Congratulations on getting through the easiest part of your life?

Grads

The youth and I do not always get along well, it’s true. There are alot of things I just don’t understand about how they do their thang. Fake glasses with thick frames, when all I ever wanted to do with my glasses was get rid of them. All that eyeliner. High-waisted shorts. Man buns. Endless selfies under layers of filters. Texting each other when they’re in the same room. The strange popularity of obnoxious YouTubers. I will stop right there, as I don’t want to sound like a shirty old cuss. Now, if everybody will just get off my lawn and pull up their pants, I’ll get on with this rare post in support of young people.

It’s graduation season. All over the world, people are closing the book on one chapter of their life and moving on to another. Our darling Fiona is leaving the familiarity and security of her school of the past five years for highschool at Notre Dame. With the added fuss of end-of-the-year activities, including uniform fittings and a leaving ceremony (because apparently sixth grade grad is a thing), our June’s been ridiculously busy. She’s excited and nervous, all at once. Big changes are coming. Every spring, for several years now, my Facebook newsfeed contains at least one person sharing the following meme:

slide_309036_2710134_free

It’s made me snicker every time, I admit. However, it’s not true. Being a kid is actually really hard.

Your personality is still forming – and so are those of your peers. This means that every day you make a conscious decision as to how to present yourself to the world, and that world consists mainly of people who are too immature to respect what you’re offering. Popularity occupies a disproportionate level of importance, and is based heavily on things that are beyond your control. Good hair. Clear skin. The right (i.e. trendy and expensive) clothes. Smooth moves. I’m pretty sure teenagers have not changed that much since my own teen years – which means smooth moves still elude many of them. You have strong opinions, but they are laughed at by many of your peers and dismissed by parents and teachers. What do you know? Talk to me again when you’ve been around the block a few times …. If you put out, you’re a slut – and guys like you while girls scorn you. If you abstain from sex, you’re a prude – and girls like you while guys don’t bother with you. If you’re queer, you face the heavy task of trusting people with that deeply personal piece of information – and they might not react well. Everyone probably assumes you’re straight. You’ve been alive less than 20 years, but people are asking you what you want to do with the next 30 or 40 years of your life. You are constantly being tested on what you know, even though alot of what you know is new – and there’s more of it every day. The results of these tests determine whether you can follow the career path you’ve told everyone you want to follow. You’re being evaluated by just one institution’s accepted metrics – yet you’re being told that you have to measure up or you’re going nowhere in life. You’re facing years of testing, development, uncertainty – and debt.

Not all of you are going to make it. Failure, bad choices, heartache, unintended pregnancy, mental illness, drugs, crime, and suicide stalk you like wolves. Your generation is the one that is most vulnerable to all of these things. If you’ve made it to graduation, fab for you – it wasn’t easy, and you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Here’s to your future!

 

Advertisements

Breakdown of a breakdown ….

upgrada_canada_3

The tomb of the unknown soldier, at the foot of the cenotaph, was a peaceful resting place for the remains of a man of whom we know nothing, save that he served his country and, in the end, gave his life for it. I’ve walked or driven past it many times. I’ve stopped there a few times, too. The last time I stopped there was during the summer of 2013, when my brother, André, and his wife, Janelle, were visiting. I walked their legs off all over downtown Ottawa, and the tomb was one of the things I chose to show them. People were chatting, snapping pictures, eating lunch, enjoying a fresh-air escape from the office. Two guards played a game with my daughters, handing them cards with clues describing certain parts of the beautiful monument. They, along with a few other children, scurried around the memorial, eagerly finding each piece of the puzzle. I can’t ever think of it as peaceful again.

Just two days ago, Wednesday, October 22, the peace of the tomb was shattered by a young man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. A lifelong loser trailing a long history of petty crime and addiction, an angry, unstable wanna-be mujahid whose goal was to travel to Syria and fight alongside ISIS. Somehow, he got his hands on a gun he wasn’t allowed to possess and murdered the soldier guarding the tomb. Nathan Cirillo, father, animal-lover, soldier, was shot at point-blank range, from behind – the favourite angle of the cowardly. Brave bystanders tried frantically to save his life, but he died in their arms. Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block on Parliament Hill, where he was confronted – and later shot – by the sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers. Even though Zehaf-Bibeau was dead, it was unknown whether he was operating alone. Were there other gunmen? Had bombs been planted? Was the killing a standalone act, or was it the harbinger of mayhem? Nobody knew, so the surrounding area was swiftly shut down and closed off. All government offices were put in lockdown, as were several schools. Civil servants were told to stay in their building, including (of course) Ryan and I. Phone lines were tied up, and the internet was creeping at a snail’s pace (or, at times, completely stalled) as people all over the city frantically tried to find out what was going on and reach loved ones to reassure each other.

I was in a meeting when the news broke. I can’t tell you anything that was said in the meeting after hearing about the attack. My mind shut down. I was able to hold back the tears that sprang immediately to my eyes until it was over, then I took refuge in the washroom – of course, it is a fact that, if you are trying to cry quietly in the washroom, people will bang in and out and force you to converse with them. But I couldn’t stop. I cried in a washroom stall, then – when I thought I was ok – I made it back to my desk in time to start sniffling again. I texted my mother and her husband, then André and Janelle, to let them know that we were safe. Mom called, and I talked to her for a few minutes around the lump in my throat, trying not to let her hear my fear. I’ve been leaking tears at odd moments ever since. It is, I suppose, some sort of breakdown – a response to the tension that you can almost touch, floating in the air, thick enough to choke on. An overwhelming sorrow at the thought of two young men wasted, a peaceful place stained with blood, a city transformed by terror. The dissolution of the thin mental membrane between my usual state of calm and the sickening, screaming state of panic.

My emotions were even more difficult to control when I realised that we were nearing school dismissal time. Fiona’s and Bridget’s school, which had been secured at first, was now operating as usual, even though it is only a few blocks from where I was locked down. Somewhere between my office tower and their school, somebody had drawn an invisible line – apparently, was not safe and they were. Who decided that? How did they decide that? I wasn’t supposed to stand near a window or on a rooftop for fear of potential snipers, but my children were about to leave their school and walk down the street to the Y Kids Club. I must have called their group leader’s number twenty times or more. Ryan took over the task of calling their school – maybe the school staff could tell us if things were ok. I couldn’t do anything about school dismissal or them walking to their after-school program, I couldn’t even leave my damn building – so I needed to know that they had reached the church basement where the Y Kids Club is held. I couldn’t stay still, couldn’t put down my phone – could barely breathe – until I learned that they were safely inside. After that, it was easier to wait out the lockdown. Sometimes, in fact, I managed to forget for a few seconds – then I’d look out the window at the empty grass and paths and picnic tables, and remember that a nightmare was happening even though we were all awake.

The lockdown was lifted just before four (for us, anyway – the downtown would remain shuttered and surrounded by police until well into the night). As we left the building, I drew in a grateful breath of fresh air, my first since walking in that morning. My shoulders were tight and my eyes were roaming – every sound was magnified in my mind, and I couldn’t help but look behind me every few paces. Cars were backed up all the way to the parking lot, because every car going across the bridges to Quebec was being monitered – and, because this is a border city, there were alot of cars heading across those bridges. After picking Fiona and Bridget up from daycare, tears were threatening again – this time, tears of gratitude at the simple blessing of the four of us reunited in our filthy car. I was exhausted, and my head pounded, and my eyes felt raw – but we were together, and unhurt, and going home.

There’s been a great deal of poetic waxing – journalists are reaching the dizzy heights of sports writers as they scramble for words that are deep and wide enough to encompass this event and the fallout. “Loss of innocence” is used often. It’s not really that, though – most of us have known for years that this was coming. We’ve watched the United States and Europe suffer through much worse, and really we’ve just been lucky until now. We all know that things will change, but these things are mainly of a procedural nature, and won’t stop everything we want them to. What has happened to us lives in some dark, airless corner of our mind with the other spiders – it’s always been there. The only difference now is that this corner has been disturbed, some of its denizens have come howling into the light. The word I keep coming back to is breakdown. The shooting of Nathan Cirillo was a breakdown of security, of trust, of humanity. It is a breakdown of the line between our bad dreams and reality. It is a breakdown of our illusions of peace and easy living. It is a breakdown of my feeling that all’s right with my world. My calm façade – that’s all it was, I know that now – cracked in the face of our collective tragedy and grief. This is just a description of my experience – I can only imagine what it was like for the people downtown, in the eye of the storm, for the families of Nathan Cirillo and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, for Kevin Vickers, for our soldiers who know they have become moving targets merely because of their uniform. I’m praying for them all, because that’s all I can do. In the meantime, we’re all back to work and school and life, because that’s what we must do. We won’t let this breakdown break us.

canada_day_fireworks_parliament

The dangers associated with being alive are a fact of life – whether kids use backpacks or not.

Image

I thought I might write about dandelions today. Since there are so many of them around, it seemed timely. But the nodding yellow puffs on my lawn (and your lawn, and her lawn, and his lawn, and everyone’s lawn) will have to wait – because something else caught my attention: school security policies. A few years ago, a man with a sawed-off shotgun entered a school in Buckingham (not far from Ottawa), threatening to kill everyone. He wandered the corridors for about fifteen minutes, while the school was in lockdown mode, and the secretary called 911. The incident ended well, with nobody hurt and the gunman apprehended by police. This resulted in a change in security protocol at the school Fiona and Bridget attend. People used to be able to wander in and out at will. The doors are now locked at all times. There is a buzzer that you press to alert the secretary to your presence, and she unlocks the door for you.

According to this article, students at one Long Island, NY, high school will now have to carry all books and belongings in clear plastic bags – backpacks are no longer allowed. In addition to this, they are locked out of their lockers for the rest of the school year. For a little while, all but one washroom for each gender had been shut down, and students had to sign in and out to use the toilet. This restriction has been eased a little: there are now four washrooms open to the students (yes, four toilets for over a thousand students), which will be monitered, but nobody will have to sign in or out. These measures have been adopted in response to a recent rash of threats, including at least one reference to a bomb.

I read a blog post about it, called “You will understand why this high school banned backpacks”. Know what? I don’t understand it – and I wouldn’t accept it. It’s nothing but a placebo, a sugar pill to calm the screaming masses. As one commenter put it, it’s “security theatre”.  The buzzer on the front of my daughters’ school won’t stop anyone from entering. Mr. Coo-Coo with his gun and his plan won’t be daunted by having to press a button, and will probably be able to bluff his way in even if he’s questioned (which he likely won’t be until he’s in, at which point it’s too late). As for the Wantagh High School, banning backpacks and sealing lockers isn’t going to do a whole lot to make people safer, either. Kids can pack heat anywhere – not just in their backpacks. Why don’t we make them wear see-through clothes? How about x-rays and cavity searches before each school day? Oh, and an armed security guard in each classroom – and two in the gymnasium, of course. While we’re at it, why not re-think the concept of school altogether? Instead of making our precious lambs leave their bubble, why not have them take their courses online? Since it’s unlikely that we’ll all agree on a line, let’s not have one. Let’s just go all the way to Crazy Town, together, in a high-security, unmarked, windowless, peanut-free bus.

The thing is, there is risk everywhere. Leaving your house elevates your risk of being robbed, beaten, run over by a car, eaten by a bear, attacked by a dog or a rabid raccoon, stung by a bee. Driving around is dangerous. Walking instead of driving is dangerous. E.coli and listeria lurk in our bagged salads and deli meats. You could talk to other people, but what if they’re stalkers or sociopaths or sales reps for Tupperware or Avon or Lia Sophia? Escalaters, elevators, stairwells – tripping, falling and dying hazards, all. Shall we tear off the top six / eight / twenty-five floors of every building, and have everything at ground level? You could go to the library or a park to hang out, but germs! Never mind waterslides or amusement parks or ziplining – many parents don’t even let their children go to public washrooms by themselves until they’re into the double digits. Our society has become ridiculously risk-averse, even though we’re safer than we’ve ever been – and it’s disturbing.

Yes, terrible things happen – sometimes, with no logic or even warning. A bomb threat at a school reaches into every parent’s heart and strikes at their deepest, darkest fears. But we have to rise above our hysteria and really think about our response …. We cannot live like rabbits, frozen or running scared at every rustle and twig snap. How much freedom are we willing to leverage to feel safe? Because that’s really all we’re doing – we’re changing how we feel. We shouldn’t pour time and money into things that won’t help anybody just so that we look like we’re doing something. Doing nothing is better than that.

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”  – Benjamin Franklin

Hide-and-seek in the park shouldn’t require a threat-and-risk assessment.

Image

Hide-and-seek and me, we go way back …. Like using my fork, brushing my teeth or singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, I don’t remember learning the game – it was always just there.  It was a favourite of every kid I knew. One memorable game could have ended in tragedy when my little brother hid in the dryer, and I turned it on. André was small and trusting, and I was still smarting from having been displaced by his arrival. All the people who love him are still grateful that I turned the dryer off and opened the door after only a few seconds of thumping and wailing. He came tumbling out, blubbering about how hot it was in there. It should be noted that he was playing hide-and-seek with me again just a few minutes later. That’s how awesome the game is. Or, possibly, how scared he was when I told him I’d put him back in the dryer if he didn’t play another round with me.

Now that I’m all grown up, I still play hide-and-seek occasionally – it’s a favourite of Fiona’s and Bridget’s. In fact, our whole family played it just a few days ago. We had walked to the park in the rain, in search of puddles to slop around in. Then, Fiona suggested the game. Ryan and I became big kids for a while. It was fun to cling breathlessly to a big tree, listening to the confused seeker traipsing back and forth, peeking occasionally and muffling my giggles. The best part was when it seemed like the seeker was looking right at me, but he or she couldn’t see me. Then, bursting out of my hiding place with a whoop, hearing peals of laughter and “let’s do it again, this time I’ll count” …. Ryan seems to be the most skillful hider, followed by Bridget. Fiona just loves to make noise, and can’t seem to stay hidden long enough for anyone to find her. I can’t help laughing, and I don’t time my peeks very well.

As fun as it was, I couldn’t relax completely. There were many moments when I couldn’t see Fiona or Bridget – or both – because, you know, hide-and-seek. The ghost of the fear I used to feel whenever they disappeared from view when they were tiny came back to haunt me. Fiona used to have a habit of hiding in the racks of clothing at Walmart. The logical part of me knew what she was doing, but my heart would leap into my throat anyway – instinct, I guess. Then, there was the time when Bridget got lost in a Chapters store. I don’t know how she slipped away, but I still remember the rising, nauseating, screaming panic I felt in the two or three minutes it took to locate her. I can still feel her hot, tearstreaked little cheek pressed against mine when I scooped her up, wanting to yell at her and not being able to because I was hugging her so hard. The terror of not being able to see your child trumps the calming narrative that plays inside your head. “It’s ok, I saw her just ten seconds ago, she can’t have gotten far but-I-can’t-see-her-she’s-gone-my-baby-is-gone-somebody-anybody-help-us!

I didn’t say anything about it at the park. I didn’t want to give voice to my inner crazy – I didn’t want to transfer my worry to the rest of the family. But later, when the girls were tucked in and Ryan and I were hanging out on the couch with a bottle of wine, he asked me if I had felt nervous about letting them out of our sight, sometimes for several minutes straight, in the park. I admitted that I had, and he said he had, too. I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only scaredy-cat, and angry that this was a thing at all.

Really, this high level of anxiety doesn’t make sense. Crime against children is at an all-time low – at least, in our part of the world. Abductions are very rare, and usually happen at the hands of someone with whom the child is familiar. A child simply vanishing from a park in broad daylight is even more uncommon. However, that’s not the story told by the media, which splashes our nightmares as far and wide as it can, and milks every possible drop of drama out of every one. That’s not the story told by books or movies – because, as we all know, happy endings don’t sell like sensation. The influence of the media and entertainment, though, is only part of the problem. There is also the culture of fear-mongering and risk aversion in which our society has been stewing for years now. Any food could lead to anaphylactic shock, and even common medications have unexplored side-effects. Our homes are festooned with baby gates and child-proof locks and padded corners. Little Prince George is on his first world tour, and the biggest story so far is that his car seat isn’t up to the snuff-of-the-moment (car seat regulations being similar to the weather in recent years). From the big things like cancer and terrorist attacks to the little things like sunburns and food poisoning, today’s parents are, in general, the most frightened creatures in the history of the human race.

When I was a kid, I played for hours outside. Unsupervised. I could have drowned in the harbour. I could have flipped my bike and knocked myself out with only other youngsters to help me. I could have got into a van on an offer of candy, because that’s always how it was in the commercials. I could have fallen out of a tree and broken my neck. I could have been attacked by a hungry bear (we had alot of them around our town, particularly on garbage day). I could have crashed my snowmobile or fallen through the ice while skating. But I don’t remember any grown-ups shadowing us, or listing all the things that could go wrong as we dashed out the door, or making us stay inside because we were safe there. And I survived to raise the next crop – along with everyone else with whom I roamed, free-range.

Don’t get me wrong, stranger danger is real (and food danger and medicine danger and animal danger and-and-and). Kids should learn street smarts and assertiveness and common sense in general, and parents should be vigilant. But we also need to accept that there is a certain level of risk in everything – even if we never leave our child-proof homes. And not being able to play hide-and-seek in the park without that gut-gnawing dread tagging along is another tiny piece of paradise lost. I want to start taking it back. Maybe the first step is another game of hide-and-seek in the park …. Care to join us?