Re: Freak

My intention with this blog is to puzzle through, while writing, what a word signifies to me. As I get feedback I’m finding I’m not alone in being confused by the different interpretations of a word. I find it interesting how some words produce an emotional reaction. These triggers can send our thoughts rushing to unintended conclusions. We lose sight of the original intent of the conversation and dialogue ceases to be productive.

I sent a Twitter message recently, saying that I was ‘freaking out’ about an upcoming event. It was interpreted in a negative way. Often, that is the way it is for me: I find myself exclaiming (out of wonder or joy) and someone is always there trying to explain my wonderment as a way to cover for me. I suspect some fail to understand why anyone could just be enthusiastic about things. I get that context matters, but funny why we so often jump to the negative connotation as a matter of course.

A headline in my city’s newspaper described our Prime Minister as ‘Freaking Out’ over a heckler’s comments at a political event. Watching the video clip in question I didn’t find that he behaved extraordinarily freaky but he was sure passionate about his desire for an inclusive immigration policy.

Everyone can name some classic bad words that we are taught not to use. Usually they have a racial, religious or body part implication. For example the N-word is clearly a mistake racially speaking. The C-word is particularly disturbing to women. In Quebec I wouldn’t use the T-word. Even in our progressive age it’s considered impolite to drop the F-bomb.

I taught a student whose surname was Freak. She never got teased about her name that I was ever aware of during her time in my classroom. It would be great to ask her about her perception of this word now that she has grown. A male named Richard must guard the long form of his name carefully as the shortened version is cringeworthy. As with any word, particularly if it’s your name, you must make amends with yourself. Any perception of our difference is often considered freakish, yet we all have oddities within us. I tend to like the freaky part of me even though I am shy to show it. This positive value of respecting diversity is a regular theme in the Arts. Two examples:
On Broadway; Shrek, The Musical https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSDetuag6zU
On Vinyl; CSN&Y ‘Deja Vu’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Lk2KHajp4Y

I’m old enough to have gone to a circus to see odd people. One of my favourite movie musicals of late is The Greatest Showman. P.T. Barnum hires “freaks” to be put on display to a paying audience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjxugyZCfuw

The characters in this film found a common connection and some felt that within the circus they had a place they could finally call home.

Embracing our freakiness might actually save us.

Re: Culture

Can we have a personal culture? That was a question that recently spawned a dinner table conversation. As you would expect, there were views ranging from no to yes. Thankfully no borders were established as with countries espousing and protecting their unique cultures. The grey areas within the bounds were deliciously dissected and analyzed.

Since clubs, teams, societies, all have their own particular culture why can’t a person have a culture of one? Since culture is often defined as something that is shared that might rule out a personal method of doing things, and yet, can’t we say that each day we choose to go about our business in a certain preferred way? My behaviours may intersect from time to time with others and conversely there are times when others join me in my particular pursuits.

I wouldn’t like living in a country that insists its immigrants distance themselves from their original culture. I like to believe I’m comfortable with pluralism, multiculturalism or cultural diversity: a rose by any other name. I like walking around spotting various clothing styles, ethnic garments, headdresses or coverings on people of various hues.

Recently I enjoyed a light picnic at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Others assembled in small groups looking for shelter from the sun. The benches that lined the walkway held a mixed community of Canadians: near our Caucasian circle sat a family of East Indian decent, across the path a First Nations group chatted with another in a wheelchair. For an idealist like me, it was a harmonious sight in a beautiful setting. As the mother of my grandson was breastfeeding her new baby, two women from the Asian camp, came over to offer support and words of advice. We were marginally startled by the invasion of our space. Three white police officers on bicycle patrol stopped the Aboriginal group from publicly drinking beer from cans. The fluid was discarded and the patrol continued. I wondered if that group had been racially profiled. A mild clash of cultures was evident to me as I chomped my bread on the very grounds of Canadian democracy.

And I am aware I am revealing a sense of ownership with that last statement.
When I say ‘I am Canadian’
have I wrapped my culture in my country’s flag like some commercial promotion as this famous Molson advertisement? Does this mean my definition of my culture excludes others from having their unique take on it?

Questions like this circled about me as Victoria City Council announced the removal of a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister from its municipal centre. Just as my personal culture has changed as I have grown older, here was an example of a local culture adapting to a new understanding of the times within which we live: A new day. A new idea. A new view. Must we risk throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when we redefine who we are as a people?

I need my culture to be inclusive enough to allow me to fit in as much as the next person.

Re: Shop

“Shop til ya drop” is an overused phrase that makes me cringe.
I’m not a companion to take shopping, as my patience limit is under thirty minutes. The Beer Store in Ontario used to have large signs in the parking lot that encapsulated the way I have always tackled going to any store: IN and OUT.

In high school I enjoyed going to shop class where I would learn how to make things with my own hands. Going FOR a shop was not something I considered, unless it was a mad dash to get presents for my parents the day before Christmas. My first experience with the word Shop was likely read as a noun from an English child’s picture book. The accompanying colourful drawing of a quaint British store looked nothing like today’s corporate, commercial, ‘delivered right to your door’ enterprise.

I went to IKEA for the first time recently. I was happy I had a guide. Previous to this spontaneous visit my only notions of this highly successful business were through highway sightings of giant blue&yellow buildings or frantic ads like “Start the Car” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlWCLw75XnE .

With my close friend nearby and the lighted arrows up ahead providing some reassurance, I entered the chosen monolithic structure. I relaxed a tad, knowing I wouldn’t get lost or swallowed up by thoughts of someone forcing me to buy something. Everyone, it quickly appeared to me, knew the deal. They calmly measured items, tested paint swatches, lounged in carefully configured rooms. I saw some children running around in small packs. Other kids played video games on phones while their elders pushed them in giant carts. Some young adults held hands and giggled over some of the merchandise. Other pairs were more serious as they appeared to weigh options for their home or apartment. Several women were so close to giving birth I wondered if there were medical staff on site, for just such an eventuality. To my eyes it was a herding community of hunter/gatherers, on the move for bargains for sure, but also, looking for a sense of belonging.

Several signs, large and small, supported shoppers with these dual quests: Near the Bistro, “Why we ask you to clear the table.” Near the cash out, “Sometimes you just want to pick it up.” I only saw a few employees but I expected there were hundreds busy working in what amounted to a small city. My loudly muttered comment that the restaurant line-up was too long, was overheard by a cashier who called to me reassuringly, “No it isn’t sir.”
There was order, uniformity and connectivity in this place. If you had the correct product code you could find your item, eventually, predictably and feel the satisfaction of having done it yourself. Out in the parking lot, cars, SUVs and small trucks were loaded for the trip home. All shoppers had a look of fulfillment, not exhaustion, on their faces.

I thought to myself, what would Darwin think of this place: IKEA, the idea.

Re: Place

I think that education (formal or otherwise) has a primary purpose: To help us discover our Place in the world. This is vital to the creation of a fulfilling life.

There are examples in history where this idea of finding one’s Place can be manipulated by leaders of companies or governments who need classes of people in order to bring about their own vision. Japan once went to extremes by using training regimes with children in order to build a warrior class. Every country has educational training methods that indoctrinate individuals with the intention of building valuable citizens. Companies often require employees to loyally take certain tests so they can be placed in a productive position within the corporation. I personally find these methods of manufactured placement rather creepy. For example the hand placed over the heart while standing for the U.S. national anthem symbolizes loyalty to a national vision while reminding me of the raised hand of Hitler’s Nazi salute.

Finding our own place in society is an extension of familial roles. For example, we can start out being a son or aunt; a rigid place holder dictated by birth. Geography can be a factor in your place view almost by definition and time/space also has an impact. For example, at some points in my life I have identified with another time period, figuring I might have enjoyed a place beside Charles Darwin on the Beagle. Whenever I travel in the present, the time zone can make me lose my place as much as the country’s subway map or its language.

My place in my family was structured by my mother. My functions were clearly defined under the headings: son, brother, student, society member. She had role expectations. I rarely challenged my place in her world. I sought other places where I could experience change: First by going to university, marriage, moving for a job and a taking a chance to build my own family.

I ponder the nature of Place using a simple question, “Where do I fit in?” The talents I developed in my life have provided a sense of place and redefined how I interact with my family or the community. I have wondered, “Once I find where I am in this place how can I best enjoy life?” Most people don’t like to have this question come up too often. There are people who have never moved from their home town, always voted the same political party, never changed their job, or always bought the same products. There is satisfaction in knowing one’s place, so rarely is there a need to question your choices. In fact, to question your choices can be unsettling. While the risk may be worth it.

The search for one’s Place starts with an understanding of one’s self. It’s knowing how it feels when you ‘fit in’. It’s learning to recognize when you are ‘out of place’. Sometimes life is like being in a play. You wonder what your role is. Without a script your world tips. Suddenly you recognize your part.
All is well and the show goes on.

Re: Spectrum

In high school physics class I learned that light comes in a spectrum based on wavelength. Red has a longer wavelength than violet. Red is like soft, gentle swells while violet waves are the choppy ones. On a sunny day these visible electromagnetic waves come through the cut glass in my front door and spread the familiar colours red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet in that order, over my entrance wall.

Spectrums can be found or made in our imagination. I find thinking of spectrums useful when I’m searching to understand the range of possibilities in my world. It’s fun to play the game: ’Where are You on the Spectrum?’ For example, with Point of View: Are you more a tree or a forest person? Socially: Are you Introvert or Extrovert? Risk: Averse or Bold? Energy: Mellow or High Strung? Most personality tests are based on determining the answers to questions like these, then sorted to find your ‘type’.

I suspect fewer people are at the edges of any spectrum you can dream up in this game of finding out. Most of us will have personal qualities or preferences that put us somewhere to the left or right of the mid point. That doesn’t necessarily make us dull, just balanced. But strangely, most of us get nervous when it comes to diversity within the spectrum of humanity. We like to have things all the same and we often attempt to keep the outliers in boxes of our creation.

I belong to some online survey groups. The opening questions are intended to sort me into categories. I find myself unable to answer some of these questions because, like most people, I don’t easily fit into a binary world. In the modern marketplace, companies would love to find out who we are on a spectrum. If corporations can determine your likes and dislikes then they can create an algorithm that can match you to one of their products. To me this is another example of profiling. Police departments have been accused of racial profiling as a way to narrow their arrest protocols and Big Business regularly tries to get a handle on their customers, so that they can get easier access to their wallets.

Recent Gay Pride events highlighted the spectral nature of sexuality. The rainbow is a fitting symbol as it suggests that humans, collectively and individually are varietal. On the sex spectrum I feel more masculine than feminine and I appreciate members of the gay community stepping up and out to remind me that we are all a blend of hormones and attitudes. We all need to feel free to express ourselves in ways trivial or universal. I like yelling at ball games as much as I do crying while watching musicals. I try to vote responsibly and I have marched in solidarity for causes that acknowledge diversity. I am grateful that I live in a society that recognizes the value of inclusion.

Many colours make up the light that streams through my window. That light animates all life.

Re: Retarded

There are some words that you are not supposed to say. Some are mildly frowned upon, while others are clearly restricted to just their first initial. These culturally unsanctioned words are found offensive for several reasons, the most powerful being that they can be used as a slur directed to intentionally hurt another human being.

I’ve used the word Retarded regularly. As a youngster it just flew from my mouth without thought, as an emotional indicator. Those were days when it seemed permissible to put down minorities, although recent events in the United States under President Trump suggest a return to these norms. Anyway, I remember getting a comedy book for Christmas as a nine year old that included in its title, ‘100 Newfie Jokes’. On a recent trip to Newfoundland I was surprised to see books like this in tourist shops. One was straightforwardly titled, ‘Newfie Joke Book’ and is available online with the subject matter promoted as being part of “our Canadian culture” and that Newfoundlanders have a “good hearted ability to laugh at themselves.” Really?

Back in 2011 two cast members Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter, of the television show ‘Glee’, ended a public service announcement titled ‘It’s Not Acceptable’ with a powerful appeal to end the use of the word Retarded and others that demean or degrade. (Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T549VoLca_Q )
In March 2018, Special Olympics Canada produced a dynamite ad about the abuse of this word to support a campaign on Twitter called #nogoodway.
(Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcPv2Ruiuu4 )
And Netflix recently aired a special by comedian Hannah Gadsby called ‘Nanette’ that beautifully addresses the practice of put-downs in stand-up routines. She speaks with much grace about how she will no longer play along with this ethos. I can’t imagine her telling a Newfie joke or saying the word Retarded.

Why have I been reluctant to shed the word Retarded from my vocabulary? Maybe it’s because I feel strongly about censorship, but that’s no excuse. As a teacher of special needs children I often had the opportunity to be a cheerleader for those of differing abilities. A close colleague of mine bore a Down’s Syndrome child, whom I enjoyed watching grow into healthy adolescence. I used the television program, ‘Life Goes On’ as a parenting tool with my sons and Corky (actor Chris Burke) would come up in conversations around our dinner table.

My resistance to ending my relationship with this word has taken years of erosion. A cousin of mine once chastised me for using the word Retarded. At the time I didn’t want to follow her reasoning because I didn’t trust her opinion. I told her that she lacked a sense of humour and was being overly sensitive. I feel differently now.

I’ve been gradually persuaded that there is no good purpose to say the word Retarded. Thinking differently starts with changing one’s perspective. I am making a conscious effort to filter my thoughts more effectively to use a more appropriate word. I’m sorry it took me so long.

Re: Gratitude

There are many ways to show gratitude in our culture. My preference is to be direct, make eye contact and say, “Thank You!” To me, showing gratitude orally returns the favour immediately. Someone has provided me with something and I wish to return, in kind, by offering the gift of gratitude. I’ve found most people like being thanked while others are quick to fluff it off by saying things like “Not a Problem!” or “No Biggie!” I used to live in a francophone community and my “Merçi!” would often be greeted by “De Rien!” Somehow that has made my gratitude feel less meaningful. That dismissal of my thankfulness used to hurt until I heard their response as, “I like being able to help you.”

I don’t enjoy tipping, with money at least. Many countries consider it insulting to tip. I feel it is unfortunate that financing your gratitude has become so expected in our culture. That leaves a lot of people with less money, like me, with fewer acceptable options to show appreciation when dining out. If tipping is viewed broadly as a form of gratitude (like the old fashioned tipping of one’s hat) then I prefer to write a stellar Trip Advisor review of the restaurant or hotel. Smile if you will, but before the internet opened the door to online appreciation, I used to write letters of thanks to places or people who had provided me with service above and beyond the expected.

Linking Gratitude and Grace can be a topic you might hear when you visit a church. When I am in a state of grace, I can give and receive gratitude more easily. Grace is what I hear when someone says Shalom or Namaste. The film Avatar had its alien characters saying, “I see you.” When I can see another person for the things that make them unique, then I see them for their gifts rather than be fearful of how they might be different from me. When I can be truly grateful for their presence, not just for what they might provide me, then gratitude can inform my response to others. I can be grateful for everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. There is a wholeness in giving and receiving, a deep understanding of each other’s importance in the universe. Grace makes us more grateful.

When the big world seems in a state of turmoil (and I feel I am spinning out of control as a result) I find it important to be grateful for things I too easily take for granted: fresh water (from my tap no less), electricity, well stocked food stores, reliable sources of information, restful sleep, clean air, companionship, help when needed.

My young sons used to laugh when I did a happy dance, saying, “Dad must be grateful.” I recall it was something I did first in imitation after watching the cartoon character Snoopy lightly skip about with ears flopping and nose reaching toward the sky.

I’m going to practise my happy dance more often.