Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Movie Time Trip Tips

I’ve been watching old movies. On Youtube and from the library.

One of the best things about old movies is that they can come from a totally different cultural frame of mind than what we’re used to.

Expectations were different. Normal was different. Weird was different. The way things were done, the way they were said was different. And that’s on top of the fact that the writers and makers of film were always putting their particular spin on things.

I try to see a movie with no knowledge of what it’s about, so that it catches me totally unaware of the themes and plots to come. So when I’m watching something from the 30s through 80s, the jumps and twists can really seem to come out of the blue, and the insights and blind spots can be surprising.


The film I’m watching tonight is called “Fate is the Hunter”, and it’s particularly timely, and surprisingly close to today’s social realities in several ways, considering it’s from 1964. Totally unexpected.

Other recent films that took me to a different place, or showed me a different perspective were the following. Maybe in some other post I’ll offer reviews. But this time around, all you get are the titles.

“Stormy Weather”                       1943
“Nothing But A Man”                   1964
“Koyaanisqatsi”                           1982
“Synecdoche, New York”             2008


Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Paradox In Housing

When I was housing young adults in Toronto a few years ago, I got direct lessons in community and in human social development.

There are substantial differences between the young adult homeless – from 16 and 17 up into their late twenties – and those into their thirties and beyond. The older homeless are often very isolated. Some will have regular, supportive contacts with others, but a great many of them are completely alone, and contact with others is entirely incidental.

The younger population is more communal. They often congregate in groups or form informal street families, and these often develop into de facto networks. Even the youth who are relative loners often remain in orbit around some group of age mates, rather than living in the complete isolation in which their elders find themselves. The youth often have phones, and many have email addresses that they use regularly. And while the older homeless may be found sleeping alone in their doorways, bus shelters and parks, or huddled in corners of all-night coffee shops, younger adults tend to congregate together, sharing sleeping bags, abandoned buildings or other encampments.

In fact, the younger homeless often share their food, their money, their connections and knowledge of resources, their drink and drugs. Even their pairing up sexually and romantically sometimes has a rotational quality. While their elders exist in a near absence of community, the young are likely to create their own communities. And while the elders may participate in the flow of sociability that exists in the shelters and drop-ins and encampments, they don’t necessarily experience this as community. The young seek out belonging, and more explicit about their cliques, clans and ‘families’. These are generalities, not rules, but they reflect a reality of homelessness.

And I don’t argue that these communities are always good or healthy. The drug and alcohol sharing too often leads to or exacerbates alcoholism and addiction. Theft, violence, sexual assault and horrendous bullying are too common among them. And the pressure of peer culture sometimes vetos healthier motivations to seek or use community resources. I even think it’s fair to say that the ugliness that can fester in these communities sometimes contributes to the mental health deterioration and the self-imposed isolation of their members as they grow older.

But even with all this, the urge toward community, sharing and interdependence is a healthy one. The informal alliances that develop generate powerful acts of friendship, support and sacrifice. Some survive the streets largely because of the alliances formed within their street families, rather than despite them.

So one of the most confounding things I experienced when housing ‘youth’, was the need to repress the natural communities they had formed, so that they would survive in housing. Because, one of the things that automatically followed the housing of these connected youth, was that they brought their friends with them. It wasn’t unusual, a week after a housing event, to visit a bachelor apartment and find a half dozen or more bodies spread out over the floors. And that meant that landlord complaints were sure to follow.

The management would begin to hear from neighbors about all-hours comings and goings, about noise, about loitering and littering in the halls and stairwells, sometimes about bodies climbing in and out of windows. And if it wasn’t quickly contained, an eviction notice could follow.

Thus, a part of the preparation for housing became discussing the major shift in community that was involved. If they wanted to reenter the more settled world of householders, they had to appreciate that it came with doors and walls, with locks and leases, and depended on the tolerance of neighbors to whom ideas like community and family had very different meanings.

“You can have a friend on the couch now and then, but you can’t have three on the floor for a week,” I told them. “As much as an open door is a beautiful and loving thing. As much as it reflects the kind of sharing spirit we ought to have more of in this society, if you want to stay housed, you’ll have to learn to send your friends away.”
That message went out to the friends and family being turned away, as well. I told them that they could support their friend by not shouting up to their third floor apartment at 2am because it was raining, and by not sneaking into the building and camping out in the laundry room. You showed support for your street brother or sister by allowing them to have their walls and door and lock, then seeking out your own.

It was, and it is a necessary message. Society is one thing. Community is another. And the two don’t always meet. I wish that in my job I’d been able to help create more communal spaces for living. I believe it’s an idea for these times. Especially now, when so many cannot afford the individual space surrounded by walls that we’ve all been taught to crave. And when so many others find such a space, then suffocate from the isolation and loneliness it brings.

Over the years, watching community emerge among the groups of homeless youth I’ve worked with, I’ve been moved to admiration and respect. There is great resilience in human beings, and a natural talent for generating that which is needed to survive and thrive. It’s so incredible that young people, who are on the streets because they have experienced some failure of community elsewhere, automatically seek to re-create it wherever they can. This is a gift that ought to be recognized and nurtured, and as a society, we ought to be creating the models, programs and the social conditions to do just that.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Derby Story

I have a new hat. A derby, which is a hat with a lot of personality. And it’s added something to my life. An accent, an opening, a challenge? All three and more. I didn’t know how much I’d wear it, but I took it out of the bag as we left the store and I’ve worn it almost every day since. 

The hat makes people take notice, and that gives me the desire to wear it, and a competing desire not to. It’s one of those swords that cuts multiple ways. Because it grabs people’s attention and declares that there’s something special, or fun or interesting going on. And I don’t necessarily feel prepared to live up to that.

When I first started getting the extra attention, it caught me off guard, and I often turned away from it, avoiding eye contact, not acknowledging the looks. It was like when someone mistakes you for someone else. They call out, they break into a loud smile, and you know you aren't who they think you are. To avoid the embarrassment, I was pretending not to notice them noticing.

But I didn’t avoid eye contact for very long, because it didn’t reflect what I really felt. I love this hat. I love how it feels and how it makes me feel. And how is that? Proper is one word. I feel proper in my hat. Cool and comfortable and just right. Not cool as in hip, though some people take it for a hipster’s hat. It doesn’t make me feel ‘with it’. It makes me feel like I’m in just the right place and have everything I need.

And so, feeling that, I started to relax and smile. I figure that the good feeling might just translate, it might communicate. After all, it makes me feel good to see someone wearing something unusual that I like. As I started to smile more, people started to speak to me. “Nice hat”, “Love that hat”, ‘What a cool hat’. ‘I haven’t seen a hat like that in years!’ And sometimes, a little conversation followed. Where did I get it. Where can they get one. Is it a bowler or a derby….. 

And a lot of people would say, “I couldn’t pull off wearing a hat like that.” Which of course I understand, because that’s the story of the first few paragraphs. A hat like that is something you feel you have to live up to. There are expectations that go with it.

But after awhile, as I became more comfortable with my derby, as I wore it day after day, I spoke to them about how it felt to wear it. I told them, “Of course, you can pull it off. You don’t have to sell the hat. The hat is gonna sell you. All you have to do is be yourself. And smile.” Which is curiously true.

I never bought into the notion that ‘the clothes make the man’. And I don't get fashion at all. But my derby makes it clear to me that, not only does what I wear affect how others see me, it affects how see myself. I can’t deny it. In my derby, I feel like an accented me. I feel like I’m presenting something of myself, rather than hiding in my anonymity. It’s a way of being more personal with the world.

I get compliments on the derby almost every day . And quite a few curious or friendly looks, nods and smiles. It’s even drawn a snicker or two; can't ever please all the critics, I guess. But that's only a small annoyance. And worth it to break through some of the stranger-to-stranger iciness in this city I so love.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Encounters with Past and Future

Now and then, I run across an old client, someone I worked with years before. I’ve spent most of my working life in social services, and much of that with youth ranging from 13 to 20 or so. And because youth grow so quickly, when I meet one I haven’t seen in awhile, the change can be remarkable.

My work has been in schools, where I focused on drop-out prevention, in group homes for runaways and throwaways, and sometimes in detention centers or halfway houses for those ending periods of incarceration. So they’ve mostly been young men (occasionally women) whose lives have been full of hurt, failure and disappointment.

Youth have the reputation of being difficult to work with, because they have so much energy and emotion and they haven’t developed the skills to manage or even understand them. But these are some of the reasons why those of us who’ve focused on youth work find it so rewarding. All that energy and emotion is the mark of a person in movement, going through change. And it’s easier to help a moving, growing person find direction, than it is to generate motion in an older person whose direction is set or who perhaps hasn’t moved at all in years.

Social workers can be as judgmental as anyone, though we try not to be. And, especially in my early years, it wasn’t unusual for me and my colleagues to decide who was on a positive course and who wasn’t. This one, we’d say, was hopeless, but that one was going to make it. This one never listened and didn’t want to do better, but that one had a good heart and just needed a chance.  And these are just the kinds of lazy judgements that my occasional encounters with former clients have helped me to stop making. At least to try and stop making. I don’t know that the human tendency to judge and predict is ever put to rest.

I have two, glaring examples. Two young men whom I worked with in the same group home at different times, both alienated from families that lacked the wherewithal to provide the basics of a secure and loving home, both high-school aged and Black. I’ll call them Kevin and Eric.

Eric was a hell-raiser. He was very angry. He blamed everything that happened to him on someone else. He was so entitled and impatient that even positive interactions quickly went downhill as soon as he had to wait for anything, or if the slightest obstacle presented itself. It was as though he was always looking for a fight. You couldn’t criticize him, or even advise him, because he interpreted anything like that as an attack. And he was very intelligent, and had comebacks for almost anything said to him. He exhausted everyone who worked with him and alienated anyone who tried to do something for him. It seemed that he was always on the verge of exploding and he constantly got into fights and arguments with the other kids, who mostly feared and avoided him. We all expected, even predicted, that Eric had a hard road ahead. His anger and his selfish motivations seemed to foreshadow problems with the law. It was hard to imagine him ever succeeding in work or in school.

Kevin was the opposite. He was quiet and even-tempered and easy to engage. Not only did he respond well to counselling, actually testing suggestions made to him and digging down into the feedback he received. He actually sought out staff when he had problems. He was very self-aware, and took responsibility for where he was, the mistakes he’s made, and what he’d suffered, even to the point of sometimes down-playing the unmet responsibilities of others. He actively discussed his options and the future he’d like for himself and didn’t seem to hold any unrealistic expectations. And, he was empathetic, often sharing and showing concern for the other youth he lived with. All of us who worked with Kevin though very highly of him. It seemed that he was primed to flourish, as soon as he was able to find himself in a stable, nurturing environment.

From my preamble, you’ll already guess that things didn’t turn out as expected. Some 4-5 years later, I encountered both Kevin and Eric, in situations I would never have predicted.

On one occasion, I was volunteering with a group that made visits to a state penitentiary, to give readings and talk about literacy and culture. As the inmates come into the meeting room, I saw Kevin. We instantly recognized one another and got to speak privately for a few minutes during the program. He was a couple of years into serving a sentence for assault and kidnapping. He’d made some bad choices, which he acknowledged as readily as he ever had. He had a ways to go before he’d be eligible for parole. He was trying to make the best of it, he said.

A few months later, I was at a community meeting of directors of several programs who were seeking to develop some youth leadership programming. One of them came in with a young man he introduced as a protégé, who turned out to be Eric. Eric was in his second year of university, where he’d established himself as a leader. He was involved in community work and had plans for his future. We got to speak briefly, during which time he remained somewhat aloof and unsmiling – not surprising. But I did not detect the anger that had always been so palpable.

Who can say how much their group home experiences, under the care of myself and others who wrongly predicted their futures, ultimately affected Eric and Kevin? Even if I’d have cared to say so in the past, I wouldn’t dare now. Not only do I not know how I impacted them, I don’t know anything, really, about the ultimate outcomes. These two meetings may be as mis-leading as they are revealing. Did Kevin make parole? And what happened then? Did Eric graduate and make contributions to his community? And whatever became of all that anger. I’ll probably never know.

As I write this, I fault myself for not having further contact with either of these young men. It was a transitional time in my own life, and the group home where I’d encountered them had depleted me. I think I just didn’t feel I had the resources to do so. But I sure did learn from those encounters, and they made me a better worker, and I’ve shared this anecdote with dozens of colleagues since then.

We err when we think we know another person’s future, what they have in them, or how they are impacted by their experiences. If we make judgements, and if we allow these judgements to limit the kind or degree of support we offer (which is almost inevitable if we believe our judgements) we do a disservice.

These are only two of the encounters I’ve have with former clients. Quite a few others have revealed to me that when I thought I wasn’t being heard, I was actually having a substantial impact. Where I thought an interaction was negligible, it’s sometimes planted a seed that grew over the years. I’ve had former clients recount conversations and interventions I had totally forgotten. And these interactions have not always been positive and to my credit. I’m very grateful and relieved that many of them have been.

These chance meetings have reminded me of things that my parents, teachers and other adults said or did with me that have stuck with me through all my life, that have motivated me in both positive and negative ways. It’s made me more careful about what I say and do, and about how I say and do it. Sometimes, it’s a matter of explaining what my motivation or intent is. At other times, it leads to an admission that an action or decision isn’t arising out of certainty. And most of all, it’s taught me to ask more questions of clients, and to listen more, and sometimes, just to pause. Because we never can know the full ramifications of the judgements we make about others. And we’ll never be fully aware of the seeds we’re planting and how they will grow.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

CBT Time

My newest therapy is Cognitive-Behavioral. It’ll be my second group at CAMH, after one exploring aspects of substance use and addiction.
I have a pretty healthy appetite for therapies and have all my life. To me, one of the key values is that each therapy provides a unique way of learning, and a fresh way to approach a challenge. So I’ve experienced many varieties of treatments and regimens, from individual psycho therapy, to daily journaling, Vipassana meditation, to the Landmark Forum, morning pages, several types of formal and informal groups, and Yang style Tai Chi, all 103 positions, practiced every morning for a few seasons, on the 8th floor deck, right outside my apartment in downtown Toronto.
My enrollment in this latest group is all about my failures to manage myself well, and especially, the gross ways that I abuse and waste time. The diagnosis from my initial assessment was depression. That was a surprise. Though I’ve worked on the front line of the social services for decades, and with many depressed clients, never did I think to apply that term to myself.
I’ve only got my toe in so far, but I’ve begun a form of self-monitoring: scoring each hour of my day according with how ‘depressed’ I am. And as is inevitable, such self-monitoring has high-lit some aspects of myself that I hadn’t paid attention to. It’s brought a perspective on self from a slightly tilted angle.
I don’t suppose that it’s directly related, but I’ve also been dreaming. That is, I’m paying more attention to my dreams, being consciously aware of the flavors of my wakening. What is it I’ve just stepped out of? What was I in the middle of doing, of feeling? Who was with me? It’s been ever since listening to a recent Fresh Air episode about dreams. Not nearly so intent on mining and remembering as I was more than thirty years ago, when I kept a dream journal. These days, I simply shift my awareness backward a bit, to whatever gave rise to the moment. And there’s always dream stuff lying there, something otherworldly, but at the same time deeply private and intimate. 
This morning, an old love who is now deceased was there. We were trying to get something done, so our attention wasn’t on each other. But she was a very solid presence in the dream, just as she always was in life. And inside the dream, there was a tiny bit of unconscious awareness, that she couldn’t really be there, which made it more special to be with her. Just that tiny bit of extra awareness, as from a dream.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Picking Flowers, Dodging Thorns

I don’t have to pick every flower.

And I shouldn't worry about every thorn.

These are mantras to help me guide myself into my near future.

They relate directly to the core Buddhist teaching that I’ve been trying to internalize: to eliminate both craving and aversion from my life.

I remind myself that I don’t have to pick every flower, so as to focus better on what I do want. Because, while there’s no crime in picking a flower, in my experience, simple wanting turns into craving at the point of ‘more’. It’s where ‘enough’ loses meaning, and wanting becomes a frame of mind in which I willfully imprison myself.

And I tell myself not to anticipate thorns because it only creates the illusion that thorns are everywhere. A thorn encountered, though it stings, is a simple thing. But the feared and avoided thorns burn and never stop burning, and they’ve kept me out of too many gardens.

Let me learn to more deeply appreciate each and every flower I encounter, but to pick only a few. Sometimes, more isn’t really more at all.

The thorns…I can trust them to be there, dance around them when I can. And when I’m pricked, don’t holler. Whatever harm is already done.

Why flowers? Because we think of picking flowers as a natural thing to do, generally disregarding the fact that in doing so, we kill them, while leaving them as we find them, allows theiir beauty to endure. The thorns were a fitting afterthought.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Cruel & Cool Jokes of Nature

The way I see it, there is a great pair of jokes played by nature on us humans. Tricks of time: one cruel and the other almost cool enough to make up for it.

First of all, why is it that time speeds up so much as we get older? It’s so damned unfair. When we’re young and impatient for the things we look forward to, time crawls at a snail’s pace. A week can feel like a month, an hour can feel like half the day... until school is out, or we can have dessert, or get to see that movie that’s been advertised forever.

We get older and time speeds up. It’s easier to wait for what we want. We have more patience, and more perspective, it seems. It feels like maturity. But then, that speeding up continues. And continues. Even accelerates. We get into our thirties and we begin to want to slow things down a little. We begin to realize that the longevity that has stretched into the dim future all our lives is not infinite. We’re already into adulthood – that period of time we were desperate for as children – and now it’s speeding by. Our twenties are already behind us, and the years are only running by faster.

I’m into my sixties, and every year seems to last about as long as a month once did. Whatever there is still to do in life, I’d better get to it pretty damned fast, because memory and energy are diminishing as fast as my future.

But, there’s the silver lining. It’s how wonderful it is being an older human being. When I was a teenager, I imagined that the best part of life ended by age fifty, if that. People that age and older seemed to be mostly worn out and used up. I didn’t imagine there could be any real pleasure is being alive at that age. I figured that what kept them going was mostly the dread of the alternative. Wasn’t much to look forward to, so I didn’t think a lot about being older. In fact, I somehow didn’t expect to become an old man. Something would surely save me from the fate of being among the living dead.

But it isn’t like that at all. Being old doesn’t feel much different than being younger. Sure, the body doesn’t work as well as it did, and I’ve noticed that I’ve begun to shrink, but there are so many ways in which life is better. That’s the wonderful joke of nature.

The most surprising thing is that I feel like the very same person I was in my twenties and thirties, but all the experience and choices of the past have begun to pay off. They haven’t all been good experiences and choices, of course, but bad ones have led to better ones, and the good ones have given me so many tools for facing the present in ways I couldn’t before. Patience and perspective are part of the story. But there’s also the shifting of priorities and appetites. I want better things than I used to. And my values are an outgrowth of lived experience, and are therefore more solid and reliable than the values that were so much generated by the noise of the world. And these days, the worth of a choice stems more from its generation than from its consequences.

I’m deep into the second half of my life, possibly into the fourth quarter. I don’t project a lot about what the rest of life will be like. Will the acceleration of time continue? Will life continue to feel this good? Experience confirms that projections can be very wrong. And even if they're right, it’s probably best not to live inside of them. I have foreseen so much pain and difficulty where there turned out not to be any.

I’m sure curious though. And I’ll try to make the best of whatever comes. I know from experience that there will be constant surprises. Every day is full of them.