Monday, December 15, 2014

"Why do you do it?"

One of my colleagues noticed that I was favoring my left shoulder this morning (I have been for a week now, but who’s counting) and asked if it was “another judo thing”.  I had to honestly answer that yes, it was a direct result of competing in last weekend’s judo tournament.  They laughed and said that they hoped the medal was worth the pain.  It wasn’t, but not the way it sounds.

I get asked that question a fair amount lately.  As an older, very out of shape guy my return to the judo mats after almost 25 years absence has been full of challenges.  Not the least of which is that judo is not easy on the body.  Ask any judoka who has been practicing for any length of time, and they will regale you with stories of the dislocated or broken toes and fingers, cracked ribs, concussions, twisted (or worse) ankles… the list is endless.  It is to be expected – it is a martial art first and foremost, and a sport second.  Any continuous practitioner of a contact sport, whether it is football, soccer, rugby or judo will accumulate injuries over the years.  In my case, add in three decades of too much McDonald's and too little activity and you have a recipe for injury and pain.  So why do we do it?

The short answer is, I have no idea why others do it.  Maybe they are masochists, maybe they have pain tolerances higher than anyone I know. Maybe they are so caught up in the adrenaline that they pass off the pain.  Or maybe they have another reason, just like I do.

Judo is an individual sport, though its practitioners are still part of a larger team - being part of my dojo has given me a new social circle, one united by a common interest – no, a shared passion.  Even those who aren’t actively practicing judo are still caught up in the excitement of their kids or their partners.  And those who do practice not only cheer each other on, they support and train one another.  Any given night on the mats is full of people with more experience helping those with less (often to the frustration of our sensei).  And there are no secrets among us – if I ask any of my fellow students how they pulled off that amazing throw that sent me flying, they are happy to show me how and coach me until I get the basics down.  So that comradery is certainly part of it.

As a sport or martial art, judo is also physically demanding – most martial arts are the same.  You use muscle groups you don’t use in any other circumstances, and you are frequently giving far more effort in the three minutes of a match, or the hour and a half of training, then you ever thought was in you.  Great sensei (like all of the ones at my dojo) can push you even further.  An hour of judo training burns more calories than an hour of running or an hour of using an elliptical.  There are very few workouts as intense, so as a result over the last 15 months of training, I have started to return to a state of physical fitness that I haven’t had in a decade or more.  So that is also a part of it.

The sense of confidence that comes with challenging yourself, of knowing that you can rise to a challenge that seems insurmountable, is unbelievable. When you step on those mats, and on the other side is a black belt with ten times your skill and experience, you learn quickly that you have to put the inevitable doubts behind you, and give your best effort.  When you bow onto the mats for a tournament, with a few hundred people watching you, your sensei screaming instructions to you and your opponent doing everything they can to drive you into the mat with all their technique and power, you have to believe you can do it. You can rise above the anxiety and fear gnawing at your gut, rise above the ache in your shoulder and that you can succeed. That boost in confidence carries over to every other facet of your life, and that is an undeniable benefit.  But it’s still not the real reason I step on the mats.

The largest part, and the one that really makes it matter to me, is the way it makes me feel when I am on the mats.  Focus.  Determination.  Calm.  Those are feelings that are markedly lacking in my day to day life.

I live with chronic depression, a fact which astonishes many people who know me, but not those who live with me.  They have seen me unable to get out of bed for days.  They know that left to my own devices, I would crawl into a hole and pull it closed behind me.  I struggle daily to get to work, to keep up my smile, to fit in and some days, just to breathe.  The love and support of my partner holds me up when nothing else seems to.  Antidepressants help, in fact they are likely the reason I can function at all.  But even these only make a dent in the grey fog that I live in, a fog that follows me everywhere I go.  Except onto the mats.  It is my one place where, for whatever reason, I find a peace that is lacking elsewhere.  The one place where colours are bright and where I can breathe deeply and fully. Judo has given me back my life.  And that is why I do it.  That is why I have learned to love my bruises (judo “kisses”), my mat burns (judo “trophies”) and my broken toes (judo “badges”).

Those of us who are adrift, whether it is due to mental disability or just to the peculiarities of what we all call life often need an anchor to hold on to.  Some of us are extraordinarily lucky and we get to have multiple holds – our loved ones (friends and family alike), our passions, and maybe even our idiotic love of a thing that breaks us down, even while it keeps us together and builds us up, stronger than ever.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Freedom to not Speak?

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
     (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
     (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
     (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
     (d) freedom of association.

I want to be clear about one thing – I am a huge proponent of freedom of speech.  Not just because it is enshrined in our Charter (you can see section 2 of that above) but because of what I perceive as the necessity of such a freedom.  When a government limits what people can say and when they can say it, they are suppressing change.  Governments generally fear change and try to take steps to limit it at the best of times, and no method of suppression is more effective than taking away citizens' ability to communicate.  So all people need this basic and fundamental right.

I love to quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall , when she wrote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” in her work on Voltaire, himself a victim of censorship.  I think that sums it up far better than I ever could. The very basis of the freedom of speech ideal is that I have the right to say things that others disagree with, just as they have the same right toward me.

So when my fantastic wife and I were driving down a main street on our way to work earlier this week and saw a group of anti-abortion protesters lining the road with their pictures of dead fetuses, I accepted their right to do this.  It was appalling, disgusting and completely inappropriate.  The pictures probably gave little children (far too young to understand what the posters stood for) nightmares – hell they probably gave some of the drivers the same!  But I believed then, and still do, that they had a right to do what they were doing.

Wait for it… here it comes… BUT.  But just because you have a constitutionally protected right to do something does not mean that you should do that thing.  Raising awareness of your view can be accomplished in a fashion that does not disgust and alarm the rest of us.  Sure a bit of shock value can be a big eye opener.  Possibly being shocking will get you more air time, and get you more notice.  Maybe you will start an intelligent dialogue on the subject when people start talking about you. That’s a lot of maybes.  One too many for me.

The way to have a rational discourse is to have a rationale discourse.  The way to get attention to your cause is to show the benefits of your cause. Showing disgusting images to people on their way to work does none of that. I can’t imagine any person, driving in to work on that morning and seeing that display said to themselves, “Golly, I never thought about the blood and the bodies before. I may have been pro-choice or on-the-fence on this issue now, but by gosh now I am against it.”

I have to commend the great folks from who arranged what can loosely be called a counter-rally.  They did not try to stop the pro-life/anti-choice/terrible-picture-holders from having their say.  They didn’t even go out in support of choice.  They went out with placards covered in hearts and support with the message that people should not be intimidated or made to feel ashamed by bullies.  Their message of acceptance, respect and tolerance was a breath of fresh air in this ongoing debate.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I am personally against abortion.  I don’t think that I would ever even consider an abortion should I become pregnant.  Of course, I am biologically male, so the likelihood that I would ever be in a position to consider having one is very small indeed.  The likelihood that I even have the most rudimentary understanding of what it is like to be pregnant, or how hard the associated choices are, is as small.  Additionally, as a believer in the rule of law and something of a legal aficionado, I understand that abortion is legal in Canada, and our highest court made that decision almost thirty years ago. These factors, and my ultimately libertarian feminist views on things, make me firmly pro-choice.  I don’t think that reproductive rights are issues that the state, or anyone, should impose upon an individual – their body, their choice, plain and simple.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

O Captain! My Captain!

I have idolized Robin Williams for years.  Since I first saw him as the irrepressible Mork from Ork, I have reveled in his zany antics and loved him from afar.  He was one of the rare comedians who was able to make me laugh despite anything happening in my life.  Even now, knowing that he is gone, I am smiling while I think of his performances.

He was not as recognized for his more serious work, though the Academy did give him an Oscar for his work in Good Will Hunting.  But it was here that the real depth of his acting abilities shone through.  Good Morning Vietnam, What Dreams May Come and The Fisher King are all fantastic movies, where we see a small glimpse into the other side of this zany man. 

Dead Poets Society is one of the most inspiring movies of all time.  His role as John Keating made me want to be a teacher when I saw it, and still makes me wish I had chosen that as my career.  To this day, the wisdom and hope that movie provided remains profound and on target – use your brain to think critically, don’t let life pass you by, find and never let go of your passions, carpe diem.

I have always rather immodestly felt that I was a lot like Robin.  No, I don’t pretend to be nearly as funny or smart as he was, but we seemed to have a lot of similarities.  Hell, even physically – we’re both short, hairy and heavyset guys.  But above that, we’re both recovering addicts - from the same drug of choice even (“Cocaine is god’s way of telling you you are making too much money”).  And we both struggle with depression. 

It’s the last part that is tearing me up right now.  Just like Robin, I have spent a large part of my life hiding my feelings and confusing people by being the joker and the funny guy.  I turned to cocaine and alcohol to self-medicate, and it worked… for a while.  It wasn’t until my son died that I was forced to take a long, hard look at my emotions.  It wasn’t until my behaviour started to affect my relationships with my other children that I sought medical help.  And like millions of people, I learned that my life-long battle just to stay alive was not my imagination – it was severe clinical depression.  And I finally started to look for solutions.

That’s when I learned the truth that no one wants to talk about, there is no solution. Nothing really works with depression, you can’t make it go away – it is a part of you.  A sly, dark little part that sits in the back of your brain with long, dull claws dug in and draping everything you do and think with a fog of pain.  You can smother that little fucker with the best prescription medication that money can buy. You can talk about him with trained professionals, and keep him at bay, feeling better most of the time.  Every day though, he waits.  He’s patient and he’ll live with you for the rest of your life.  He’s an insidious little prick and all he wants is to kill you.  And if you listen to him long enough, he will win.  Just like he did with Robin.

There is a significant stigma attached to clinical depression.  So many of us hide it, and hide it well, because we have heard the old mantras a thousand times:  “You’ll get over it”, “It’s just a bad day”, “Pull up your boots!”, “Put on your big girl panties!” and my all-time favorite “But you don’t seem depressed.”  We do pull up our boots and tie on our big girl panties.  That is how we get out of bed in the morning – though even that isn’t possible some days.  We don’t ever get over it and we certainly can’t just shake it off, any more than an epileptic can ‘get over’ their seizures – it is a chemical imbalance in the brain – a purely physical issue that causes these reactions.  Of course, it is hidden away, that little bastard is clever.  If we could point to the wheelchair or the crutch there would be no question that we were living with something that had tremendous impact on our lives.

If there is one thing positive to come out of Robin’s suicide, I hope it is this – that people will start to recognize that laughter can be just a mask and that emotional pain, the kind that drives our friends and family to such despair that the only way out is the peace of death, is real. 

O Captain! My Captain! Be at peace now.  And thank you for brightening our lives with your laugh and your smile.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Lest We Forget

Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of the darker events that occurred within my lifetime.  On April 7, 1994 the tiny African nation of Rwanda erupted into violence and stayed there for slightly more than three months – 100 days in fact.  In that very short time frame, hundreds of thousands of citizens, the majority of whom were innocent civilians, were massacred.  So fierce and brutal was the period that even today, an accurate count of the number of people murdered remains unknown.  The United Nations estimates that the death toll was between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people.  The official death toll according to the government of Rwanda is 1,174,000.  In three months.

The Rwandan genocide has its roots, as many conflicts do, in conflict that simmered for generations and divided a nation.  I will never understand those roots in all of their complexity, but I do know, at the absolute base of them, lies “the other” – that intangible and often ill-defined condition of being different in some way.  Perhaps a different colour of skin or a different name by which they call god.  Maybe they have a different view on how the people ought to be governed or how government money should be spent.  Sometimes, it is as simple as how they define love.  But some characteristic, some tiny detail, sets them apart.

Terrifyingly, the majority of the murders were not carried out by organized military.  No WWII death camps and trains here.  In this tiny nation, neighbour set upon neighbour with wood axes and clubs.  Baseball bats and machetes were the weapons of mass destruction in Rwanda.

If you have not read Roméo Dallaire’s “Shake Hands with the Devil” you must.  It is a book you will only read once, but it will move you to your core.  It tells a story of a country in need, of a war that was predicted and of a million lives lost that could have been saved.  It ought to be required reading for all military commanders and political leaders.

And that is perhaps the saddest part of the entire horrific matter – they saw it coming.  Months prior to the commencement of the genocide, the UN was told it was going to happen.  Informants in the Rwandan government told UN officials that plans were being made to begin the slaughter, that specific parties were set to incite the people to murder their neighbors.  But no one stopped it.  No one stepped in to help.  In fact, the UN Peacekeepers that were on the ground had their funding cut and their numbers reduced in the middle of the conflict.  Nations with enormous armies did nothing.  Nations with tremendous budgets spent not a dime helping.  And every minute they did nothing, seven people were murdered.

Things in Rwanda today are somewhat improved.  It is no paradise - the nation is still trying to climb out of the hell on earth that it was for those 100 days.  In 100 days, almost 15% of the population was killed.  Children became orphans and orphans became the heads of families.  But the wounds are healing, though resources remain scarce and money, as in many nations, could solve a lot of the problems.  Conflict still runs through the area, and peace remains elusive, though the wide-spread slaughter has long since ceased.

The world has changed.  We’re more connected now, more in touch with people around the world.  We Facebook and Tweet with people from all nations.  We call someone a friend whom we’ve never met face to face, and likely never will.  We have news dumped into our phones, our computers and our tablets every minute of every day.  A mosquito sneezes in Tokyo and we know about it thirty seconds later.

Yet the world has not changed.  Srebenica, Syria, Sudan and now the Central African Republic.  Genocidal attacks where one group makes a concentrated effort to eliminate an opposing (or even just different) group.  Tens of thousands of dead and dying right now, in this moment, but no government will step in.  The United Nations does nothing.  And children watch their parents die.  Fathers watch their daughters brutally assaulted.  Parents gather the remains of their children, horrifically murdered for the crime of being different.

When will we learn?

Friday, February 07, 2014

Matthew 7:1

Jeepers people, what’s with the judging!  It seems that we are so quick to judge people these days that we can’t take five seconds and check our own biases and figure out why we are so quick to throw unhelpful and even hurtful labels at people.

The other morning, on our morning commute to work, my wife and I were regaled with the tale of Ms. Rachel Fredrickson.  If you didn’t know (and we sure didn’t) she was the winner of this season’s “Biggest Loser”.  A ‘reality’ show about people who come into the show carrying weight they don’t want, and with the assistance of dieticians and fitness experts, learn how to lose it.  The ‘contestant’ who loses the largest percentage of their body weight wins the grand prize of $250,000.  And in Ms. Fredrickson’s case, a helping dose of scorn to go along with her new wealth.

It seems that some of the twitterverse (is that still the hip word?  Wait, is it still groovy to ask if things are hip?) and other internet folks are pretty critical of Ms. Fredrickson’s transformation.  And it was a pretty drastic change.  In seven and a half months, Ms. Fredrickson went from 118kg to 48kg.  That’s 260 pounds to 105 pounds for those of us born prior to 1985 or in some poor disadvantaged part of the world that doesn’t use the metric system.

Ms. Fredrickson is 1.62 meters tall (5’4”).  So she went from carrying a significant amount of weight that she didn’t want to carry to being very thin.  In seven and a half months.  Was that crash dieting and did she act recklessly in doing that much change to her body? 

I’d like to answer that with a resounding who cares?  For starters, weight loss is the goal of the contestants on the show – all of them are doing everything they can to lose as much weight.  The winner of the show isn’t determined by who now leads the healthiest life style, or who has made the most positive change in their worlds, but simply by who has lost the greatest percentage of their weight.  And people have done a lot worse, and far stupider things, for $250,000.  Hell, for a quarter million dollars, I would do the same or more - I can’t think of too many things I wouldn’t do for that kind of cash!  Well, okay, I can, but most of them can’t be printed here without a more serious discussion of ethics and morality and a healthy dose of criminal and international law, which is not the topic of my ire today.  Actors and athletes all undergo radical transformations of their bodies for their crafts, and most of them just get accolades for them – Christian Bale I am looking at you!

But what about the message she is sending to children??  Won’t someone think of the children?  Or what about the inaccurate portrayal of beauty that she is giving to women who are bombarded with “skinny” messages every day?  Or the other women who are likewise lambasted with messages about how they are too skinny… how you going to find a husband, mangia mangia!  To those issues I leave with one last question – where do you think the show came from in the first place?