Sunday, June 3, 2018

Saying goodbye to Jasper

He wasn't even my cat, really. One of a pair of gorgeous Burmese, he belonged serially to two sets of friends of mine. I was the go-between for the adoption and cat-sat him for a year in the interim while his new parents were on sabbatical. When I die and my deeds good and bad are toted up, if such things matter, making this adoption happen should stand me in good credit. For Jasper's new parents it was a life-changing event, in the best possible way.

He was terrified when he first arrived, cowering in the nethermost corner of his carrier, only his rump showing, his tail curled under him. He was shiny and sable brown, with a few stray white hairs on his chest. While his "sister" Truffle was a regal specimen of her kind, with an impressive pedigree going back to the original Burmese, Jasper's papers only said "DO NOT BREED". We suspected the white blaze was an unforgivable aberration. He was also much sleeker than the average Burmese and had a mighty Siamese yowl that could be heard far and wide. Because of that yowl, and his reputation for being a bit of a brat, his adoption was only conditional.

And what a brat he was! It took him a while to overcome his initial fear -- he even disappeared for a few days into the uncharted recesses of the basement -- but once he got comfortable, he showed his true colours. He first gleefully destroyed a chair cushion. Then he shifted his attentions to the brand new wool broadloom on the stairs. Over time he clawed his way through it in several places all the way to the wood beneath, despite numerous scratching posts being made available for his claw-sharpening pleasure. He staged random attacks on Truffle, who nevertheless ruled the roost, leaving tufts of her fur for me to find. He was very jealous of any attention she received. Once he even nipped her while she was sleeping on my chest, minding her own business, and in her panic to flee, and getting a claw caught in my top, she bit me.

Nevertheless he stayed, saved by the fact that he was a great cuddler. They both were: "I am trapped under cats" became a wonderful excuse both for me and for my friends not to do things. He also had a loud purr and was as soft as silk. At night he would curl up next to me under the covers and generate massive amounts of heat, while Truffle would come and go, her departures announced by a soft thump. And as he mellowed with age, he became less bratty. The carpet would never be safe from him, but he never again attacked a cushion. He even stopped attacking Truffle.

Truffle died two years ago and we were all very, very sad, but as my friends said, when they returned from the vet they still had Jasper to come home to. Jasper missed Truffle and yowled even more plaintively as he searched for her all throughout the house. He became even needier than he had been, if that was possible. Then, in the way of male cats, he developed kidney disease and over the space of about year he dwindled away to nothing. First he lost his ability to jump and run, then by the end he couldn't even walk. But he still had his yowl, if somewhat muted, and his fur was soft and shiny to his last day. And he still loved to cuddle.

Of all the cats I had known, and there had been many, Jasper was my favorite.

I'll miss you, buddy.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When I was 18 ...

When I was eighteen my English teacher hosted a party at his house to celebrate the end of the school year. My sweet, overprotective mother, worried that I'd be driven home by some randy drunk boy my own age, phoned him and asked him to make sure that I got home safely. To her great relief he told her that he would personally drive me home. And when the party was over, and everybody else was gone, he poured another glass of wine, put on some sexy music, sat down next to me, and said "I want to make mad, passionate love to you." There was some clumsy groping, which I participated in because I was curious, but then it became abundantly clear to me that this was going to be a non-starter and I asked him to take me home. He did, and that was the end of it. The incident became a funny anecdote and great ammunition against my mother's persistent over-protectiveness. Afterwards I could always remind her, "Remember the time you asked my English teacher to drive me home?"

Never in a million years would it occur to me now to go gunning for him as a perv, even if he were a Conservative politician.

Do we remember what it was like to be eighteen? We think we are all grown up and we are champing at the bit to get on with life and to experience as much as possible. Back in my day that meant the freedom to engage in sexual experimentation with older men, because there was a persistent myth that they were experienced and would be better at sex than our own fumbling male cohort. The only thing wrong with my English teacher, from my perspective, was that he was not my French teacher, whom I wanted to make mad, passionate love to. I would have happily exchanged one thirty-something for another. And I may or may not have been disappointed in the experience, but I certainly would not have felt taken advantage of.

What we are doing now is taking away agency and responsibility from our girls. At eighteen I would have been outraged at society telling me that I could not choose to experiment with an older man, or any man for that matter. That's agency. Responsibility is in choosing the man and the circumstance. For instance, I would have never gotten drunk in a bar and let a man take me home; being a grown-up meant thinking of the consequences of my actions. But now eighteen-year-old women are expected to be children who need society's protection. In fact, there is talk of extending the upper limits adolescence to twenty-four because of the suggestion that under that age youngsters are incapable of weighing the consequences of what they do. What kind of stuff and nonsense is that?

I have a young relative who is in her first year of university and a few months ago she told me that some of her house-mates came home in tears because a group of boys made fun of them. My cohort would have sent the boys packing with a few zingers about their manhood and laughed about the experience. What have our young women become if they cannot even defend themselves verbally against a clutch of boys their own age? And why are we encouraging their infantilization?

I have long been an advocate of self-defense training for girls. I grew up in a society where men were predators and women moved about with the knowledge that they were prey. My attitude has always been that if men had to worry about their own physical safety when they raped a woman, there would be fewer rapes and assaults. But in this discussion about thirty-something politicians taking eighteen-year-old women to their rooms, we are not speaking about rape, but consensual sex. Are we now saying that eighteen-year-old women are not allowed to have consensual sex? Are we trying to limit the age of the men they have consensual sex with? Or are we saying that men who have had sexual relationships with young adult women when they were in their thirties should not contemplate entering politics?

Some would retort that the issue is the power imbalance between the eighteen-year-old woman and the much older politician, or teacher, or professor. And to that I would say that the answer is not for society to say that the young woman needs protection because she cannot take care of herself or be trusted to know her own mind, but for society to empower that young woman to exercise agency. That power is not in her saying #metoo ten, twenty, thirty years later. That power is for her to be able to decide in the moment whether this is a sexual encounter she wants, and to be able to walk away without consequences. That's what I hope #metoo leads to.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


I had a visceral response to a black and white photograph someone posted on Facebook today. It showed a group of women lined up in a field, naked. Some of them were holding small children in their arms. The person who posted the picture explained that the photo was taken in Nazi Germany before the Nazis figured out the "final solution", that the women were Jewish, and that they were waiting their turn to be shot one by one and then buried in a shallow mass grave.

The poster wondered what the women were thinking and feeling as they waited to die. Were they afraid? Were they focused on soothing their frightened children? She also asked why their killers insisted that they strip naked: why that final humiliation? They were all just everyday women, with the thighs and tummies and breasts that everyday women have, and quite likely also the sense of modesty and vulnerability in nakedness of everyday women. It was that vulnerability that I had the visceral response to, as well as the knowledge of what would happen next, not only to them but to millions of others.

I wondered what their killers felt. Was it glee and exhilaration? Horror? Numbness? Hate? Did they feel like bigger men, having been empowered to kill?

The person who posted the photo did so in response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

It wasn't an over-reaction.

A woman, Heather Heyer, was killed at that rally, run over by a white supremacist. A rabbi waited in his synagogue with his congregation while heavily armed people with Nazi flags marched past chanting "no more Jews" and wondered what he could possibly do if one of these submachine-gun-toting fanatics burst through his doors. A disabled person in a wheelchair was doused with gasoline and threatened with an open flame. A UVA professor had a stroke while defending someone who was being beaten, and later died.

Anyone who marches with a Nazi flag, knowing what it stands for, voluntarily aligns himself with the murderous regime that decreed the death of those defenseless naked women. Anyone who knowingly aligns himself with that regime loses their right to be considered human, never mind the First Amendment. Anyone who aids, abets, and encourages them is in the same category. Not human, not animal (because no animal would do such a thing to their own kind), not vegetable, not mineral. A category all their own: evil.

The Charlottesville marchers are finding out that actions have consequences: they are being outed on Twitter one by one. Some are losing their jobs; others, who were violent, are finding out that there are arrest warrants waiting for them. One was even disowned by his own father. A part of me feels that it is good for them to experience the persecution they wish to inflict on others; another part of me wonders whether they'll become any less hateful and violent if they are shunned, unemployed or in jail. I somehow doubt it.

I have no answers, but I do know who unleashed this. Every thinking person does. Conditions may have been ripe, just as they were in Germany in the 1930s, but nothing happens until there is a Fuhrer to give his assent, and the assent has been given. It is now up to those who think and know and have the power to act to stop the madness.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

I gotta quit Trump

I gotta quit Trump. This whole Trump thing is interfering with my sleep. My meditation. My exercise routine. It's making me wake up every morning in a welter of anxiety and driving me into a rage several times a day. It's raising my blood pressure and making me fat.

It's gotta stop.

I'm sure I'm not the only who feels every day like they are living in a novel penned by Kafka. The outrages and absurdities just keep piling up. White supremacists rule in the White House writing executive orders expressly designed to harm people. Trump accuses his predecessor of a felony; his inane "advisor" claims surveillance by microwave oven. "Exhausted" secretary of state Rex Tillerson puts the nuclear option on the table regarding North Korea. The proposed health care law and budget take America back to the dark ages, cutting arts, science, environmental and safety protections, education. President Trump lies through his teeth EVERY. SINGLE. BLOODY. DAY.

Seriously, if someone pitched this to Hollywood as a movie script 30 years ago, they would have been laughed out of the room. But someone should have pitched it, and made the movie, because then maybe we would not be living it now. (I can see it as a Sacha Baron Cohen effort: "American President Borat". It would have made millions.)

Even as a reality show it's impossible not to watch. The suspense is unbearable: will the FBI nail Trump & Co. before they do irreparable damage? Will the Muslim ban stand? Will Neil Gorsuch be nominated and up-end the balance in the Supreme Court? Will the Republicans succeed in repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Ryan's hybrid monster-child of a healthcare act? Will Big Bird and the EPA be axed? Will Trump supporters ever see the light, get to the breaking point, and vote against the new and improved swamp? And, seriously, if things get bad enough, will the military and the intelligence agencies step in to remove the president before he starts a nuclear war? It would not be a good thing, politically speaking, but the way things are going, it's not something I would count out.

All this makes it very hard to quit Trump and especially hard to quit Twitter, where all the breaking news, real and imagined, can be found. I have a feeling that when things unravel, they will unravel fast, and I want to be there to catch the news when they do. Every day I look to see whether President Trump has quit, been arrested, or ordered impeached. I look morning, noon, and night, and I feed on the intriguing tidbits presented by @20committee, @LouiseMensch, and @maddow, and @KeithOlbermann's juicy rants. But all this keeps me in a state of high dudgeon 24/7 and makes it difficult to sleep. Sometimes I even forget to eat. My friends call it an obsession; I am pretty sure that it's a mental illness now affecting a lot of Americans.

To qualify: I am a history major and the daughter of a woman who had to spend years in hiding during the Second World War. In the first capacity I am keenly aware of political threats of historical magnitude. Make no mistake: Trump is one. In the second, some part of my limbic brain has identified Trump as an existential threat to my own survival. I am watching him the way a small animal watches a predator from hiding. I am watching him and his dangerous tribe, and also the apex predators circling him who might take him down. I am rooting for my kind, the millions of other small animals living in the forest, and I find it impossible to look away because all our lives might depend on what happens next.

So I can't quit Trump.

Monday, January 9, 2017

More thoughts on Trump's presidency

I'm not suicidal, but if there were some painless, effortless way of de-materializing soon to exit the planet, I would certainly give it due consideration. Call me a coward, but between climate change and politics we could be entering a time of potential pain and chaos that I am not sure I want to see first hand.

I am a historian by training. During my university years I made it my goal to study the history of the Western world from the time of the Greeks to the modern era. The general idea was to have a time-line and an overview. I also threw some international relations into the mix and had the pleasure and honour to study with Janice Stein. While I do not claim to have great depth of knowledge, I do have breadth, and what I see happening in the world today scares me.

I am not the only one to perceive the birth pangs of a New World Order that will supersede the one that has kept us safe from nuclear war since the end of World War II. The U.S. and Russia seem to be lining up against China, and China is feeling justly threatened. If you have ever seen the movie "Hero", or even if you just know anything about China, you would have a frisson run down your back at the prospect. And if you studied enough history, you will know that humanity has never managed to forge a New World Order, even a better one, without first getting into a major war. After millions are killed and the dust settles, the participating countries agree to sit down and negotiate an agreement to create lasting peace. While that may be great for the survivors, it's not so useful for the millions that died in the meantime. In the gap between the death of the old order and the birth of the new there is scope for a lot of human suffering. There is also no guarantee that most of us will survive the next Great War or even that the world will be a place fit to live in after it's done.

It doesn't help that we are living in an era of reckless leaders. Putin has been an adventurist for a while, but now we are adding Trump to the mix. Since November 8th the new president elect has been busy provoking China through tweets and through overtures to Taiwan. China has now twice in official media proposed teaching Trump "respect" and just today vowed "revenge" if Taiwan is recognized. This is from a country that has been so reticent in expressing criticism that it usually just "regrets" whatever it disapproves of. Many people see Chinese retaliation in the form of a trade war, but Chinese actions (the snagging of the U.S. drone, flying a nuclear bomber over the South China sea) say otherwise.

While people are focusing on Trump's tweets about SNL, or Hamilton, or Meryl Streep's Golden Globes speech, or even on the national peril created by his antediluvian advisers, there is real peril afoot internationally that's more pressing even than the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade. I note that the last person to realize the graveness of any situation would be Trump himself, who has shown every sign of not being willing to listen to the experts and whose chief talent seems to be to make any situation that arises exponentially worse.

As of January 20th he will have the nuclear launch codes and the absolute authority to declare war. So yes, I am worried.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Some thoughts on the American election

I am still in mourning about the American election. Since Friday I've woken up every morning crying. It was Leonard Cohen's death that set me off; its juxtaposition with America electing a fascist somehow being symbolic of the rise of a frightening new world, which Leonard seemed to foresee in his last album.

The election of Donald Trump is the death of the American ideal, nothing more, nothing less. Forget "bring me your frightened huddled masses longing to be free": the frightened huddled masses are now in America, praying not to be harassed, deported, or killed by Trump's newly energized white supremacist supporters. Much has been written about the Hitlerian tactics Trump used to come to power: the appeal to uber-nationalism, the demonization of "the other" (Hispanics, Muslims, illegals), the call to make the country great again because "others are laughing at us". Since Trump's election there has been a surge in the harassment or worse of minorities and women; Trump's appointment of a well-known racist and conspiracy theorist (and wife beater) to the post of chief strategist is not likely to reassure anyone. People are in the streets, and for good reasons. They are not going to go away any time soon either.

An American Trump supporter I know deeply resents my Canadian input on the American election. She sent me a link to an article that says Canada is the annoying friend who keeps lecturing you about the terrible mistake you made. It concludes, "what I'm trying to say is, let us suffer in peace, Canada, and kindly f$#@ off." But she doesn't happen to think that a terrible mistake was made and says that "we gave Obama a chance, and now the left owes it to us to give Trump a chance." As if this were a normal election. As if Hillary did not end up with about two million more votes. As if racism, ultra-white nationalism, blatant vote suppression, and FBI and Russian interference were not important concerns. As if she were not the daughter of a man who as a child barely missed being killed by the kind of people who now support Trump.

To go back to that article about Canada as the annoying friend, let me expand on the metaphor. Canada is the girl whose best friend next door just got engaged to the racist, misogynist lout with tats and guns and a pit bull, and neo-Nazi and Russian mafia buddies just down the street. Canada is not only worried that the guy will knock her friend around, as he surely will, she is also worried about what will happen to the neighbourhood. And Canada deeply wishes that her friend instead went to stay with her boring New York grandma for a few years until she could find herself a better prospect. She could have.

I don't know what's next. I wish the electoral college would look at the vote distribution and what Trump means for America, and say, for once, "not on our watch." But even that's not a solution, because then Trump supporters would take to the streets and say their election had been stolen; and they, unlike the "left", have guns. Even if Trump himself were impeached, as he well might be, that still leaves Pence and this frightening new racist, sexist, reactionary iteration of the Republican party in power. America is in trouble, one way or another, and it will take years, and hopefully not bloodshed, to sort it all out.

Friday, July 22, 2016

My Mom and Donald Trump

My mom died, way too young, in 1985. Since then, whenever something dreadful happens in the world, I think, "I am glad she did not live to see this." I thought that when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, when AIDS hit, during the Rwandan genocide, and right after 9/11. I am thinking it right now as I watch Donald Trump take the reins of what was formerly known as the Republican Party.

My mom was born a few years before the Second World War. She found out she was Jewish when in her class all the Jewish children were asked to stand up, and she didn't, and was told by the teacher, "you too." Her father, my grandfather, worked with Raoul Wallenberg. My mom was one of the lucky ones: she spent the war in hiding.

The war shaped her. Wanting to protect her family, she read the newspaper every day looking for signs of trouble. Every time something went wrong in the world, she would become worried about the unraveling that could follow. She wanted to make sure that she wouldn't miss the signs of impending doom and that she would be ready for the worst if it came.

My mom's response to bad news was to add food to her war supply. This war supply lived in the basement and consisted of beans, rice, pasta and canned goods. After she passed away it took my stepfather about a year to work his way through it. Living in Canada in the 70s and 80s, we, her children, thought the war supply terribly funny. Of course we didn't have her memories of war and starvation, of the times when people cut meat from dead horses lying in the street to take home to feed their children.

I am glad she is not here now and that she did not see Donald Trump's acceptance speech yesterday at the Republican National Convention. I am glad that she is not here to read the anti-Semitic tweets of Trump's white supremacist supporters. I have zero doubt that what she would see in Donald Trump would be the rise of another Hitler. She would be aghast about his glib comments on NATO and his expressed admiration of Vladimir Putin. She would be, in the favourite phrase of a friend of mine, "beside herself" with worry and despair about the future of our world.

I am thinking of you, Mom. Remembering you with love. I am sorry I laughed at your war supply; I'll soon be starting one of my own.

Postscript July 26: But I bet she would have been jazzed watching the nomination of Hillary Clinton! I was!