October 26, 2012

Why Bullying?

Bullying. It has been in the news an awful lot as of late, due to the very publicly aired suicide of Amanda Todd of Coquitlam - a city an hour's drive from here. I am not going to re-tell her story. The information is easily found online. Suffice it to say, her story has brought the issue of bullying, both online and in person, to the forefront. A painful subject, bullying is an issue that sparks controversy as well as dialogue among experts and common folk alike. I've read several articles and heard several more interviews on the CBC on the subject over the past few weeks and thought I might as well throw in my two cents along with everyone else.  

Why do some people feel a need to bully others? A bully is 'one who hurts or browbeats those who are weaker,' so I suppose the action has something to do with a desire for power over others. But what makes someone desire power over another, particularly over someone perceived as being 'weaker' than themselves? Perhaps it comes down to an individual misconceived notion of one's worth being caught up in a sense of domination. If the meek are to inherit the earth, it sure seems like the strong hold it hostage an awful lot in the meantime.

My girls, who are still in the public school system, said that everyone at school has been talking about Amanda Todd's suicide. My elder daughter who is nearly sixteen is questioning the validity of her classmates' jumping on the 'Oh that's so SAD, that should NOT have happened. If she were in our school I would NEVER have treated her the way those mean kids did' bandwagon. My daughters reaction? "Oh really? You're sure about that? If this girl who used drugs, drank bleach, and made a misguided decision to expose her breasts to someone on line, leading to the photo going viral, went to our school, you would reach out to her? I don't think so." I added that my daughter and her friends would most likely have thought of her as 'messed up' and avoided getting close to her. It takes a pretty unusual teenager to assess another beyond appearances. Sadly, the truth is, it usually 'takes one to know one' in that sense.

By all accounts, Amanda Todd did not lack support, either at home or by the school system. Her mother said that right before Amanda's death she appeared to be doing better and had told her mother so.  My sense of things is that, for teenagers, their peer group often wins attention over any other source of opinion. Being called 'whore' and 'porn star' repeatedly by her classmates, after every attempt to change schools for a new start, obviously took its toll. What is wrong with people? Why do they have to be so mean to make themselves appear better than others? Where is the charity? Where is the basic human respect? Where is the kindness? I have heard it said often that we need to create a different climate in our schools, one of acceptance of others' differences, of tolerance, of generosity of spirit, and with this change in climate good will come. No doubt. But if that climate only exists in schools and not in the home or the work place or the world at large, how much headway for change can the school make? I leave these questions for the experts to ponder and quantify.

The CBC has a topical call in radio program called Cross Country Checkup. I wasn't planning to tune in that Sunday afternoon two weekends ago, but I was on my way to an arts council meeting and the radio was on in the car. The topic was bullying and suicide, and one caller got my attention before I had to turn the car off and go into my meeting. He suggested that the hero worship of athletes in high schools does its part in promoting bullying. Athletes tend to be revered by teachers and students alike in many cases, but this sort of admiration can often lead to the admirer overlooking other qualities that are less attractive. (I can remember a few of this sort from my own school days.) The caller went on to say that high school sports, and often the sports world at large, promote aggression, domination, competitiveness, and as we've recently seen in the world of cycling, extends to cheating and drug use. And while in other areas of life these qualities would be reprehensible, they are often accepted in sport, and those who question them are labeled 'whiners' and 'weaklings'.  Hm, I thought, as I turned off the car, he may have a point there. Later, I asked my two teenagers what they thought of the caller's idea. They both thought it had some merit. One of them said, "Well, you can be stupid, and a jerk, but if you're good at sports, they all love you. If you are stupid and a jerk and not good at sports, you get no respect at all." The other said, "I think there is something to that. A lot of behaviour gets overlooked if you are an athlete at school." When I asked my husband, who was an athlete in school, but somehow managed to stay aloof from the politics (I think that was in great part due to skipping a lot of classes to go skiing) he said, without hesitation, "Absolutely. Just look at football and hockey. Guys purposefully coached to 'take someone out', intentionally hurt them, take late hits, cheap shots, and often they get away with it. Why should they? Why are acts of intentional injury tolerated in sport?" Of course this got me thinking in an expanded way about the world we live in, and why bullying is such a problem at all levels.

Unfortunately, I didn't come up with any real answers or profound thoughts on the matter. I know that the world of sport, our schools, our workplaces (I recently heard a program on the quite serious problem of bullying among nurses in hospitals), and our society in general is struggling to deal with the issue and making some advancements. Our own elementary school here has a policy of celebrating each child's gifts and strengths, no matter what they are, and I applaud that policy. Still, the domination of the alpha males and females still carries so much weight in our world. Perhaps the reasons for that fact are more primitive than we would like to admit. I suppose it is up to each of us to look hard at ourselves, our children, our spousal relationships and cut off those bullying tendencies at the knees. Bullying takes many forms - it is a curious shape-shifting thing. It  can be as subtle as using persistent and manipulative language to bend the will of another toward our own agenda, and as outward as the big kid pushing the little kid off the swing in the playground. I remember my own mother saying in no uncertain terms to my big brother when his teasing went so far as to hurt or push me to desperation (I once spit on him from the upstairs balcony in retaliation), "Stop being a bully!"

Perhaps the best way to deal with the bullies in our midst is to keep talking about the subject,  to keep bringing it out into the open. I just hope it doesn't take the tragic death of another young girl to bring it up again.

October 18, 2012

Uncharted Territory on Duncan Avenue

Last night, as sleep eluded me, partly due to my husband also tossing and turning beside me (we've ordered a new bed), and partly due to the strong cup of tea I had enjoyed late in the afternoon, I remembered a lullaby I had written long ago for my children, and I believe, for myself. A mother of three under five years old at the time, I had rare bursts of creativity in between the long, sleepless nights with an often sick baby and trips to the Tot Stop where mothers with young children went in search of company and sanity.

We were renting a lovely old house on the leafy end of Duncan Avenue in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. The house, added onto over the years, had a strange layout typical of houses of its age, with bedrooms right off the long and somewhat dark living room and the main bathroom off the tiny kitchen, but what it lacked in spacial sense, it made up for in character and homeliness. The wood stove gave lovely, warming heat, and was surrounded by an iron grate to keep it safe from little hands. It was an elegant looking house from the outside, with a peaked roof, and wraparound veranda, cedar shingles and teal blue trim. The yard was perfect for our children with a paved area for hockey and tricycles, a sandbox, and a swing hanging from the large tree near the end of the grassy plot - we even tried our inexperienced hand at growing vegetables.  My husband worked from his home office upstairs, so most mornings I took the children out to give him some peace and quiet. The house was a few short blocks from the main street, which was full of interesting shops to explore on rainy days, all with a 'family friendly' policy - a basket of toys in the corner for the children of shopping parents. No shop was more popular with my kids than Whale's Tale Toys. A large Brio train set was set up in the front of the shop, and children were encouraged to play to their heart's content. We purchased many, many fine birthday presents at Whale's Tale: Lego, Playmobil, sand toys, marble tracks, trains, dinosaur figurines, games, puzzles...

On fine days, we risked the narrow sidewalk and bridge which led to the park with our stroller packed with baby Emma, snacks and essentials. The boys held on to the stroller, one on each side - most of the time. With relief, we entered the large park by the Puntledge river, and the children spilled out from under me, running for the climbing apparatus. On one of these days, I met my friend Barbara, who also had two small boys with a girl soon to follow. We had a great deal in common, and are still friends to this day, I'm happy to say. When it was time for lunch, we packed up our gear and braved the narrow trek home. I still remember how nerve-wracking it was to keep the kids close to me while the traffic whizzed by, cars occasionally honking at us for our audacity in walking by a busy road. I could have driven to the park, and sometimes did, but I have always had a rebellious attitude toward driving a distance easily reached on foot in fresh air. Besides, I needed the exercise. The sidewalks widened once we made a right turn onto Anderton Avenue, and then the boys could let go of their hold on the stroller and skip on ahead a bit. Home again, with Daddy down from his office for lunch, we reported our adventures to him. Afternoons were for quiet time and playing in the garden or with toys inside.

Twice a week I went for a long power walk with a walking group. Sharing parenting stories and tips and talking about our husbands and their work, our work and the challenges of potty-training, and the excitement of our children's 'firsts', we fought the battle of the thickening matronly waistline while we circumnavigated the neighbourhoods of our little world. We took a much needed break from chores, small tugging hands and the urgent high pitched calls of  'mo-o-o-o-m!' We walked by the river, mostly, but sometimes we drove over to Comox and walked down the Dogwood tree-lined hills to the ocean. Often we ended our walks with a visit to a cafe where I usually ordered a newly discovered favourite, steamed milk with a shot of vanilla syrup. My husband was on a Comox soccer team at the time and had many days and evenings out, so I took my turn too.

Still, amid these happy times on Duncan Avenue were interspersed some long spells I like to call 'The Black Hole'. Driven to tears by lack of sleep and a Houdini of a baby in the grocery store, by living far from family, and from riding the waves of a fairly new marriage to an energetic Type A personality husband who I am sure was sometimes baffled, albeit lovingly, by the fits and starts of his elated, exhausted, disorganized partner in life, I spent days on end in mere survival mode. I believe it was when coming out of one of these Black Holes that I wrote the aforementioned lullaby. For years, my children requested this imperfect poem set to music, among many other night-time songs which embedded themselves in the fabric of their beings.

One day, perhaps, these songs will be brought to light again with their own children, just as the songs my parents sang to us were carried down through the years, at first silently hidden and then emerging shining like gems once again with our own voices, exuding warmth, comfort and safety to both the hearer and the singer, lulling them to sleep after a long day of work and play.

Spirit of slumber, come down to me,
Settle my restless mind
Still my body, let my thoughts roll away like a parting sea

Sail on through, sail on through
Ship of slumber
Deliver me to
That uncharted territory,

The photo above is one I took of the house and garden on Duncan Avenue, shortly after we moved in. The three foot evidence of the moving-day snowstorm had obviously melted by the time I took the picture.

Happy Weekend everyone, and sweet dreams!

October 11, 2012

Thoughts of Home

As I look around this 1970's, boxy house with its four bedrooms, three bathrooms, large kitchen and yard, I wonder how long we will need a home of this size. In the not too distant future, with three children grown up, we and our youngest daughter will be rattling around by ourselves wondering what to do with all the space left behind when all of her siblings are out in the world beyond our happy home. But is it wise to downsize? I do not relish the thought of not having room enough for my kids and their friends to stay and be comfortable when they visit, or for grandchildren in the future, if God willing, there are to be some. But is that a good enough reason to hang onto, and look after, a big-ish house with a large yard? I've always dreamed of a three bedroom cottage with a wood stove and just enough room for a few guests around the table. Will there be one of those in our future? (There was one in our past.) Fortunately, I don't have to think seriously about it right now. We have a few years yet.

A cottage in the woods - made of gingerbread by our daughter

Our eldest, Ian came home for the day on Monday. He is able to do that because his home in Vancouver is only one hundred and twenty kilometers west of here and he can very easily hop on a Greyhound bus to make the trip home and back. He came home to enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers - turkey sandwiches for lunch with scalloped potatoes on the side and pumpkin pie - and a late birthday supper of barbecued steak and Caesar Salad ( I supposed you've guessed by now that we are not vegetarians, at least not on the holidays). I turned 43 over a week ago, but despite all his good intentions my husband was not able to cook the dinner he'd planned for me that day, due to a flare-up of his herniated disc. However, feeling much better by Monday, my husband rose early with the girls to cook waffles topped with sauteed apples and whipped cream with a side of bacon - might as well go all out- while I drove to the bus depot to pick up Ian and bring him 'home'. In between the feasting our family of six went for a long walk on the farm roads, visited, drank tea in the afternoon while lounging on the living room couches watching episodes of Community on Netflix, and just enjoyed all being together. The day ended all too soon, and after a bit more visiting in the kitchen while we cleaned up, I drove Ian to the bus depot again, knowing it would not be too long before we saw each other again.

We are lucky that our first born and first to leave home lives so close. He is exactly where he wants to be, taking classes at a small college, living with great roommates in an access-to-everything-in-the-city location, working weekends in the guitar section of a music store, and finding inspiration for his life as an artist everywhere. But yet, he can come home or we can go to him quite easily. There is no guarantee the situation will be the same with our second son. He wants to study music and is deciding on which universities to apply to in this huge country of ours. Even though I want him to be close-ish to home like his brother, I know that he will have to go where he needs to go to be in the best music program for him. Not unlike my niece, who is studying ballet in Oregon...I know my sister misses her terribly, while feeling great pride in her daughter for following her dream.

Our third child wants to go to University right after she graduates from high school in 2014. Will she and her brothers come home for the summers? It remains to be seen and depends very much on the housing and employment they can get in their respective cities. And our youngest? Well, at this point she says she is going to live at home and take the theater program at our local university, to which she can bus or drive. She worries about us being lonely without her.

When I went away to University, I lived at home in the summer, working and saving up for the year ahead. My parents have lived in the same house since I was six years old. There is no danger of them 'rattling around' in their house, though. Theirs is not that kind of house, being built in the 1800's when not only furniture, but people were generally smaller. When visitors come they sleep either on the sleeping porch or up in the converted attic sleeping loft. Some of us siblings have even lived with our parents when in between houses and jobs. There has always been enough room somehow.

I am thankful for this open, large roomed, light filled house that has welcomed our family of six so well. We moved in when our eldest was eleven and our youngest was three years old. We've had bands practicing in the garage, ping-pong in the basement, a troupe of girls performing plays in the downstairs family room, twelve or more people around the dinner table, and four of us cooking at once in the kitchen. We've often had violin, piano, and guitar going at the same time in different corners of the house - ack! Baseball and badminton in the back yard and basketball and hockey in the driveway. Christmas trees that looked much smaller in the field and two rooms to store camping gear, skis and a large freezer, as well as a laundry drying rack which is full much of the time. Our house is often messy, but has never felt cramped. The walls are full of artwork and book shelves. I look at all the new row houses (with teeny tiny postage stamp yards) popping up in our town and wonder how we, a family full of energetic, sporty musicians, would have fared living so closely with neighbours as our children grew up.  I'm sure we would have survived, but I am grateful we didn't have to.

I wonder what our future brings as we gradually enter into this new phase of life as so called 'empty nesters'. This house and yard is a lot to look after without four strapping youngsters to help. Will we stay, or will we go? Just as we've always done, we'll do whatever seems right and fitting when the time comes. I have a strong sense of 'home'. I would like my children to have that anchor in their lives, too, but I know that 'home' is where the people you love are, not necessarily the structure they live in.

Still, there's time...there's time.

October 2, 2012

The Enduring Legacy of Terry Fox

The Terry Fox Memorial near Thunder Bay
Photo by Tim Van Horn

For the past few years I have kept up my tradition of running the annual Terry Fox Run with my daughter's elementary school. It's not a very long run, but the whole school participates as well as several parents and occasionally a local constable. Just before eleven a.m. I change into my running gear and walk the three short blocks to the school. The day is usually a bit warm for running by eleven o'clock for me, somewhat of a wilting flower in the heat, but I suck it up and go. The event begins with a noisy school assembly and a slide show meant to motivate the crowd, as well as a student-led warm-up, and then we're off to run the route accompanied by a police escort. The kids push to the front, the athletes maintaining their speed to the end, the others flagging after a few blocks, still others, especially the little ones and their teachers, walking the route from the start. The running adults start off at a measured pace, chatting with each other and encouraging the kids along the way. People honk and wave from their cars, and the kids wave back proudly, most of them. As the runners return to the school, and are cheered by the other runners, the first few times are recorded on a timing sheet for posterity and everyone is given bottled water and a piece of fruit. After that, the kids go inside for lunch and the adults go home or continue running now that they are warmed up.

For the whole week preceding the run the school celebrates and learns about the legacy of Terry Fox. The children are encouraged to bring in coins - a different denomination each day - as a donation to the Terry Fox Foundation which raises money for cancer research. Even in this age of mega-corporate charities, especially in the field of cancer, the Terry Fox Foundation seems to be an honest, humble, but by no means minor organization - a lot like the young man for whom it was named.

I remember watching the television news with my family during Terry's Marathon of Hope in the spring and summer of 1980. I remember marveling at this young man from my own province who, with one prosthetic leg replacing the one he had had amputated due to cancer, ran as best he could - a step, step, hop kind of run - 42 kilometers each day, rain or shine with a support van following close behind. The news ran updates every day as Terry made his way from the East Coast of Canada through Quebec to Ontario. I had never seen anyone, let alone a disabled person, doing what he was doing to raise awareness and donations for a cause very personal to him. I think Canada ran those painstaking miles with him, every step of the way, cheering him on in his determination and his cause. Unfortunately in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he learned that the cancer he hoped he had left behind had made its evil way to his lungs. I remember being angry that his cancer had returned and that he would not be able to make it across Canada. In my youthful indignation I thought perhaps he should not have run a marathon a day if doing so made him so ill. I did not realize at the time that he was working toward something much greater than himself - that he was trying to motivate a nation to care about trying to find a cure for a terrible disease called cancer and he was succeeding. "I believe in miracles...I have to,"  said Terry during an interview with the press. Terry Fox died in June of 1981 just days before his twenty-third birthday, but not before he had received countless honors and awards and his dream to raise a dollar for every Canadian was realized. A pledge from a high level Canadian businessman to begin an annual Terry Fox run in order to carry on what Terry started was made in 1981, and this year on September 16th the 32nd annual Terry Fox run was held in countless towns and cities around the world. In 2005 the first National School Run Day was launched and since then, our local schools have taken part in this annual event celebrating this inspiring young Canadian. (My son Galen was so inspired that, at the age of ten he decided to run the route as Terry had - with a step-step hop, 'because anyone can run, Mom.' I talked him out of it, mostly because I thought he may end up injured.)

The Terry Fox runs are, for me, the right kind of 'run for a cause'. I remember when I subscribed to a running magazine and the pages were full of ads for all the runs one could do to raise funds for various charities: leukemia, breast cancer, arthritis, etc. The catch was, a person had to raise two or more thousand dollars just to be able to take part in many of these events. I don't have enough rich friends to hit up for those kind of dollars, or the time and energy that many others have to embark on such a fundraising campaign. The simplicity of the Terry Fox run appeals to me; I only have to show up with a few dollars if I can afford it - Fox himself said, "If you have given a dollar, then you are part of The Marathon of Hope" - and run. I don't have to travel to the city because the runs happen in my own community and at my daughter's school. I, along with thousands of parents across Canada, get to run with the kids, the teachers, and the principal, continuing the efforts of Terry Fox, and I see it as an honour to be able to do so.


Before we began our run, my daughter's teacher came to the back of the gym with a pile of stickers. She handed them out to we adult runners and supplied a black felt pen. The sticker read "I'm running for_____".
I filled in the space with the name 'Peter,' the father of one of my nieces and fiance of my sister Pauline. Peter died almost twenty years ago after what began as skin cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and then to his brain. I slapped the sticker on my front and headed off to run in the sunshine for Peter and for Terry. I ran with joy and gratitude for my own good health, knowing full well that I was truly blessed to be able to do so.

Terry Fox
photo by Colin Price, Vancouver Province newspaper

A message for my blogger friends: September is a bit of a crazy month for me and I am way behind on the reading of your latest posts. I apologize, and now that it is October, pledge to read, read, read! My other blog, Stella's Virtual Cafe has not been updated with a new post/recipe in nearly a month and I will get on that as well. Thanks for your patience, but most of all, thanks for reading my blog!