Margaret Atwood Says It’s Time to Bother

Canadian poet and author of fiction, children’s fiction and best-selling novels, Margaret Atwood is most recently best known as the creator of The Handmaid’s Tale – original book published in 1983 and transformed in the popular Hulu TV series (2017 – present) of the same name.  She is deeply involved in the development of the series and even made a cameo appearance in an episode.

Ms Atwood says the book, the movie, the series follow one axiom: “You can’t put anything in that doesn’t have a precedent in human history”. Her sequel, The Testaments will hit bookstores today.  She wrote The Testaments for two reasons:  one because people kept asking questions about the ending of her book The Handmaid’s Tale; and two because she sees women’s rights under threat.

For those of you who have not yet read the book or seen the TV series, the Handmaid’s Tale story is that of a young wife and mother caught up in the dystopian Republic of Gilead – formerly the United States.  When environmental toxins made most of the population infertile, right-wing religious extremists created a state wherein fertile women by law became ‘baby machines’ each serving the head of a totalitarian household.  Some have found the series slow-moving, but for three seasons I have been riveted to my livingroom chair.  There have been times when I have been enthralled and moments I’ve had to look away from horrific scenes, but I thirst for the next season.

Although Margaret Atwood says that Trump is not a Gileadian figure, she does say, “We are probably close to it in some States”.  She says there are other figures in the United States and around the world who want to rollback women’s rights.  She also said that in 1999 she wouldn’t have bothered to write a sequel, but now it’s time to bother.  I guess so:  Protesters have dressed in Handmaid’s Tale garb to protest numerous women’s rights issues, most recently the abortion law in Alabama.

Gee, I wonder how many American Republicans, Canadian Conservatives and right-wing politicians world wide have read The Handmaid’s Tale or will read The Testaments.  I would bet not.

She The North: Bianca Andreescu Makes Canada Proud

I never thought I’d be blogging so much about tennis, but when two stars shine so brightly it’s hard to ignore. On Saturday, Bianca Andreescu won the U.S. Open beating Serena Williams who was aiming for a 24th straight win. For Bianca the win places her 5th in world tennis – pretty amazing for someone who ranked 152nd at the start of the season.

These two women are beacons of light for women everywhere. Not only is Serena a persistent rock star in the sports world, but she also is the Purple Purse Ambassador shining the light on financial abuse and domestic violence of women.

Born to immigrant parents, Bianca is the rising star and as such has shown both tenacity and grace. She is keenly aware of the feelings of others, showing compassion to Serena at the Canadian Roger’s Cup this summer. In true Canadian fashion, she apologized to the mostly American crowd on Saturday, “I know you guys wanted Serena Williams to win, so I’m so sorry”. How charming is that?

I hope little girls everywhere are watching these two women and learning that a positive attitude and hard work brings success and happiness. Kudos to both.

Back to School – Make it Easier for Your Child

It’s Back-to-School time again.  Even though I know the September Equinox is the official end of summer, I’m always a little sad this time of year as I remember myself as a youth interpreting it as the end of sunshine, outdoors, freedom and frolic. 

Last Friday I watched the Canadian Show Nature of Things’ episode The Power of Play.  The show introduced a variety of scholars conducting research on play:  Gordon Burghardt, University of Tennessee; Stuart Brown, known as the grandfather of play; Vancouver researcher Mariana Brussoni; and Norwegian psychologist Ellen Sandseter among others.  Watching the show, particularly at this time of year, got me to thinking about all of the children and teens making the switch from their summer months off into the daily routine of school.

Some young people may not have had exciting summers and are looking forward to returning to the schedule of classes.  I’ll bet though there are others who had summers filled with family vacations, camp, and day trips or just hanging with their friends.  They might be anxious about the transition from variety to mundane. 

Historically, schools have been orderly, methodical, and consistent.  They were created by organized, formal, authorities to churn out results.  Students are told what to do and when to do it.  There is little freedom.  Although recently pedagogy practice has evolved to include more interaction and less direction, many classrooms are still ‘old school’ and certainly not conducive to all personality types or learning styles.

Consider the individual who is naturally energetic, spontaneous and adventurous.  Likely their attention span isn’t very long.  I’m not talking about ADD or ADHD; I’m talking about the brain that needs stimulation and lots of activity.  Fitting into this structured environment might be a challenge at best.  At worst, he/she is likely to find him/herself in the principle’s office on a regular basis.  I was one of those kids.

Play is serious business.  Researchers have discovered that play (spontaneous, often repetitive actions for no particular reason and solely for amusement) is a necessary part of prefrontal cortex development where planning, decision making and impulse control occur.  Play helps to develop perception of others’ emotions and there is a relationship between play and ability to cope.  Furthermore, risky play (thrilling but not really dangerous) helps young children extend their limits and try different ways of doing things to achieve success.

So, parents and grandparents, this school season make sure the children in your life have sufficient time to be silly.  Let them have a play break after school before they must sit down to do their homework.  Encourage them to spend some time outdoors climbing trees and exploring nature.  Allow them to have some rough and tumble activity.  You might have to hold your breath or look the other way from time to time, but I’m sure they will be healthier and happier for it. 

Serena Williams Shines the Light on Abuse

Serena Williams is the ambassador for the Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse program that focuses on the issue of abuse via financial control.  “One in four women will experience domestic violence,” she says, “and this is to help woman and communities throughout America find a way (out of) abuse through financial education and empowerment. That’s my big message.’’ 

Now is the time for more women to tell their stories.  The women’s movement has stagnated around #MeToo and #TimesUp focusing on sexual assault in the workplace.  While these are imperative aspects of women’s issues, the scope of woman abuse from partners has seemingly taken the back burner.  Thank you, Serena, for shining the light back onto the issue of domestic abuse.

You may ask, “Is this really that important?”  You’re darn right it is especially when you consider:

  • Many women in North America (20% in Canada, 25% in the U.S.) have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and 70% of spousal violence is not reported to the police so the statistics are likely much higher.  99% of all domestic violence includes financial control.  Does this mean that therefore financial control necessarily leads to domestic violence?  No, but restricting spending, preventing financial account access, excluding from financial decisions and causing debt are all considered financial abuse.
  • Violence against women costs taxpayers and the government billions of dollars every year: Canadians collectively spend $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence.  In 2016, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in the U.S. violence against women costs about $4.9 billion in direct costs alone.
  • It has a profound effect on children:  Help organizations in both Canada and the U.S. claim children who witness violence in the home have twice the rate of psychiatric disorders as children from non-violent homes and are more likely to become violent in their adult relationships.

Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation launched the No More campaign in 2013 to break the stigma and it brought the issue to public attention with TV ads and they continue to work with many agencies.

Bringing these matters to the public eye is important.  Calling someone out on being controlling is important.  Total intolerance of abuse is important.  But isn’t that just putting a band-aid on the problem?  The issue is extremely complex.  If we have any hope of truly changing the issue of men dominating women in the home, in the workplace, or anywhere; we need to look at the root cause. How are our societies raising our children?  We need to model effective behaviour every day.

We’re not going to erase the Disney images of sweet little princesses needing the knight in shining amour riding on the white horse, but perhaps we can limit that exposure and present gender neutral/equal alternatives in child play.  We need to have meaningful discussions with our children and teenagers about what they see and hear.  A good start might be to talk about how wonderful it is that Serena Williams is setting such a great example by being the Ambassador for the Purple Purse.

Recognizing Abuse

Some people ask why I blog.  The simple answer is that I want to share what happened to me so that other women might be helped – to start anew, to pick up the pieces, to leave an abusive relationship, to perhaps even recognize that they are in an abusive relationship and above all to stay safe.  I wrote the following several years ago after leaving an abusive relationship:

It was a weeknight in October with a thunderstorm threatening.   As I parked the car in the parking lot of the Abused Women’s Centre, the clouds opened up and it started to rain.  I had hesitated about one minute too long.  I was here at the behest of good friends, not because I thought I needed any help or counselling.  Feeling invincible and determined, I thought I could make a run for it; but as I dodged people and umbrellas along the busy downtown street, the heavens burst apart and dumped relentless buckets of water on me.

I arrived at the centre in totally soaked clothes sticking to my skin and hair completely flattened by rain.  I stood in reception and asked if there were any towels.  Helpful women scurried around and brought me towels, a baby blanket and a hair dryer.  Still feeling invincible, I went to the bathroom, stripped down and wrapped myself in my temporary donations.  A woman came, collected my clothes, and told me they’d be in the dryer. I apprehensively walked down the hall and into the meeting room with several women. As she saw me draped in towels, one of the counsellors said, “You deserve the prize for having the most moxie!”

The information session’s purpose seemed to be threefold – to inform:

  1. The services offered,
  2. The definition of abuse, and
  3. How to implement a safety plan.

I was keenly aware of my attire being an attention-getter. There might be times when I would relish being the centre of attention, but this was certainly not one. So I just sat silently hoping the others’ interest would be diverted to the leader rather than me. “Services provided by our Centre….blah, blah, blah.” 

I wasn’t really listening. In my typical fashion, I was skimming ahead in the written pamphlet. Third or fourth page in was a wheel diagram called the Abuse Wheel (adapted from the original Duluth Model

I looked at it. It made sense. I was still looking at it as an observer, gathering information. And, with my teaching and curriculum design background, I was reading it as an editor. I hadn’t truly taken it in, personalized it or reflected upon it. I was more concerned that each of us would be asked questions that I wasn’t prepared to answer. I didn’t want to share. I didn’t even want anyone to know who I was. Thankfully, our anonymity was respected. No questions were asked.

We were asked to look at the Abuse Wheel and check off anything that related to us and our relationship with our abuser. I took a second, closer look. “Humiliating you in front of others.” Check. Frank had always tried to. “Name calling”. Check. Frank used to call me ‘tubby’ or ‘plumpy’, because I had asked him to stop calling me ‘fatso’. I continued reviewing the chart. “Controlling what you do”. Check. Yup, that was Frank. “Controlling how you look”. Check. When he didn’t like what I was wearing, he’d tell me I looked like a farmer. To him, that was an insult. “Controlling who you see or communicate with”. Check. Frank didn’t like me spending time with girlfriends. In fact, whenever I spoke with Katherine on the phone, he would say, “I don’t know why you call her. You hardly ever see her and she never calls you.” I continued on.

Preventing you from physical care.” Check.  In the last two years, in spite of the fact that I had one tooth that bothered me, he wouldn’t let me go to the dentist.  I felt a well of emotion rise within me. “Slapping, hitting, punching, pushing”. Check. Until recently, this hadn’t been an issue, but that horrible night flashed through my head. I stared at the booklet in front of me afraid to make eye contact with anyone. My mouth became dry and I felt a lump in my throat. Tears started welling up in my eyes.  Through the blur I continued reading. “Using threatening looks”. Check. “Destroying your property”. Check. The tears started to run down my face. “Forcing you to watch pornography”. Check. My innermost secrets and the darkest part of my life stared back at me from the page.

I could barely swallow. I could barely breathe. I felt naked. I wanted to cry out loud. How did they know how he treated me? I wanted to scream, “That fucking bastard!”  I wanted to kill him. Instead, I just sat there.  It was as if time had frozen. I don’t even know if the presenter was still talking. Maybe the room was quiet.  Maybe others were asking questions – I’m not sure.  I have no idea how long I sat there looking at that Abuse Wheel.

Epiphany:  “Oh, my God, I am an abused woman. It wasn’t just that one night of domestic violence. I have been an abused woman for years.”

My head was whirling. I felt so stupid. How could this be? Suddenly I was cold. I wanted to be invisible. At first, I wanted the earth to open and swallow me up.  I wanted Scotty to beam me up and transport me to a happy place. I wanted to travel back in time. I wanted to push the ‘redo’ button. Suddenly I noticed that no one was talking. I finally had the courage to look up. I wasn’t the only one crying. 

I drove home with more questions in my head than answers. How did this happen? How could I not have realized Frank was so controlling and abusive? Was I an enabler? Was I to blame? Did others know? What will the rest of my life be like? What got me here?

The only way I could figure out what to do next was to understand how and why this had happened.  The only way to do that was to commence an analytical review of my life.  Maybe then I would discern the causes and not repeat my errors.  As part of my search to discover how I had become a victim of abuse, I delved into my past. Was there something about my heritage, my childhood or my personality that contributed? I needed to understand myself. I needed answers. And so began my mission. 

Women Supporting Women – what real stars do

This week Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu took the Rogers Cup against Serena Williams who retired from the final with an injury. It’s not how Bianca wanted to win and Serena was clearly unhappy. Watch what happened.

The headlines read that this is the first time a Canadian has won the Rogers Cup in 50 years. But that’s not what most of us will remember. More important is the demonstration of one woman supporting another. Basically Bianca told Serena how much she admired her and asked her if it was her back. When Serena nodded confirmation, Bianca said, “That sucks” and hugged her.

Both women are champions and wonderful role models. In this case, one for knowing her limitations and bowing out gracefully and the other for showing respect and empathy. To me, it doesn’t really matter who got the cup. Congratulations to two classy ladies!

Women’s Liberation – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The other day while soaking up the sunshine treading water in the local outdoor pool, my friend asked, “What ever happened to Women’s Lib?”  I don’t remember what we were talking about that spurred the discussion, but we often touch on serious topics when waiting for our aquatics class to begin.  Many of the participants are teachers with free time in the summer, some of us are retired professionals – the conversations can get much more interesting than idle chit chat.  This got me thinking.

In the 60s and 70s we were on a roll towards equality.  We challenged sexism with a vengeance.  We thought we were setting the stage for great change.  At the time, I was climbing the corporate ladder aimed for the glass ceiling.  I was lucky enough to work for companies where the male/female ratio was close or actually 50/50 and pay was equitable.  I was focused on a successful career and in my narrow path, perhaps because I was ‘making it in a man’s world’, I didn’t notice what was happening (or not) around me.

What has happened to the Women’s Liberation Movement?  What happened to the momentum started 40 years ago?  Now look around me and I am in disbelief.  We seem to be going further away from equality.

I am outraged at the recent ‘heartbeat’ bills in the United States.  I am so thankful that I live in a country where the government leaves such decisions to a woman and her doctor.  Canada is one of the few nations with no specific legal restrictions on abortion; however, there are some right wing politicians who have recently started a new debate.  This is a step backward for women’s rights.

The Trump Administration changed the definition of domestic violence and sexual assault to mean only felony or misdemeanor level physical harm.  So, now in the U.S. other forms of domestic violence such as control, manipulation and psychological abuse no longer fit the legal definition.  The Obama Administration’s definition was much broader including physical, sexual, emotional, economical or psychological actions or threats of actions.  This is a step backward for women’s rights.

In the 1960s women in North America made 59 cents for each dollar men made.  Studies in 2016 and 2019 by Glassdoor Economic Research shows that in Canada women made 84₵ to their male counterparts and those in the U.S. made only 79₵.  The gap does narrow if comparing only workers of similar age, education and experience, and further narrows if adjusted to compare only same job title, employer and location to a 4% differential.  I understand that pay equity is affected by women catching up with education and experience so therefore takes time.  So, this isn’t a step backwards, but it certainly isn’t moving forward as quickly as we had hoped 40 years ago.

Worldwide gender equality encompasses so many issues – there is a plethora of problems to solve, particularly in countries with massive amounts of poverty.  One would think that North America would be the leaders in gender equality, but according to the World Economic Forum study in 2018, Scandinavian countries lead the way.  While it doesn’t necessarily mean these would be the best places to live, the following countries have made the best progress based on economic opportunities, education attainment, health status and political empowerment for women: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Nicaragua, Rwanda, and New Zealand.

Shame on us.

On Being Positive – Part 2

In the first part of this blog “On Being Positive” from June 17, 2019, I said I had no formal training regarding how to be positive.  Rethinking the topic I realize I actually have and I’d like to share my source with you:  Dr. Edward de Bono

Renowned psychologist and consultant, Dr. de Bono is known worldwide for his ideas and works on strategic and creative thinking, originating the term ‘lateral thinking’.  In the late 1980s, I had the privilege of attending one of his two-day seminars in Toronto. The man is pure genius!  Even though his presentation was methodical and dry, one could hear a pin drop when he spoke. He didn’t need a fancy PowerPoint accompaniment or pizzazz in his speech because the content alone was fascinating.

While much of his work with corporations and governments; what has stuck with me eternally is Dr. de Bono’s tool of the Six Thinking Hats. The concept is simple enough for children to use and yet captivating and practical enough for adults.  Although De Bono teaches it for groups to solve problems (so everyone is on the same page), I like to use it personally particularly when I find myself thinking negatively or struggling with an issue.

Each hat has a different colour, representing different perspectives:  white for information collection, black for critical analysis, yellow for positive analysis, red for emotion, green for creativity and blue for overview or summation.  What struck me as most brilliant is the concept within the concept – the ‘rules’ De Bono created for Six Thinking Hats – the most important one being:  only wear one hat at a time.  Wearing only one hat at a time channels our thoughts to its purpose.  No opinions are allowed when wearing the white hat.  Use logic only when wearing the black or yellow hats.  Logic isn’t necessary while wearing red or green hats.  You can wear each hat in any order you please, but it’s recommended to think with your blue hat only when you’ve worn all the others.  It’s okay to think negatively about an issue.  After you’ve thought of all of the negative points, imagine replacing the black hat onto its shelf and donning, say, the red hat.  Now, how do you feel about the issue? 

Teaching this approach as sort of a game to children reaps major benefits. Imagine being able to suggest to a little one that he or she should perhaps remove their black hat and try on the yellow one. This teaches children not only that it’s okay to react negatively but also that they can limit their negativity and that they have the power within to resolve problems themselves.

Dr. de Bono has shared his concepts widely on the Internet.  Meeting Edward de Bono set me on the path of finding and celebrating the positive things in life. I urge you to ‘google’ his teachings. Happy surfing!

Remembering Mom Part 2 – The More Serious Side of Dementia

In the summer of 2013 I decided to take an apartment with my mother because I had noticed that she was forgetting simple things like where she put her cheque book, or whether she’d paid the cable bill.  I wanted to spend some time with her so I could observe her behaviour and decide if she was able to live alone or if she needed assistance.

I soon realized that her taking extra long to get dressed was really because she couldn’t decide what to wear.  I started to understand that the reason she took so long to get ready for bed going back and forth from her bedroom to the bathroom was because she had forgotten that she’d already brushed her teeth.  It wasn’t long before I was aware that there wasn’t much she remembered.  She didn’t even know we were living together in the apartment and would say things like, “I’m sorry I didn’t know you were staying for dinner and didn’t get out to the grocery store today” (this was months after I didn’t let her go out on her own). 

One afternoon she asked me, “What ever happened to your brother?”  Now my brother, her son, had just recently visited so I didn’t comprehend her meaning so I asked, “What do you mean?” She replied, “Your brother Mike, where is he?”  My brother’s name is Steve, so I was really confused.  Not thinking, I asked, “Who am I?”  She quickly replied, “Martha”.  I’ve never heard of a Martha.  Not knowing what to do, I got up and left the room for a few minutes.  When I returned, I looked her in the eyes and asked, “Mom, who am I?”  She said, “You’re Linda.”  (Whew!) I explained, “A few minutes ago you called me Martha.  Who is she?”  She thought for a minute and replied, “Well, I was thinking of my cousin Martha.  I must have thought you were her.  I wonder what ever happened to her brother.”  This was my first insight into a dementia mind.  She wasn’t just thinking about the past, it was as though she was living it at that moment.

Those inflicted with Alzheimer’s disease seem to travel back in time in their minds – doctors told me typically to a happy time.  So the best way to have a conversation with them is to figure out where their mind is.  Whenever Mom said something strange, I spoke to her as though she was hypnotized and I would ask questions like, “where are you?” and “who are you with?”  She would answer and we’d have lovely conversations apparently in corn fields, at the harbour, even in the school yard.  This went on for months.  Sometimes it was a puzzle and other times it was like she was writing the novel of her life.  I just followed along the mystery tour.

Although she’s been physically gone for two years now, the mother that I knew all my life vanished three years prior.  As sad as it was to watch her brain diminish, those times were, in a way, magical.

Remembering Mom – the Funny Side of Dementia

From 2013 through most of 2014 I was my mother’s full-time caregiver, living with her to assess her failing health.  I took her to numerous doctors to be eventually diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia by one and Alzheimer’s Disease by another, and I eventually placed her in a wonderful nursing home. I learned a great deal about how the brain works when one has dementia which I might write about another time.  Right now, though, I choose to remember only the funny things she said.  Some of these I posted on Facebook as they happened.  I compile these for your enjoyment:

1.  When we first moved into our apartment, one evening I had to go out for a few hours.  As our landline phone had not yet been installed, I gave my mother my cell phone (a small Blackberry) and instructed her that all she needed to do was push ‘S’ and she could speak to me. I slowly repeated the instructions to make sure she understood and she said, “Yes.  I understand.  I pick this up and I push ‘S’.  But I do have one question.  Where’s the phone?”

2. From an era past: This morning as we’re leaving the Chiropodist, Mom says, “I need to go to the bathroom, but I can’t go here”. So, I ask why not. She replies, “Because I don’t have any change for a tip.”

3.  My mother yesterday morning: “Is March first April Fool’s Day?” (I just couldn’t make this stuff up!)

4.  Went shopping today and bought Mom 3 pairs of pajamas. She had a hard time with this. First, I tried saying “consider it an early birthday present”. That didn’t work. I finally convinced her that I bought them because I was tired of looking at her in her old tattered ones, so in effect I bought them to please myself. Even then, she asked, “will they fit you?” I said, “No, they’re too small for me”. She replied, “So, you can’t wear them after I die?” (She’s 92.) “No, Mother, I won’t be wearing your pajamas after you die!” After much debate and me convincing her I got them all on sale, she finally conceded. Whew!

5.  Okay, so maybe I have a warped sense of humour, but it really made me chuckle tonight when my Mom said, “I think I’d better go to bed. I just wrote a Christmas card to a dead person.”

6.  The conversation tonight while I’m washing the dishes and Mom is still sitting at the table:
Mom: “On the shelf over the TV, is that tall thing a candle?”
Me: “Yes, it is.”
Mom: “So if the lights went out, it would shed a lot of light.”
Me: “Yes, it would. I have lots of candles. We don’t have to worry.”
Mom: (singing) “Where was little Johnny when the lights went out. That’s an old song. Do you know it?”
Me: “No, I don’t”
Mom: “Down by the river with his dickie hanging out!”

As difficult as it was to watch my mother’s brain slowly die over these months, I will always remember and cherish that time with her.  Many conflicted with dementia are negative and grumpy, but she was consistently cheerful and content during this phase.  For that I am grateful.