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April 7, 2012

Leap In The Dark Has Moved


Well Leap In The Dark has a new address and host. After five years of being supported by my good friend Ashok Banker through his Epic India portal I've broken down and purchased my own domain name and home for Leap In The Dark. So here we are at www.richardrbmarcus.com and here we hope to stay for the next little while. It will still be the same content as before - mainly reviews with the occasional bit of fiction and even more occasional bit of opinion - focusing primarily on music and books. So if you've bookmarked the old site make sure to change the address. If you do happen to come across this post and are wondering where the home page might have gone, well I'm still ironing out a couple of bugs - like having the index page open at the right address. But hopefully that will come once the long weekend is over.

February 3, 2010

Book Review: Stranger To History by Aatish Taseer

Most of us have little or no difficulty in understanding our heritage and what it means to us in terms of our belief systems as we usually have the example of either our parents or the community around us to go by. However, what if one of your parents comes from a culture that's not part of the majority and that person has never been part of your life? It may take a while, but sooner or later you're going to start to notice your different from everyone around you, and eventually you might start to become a mite curious as to what you've inherited from your absent parent.

Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi India as a result of an affair between his Sikh mother and his Pakistani Muslim father. While his mother never kept from him the truth about his heritage he grew up surrounded by cousins his own age wearing the turbans emblematic of their faith, making his uncovered head feel very conspicuous and out of place. It's not until he's twenty-one that he finally makes the journey across the border to visit his father for the first time. While he is welcomed by his father's wife and children with open arms, the man himself is far more reticent. Salmaan Taseer is an important political figure in Muslim Pakistan, and the knowledge he has an Indian son who may or may not be Muslim could create difficulties.

However, as Taseer describes it in his new book from McClelland and Stewart, which is partially owned by Random House Canada, Stranger To History, even if his father is reluctant to recognize him in public, at least by the end of his first visit he begins to feel they have developed the basis for a relationship. Like many other Pakistani's Salmaan is a secular Muslim, so the fact that his son is a Muslim in name only shouldn't make any difference to him. (In Islam the father's religion dictates that of the children)
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However when Taseer, now a journalist in England, writes an article about second generation Pakistani immigrants becoming fundamentalists and extremists because of estrangement and failure of identity, his father takes him to task in a letter for not understanding what it is to be a Muslim and for spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Taseer is confused, how can the man who once said "The Koran has nothing in it for me" be offended as a Muslim by what I had written? It's obvious his father is right when he says that Taseer has no understanding of the Muslim or Pakistani ethos as he can't understand his father's apparently contradictory attitude. What does his father mean when he calls himself a "cultural Muslim"?

Attempting to find an answer to this question, Taseer sets off on a personal pilgrimage through the Islamic world. Starting in the fiercely secular Turkey, where many Islamic religious practices are forbidden by law, he makes his way slowly to Pakistan via Syria, Saudi Arabia - where he travels to Mecca, and finally the nominally Islamic state of Iran. Through conversations with various people, and his observations of life in each country, it becomes clear that there is no set answer. In Turkey he meets young men who dream about a world where everyone is ruled by Islam because it is the only faith which can tell you how to live properly. In Syria he see how that dream is being actualized by a regime with its own political agenda and not above cynically manipulating people.

By offering people a version of the world free of all contradictions and questions, a world in which there is only one "truth", they can control them with the help of a compliant clergy. In Abu Nour, a centre for international students in Damascus, people come from all over the world to learn Arabic and take classes in Islamic studies. However sermons in the mosque include distorted views of history designed to depict Muslims as being persecuted throughout the ages and work up antagonism against an enemy simply referred to as the West. The result is the creation of a world that exists in isolation designed to equate being Islamic as a supporter of the Syrian government and any who oppose Syria are enemies of Islam.

When the book shifts to Iran the depiction Taseer offers is no different than any other description you've read of people living under any totalitarian regime. Here he finds that Islam is being used to harass people over trivialities, like the length of their shirt sleeves, in order for an insecure government to exert control over them. In fact in what is supposedly an Islamic republic where you'd expect to be able to find answers as to what is a Muslim, there is even less chance of discovering that here than anywhere else. For, as one person he meets puts it, a professor at a university, "People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now the government is religious most people want to get away from religion... It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim."
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Taseer is by profession a journalist, and while that comes through in his ability to ask the right questions of people, his writing style is far more personal than you'd expect from a reporter. He makes no pretence about this being an objective study of Islam, rather its a personal voyage undertaken in the hopes of bridging the gap between himself and the father he was estranged from for over twenty years, and that comes across in his writing. His yearning to understand both his father and the religion he professes to practice, and the frustration and confusion they generate in him, predominate throughout the book as he intersperses accounts of his travels with recollections of his attempts to find common ground with his father.

In many ways this is one of the bravest books you'll ever read, as Taseer doesn't hesitate from voicing opinions that are going to be unpopular with people at all ends of the political spectrum. His compassion for the people he meets allows him to see beyond their words to the need that gives them birth, giving the reader a deeper understanding of where their opinions were born. The title of the book. Stranger To History refers obviously to Taseer's ignorance of his father and his Muslim and Pakistani inheritance. However, it can also relate to what he has witnessed in his journeys in Syria and Iran where history is being rewritten to generate hatred against the West in order to solidify the current regimes power bases. While he doesn't offer any solutions or comfort that there is some easy way to change or prevent what is happening, hope can be taken from his time spent, in all of all places, Iran in the people's determination to deny the regime in any small way they can.

Although his attempt to reconcile his own history with his father is somewhat of a failure, Taseer consoles himself with the fact that he has been able to connect with his personal history of being a product of both parts of the Indian sub continent. By having both countries he has had the chance of "embracing the three tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu, and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer for its hybrids." While he may not have come any closer to discovering his father, or his father's religion, he has discovered himself.

Unlike those who think what the world needs is surety and purity, Taseer reminds us that sometimes there are questions which don't have answers and history isn't always divided up into winners and losers. If for no other reason, that makes this an important book to read, as it not only shows you the dangers of a world where black and white dominates, but it makes you realize just how wonderful a little confusion and uncertainty can be. Well you may not come away from reading this book any more enlightened about Islam then you were before you started, you'll have a better understanding of the variety of people who fall under the umbrella of that word. After reading this book you might not be so quick to make generalizations based on a person's religion and have a better understanding of what lays behind many of today's headlines.

June 25, 2009

Forgiveness & Abuse

I've written rather extensively about things of a rather personal nature in the past in order to offer people an example of some of the processes available to those who have suffered from some sort of trauma. I'm no expert or psychologist, all I've been able to offer is a sample of the things I've experienced and the protocols that have been employed by my doctors to help me deal with how the past continued to impact on my present in order to give me a better future. Some of them had to do with finding more appropriate means of expressing my emotions, others dealing with behaviour that might have been appropriate for survival but that could now be discarded, and others helped me in assimilating the events of the past so they wouldn't live on in my mind and my emotions.

While it's been a long slow process to deal with the crap that had accumulated; there were times I had assumed I was done only to find more buried away which required excising; after being in therapy on and for fifteen years I can finally see that I'm getting to the point where I'm capable of coping on my own. The emotional scarring and wounding may never heal completely, but I have reached a point where I'm no longer controlled by events that occurred when I was a child. Ironically the length of time it's taken to get to this point is roughly equivalent to the length of time the abuse lasted in the first place.

Now in spite of what you might have seen and heard on various day time talk shows specializing in the dissecting of people's emotions for the enjoyment of their audiences, or that believe themselves capable of dispensing the wisdom to heal everybody of what ails them, there are no cut and dried happy endings to this type of thing. While time isn't going to be able to heal all wounds, it's only through time's passage that you're going to get relief from their pain. There's no magic formulae that will speed up the process of recovery, nor is there any one method that will solve all of your problems. Anyone who says that they have discovered a system that will "cure" you is deluded at best, or at worst a liar.

Sure there are all sorts of panaceas that can make you feel better about yourself for a moment or two, but there no better than any of the other things that people take to suppress their emotions so they don't feel any pain. There's no difference between what these hucksters are offering and the drugs and booze I used for years to mask my own pain. Reciting some silly mantra, calling upon a guardian angel, or reciting an affirmation about you being worthy of love won't stop flashbacks of the abuse from occurring or help you deal with any underlying behavioural problems caused by the abuse.

However there's something even more misguided and dangerous that occurs on some of these shows. How many times have you seen staged reunions and reconciliations between long estranged family members? Great weepy scenes where people fall into each other's arms forgiving each other for past misdeeds and vowing eternal love for each other. The implication being that if only you can forgive the person who caused you pain, if they would only apologize, everything would be better.

One of the hardest things for the child of abusive parents to deal with is the reality that the happy family society tells us is the norm, was so comprehensively denied them. Most of us spent years trying to figure out what was wrong with us that made our abuser break that promise, only later understanding that it was them, not us, who were the problem. After years of trying to figure out ways of making someone else happy so they would love us, or at least leave us alone; years of being told we were only getting what we deserved; or years of having the love between a parent and child perverted into something awful, the idea of family being a shelter and a haven from the world takes quite a beating.

It's probably difficult for you to imagine what seeing one of those scenes described above feels like to somebody who spent years forgiving their abuser in the hopes tomorrow would be better. Maybe, you would tell yourself, after they apologized for what seemed like the hundredth time, they really mean it this time. Maybe the tears they shed after forcing you to have sex with them are real and they really feel remorse for their actions? Even if as a child you weren't capable of comprehending what it was you were doing exactly, by trying to love them because they were your parent, you were practising a form of forgiveness.

Therefore, the idea that forgiving somebody years later for what they did to us as a child will make things better when they didn't respond to our gestures of forgiveness at the time can't help but seem unrealistic if not stupid. Sure it makes for great television and appeals to everybody's sentimental nature, but it fails to take into account that in order to forgive someone there needs to be some sort of reciprocity of feeling. How can you forgive someone who never showed any remorse for their actions or never took any steps to change their behaviour?

There have been things I've done in my life that I've had to apologize for and I know how hollow some of them were until I was able to change my behaviour sufficiently that my actions suited my words. While there is a school of thought that says unless we learn how to forgive those who have hurt us we will never fully recover from the damage inflicted upon us, it sounds far too much like the same behaviour we practised as children in the hopes of making things better. It still feels like we're not standing up for ourselves and giving the abuser power over us. People can say all they like that forgiveness doesn't mean you condone what somebody did, but quite frankly I'd rather just have the strength to tell them to fuck off out of my life and leave me alone.

As a child I didn't have the power to do that and was forced to do whatever necessary to survive. I no longer have to surrender anything of myself to my abuser and I no longer have to try and make them happy. Asking me, or anyone to forgive their abuser, no matter what shape that forgiveness comes in, would be like asking us to return to being a victim. That's not about to happen anytime soon.

July 25, 2007

Thank You Harry Potter And J. K. Rowling

Ten years and seven books after it started its all over. In that time J K Rowling has gone from being a single mom scribbling in a tearoom with her baby on her lap to being one of the best selling authors in the world. But whatever fame and fortune may have come her way; none of it seems to have affected the person who was the reason for her success.

Through story after story, and adventure after adventure, Harry Potter has been a constant in a world of uncertainty. He and his friends have become the extended family and friends for millions if not billions of people all over the planet. They have provided "guest house" that has kept us all safe from the Voldemorts of our own lives.

When I first came across the Harry Potter books he was already a phenomenon in terms of sales and publicity. It pains me to admit that I almost let all that hoopla chase me away from the enjoyment that awaited me between the pages of those books. It's yet another debt of gratitude that I owe my older brother for insisting that they were worth reading in spite of the hype being starting to spew out of the Warner Bros. marketing department.
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It was the summer of 2002 and I had just come out of extensive bowel surgery that had been an attempt to cure a chronic pain condition and I was spending a lot of time in my head with worries and concerns. The good thing about coming in at the halfway point in the series is that I was able to enjoy the first four books all in one fell swoop.

From the moment I opened page one of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (A note for American readers: that was the original title of the book and it refers to a magical object that alchemists of old tried desperately to create because it would turn lead to gold - There is no such thing as a Sorcerer's Stone in this context) I found a world where I was free to forget about my problems. How easy it was to become immersed in a world where magic actually existed.

But this world had its rules too and you couldn't just wave a magic wand and makes things perfect. Those who acted like there was were the ones who were most dangerous. When you look for short cuts in life no matter what the means, you always end up surrendering something that will have turned out to be important.

There are times that Harry of course wishes he could just wave his wand and all his problems would be solved, and in the latter books he definitely has the power to be sorely tempted by that very possibility. But by then he has already learned enough to know that for something to have real value, one has to experience each stage of its obtainment.

The lessons that the students were taught at Hogwarts occurred in and out of the classrooms. Magic is not something that can be leaned overnight, In fact, as Harry learns, it can take years to completely master some spells or for the wizard to be able to gain the power to perform some to full capacity. Part of the process is to grow as a person, and learn humility, compassion, and all the shapes and forms of responsibility.

For if nothing else Harry and his young friends have grown in ways that far outstrip what the passing of years can accomplish. While like their contemporaries they have their share of teenage angst, they quickly come to understand the value of introspection. Harry has to learn to overcome his temper and his desire to rush into action because of the potential this had for endangering the people he loves.

There are few books, let alone ones for young people, paying attention in such detail to character development. How many books allow us to see the inner workings of a character's brain as they deal with anger and resentment? They are not moments that show the hero in his best light, but they are honest. For young readers to see a character they identify with so much assailed by the same doubts, anxieties, and insecurities that plague them is to feel less alone in the world.
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For me what made these books so special were the characters. J K Rowling created people who you wanted to know because of their flaws. In spite of the fact that they all had capabilities far beyond what any of us could ever dream of having, it was these imperfections that gave them the human elements that made them all so appealing.

Of course the magic was fun too; who among us hasn't out of desperation while looking for some lost object tried to use a summoning charm, or when we are depressed imagined what our patronous might look like. Rowling could also write action scenes as well as anyone on the market today, as the penultimate battle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows proved. She also ensured that there was nothing glorious in battle and people died whom we cared about so you'd know that there's always a price to pay for fighting.

I know there are those who have spent the last few months showing that these books are in fact bad. They are sexist; they ennoble the British Class system, and are elitist or other such nonsense. All that means to me is there are people who have too much time on their hands and are trying to make a name for themselves by finding ways to be critical of something that is immensely popular.

In my opinion they are the ones who are showing their jealousy and bigotry because some single mom from Scotland had been able to reach out to so many people with her story of the young boy who discovered he was a wizard at the age of eleven. Just because a book is so beloved and popular doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. I never knew that sour grapes could smell so bad.

For ten years and seven books J K Rowling gave us all the wonderful gift of Harry Potter, his friends, and his enemies. I don't know about anyone else out there, but I for one would just like to say thank you for all the wonder and magic you brought into my life with those seven books Ms. Rowling: Thank you.

July 5, 2007

The Childhood Sexual Abuse Hangover: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

I've written about issues pertaining to suffering from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by childhood sexual abuse in the past and in doing so have touched upon my own personal history. Each time I've emphasised that I'm not looking for sympathy from anyone, it's just that I happen to be a handy example to use for the topic at hand.

There's still not a great deal written about men who suffered from being abused as children, or men willing to talk about it publicly because of perceived stigma's attached to it. Being raped by a man as child has as much chance of "making you gay" or making you les of "a man" a falling down the stairs would. Being rapped, especially being rapped as a child has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with exerting control over someone else.

It's all about power and being able to exert it without any fear of repercussions. How many young children, no matter what their gender, are going to go running to somebody to say that their father was raping them? The rapist usually makes sure that it won't happen through a combination of threats –"If you tell anybody everybody will know that you are lying and you'll get in trouble" and the use of cajoling lies –"Don't you love me, this is how all good little boys (girls) show that they love their father"

The last statistics I read about this subject were something like one in four young boys are sexually abused by somebody they know as a child, while the figure is doubled for young girls. Of course these are only reported cases, and I'm sure the figure for men would spike significantly if we were to know the real numbers.

Although the event is horrid enough as it is, the individual who is abused really begins to pay his heaviest price in adulthood when they begin to discover how fucked up they are. It's like a time bomb had been planted in their mental/emotional systems during the events and was set to go off when they had to start dealing with adult emotional stimuli.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse establish coping mechanisms based on what happened to them. Love, violence, sex, affection, caring, abandonment, and neglect have all become mixed together in their heads and they lack the ability to separate one from the other. They will either be continually waiting for the person they are involved with to either lash out at them or leave them.

This will lead to vastly different modes of behaviour; either they will be completely subservient in the hopes of making the other person happy enough that they will never hurt them or leave them, or they will find excuses to end relationships early in order to prevent themselves from getting hurt.

There is also the potential for a survivor to go the route of becoming an abuser and carrying on the work started by his tormentor on others. I'm eternally grateful that I have no personal experience in that matter so can't speak to it, although I can see how given the right circumstances it is highly possible.

Abandonment and neglect can leave behind such residual resentment that a person would feel that they were justified in doing anything they had to in order to get their own back. The world did this to me, it owes me, and so I'm going to do it back to the world. Don't get me wrong; I'm not excusing that behaviour just offering an explanation. I know from personal experience how resentment can twist your thinking and corrupt your heart.

Unfortunately I've not been able to avoid the other consequences of being a survivor and have had to deal with more then my fair share of shit over the past fourteen years. As it stands I'm still peeling back the layers like one would work to expose an onion's core. At times and element of frustration sets in, and I wonder if it will ever stop and if I will ever find something akin to peace.

Where I've been fortunate is that I have a very good doctor to work with and have been able to isolate the base elements that are the root cause of a lot of the emotional baggage that I'm carrying. So instead of being overwhelmed by a huge barrage of emotional symptoms, I have only a few things that I need to focus on that make me feel like there's progress.

This is so important for a person who is going through this type of experience, be they male or female, because it is so easy to become emotionally overwhelmed. A survivor is usually a series of raw nerve endings where almost anything is a potential trigger for an abuse memory. Reducing the amount of stimuli, or even learning to recognize what they are and what they do is the first step in being able to recover control over you're emotional stability.

From there it becomes a matter of understanding that your reactions are being controlled by events that happened in the past and aren't necessarily the ones you want to have in a situation today. If for example the person you love says "I love you" and your reaction is to wonder what they want from you, it isn't coming from you, it's coming from how you were treated when you were abused.

Realizing that is the major step in reclaiming you life and overcoming the effects of what happened to you. Gradually you learn how to have reactions based on present circumstances not on the past. It's a lot of work and it doesn't happen overnight; reactions you've had for thirty plus years are not going to disappear on demand. But at least now you know who you are capable of being and have the means to become that person.

This is not easy work, nor is it very enjoyable; who likes to realize that what they've thought of as normal behaviour for years has actually caused no end of grief. I sure as hell didn't. But ultimately the feeling you'll have is one of immense freedom and relief.

So if you're still at the stage where every little thing, no matter how trivial, can send you into orbit, fear not, there is a means of escape and I'm proof that its possible. Find someone you trust who you can work with and learn who your really are and what you really feel. You'll love yourself for it.

May 1, 2007

Rama,Writing, And Me

Sometimes two events become so irrevocably linked that it's hard to remember which came first and what the connection was in the first place. That is the case for me when I started to blog. I've recently celebrated the third anniversary of writing an article a day for my home space, which made me start thinking about what it was that got me started, or gave me the idea in the first place.

I don’t believe in coincidences, everything that happens does so for a reason, even the fact that I'm writing this article on May 1st, the turning of the year, a time for new beginnings in some of the older traditions, is not without portent. It's also no coincidence that I happened to receive in the mail about five weeks ago a complete set of the Indian edition of Ashok Banker's Ramayana, or that I've been reading it almost non-top since.
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Three years ago I was wandering through a book store when I came across book one of Ashok's modern version of The Ramayana. I knew nothing about him or the poem but the name Valmiki was familiar to me. A friend of some friends of mine had opened a teahouse in the city where I live for a short while called Valmiki's. I knew that the friends were Hindu, so I knew Valmiki was important.

Seeing a series of books based on a tale he had originally told, told over three thousand years ago by the way, piqued my interest. At that time books one through three, Prince of Ayodhya, Siege of Mithila, and Demons of Chitrakut were published, so I immediately scooped up all three of them and read them back to back.

To say I was inspired would be an understatement; I thought they were some of the most amazing books I had read in a long time and wanted to tell the world about them. I had been writing in sort of a desultory fashion at the time; pecking away at a story that was rapidly stalling, writing a couple of articles, and some poetry. I was selling them at Lulu.com in the hopes that people would find them and buy the.

But I had nowhere to post things on a regular basis. I discovered Ashok's web site at that time and went and read through it and learned more about the man who wrote these books and what Rama meant to India. I was fascinated. When I discovered he had an area for readers to write him and to mail in reviews, I quickly wrote him a long letter about the whole Valmiki thing and sent him a review I wrote of all three books. (I had previously published it at MouthShut.com, ironically enough an Indian based review site being the only one I had been able to find easily)
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When Armies of Hanuman came out in Canada in 2005 I immediately wrote a review of it and sent it off to Ashok's web site along with a letter reminding him of the story I had related about the teahouse named Valmiki's. I had assumed he had not, for some reason, read the first one. When he wrote back and asked it I knew myself because somebody had already written him about a teahouse in Kingston called Valmiki's I had to laugh. (When I told him to check the return addresses of the two emails he must have found it funny as well, judging by the humour of his reply)

By this time Ashok had opened his first blog through Google's Blogspot network. There was a link on his site, as there are on all Blogspot blogs, inviting you to get your own blog. Well I followed that link and started my own blog and the rest as they say is history.

Would I have discovered Blogspot without Ashok? Probably yes, but who knows how long it would have taken. Picking up that original Orbit copy of Prince of Ayodhya was the first step in me being exactly where I am today in terms of my writing. It was because of my love for Ashok's books that I began to write reviews; he was the first person I interviewed because I liked his books so much, and now three years later I'm editing his website/literary magazine.
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I feel in some ways that Rama and his story have a lot to do with me being here where I am today. It was important for me to find his story as told by Ashok aside for more reasons then the ones I've already given. In the final book of the series, King Of Ayodhya Rama is referred to as Maryada Pushottam – He Who Fulfils His Vow by his followers. At one point his brother Lakshman adds to that title the words…Against All Odds.

In spite of many obstacles and temptations thrown in his path Rama lives his life according to the simple precept of doing exactly what he says he will do and what is expected of him according to who he is. He is a son, a King in waiting, a husband, the disciple of a guru, a brother, and eventually the leader of an army. He is also gifted with various celestial weapons and powers that he can draw on under certain conditions, and only those certain conditions.

Each role he plays has it's own conditions that must be followed. If at anytime there appears to be a conflict between fulfilling his duty as a son and as a King, he has to figure out how he can resolve the conflict and do what is the right thing. But in spite of that he is always able to do the right thing even if it turns out to be the most difficult and the most fraught with danger.
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It was in this manner that The Ramayana as told by Ashok Banker introduced me to the concept of dharma. I had of course heard the word many times before but had never really understood the concept. Simply put dharma is the fulfillment of your duty to yourself in spite of whatever obstacles you might face.

At the time when I read the story of Rama I was just beginning to start writing in earnest. But I also suffer from a chronic, acute, pain condition, which means I'm in constant agony. That was my obstacle to overcome; it is what could prevent me from being one who fulfills his vows as a writer, a husband, a son, and a brother.
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Sometimes I have failed, given into self-pity, resentment, and all the other traps that we set for ourselves so that we won't succeed. I have a perfectly legitimate excuse for failure and inexcusable behaviour at my fingertips. But every time I hear myself, even in my own head, using it, I'm ashamed and it sounds like an excuse. There are people in the world with far worse problems that get out of bed every day and are simply grateful for being given that gift.

So for three year I've done pretty well, but life can play tricks on you. It rewards you for being diligent and hard working by giving you recognition, in my case editing Epic India, and you use that responsibility along with what ever other excuses you may have at hand, to stop doing what you're supposed to be doing.

Oh I still produce an article or two a day for the various sites I write at, whether a review of a book or a CD, or and opinion piece on some aspect of the world today. But they feel like excuses for not working on what I'm supposed to be working on. My novel sits abandoned and neglected. Not only haven't I done the revisions I want to do on book one but I have not done any work on book two in almost a year.

It doesn't matter what other things I'm achieving, what praise that I'm winning, or anything else. What matters is that I don't feel like I'm doing what I should be doing, or all that I should be doing. It's very easy to make excuses, but they still ring false in my ears so I've got to make a change and stop the excuses. It's not even like I have too much work otherwise, I'm usually finished with the blogs by ten o'clock in the morning at the latest.
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Today is May 1st the turning of the year and I have just finished reading all six books of Ashok Banker's Ramayana again, and this time in their original Indian editions, as the author intended them to be read. It is never too late to start fulfilling your dharma or to do what you are supposed to do.

Jai Shri Rama.

March 9, 2007

I Was A Twenty-Something Security Risk

I have a confession to make. Those of you who have a passing acquaintance with my opinions etc, might not be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you, but to others this may come as a bit of shock and I apologise for that. I just felt that given the tenor of the times that I owed it to everybody to make a clean breast of things.

I'm a security risk. Yes that's right mild mannered, beady eye Canadian with my head full of lies I may be, but I'm also a dyed in the wool security risk. This is no new thing either, brought about by any of the many disparaging comments I may have recently made about various political figures on both sides of the border, or any relationship I may or may not have with foreigners of a different colour.

No, I'm ashamed to admit that my days of being a security risk predate either George junior or senior's presidential stints and date from a series of incidents that took place between 1980 and 1983. Not that it matters I guess, as Maher Arar has learned it doesn't matter when an incident took place, or whether you were innocent or not, once labelled a threat, always a threat.

I found out about my status in the summer of 1988. I was "between engagements". (That's what actors call being out of work it sounds a lot better) and it just so happened that my period of forced idleness coincided with Toronto Canada, where I lived at the time, playing host to the annual meeting of the Group of Eight Industrial nations (G 8)

To handle that influx of media that was sure to accompany the leaders they needed to hire a large number of media clerks; people who had experience with files, organizing information, and dealing with requests for copies of documents. Two or three local temporary employment agencies had been hired to tackle the job of recruiting individuals to fill these positions.

Since I had had plenty of experience doing office work from when I had helped manage a theatre company, I decided to apply for one of the positions to earn some needed money to tide me over. My credentials were fine, I was actually overqualified but that didn’t matter, and I was told the job was mine as long as I cleared a security check.

As I wasn't going to be having any contact with any of the dignitaries, it was considered a forgone conclusion that I would pass. I'm not sure who was more surprised, me or the woman from the employment agency who had to phone and tell me that my application for security clearance had been rejected. According to her, no one else who had applied had been turned down, only me.

It took me a bit, but I figured out what it was about eventually. It was one of two things, or maybe the two combined and they both involved events that took place between 1981 and 1982.

At the beginning of the 1980's the American government was looking for places they could test one of their newest weapons, The Cruise Missile. Northern Alberta, in Canada was ideal for their needs as the topography was varied and there were miles upon miles of unpopulated land. They could launch the missiles from planes and guide them to their final destinations secure in the knowledge that no humans would be disturbed.

That it happened to the traditional hunting grounds of neighbouring Native Canadians didn't concern them overly much, nor did the fact that it was the migration route for huge herds of caribou. It's not as if the missiles had nuclear warheads on them for gosh sakes. Anyway the Canadian government at the time gave the American's permission to go ahead and test the missiles and even offered to build the guidance system on Canadian soil.

In 1981 I was one of about twenty people in front of the American Consulate in down town Toronto protesting the testing. As we marched on the sidewalk in front of the front doors, two gentlemen, who might as well have been wearing signs saying "SPY" were taking our pictures from a meridian in the road. In the course of the next two years the demonstrations grew larger and larger until in the fall of 1982 about 100,000 people turned out to march through the streets of Toronto against the Cruise missile tests.

It was probably the biggest demonstration of it's kind in Toronto, maybe even Canada. Shortly after that somebody left a van filled with explosives parked up against the factory in Rexdale, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, where the guidance system for the missiles was being constructed. It didn't too that much physical damage, but some poor security guard was killed.

I remember hearing about at work and coming home and asking my roommate if we knew the people who did it. He gave an odd look and said, "we know people who know them. Watch what you say on the phone for a while." I wasn't thrilled that we had even a tenuous connection to anybody that could be responsible for killing somebody else (They called themselves Direct Action and had actually been responsible for a couple of attacks across Canada. They had blown up a couple of adult video stores in British Columbia and some power lines as well. Ironically when I moved to Kingston Ontario in 1990, they were already here having been sentenced to serve their time in the jails here) but I did think he was being a little paranoid about the phones until my father asked me why the hell my phone was tapped.

At one time or another in his career as a lawyer my father had prosecuted drug offences for the Canadian government, so one thing he was familiar with was the sounds indicating the beginning and end of a tapped conversation. After about a couple of months of being careful on the phone, of not even talking in the same room as the phone in case of a location bug, we gradually slipped back into our normal behaviour.

Eventually I just simply forgot about the whole thing, getting fully involved in my career in theatre and frustrated with the infighting among the political types, I became less and less involved with activist politics. If I hadn't had to apply for security clearance for the G8 event in Toronto I may never even have known.

Now nine years later I wonder if they consider me a threat? Probably not, because I've the feeling if they did consider me so I would have been talked to a while ago. Maybe I'm on some sort of watch, but its not one where they consider me a major threat or anything.

But still, I don't try and cross the boarder into the United States because I've the feeling they would be pushing my luck, and they might decide to detain for an indefinite period just to be on the safe side.

Well there you go, confessions of a twenty something security threat. I hope it hasn't shocked any of you too much knowing that for these past however many months your writings have shared web space with someone like me. I figured I owed it to all of you to own up to my less then perfect past and warn you that associating with me could cause you problems.

January 24, 2007

Change For The Better

Just slightly under two years ago, March 29th 2005 at 11:30am. EST. to be exact, I wrote the following: "A leap in the dark is an act of blind faith, trusting your judgment and instincts that whatever it is you're about to do is right and that your not going to end up, up to your ankles in dung."

I referred to it as the explanation for the title of my blog, "Leap In The Dark", but it could also be said to be my own personal mission statement. At the time the blog was just what I said it was; a step into the unknown as I was going public with my writing for the first time.

Ever since my early days of working in theatre I've believed it important as part of being creative to continually take risks – to take leaps in the dark – or stagnation would set in. When I started blogging it was with the intention of writing as much as possible in a public setting and risk my opinions and abilities in front of an audience.

It was with that goal in mind that I approached the people at Blogcritics about three months after starting "Leap In The Dark". It was one thing to write in the virtual anonymity of my own site, and another thing altogether to write for a publication that was already a recognised presence on the Internet and had a built in audience.

Now over seven hundred articles of various length, quality, and subject matter produced on a daily basis later I'm about to take another leap into relatively unknown territory. Sometimes you have to take life by the throat and shake it to effect change, and other times opportunities are just dropped in your lap. On really special occasions not only are opportunities offered you but life also makes damn sure you're paying attention by hitting you over the head with its equivalent of a cast iron frying pan.

Now I may not be too swift sometimes, but even I'll get the message when I'm offered two almost identical opportunities within a week of each other that taking advantage of one of them would be in my best interest. The problem is recognising what's in your own best interest.

There are a lot of things that can get in the way of that, but the biggest obstacle is fear. Fear of change and fear of the unknown have probably prevented many a person from discovering their full potential. It's far easier to stay doing the same thing, and doing it well, than risk doing something new where the results are uncertain.

Worry about a new job is probably something a lot of people have in common, so I'm sure most of you can understand that trepidation. But I also have to throw into the mix the consideration of whether or not I'll be able to manage whatever that position entails, and being able to maintain my daily output of writing. With neither of the opportunities requiring anything close to a major time commitment it wouldn't normally be a concern, but it's been a number of years since things have been normal for me.

For reasons that are too tedious to bear repeating, I've only limited energy in any given day. Some days I've more then others, but it's usually pretty consistent. The major problem is that I can work pretty steady for a couple of hours. But then have to stop and have a nap. Occasionally work means things like taking care of life away from the computer (yes it does exist believe it or not) but the results the same. My day is broken up into chunks of working time and chunks of naptime.

So when Aaman Laamba of Desicritics emailed me and asked if I would consider joining his team of editors I was a little hesitant but willing to give it a shot; but when Ashok Banker emailed me two days later to ask me to take over editing his Epic India web site with the goal of making it less Ashok Banker and more literary, I stalled.

For the past week while I have continued to write my daily posts, and helped out with editing chores at Desicritics I mulled over Ashok's offer. It was easy to come up with reasons not to take him up on the offer, but after a couple of days the reasons began to sound like excuses. The problem wasn't even so much that they were excuses it was the fact that I was making the excuses to me not to anybody else.

After a week of this I figured out that my real problem wasn't any of the excuses I had prepared about not having time to write, or not knowing what the hell it was I was doing, but that I was scared of making any changes in my life. The irony of that is of course change is exactly what I need after close to two years of doing pretty much the same thing day in and day out.

What made me clue into that fact was for the first time in two months, instead of only being able to write for the web and then feeling too drained to do any other writing for the rest of the day, I've been inspired to work on my novel. Since I heard first from Aaman and then from Ashok, I've had more creative energy then the last three months combined.

A friend of mine who taught Yoga once told me something very interesting about the concept of transition. In Yoga muscles are never at rest and so are always in transition from one position to another. We normally tend to think of transition as the time in between doing one thing and then another, a period of stasis where nothing happens.

Of course that's impossible because we are always in motion whether we know it or not, moving from one place in our lives to the next. It's just, that unlike in Yoga where you see the muscles move, we're not always aware of the fact that we are in motion. That's what causes us to become frustrated and to stagnate.

The closer we get to the point where we become aware of our need for change, the more frustrated, stagnated, and less productive we get. The resistance to the necessary change comes from the fact that we haven't been accomplishing near what we know we're capable of, so we don't have much confidence in our own abilities. Not exactly the most ideal of mental conditions to be in when contemplating a change is it?

Hence the self doubts that plague most people just before they do make any sort of change in their lives. The human mind can be such a treat some times can't it? Anyway I finally figured out what was going on and decided to take my own advice and take the leap.

I have no idea what's going to happen or even if I'm going to like editing, but I'm not going to know unless I try. So as of today as well being a writer I'm now editor of the web site Epic India. Whatever else happens, at least I know I won't be bored for the next little while, and that's always a positive.

January 18, 2007

When Camp Became "The Camps"

Camps Award.jpg

Do you remember as a child when you would get words that had two meanings confused? The adults around you would be talking about something and you'd hear a familiar word but in a context that made no sense to you. I'm sure it's happened to most of us so I'll just assume you know what I'm talking about. Things are going to get complicated enough as it is without me having to worry about that part of the story.

First off I need to explain my mother's extended family to you a little for this to make any sense at all. Her mother's family were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto in the early 1900s. They had been your typical Fiddler On The Roof type farming/peasant people who managed somehow to get the heck out of Poland with what they could carry on their backs and made their way to Canada.

On the other hand her father's family were Romanian Jews; well-educated city dwellers that probably never got their hands dirty in their lives. According to my grand father they came to Canada because his father had an altercation with a Cossack – he knifed him – and the family was forced to flee forthwith. They settled in Montreal because they were fluent in French but spoke very little English at the time.

Even during the times our family lived in Toronto we always seemed to end up seeing more of our Montreal relatives than our Toronto ones. Part of it was that my Grandfather wasn't that thrilled with what he called "the dumb Polacks", (even among the downtrodden there is a hierarchy: with European Jews the only thing lower on the scale than a dumb Polack, was a Litvack – Lithuanian) and my mother was closer to her cousins on that side of the family than on her mother's side.

So we usually ended up in Montreal at least once a year, more if by chance we happened to be living in Ottawa at the time. (My father worked for the Canadian government in the Justice department, so he'd be transferred between Toronto and Ottawa every three to four years until he quit) Ottawa was only about an hour's drive from Montreal so it was easy to even just go up for a day visit if we wanted.

For some reason I remember a period of a few years when we seemed to end up in Montreal every year for Passover. I don't know if this was accidental, but I do know that they always would invite my grandfather and grandmother to come from Toronto, and I think it was a good excuse for all of us to get together when we were living in Ottawa. My grandfather was the last of his generation alive for the Montreal family, he had been the youngest child, born in 1900, and all of his brothers and sisters had died young.

It was during one of those Seders, traditional Passover meals where the story of the Exodus is retold. (Not the movie starring Paul Newman – the original one featuring Moses and a cast of thousands) Before the actual stuffing of the faces could begin there were certain ritual foods that had to be consumed with the readings of passages from the story, but eventually we were all able to settle in and begin eating.

For most of the family this meant a lot of talking and very little eating. The seating was worked out so that the older the generation the closer to the head of the table you sat, and us young folk were usually seated at card tables that were attached like an extended kite tail to the main dinner table.

There is one year in particular that stands out for me, because of word confusion and its nature. That year it seemed we younger folk were even further away from the head of the table, in fact we had to watch people in the middle of the table to know what to do because we couldn't hear anything the reader was saying that year. It wasn't until we all began the regular eating of the meal that we found out the reason for our being even further away from the centre of things.

The first words that trickled down the table to us exiles were that there were some very special guests in town. They were first cousins of our mom's cousin's wife. Of course she wasn't really part of our family, so these first cousins weren't related to us except by marriage and if was rumoured they might actually be Litvaks.

"Mary's family," the voice's drifting down into our outer provinces, "God Bless them, are sweet people…" No words: I don't know, maybe it's because Hebrew has no vowels that Jews are so good at saying so much without using words. An eyebrow, a tilt of the head or a lifting of one hand says plenty for those who can read.

Even I, who was almost illiterate in that strange language of gestures and silences, could read something about cousin Mary's family wasn't what it should be…I craned my neck to try and see these cousins who weren’t cousins…who might not be all they should be.

They were sitting near the very top of the table, almost in the place of honour where my grandfather was ensconced, but for two chairs that contained his eldest niece and her husband they would have been seated beside him. From where I sat they didn't look much different than those folk across from them except they weren't nearly so fleshy. Aside from my grandmother who had something wrong with her thyroid, they were the only two who didn't have the sleek look of the well fed.

If forced to guess I would have said that maybe they would have been a few years older them my mom, but I couldn't be sure; something about their faces could have taken it either way. They looked both like young children and aged wizened elders. There was a quality about them that made you feel protective and wanting to keep them from harm. Just like any other orphans.

While I was looking up the table something was making it's way down; its passage was marked by a head turning to one side to present a good ear to the mouth beside it, a lifting of shoulders and splaying of hands, or even the slightest of nods. You just knew that everyone was watching, awaiting their turn to be passed whatever morsel was making the rounds, so they to could chew it over and add it to their hoard of information that they could hand out over the coming year.

When the words "the camps" finally made it down to me, and obviously in reference to the two who weren't anyone's family really, I didn't know what to do with it. The only thing the word camp meant to me was the place I was subjected to for two to four weeks each summer.

They didn't look like the type of people who ran a place where kids slept together in log cabins, and had pretend Indian stories and rituals foisted on them. They had none of the heartiness or pretend friend to every child attitude of all those camp directors whose hands my parents entrusted me too each summer. I couldn't see either of them, for one thing, getting up and leading everyone in rousing choruses of "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal as thanks for mass-produced slop.

I looked around to try and get some clue from my younger cousins on what it could mean and saw they had looks of awe, and something close to fear on their faces as they talked together, in little whispers. Not for the first nor last time did I htink about the unfairness of having a gentile father. If not for him perhaps I would understand more about these mysteries that my cousins all seemed to be understand without trouble.

It was while I was thinking these confused thoughts, feeling even more being a guest at a party where you were the only person who didn't wear the right clothes, I caught an inadvertently thrown lifeline: Auschwitz. I knew that word – the camps – must mean concentration camps. So those cousins who weren't cousins except by marriage had been in a concentration camp – surviving things far worse than having to sing "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal.

The rest of the meal, as I remember, was spent trying to grab surreptitious glances up the table as if we hoped, or at least I hoped, to gain some insight into what they had experienced by merely staring at them. They did exist in a space of their own up there near the head of the table. It was as if they had extra room for the memories that were part of their permanent state of being.

Something had changed about them since the information had been passed around. They'd gone from being possible Litvaks to almost celebrity status. Most of us had never seen survivors before; all of our families had been in Canada long before World War One to have to worry about being caught up in the fires of the Holocaust. Our parents and grandparents had lived out the war in school and the war factories, so this was the closest any of us had ever come to tangible contact with anybody who had been through those horrors.

We all wanted them to be special, and might have each been a little disappointed in how ordinary they were. Two very quiet people in normal clothes that didn't quite fit properly who were quieter then the adults we were used to. I don't know what we expected for our first survivors, but being raised on images of fighters, two little mice like creatures that leaned into each other for protection, were a slight disappointment.

We were driving home that evening after the meal, with no staying around afterwards to talk with anyone so I was left alone with my confusion. Why did we use the same word for where I went to spend weeks during the summer, as was used to describe those places where millions – a number far too big for anybody really to understand – of people died.

Obviously not all of them who entered the camps had died, some of them had walked away, somehow or other, and I saw two of them that night. Two very ordinary people who unless you saw them in the company of others really were no different to look at, which made it even harder to understand what had happened to them.

The lights of the oncoming cars as we travelled down the highway back to Ottawa that night could have been the search lights in a camp, or the flashlights of campers out on a walk at night in the woods. Sometimes it was so hard to tell things apart.

May 7, 2005

The Joy Of Gardening

If you had happened to look out in the backyard of my building over the last two weeks you would have seen me toiling away building a new garden plot. First there I was out in a soft rain ripping up turf in the mud; joyously mud-splattered and a little wet. As any gardener knows its far easier to take up grass before the roots get a good chance to set after winter, so the first good rain of spring is the best time for the job. Then there was the tilling. I was able to borrow a lovely tool from a friend which is sort of like a squared fork on a long handle which you can twist around and break up clumps of clay and packed earth. Following this came mixing in the peat moss to ensure drainage, then four inches of top soil over top the mess. A generous neighbour gave me some limestone flagstone which have made a nice retaining wall for three quarters of the plot, and so I'm all set for flowers.

This is what spring is for me: renewing my connection with dirt, and the natural order of things. In my own way I feel like I'm restoring some of the mother's vitality by taking soil that has been rendered useless through neglect and abuse (I dug up huge chunks of concrete, pieces of glass, rusted nail, and other debris from the ground). Planting a garden is one of the ways that we can give back for the gifts we receive from nature. I always try and maintain a certain respect for the wildness of the area, harming as little as possible and working with what's there. No hacking down trees because they block the sun for daisies, or anything intrusive like that. Defiantly no effort made for artificial landscaping either: well kept lawns are such a waste of resources, give me a field of wild flowers any day of the week. No fertilizer, lawn mowers or other noisy contraptions like weed eaters needed to keep everything looking trim, and the water wasted on keeping a lawn green, sheesh.

So there I am, communing with nature, getting my fingers dirty, talking to worms, and listening to the birds, just generally relaxing when the curse of nice weather rears its ugly head. The first warm breeze in the air invariably causes that species of human that I refer to as " Homo Penis lacking " to stick its butt ugly head out of its cave. Easily identifiable by the ball cap perched on their head(younger members of the species wearing in backwards emblazoned with ball teams and brand names while the more mature male usually has beer brand, farm machinery or trucking company apparel) behavioural patterns vary but all seem to centre around the creation of as much noise as possible.

The youngsters of the species seem more inclined towards mobility, propelling themselves around in contrivances designed for noise and speed. Multiple amplifiers and speakers combined with a bass setting guaranteed to sterilize at twenty paces reverberate across multiple city blocks. The body works rattle offsets the grinding of exhaust and squealing of tires that propels the vehicle at high speed from one red light to the next.

The older members of the species are more sedate, but compensate for the variety of means at their disposal for noise creation. There are two major categories of devices, of which there are many sub headings: Portable and stationary. Portable encompasses anything from an electric drill through to a lawn mower and include such lethal items as weed wakers, hedge trimmers, chain saws, leaf blowers, and a battery of cutting, hacking, bludgeoning, boring, and ripping tools(many available in the equally smelly gas powered variety) The stationary product is slightly less obtrusive in that it has to remain fixed in a den like location(usually referred to as a "garage" or "shed" sometimes even the more optimistically named "workshop" thus implying something useful is under way) but compensates with its abilities for destroying a wider range of materials and generating larger volumes: table and band saws, belt sanders, drill presses, and grinding benches graduate up to compressor driven nail guns and power washers.

After one week of May I'm already thinking with fondness of the cold dank days of January when the only tools at their disposal are acquainted with snow removal. Its amazing how less of a tool a tool is when they are tool-less.