Friday, February 29, 2008

crise de conscience

Here's the problem.

I get quite a lot of silly and fun correnspondence from various friends around the world, and a few send me lots of jokes via email. Now, I have as bawdy a sense of humour as anyone and appreciate that it's often the things that have a poignant ring of truth to them, or the things that sharply remind us of life's more bitter-sweet side that can trigger helpless laughter. I'd hate to start trying to define exactly which jokes I do not like to see, which ones I find funny even though the sentiments expressed might not exactly coincide with my opinions and values, and then which ones I just adore...

However, it often does put me in a bind. The jokes that really bother me are the ones that are a definite racial or ethnic slur, or the ones that are truly vicious. Terribly hard to define, as I already said. So, how do I deal with them, if I can't even express what it is about them that bothers me so?

A few articles in today's paper illustrate my point.

In the article, "Lessons to be learned from Obamamania", Royson James writes about some challenges to the GTA's multicultural reality: one, the Barrie police officer of 30 years' seniority who has been suspended for distributing racist emails an example of which is entitled "Afrocentric Math for Toronto's new black only school" which purportedly mimics a math test with 10 problems related to guns, drug deals, etc.; two, nine black jail guards sitting at home on paid leave, the result of racist threats that have been made against them in areas supposedly only accessible to their colleagues (rather nasty working environment, that, eh?), while for more than three years, officials have been unable to determine who has been making those threats.

Joe Fiorito, in "Not all are sympathetic to dying woman's plight", writes that some responses to a previous article were troubling, to say the least. "One person blamed the weakness of our health-care system on the tapping of our resources by refugees; another wrote to say the real problem was all those single mothers who spend all their time giving birth to all those gang members."

Mr. Fiorito puts it so well when he says that " there are still those in our midst who fear strangers, regardless of creed, colour or culture; just as there are those who don't care if others fall by the wayside." It's incredibly sad to hear him say that he "used to think we were all in this together."

When Mr. Fiorito went on to say, a bit further on in the article, that "violence of any kind leaves a scar on both sides of the act," I recognized the painful shrinking of my heart in reaction to the jokes I often get and wondered how I could step up and say something to the senders.

I recognize the hurt I feel in receiving them. And I wondered if surely, in the case of the jail guards, there weren't any colleagues who were the audience of just such "jokes" that expressed similar sentiments to the threats the black jail guards have suffered. Were there not any among the guards not threated directly by such jokes and threats who felt a pang of hurt and could speak up?

And then I wondered, what do I say myself in such situations. I have been an unhappy audience to much such slander. Debate does not work. Explaining I find it offensive and hurtful only elicits apologies and declarations from the offender that they are not prejudiced or that they have lots of "that kind" of friends, or that they don't mean to hurt anybody's feelings. I feel nothing has changed.

I talked about it this morning with my friend Fiona. She often has such a deft way of finding another point of view. She said in one such situation she found herself getting uncomfortable when someone she was seeing started including her in such remarks, as in "we" statements, in which she felt he was aligning her with his realms of prejudice. Her response was to stop seeing this man.

And you know, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that that is just about all I can think of to do. Whenever I am being roped into such an alliance, I can just say, "No, I don't agree with you." I don't have to change anybody's mind. I don't have to engage in debate. I don't have to express my deep doubts and misgivings. I only have to be clear about my own stand and say "I do not stand with you in this instance, on this issue, in that opinion you just expressed. Here, I have a different opinion." That's all.

But, perhaps that is all that was ever required. A pause. And standing apart from what is not right when necessary. After all, it's only a small movement away from one course that begins a journey onto a very different tangent! I can only hope.

Finally, I want to mention one other thing from today's paper. Rosie Dimanno wrote in "Letter form the past and the future", about a glaring gap in the education of her one time fixer, a man who was far more educated than most Afghans. (It recalled to me again the dilemma of the character in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War" in being able to raise Billions for weapons of war, but unable to raise a few Million dollars education after the Russians left Afghanistan -- but that's another story!) To have a gap in one's education that results in the complete ignorance of the existence of Israel and that conflict seems inconceivable. But that just serves to illustrate to me how easy it is to assume our opinions are based on all the facts.

How can we hold to any opinion with any assurance that we don't have just such gaps in our own education? It humbles me, and so I realize, although I find many things terribly offensive, I don't really have any right to force anybody to believe as I do. The line is hard to define here, I realize. I must disagree with what I believe is wrong, but I have no right to actively suppress it. I must defend those who are being harmed without causing harm. I must speak about what I think is right, without bludgeoning and haranguing those who would not believe as I do to hear what I think is my truth.

I get that. Now, what do I say to those whose many jokes I do appreciate while also removing my alliance from the jokes I do not? I can grasp what I need to do in theory, but I still don't know how to speak to my friends who send the jokes. Maybe all I can do is to respond to one joke at a time and say "I don't like this and I don't agree with this."

Help! (I have to confess I have a story about the flip side of this issue where I have told jokes myself that offended other people. I might tell it to you some other time.)

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008


What am I reading; well, let's see. Stacked around my bed at the moment I have:
  • the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon (very amusing escapism!),
  • The Elephant's Secret Sense, the Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa, by Caitlin O'Connell
  • The Book of Secrets, Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life, by Deepak Chopra
  • Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Waiting for Time, by Bernice Morgan
  • A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
  • 2,000+ Essential Italina Verbs, The Easiest Way to Master Verbs and Speak Fluently from Living Language
  • Non Solo Amore..., an Italian translation of a Silhouette Romance originally in English by Elizabeth McGuire
  • A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle
'Tis very handy to have a variety of books at hand for the various moods one finds oneself going through. Seems lately, escapism has been awfully important for me!!

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Friday, February 15, 2008


My studies in the Amharic language are progressing—though not fast enough for me. Tomorrow will be the fourth session I have with my teacher in Toronto. We have been finding a quiet table at the Reference Library is a good central spot to meet. Just don’t tell Abe that I use my time on the train to Toronto, cramming…

I have this little fantasy of arriving at the Addis airport in November for the 10 km race and speaking fluent Amharic with the customs officials, etc. Hey, a girl has gotta have her dreams!

My teacher, Abebe Worku, is very tolerant of my enthusiasms. He thinks that even after all these years, there is some residual memory of the language somewhere deep in my bones and it will surprise me when it resurfaces. Wouldn’t it be nice if it resurfaced to give me some wonderful proficiency??

It’s silly, but I enjoy the recorded conversations on the cd’s that come with my text. I listen to them just to surround myself with the language and it gives me the same contented feeling I had lying in bed early that Saturday morning so long ago, sleepily listening to Elli-täti and Martta-täti jabbering away as they started baking karjalan piirakkoita and sounding so like Mom that I thought I was at home in Canada, not on a break from school visiting my relatives in Finland. The music of the Ethiopian language is powerfully evocative for me without my even being able to actually understand much of it at all.

43 things: learn to speak Amharic



I have been participating in a 5 km clinic through the Running Room since the New Year. Joining the clinic was just the boost I needed: since I’ve put out some money for this, I have to show up; being part of a group makes me feel more committed, ie, shamed if I don’t show up; and chatting with group members as we run makes the time and km’s fly by so easily!!

It’s also a lot of fun to be a part of a group of wackos that run in this wintry weather, including snow storms, icy roads, a full-out blizzard, and the occasional minus 25 degrees C, etc. We are obviously dedicated athletes ‘cause a fellow felt compelled to roll down his truck window as he passed us in the blizzard last week to yell out what I thought at first was “Sweethearts”. Turns out he yelled “Retards”. Our group leader, Paul, apparently has better hearing than I do when I'm running with snow in my teeth, the wind is blistering the skin off my face on the left going out, then on the right coming back (note to self: to prevent visual impairment of snow-plastered, hot-breath-fogged-up glasses next time, put same in pocket)… Oh well.

The fellow in the truck is probably a 2-pack a day smoker, drinks to excess, eats the typical North American Heart Attack-inducing diet, weighs 100 lb more than he should and watches 7 hours of TV each evening.

It’s easy for me to feel smug—tee hee hee. So “Sweethearts” it is!

43 things: run the annual 10K run in November in Addis Ababa in 2008

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

mind yer langwich!

A conversation I had yesterday with one of the docs I work with regarding the disappearance of language dovetails neatly into thoughts I have been having regarding the pf issue (see previous post!).

There is always a sense of nostalgia and loss when a culture, a way of life, and a unique world view, disintegrates, dies out or is massacred in the name of progress. Who can possibly imagine what wealth of knowledge we no longer have access to when a culture, tribe or nation is lost. It may be that only a few thousand ever spoke that language or lived that culture, but still, the loss resonates.

I may have told these stories here before, and if I have, I apologize for being repetitive. But it reminds me of a couple personal incidents that made me laugh.

Years ago, as a kidlet living in Finland with my parents, we were occasionally privileged to host some visiting church officials, who were, as often as not, English-speaking. In those days, my mother could normally safely scold us in English without the general population around us understanding what we were being dressed down for. So, it was to English that my mother turned one day at the dinner table, when we were again hosting a guest from America.

"Elbows off the table." she said quietly to one of us, only to realize a second later that our guest was not in the slightest bit in the dark as to what she had said!

Later, when we were living in Canada, Mom often found herself, when caught up in the rush of some important communication, speaking to our Canadian friends in Finnish -- causing some confusion! -- and to us, ie family, in Finnish. Poor Mom, especially as over the years, my younger brothers had forgotten Finnish almost completely.

In more recent years, it has been obvious to my parents that the Finnish they speak as ex-pat Finns in Canada, is no longer the Finnish that is spoken currently in Finland. The language is evolving and many old words have been replaced by a new vocabulary. And, as in many parts of the world, the second language one learns in school is English, replacing perhaps Swedish or German.

So imagine my mother's chagrin a few years ago, when on a visit to Finland, she was quietly having a panic attack on my father when their rental car would not start. She was overheard by a Finnish gentleman passing by who offered to help -- in very excellent English! That left my mother wondering exactly what the gentleman might have heard her say to my Dad in English -- that she might not have said if she thought she would be understood by passersby! (don't worry: my mom is the master of self-deprecating humour! she tells this story on herself, ie, my Dad didn't rat her out on this one).

Any one of us of a certain age can easily come up with a list of words which are no longer in use or no longer politically correct. And those changes seem to be happening faster and faster. It is no longer over a span of one generation that changes occur, but several times in our own lifetime!

Without any opinion as to whether or not this is a good thing or bad, let's just say it exists. But, I have to admit, I'm not at all sure I can keep up. In fact, I know I'm falling behind. Take the "thong" thing, for example. (here's the pf connection.) I was blissfully telling what I thought was a some sensible story about thongs to a peer at work some time ago, when she sweetly asked me if I meant the undergarment -- which of course made no sense in that particular story. She of course understood perfectly that I was referring to footwear of a certain era; she was just checking. Humph! How embarrassing! Now, I don't even know what to call the type of footwear that I was referring to in my story. I don't even remember what the story was about because I'm so worried over not being able to come up with the appropriate and current word for the footwear I meant to describe!

Can anybody help me?

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

is it hot in here?

Passing this sign on the way to work the other day had me and my best friend, Fiona, speculating on all the possible ways it could be misconstrued. For example, we had a slew of fire-setting in the Toronto area this past year, so we hoped an arsonist or pyromaniac would not feel compelled to obey this order! Perhaps it's one explanation for the impulse to set fires, hmnn, what do you think, to make the world a little friendlier? Could be??

And as luck would have it, I was overcome at that very moment with that special warm flush that my lady friends who are peri-menopausal will know all too well! Yikes! Am I already on fire or will I perhaps set fires when I eventually (I threaten it now constantly!!) strip naked in my bid to cool off?? And I'm not saying what kind of fires that might trigger either!

I used to threaten my kids with my plan for the time when I'm very elderly, to light bonfires in the garbage can of my nursing-home room with a cigar, which should, at the very least, keep me mentally sharp for a long time to come as, I would expect, measures will be taken to make such a feat more and more difficult for me to pull off. Hey, having a challenge to overcome is a worthy goal and, surely, a valid way to stay on top of one's game! (First off, I would have to learn how to smoke and then, to smoke cigars....) See how endlessly fascinating this could get?

But I digress...

As I approached menopause, I occasionally had the weird feeling of warmth -- nothing I couldn't handle. But then, I think I had a conversation with good old Mom. I don't know what possessed me to ask her what menopause was like for her, because I already thought I knew. I thought I knew that she sailed through this part of her life sans any distress, sans hot flashes, sans hormone replacement therapy! Well, she did sail through it with sang froid, it being in her nature to be stoic. But, she said! Hot flashes! She had them for about two years.

Oh dear. Poor Mom. She gets some credit for many of the good ideas I have, but she also gets blamed for every crummy idea I have. Naw....It couldn't be. Surely I'm not that suggestible as to start having hot flashes when I found out Mom had them too?? Shame on me, then!

So, here I can be found at my paying job, suddenly flushed. Should I be Victorian and call it 'dewy'? No, that would imply some sort of fresh and cool feeling. This is more like steamy and clammy. I mean, one of the Younger Ones actually felt compelled to touch the skin on my arm to check it out: that stuff glistening suddenly all over my skin isn't gold! Suddenly I am checking the thermostat to see if one of the skinny, thin-blooded, Bloody Little Young Ones has turned the heat up! (and sometimes they have, the little devils!) And I'm grabbing paper, anything, to use as a fan! @$%^&*!

Most of the Old Farts from amongst my peers at my paying job went out to party together one evening last week. Somewhere between the salad course and the entree, I was suddenly engulfed in internal flames! M. suggested I step outside and assured me that the brisk wintry weather out there should cool me down pronto! The restaurant being in an area of town where a woman standing outside on the sidewalk without being properly swathed in winter coat, etc., is liable to be mistaken for a professional of another kind, I was happy to find the air cool enough just inside the entry.

I only had to stand there a few seconds, fanning my blouse. Sure enough, the heat subsided quickly. But, as I returned into the restaurant, I saw the alarmed look on the proprietor/chef's face. What could I say to his kind offer to turn down the heat but to confess that I was in my own private hell at the moment, flames and all?

We decided the other day that there are a lot of rules on the books as to what is proper, professional and appropriate dress at my paying job, but I ventured to guess there is not an actual rule, per se, verbatim, that says a hapless menopausal woman in the bewildering throes of overwhelming sweaty internal conflagration should not strip all her clothes off! I challenged my peers at work to find such a rule, I did. (Here one of the OF's recalled the rationale for pantyhose and undies required if one wore a dress being to prevent 'pubic fall out' -- one of our most favorite quotes from management which we have repeated often when we feel the need for hilarity!)

Someone wryly remarked that as soon as I did it (ie got naked, fool!) just such a rule would be put on the books immediately! Hmmmnnn, would once be enough? I mean, would stripping off just once douse the flames once and for all? Stripping off at work once, I realize (just in case anyone should think I'm slipping over the edge of sanity) would be more enough for my employers ---tee hee hee!

Sheeesh! Is it hot in here, or .... is it just me??

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