Ejo #123 – Anniversary

One year ago today I was snuggled up in a very cosy bed, in a small hotel in the Sololaki neighbourhood of Tbilisi, Georgia, sleeping off a horrendous hangover after a night of cavorting. We had a 5pm flight back to Dubai that afternoon, and plans for a very lazy morning. I did hear my phone buzz a couple of times during the night, but definitely wasn’t in any hurry to check my messages. At around 8.30am I got up for a quick dash to the toilet and casually glanced at my phone as I lay back down in bed. There were a couple of messages from my sisters, but more alarmingly my youngest sister Pieta had tried to call me. I called her right back and asked her, “What’s going on, is everything OK?” trying to ignore the mounting, irritating sense of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I can’t remember exactly how she started the sentence – something about Mum being prepared for emergency surgery. But the world stopped when I heard the words, “She didn’t make it”.

Sometimes, the brain knows and doesn’t know, at the same time. My brain heard what my sister said, but definitely didn’t want to compute what it meant. In a two second period, my brain tried to convince me that the surgery had been called off, for some reason. That my Mum didn’t make it to the operating theatre because… she’d been moved to another ward, the hospital had been evacuated, the doctors had rescheduled the surgery. Anything.  Any other translation.  On another level my brain grasped that my Mum was gone. And so, my adrenal glands shot adrenaline into my circulatory system; causing my pupils to dilate and my muscles to tighten to the point of shaking. Causing my heart to race and my breathing to became shallow. I sat up in bed, ramrod straight. I could suddenly see everything in the room in the sharpest of detail, all the colours brighter. I could actually hear a conversation outside our window, even though I couldn’t understand the words. I heard a motorcycle starting up. “What do you mean?” I asked Pieta. I can’t remember her response. In a state of fight or flight, I desperately reached for words. “Is Mum dead?” I needed to hear the word no. I can’t remember the response, but it wasn’t no. The response, whatever it was, was not one which my reptilian brain recognised. I asked Pieta again… “Is Mum dead?” There was a pause, and this time the answer was yes.  Our Mum had died.

I think this is the point at which I went into shock. I cannot remember the rest of the conversation. David reckons I said the word fuck, several times.  That seems about right.  I cannot remember saying goodbye to my sister. I know I didn’t cry, not right away. Not yet. I remember just being confused. My brain simply refusing to comprehend. I remember turning to David and saying, “I don’t understand” over and over again. I remember looking into his eyes and not even really recognising him. I remember curling into a ball in bed and holding onto my husband for dear life. And I remember wailing. I remember actually willing my body to go back to sleep, wishing for the blissful oblivion of sleep. And my body complying, shutting down.  Thank god.  I drifted in and out for a couple more hours. Wailing every time I gained consciousness, every time I woke up to the nightmare of remembering. And finally, the tears did come. Sobs that racked my whole body. And, “I don’t understand” on a loop. Over, and over again.

I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

We had to check-out of the guesthouse at midday, so I do remember having to get up and shower. Like a robot would shower. Knowing how to shampoo, when to rinse, programmed to scrub the right spots for the right amount of time (maybe a little longer than the right amount of time), eyes glazed. I remember having to pack, somehow I packed. I remember checking out, my eyes red and swollen from crying. Smiling when the lady asked if we’d enjoyed our stay. Knowing that she must have heard the cries of despair emanating from our room all morning. Not caring.

We left our bags at reception and wandered the grey, bleak streets of the city. For hours. I wasn’t hungry but I drank Georgian wine. A lot of it. I wanted to blot out the pain, but of course this was pain that couldn’t be blotted. David was wonderful, of course. He arranged time off work and booked us on the first available flights back to Melbourne. I remember being at Tbilisi airport, crying uncontrollably and not caring about all the people looking at me, with discomfort. I don’t remember the flight back to Dubai. I do know that I cried so much, my eyes swelled shut. I didn’t care.

This is grief. This is what the death of a loved one looks like. I bet if I asked my sisters for their account of the same day, it would be similarly full of details and blurs. I hate that it’s been a whole year since this day happened. I hate that the magnitude of it slips away, day by day.  I no longer cry myself to sleep (much), but I still feel the bewilderment and dissonance of the finality of my Mum’s death. I still don’t understand. A small part of me is used to not seeing my family for a year at a time, and that part of my mind is going to get a real fucking shock when it realises that this is it. There is no next time. She’s not there anymore. The house is sold. There are other people living in it. Walls have been knocked down. The world has continued to turn, without my Mum. An entire part of my life is gone. Forever. The world still turns.

This morning I sniffed a bottle of my Mum’s favourite perfume. Her signature scent, Lulu. It smells like her, but… not really. My Mum’s pink sweater still does smell like her, but, after a year, that scent is fading. As though everything about her is retreating further away. Is grief misplaced love? Love with nowhere to go? Maybe. It sometimes feels like that. A dead person is just a memory, a concept. Loving a real person is expansive, it’s infinite. Loving a dead person is an exercise in futility. I don’t believe that my Mum can still hear me or see me.  I don’t believe that she’s still around. I wish that I did. I’m sure that would bring me some comfort. What I do believe is that I hold all the love she ever gave me, I hold it all in my heart. And I hold it very, very close. It’s all I have left of her.  And that’s something that will never fade.

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My beautiful Mum.  I love you so much. I miss you more than anything.

 

Ejo #122 – Fuck You, Facebook

Facebook.  You’ve heard of it, right?  It’s the social networking site that, since 2005, has become so widespread and popular, we can’t even imagine life without it.  Considering it’s been on the market for fifteen years, Facebook’s interface certainly hasn’t improved in line with its explosive popularity – mostly because it hasn’t needed to.  Facebook’s appeal lies not in the way it looks, or performs, but rather, in how it makes you feel.  It is systematically designed to be addictive, to administer micro-doses of feel-good neurotransmitters every time someone likes or comments on something that you’ve posted.  Human beings are complex creatures, but our brain reward centres operate very simply.  When the brain gets a drop of dopamine, it enjoys it very much and wants more.  Facebook knows this and its programmers have learned to manipulate the interface, in order to take advantage of that.  Why?  The longer we spend on the site, the more advertising we are exposed to, the more money goes rolling into Facebook’s coffers.  It really is as simple as that.  But that’s just the beginning.  

We all know about FB’s sketchy privacy practices.  On a global scale we seem to enjoy Facebook enough to ignore the fact that so much of our personal data is shared with big corporations.  Perhaps we feel it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of staying connected to so many other people, so easily.  Or maybe we just aren’t aware of exactly how much we are giving away.  Did you know that Facebook allowed huge companies like Spotify, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada complete access to your private messages?  Not just the ability to read them, but also to write and delete them!!!!  WTAF?!  The first you heard about your data being used in such a shitty way was probably when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.  Suddenly there was an outrage.  For a while.  And then it all died down and it was back to business as usual in Menlo Park.  Facebook continues to act behind closed doors and to avoid anything more than a mere semblance of transparency.  And that’s before we even start talking about the fake news. 

In 2016 FB discovered millions of false pages that may have contributed to Trump’s shock win at the election.  Seemingly genuine pages that were peddling outright lies.  “Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump.”  “Someone was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton.”  “Bill Clinton raped a 13 year old girl.”  None of these stories are true but they spread like wildfire because FB’s algorithm favours stories with high engagement.  And nothing engages people more than sensationalist bullshit.  The most commonly shared news content on Facebook today is from Fox News and other right leaning outlets, such as Breitbart.  Not exactly paragons of journalistic truth.  But it actually benefits FB to spread misinformation and lies.  They are not invested in the truth, and they keep trying to wash their hands of any responsibility when it comes to the veracity of content posted on their site.

Despite that, occasionally they are compelled into increased accountability.  Only as recently as last year, FB pledged to eliminate white nationalist/supremacist pages from their site.  They didn’t particularly want to, as doing so goes against their “freedom of speech” ethos, but public and government pressure forced their hand.  But, because they are an unregulated beast, several nationalist, alt-right, white supremacy groups still hold court on Facebook, untouched.  Only when specific complaints about a particular page become public does Facebook bother to take any action.  Otherwise these hate-spouting organisations are allowed to operate unchecked.  In addition, these extremist groups are permitted to magnify their exposure on FB through means that are in violation of FB’s own rules, i.e. inauthentic coordinated behavior (using multiple pages to promote the same content in order to increase readership).  If I did that, I would be banned. 

In its purported claims to be seen as unbiased and non-partisan, FB has been forced to partner with a number of third-party fact-checking organisations.  Last year they came under fire for taking on a partnership with a company that is a subsidiary of the right-wing, white-nationalist publication Daily Caller.  Not exactly unbiased.  These fact-checkers have a huge influence on which news articles are seen (and not seen) by Facebook users, and considering that more than half of Americans now use social media as their primary news source, it means that these “fact-checkers” wield a huge amount of power.  So why would FB give a far-right group the job of checking facts on its site?  The answer seems to be that they want to suck up to the Republicans, and in particular they want to suck up to Trump.  When Democrats, like Elizabeth Warren, campaign on a promise of breaking up and regulating Facebook, it’s easy to see why the behemoth social media platform would favour the incumbent president and party.  So much so that they are prepared to bend democracy to their will in order to insure Trump stays in power.  They have $556 billion dollars riding on it.  

Following the 2016 election, FB started openly pandering to the Trump administration, crumbling under the president’s online whining about how he was being unfairly treated on the site.  But the slide from left to right had started much earlier.  Months before the election, FB actually discovered evidence that Russians were acting to influence the result (in Trump’s favour).  They kept that information to themselves, and did nothing to prevent Russia’s continued interference.  And Facebook continues to staunchly defend their policy of allowing proven false information to be included in political ads, with Zuckerberg defending that stance, “The ability to speak freely has been central in the fight for democracy world-wide”.  Nice soundbite Mark, but allowing absolute bullshit “news” articles to circulate on Facebook under the guise of fact, is actually harmful to democracy.  I cannot stress enough how dangerous this is to the very fabric of our society.

Zuckerberg justifies the lack of editorial oversight, “We think our users can make up their own minds”.  But then he pays researchers to see if he can make up their minds for them.  In 2012, FB conducted an ethically dodgy study in which they manipulated their user’s feeds to see what effect that would have on their moods – without ever asking their explicit permission to do so.  Some people’s feeds showed them happy, positive words, photos and news stories for a week, and at the end of that time FB’s researchers would assess whether that person was posting noticeably more positive things themselves (they usually were).  But you know what else Facebook did?  Some users’ feeds were showered with content that was sad, or angry or negative in order to gauge if that also had the same knock-on effect.  And it did, resulting in those users generally posting downbeat status updates.  And that’s fucked up.  They didn’t ask any of the users their permission to take part in the study.  They didn’t ask anyone if they were interested in having their moods manhandled, in such a creepy way.  They just went ahead and did it.  To 689,003 people.  Were you one of them?  You will never know. 

It’s FB’s ability to manipulate and control its users that makes them so powerful.  It’s the almost total lack of oversight that makes them scary.  They’ve already demonstrated that they can (and will) control their user’s emotions and moods through deceptive means.  Their privacy terms and conditions allow for it, so it’s not illegal.  But try telling me it’s not wrong. 

When I joined FB thirteen years ago, I did so because I thought it was a cool way to connect with my friends.  By 2016, I had started becoming fairly disillusioned with the platform, but still felt that, being an expat, it was the best way to keep in touch with my loved ones back home.  I stayed, despite FB’s insane growth and metamorphosis into something other than it was pretending to be.  I can no longer ignore what it has become, and because of that, I can no longer continue to use it.  It is my view that Facebook has become nothing less than a deadly weapon.  I honestly don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that it has transformed from an ivy league rich kid’s club into an insidious monster of mind-control on a mass scale.  Am I impervious to the tactics employed?  Are you?  How do we know?  Maybe we are smart enough to stay neutral and unaffected.  But what about the other 2.4 billion monthly users?  That’s almost a third of the earth’s population, and you can bet that a huge chunk of them are easy targets, particularly in third world countries where Facebook isn’t just an online application, but the internet itself. 

And it’s not just FB manipulating its own users.  Other times it’s third party actors.  Governments.  Usually with nefarious intentions.  For instance, in 2018 it was discovered that a coordinated social media attack designed to incite violence and hatred against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority group had been perpetrated by that country’s own military.  The United Nations found that the five year campaign of false propaganda saw the Myanmar government use Facebook as a tool for genocide and ethnic cleansing.  And because of Facebook’s manifesto that “free speech” is the cornerstone of democracy, they felt justified in allowing that to happen.  That is not OK.  Really, it’s not OK.  It’s fucking awful and I can no longer allow myself to passively be part of it.  I am a little nervous about completely deleting my account, but I’m still going to do it, and I know I’ll find a way to live without it.  In fact, a Stanford study found that: “The downsides are real. The negative effects of Facebook are large enough to be of real concerns. Four weeks without Facebook improves subjective well-being.”

I think I’m going to be just fine.

 

Some more reading…
The New York Times – As Facebook Raised a Privacy Wall, It Carved an Opening for Tech Giants
The GuardianWhite Nationalists are Openly Operating on Facebook. The Company Won’t Act
Popular InformationFacebook Allows Prominent Right-Wing Website to Break the Rules
Popular InformationThe Republican Political Operatives Who Call the Shots at Facebook
The New York TimesA Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military
SalonA “Gold Standard” Study Finds Deleting Facebook is Great for Your Mental Health

Ejo #121 – Dogs Of Dubai

My family has always been dog people.  We just love dogs, god damn it.  We’ve tried other pets along the way, of course.  Finches, fish, a mouse, a turtle I found in the garden (for about two days, anyway, before my grandfather set it free).  After one of my sister’s school projects, we ended up with a chicken called Tok Tok, which faithfully laid us a double yolked egg every single day until we came home from school one afternoon to be told that Tok Tok had been taken to a farm to live out her retirement years.  If memory serves correctly, we had roast chicken for dinner that night.  There is no correlation between these two events, whatsoever.  I once found a feral kitten in the gutter outside our house and somehow coerced it into my bedroom.  I spent the entire night fighting the damn thing off my face.

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Psycho Kitty.

We kept Kitty for a while, the entire family nursing cuts and bites and scratches for the duration, but Kitty was not meant for domesticity and after a couple of years she obviously found a better home and settled down with her new family (the only logical explanation for why she disappeared without a trace, and no further discussion on the matter is necessary).

But for the Stathopoulos family, our hearts have always belonged to dogs.  I don’t think I need to point this out, but I will anyway.  Dogs are special.  Scientists have shown that dogs have a unique ability to love, not just human beings, but all other species (depending on how early they are exposed to them).  When a dog looks into my eyes, or licks my hand lovingly, or lays it’s paw on my foot or even just leans against me – my heart explodes with love.  If yours doesn’t, I’m afraid there must be something terribly wrong with you.  Please go and see a doctor immediately.

Our first dog wasn’t even ours.  Joshua was a farm dog from the property next to our holiday house in Cape Schanck, but over the years, he lovingly adopted us to (the bemusement of his farmer owner).  He was our first taste of how loyal and loving and fun a dog could be.

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Joshua teaching me how to drive.

Our family loved Joshua so much we decided to get a full time dog of our own and ended up with a Rhodesian Ridgeback St. Bernard cross called Duchess.  She was a big, imposing dog, and she had a big heart to match.  She was definitely our Dad’s dog, but she loved us all and we loved her back.

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Duchess slow-dancing with my Dad.

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Pieta and Duchess being cute together.

A few years after Duchess died, we braved another pet and got a beautiful pure-bred Doberman called Jessica.  Her tail had already been cruelly clipped when we picked her out, but thankfully we got to her before they snipped her beautiful, velvety floppy ears.  Despite looking like a very scary attack dog, Jessica was a gentle soul who would never hurt a fly.  She could, however, turn on a deep, throaty growl when she felt it was necessary and she owned a bark that would scare off the most determined burglar.  When Jessica died, our whole family was heartbroken and my parents decided that was it.  No more Stathopoulos family pets.  The loss was just too painful.

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Jessica and her ball.

Both of my sisters, however, had been bitten by the doggy bug and about a year or so after Jessica died, they both adopted dogs of their own.  Mari brought home an adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Barnaby.  And Pieta co-parented a Staffordshire called Subby with her best friend.  

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Pieta and Subby.

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Mari and Barnaby.

Sadly, Barnaby and Subby have moved onto the great kennel in the sky, but they were both very loved members of the Stathopoulos family.  They are both buried in our Mum’s backyard now, which is perhaps a little weird (since the house is no longer ours) but also kinda wonderful that their final resting place is the family home.

Over the years, I’ve always felt a strong desire to add a puppy to my life but sadly, shift work isn’t really conducive to owning a pet, and neither is our tendency to travel as much as possible.  My love of dogs runs deep but I am not so selfish as to subject an animal to a life of solitude in an apartment, interrupted only by regular visits to a kennel.  The answer to my pet dilemma in Dubai has turned out to be K9 Friends, a doggie shelter in an industrial area, near the port of Dubai.  K9 Friends is a non-profit organisation, founded more than 30 years ago, that rescues abandoned dogs (which is a huge problem in Dubai, sadly).  K9 Friends’ ultimate goal is to re-home all the dogs they rescue, but sometimes dogs end up staying with them for years, which is so devastatingly sad.  I do think what they do is amazing though, because if it wasn’t for them, most of these dogs would end up being euthanised.

Obviously, being a volunteer organisation, they rely on donations and the kindness of dog lovers who generously donate their time to looking after the dogs as well as taking care of the administration side of things.  They tend to have about 120-130 dogs kenneled at any one time, so as you can imagine that’s a whole lot of work (as well as a whole lot of poop that needs to be regularly collected).  If you love dogs and want to help, but aren’t able to adopt (or foster) a puppy there are a couple of other ways you can assist.  You can directly sponsor a dog (or a kennel), and that’s something that David and I would like to get involved with.  Each dog costs about 5000dhs a year to house (this includes vet costs, food, grooming etc).  The shelter is happy to accept any amount donation, and every cent helps.  Another way to help out is to take a dog out for the day,  It really is the next best thing to taking a doggo home permanently.

K9’s walking programme has turned out to be perfect for David and me.  In the last month we have taken three wonderful dogs out for the day.  It’s been such a treat to once again have some canine love in our lives, and I’ve really enjoyed having dogs in the house for a few hours a day (even though they’re not all necessarily completely toilet trained).  I also hope that the dogs have enjoyed a break from the shelter as well.  It really is a win-win situation for everyone.  If you live in Dubai and are a dog-lover, I would so highly recommend that you get involved with K9 Friends and take a beautiful, loving dog out for the day.  You never know, you might just end up with a friend for life.

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My favourite of the dogs we took home, Cranberry was found in an abandoned warehouse in an industrial part of town. Look at that face!!!!

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As soon as we brought him home, Cranberry decided he would move into our storage room.  Whenever he got a bit nervous, he would run back in there and crouch down in the corner, in the dark.

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It makes me so sad to think about what Cranberry experienced earlier in his life to make him be such a nervous, timid puppy.

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Cranberry and his new daddy. ❤

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Whilst he was very shy and timid, Cranberry loved going for a walk and meeting other dogs and people.

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Flower’s a slightly older dog who has given birth to loads of puppies before being neutered at K9.  She was a really quiet dog, and even though she was sociable with us, she wasn’t exactly affectionate.

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Flower had a tendency to just sit still, almost as if trying to become invisible.

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Flower loved going out for a walk.

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I really loved it when Flower came and wanted to sit next to me.  She was a very chilled out dog who would really suit an older couple or perhaps a busy family. Even though she was really quiet, the house felt empty when we had to take her back.  

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I have a feeling David developed a bond with Annie.  They really seemed to click.

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When I picked Annie up, the volunteers at K9 Friends warned me that she was “ugly/beautiful” and I guess that’s true.  She got a lot of weird looks on our walk, but she always won strangers over with her warmth and affection.  We were both very sad to take her back to the shelter at the end of the day.

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Annie was a small dog, and a little bit emaciated, but she was very strong and she liked to lead the way on our walks.  She was particularly partial to balls and always wanted to chase them down when we encountered them on our walk.  I think she would be suited to an active family or perhaps a single person that likes to exercise regularly.

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It was tough to drop Annie off at the shelter, and I think that she also wanted to stay with us.  K9 Friends are a very caring dog shelter, but these dogs really need to find permanent, loving homes.  If you want to adopt a dog in Dubai, this is the first place you should check out.  If you want some doggie love, on a more temporary basis, then you should definitely register to take a dog out for a walk.  It’s such a richly rewarding experience, for you and the dog.