On being ... intertwined

By Ingrid Sapona

Like many, my thoughts are consumed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Initially I resisted writing about it for On being… because my aim for the column is to help readers think about how they behave or how they “are” in a particular circumstance. But, after speaking with friends, I realized others also are awash in thoughts, confusion, and fear about the situation. So, today I’m simply sharing some of my concerns and sadness. My hope is that doing so may help you sort through some of your feelings in the face of what looks like an existential threat unfolding in Europe. 

The pictures of families tearfully separating, as women and children flee their homes while husbands, brothers, and sons stay behind to defend their country seems unreal in the twenty-first century. I’ve found particularly heartbreaking interviews of Ukrainian mothers who have spoken about being scared, but who are holding it together in hopes their children don’t sense their fear. Sadly, such stoicism has been borne by mothers for hundreds of years and in hundreds of places even in my lifetime. 

The displacement of hundreds of thousands of people is tragic. At the same time, it’s heartening to hear that Poland and Hungary are welcoming fleeing Ukrainians. Given that these countries have historically not welcomed refugees, the fact that they are is a pleasant surprise. But at the same time, I can’t help think about the plight of all the other refugees in the world who are now yesterday’s story. Western aid money and humanitarian efforts will – and should – be directed at Ukrainians, but what of the poor Afghanis, or Syrians, or … fill in the name of any of the millions of displaced persons? They too still need – and deserve – our help and attention. 

I shudder at the thought of what might happen if Donald Trump returns to power. I know some people simply dismiss the possibility, but many people thought the same thing when Trump ran in 2016. And even if Trump is not re-elected, his fingerprints are already apparent in the unfolding tragedy. He unleashed the genie of hatred, lies, and crazy fabrications that has emboldened strongmen around the world. You need look no further than Putin’s recent crazy claims that the Ukrainian government is made of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.  

So many of those people who say they want to make America great again fail to realize that America’s strength came from its ability to work with, support, and inspire others. The current divisiveness of American politics may well prove to be the downfall of the U.S. and this crisis proves that Putin – and the rest of the world – have realized this. It should not be all on Biden to try to rebuild trust in the US – the American people have a crucial role. If they continue to support politicians who lie and foment distrust, tyranny will win out – and not just abroad. 

I lived in Amsterdam in 1986 when the reactor at Chernobyl melted down. The accident released a radioactive cloud that moved across Europe. Rain in the forecast meant there was a very real chance radioactive droplets would fall on Holland’s precious farmland. Cows, which are central to the Dutch dairy industry (think Edam, Gouda, Quark and other delicious things), had to be moved indoors. That incident helped me think more globally; it helped me realize how the lives and health of everyone in the world is intertwined. It’s easy to point to the catastrophic impact for those in the immediate vicinity of some attack or melt down – and to hope that the danger won’t spread – but it’s a mistake to not realize there will be wide-ranging consequences. In this vein, I imagine people in countries bordering Ukraine are worrying about whether Putin’s aggression will ultimately extend beyond Ukraine’s border. 

The impact this war will have on wheat supplies is also a very real concern, given that Ukraine and Russia account for 25% of the world supply of wheat. Rising prices and/or restrictions on exports of wheat will add to food insecurity for many across the world. One friend pointed out that South Africa gets 30% of its wheat from these countries. Indeed, there is concern that restrictions on the supply of wheat from Russia could also lead to increased social unrest far and wide.  

I’ve read a lot about the sanctions various countries have agreed to. Clearly the intent is to try to 1) economically isolate Russia, and 2) squeeze the lifestyles of Russian oligarchs in the hope that they’ll ultimately turn on Putin. It seems obvious that the impact of the sanctions will take a bit of time to work. But, if you listen to the press questioning Biden and other leaders, it seems people don’t get that. The way see it, sanctions aren’t like a bomb that causes damage instantly – they’re more like starving someone into submission. 

And clearly, putting effective sanctions in place isn’t easy; it requires buy-in from a wide circle of countries and industries. Early on there were reports that Italy was pushing to keep certain of its luxury goods (favourites of some oligarchs) off the list of sanctioned goods and Belgium wanted an exception for the diamond trade. Such claims have been refuted recently, but you can’t help wonder what politics is behind the fact that some Russian banks have not been removed from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication).  

The other difficulty with sanctions is that they may have ripple effects that may be politically unpopular. I was frustrated that Biden had to warn Americans that the price at the pump may go up. Apparently, he felt he needed to brace Americans that prices of gas could go up by as much as 50¢ a gallon. Really? That seems like a small price to pay when you compare it to people risking their life to defend their country. 

There’s lots of talk by analysts about Putin wanting to create a new Russian empire and about what he wants his legacy to be.  There’s also been speculation about his psyche. (There’s a very interesting comment about his use of “grievance narratives in The Guardian, for example.) One explanation I heard this morning from some U.S. military analyst got me thinking. He said that Putin’s actions relate to the fact that he takes things personally. The interviewer didn’t buy that as an explanation, so she pushed him on it. The analyst simply added, “everyone takes things personally.” I don’t know how I feel about that as an explanation for Putin’s actions. But maybe the point is that we should all take Putin’s actions personally and we should figure out what our personal role might be in helping change the world.

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona


On being … complicated?

By Ingrid Sapona
My vacation was fantastic. I didn’t realize how badly I needed to relax. It was the perfect combination of sun, sand, tequila, guacamole, shrimp, and sleep.
On the return flight from Mexico, I was thinking about the fact that February would, in effect, be the start of my new year. Though I didn’t feel I over-indulged on the vacation, I decided I’d try doing what some refer to as “dry February”. My reason was two-fold: first, the calories – at home I drink wine and the smoother the wine, the easier to drink, and the quicker the calories add up! (Though I didn’t officially set a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, who doesn’t start a new year thinking they should lose a pound or two?) Second, the cost – during Covid lockdowns it was just easier to order wine by the case and have it delivered. But, like the calories, that cost adds up too! 
So, by the time the plane touched down, I decided to have a dry February. That said, given that my birthday’s in February, I wasn’t about to deny myself a glass of wine or something over a celebratory lunch or dinner with friends. So, rather than commit to zero alcohol in February – which is what I think most people mean when they talk about doing a “dry” month – instead, I decided it means I wouldn’t open any wine at home this month.
This idea of observing a “dry” month is something various friends have done in the past. The way it’s come up in conversation has been quite casual. For example, if I’m having friends over, we might be talking about what I’m considering serving. If friends tell me they’re dieting or trying to eat, say, less red meat, I’ll plan the menu accordingly. Similarly, they might mention they’re doing a dry month, so I know not to worry about having the perfect red or white on hand. When they mention they’re doing a dry month, I take it at face value and we never really discuss the wherefores and whys. Actually, I’ve always assumed they’ve done it for pretty much the same reasons I mentioned: calories and cost.
The other day a friend came over for coffee and when I offered a cookie to go with it, she declined. She explained she’s doing a “sugar-free February”. I told her I’d never heard of that. She said she’s doing in in support of a friend who had decided she wanted to give up something she likes for February and, since her friend doesn’t drink, they decided on sugar. My friend is catholic and I told her that sounded lent-like. We chuckled and I put away the cookies.
I subscribe to daily newsletters from a few different news sources. One of my favourites is The Conversation – an excellent website that is “an independent source of news and views, from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.”  One article caught my eye and interest this morning. The title was: “I’m an addiction researcher and therapist. Here’s why promoting sober ‘dry months’ bothers me.” Naturally I had to read that!
In the article, the author, Kara Fletcher, an Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Work, University of Regina, starts off by explaining that Dry January was “officially launched in 2013 with a public health campaign by British charity Alcohol Change”. She explains that such “campaigns” usually challenge people to abstain from alcohol for one month – often in support of some cause. I know there are various campaigns where people do something – whether it’s growing a moustache (Movember) or throwing a bucket of ice on someone (the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge) – in support of a cause and often to raise money for that cause, but I never thought of “dry” months as any sort of campaign.
Fletcher doesn’t disagree that there are potential personal health benefits of avoiding alcohol for a month, and that peer support in achieving such goals can be helpful. But she points out that substance use is complex. She worries these campaigns perpetuate the idea that quitting drinking for a month is simply a choice, when for those with substance use problems doing so is not. Furthermore, she feels these campaigns “do not contribute to a more nuanced discussion about substance use.” She also makes points about stigma and inequality, as well as policy and privilege.
I don’t mind admitting, the article was an eye-opener. To say I never thought about the meaning of a dry month in those terms is an understatement. I simply took it as a phrase to describe a personal goal to modify one’s consumption for a month – kind of like a new year’s resolution but with a time limited commitment. (Again, I think the best analogy is lent… but I’m not catholic, so lent is just a concept to me.)
I’m glad I read Fletcher’s piece – it offered a lot of food for thought. Indeed, maybe the next time a friend mentions they’re doing a dry month or abstaining from something in particular, I’ll ask why. Perhaps they would welcome a more nuanced conversation about whatever it is they’ve decided to forego. That said, I can’t help wonder when life got so complicated that even a simple phrase like “dry February” can be found to carry unintended meanings or messages.
© 2022 Ingrid Sapona