are all clearly bad things, but interestingly, they’re not issues that will be fixed with the straight application of lots of money. In talking about the resource trap, it’s pointed out that a great deal of aid money has a similar effect to a great deal of resource money, in that it tends to aid corruption. There’s also the stat that an estimated 60% of African military spending is funded by aid money– almost none of which was intended to purchase guns by the people who offered it. But the solution is not to just cut off aid money either, it does have an effect. That the amount of money that has come into the african economy because of oil is roughly equal to that which has come in for aid, and while the aid money has had a measurable positive effect on the lives of citizens and the economy as a whole, the oil money has had a negligible effect. Paul Collier’s main contention is that money is needed, but we can’t just give and assume we’ve fixed the problem that tugged at our heartstrings. We have to have “the head and the heart working together.” He then goes on to outline ways that countries can break out of the traps, and how we can (hopefully) help.

I’d like to stress here that this is not a summary of the book, it’s merely a teaser of how very interesting it is. There are so many more interconnected factors he talks about– for example whether poverty or oppression is more likely to spark civil wars, and the costs and benefits of military intervention in failing states. However, I am not here to take a possible book sale from an interested party, I’m just here to raise awareness. (Not as well as Stephen Lewis, I know, but he’s a master!)<

In conclusion, you should read this book. Yes, you. You will learn fascinating things.

What happens to your feelings when you have not achieved a life of perfect logic is a painful story.

So, I learned another thing! And this time it’s about brains! —–>

(I know, the list is of “things” is getting ridiculous by now. It’s like I paid money to go learn things or something. Only I didn’t learn this in class.

Wait.)

Anyways. (Have you noticed I’ve gotten so bad at intros that I’ve abandoned them entirely? I know I’ve noticed this.) I learned an interesting fact about the brain. Several facts, in fact. Current research into neuropsychology has turned up fascinating information about how we process emotions. It turns out that in the face of extremely traumatic situations, if we can’t process the emotions that are overwhelming us, our brains tend to “burn a fuse” and distance us from the situation. This is especially true in the case of negative emotions such as anger, shame and fear– if we can’t deal with them at the time (which is filled with trauma, after all) we deal with them later. And this is a perfectly healthy coping mechanism– we’re not supposed to be processing all emotions all the time. On the one hand, not all social situations call for a detailed examination of that shame you just experienced, and on the other side of the spectrum, not all car crash sites call for a full working through of the fear you just felt when your car impacted another one. So, you deal with it later.

And this is where things get interesting and directly applicable to my life. Because anyone who’s had to be a first aider is familiar with the “I’ll deal with this later” feeling, right? But you HAVE to deal with it at some point. If you just leave it alone, the trauma doesn’t go away. It just sits there, nesting in the back of your brain, like a little time bomb, waiting to go off. Because if you don’t deliberately deal with the emotions in a safe environment, you’ll come to something that will set it off when you’re not prepared. And you’ll start bawling in a public place. Or you’ll become filled with shame over a joke someone tells you, to a completely unrealistic degree. Or you’ll just have amazingly intense anger over something that doesn’t seem to warrant it.

When this effect was being described (we were talking about Inner Healing, btw), I’m pretty sure I was sitting in the back of the room with a strong resemblance to a bobble-head doll. Shame, Rage, Sorrow, Check… but when that happens, you just stuff it back and think through it, right? You take refuge in your reason?

Wrong! (Well, mostly kinda wrong.)

It turns out that when you’re dealing with emotions that “blew a fuse,” that you were not able to deal with at the time, when they are triggered they actually make your brain stop playing nice with itself. It can be seen on a scan that when this happens there’s all kinds of activity in blood flow and activity in the areas that control emotions, but very little in the areas that control places like language and reason. This would be another reason why these emotions feel overwhelming, because you are literally losing contact with the facilities that help you articulate these feelings or figure out why they are happening. You can do it, but it is really hard. And there does reach a point where you are not at home to reason any more, especially if your emotions have a fast fuse in normal life.

And to make things even nicer, the more times this little time bomb of emotions is set off without begin dealt with, the more twisted up it gets. You’ve got this chain of emotions that started with– say– fear. Legitimate fear because you were in a car accident. And then five months later you dissolve into a shivering wreck because you hear glass break, and someone laughs at you instead of employing empathy (that person is a jerk, btw) and then you’ve got shame attached, and it gets wound up tighter again when you stuff it back. And then you hear brakes squeal at that frequency, and you’re instantly filled with fear– only this time there’s shame attached too. And so on, with more shame and fear and anger at yourself for falling prey to this stupid reaction, (cause you know you’re not in danger this time, what is WRONG with you,) till it becomes this THING, this thing you just think of as a handicap, which you can’t control, and you just believe of yourself as being broken instead of that there’s something in your brain that never quite healed.

Started well, that sentence.

All this to say– bottling up emotions only works for so long. Moreover, also to say that thinking your way out of things is hard, and emotionally flagellating yourself for having emotions is not the best path forward.

Also: I’m using 2nd person pronouns just cause if I used first the full time it would look pretty egotistical. And I wouldn’t want my personal blog to look egotistical, would I now? Hah no. I’m relating to my neurosis, not anyone else’s, just so you know. I’m sure this blog post is applicable to no one except me, in fact. All my friends are at least 250% better than I am at dealing with emotions. 😀 I just thought it was INTERESTING, and might be useful to writerly-people. (And maybe for life? Who knows your internal cartography better than you? It wouldn’t be me, for certain sure.)

Body Image II: Eating Disorders

Now I see all the spelling errors…

BUT OH WELL. Here is the slide show I presented about another facet of body image: eating disorders.

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My conclusion was that while an over-emphasis on body image is not the only thing that leads to eating disorders, it can be a strong symbol of distress in our highly appearance-invested culture. Moreover, as the trend for more urbanization and globalization continues, the factors that go along with them, (even apart from a startlingly homogenous and difficult to attain image of beauty proposed by the media), are quite possibly going to increase the incidence of Eating Disorders.