I have a panic room in my head and it works the opposite of a safe haven. I’ve never seen a film style panic room; where actors portraying people victimized by home invaders find sanctuary. My panic room is a room in my mind. My panic room must have doors and windows to let fresh air in. I’m only there because I have been stifled by repeating thoughts that whirl me into a panic response. My panic room door must not be locked for then a key may be lost, the key to understanding how I got there in the first place, even if the key is found the latch may be corroded, the knob broken, a sealed room of past hurts will continue to mildew with dark mold teeming with disease. No confidence can be regained whilst in the panic room of my mind.
I once helped a student take the moment necessary to come out of his panic room. Something triggered him to rise beside his desk. I called his name. He had the posture of a cornered animal. He started towards the door, tripping and falling to the floor. Students quieted as he lay there, eyes darting. It was not a seizure but some strange force had seized him. Taking advantage of his stillness I moved beside him and placed my palm lightly over his heart. His breathing calmed and his classmates remained breathless. He looked at me. He sat up. I asked his friend to accompany him to the office so the secretary could call his parents. He left for the day. It wasn’t until year’s end that he mentioned the incident and thanked me. I told him I would always remember what happened as though I had been guided: The right person, in the right place, at the right time.
I most feel panic when things seem out of order. My way seems barred. Access is being denied. I feel trapped, painted into corner, claustrophobic, breathless, suffocated. In the midst of this anxiety attack I feel there is no way out, yet why I enter there in the first place is always a mystery to me. I don’t know the why of panic’s approach, yet I’m getting better at the how of waving it goodbye.
A Yoga instructor once advised me to see disagreeable thoughts as flowing through and not lingering. Deep breathing helps. Calm may be the opposite of panic. I like the way some pronounce calm with a noticeable ‘l’. When stressed I will linger with the middle section of the word repeatedly sounding it out as ‘c-ah-m’. I’ve developed strategies as I’ve aged to minimize the risk of entering into a panic response. I have medicine that brings comfort when needed. Just knowing it’s there in the cabinet is often enough for relief. I’ve learned to visualize safe places; like a verandah with a swing. Peace is found there, sitting for a spell with a cooling lemonade, taking time to gather my thoughts, settling me into a fresh perspective.
What one considers a crisis is subjective. I write this knowing that the troubles in my life can’t be ranked on the scale of dilemmas others in the world have now, or will experience. For example, on tonight’s news, I just watched horrified as hundreds gathered at the Kandahar airstrip clambering onto the fuselage of a taxiing aircraft. That was a scene of crisis on an unforgiving and unforgivable scale.
One could say that our thoughts on crises are all relative. Yet that is so dismissive. I’ve known people who would not admit their troubles just because they thought others suffered more. That would be like not talking about love because you feel outclassed by romantic stories you have heard others share. Shakespeare, Byron or Browning would advise you to proclaim your love in words relatable. Every person’s feeling has value, from woe to whimsy. Judgements on the quality or quantity of your experience will only send you into a crisis of confidence.
I’ve had momentary crises; like locking my keys inside my car, forgetting important papers for a meeting, or getting stuck in traffic. I’ve had prolonged crises that have required persistence and courage. Recently my hot water tank burst moments before I came downstairs to make my morning coffee. I stepped into a puddle of water and immediately panicked but then sprang into action, took off my terry towel bathrobe with a Sir Frances Drake flourish, dropping it on the water so I wouldn’t slip. I turned off main valve and clicked the power switch to the unit. I called the plumber to arrange repair, mopped and prepped the area. Within 30 hours from start to finish it was all sorted. I felt gratitude that I had been there to catch the situation before it became the crisis that it wasn’t.
We can’t always be so lucky. And yet our imaginations can lead us into crisis mode so quickly. A problem that is hard to solve at first glance may be deemed a crisis, that’s when you need help and you need to work toward a solution. I’m learning to be more critical while in the throes of a crisis. Even a moment, for prayer or meditation, can give me the time gap needed to act more efficiently, prudently, safely. I worked with a school principal who told me he handled a crisis by giving it to someone else. Others I’ve known have been able to just let things be. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TGg7cGQRlg
As far as the climate crisis goes we can’t just let it be. Neither can we turn it over to someone else to fix. Regular maintenance of our selves, our institutions or our systems will minimize problems. The evidence of our neglect of the planet has been around for many years and yet we continue to fail to act. We ignore all warning signs of a crisis at our peril. Now we find ourselves in a perilous planetary situation. Our Earth is calling for a common collective critical response.
We must answer.
I have temporarily relocated to come to the aid of family. My first consideration was finding a place to stay. My second; to get myself a library card. For me, books are a source of comfort and libraries are a hub for enquiring minds.
In grade three I was intimidated by Mrs.Powers, the Teacher Librarian at my school. It didn’t help that I committed a crime that year. I lost a book that I borrowed from one of her shelves. I searched everywhere while reporting to Mrs.P. each week about my lack of progress. She became a constant reminder of my shame. When I found the book, months later, I couldn’t bear to return it. I tossed it down my apartment incinerator chute.
Many years later Janice appeared. She was my first high school romance. She volunteered at our town library. I would meet her there to go on a date. She encouraged me to get a membership. I developed an association between my feelings for Janice, the other librarians I encountered while waiting and the overall atmosphere of calm found in this stone building filled with things to read.
Being a solitary sort of person I somehow feel less alone while searching the stacks in a library. In University I sometimes arranged to meet someone in a library rather than a campus pub. I filled my spare time between classes in Teacher’s College sitting in a comfy chair catching up on ‘classics’ I had missed through my youth. Later as an elementary school teacher and as writer for a newspaper I depended on my town library for research material. My wife and I took our children for library programs while they were still comfortable to sit on a lap for story time.
I came across a letter my son wrote to his grandparents regarding his love of books. While in high school he worked at a Coles book store where he had borrowing privileges. He reported, “I’m so in love with words right now that I feel I could easily make my life’s ambition to read until I’ve lived thousands of lives, in thousands of lands by merely turning the pages of worn out books that come alive by my active eyes.”
Last month I was in the branch of my local library picking up a hold I had requested. I overheard a lady struggling to describe a book to the librarian at the front desk. It sounded like the very book I was about to check out so I held it up, boldly calling, “You mean this one?” I could sense the half dozen bibliophiles presently among the shelves stop breathing. The lady turned to see me holding up the book. Her eyes widened. “That’s it!” she cried. Two librarians came from a back room to confront the ruckus. There was still a pause felt in the air. A voice said, “Now that’s serendipity.” Another, “It happens all the time. You just have to be alert.” I left smiling, happy to be part of such a splendid community.
I was taught in grade school that if Practice was spelled with an ‘ice’ ending then it was a noun, otherwise it was okay to use the spelling Practise in any situation. For all spelling rules and forms I now count on my wife who has a phenomenal memory for such things. She is also practised in the healing arts so when I get a headache from too much wordplay I have access to a nurse and a quick soothing remedy.
Sometimes I need to go to a medical clinic. Nowadays I might be checked over by a Nurse Practitioner and she might tell me that my issue isn’t within her scope of practice so I’ll be referred to a specialist. The medical profession offers a wide variety of practices which have, in Canada at least, taken over the almost heritage realm of General Practitioners. Seems like everyone practises something these days, which is a good thing if viewed through the lens of life long learning. Meanwhile I continue to practise being patient.
One of my deficiencies is that I abhor repetition. I was one of those irritating students who picked up things quickly enough to be at a B level most of the time. I was content when one teacher referred to me as a Jack of All Trades. Never too good at anything, that way I could just blend in, go unnoticed, especially in high school. Practise is all about repeating the task until it becomes second nature yet I still can’t persevere. It’s an area in life where boredom wins out. I’ll try almost anything, but briefly; until I feel I’ve got the taste of it. My history is littered with “That’s enough” decisions: only two week’s of lifeguard training, one week of violin lessons, barbells that collect dust in my closet, a Polish dictionary with an uncracked spine and a forehead sweatband for jogging that was used once. Give me a New York Times crossword however, and I’ll bend over it until it’s filled.
Practise makes perfect is a cliché that never grows old. It’s one of the few expressions that I don’t yawn over because it is so relevant to anything that requires effort. I’m amazed at the amount of practise it takes to go beyond acceptable. Levels of human accomplishment in sport, art, science don’t happen overnight. I believe those folks we call genius types have raw talent for sure, but that gift is only fully realized through practise. All three of my sons practised piano. Neither wanted to be a concert pianist but their parents both thought that music experience was a good thing for general proficiency: We wanted our children to practise what we preached. Practically speaking it was an effort for all concerned; the student was often reluctant, the parent was sometimes annoyed, finances were definitely drained. However the practising resulted in a lifetime love and understanding of music. And the youngest son has been a member of several bands and is a practised song writer. I’m allowed to be proud.
Any Star Trek fan will tell you that The Prime Directive is the primary consideration whenever contact is made with another life. I’m priming the metaphorical pump here, when I suggest that this fictional Star Fleet Regulation is relevant to current discussions surrounding colonialism. In our real world of the late 15th century, explorers were faced with similar moral dilemmas yet were emboldened by The Doctrine of Discovery to claim whatever land was found for God and Crown. Aboriginal land was considered prime real estate by powerful naval nations. The expectation was to expand the Empire, fully sanctioned by the powers of the day. Living things, including fellow humans, were either considered in the way or resources to be used by the conquerors. Settlement and extraction of wealth was the prime directive. Throughout the world there is currently a renewed accounting of the results of this maniacal arrogance.
It’s enough to make anyone want to give a Primal Scream. Countless millions of lives lost like so much prime beef: Disregarding, dismissing and debasing fellow humans by renaming them as Primitive. Disgusting! Impossible to escape from the reality of man’s inhumanity to man. Seemingly impossible to reconcile the idea of human progress with all that degradation. Information we were fed in schools is sanitized through the lens of the victor. In my experience, public schools in the 1950s and sixties did not promote diverse historical viewpoints. In the countries affiliated with the British Empire, the pink area on old maps, we were taught to honour the establishment of the colonies. We traced maps and learned of benevolent conquest. We wrote essays about the captains of tiny ships who sailed through impossibly vast seas. Between the lines researchers can reveal grasping power hungry individuals, corrupt systems, antithetical religions and evil societies. The injustice has always been there and new evidence of it is being brought to light everyday. Truth is being spoken. Secrets are being exposed. Lies are being challenged. Apologies are being made. There is a demand to have these errors acknowledged by current governments.
And still the primal patterns of power and racism continue.
I dream of a world where we are united by discovery and share what we find. Our planet suffers due to our selfishness. As shepherds of the Earth we are failing to unite around a common healthy cause. Primarily we seek to serve our own needs regardless of the consequence to others. It seems a grim reality, an inconvenient truth even, that our primary function is to satisfy our urges. I’d like to believe that science has the answer: a Unified Theory of Everything as envisioned by the likes of Stephen Hawking. I wonder if there is a place of thought where it’s understood that individuals are like prime numbers sometimes and composite numbers at other times. Yet it’s impossible to dream up an appropriate metaphor for what it means to be human. We don’t fit into Number Theory. We have names. We are far from being mathematically perfect. We are all united by life.
In a recent New York Times crossword I found the clue ‘Rescuer’ and it had me stumped for most of the puzzle. A four letter answer was required and it started with the letter H. Finally solving the other words forced me to see it was HERO. I spent the rest of that afternoon thinking about what a hero is to me.
Words are fascinating in that they require a definition. Discovering the meaning of a word can be tricky depending on context within a sentence, the tone of voice of the speaker, grammatical origins and even body language can be an important criterion for understanding. My first thought regarding the word Hero was not concerning rescuing, although I see it now. Perhaps it is because almost everyone these days is referred to as a hero. The term is so ubiquitous that it reminds me of the trend to present a Participation Award to anyone who shows up for an event.
If I was rescued from certain death I might refer to my saviour as a hero whether they be male or female (the feminized word heroine is simply awful). From childhood onward, people who have done heroic deeds have enthralled me. Boys of my age would have read tales of knights rescuing damsels, of sheriffs bringing justice to the American west, of explorers sailing the seven seas, or of ball players making baseball diamonds sparkle with their talent. As I got older my definition of an act of heroism became more philosophical and broader in scope to include those who challenged the status quo. These ‘idea heroes’ may not have been active in a physical sense, but their abstract thinking made them stand apart from the crowd.
Hero is an overused word and doesn’t belong with every expression of gratitude. Confusing fame or institutional power with heroism gets me in a bit of an anxious knot. Comic book heroes won’t save us. Some modern songs suggest we crave, even worship, the idea of a personal hero. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWcASV2sey0
Media personalities are often over quoted merely due to their celebrity. I wonder why the military profession is automatically tagged as being heroic. I’m not even sure bravery is a prerequisite for being a hero; determination certainly, and a sense of selflessness but most rescuers report they didn’t feel courageous at the time of the call for help.
I believe extraordinary constructive behaviour is heroic. Citizens who make an unselfish contribution to their communities are heroic. I would label some Olympic level athletes heroes just as I would someone who has devoted their life to an artistic passion. Folks might begin their personal list of heroes with Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, or Linus Pauling. Pick a professional discipline, set some criteria, define parameters and let the list making begin! The debate might get heated determining which of those named are either Noteworthy, Great, or Truly Heroic. Be prepared to be convinced when someone asserts, “My dad is my hero.”
What is an itch and why do we have it? I could google my lead question but it isn’t really a question and I rarely do any research other than a quick Siri type throw away inquiry because I have to satisfy an itch of the curiosity sort. Suffice to say that I’ve been itching to write about itches because they are among the few basic things that humans have in common with other animals.
Let’s agree that the origins of itching are elusive. I suspect a link to the Missing Link can be made whereby living together in caves created an environment for pests. Once bitten or bored into, Neanderthals would scratch to remove the parasite, otherwise they might fall prey to infection, disease, even death. Maybe these ancient humans didn’t die out from war with Homo Sapiens but because they couldn’t invent an efficient scratching protocol. This must be the source of our ancestral behavioural DNA as though some distant memory compels us to attend to our itches: That’s my theory anyway so I’ll pick away at it for now.
If you refuse to acknowledge an itch I don’t think it ever goes away. Itchiness can be a symptom of physical disease, yet psychologically an itch is an urge: To find out. To start a fight. To get going. To get started. Or, to leave your spouse, as in The Seven Year Itch.
An Itch can be a form of curiosity and while you are scratching you just might come up with an amazing idea. Kids love to scratch. As with passing gas, it is a continuous source of amusement. Surely the title of The Itchy & Scratchy Show from The Simpsons was inspired by this fascination with moving fingernails across our skin. One of my children’s favourite camping songs was ‘Flea, Fly, Mosquito’ nicely rendered with all its silliness in this youtube video by Arlo & Alro’s dad of Tiny Mule Songs.
Dogs and cats have very satisfying lives, I can imagine, because they are always licking, scratching or rooting around looking to please themselves. No one tells them to go moisturize! I can relate when I watch films of chimpanzees, grooming each other with scratches and nibbles. It looks naturally healthy to be itchy from time to time. At the Imax a few months ago I watched as scientists recorded, ‘for the first time in the wild’, a grizzly bear stopping to satisfy an itch in the middle of its back by rubbing against a spruce tree. I’m no different. I love a good scratch. I’m quite dependent on my wife for getting at those hard to reach places. I have gone all consumer-ish and invested in some ‘money back guaranteed’ quality backscratchers ‘as seen on TV’. I’ve been told that attending to an itch (especially in public) is the epitome of bad manners. Yet we can feel collectively encouraged when someone says, “You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.”
The view that age is a state of mind sells anti-aging products and makes seniors feel better about themselves but perhaps we are just kidding ourselves. Some may look good for their age, while others must surrender to the inevitable sag and wrinkle. If you have the means for a little cosmetic enhancement then I guess age is relative. I enjoyed a second look at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which is a film that oddly turns the aging process upside down. Benjamin returns to baby-like form as some of his senses get shuffled out of play. Similarly, as I age, my sense of caution, for example, is winning out over my sense of adventure. If I’m honest with myself, my body has been aging steadily since I passed sixty. My hands mark me; I see my father’s tanned oniony skin when I pause from this typing.
Parents love to report how their baby is a day old, a week old, then a month old. The age of the newly born is so precious it must be clearly defined in celebration of its existence. Children sometimes correct you if you guess their age wrong. A ‘Four’ is adjusted to ‘Four and a half!’ because at that tender age 6 months carries great significance to their rank in the world. On the other side of the age specific spectrum, a decade may seem a brief span of time to a septuagenarian.
While I was paying attention to other things, The Age of Aquarius, morphed into New Age practises, to the Age of Entitlement, which was part of the Consumer Age before being summarized as the Anthropocene. Ironically we may be facing a global environment catastrophe equivalent to the Dark Ages because our leaders maintain Stone Age regressive thinking. It’s the age old story of greed, immediate gratification and wishful thinking. We aren’t getting any wiser.
We lost many aged folk through Covid19 pandemic missteps. Strange that we can value vintage automobiles, aged cheddar or cellar casked wine more than we do our grandparents. Our standards around assisted living facilities (barely sanitized old age homes) must change to reflect a greater respect for what elders can provide in a wholesome, healthy society. Wisdom, like beauty and love is ageless in a way. When our terms of reference for Age become so narrow that we begin labelling people dismissively as Boomers, GenXers, Millennials, we are in danger of demonstrating ageism, as restrictive a label as all the other forms of prejudice.
Mature First Nations individuals whom I have known have often been referred to as Elders and I’d like to follow the path of humility, wisdom and patience that comes with that territory. In correspondence with the younger members of my family I have self identified and signed off on notes as West Coast Elder. This WCE moniker helps distinguish me geographically and it’s also how I’d like to be perceived as a senior member of the collective.
I’ll take that as a respectful salute to my agedness.
My son and I had a covid talk about feeling stale. It doesn’t help that we are both without a significant other right now for different reasons too lengthy to go into, however we both admitted that life in the pandemic is bland and tasteless. When waking in the morning there isn’t that pop of enthusiasm that makes you want to be up and get going on something. We wonder where the zest has gone as we return to bed at the end of a lacklustre day. If you took this feeling out of the global pandemic context, the symptoms would suggest we are both depressed. Indeed, reports of research on the psychological impact of the last year show evidence of widespread depressive illness, even among children.
One of the first signs of depression can be a change in your senses. I remember losing taste when it happened to me. Coincidentally it can also be one of the symptoms of the body’s response to the coronavirus. I find that circular connectivity to the covid19 virus interesting: you may not get the illness that causes a sensation of staleness but trying not to get the disease also makes your life exceedingly drab and boring. I wonder if a whole culture can go stale. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
Things can grow stale in interpersonal relationships. Back when I paid attention to magazines at the grocery store check-out lane, Cosmopolitan magazine used to have front cover titles that claimed easy solutions to renew the romance in your life. In what is clearly a sexist approach to handling problems, I remember women were advised to be open to new sex positions. Men were supposed to show their softer side by bringing flowers or generally being more attentive. Both sexes were told to open metaphorical windows to banish staleness; bringing fresh air into their lives by being more spontaneous, by getting off on a secret rendezvous that often involved lots of lube.
I’m known in my family to love creating a meal from stale food. I enjoy making casseroles, chilis or soups from leftover fridge specimens. Heck, I’ve been chastised for plucking things from the trash bin under the sink. I come by the trait honestly, so they say, since my dad used to love telling stories of life in the North African WWII airbase where he was stationed. There was lots of weevil filled bread pudding, moldy cheese, and questionable beef stew. He would often be seen in our kitchen creating impromptu recipes from stuff my mom or sister had left on their plates, mumbling something about Louise Pasteur and penicillin.
The latest stat suggests Canadians throw out 79 kilograms of food waste each year. My penchant for using things up, repurposing or making the most out of every tiny morsel has a positive side. I also try not to buy into the ‘latest thing’ philosophy. I’ll choose consumer items that last, repair stuff and pass things on rather than trash them. I don’t think conservation should ever go stale.
I liked going to conventions when I was a teacher. Before the money for such things vanished, each of my colleagues would have a chance to go to an out of town event about once every other year. Living in a remote community like we did, this was a boon for our professional development and an opportunity to share our experiences with educators from across the province or across the nation. My specialty was elementary school guidance which was unconventional, providing me with several opportunities to make presentations to School Boards that didn’t have that educational service.
Conventional wisdom comes from the collective. It can be generated in a local coffee shop or it can be fostered on social media. When the mob controls the agenda there is often not much wisdom, conventional or otherwise. I tend to be unconventional in that I don’t care if others think I am not a team player. I don’t wish to buy into groupthink, however I will follow convention when rules or common practise make sense or appear reasonable. Our system of government is conventional, plodding along on some matters, by definition and design resistant to change. Yet some very rigid systems have responded better to the Covid pandemic due to their citizenry being willing to follow directives. The Pacific Dental Conference, held March 5-7, 2020 at the Vancouver Convention Centre was a major source of coronavirus infections in British Columbia. To convene or not to convene and under what conditions has been a debate ever since.
On my wish list is a trip to a ComicCon convention. I have a particular yearning to mingle with other Star Trek geeks. In my fantasy I can see myself dressing in a Star Trek uniform, perhaps going as my favourite character Data. I wish I could do cosplay. I’ve over-analyzed my desire to go by making charts in my head. In the ‘Don’t Do It’ column my reasons are: aversion to crowds, reluctance to spend flagrantly, fear of being ridiculed. On the ‘Just Do It’ side my kid voice can be heard saying, “But I wanna!” Maybe I could go as the Invisible Man, then I could take in all the excitement without being noticed. I was the same way about Burning Man until I mentioned to a Burner that it was on my bucket list. He snapped, “Tell me what you’ve already ticked off your list!” That unconventional response made me realize the importance of not dreaming my life away.
‘Well, that’s the way it’s always been.’ Is a bit of conventional wisdom that dismisses innovation. I wonder if unconventionality could be a synonym for inventiveness. Sometimes an entire system must be cleansed for health to be restored. Police departments, in the United States particularly, have faced criticism for systemic racism and misuse of force. Conventional ideas of police funding and militarism are being challenged. We are no longer ruled by kings or queens. We only have ourselves to blame if we let convention dominate the discussion when change is clearly in order.