Monday, November 6, 2017

Suicide: how to steer past staring into the abyss

In June of 2012 I was home 'sick' actually trying to mark my way out of piles of English essays when the phone rang. The Superintendent at my Mum's building said she'd been found dead. She'd been battling some mental health demons but had never once said anything about suicide. She took all the pills given to her by her well meaning doctor for depression; I guess he hadn't seen it coming either because he handed her the means to do it. It probably happened early in the first week of June and I got called on the Monday of the second week. It had been a strangely hot spring and she had fallen unconscious and died in her bedroom, and then lay there for a week in a top floor apartment, slowly baking into the floor. When we were finally allowed in a week later the smell was overwhelming. I sincerely hope no one else ever has to mop their Mum's remains up off the floor.

No note was ever found, we had no idea why this happened. As she struggled with schizophrenia she had managed to give all of the money her mother had recently left her to grifter - we didn't find this out until later. I got his name and gave it to the Waterloo Police who just shrugged. Taking advantage of mentally ill seniors is perfectly OK in Canada. So Mum, destitute and in declining health looked at a future of poverty, confusion and dependence. One night in what I hope was a moment of lucidity, she sat down on the end of her bed, surrounded by boxes as she had to move to a cheaper apartment, and made a decision about her future. Fortunately, the light hand of Canadian health care had given her everything she needed to end that future.

When I see someone roll their eyes at a mental illness I want to punch them in the face. They wouldn't yell at a person in a wheelchair for being too lazy to climb the stairs, but mental illness is seen as a choice; it isn't a choice. Watching my Mum turn on herself was agonizing to watch. We tried to be supportive, we tried to be interventional, but if you bring someone in to a hospital because you're worried about them hurting themselves, they can sign themselves out a few days later. Mum did. Six months later they'll send them home with enough anti-depressants to kill themselves. This whole process was like watching a ship slowly sinking. You want to try and stop it, but it's inevitable, and there is no one around, healthcare or police, who can or will do anything about it. You can thrash around trying to stop the inevitable, but this only brought more pain. I finally ended up playing the violin on the deck as the water rose around us.

People will tell you that suicide is selfish, that it's just an expression of depression. The people telling you this are frantically trying to manage the situation. Having been on the deck of the suicide ship, I can tell you that it's fairly impossible to manage. Suicide is a reminder to everyone that our lives are ephemeral and fleeting; none of us need be here. It's a reminder that we are, in spite what the media tells us about our place in the world, the single most powerful things in our lives because we have the power to end it if we wish.

Religion is terrified of this power. It drapes suicide in shades of sin. It tells believers that they won't go to heaven if they do it. It warns of eternal damnation if they commit this most heinous of acts. Is my Mum in hell? You won't find a lot of solace in religion when you're going over the Niagara Falls of a suicide.

We are very smart animals. Unlike the instinct driven majority of creatures on Earth in a constant struggle with nature, we have made ourselves safer, more long living and this means we have time to exercise our big brains and wonder what the point of it all is. We fill that void with social expectations, belief and other human constructions like prejudice that fill our days with invented meaning. Suicide bypasses all of these fictions and brings us to a shocking truth: the only real thing about us is our being. Staring into that existential abyss, these human fictions we amuse ourselves with on a day to day basis (your nationality, your race - humans don't have races, humans ARE a race, your religion, your political stripes ad nauseam) quickly fade in significance.

Facing this implacable foe, the talk that so fuels and satisfies all of those human endeavours is suddenly empty. How do you face the shocking freedom and power of your existential self when it's thrown into the light by suicide? 

Accept your power, and then choose to use it.

It's taken me five long, hard years to get here. A lot of what we do is pretense and if you cling to those social expectations you won't find them practical tools for combating existential angst. We're capable of abstraction and self understanding beyond the ken of most of our animal cousins. If we apply our ability to think beyond the institutional confines of social convention and grasp the existential freedom our minds allow us, we can see past the whirlpool of suicide and into a future of self realization.

A lot of people say suicide is just the result of depression, but I think that's reductive and manipulative (they're saying that to make people think it's a socially manageable situation). Suicide reminds us all that our being here is ephemeral, and that usually scares the shit out of people. I've gotten past the scared shitless phase and have tried to be as honest about this as I'm able.  Suicide reminds me to cultivate my passions in life. Find reasons for wanting to make good use of your short time here on this planet, then go after them.  Love those closest to you, be gentle with yourself, cultivate your interests and use that to build your strengths, minimize your weaknesses and become a better person.

Suicide reminds me that we are very powerful indeed, and we should grasp that power and use it to fill our lives with real meaning.  

If you're ever feeling overwhelmed by it all, remember most of it is bullshit made by your fellow humans to coerce you into their way of thinking.  Step past all that, grasp your existence and make it your own.  It'll be over before you know it anyway.

Note: the images in this are from a series of art therapy pieces I did shortly after my Mum's death. I was stuck having nightmares of her week slowly melting in the parquet floor of that apartment  and needed to get them out of my head. Mum was an artist. I'm glad I inherited a piece of that. The process she gifted me helped me get over one of the hardest events in my life.

My brother and I put her ashes into the sea by our home town in England.  Events like that help create a sense of closure, but I'm always amazed at how close to the surface those feelings are, even now.  This week we're dealing with multiple suicides at my school.  The skin is still thin where it has healed.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

But We're Much Happier Now

The stats back up that officer's anecdotal experience. 
I've had a number of conversations in the past few weeks that shed some light on a difficult subject. This all began at my men's yoga class. One of the other guys there is a detective from the city south of us. He has been working on homicides for the past nine years and is starting to feel the weight of being around that much death all the time. He said the hardest part of is job is seeing his own demographic so prevalent in the suicides he covers. When I asked what he meant he said the suicides always seem to be guys in their forties and fifties. That was a heavy way to start a yoga class full of guys in their forties and fifties and not the kind of thing you soon forget.

From that I went into Christmas. The last couple of years have been good with trips away to warmer places. These adventures have been a great alternative to having how dysfunctional my family is rubbed in my face for two weeks. After a long bout of mental illness, a divorce and a suicide the local family members aren't very good at getting together and all the rest are an ocean away. I feel remarkably isolated during the holidays and getting generic presents from in-laws only serves to emphasize how peripheral I am to the festivities. I can see why some people struggle with the season while the rest are manically happy.

With that all behind me I attended a lodge meeting this week that developed into a very insightful discussion by a group of sharp men on the steady deterioration of social interaction between our gender in the past two decades. Evidently I'm not the only man who feels socially isolated. Many older members lamented the lack of time and the means to enjoy that social time together. My sardonic reply was, 'yeah, but we're all much happier nowadays.' Attendance in masonry is an ongoing concern. Twenty years ago the social aspects of the craft were central to a meeting with brothers often socializing long after the meeting was done. Back then we had time for each other, nowadays our commutes are longer, our work expectations more stringent and our family commitments more involved. We have less time for each other in the Twenty First Century.

We're feeling time squeezed at a time when our debt levels are going through the roof in a desperate attempt to maintain that standard of living we enjoyed two decades ago. One of the first things you try to curtail when you see debt spiraling out of control are optional social events. The economics of Twenty First Century life is just another force acting to tear us apart. As Axl so aptly once said, 'as our arms get shorter our pockets get deeper.'

Running the desperate treadmill of modern life has us feeling like we have no time to make connections with each other. To fix this problem we cunningly invented social media to fill that gap. You can stay in touch without sitting in traffic in crumbling infrastructure while burning ever more expensive gasoline to see people, but you're not really seeing them. Having the time and means to actually meet your fellows and spend time with them without feeling like you need to be virtually or physically elsewhere is a basic human need many men have forgotten. I'm willing to bet many of those suicides my yoga buddy attended were lonely men feeling socially isolated.

The health considerations of poorly socialized, less active men are bad for everyone. I keep getting told to be active. I'd love to play hockey or soccer as I once did, but there is no access to the local cliques who do it. Men tend to be remarkably tribal and don't like taking in outsiders. That makes it difficult to play team sports if you're not living where you grew up with the people you grew up with (that's most of us).

I'm going to make a concerted effort to try and cultivate the time and space to find the social discourse I seem to have grown out of as a middle-aged man. My family and my work are important, but so is finding the time and means to experience meaningful relationships with other men. It might even lead to exercise and a chance to expand my social network into something beyond words on a screen.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Lost Faith

While we were paraded outside for show, OSSTF was inside the Ontario
Liberal Party Convention making contributions and setting up OSSTF's
outgoing president for a run at a Liberal seat at Queen's Park.
After doing some math on my last paycheque of 2013 I'm feeling the burn of the past year.  As a younger member still on the grid, my salary is supposed to increase with experience, I'm supposed to happily pay into pension knowing that it's well run and will be there for me, and I'm supposed to pay union dues and feel it worthwhile.

On our Christmas eve paycheque I paid 17% of what I made to pensions, more than 2/3s of that was to the Ontario Teacher Pension Plan, which just got de-indexed (not for older members, just for those of us who will still be teaching in twenty years).  I'd be foolish to think that this pension will be there in anything like its current form once the boomers have eaten through it, yet I'm paying more into it than any previous generation of teacher ever has... for something that is already being stripped back.

On my last paycheque I took home 58%  of what I earn.  Almost 20% goes
to a pension that has just been de-indexed for newer members, I pay almost
$100 a month so OSSTF provincial can live their dreams of becoming
liberals at Queen's Park one day.
Then there was the 14% taken out for the 'Ministry mandated day" - that would be the day where half the people in education come to work and get paid, but no contract teachers do - so there are no kids there.  It's the government's brilliant idea to save money by laying off teachers for a day but paying all the support workers to be there not doing anything.  Solid financial sense brought to you by the Ontario Liberal Party.

On a typical paycheque I get 42% of my earnings siphoned off by taxes, pensions, union dues and the various other hangers on.  On the December 24th paycheque I got a whopping 56% in deductions.  As January starts I also get bled by the Ontario College of teachers.  Whatever you think teachers might make, their take home isn't anything special.  When I worked as an apprentice millwright 22 years ago I took home about what I take home now as a teacher with 9 years of experience, an honours specialization, and working as a department head (the equivalent of a middle manager in business) - and I'm taking home what an apprentice millwright made? ... twenty years ago?

With everything I pay for belonging to this 'powerful teacher's union', I can't tell where my union ends and the current government begins (and I'm not the only one).  Instead of protecting me, I feel like I'm being herded into an abattoir by shepherds who are supposed to be protecting me.

Many people, teachers included, pretty much ignored what the Ontario Liberal Party (with Conservative support) did last year.  When a provincial government can create legislation that is illegal and flies in the face of the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, and no one seems to care, I have to wonder where we're all headed.  We're willing to toss out our most cherished ideals of democracy and fairness for economic fearmongering.  Previous generations of OSSTF are rolling over in their graves that our provincial bargaining unit has been complicit in this.

Meanwhile, OSSTF has taken on a political non-starter - ending publicly funded private religious education the UN thinks it's a bad idea, you can ask John Tory, the former head of the Ontario Conservative Party what you get for trying to make Ontario's publicly funded school system fair.  Hudak has no interest in addressing that waste of money, even if it violates human rights codes - of course he had no trouble backing the McGuinty Liberals on Bill 115 either.  When it is overturned in court, Hudak & McGuinty will have been partners in one of the most expensive mistakes in Ontario history.  With the current anti-catholic system rhetoric, I can't help but feel that OSSTF is once again doing OLP dirty work, perhaps attempting to sway public perception to the point where their friends at the OLP can safely make a political move in order to appear financially conservative again.  Or perhaps it's just a smokescreen as the Bill 115 charter challenge is quietly ended which would greatly please the OLP.  I wonder who'll get a free pass into a Liberal nomination this time.

Ignore my predictions at your own peril!  I can be
remarkably prescient!
I'd love to see OSSTF provincial undo the damage McGuinty did by forcing us into a provincial bargaining unit (being one large unit, strikes become an impossibility).  But this would mean OSSTF provincial would have to give up the power that McGuinty basically forced on them, and it's hard to give up power like that.

If my union could once again become the grassroots, regionally sensitive organization that it once was, I think everyone would be served better and I would feel like my union worked for its members rather than hidden political mandates.

In the meantime I guess I just keep ponying up dues each month and paying for other people's fully indexed pensions.  It'll be interesting seeing how effective OSSTF provincial's rallying cry will be this time around.  They've made enemies of the principled, all that's left are the apathetic.  It doesn't bode well unless a radical change in direction happens.

That this latest round of provincial executives seem intent on doing things the same way suggests that nothing is going to change, which is a tragedy for both teachers and the people who depend on them.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Moral Monk

Walk the earth, meet people, have adventures
... a simpler dream free of morally bankrupt economic need
We just watched The Wolverine and I came away from it noticing a strange parallel.  At the end of the film Logan leaves to pursue the life of a righteous man righting wrongs, and he dismisses an offer to help his love interest run her family business.  Something similar happens in Iron Man; Tony Stark walks away from his family business and leaves it in the hands of his former secretary/love interest.

Is this a new idea?  That the male hero walks away from the dirty world of business (and law) and pursues a monk-like life of moral purity?  That this fantasy speaks to men is interesting.  Forget glass ceilings and financial power, you can have it all ladies, along with the moral turpitude that goes with it.

Walking away from financial power is something I'm looking for in future films, especially fantasy pieces like super hero films that tend to sell based on an idealized idea of how to live - they try to appeal to a deeply seated wish in their audience rather than through a well constructed narrative.

Other superheros come at this in different ways.  Bruce Wayne is the playboy who never has to concern himself with financial need and uses his wealth to create that singularly focused alter-ego.  He treats the money with disdain while secretly using it to live a secret, morally pure existence.

The way violence plays into this is interesting as well.  It is legal and financial constraint that prevents us from violently confronting each other more than we do.  You are threatened with fines and imprisonment for violent acts.  Fight Club plays into this frustration well by focusing the urge to violence inward (radically inward in the case of the narrator).  As willing participants the fighters in the club are able to avoid the social ramifications of their violence while being able to express the urge, at least in the beginning.

The superhero character avoids economic sanctions on violence  through costume and alter-ego, though the more modern take on super heroes (the one where they simple state to the media, "I am Iron Man!") is neatly avoided by giving up all financial responsibility.  If you have nothing, they can take nothing.

Hero characters have always had a dark side.  There are the heroes that choose to step out of the social constraints we've made for ourselves, and then there are the heroes that choose this for everyone, making the ultimate statement about the futility of modern life.  I'm thinking of films like Cabin In The Woods, The World's End and one from a ways back, Escape from L.A..  In these films the hero does not just opt out for themselves, but for society as a whole.  This kind of dystopian toppling has a long history, though I suspect that there have been more recent examples because social norms are only getting tighter and tighter in an overpopulated world.

It's one thing when a hero opts out of the economic and social constraints we're all mired in to enact pure, moral action, it's something else entirely when a film's message is to give up on your society entirely because it is the dystopia and living in it makes moral action impossible.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Darkest Days

I have fond memories of Christmas as a child.  Before we left England I can remember massive family gatherings and much joy.  Once we emigrated my parents went to great lengths to surprise us and keep up far away traditions though our gatherings were never more than the four of us and reaching back to everyone else happened through staticky phone lines.

One of the more obvious frictions in post England Christmas is Santa Claus.  I started with Father Christmas who personified the season, but belief in him was never a requirement for presents, most of which were clearly marked with who they were from.  The lack of magical thinking never hurt my Christmas experience and it made me value the relationship with the person who got me the present.  The Santa Claus thing is still a foreign concept to me.

I enjoy the aesthetics of the season, especially the lights that hold back the prodigious darkness and the trees.  I have no trouble with icons of mid-winter celebration and I even enjoy it astronomically.  We're at the lowest ebb of light in the year; the darkest days.  After these weeks the sun begins its long journey back to us, what's not to love about that?

Today I was kindly let out of work a bit early to go and give blood and volunteer at my Lodge's annual Christmas blood donor clinic.  It's about the most noncommercial thing you can imagine.  Considerate, thoughtful people giving a piece of themselves to help out others with no expectation in return.  No one was fighting over parking spots outside, no one looked stressed out and frustrated.  The feeling in the room was lovely and the 'merry Christmas' wishes were genuine and heartfelt.  From that I rushed back having not eaten and given blood to observe the sugar fuelled extravaganza of my my son's school's Christmas pageant back in the real world.

I know the feeling
In the next week I'll have to brave the insanity of shopping.  One of these days I'll buy early, but that requires thinking about this season prior to it getting here.  It's hard enough to deal with it once, let alone throughout the year.  I love my people and I am happy to buy them gifts and do so throughout the year, but this week I'm buying them because of a calendar date, and competing with every other person who is doing the exact same thing.  That this wears me down doesn't mean I love them any less.

In the next week I'm going to go to a lot of family functions, none of them mine.  The family I wish I could see are far away (and I have no Christmas tradition with them any more).  The family who are close have fallen apart.  The glue that used to keep us connected ended herself.  That this wears me down doesn't mean I love my people any less, but it does often feel like I'm sitting in a room full of shadows, watching traditions that are familiar but foreign.

My work also feeds into this gravity around Christmas.  Kids who cling to the holiday tend to ram it down the throats of those who dislike or even fear it.  The emotional tension in the school slides up the scale as the holidays approach and the friction between the haves with their dreams of more stuff and the have-nots fearing two weeks of disappointment at home cause sparks to fly.  That this wears me down doesn't mean I love my job any less, though I wish people wouldn't be such insensitive jerks about the whole thing.

I wish Christmas had a little more grace and a little less insatiable need to it.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of time to ponder the return of light to the world at the darkest time of the year.

One of these days I fear the emotional weight of this holiday will tear something inside me.  Fortunately the days keep happening and it's soon behind me.  New Years isn't the social event it used to be, but I enjoy that chance to turn a page and think about all the potential of a year that hasn't happened yet.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Scorched Earth

I'm watching The Agenda on TVO...
"During my adolescence, I had a strong desire to enter the middle class."

If you are going into the workforce now you missed middle class by about 15 years.  I'm just over 40, and as a GenXer I'm watching the career I moved into getting burned to the ground around me by unions and businesses run by Boomers who are focused only on grandfathering themselves into full retirement packages.  In the past year I've watched my 'representatives' sell off my retirement in bits and pieces, always under the urgency of a fabricated financial crisis.

When they aren't selling off everyone under the age of 45 they are tightening the thumb screws by increasing our work loads and expecting us to work for free and just be happy that we have a job.  We used to expect a living wage, now we should just be grateful to be indentured servants.

Listening to the under 30 crowd saying they can't get into the employment house is kinda funny from a GenX point of view.  I guess they can't see all the smoke and flames from the outside.

Don't feel bad Millennials, there is nothing left for anyone born after 1960.
"They became the first post-war generation to be worse off than their parents, left with reduced expectations and downsized hope for the future."
"Unemployment among young Canadians under 25 is more than double that of older Canadians."
"If houses kept up with inflation – and that would be a pretty good result all on its own – the average house would now cost $154,587. In April, the actual average was $369,677."

Friday, August 23, 2013

I want to believe Mazda, but I'm not feeling it

We got a Mazda5 a five years ago, great vehicle, very happy, so happy we got a Mazda2 three years ago.  Again, very happy, a wonderful second vehicle.

I just took the Mazda2 in for its 50k service (yes, it's only put on 50,000kms in 3 years of service) and got clobbered for $500 to replace the front brakes.  Apparently one side had worn down to steel on steel.  I've greatly enjoyed my 5 and my 2, but for the first time today I missed my Honda Civic, which went 150k between any need for brake work.

Like the Civic, the 2 is a light vehicle that should be easy on its brakes.  It's also a stick shift, so the brakes don't get leaned on a lot anyway.  I had to get the brakes done on the Mazda5 at just over 100k kms.  It's a big vehicle that we use as a carry all, often moving lumber, multiple passengers and other stuff for projects.  How the 2 needs brakes done at half the kilometers of the 5 is quite beyond me.  Mazda was more than happy to look the other way though.

I'm a fan Mazda, but you left me hanging on this one.  Your dealership took it in the teeth, only charging me labour and parts at cost (which still cost me over $500), but Mazda itself wouldn't consider what was obviously a caliper failure on one side of a virtually new car a warranty repair.  As I stood in the dealership looking at all the ads about craftsmanship and standing behind your product I felt very much alone.

Now I'm left wondering if the brakes on Mazda2s are up to the job.  I'm not comfortable driving my family
My tough little Mazda2 can take on ice storms, but the
brakes are flaky!  Is it safe on ice?
about in a car that apparently will burn out pads and rotors on one side, it isn't safe.  If I'm driving to work in the winter and one wheel is dragging as I hit ice, I'm going off the road.

I'd love to know if others have had problems with Mazda2 brakes, I'm certainly not impressed with the engineering, or the backing of a vital and failing component by Mazda Canada.

I just got back from a week of driving a Fiat in England.  It made me miss my Mazda2 until I got home and got left standing with this bill.  That Fiat was still on its first set of brakes at 60,000 English miles.

It hasn't been a good day for this loyal, and otherwise very happy Mazda owner.  Am I to expect $800 brake jobs every 50,000kms on this Mazda2?  That is hardly the economical and dependable vehicle I was promised in the brochure.