apologies to sir elton: itch, itch, the itch is back

Remember the severe hives I complained about? That condition is now officially chronic idiopathic urticaria. Translation: long-term hives of no known cause.

After struggling through our mini-vacation in Victoria and Salt Spring Island, I called the dermatologist's office and pleaded my case. They very kindly squeezed me in as an emergency, on the day we were driving through that town -- saving us six hours of driving. I later learned it was the doctor's last day before his own vacation. Thank goodness friends suggested I stop waiting for the referral!

After that appointment, I went on high doses of a newer antihistamine, and for the first time in  months, had some real relief. 

I went back on my medication (I had stopped taking everything, fearing I might have developed an allergy to one or more), I started sleeping again, and was feeling like myself for the first time in months. The hives were 90% gone... then they were not. One day, the welts just reappeared.

Imagine my frustration.

Apparently this is the pattern of chronic urticaria: it comes and goes randomly. It's not an allergy, and most sufferers never find a cause. The body is stuck in a histamine reaction, similar to an autoimmune response. The dermatologist told me that it does eventually run its course -- after a few years. Years!

There are many claims and beliefs about dietary factors, but most people find that a change of diet has no effect. I've already tried eliminating dairy, and gluten. No and no. There is, however, a surge of intense stinging, burning, and itching after eating anything.

Other people are convinced that this condition is caused by stress. Stress can certainly trigger or exacerbate skin conditions. But this began in one of the least stressful periods of my life. It has certainly caused a lot of stress!

More fun facts: the massive dose of antihistamines I was taking had a dangerous side effect. Completely unrelated to this condition, I had some routine bloodwork and an ECG. The ECG showed something abnormal that my primary care doctor said is associated with "suddenly dropping dead". Those were her exact words: suddenly dropping dead. She said it can be caused by certain medications... and guess what? The third-generation antihistamines that work on urticaria can have this side effect when taken at high doses.

I had no symptoms. What would have happened if I hadn't needed that ECG??

So now I stick to a lower dosage, despite the itch. When I am tempted to take more, I think, "suddenly dropping dead," and use an ice pack instead. Even knowing this, it still requires willpower to not gobble up extra pills.

Another thing I've learned: chronic skin conditions are often linked to deteriorating mental health. Not that depression and anxiety cause itching but the reverse.


africans were involved in the slave trade. why do you think that matters?

The statement

If you are exposed to any bigoted, right-wing media or social media -- whether by misfortune, sport, or a delusion that you must counter their arguments -- and someone raises the subject of slavery, you will doubtless see this trope. 

They were sold by their own people.

Africans sold other Africans.

Slavery began in Africa, and was imported to the new world.

In fact, you might hear or see some version of this any time racism is mentioned. Or as a complete non sequitur. It appears to be a wingnut favourite.

They should stop complaining! Slavery is in the past! Get a life! And anyway THEY started it! Slavery was started in Africa! Blah blah blah!! Meaningless drivel!! 

There are many myths and inaccuracies about slavery in the Americas -- this wrap-up in Slate is good -- but this one in particular interests me.

Some facts

We know that Black people were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. At any time, a handful of people, a few hundred -- perhaps over the centuries maybe a few thousand -- were slavers. 

More than 10 million people were forced into slavery. (That estimate does not count the millions who were born into slavery, in any of the Americas, only those who were directly kidnapped.)

These two facts are known.

Some history -- also facts

Also known: when the transatlantic slave trade began in the 16th Century, the people who lived on the African continent would have had no concept of being "African" -- or Nigerian, or Senegalese, or Congolese -- any more than the Indigenous peoples who lived in what is now Manhattan told Dutch settlers they were New Yorkers. These are modern identities, post-contact, largely the product of imperialism and colonialism. 

The African people who were sold into slavery had their own identities, of their own communities and villages. Like all pre-modern people -- and most people, period -- they probably identified as "this" as well as "not-that". I'm from Village A, and not one of those people from Village B.

The names we have learned for various Indigenous people are themselves European names -- be that Cherokee or Aztec. All these names (including, for better or worse, Indian, Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal, and Indigenous) were created post-contact. This is as true for the original peoples of what is now Africa as it is for the original peoples of what is now the Americas.

Often, the original name of a people means The People. The word Dene, for example, is translated as people. We can say that the Dene people lived in what is now the western part of Canada and the US, but while their civilization existed, it was not Alberta or Arizona.

Similarly, the people who were kidnapped and forced into slavery were not "West Africans", although they lived primarily in what is now called West Africa. 

Why history matters

Why does this matter? It matters because slave traders in Africa were not selling "their own people". Africa wasn't one big nation where all Black people lived under one big banner called Africa. It still isn't, of course, but the identity African now has meaning. In the 16th Century, it would have had no meaning to the people who became slaves, nor to the minority of Black people who profited from slavery.

The Black people who were kidnapped into slavery, and the Black people who profited from their sale, were no more "their own people" than the Dutch were to the Portuguese. That is, not at all. Hell, in the 16th Century, Venetians and Tuscans did not yet identify as Italians!

(Do you know that Americans and British people often referred to Black people as Ethiopians? The term was used to exotify Blacks, especially Black women. Ethiopia was not involved in the slave trade; the people referred to this way had absolutely no connection to the country of Ethiopia.)

The "they were sold by their own people" argument assumes that all Black people are, and always have been, of the same origin. But the people sold into slavery would never have (a) seen a person who wasn't black, and (b) thought of communities outside their own as "their people".

A mental exercise

If all people were Black, would being Black be a concept? I don't think so. I speculate that the original people of what is now Africa would not have thought of themselves as Black, that the designation or description would have had no meaning.

Do we imagine that, in the 15th and 16th Centuries, the people of what is now Northern Europe thought of themselves as "white Europeans"? There is no evidence that they did. Those concepts and identities came much later.

Knowing this, should it surprise us that white Europeans were not the only people who saw money to be made in human trafficking and wanted a piece of the pie? Certainly not.

When we speak of human trafficking in our own time, do we say that Russians, or Serbs, or Malaysians, or Americans are selling "their own people," and use this "fact" as an excuse? Do we think it's any less awful if Americans are selling Thai people than if Thai people are selling Thai people? Certainly not.

So why does it matter, other than as a historical fact, that some people living near the west coast of Africa were involved in the slave trade?

Does it mean slavery didn't exist?

Does it mean that the transatlantic slave trade was not as brutal, lethal, and heinous as it was?

Does it mean that racism doesn't exist?
It means none of these things.

What are they really saying?
What does it mean to the person who says (types) it? What does the question tell us about their beliefs?
I can only speculate, of course. 
Perhaps they are implying that Black people are to blame for slavery, therefore... what? Shouldn't challenge white supremacy?
Perhaps they equate calling out racism with believing all Black people are good and all non-Black people are bad, and they see their statement as disproving that.

In many cases, I'm sure it's just a thing to say: a knee-jerk reaction, something they've read in another comments section, or heard on right-wing talk-radio. Their marching orders. The things "people like us" say.
One of my better posts is if the world sucks, why hasn't anyone told me? in which i respond to joe denial, from 2011. (Once again, a post that had dozens of comments... now lost... possibly to return if Google will fix Blogger's backup and restore functions. We're told it's going to happen.) The essay unpacked another right-wing trope, and concluded it is a smokescreen. The people who asked the question were simply denialists.
...why do some people deny the existence of very real, well documented problems? Why is it important to so many people to pretend that a spectrum of issues - violence against women, environmental racism, prisoner abuse, US imperialism, and almost anything else you can think of - does not exist?

Here I can only speculate, and poorly at that, as this mindset is the most foreign culture I've ever visited.

Some of this denial seems to be a knee-jerk, unthinking reaction: if a progressive person is against it, I must be for it, and if I can't be for it (because who will actually say "violence against women is fine"?) then I must deny its existence.

Some of the reaction seems to stem from an underlying belief that "lefties" - as anyone who is not rigidly right-wing is called, even very moderate liberals - are heavily invested in portraying the world as a dismal place and in protest for its own sake. I'm guessing this belief relieves some cognitive dissonance: Why are these people making such a fuss? I don't see anything wrong, and I don't want to believe there are so many things wrong with my world. Therefore, they are making a fuss over nothing, because that's what they do.

Some people hate and fear change of any kind. Reasonable people may disagree on the best solution to a problem, but questioning the existence of a problem short-circuits all possibilities. If nothing's wrong, there is no need to change.

Finally, some of this ingrained, knee-jerk denial reacts against an entire worldview, one that sees women, people of colour, poor people, and others outside the imperialist-patriarchal power structure as important. Joe Denial's belief system says exactly the opposite, although not in those terms: the world was fine until you people got so uppity.

The sad part is that Joe is a working-class guy who stands to benefit greatly from my worldview. Sadly, he identifies more with his oppressors, because they are largely white and male, than with the people whose vision would offer him a better life.

The conclusion I draw in that post -- "That's why it's worth taking a deep breath and answering his question." -- comes with a huge disclaimer. It's only worth answering this person (a) if you have a sense that they have an open mind, or at least will listen out of respect for you, and (b) in person, unless you know them well enough to have an in-depth email conversation with them. It is decidedly not worthwhile to respond to these statements with strangers (who may or may not be paid operatives) on social media or in comments on news stories. 

Time and energy are our most precious resources. Time is our most valuable non-renewable resource. If you want to do good in the world, responding to comments on internet news stories is among the worst things you can do. It squanders these finite resources and returns no value whatsoever.

However, the next time you hear "Africans were sold by other Africans," or "Blacks were involved in the slave trade," you might say, "Yes. So?". But maybe only to yourself.


what i'm reading: all my puny sorrows by miriam toews

I've just finished reading All My Puny Sorrows, the haunting, heartbreaking, hilarious, and life-affirming 2014 novel by Miriam Toews.

It's difficult for me to write about fiction. I don't like to describe plots, because for my own reading, I hate knowing plots in advance. I really enjoy letting the story unfold the way the writer intended. So I generally end up writing about themes -- which for many readers is not at all helpful.

All My Puny Sorrows is about family love, especially the bonds between sisters, between mothers and daughters, and among all the women. It's about suicide and depression, about loss and grief, and about surviving -- learning to live with the pain of loss -- and about finding joy and beauty all around us. It's full of irreverent, wry humour and is written with a light touch, a matter-of-fact voice.

It's a very moving book, and a very satisfying read. I recommend it highly.

Within the family story, Toews deftly weaves some commentary about the treatment of mental illness and society's views on suicide. The nurses in a hospital psych ward seem to think they can bully patients out of depression -- as if people suffering from major depression are really just sulking children. The hospital psychiatrist literally cannot be bothered to listen to patients' families. A friend shares some thoughts on suicide that are devoid of empathy -- views that are quite common.

Toews' writing is full of literary and musical references -- many poems and novels are referenced and quoted.

Toews (pronounced "taves") is one of Canada's best-known writers, the recipient of many Canadian writing awards, but I doubt she is well known beyond Canadian circles. (This is often true. Ask an American reader to name one Canadian author whose name is not Margaret Atwood.) Before All My Puny Sorrows, I had only read Toews' breakthrough novel, A Complicated Kindness, published in 2004. Both books have strongly autobiographical elements -- Winnipeg, Mennonites, religious repression and hypocrisy, and in this case, a family history of depression and suicide. 

There's a very good profile of her from The New Yorker: "A Beloved Canadian Novelist Reckons with Her Mennonite Past: How Miriam Toews Left the Church and Freed Her Voice".

When I looked for A Complicated Kindness on wmtc, I discovered that my "what i'm reading" posts were once little more than a list and a short blurb. I wrote about the book here and here (posts from 2007), but neither post is an actual review. Neither is much of a post, for that matter.

This post from 2006 quotes Toews on Winnipeg, and reminds me that I still want to visit and explore that city.


a little story about learning to play piano

Recently I was unable to play piano for three weeks -- a combination of the unbearable hives (now about 75% gone!) and being on vacation.

Since beginning Pianote's "Foundations" course in March, for four months I never missed a day of practice, and after that never missed more than the occasional day, one or two days per month, maximum. So being away from the keyboard for three weeks, I thought I might forget everything! Really, I thought I might be starting over from day one.

The first day, I did some warm-ups, some scales and chords, and that went all right. I thought, OK then, I can still play a scale. What next?

Not knowing what else I would remember, I decided to go back to the very beginning, and play the final song of every lesson. To my delight, most of the songs I could just pick up and play, even though I hadn't played them for months.

When I got to Level 7, I had to play right hand and left hand separately, and then hands together two or three times, before getting it again. But that was the worst it got. I was so pleased! My two "real" songs, "Summertime" and "True Colors" were no better or worse than when I left them.

This was such a wonderful confirmation that I am actually learning and becoming more competent. Now I've met myself where I left off, learning 7th chords in Level 9.

I think this is down to Pianote's teaching methods, where you are learning conceptually, and training your hands and your ears at the same time, plus their amazing teachers.


"you guys": change language, do no harm, but can we please leave space for learning and growing?

First reactions: the language police

I've recently learned that calling a group of people you guys may be considered insensitive to transgender people. 

My first reaction to this was an inner eye-roll, and thoughts along the lines of, "Oh come on, that's going too far." 

The same reaction I had to learning that the word crazy is not to be used -- in any context -- because it's insensitive to people with mental illness. Why are people policing my language this closely? Is this really important? Who determined this is now inappropriate speech?

I've always thought of guys as gender-neutral, and you guys represents a group of people of any gender -- in the appropriate context. Clearly some people say "guys and girls," and in that context guys means men and boys. But words have different meanings in different contexts, and most speakers of any given language are able to distinguish among those contexts. 

Is you guys really so offensive, to the point where I am hurting people by saying it?

Stuff I believe

I believe language matters.

I believe people have the right to be called by their preferred name, both their personal names and their gender identity.

I believe in striving to be antiracist, antifascist, antihomophobic, antitransphobic, antisexist. 

I believe all black lives matter.

I believe strongly in freedom of expression of all types, and that free expression may have consequences, such as the cancellation of a speaking engagement, a Twitter storm of protest, a decline in sales, or the loss of a job. 

I believe in empathy, compassion, and that all people deserve an opportunity to learn and grow.

Second impressions

So I started to ask myself some questions.

Why am I resistant to this change?

Why do I accept other changes in language, but feel this one is "going too far"?

If I say, "This is going too far, if I want to say you guys and I know I'm not transphobic and I think it's fine if I say this, then I'll say it," how is that different from right-wingers who refuse all language change, who insist it's their "right" to call people whatever they want? 

How is you guys different from the cringey expressions of my youth -- Indian giver, sitting Indian style, Chinese fire drill, Dutch courage, braves and squaws, to Jew him down, I was gypped. Paki shops, and "take-out chinks" and "bull dykes". 

How is this different than faggot or nigger? (And not in any reclaimed sense!) Or words generally considered less offensive, but that I so deeply loathe, like gal and ladies and girls' night out

There's only one thing different about you guys: it's my own common practice. 

All those words above once were, too -- and for many people, still are.

So if I'm hearing that you guys makes trans people feel excluded and less accepted, then I should stop using it. 

You guys is very ingrained into my speech patterns. But speech patterns are not inviolate. There's no lack of available substitutes. 

I must point out a bit of irony here. Many people feel folks is a good substitute for guys. I painfully trained myself not to use folks when writing for and about people with disabilities, because it was considered demeaning and infantilizing. No one in the guys discussion seemed to know about this. Perhaps it's old and outdated, but it's something I learned, and I adhere to it.

And please don't tell me about y'all and all y'all. Now we're all going to adopt expressions from the Confederacy? No thonx.

Change -- but give people a chance

My initial resistance to the you guys question also gave me more insight into the thoughts of people who resist language changes. 

People don't enjoy hearing that their ordinary, everyday speech has somehow become tainted and offensive. Often, they don't understand or respect the people who are asking for (or from their perspective, demanding) this change. Possibly they are angry and feel victimized by their own exclusion -- whether we understand that or not.

I'm not excusing the behaviour of people who refuse to change language with the times. I'm just saying that perhaps we could be more patient.

My resistance to you guys also revealed a distinct lack of compassion and empathy on the part of many progressives -- for anyone who uses a word now considered wrong.

If we want people to change -- to accept change -- to enter into the process of change -- we would benefit by understanding their opposition. 

There are no antidotes to raw bigotry and hatred. I don't think we need to walk a mile in a bigot's shoes and feel compassion for their hatred. At the same time, it does no good to blame and shame someone for taking five minutes longer -- or a week longer, or a year longer -- than you did to get to the same point -- say, the point where guys seems anachronistic and inappropriate.

More woke than thou

In progressive circles there can be a mentality of othering, of in-crowd/out-crowd based on language use. People who are More Radical Than Thou use the up-to-the-minute words as exclusionary themselves. 

I rarely use slang, and I'm always a little late to the lingo. One day, we said more evolved, then suddenly people said woke. And if you didn't know what woke meant, you were a Becky, and now you're a Karen. The use of which is sexist, regressive, exclusionary, over-simplified, and everything we say we don't want to be. I don't say woke and can't even think it without air-quotes. If it has meaning to you, then of course you can and will use it. For me there are other words that express the same meaning.

I remember the withering looks I got for saying Bradley Manning five minutes after others were saying Chelsea Manning. I am in full support of Chelsea Manning as a whistleblower, a truth teller, and a war resister, and am in total support of gender expression and identity. But I had been using the name Bradley Manning for a long time and my brain hadn't completely made the switch. Is that really worthy of scorn?

If a diehard leftist like me, who wholeheartedly supports every aspect of human rights and language change, can get caught in this trap, what can we reasonably expect from people who discover these changes somewhat later? 

When people who use the "wrong" word are the other, who does that serve? Who learns, who grows? How does that further the struggle for equity and justice?

If we want people to change, we need to give them the space to do so.

(Posted with thanks to my Facebook friends who made this such a rich and meaningful discussion.)