Are You a Nice Person

My daughter interacts with Siri (Apple’s voice controlled personal assistant) every day. As soon as she gets up, she asks, “Siri, what’s the weather going to be like in Mississauga today?” In a split second, Siri shows the data for Mississauga, the highs, the lows, the sunshine, or not. My daughter, 7, never says please or thank you. I’m not the only parent concerned about this. It’s one of the concerns in the broad field of robot ethics. Some parents wonder if their kids are learning manners the way they are supposed to and is there a link between manners to humans and manners with robots (called Chatbots)?

The other day there was a CBC radio broadcast on just this topic. How we interact with robots may reveal how nice we are as people. Now robots don’t have feelings the way we do, but chatbots are being designed to appear to have feelings. If we’re rude to a chatbot called Poncho, he will ask us to apologize and if we’re still rude, he’ll give the silent treatment for 24 hours. In our very near future many more chatbots are coming (to Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft), and we are going to interact with them every day to do things like pay bills and buy things. Just as it is with human interaction, we might get better service if we’re nice. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. So if someone is really unkind to their chatbot, maybe they may not be such a nice person. It’s  a bit like when my mother told me, watch how a guy treats his mother. That’s a sure indication of how he’ll treat you. So watch how you treat your chatbot coming to you soon if you don’t already use Siri. It might be an indication of how nice you really are.

During my research for this blog, I discovered so much more about Siri. We had one misunderstanding where she mispronounced my name but she fixed that for me. I had no idea she could remind me of important appointments which I sometimes miss even when they are on my wall calendar, phone calendar, and written on a small piece of scrap paper in my handbag. Maybe I’ll never miss an appointment again. For this simple thing, I’ll be eternally grateful. That’s worth a please and a thank you to Siri for sure.

Can Facebook Cause Depression

I know of a man who gets into a rage when he goes on Facebook. He screams, shouts, hits himself then curls into a ball and starts crying, lamenting that he’s failed himself and his family. He whimpers that his life is worthless and all his friends are doing well, everyone, except him. This man suffers from mental illness but studies have shown that many of us do get depressed after going on Facebook. We experience similar feelings to this man – depression, envy and a fear of missing out. The Internet is full of articles on this subject and quite a few studies have been shown that this indeed is the case. Why are we so upset when we are online using Facebook?

We’re comparing ourselves to others, feeling happier when we seem to be doing better than others, and adversely, feeling like crap when everyone else is vacationing, buying big houses, finding love and having beautiful babies. The fear of missing out is that everyone else is living the coveted life we want. Some of the articles I’ve read said perhaps we should not be online, at least not so much. I have a better solution.

Change your perception. Realize that most people put their best selves on Facebook. I’m certainly not going to put my regular face on Facebook which my daughter describes as perpetually frowning. One of my kids thought that I was unhappy with my life until my sister set us all straight and diagnosed me as having RBF. This condition is not serious and is otherwise known as Resting Bitch Face. I’m not actually a bitch. I simply look miserable, cranky and generally unhappy in repose.

When I put pictures of my cute kids (well, I think they’re cute), I won’t post that I abhor making school lunches which I discovered in 1999 when my eldest daughter was three and starting preschool. I thought this abhorrence would lessen in time, but no. Twenty years later, I can’t stand the thought of packing another lunch box.

No names will be published to protect the innocent or not so innocent, but one of my children is skillful at backchat, otherwise known as being rude and disrespectful to her elders – ME. Another is stubborn and will never admit that at her tender age of not yet twenty, she’s never wrong. And I won’t post who peed my bed (My fault. I’ve had babies in my bed since 1996 and haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since), whose sulks can turn a sunny day into a rain storm and who has me wondering if I should invest in a lie detector. So when you see my  kids posted, know that half the time I’m pulling out my hair.

As for all your vacation photos, I don’t fear I’m missing out. I know I’m missing out. My advice? If you’re envious of those vacation photos, channel that energy into saving for your trip. With university and a commitment to baseball, I probably won’t be in a gondola with my hubby any time soon. But hey, I’m happy for you. If you get to Spain, have a glass of wine and some tapas; think of me and say a silent prayer that I get there one day.  

I have a good friend who posts gym pictures. When I see those pictures, I go through a range of emotions from guilt (when was the last time I saw the inside of a gym?), horror (the last time I looked like that was 2002) and despair (will I ever have the time for myself to get in shape?). But the pics are inspiring. If this is what I really want, then I need to get my butt in a gym. Her photos have motivated me to get back in shape.

Your prizes, accolades, nominations, awards, and published books, post away. We’re all in this life together. Most of the time it’s hard. A lot of the time is spent slogging away, working, cleaning up, trying to keep it together. A prize makes you smile, makes you feel like your hard work is worth it. Someone told me jealousy and ill will brings more of the same. Your negativity will give you less, not more. Hit the like button and say, “You go, girl/guy. Keep at it.”

Your reward is coming.

So when you see my posts and I’m all dressed up smiling like life is a peach, know that the morning after, I’m groaning as I get up to go to work, bleary eyed with RBF, to head into the kitchen to make those darned school lunches.

How To Make Your Dreams Come True

Sometimes, in a reflective moment, I can hardly believe that Juliet Malevolent is out there in the world. She actually exists (in a book of course, but to me, she’s as real as if she’s standing next to me as I type). I remember sitting at my kitchen table writing in my journal, the sounds of my kids playing and fighting in the background. Suddenly, like being hit by lightening, Juliet’s school vow came to me:

I promise to be naughty and annoying
Troublesome and tiresome
And to be a pest to society whenever possible
This is my evil vow.

I scrambled to find a notebook to write it in. It was only the spark of an idea. What if there were a world where bad is good and good is bad but there’s a little girl who is different in her world? I conjured up Juliet. She would look like my youngest daughter and then, like so many of my ide-as (and possible yours), Juliet remained in my notebook for years, all but forgotten. I was clutter clearing one day as I’m forever doing and I came across the notebook with the school vow. I got that feeling in my stomach: it’s an excited, anxious, slightly uncomfortable feeling where my skin feels like it’s crawling. I turn inward. The outside world no longer exists. I can’t ignore this feeling or it simply gets worse. If I ignore it for long enough, I start to feel resentment at everyone and everything that keeps me from following through with an idea. This means I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to make time, find a quiet space and write. Holding my book Juliet Malevolent in my hand brings me back to that moment when she was simply a spark.

Starting a business, a diet, a fitness plan, writing a book or doing a piece of art all start with a spark. It’s a feeling that this idea could be the idea that changes our life. Most often than not, many of us shelve our great ideas and they never come to fruition. We lack the courage, the re-sources, the money or the time. I have books inside me that have been shelved for years. The challenge then, is how to keep that spark of an idea so that it fans into a fire. It could be your business idea, your book or artwork, your story that the world needs right now. So how do you turn that great idea into reality. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

Write down your idea. I like to do a mind map. I’m a circle in the centre that represents where I am now. My idea is far away in another circle. In between are all the steps I need to bring my idea to life. This is the time to start believing in yourself. You’ll be scared of the unknown and the challenges you’ll face but this is the time to invest in yourself. I read dozens of self help books, attended self help courses and even did hypnotherapy to overcome my blocks of fair of failure. Believing in yourself is key. If you don’t, who will?

Gather your team of advisors. Do not allow doubters and naysayers into this circle. Discuss your ideas with trusted people. Someone always knows someone who knows someone who can help you. Listen to others who’ve already walked the path you’re trying to walk. Find mentors. (You can have a business mentor, a spiritual mentor, etc).

Risk is normal. Nothing great happens by staying in your comfort zone. The comfort zone feels, well, comfortable. It’s what’s kept me in my job for years but I have this image of myself at death. I’m talking to God and he’s telling me it’s the end. “Please, God,” I plead, “I didn’t do half of what I wanted to do. Give me another chance. Let me try again. Put me in another body, give me more years.” God replies, “I gave you so many chances and you doubted yourself, you doubted me. You stayed on the safe path, you dismissed your ideas as not being good enough. You never really tried, Peta-Gaye, you never really tried.”
I believe we all came here to do something really special and you know deep down what it is. Do it. Regret must be horrible at the end.

Be patient. Sometimes what we set out to achieve takes a lifetime, our lifetime. I don’t like being patient. Like a two year old, I want everything now, but that’s just not how the world works.

Learn to sell your vision and promote yourself. I couldn’t do this for years. I joined Toastmasters, a public speaking organization, to improve my confidence. I started watching inspirational talks and listening to inspirational CDs. I surrounded myself with people who believe in me. Sure it can be hard to sell yourself or your idea, but it boils down to this. if you don’t believe in yourself and what you’re selling, who will?

Time Travel

I love movies about time travel, not the sci-fi unrealistic ones, but the “real” ones where people travel back to change something important. My new favourite is About Time (Netflix) where the protagonist goes back to correct those moments in life we all wish we could erase: times of being a bumbling idiot, saying the wrong thing, not saying what you really should have said or wanted to say, especially not telling people you love them, letting great opportunities slip by because of fear, laziness, or missing the boat for whatever reason.

Hence my obsession with time travel. I wish I could go back and correct a few things. I would go back to university and study English, no matter who said I’d never be able to get a job being an artsy fartsy. I’d definitely go back and NOT lose it on my father’s old girlfriend when she asked me what I planned on doing with my life (I was twenty something, had just finished backpacking and was jobless).

I have a friend who says regrets are useless. I agree but it doesn’t stop me from wishing that I had the power (or the time machine) to go back and tweak a few things. In the movie About Time, the protagonist realizes that after marriage and children, he doesn’t need to go back as often as he once did. He got some advice from his father, also a time traveller, for happiness. Live each day over again, one more time, the second time without all the fear and tension of the first time. Those days he lived again were better: he laughed more, hugged people, noticed and smiled at all the people who served him coffee and lunch instead of giving them the perfunctory nod. As time went by, he felt the need to live only once, living as if life was a gift and loving every minute of his glorious journey.

It’s unfortunate for me that it took four kids for me to realize that the softer approach is sometimes better. Perhaps it’s because it’s my last child but I’m lighter, smile more, laugh more, tell more jokes, and I don’t have these unrealistic expectations. I remember staring grimly down at my firstborn during her swim classes. Poor thing must’ve thought life was a series of tests.

Until my time machine is built, I can’t go back. I can do what the guy in the movie did: I can try to live each day as a gift, releasing the tension I carry around with me as I navigate mornings, rush to work, cope with sickness and disappointments. I can certainly smile at all the people I come in contact with (that’s easy enough to do), small talk and compliments wouldn’t hurt either. Worrying about money is pointless. Hugging is therapy. Back rubs and storytelling are comforting. Making others feel good is a lot nicer than being grumpy, moody and selfishly consumed by my own problems which half the time aren’t problems at all. Until my time machine is built, I’ve got one chance and one chance only. I’ve got to get it right the first time around.

Legacy of Slavery

February is Black History Month. Ontario Black History Society President Nikki Clarke asked a youngster during a school presentation why we celebrate Black History Month. The youngster

said, “because we treated black people badly and we have to feel bad.” Out of the mouth of babes. Slavery happened. It was economic, brutal and a crime to humanity. But it was in the

past and we have to focus on the present. It’s all we have control over. Here’s what happened this month, February 2016 to a friend of ours.

Our friend has a 15 year old son who is a straight A student. He is Canadian with parents from the Caribbean. A teacher accused this young man of stealing someone’s lunch. The principal

got involved with the result that the teacher had to apologize to the young man. This teacher, no doubt, felt angry. The teacher saw the young man out at the mall some days after. No words

were exchanged between them. The teacher went back to school and told the principal that the boy verbally threatened her. Without investigating further, the principal called the police. In my

opinion, this was irresponsible. The police arrived at the school and had the young man not called his father so that he could be present, the boy might have been charged. He might have

gotten a record. His parents want answers as this clearly seems to be an issue of racial bias, and is the type of incident that can hinder a person’s opportunities. Now that the father wants to

pursue this through legal channels, suddenly the school wants the parents to drop the case.

This is the present.

Black History Month is not only to remember the past and to honour the black men and women who have changed our lives. It’s for us to check our biases, our racial hatred and to treat people

as individuals and not as the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the legacy of slavery. Black History Month is the month to understand that discrimination has been passed down to us from

our forefathers and like a bad habit, it’s hard to break. It’s up to us to be vigilant in our negative thoughts about other races. It is up to us to break the cycle of discrimination, one person at a

time, so that one day, the legacy of slavery no longer exists.

My Good Self

I’m going to blog every two weeks. This is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not that I don’t like blogging. In fact, I love it. What I don’t like is feeling obligated to do anything. The reason is once I have to do something, the rebellious child inside me pipes up, “No I don’t. I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it.” This childish voice is strong and it whines about freedom, telling me that I don’t have freedom to live the way I want to. Only recently I’ve realized how much this child inside me holds me back. I’ve spent so much time blaming other people, being bullied when I lived in the States, the economy, the government, etc. for any lack of success, that it blinded me to whom I should really blame: Myself!

The horrible truth that I’ve had to face is that I’m indisciplined at times and I easily lose focus even when the light at the end of the tunnel is right there blinding me. Instead, I turn from the light and run the other way, telling myself I’m not ready to face the light and I’ll get to the end of the tunnel when I’m good and ready.

The truth hurts.

“What? You mean I could have had the life I was meant to live had I shown a little more discipline and focus, a little less fear, a little more confidence in myself? Noooooo!!!” Writing is a lot like exercise (another area where I’ve been indisciplined and lost focus. I used to teach aerobics for heaven’s sake. Now I can’t walk up a flight of stairs without breathing heavily). They both take discipline. A little every day is better than nothing at all and it has nothing to do with freedom. Both take focus. Focus is deciding what it is you really want. If writing and exercise are so important to me as I say they are, then shouldn’t I focus on doing what it takes to get results? This is a no brainer. As I see my body losing its muscular tone and my novel sitting on my computer unfinished as it has been for many years, I feel like beating myself over the head with a stick. Instead of doing that though, I’m going to stop listening to that child who is immature and frankly very silly. I have to talk back to that child and say, “No-one lies on a beach all day. That’s not really freedom. Hush. I have a blog to do. And after, I’m going for a walk.”

Just like my latest children’s book Juliet Malevolent, An Evil Tale, where the cake at the launch showed a picture of the benevolent Juliet and the words “Be Your Good Self,” I’m trying to be my good self. It’s not always easy, but I have a strong feeling it’s really going to be worth it.

A Scare: A Mother’s Worse Nightmare

It was a sunny day and the children were playing on the beach. A four year old in an aquamarine tutu played in the sand. My daughter played with this girl’s older sister. I watched the kids lazily with half shut lids. It was calm and quiet, a perfect day. Suddenly there was a commotion. The child in the tutu was missing. It happened so fast. One minute she was there, the next, she was gone. The mother walked along the beach and screamed hysterically, “Where is she?”

“We’ll find her,” I said with a surety I didn’t feel. I had been in this woman’s shoes a year ago when we lost our son at Disney World. I understood the panic, the heart wrenching fear that nothing will be the same, the horrid thoughts of a mother’s worse nightmare. I ran to get help and asked everyone along the way, “Have you seen a four year old Caucasian in an aquamarine tutu?” My brother-in-law and my daughter who is a lifeguard (thank you City of Mississauga) dived into the water and searched. My husband scanned the water as he walked along the beach. Time seemed to pass slowly. Many people helped. Others stood around, shook their heads dumbly and didn’t move. I wondered about this lack of compassion. Why didn’t everyone spring into action? Perhaps they didn’t care or they had never experienced what we had, to know that time was of the essence.

Luckily the child had only wandered down the beach and realized she was lost. She told a stranger who held her hand and looked for her mother. When her mother saw her, before she could wrap her in her arms, she collapsed on the sand bawling. It ended well but as with all of life’s moments, it left its indelible mark. We watched our children more closely. We hugged them a bit tighter. We talked about what ifs and I was more grateful for life than I’ve ever been.

In Better Spirits

A few months ago, my mom and stepdad came to Canada to visit us. They fit into our harried routine, cooking, cleaning and looking after the kids. One night when I had to take my daughter to dance, my stepdad offered to come for the drive. “Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s kind of boring. I wait one hour in the car listening to music, writing or sleeping.”

“I’ll come,” he said.

The dance class is in a small plaza with an Irish pub. We laughed as we drove past the pub, saying that we should be sitting in there. “Why don’t we?” I said. So we did. We sat in a small Irish pub, drank a beer and got to know each other again, the way we used to when I lived in Jamaica and we had all the time in the world to sit on his balcony overlooking the sea and chat. The time flew by and the hour passed in what seemed like minutes. Now, every time I take my daughter to dance, I miss my stepdad. It reminds me of family and good times and how we need to break away from our routine and do something different and fun. The Irish pub is a lot more entertaining than waiting in the car, especially with winter coming. So here I am waiting for my daughter to finish dance again. It’s after eight. This time, I’m not waiting in the car. I’m sitting in the same Irish pub listening to the laughter of the bartender, the hockey game on TV and the few patrons sitting at the bar. I’ve got my glass of red wine. I feel like a real writer. I don’t know what a real writer feels like but in my romanticized version of reality, Hemingway wasn’t rushing kids across town, making lunches, crawling into bed at ten, eleven or twelve feeling like he’d been run over by a truck and then getting up at the crack of dawn to rush to work (well, not really the crack of dawn but far too early for me). Back to the Irish pub, soft country music is playing and a stranger has introduced himself as he leaves the pub saying he hopes he’ll see me again. An elderly man with an accent from somewhere in the British Isles says, “Girl, you type faster than I think.” And they say Northerners are cold and unfriendly! The bar is cosy and for just an hour I imagine that I’m travelling the world again, sitting in Australia or New Zealand, or somewhere exciting, and I don’t feel rushed or harried. The hour is flying by and I’m in much better spirits. This is so much nicer than waiting in the car.

Encourage Children

Have you ever felt that you were born into a family that was completely different from yourself? That’s because because apparently talents and genes sometimes skip generations so that an actor may be born into a family of scientists or an artist is born into a family of academics. That’s why when my son said he wanted to play baseball, my first instinct was to frown and say, “why?” I’d enrolled him into soccer because his father and grandfather played soccer. He didn’t like it much. I enrolled him into swimming because that’s a life skill and I thought he’d want to swim competitively since his grandfather and many of his granduncles were swimmers. He’s good but he doesn’t like it so much. I didn’t know why he wanted to play a game that we’d never introduced him to and one that I considered boring. I used to pass by the baseball diamonds in the summer seeing them filled with parents sitting and watching the games for hours. “I’m sure glad I’m not one of those parents sitting there wasting my time,” I’d say to myself as I drove by. But as good parents should, my husband and I bought our son a bat and ball. My next door neighbour, Cyril, an avid Yankees fan, since passed on, came over and showed him how to hold the bat. The ball went sailing over the fence. “Did you see how he clocked that ball?” Cyril shouted. “He’s got a good swing.” I didn’t think too much of it but my son kept telling me, “I want to play baseball.” Finally we signed him up.
That was two years ago. Now he’s going to be playing on the rep team for the Mississauga Majors and I’m one of those parents sitting down watching the game for hours. It’s far from boring. I love it and the coach has even taught me how to take score. Baseball has taught us valuable lessons like being more patient and everyone has bad days where you don’t hit the ball. I’ve met people I otherwise would never have met and learned that the most important job of a parent is to encourage a child, no matter what we might want for them. In my new children’s book Essie Wants an Education, Essie’s parents don’t think school is important to a squirrel but eventually they let her attend. They learn something crucial from her that they would otherwise never have known which changes the way squirrels behave forever after.

Fighting for the Underdog: Why I Wrote ‘Essie Wants an Education’

Story ideas come from everywhere. Mine are no exception. I    was listening to the CBC one afternoon and heard a program on the Romas (Gypsies) of an Eastern European country. I wish I remembered which country but I do remember that Roma children who were eager to attend school and get an education were treated unfairly. They were not allowed to take the academic classes, were assessed differently due to the prejudices of teachers and faced discrimination within the school system. One principal wanted to put a stop to that but even he came upon resistance as parents pulled their children from that school to avoid mixing with the Roma children. They were afraid their own children might get diseases. This is an all too familiar tale to anyone who followed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s where Caucasian Americans wanted to segregate their children from African Americans. Seeing the footage of that brave girl who wanted to go to the newly de-segregated school in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, makes me cringe with embarrassment. Imagine that we humans do this to each other! I also remember hearing a story of long ago where a white teacher who taught black kids said he was surprised that they were as bright and willing to learn as white kids. It made him realize that black kids were not unintelligent and slow to learn as he’d previously thought. On a much lighter note, I then saw a squirrel staring into the classroom at my child’s elementary school in Mississauga, Ontario. Maybe it’s my vivid imagination but I’m sure I saw a wistful look in that squirrel’s eyes as it cocked its head to the side as if trying to listen to the teacher. So there’s the story. A squirrel wants an education. The parents (humans) think that a squirrel has no place in school. How can a squirrel want or need an education? Surely they are not smart enough. This book is kid friendly and funny but the message is clear. We may not look alike or be alike but everyone deserves an education.