The Messiness Of Life

Just as I was about to begin this week’s meandering piece, I also happened to complete a remarkable piece of fiction that pointed me on a thoroughly different course. It’s funny how life works that way. We intend to go one way – and we take a completely different fork in the road. Fate jumps in and pushes us in one direction, while our brain is telling us to stay the course. We know what’s right – but then we do wrong. Or vice versa. Or upside down. Or inside out.

I’m not the quickest reader in the world and, especially if I’m involved in a well-written, thoughtful book, I tend to dawdle and re-read and linger much longer than I should. I found that particularly easy to do during the many weeks I spent with The Goldfinch, American author Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from last fall.

This is not a book for the faint of heart – and I would have a hard time recommending it to most people, not just for its doorstop-like 771 pages, but also for its sometimes sordid subject material, which involves some pretty horrid scenes of violence, illicit drug use, child endangerment, infidelity and more. That probably explains why a quick check of readers’ opinions on Amazon shows that a substantial percentage of consumer critics review the book very negatively.

On the flip side, for those with strong hearts, unsettled, questioning minds, fears about the future and puzzlement about the nature of love, this is a book that will likely stick in your brain for many, many years.

The main character in the novel, Theo Dekker, makes so many wrong-headed decisions in his life and is hit with so many cruel twists of fate, it’s hard to imagine he survives as long as he does. Constantly, he is met by brick walls where he is forced to make a choice between right and wrong – or, perhaps, the lesser of two evils – and it’s easy to cringe when we realize what direction he’s going to take when he’s forced to follow his misguided inclinations.

At one point he remarks, “We don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Theo continues: “When in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be Yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’”

For Theo – and for many of us – that’s where the trouble starts: “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, sell-immolation, disaster?”

In our long, messy complicated lives, we’re constantly placed in positions where we must make both ethical and practical decisions that will set us on certain paths and, in turn, force us into subsequent situations where new decisions must be made. And, at each crossroads, we can look backwards and forwards to help guide us but, ultimately, our hearts and minds will take us where they choose.

Of course, we can use the combined wisdom of our past to help us make those decisions. Our education. Our religious convictions. The knowledge imparted by our spouses and parents and teachers and mentors and countless others. They all play some part in what we choose.

But there’s no denying our own being. For Theo, that being is most often a dark one who suffers the crushing of the world around him almost every moment of his life.

“No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is catastrophe,” he ruminates.

Surrounded by that bleakness, however, Theo still manages to make his way, pulling something good out of the worst circumstances and, somehow, carrying on.

Because carrying on is what we all do, however much pain and hardship is involved along the way. For Theo, weighed down by unrelenting depression, he finds his own way to survive in the jungle, asking himself, “Does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end – and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”

We all find joy in our own unique ways. We can share it with others, but their reaction to or acceptance of that joy will not be the same as ours, because their joy is found in a totally different space. We search for happiness all our lives, tripping and falling and wondering and questioning, sorting our way through the catastrophes of life and discovering what’s important and wonderful and life-affirming along the way.

As Theo discovers, life is short. “Fate is cruel, but maybe not random,” he ruminates. “Even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.”

Dive straight in. Get drenched. Because life is waiting for you.

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It’s All In Your Head

(The following was written and originally published prior to the tragic August 9th shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and is not intended to reference that incident in any way)

Nuts. Psycho. Two sandwiches short of a picnic. What’s your attitude when you hear that someone is suffering from mental illness? The three examples above were among many given in a U.S. police training exercise about dealing with people who may be emotionally disturbed. The officers were asked to come up with pejorative terms for mentally ill people. Although initially uncomfortable, it didn’t take long for them to rhyme off the above examples.

Later in the exercise, the officers were asked for similar adjectives to describe people with cancer. About the worst they could come up with were “sick,” “brave” and “courageous.” Looking at the two lists side-by-side on a blackboard, the officers realized how distorted their viewpoints were about mental illness.

This is just one example of the problems police and other first responders have in trying to deal with those who may have mental disorders. They’re part of an absorbing article called, ‘Stand Down’ by John Lorinc, which appears in the July/August 2014 edition of The Walrus.

One focus of the wide-ranging article concerns the unique approach developed by the Memphis Police Department in dealing with incidents involving emotionally disturbed suspects. In response to a tragic shooting nearly 30 years ago, the MPD created the Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a specially trained group of officers who are dispatched to emergency scenes and given over-reaching powers when a potential incident occurs involving a suspected mentally ill individual.

Lorinc describes the CIT model as “a progressive approach to de-escalate high-tension confrontations, improve police attitudes toward those suffering from mental illness, and divert them from the criminal justice system.”

Since its creation, similar programs have been developed in 2,700 regions in the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as in Vancouver and Hamilton. Almost across the board, there have been vast improvements made in the way police departments deal with such incidents, many of which can be prevented from escalating just by having trained people on-scene who know how to deal with mentally ill people.

With so many departments adopting such programs, one notable exception stands out from the list: Toronto. This is particularly disturbing given the number of high profile shootings in recent years involving Toronto Police Services and mentally ill individuals.

The most notorious happened just over a year ago when teenager Sammy Yatim was shot to death on a Toronto streetcar by Constable James Forcillo, who fired three times at Yatim, paused, then took six more shots at close range. Forcillo has since been charged with second-degree murder in the incident.

According to Lorinc’s article, between seven and 40 percent of people who police come in contact with may have some form of emotional disturbance. And there are often additional factors such as homelessness, addiction or people suffering some kind of emotional crisis.

Lorinc indicates that Toronto police deal with about 19,000 calls per year involving someone who’s emotionally disturbed. That’s less than one percent of all police contacts with residents in Toronto, far from the estimated seven to 40 percent quoted above. Lorinc surmises that, possibly due to inadequate training, Toronto police simply are unable to recognize signs of mental illness when they see them.

Based on numerous examples given in the article, it would certainly seem so. Rather than talking rationally and calmly to emotionally disturbed suspects, many of the noted incidents involve officers screaming and shouting commands at the people, often the worst possible approach.

At the end of July, Toronto police Chief Bill Blair had his contract turned down for renewal by the city’s Police Services Board. According to reports by the CBC, Board chair Alok Mukherjee said it was time for a change and there was a need for renewal.

The CBC said Mukherjee indicated what some of the changes might be when that “renewal” happens: “They will include the way that the police interact with the community; the way officers interact with emotionally disturbed persons and the mentally ill; and the need to transform the police service in a way that ensures it is effective and sustainable in the long term.”

In a not-too-subtle way, Toronto’s Police Services Board has confirmed what Lorinc and many others already believe – that the city’s police force is ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with incidents involving those with emotional disturbances.

Lorinc talks at length about a coroner’s jury in Toronto that held an inquest earlier this year into three police shootings. Its recommendations echo many of those from the Memphis CIT training manual. These include a better knowledge of mental health problems, more training in verbal de-escalation techniques, and an abandonment in certain instances of what’s referred to as the “twenty-one-foot-rule,” where police are often expected to subdue suspects forcibly who are closer than that arbitrary distance and are considered a potential threat.

The rules need to change. According to Lorinc, during the coroner’s inquest, one police officer said about the shooting he was involved in, “It’s textbook, and I wouldn’t change a thing.” But, if that “textbook” is outdated and incomplete, why is it still being used?

Lorinc indicates that in that same shooting, one police officer actually called on his comrades to use some sense of calm. The author wonders why and concludes: “He likely had enough life experience to think beyond the twenty-one-foot rule, and to recognize what was in front of him: a man in crisis, rather than a police killer brandishing a potentially fatal weapon.”

Ironically, a local resident, out for a jog the morning of the incident, saw the confrontation and instantly recognized the situation for what it was: “It’s a cold winter day. The guy is standing there in a hospital gown, with bare legs. My first thought: this guy is in a mental health crisis.”

If an average citizen with no training determined what was happening instantly, why couldn’t a group of ostensibly “trained” police officers? And why did it take all of 72 seconds for them to end the emotionally disturbed patient’s life with their guns?

The bottom line is that we all need to be better educated about mental illness. That education starts with our frontline police officers.

Guilty Pleasures

We all have them. Chocolate. Soap operas. Romance novels. Ice cream. Trashy reality television shows. Tabloid newspapers. They’re called “guilty pleasures.” Mostly innocuous stuff but, perhaps, not the types of things you’ll readily mention to strangers or casual acquaintances.

One of my personal favourites is detective novels. I used to read a lot of the “classics” like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man series with Nick & Nora Charles) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye).

Over the years, I began enjoying many of the later authors in the genre, which include John D. MacDonald, Robert P. Parker and more recent practitioners such as Robert Crais and Louise Penny, among many others.

But, in my opinion, there’s one particular novelist and one specific “detective” who stand above the rest. The author’s name is Lawrence Block, a Buffalo, New York born writer who’s lived much of his 76 years in New York City and sets many of his novels there.

Block has written several different series, a humourous one about a gentleman burglar named Bernie Rhodenbarr and a more recent one about a hit man called simply “Keller.”

All of the series are entertaining in one way or another, but if Block did nothing else but create one particular character, that would have been fine with me. His name is Matthew Scudder. To say he’s “flawed” would only begin to poke at Scudder’s many issues.

When the series started back in 1976 – nearly 40 years ago – he was an alcoholic, ex-NYPD detective who’d left his wife and two boys. He admits to taking bribes, sleeping with prostitutes, covering up crimes and much more during his time on the force. He makes the decision to quit the NYPD after accidentally killing a young girl when he was off-duty and had been drinking.

The first few novels in the series are good but, other than Scudder’s many less-than-savoury habits, aren’t particularly memorable. Ironically, the whole enterprise really takes off when the character, who now gets by as an unlicensed “detective” who helps out friends for money and lives in a seedy Hell’s Kitchen hotel, wises up and quits boozing, joining Alcoholics Anonymous.

The story goes that, at this point, Block had decided to abandon the series because he didn’t think there was any future in the story of a dry alcoholic. It goes to show that sometimes we’re not the best judges of our own talents. Far from being over, Scudder’s story had really just begun to be told.

Much of the next few novels deals with the reformed drunk’s agonizing attempts to remain sober. You’d think that learning about someone’s efforts to find his next AA meeting or trying to overcome the pull of alcohol everywhere he goes would be pretty dull stuff. On the contrary.   Instead, Block creates one of the most multi-layered, morally-conflicted humans you’re likely to encounter in fiction.

On top of that, he’s some kind of detective. Dogged. Determined. Brilliantly analytical. Able to take the tiniest most insubstantial thread and keep pulling on it with his mind until a twisted, unsolvable case is put to bed. As one of his former coworkers on the police force described him, he’s like a dog with a bone.

But, having created a great character is only part of Lawrence Block’s attraction. He also happens to be a spectacular wordsmith. And he does it with seeming effortlessness, a true sign, in my mind, of a very talented writer.

Much like Chandler or Parker in their prime, his writing is spare, his imagery always on the money. As the New York Times Book Review put it: “Bulls-eye dialogue and laser-image description,” calling his characters “almost real enough to touch.”

I rarely re-read books. Without exaggeration, I can count on one hand the number I’ve read more than once. But, that hand does not include Block. I have read the entire Scudder series, many of them more than once.

And a few years back, I decided to make it my mission to purchase each of the books in order, one or two a year, and take a run at the entire 17-volume series, just to experience the pure joy of the character that Block created so many years ago.

What a pleasure that’s been. I’m only seven books into my journey of rediscovery and I’m loving every minute. I could probably knock off each one in an evening but, instead, I’ll usually take at least a week to pore over every page, savouring the dialogue, reintroducing myself to Scudder and all his acquaintances, and learning to love this amazing, twisted, tormented character all over again.

I’ve never written to an author before, but I’ve often considered dropping Block a note, just to thank him for creating these mini-masterpieces. Maybe he’d appreciate it, as he’s hardly a household name and has never become anything close to being wealthy for his efforts. Or maybe he’s a snooty snob who would be too good to care what others think of him.

I’ll never find out because I never want to spoil the enchantment and the mystery behind both Block and his wondrous creation. Like discovering the secret behind a magic trick or the recipe for a perfect dish, sometimes, it’s just better not knowing.

Approaching the age of 80, it’s hard to know how many years Block still has with us or how many more Scudder novels he has in him. The last one came out in 2011 and he’s only written three in the past 13 years, so the end of the line could be near. That would be heartbreaking news for a devoted fan like me, but all good things end someday.

In the meantime, I intend to savour every moment of this guilty pleasure, taking snack-size pieces of Block’s delectable goodies whenever I hunger for the unmistakable taste of Scudder.             Whatever your guilty pleasure, I hope you get to enjoy it for many years to come, as well. Life’s too serious not to take a few moments every once in awhile just to enjoy it. Grab a piece and take a giant bite whenever you can. Delicious!

 

 

 

 

Back To The Future

Ronald Reagan. It’s been years since I thought about the 40th President of the United States. However, in one of those odd coincidences that happen so frequently in life, I was reminded of Reagan recently after watching an Oscar-nominated movie and reading a popular 2013 novel.

The movie is Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the horrifying story about the outbreak of the AIDS virus in early 1981, coincidentally, the first year of Reagan’s administration. The film details the struggle to identify and treat the first victims of AIDS. It’s a sad, sad story of fear and prejudice and ignorance, some of which was propagated by Reagan himself.

Ostensibly, the President refused to utter the word “AIDS” in any of his speeches until 1985, during his second term in office, despite the fact that it had become an out-of-control epidemic by that time. In 1981, there were just 159 reported cases of the disease. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, nearly 90,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

As the movie relates, during those first few years, the U.S. government dithered and delayed, eventually setting up blind clinical trials that dying AIDS sufferers would have to wait for a year to start. By then, if they were still living, they would have only a 50/50 chance of being prescribed the untested drug AZT. If they weren’t in that fortunate group who received the drug, they’d get a worthless placebo, instead.

Dallas Buyers Club relates the story of two very different victims, one an emaciated redneck played by Matthew McConaughey (who knew this guy could actually act?) and the other a flamboyant transgender male/female, played superbly by Jared Leto. The unlikely pair of victims join forces to purchase illegal, experimental drugs from various parts of the world, creating their own “cocktails” to help prolong their lives.

The other 80’s touchstone is the novel The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The book centres around a group of young people who come of age during the Reagan administration. One part of their lives deals with the sudden appearance of the AIDS virus and its effects on the members of the group, one of whom becomes involved with a victim of the disease.

Twenty-five years after he left office, Ronald Reagan routinely scores near the top in surveys about “Most Admired Presidents” and many still consider him to have had a greater impact on American life than almost any U.S. leader in the 20th century. His supporters point to the restoration of American morale following the Vietnam War, the great wealth accumulated by many, the collapse of the Soviet Union and numerous other touchstones that occurred during his administration.

On the other hand, Reagan’s tenure also saw the national debt soar, relations with Iran and other Muslim countries ruined, a massive build-up of defence spending, the attempted destruction of unions and, of course, the aforementioned devastating effects of Reagan’s inattention to the AIDS virus.

Added to that, in my opinion, there was a transformation of America into a less caring, more fearful, more isolated nation, one that’s only been made worse by subsequent Republican Presidents, including Reagan’s Vice President and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s son, George W.

For those who never supported Reagan, he’s considered a B-list actor (one who co-starred with a chimp in the “classic” Bedtime for Bonzo), an eccentric geezer, and a dunderheaded buffoon who championed absurd projects such as the cartoon-like Star Wars defence program, which would have seen billions or trillions of dollars spent trying to shoot enemy missiles out of the air. It also led to the President’s popular nickname, Ronnie Raygun.

Rather than looking at him like a friendly, doddering old uncle, they see him as a mean-spirited tool of the rich and powerful who gave generously to the wealthy through his failed Reaganomics program, a simplistic economic system that anticipated a trickle down of wealth to the poor and middle class, something that never happened.

Instead, Reagan’s policies sowed the seeds for an America where the rich got richer, the gap between the haves and have-nots widened, mistrust of foreign countries grew and fear became the norm in American life. It also paved the way for creepy characters like the Bushes and Dick Cheney to build on their own wealth and power at the expense of average citizens for much of the last 30 years.

In the movie and book’s descriptions of living with the AIDS virus, Ronald Reagan’s true colours shine brightly. During his tenure, the primary goal in life was to accumulate great wealth, at the same time ostracizing those who were different, promoting fear, buckling under to the religious right and ignoring anyone who didn’t fit into the President’s narrow definition of what it meant to be an “American.”

In Reagan’s United States, the AIDS virus was considered to be God’s punishment for those whose lives didn’t conform to what was considered “normal.” It was a tragic, despicable view that ended up killing tens of thousands, many of whose lives might have been spared if Reagan had kept his eye on the physical health of his country, rather than just its wallets.

A friend reminded me last week of a quote from an unknown source that says, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” Too true.

Put on as many pairs of rose-coloured glasses as you want. No matter how hard you squint, you can’t hide the fact that this popular president did so little to help average citizens, as well as the weak, the poor, the sick or the challenged. Instead, he promoted the stockpiling of wealth for those who were already well off – at the expense of the people who truly needed his help and compassion. In my mind, that’s nothing to be admired.

 

 

Read All About It

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the CBC. To be honest, I can’t even remember the last time I turned on either CBC Television or Radio. How about you? I imagine if you enjoy hockey or The National or some of CBC’s radio programs, you can count yourself as a supporter. Certainly, I’m not an advocate of disbanding either service, as it’s always nice to know they’re there if you ever need or want them.

On the other hand, I receive several daily news summaries from CBC in my email, which help give me their perspective on what’s going on in the news, arts, etc. So, it’s not like I’ve shut the Corporation out of my life entirely.

There’s one initiative they’re involved with that does excite me, however. It’s called Canada Reads and it’s been operating on CBC Radio since 2001. Each year, the program covers a different theme and involves narrowing down a list of Canadian books that listeners and a panel choose as best representing that theme.

For Canada Reads 2014, they’re looking for the one novel that could change the nation or, perhaps, even the world. A long list of 40 books chosen by Canadians was revealed last October 24th. People voted to narrow that number down to a Top 10.

That list was given to the 2014 panelists, who have the task of defending their choice during a series of debates that air on CBC Radio and CBC-TV from March 3rd to the 6th. They’ll also be streamed online. One at a time, the panelists will narrow the list down until only the winner remains.

In the past, I’ve only glanced briefly at the nominees. However, this year I seem to have a little more invested. That’s probably because I had already read two of the five novels and was actually reading a third at the exact moment when the list was released. Since then, I’ve completed a fourth.

So, who are these mysterious nominees?

In alphabetical order by author, the first is The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood, who is by far the most famous and recognizable name on the list and generally regarded as Canada’s finest novelist. This is the only one of the five books I haven’t read, as it’s in a genre, science fiction, that I have a lot of trouble getting my head around. Atwood’s book about a future world that emerges following a manmade pandemic will be defended by Stephen Lewis, a longtime leader of Ontario’s NDP, but now known as one of Canada’s most prominent philanthropists.

The second nominee, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, is also the most recent, having been released last September. Boyden is probably my favourite current Canadian novelist and this is an interesting and controversial book set during the early history of Canada and involving the crossed paths of three characters: a Jesuit missionary, a Huron elder and a young Iroquois girl. It’s been attacked by segments of the religious community, the native community and just about everyone else, so you know what you’re getting into. And there’s a lot of violence, so be forewarned. It will be defended by Wab Kinew, a journalist, aboriginal activist and hip-hop artist.

Next on the list is Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. It’s not often I remember exactly where I was when I read a book but, in this case, I recall being on vacation in the sunny south and absolutely loving this novel, which tells the story of young, black German jazz musician’s disappearance during World War II. It’s written in a “jazz language,” if that makes sense and is a wonderful piece of literature that deservedly won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Two-time Olympic gold medal winning runner Donovan Bailey will defend the book.

It’s been a long time since I read Cockroach by Rawi Hage, but it’s managed to stick with me pretty well because of its dark, unsettling nature. It captures the life of a recent immigrant during one bitterly cold month in Montreal. The lead character, who imagines himself a cockroach, lives on the edge of society as a petty criminal eking out a marginalized existence. While searching out some summaries of the book, I noticed it was described as a black comedy for teens and young adults, but I’m not sure it’s a book that youngsters would necessarily be drawn to. In any case, it will be defended by comic, actor and writer Samantha Bee, who’s been a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for more than a decade.

Finally, there’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter, which I just finished reading a couple of weeks ago, so I can offer a very fresh perspective on it. This is a heart-wrenching story of a child who is born hermaphroditic (both boy/girl), but raised as a boy, with disturbing and sad results. It’s a book that has moments of both extreme tenderness and ugly brutality, but one I also think will remain with me forever. Sarah Gadon, a young Canadian actress who’s starting to make a big name for herself in Hollywood (with five movies set to come out in 2014), will champion Annabel.

It will be interesting to see how each of the celebrities defends the book they’ve chosen. It’s one thing to enjoy a novel, but to debate how that book might change Canada or the world is something entirely different. Excluding Atwood’s book, which I haven’t read, I’d lean towards either Boyden’s or Winter’s, mainly because the issues of native rights and sexual equality will continue to play huge roles in our country’s future.

In any case, the choice in this battle of the books will be an interesting one, as each of the novels speaks in an entirely different voice and, without a doubt, definitely has the potential to change Canada. Read on!

 

The Dark Side Of The Web

A police officer I spoke with several months ago compared the Internet to a dark alley where every criminal in the world is lurking, just waiting for you to enter. Think about that for a second. It’s true. Every scam artist, sexual predator, thief and other scoundrel you can imagine has you and every other potential victim right at his or her fingertips online. And they’re all just waiting for you to slip up in some way to take advantage of the opportunity to wreak havoc on your life.

The officer’s warning came back to me this past week when I read about the devastating circumstances of 32-year old Tim Bosma, who was murdered after two men answered an ad for a pick-up truck Bosma was selling online. Allegedly, the people involved stole the truck and burned the body of the churchgoing, married father of a two-year old girl to cover their tracks. The bizarre circumstances of the crime captivated Canadians – and also made us question the safety of online advertising sites.

If people have problems with legitimate sites run by honest people, such as those used by Bosma, just imagine the problems created by the millions of questionable sites and the unscrupulous people who operate them. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received almost 300,000 reports from fraud victims last year totaling over a half-a-billion dollars. Obviously, that’s just a tiny fraction of the worldwide scams that are being run.

After reading Will Ferguson’s frightening novel “419” last year, I realized what a scary business this can be. Although it’s a fictional book, the title refers to a section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraud. If you’re not sure what I’m referring to, think of the hundreds of emails you’ve received from “Nigerian princes” and you’ll know what I mean. It’s hard to believe people are actually taken in by these scams, but the fact that they’re popular in dozens of countries and “employ” thousands of people worldwide must mean they’re also pretty effective.

On top of the hundreds of millions of dollars involved every year, they’ve also led to kidnapping and murder, along with suicides by the victims whose lives have been ruined.

If scams don’t scare you, what about cyberstalking and cyberbullying? One of the most worrisome parts of the Internet is its anonymity. It’s been well-documented that people say and do things on the web that they wouldn’t dream of doing in person. During a recent session on cyberbullying, I learned how easy it is to decipher someone’s identity through chat rooms, Facebook and other social media. Yet, time and time again, people let down their guards online and give out personal details to virtual strangers whose real identities they have no clue about.

In one horrifying incident, a male teenager befriended someone online who he thought was a friend his own age and shared the same passions and sensibilities. The boy revealed personal details of his life he thought would remain private. Suddenly, the “friend” turned against him and revealed all those details to his friends and family, turning him into a social pariah. The initial damage that was done and the bullying that followed led the youngster to commit suicide, bringing a tragic conclusion to what had begun as an innocent friendship.

If you’re appalled by this story, wait until you hear the ending. It turns out the cyber-friend who the boy thought was someone in his own age group was actually an ex-friend of his mother. When the relationship between his mother and the friend ended, the spurned acquaintance decided to get back at the mother by exacting revenge on her former friend’s son. The story is almost as unfathomable as it is heartbreaking, but provides a valuable lesson for everyone who surfs the net.

When my kids first started going online, I’d often tell them, “Never believe anything you read on the Internet.” They thought I was just being facetious but, as they’ve grown older, they’ve realized what I meant. The message I tried to impart was, simply, to question everything, to assume that there may be an ulterior motive or unsavoury purpose for every online offer, invitation or solicitation you receive.

Recently, one online shopping network that offered unbeatable prices on high-ticket items received some bad attention in the media. People were buying up jewelry, designer clothing, and other outrageously expensive products for pennies on the dollar and were surprised when the items they received were actually cheap knockoffs worth exactly what they’d paid for them.

In the article I read on the scam, the vast majority of commenters said the problem wasn’t with the sellers but with the buyers, who believed naively that someone would be selling $2,000 diamond rings for $25.00. Although the expression “You get what you pay for” may be an old one, it still applies quite nicely to what’s happening more and more frequently online today.

Perhaps it may seem like pretty cynical advice but, honestly, it makes good sense to trust no one, question everything and expect the worst when you’re dealing with people you don’t know online. After all, if you’re going to enter that dark alley where all the criminals in the world hang out, it makes sense to be well-armed before you wander in. Beware.

 

This Is Not Bullying

Another week, another horrific story of “bullying.” That word is in quotation marks for a reason. The recent death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons goes so far beyond any traditional definition of bullying that it’s almost impossible to make any comparisons. And it leads a person to believe the world is going down some horrific path from which we’ll never return.

Sometime about 18 months ago, it’s believed this bright and beautiful young woman from Nova Scotia was savagely raped by four violent thugs. As brutal as that is, Rehtaeh’s nightmare had just begun. The offenders posted pictures of the sexual assault online and emailed them to others, boasting about their twisted triumph. From there, the story went in a new, disgraceful direction with schoolmates and others harassing, belittling and ‘bullying’ this young victim until she believed there was no way out except to take her own life.

And now, too late, there are plenty of people pointing fingers, without any real answers about what needs to be done. Prime Minister Stephen Harper put the death in perspective by taking the whole matter out of the realm of mere bullying. In a statement that was widely reported by several media, including the CBC, he said, “I think we’ve got to stop using just the term bullying to describe some of these things. Bullying to me has a kind of connotation … of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity. It is youth criminal activity, it is violent criminal activity, it is sexual criminal activity and it is often internet criminal activity.”

Harper is absolutely correct. Even in its broadest definition, it’s incomprehensible that Rehtaeh’s story falls under the category of what most people consider bullying. If you have any doubts about this, you should take a few minutes to read the heartbreaking blog post made by Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning, the only statement he’s made about her death.

“The worst nightmare of my life has just begun. I loved my beautiful baby with all my heart. She meant everything to me. I felt her heart beating in my soul from the moment she was born until the moment she died,” he writes. “The life I had with my daughter was a rare thing. It was wonderful, it consumed me. I was defined by it. It made my life rich and beautiful. She was amazing.”

This is a man who believes the entire community let his daughter down. And he’s right. In addressing Nova Scotia’s Minister of Justice, Canning says, “Rehtaeh Parsons thought the worst outcome for her case would be no charges against the men who raped her but we all know better. The worst thing that could happen would be charges. That they would be found guilty, and that Rehtaeh would sit on a court bench and listen in utter disbelief as they were given parole, or a suspended sentence, or community service. All for completely destroying her life while they laughed.”

Canning is in disbelief that his daughter is gone while the people who helped contribute to her death still walk the streets. “They took photos of it. They posted it on their Facebook walls. They emailed it to God knows who. They shared it with the world as if it was a funny animation. How is it possible for someone to leave a digital trail like that yet the RCMP don’t have evidence of a crime? What were they looking for if photos and bragging weren’t enough? Why was this treated like a minor incident of bullying rather than a rape?”

Someone needs to answer Canning’s questions and those of others who have lost children to the escalating violence that all gets wrapped up conveniently in the blanket of bullying. This is not one person’s crime. This is everyone’s responsibility.

As Canning puts it, “My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police. She was my daughter, but she was your daughter too.”

No one can help Rehtaeh Parsons. Or any of the other young people who are gone because they believed there was no way to survive a life where ‘bullying’ was tolerated or ignored or dismissed. But, perhaps we can all help the next Rehtaeh before it’s too late. Maybe a good start would be to stop calling it bullying and come up with a word that’s more appropriate. Harper calls it “criminal activity.” Some might even call it “murder.” Call it whatever you want. It just has to end. As Glen Canning says in his statement: “For the love of God do something.”