On Saturday, the last day of the Blogher09 conference, at the Storytelling and Blogging panel, in a roomful of women who were there to discuss writing and creativity, I took the microphone and talked about a woman with a square head. I spotted her at the People's Party on Thursday night as she threaded her way around little knots of people. She held a glass of white wine in her hand and her neck supported the most geometric face I have ever seen. Not just a square face, with the mouth and chin peculiarly squashed, as if her head had been built to order by a slightly careless designer - but a downright cubic head. I wanted to lift up her hair and search her skull to see if she had corners and right angles.
It was a mistake to mention her. I was trying to describe my ideas on storytelling, and the way in which I would approach the story of the BlogHer conference when it came time to hack my way through the experience. I drew some laughs from the room, but I knew that at least a few of my fellow attendees would visit my weblog later, and they would expect an appearance from the square-headed woman. She went from a stray detail to a great square rock in the stream of my story, turning the flow of my narrative to chaos and foam.
Damn you, square-headed woman. And damn me too, who wanted to impress a roomful of women.
I wake up at 3:30 am Thursday morning to fly to Chicago. On the Regina-Toronto leg of the flight, I start watching Sunshine Cleaning. The flight lands and I miss the last 20 minutes of the movie. On the Toronto-Chicago leg, my wife watches the movie and describes the ending for me. As the plane begins to drop down from 38,000 feet, the moment of my birthday passes. I am 38. Seven hours from now the square-headed woman is waiting for me.
On Sunday afternoon we finally leave the hotel and walk out into the city. Chicago is much as I remembered it from my last visit in summer 2004: downtown streets like dried river paths through art deco canyons, the air suffused with muggy heat, homeless people stepping in and out of notice as they ask for change or emerge from under bridges. Everyone has cameras riding on their hips. There seem to be more Irish pubs than ever.
Twenty years ago my parents are driving me out of the city, along a gravel road so thick with grasshoppers that we seem to be splashing through them. It is my 18th birthday and I am on my way to a creative writing school in the country. Next to me lies a heavy Smith-Corona typewriter with an erasing ribbon and a golf ball head. Within a few days I will realize that most of what I write is pretty terrible. The square-headed woman sips her glass of white wine and takes a drunken step into the party ballroom.
Saturday evening and I am the impromptu judge of a contest at the Shutter Sisters suite, standing in front of a crescent of women and holding a plastic glass of red wine. The square-headed woman is 48 hours in my past. Next to me Stephanie Roberts holds up a book of photographs. Jen Lemen stands on a chair and calls out questions. Shutters click. Two hands go up. Someone blurts an answer. I put down my glass of wine and point.
At the MamaPop party the DJ puts on the last song of the evening. Friday night has segued into Saturday morning. The bar has closed an hour before but people still crowd the room. As the first notes of Lean On Me sound, a few dancers slip their hands around each others' shoulders and form a circle, an uneven, swaying, drunken organism that swallows the entire floor in seconds. I insert myself between Schmutzie and Lena. My drink splashes over my wrist as the waves of force in the circle break against my body. The lights go up and we wander out in search of more drink, set stubbornly against the end of the night.
I walk out of the People's Party on Thursday night in search of Schmutzie, who has vanished somewhere in the press of 1,000 conference goers. Women sling swag bags over their shoulders and swig beer with their free hands. I spot Schmutzie by a pillar, talking with a tiny woman in glasses and soft slipper-like shoes. The woman catches my eye as I walk up and we move into a long, easy and grateful hug. I have waited years to meet Blackbird, and the moment is just as warm and unforced as I had always imagined. As we embrace, a woman with the squarest head I have ever seen threads past us and disappears into the crowd.
For the first hour or so of the 3 hour bus trip from Regina to Saskatoon I thought we'd gotten away with boarding a crazy-free bus, but then the man in the seat behind me began to talk to himself.
I'd seen him earlier in the ticket queue, a slight fellow in a white shirt and black shorts, a thatch of hay-blond hair sticking out from under his black baseball cap. He had an air of politeness, even deference, that probably came from living in and out of institutions. A white crust clung to the corners of his mouth, and the skin on one of his legs was a bright ham-like pink crazed with white markings. From his pores puffed a haze of cheap alcohol.
I'd met and struck up conversations with plenty of people like this one, and I could already map out the course of our acquaintance: a few innocuous remarks that would eventually get a reply from me, and then the chopped-up biography, rearranged and presented for maximum pity. Eventually he would ask me for a cigarette, which I would have to decline (being a non-smoker), and he would wind down our brief friendship and start up the show with the next person.
It's not quite accurate to say that he was talking to himself on the bus. At first I thought that some machine or system had developed an edge or started to heat up, because I could hear a strange humming sound that reminded me of the air conditioner in my office. Gradually the humming took on a kind of rhythm, pulsing with patterns that felt familiar but just out of reach. The sound reminded me of mumbled incantations, the buzz of far-off voices. And then I realized that the noise was issuing from the lips of the man behind me. Worse yet, I knew that the sound was meant partially for me, that it was designed to lure me in to a long and pointless conversation, a psychedelic retelling of all the wrongs done to him. I ignored the sound and turned back to my book.
After a while the mumbling fell away and he started in with individual words. Some of them were responses to a conversation going on in the rear seat of the bus between a young man and woman flirting with each other by trading a series of lies (he charged a hapless jerk six bucks for a cigarette, she was facing charges for beating up her stepfather), other words seemed meant to describe interactions between particles in the air. Cool, he said at one point. Hah at another. I kept my mouth shut. Even the least hint of a response would be an opening.
Halfway through the trip he leaned forward and addressed us directly.
"Excuse me," he said. That's when I caught the light fog of booze enveloping him.
"Yes, how can I help you?" I felt oddly secretarial saying that, but it seemed to formalize the situation.
"What highway is this? I mean, is this the Number One"?
I weighed my response for a moment. We were not on the number one highway, the East-West corridor that runs the length of the entire country. We were in fact over one hundred miles from the Number One, and rushing farther away from it with every moment.
"No, this is Number 11".
"Okay," said the guy, and sat back for a moment. Then he leaned forward.
"Because the Number One highway is the Trans-Canada, right?"
"Excuse me again, but will this bus take me to Ontario?"
This put me at a bit of a loss. Ontario is two provinces over, a solid twelve-hour drive to reach its western border. This was either the most graceless conversational gambit ever, or I was dealing with someone whose mind had been emptied or everything but a few sticks of furniture and some cryptic notes scribbled on the walls. I pictured a wall stripped bare, with the cryptic imperative "GET TO ONTARIO" scrawled in charcoal.
"No," I explained. "We're heading northwest to Saskatoon. Ontario is east of here".
"Okay," he said, completely unfazed by the news that he was heading in the entirely wrong direction, "so how would I get to Ontario from Saskatoon?"
"You can take the bus back to Regina, or just head straight for Winnipeg. Or you could hang out in Saskatoon. It's a nice city".
My shot at humour set him cackling. "Okay man, okay," he said. "Thanks a lot". He sat back in his seat and resumed his strange machine hum of a monologue.
I'm getting on the bus again in a few hours and I won't be surprised if he's sitting there, asking people how to get to Ontario.
It's not often that a total stranger takes a sip of your drink and starts to hack and spit like he's just swallowed a beaker of the ol' hydrochloric, but then you're probably not me.
I spotted Mike early in the evening, sitting on the patio of the bar at a table of people he didn't know. It was clear, from the way that he was nursing his drink and glancing around, that he was going to end up at our table at some point in the evening, knocking back beers, smoking somebody else's cigarettes and entertaining us with well-rehearsed stories that may or may not be complete fabrications. Nearly all bars host these kinds of guys, whom I affectionately call The Itinerant Bullshitter. They're usually in town on some kind of business, they live somewhere more interesting, and they're itching to wade up to total strangers and spill their stewed biographies.
One of the strangest and subtlest of human senses is our ability to pinpoint a stranger in a crowd. Mike didn't look particularly different than the other people at the bar – a bit older, maybe, but the place catered to people from 85 to 18 (and younger) – but he was just different enough. He had a bulky post-athletic torso that seemed tucked into a set of skinny hips and legs. He wore a blue denim shirt and faded black jeans, with a blue and grey baseball cap atop a great cubic tanned slab of a head. The hat seemed to be covering up a neglected mohawk. He had probably been a very handsome man fifteen years ago.
After an hour or so people began to drift away from Mike's table, which left him alone and searching for others. Here's the thing: me and my friends were stuffed onto a set of converted church pews between the outer wall of the bar and the patio tables, with only a few feet of space between us and several tables of drinkers. We looked like spectators with boundary issues. Mike waved us over.
Come on and sit down here, he said, I've got a whole table here. Ill be out of your hair as soon as I've finished my drink.
I'm Mike, he said, extending his hand.
I'm Rod, Rod said.
Where's that from?
It's an Irish name.
Mike leaned back and swept his eyes over my face. You could see him tallying my features and running them against a roster of Irish faces he'd known.
But you're not Irish, he decided. You're no Irishman.
My father's family is Irish. My mother's is Portuguese.
That's it, he said. You're part Portuguese. My mother was Irish. Skin white as milk.
At that point another guy named Aidan came and sat down with us.
You see? Mike said, pointing at the other Aidan's pale freckled skin and coarse, ruddy beard. This one looks Irish.
Yeah, I've got a permanent tan going with my skin.
Mike glanced around and leaned in close. Have you ever been to Africa? He asked.
No, I said, because it was true, and because I couldn't think quickly enough to change the subject.
Go to Africa and meet a black man, he said. They are black, black, blaaaaack. Like, blue-black.
Okay, I said.
Not brown. Black.
I took a swig from my bottle of beer.
What is that? Mike said.
It took me a second to realize that he was looking at my bottle.
It's called Mill Street Porter. They make it with coffee.
Get out, he said. I started to think that every other thing out of my mouth would be the most remarkable and unbelievable thing Mike had ever heard.
Go ahead and try it, I said. It's good. At least I like it.
Mike stared at the bottle a moment longer, then tipped his head back and and poured a sip into his open mouth. A ripple of shock went up his jaw and popped in his eyes, then the beer erupted from his mouth. I can't, he gasped, I can't – then he got up and ran for the bathroom.
That was weird.
Yes, Rod said. But he sipped your beer like a gentleman.
Mike came back a few minutes later, having processed the situation.
I think I've got it figured out, he said. You're half Irish, half Portuguese. He pointed at the beer. So you like that coffee beer.
That must be it, I said.
Okay, he said, I'm ready for another sip.
In 1968 Garrett Hardin published an essay on overpopulation and resource sharing called The Tragedy of the Commons. The notion behind The Tragedy of the Commons is that a commonly owned resource will eventually become overexploited by its users, even it it's in no one's interest to have this happen. What the tragedy of the commons fails to address is that an easily accessed resource will eventually fill up with the batshit crazy.
For example, the bus to Saskatoon.
At the start of a long weekend, the buses are usually packed to bursting, but this time the bus was disquietingly empty, with only one in three seats filled up. It put me in mind of that weird urban legend, the one that claims that air disasters tend to have anomalously low numbers of passengers. Schmutzie and I sat in the back. This may be a safe place to sit in an airplane, but in a bus it's just a little too close to the bathrooms. It also means that you're sitting with people who worry about the integrity of their bowels.
Here's how the crazy broke down:
Name: Black Metal Man.
Crazy Level: Enthusiastic.
BMM was probably the best-groomed metalhead I'd ever seen. The metal fans and guitar torturers of my youth were scruffy guys with grimy sneakers and long, greasy/frizzy hair, so my optic nerve is unprimed for the ones with tidy haircuts and crisp Into Eternity t-shirts. It's the discreet tattoos and facial piercings that you need to look out for these days.
To be fair, BMM was not really crazy. But holy man, did he love black metal. Throughout the three-hour trip he alternated between reading a magazine about black metal, showing people his guitar, talking about black metal with the Well-Paid Christian, engaging in complicated handshakes with the Slow-Turning Giant, and rocking out to black metal tunes that I could hear tinnily but clearly pounding out from his headphones. Every so often he sent text messages on his phone, which no doubt expounded on the awesomeness of Dragon Force. He rocked out in his seat, nodding in explosive little bursts and occasionally shaking his fist whenever the song made a germane point about Satan or the Holocaust or whatever.
Name: The Girl Who Loved Music.
Crazy Level: Autistic.
You know you're crazy when the other crazies are staring at you. All I saw of the Girl was the back of her head, encircled by big noise-cancelling headphons, whipping back and forth for three straight hours. No one in the world has enjoyed music quite as much this girl. Even though I never caught her face, I could picture the blissful expression, the eyes scrunched tight against the outside world, the lips, mouth and jaw contorted into that ecstatic snarl. I hope for her sake that she was listening to some classic AC/DC.
Name: Mole Face.
Crazy Level: Jolly Serial Killer.
Halfway through the trip the bus paused for five minutes in the town of Chamberlain. All the smokers and snack fanciers filed off and a few passengers got on. One of them was a little girl, ten years at old at best, with a pillow, a Disney colouring book and set of glitter-barreled pencils. She sat across from us, next to a seat which, unbeknownst to her, contained Mole Face.
She set pencils, pillow and colouring book on her seat and went into the bathroom. Mole Face made his way to the back of the bus with a giant bag of chips and some beef jerky. He moved the colouring book aside and sat in the little girl's seat, then began to eat a strip of jerky. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: he deliberately sat in the little girl's place.
The girl came out of the bathroom and found Mole Face sitting in her seat. She stood in the aisle, too shy (and probably too scared) to say anything.
Hi there said Mole Face, grinning through shreds of jerky. He had a radio announcer voice, resonant and friendly. Five years ago, he might have even been a handsome man, before he started sleeping on bus station benches and slitting hobos' throats for sport.
I didn't know you were sitting here.
Yup. He continued to smile at her.
Sorry, whispered the girl, gathering up her things and moving to the front of the bus.
You forgot your pencil, the man called out.
She turned and removed the pencil from his hand. Mole Face leaned back and cracked open his big bag of Lays, luxuriating in easy cruelty.
I wanted to say something, but it struck me that Mole Face was that rare kind of person who could strangle you while chuckling at the memory of a Marmaduke panel.
The Well-Paid Christian.
Crazy Level: Totally Fucking Crazy.
The WPC is every traveller's greatest fear. Forget the risk of decapitation; enduring the WPC is a voyage-long project, and by the end of it you're the one with the itch to homicide.
He sat two rows ahead of us with a guy that I can only call the Slow-Turning Giant, a man who filled his seat and nearly bumped the ceiling of the bus cabin when he stood, with a gigantic shaven outcropping of a head. The back of his skull was decorated with different kinds of scars, which suggested that he'd been attacked from behind multiple times, because no one would be nuts enough to take on this geographical feature of a man face-to-face. He was also a man of great patience and restraint, because otherwise he would have beaten the Well-Paid Christian to a pulp.
The WPC was like a hyperactive dog that had just been rolling in a ditch. His arms kept flinging themselves out as he talked, and every statement ended in a dead serious Maaaan or a stacatto cackle of Ha! Ha! Ha! As far as we could tell, he had two topics of conversation. One was evolution, which apparently was a lie concocted and painstakingly maintained by Satan for the last six millennia. The other was his job, which seemed to encompass every duty in the cosmos and pay at least fifty bucks an hour, tax-free. Ten minutes later he repeated himself, but this time the job was even more remunerative at sixty bucks an hour.
You know that Satan buried all the fossils in the Earth six thousand years ago, man, he shouted into the Giant's ear.
I leaned over to Schmutzie. I bet Satan got paid like seventy-five bucks an hour to do it too.
And that's not taking inflation into account.
Yeah. So you know that's good money.
Name: Cheap Suit.
Crazy Level: Decapitator.
As weird as the WPC was, we knew that he was a distraction from the main event, a round-faced fellow in a cheap grey suit and a combover that looked like a bad toupee. He kept glancing back and staring at us, as if we were all potential threats. The damp air of desperation clinging to him would have elicited pity in another setting, but in the irradiated air of the bus cabin it produced a bracing wariness. I expected him to shoot the bus driver and take us all out in a ball of flame. Eventually he pulled out a newspaper, which brought down the ambient level of craziness to manageable levels.
And the driver was a jerk.
In grade three or thereabouts a story was going around about the dangers of dying in your dreams. The story had two versions. The more dire version maintained that if you didn't wake up the split-second before you hit the ground/ met the bullet/ went up in flames, then you would die in real life, and your parents would find you dead in your room. This scared the crap out of my eight year old self. Even when my parents pointed out that there was no way of verifying a sleeper's cause of death as dream-induced (oneiropathic death?), I remained pretty sure that I was doomed to die by a nightmare that didn't know when to stop. The other, milder story said that dying in dreams was a sign of severe psychological issues.
So far I have died twice in my dreams, and as far as I can tell I'm not dead or too disturbed. But the experience is disturbing enough.
What I've realized from these dreams is that my subconscious is not up to the task of portraying what it's like to be dead. I don't hurtle forward into nothingness; I don't get a fast-track entry into afterlives of pleasure or torment; and my consciousness isn't pinned to my body (or what remains of my body; in both of my death dreams I've been hit by a mortar round – isn't that strange?). Instead I find myself in a new body. But the body does not come with a new life. Instead it's clear, in the way that dreams clarify by way of tacit certainty, that the new body is a loaner, a kind of holder for my awareness until I die again.
That's right – die again. Bodily death in my dreams is only the first stage in being booted out of this world. Afterwards, I am made to examine forms(somebody hands me a clipboard) and certify that I am scheduled for death at some undetermined-but-definitely-soon point. The forms are stamped, signed, and generally look as if they've been pulled from some file cabinet from an office in Albania in 1976. First the body is destroyed, then the bureaucracy takes over. During this period I feel a strange lightness, as if the weight of my experience no longer matters. It is a relief tinged with a bit of melancholy, especially when I see my broken corpse. Best of all, nobody cares that I'm now dead, and the people who were only moments before trying to kill me are now freed up for casual conversation.
I never experience the second death. Instead I wake up, my eyes opening to 4 a.m. darkness, my heart whumping away and my lungs aching, as if a gigantic weight has just been lifted off my body. In two days I will turn thirty-seven, and I wonder how many more times in my life I will find myself dead in my dreams, alive and waiting for the death that never comes? Except of course that it will come eventually - I just won't be there for the actual moment.
I blame The Flintstones. In all seriousness, it was Hanna-Barbera that implanted this bodily roundelay notion of death in my tiny, unformed mind. When I was very young, I watched an episode in which Fred got fired and then spent the rest of the episode sitting around his stone hut bitching about his fate. I didn't get it. I thought that he had been fired upon, that he had been killed, and that he had been given an extra allotment of time to say goodbye to everyone, to examine options and make plans that cannot possibly succeed. It seemed unspeakably cruel and strange for Mr. Slate to do this to Fred, and crueller still that a universe with this kind of punishment could be imagined and portrayed. Can I sue? And wouldn't it set an excellent precedent for all those disturbed people wandering around who could lay their troubles at the foot of childhood entertainment? I hope so.
Yesterday I made a mistake. It was my seventh wedding anniversary, which has nothing to with my mistake, and vice versa. My mistake had to do with a cab.
Every so often, when I'm tired or stressed or depressed, I lose the ability to call a cab properly. Cab-calling is a crucial part of my survival skillset; I have no car, no bicycle, and since my surgery I cannot rely on my legs to take me more than five blocks (this is getting better, in case you're wondering). Plus I am constantly running slightly behind, and on those occasions when running behind merges into gross tardiness, I can always blame the taxi company. This helps at meetings.
Yesterday I stopped off at the downtown library to find an appropriate movie to celebrate being hitched for seven years (I chose Psycho). After fifteen minutes of flipping through DVDs, I knew that I wasn't going to be able to walk home. Standing produces a stealthy strain on my back and legs, one that doesn't seem so bad until suddenly, my left leg goes nerveless and my entire body wants to curl up and nap.
Even though a serviceable bus stop sat waiting only a half block away, the part of my brain capable of entertaining options and choosing the most efficient had shut down. The day, the coming month, the rest of 2008 all rose up in my mind and started to swarm, gnatlike and persistent, around my brain. Lift and settle, settle and lift, cling to sweat and hunker down in the salt. I decided to call a cab from the payphones in the library lobby.
I won't tell you about the horror of discovering that public phones had increased their toll from twenty-five to fifty cents. I know, it could be worse - it could be Europe, where even a local call gnaws at your small change until your pocket is empty and the conversation is cut off in mid-thought. North America was once the land of plenty; now it holds the distinction of being the land where at least you're not nickel-and-dimed at every turn, unless you have a cell phone plan.
The downtown Public Library sits at the corner of Lorne Avenue and 12th Street. Addled by fatigue, I asked for the cab to come to the exit on 12th Avenue. Before the dispatcher could point out that 12th Avenue did not exist, I thanked her and hung up. Polite, me.
This is not the first time I've given a non-existent location for a cab. Some years ago I called for a cab to show up at the corner of 25th and Parliament, which caused the dispatcher to pause and say, "Are you sure"? He only asked because 25th and Parliament ran parallel to each other, and only in the most abstruse realms of geometry could I expect to catch a taxi. After a few minutes of waiting and looking at the street signs I realized my error, but instead of calling back, I decided to walk halfway down the block and wait there. My reasoning being that, since 25th and Parliament lay one block apart, perhaps the driver would decide to split the difference. To this day I can't remember why I didn't phone the dispatcher back. It may have had something to do with embarrassment.
It took me nearly half an hour of waiting at the Lorne Street entrance to realize that I had tried to conjure a cab to a phantom location. As I waited my brain started to fall into a hypnagogic haze. The sky crowded with clouds and dropped low, as if relaxing muscles. The green of the trees took on an almost Day-Glo vividness and the shadows underneath seemed to soak up surrounding light. The buildings along 12th separated from the trees so that they occupied two overlaying celluloid strips. Then the ugly people showed up.
I should clarify that the ugly people were not part of any hallucination. Downtown during the day is a healthy mix of folks - civil servants, minimum-wage mall children, insurance workers, kids playing hooky, a contingent of homeless and day-release types sweeping back and forth around the streets - but when five o' clock strikes, every gainfully employed person deserts the downtown for the safety of the suburbs or their grey-carpeted loft-living downtown condos, and only the homeless and the deranged are left, slowly circling in the wake of the daily exodus. That's when you see how strange and ugly humans can be.
They started crossing in front of my eyes, on the way to the bus stop or nowhere at all, coughing, stumbing, all of them seemingly unable to walk correctly. Which put me in their company. A man who looked like an egg on stilts clopped past, talking quietly to himself: You'll see, you'll see what happens, when I take a bath. Before I could grab a clearer notion of what would happen when he took that bath, I was distracted by a guy who might have been a teenager, or a guy in his thirties with a talent for youth fashion. He wore a brand-new denim baseball cap on his head - so brand-new, in fact, that the giant plastic tab was still affixed the top of the cap. It fluttered and spun in the breeze as he passed.
More of them came and went: lopsided faces, glassy eyes, pants that ended an inch above the ankles, people that seem to have been selected from the scrap bins of the last thirty years and pulled together with string. The curious thing about such a crowd is that the well-fed and sane, suddenly a minority, start to lose their lustre. Men in suits and jackets begin to look, at best, like mental patients on their way to a funeral; at worst, they look like Mormons getting set to assault passersby with crackpot theology. Everyone gets a strained look at the corner of their eyes, as if boredom were shading into twitchy paranoia. People begin to look like impostors, like spies, eyes swiveling in the search for someone who might call them out.
I have absolutely no conclusion for this entry. But I'm sure you'll all be happy to know that I walked to the bus stop, took the #10 home and spent an evening cooking, relaxing and watching Psycho in celebration of my seventh anniversary. Schmutzie fell asleep on the couch. I also brought home an Icelandic comedy, which we did not watch.
I'm typing on a tiny keyboard. Not Blackberry small – not so small as to be ridiculous – but small enough that I need to retrain my fingers a bit. Just a little bit. I've trained my fingers for all the different keyboards I've had to use over the years. The French keyboards that confounded me in Europe when I tried to send emails back home. I think that's why I got so hammered that one night in Mannheim and drunk dialled people all over Canada. Old friends, some of whom I hadn't spoken to in years. I tracked them down from my room in the Novotel Mannheim and told them, thick-tongued and gregarious, all about my life. They were thrilled. I think.
If I phoned you up that night in 2004, it was the wine. And a solid two weeks of trying to send emails and compose weblog entries on French computers.
Also in the bar I had to listen to this group of people talk about great deals they'd gotten on brand-name perfumes and colognes at factory outlet stores all over the American midwest. They kept throwing down brand names and prices like they were business cards. It was difficult to keep track, but it sounded as if they had closets stuffed full of quarts and quarts of Poison and Polo and Trésor. Eventually they worked their way through most of the non-celebrity endorsed brands and moved on to performance footwear.
So that was stressful.
It’s true, on Tuesday I attended a work retreat for a group to which I do not properly belong, I was an adjunct, a recombinant trail disengaged from my nucleus, I was a special guest who, it was hoped, would add to the positive dynamic of the group. It’s nice to be the special guest. It’s worrisome to be the special guest. I look on these kinds of invitation with great suspicion, even when suspicion isn’t warranted – why am I singled out for a day with a motivational speaker and a different division within my organization? Are bureaucratic plans hatching with me as an initial offering, a grub to hungry chicks? No, of course not. I’m valued as a communications consultant, and in any case they can’t shift me around or redesignate me willy-nilly. Not in the rigid lattice of the public service, they can’t. That’s the stuff of fantasy. That and unicorns.
We spent a day with a facilitator. You could call him a team-building consultant, a workplace environment expert, a motivational speaker, what have you. He stood at the front of the room and read from the Tibetan Book of the Living and the Dead, we nodded along. He gave us sheets of paper and fifteen minutes to be totally honest with ourselves on a variety of issues, on scales of 1 to 5. He said Emotional Bank Account, he said Trust Tax, he said Sharpening The Saw, he said he said. There are 7 habits. There are 13 behaviours. There are 4 quadrants (which did not surprise anyone). There are Questions Behind Questions, and the real Questions, the ones that stand in the dark with their hooded robes, are usually proactive. How can I make a difference? What can I do to effect change in my workplace environment? How can I avoid a victim mentality and choose to be effective?
He wore a pale blue Madras-style shirt and black pants that showed the outlines of his unnaturally circular kneecaps when he sat down. He had on a pair of white socks with reinforced heels and toes, and soft-looking brown sandals which he would periodically slip off in order to stand up and go the flip chart. The socks looked immensely comfortable, and I entertained myself as he spoke with imagining the pleasing feel of his socked feet against the short shag carpet. We were in a basement, and no doubt the concrete beneath the carpet felt solid and cool. A pair of decent socks is just enough of a buffer from the hardness of the floor, which you can feel all the way into your knees, to enjoy the subterranean coolness. I silently congratulated him on his choice of socks as he explained the 3 levels of maturity in the workplace.
It was not the fault of the facilitator that Tuesday was one of the worst days I’ve had in years. It was my own psyche, deranged by springtime, that was scourging with me its dissatisfactions. I felt cracked open by the talk of workplace habits and planning for the future, dropped from a great height onto a stone and left for the birds to pick over. I felt anger like a wild flare erupting in all directions, an anger that I’d kept under control over the past year, when physical pain checked every movement and thought. I don’t remember any dreams from that period. People have remarked with amazement on my good humour during most of 2007, when I was bent double and unable to walk. I used to wonder where my anger had gone. It turns out that I had stored it somewhere under pressure, and the concentration of vapid workplace language cracked the container.
Dungeons & Dragons made me a better person. It's true. For further details and corroboration and meaningless tangents, read on.
Way back in the early 80s, before adolescence hit and made everything terrible, I used to watch a Saturday morning show called Switchback, hosted by Stan 'The Man' Johnson, a surprisingly acerbic fellow with a wooly black afro and an unreported collection of child porn (or was that just a rumour?). One of the features on Switchback was a bulletin board for kids, where they could trade toys and games. I had put up Merlin, a gigantic red brick of plastic that looked like a Battlestar Galactica prop. It played tic-tac-toe, and once I figured out how to outsmart its computer brain, the enjoyment faded. It was also the cause of some fractiousness among my friends, who always wanted a turn (these were post-Pong and pre-Atari days). So up on the Switchback exchange board it went.
Within a week I had a bite from a kid in Dartmouth with an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. I didn't really know what it was – I thought maybe it was a fantasy board game of some kind? - but it seemed like a promising trade. I packed the Merlin up in a box and sent it off to Dartmouth.
When the box arrived in the mail, I found the contents puzzling. I hadn't built up enough anticipation to be disappointed, but the game looked nothing like I expected, and nothing like the D&D sets that I would be familiar with in later years. What I got was a staple-bound book, a series of hexagon-grid sheets, and sets of cardboard chits (instead of dice). The book had a pale grey-blue cover with a drawing of a very pissed off dragon on it, in an overly detailed but nonetheless amateurish style. It looked like something drawn up and designed in someone's basement.
I flipped through the book, undaunted. The language was a bit stiff and clearly not meant for a nine year old gaming noob, but I grasped the concepts quickly enough. This was, more or less, a game drawn from the same mythological mindset as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and any number of Tolkieneque fantasy stories. In other words, crack for nerdy pre-adolescents.
Unfortunately, the box set didn't include any gaming modules or even fleshed-out suggestions for scenarios. Deprived of a shell for the game to inhabit, I simply read the book over and over again, memorizing the rules and imagining the game play. For a while I drew maps on the hexagonal sheets, but these were better suited to strategic games, which i wasn't very interested in. Eventually I started drawing maps on good old-fashioned grid paper, which we were required to buy for math class anyway.
The only problem was, I couldn't persuade my friends to play. Everyone agreed that the concept was cool, but drawing cardboard chits out of a box instead of rolling dice just seemed so lame. We would get together after school, start a game and find ourselves sitting around an hour later, tired of fishing for chits and following grid paper maps.
Not long afterwards, we discovered the hardcover books, the modules, the multi-sided dice and all the weird supplements that worked to prop up the imagination. It was the golden age of Dungeons and Dragons for me and my friends, which started with a box in the mail and ended when I kissed Wanda Mosher at the age of fourteen.
Our roles shook out according to our personalities. I was usually the Dungeon Master, because I was the sort who only liked games if I had godlike control over the proceedings. Calvin was usually a magic user because it gave him access to an ever-replenishing bag of rats, which he would throw at every door, locked chest or glittering underground pool. Dwayne was the first to get bored and start fighting with his mother. Why we kept playing at his house, I have no idea.
Despite the game's resemblance to the fantasy literature I loved as a child, there were some crucial differences between, say, Alice In Wonderland and the Alice gaming modules. The scenario certainly resembled the fictional universe set up by Lewis Carroll, but the constant application of rules to meet the gameplay framework sapped the life out of things. It's hard to be transported by the strangeness of a talking flower when you find out that it has hit points.
The relentless quantifiability of Dungeons and Dragons bothered me. It seemed antithetical to the proper use of the imagination. So one evening, when I was tired of rolling dice to determine if a player had been kicked by an orc, I dispensed with numbers altogether.
We were playing a module called Baba Yaga's Hut. The scenario appealed to me because it wasn't set in plain three dimensional space. Instead, the players entered a small hut (on a pair of giant chicken legs!) and found an interior far larger than the exterior. The map was twisted and recursive and made less sense than a double Mobius strip. Once inside, though, the players were faced with more or less the same bag of monsters and traps. What good was all this crazy space if its contents were dull? So I began to make it up.
Room to room, I started riffing on details, editing and deleting where I saw fit. I started to create a mystery revolving around a set of characters who had traveled through time after entering the hut. Then I pulled the players out of time and put them in a modern city, chasing monsters around with modern-day weapons. I had no rules for guns and I didn't need them. Then I brought them back to the hut. I took them from there and placed them elsewhere. I suggested, without actually saying so, that the twists in time had caused the characters to exist in multiple places within the hut, with the result that they were always chasing their tails from room to room. After a while I realized that none of us were touching the dice or trying to map the route; we were conjuring up a story together, and it was more satisfying and more strange than any game could be.
After that game, Dungeons & Dragons lost a lot of its appeal to me. I had turned a game into a story, and it made me realize where my true interests lay. So thanks to D&D, and thanks to Gary Gygax, for that. Although that game may have delayed my discovery of girls by at least a year.
The city I live in has one strip club, and this strip club boasts only one permanent stripper. Bylaws have shoved it to the post-apocalyptic industrial park on the northeastern edge of the city, where it cannot contaminate any of the city's schoolyards, parks, or residential zones. In turn, the strip club cannot be contaminated by a liquor license, which means that all your drinking must be done on the way to the establishment. Dancers is one of the few clubs that requires a designated driver to get to the place, but not to go home at the end of the night.
I've never visisted the understaffed and underboozed place, but like most people in my demographic - guys! - I've gone to at least one strip club. The experience was evidence that the universe is a morally indifferent machine in which we are free to build our own engines, and that, when magically cross-fertilized with naked women, a beer will cost you eight dollars.
In the late summer of 1998 I went on a trip to Calgary to visit old friends. For a couple of days we hung out, spent our afternoons and evenings talking, drinking, watching movies, until J___ - a filmmaker with a taste for masculine entertainments that included martial arts movies and monster truck rallies - suggested we all get in a cab and go to the strip club downtown. We relied on J___ to initiate these kinds of things. He had a talent for turning the sleazy and unpalatable into a kind of innocent fun, on par with producing an explosion from a chemistry set.
J___ and I sat in the back of the cab. T___ sat in the front seat and talked to the driver. T___ had a talent for guessing a cabbie's country of origin and then asking about the political situation over there in Eritrea, or Romania, or wherever it happened to be.
The club, a long low flat-roofed building decked out in dark brown shakes, was located only a few blocks south of the river. As we approached the doors we could see the thick river life in the angled light, gnats and dragonflies and plant spoor drifting around us. I had expected the doors to open up on a hallway or a vestibule - somehow the notion of a strip club demands a transitional space - but instead they opened directly into the darkness of the club. A bouncer on a stool, the usual bodybuilder in black jeans and T-shirt, motioned for our IDs and passed them in front of his eyes briefly before gesturing us inside.
In the dark, the jostling crowd of men seemed like shadows expelling the heat of the summer day outside. A waitress caught our attention and motioned us to a booth about ten or fifteen feet from the stage, placed centrally and washed in cold blue light. A woman with brown hair and pale blue-shadowed skin was finishing up her act with a coda that would become extremely familiar as the evening ground on: she was sitting on the floor with her legs cocked up and out, a rolled-up poster balanced neatly on her crotch.
A crowd of guys were taking turns aiming loonies and toonies, trying to dislodge the poster. Coins twanged off her legs and stomach. She smiled with every coin that came flashing through the dark at her.
What do you know, I thought. I have never met that woman, never spoken to her, never learned a single thing about her, but already I've seen her naked. It was a complete reversal of intimacy. I wondered how many men had walked into strip clubs for the first time and had that thought.
My next thought, as I watched more and more loose change being thrown at her crotch, was that strippers had benefited more than anyone else from the adoption of one-dollar and two-dollar coins.
While the waitress took our order, the woman had left the stage, her costume and props gathered up under one arm, a bouncer escorting her through the crowd to the back. My eyes were adjusting to the engineered shadows that kept the crowd anonymous, and as the beers arrived, I started to look around at my fellow patrons.
A row of eager drunks, one wearing a white slip and a faceful of artlessly applied makeup, were whooping and doing shots along gynecology row at the rim of the stage. In the nearest booth sat a group of women in flannel shirts and stylized mullets, all of them shifting their eyes around the room and taking serious swigs from bottles of Pilsner.
The DJ suddenly piped up: Hey, any homosexuals in the audience tonight? A beat went by, then: Nah, didn’t think so. I glanced over at the women to see if they had noticed the unintentional slight, but they were too involved with staring straight ahead and waiting for the next girl. Maybe they’d heard the line before. Or maybe one had dragged the rest down on a whim to the strip club, and now they were adrift in a sea of straight white men.
I rolled a cigarette. As I ran my tongue along the strip of glue, a gigantic arm reached out of the darkness and curled itself around my shoulder. A man in a mint green polo shirt with a blond cube-shaped head was holding me by the shoulders. A silly, drunken grin wavered across his face.
— Hey buddy, how’s it going?
— Good, I said. What else can you say when the Aryan Nation has captured your upper body?
— What are you smoking there? Any of that funny stuff?
I pointed at the pouch of Drum on the table. No, just a cigarette.
— ‘Cause you look like a guy who’d have some of the funny stuff.
— Just tobacco.
— Okay man, he laughed, then delivered a solid, manly, almost paternal clap to the back. That’s good. That’s good. Then he wandered off, leaving me to wonder whether I’d just talked to a jock with a taste for adventure or a cop looking to bust someone in the off-hours. Always be closing, I guess.
— Alright gentlemen! The DJ boomed out. Are you ready for some more girls? It turned out the crowd was indeed ready. Our next dancer was Miss Nude America for the last two years running, and she’s here all the way from Cali-FORNIA!
The erstwhile Miss Nude America stepped up in a blaze of light, giving the crowd a strong-jawed grin that reminded me more of a performance athlete than a pole dancer. She whipped her long ash-blond hair out from her cloak and started to move around the stage in a propulsive step that I could only describe as a muscular skipping. She shed her cloak, revealing a weight-trained body with a pair of breasts that looked a bit like pinkish apples bolted high up on her chest.
With a graceful wave to the audience she skipped over to the pole and began to weave herself around it, threading her body in and out of pose after pose. It was more like watching naked gymastics than anything else – impressive but not very erotic. Not that the crowd cared. What was most important to them was the very fact that a woman had taken her clothes off in front of them, that she was smiling as she spun her body around a pole. Here at last was the kind of woman they all imagined they wanted, one who would show up and demand nothing but that you watch.
Midway through the spinning, another woman jumped onstage, and the cheering rebounded. She had the same kind of muscular body as Miss Nude America, but a little slighter. She took up the pole while Miss Nude walked around the stage or slunk around on all fours. Eventually both were slinking around, and every so often they would mash their bodies together and hold the pose while the crowd, already cheering, erupted.
After a few minutes of crawling around, Miss Nude and Also Nude started pulling out posters and doing that human carnival routine where men lined up to throw the contents of their pockets at the women’s twats. A couple of the seated women got up and joined in, which prompted a wink and a bigger smile from Miss Nude. The guy in the slip fell over in mid-throw and the bouncers hustled him away.
The music dipped in volume and the lights dimmed. Okay, said the DJ, let’s hear it for Miss Nude America and her friend! The crowd cheered and clapped again, drifting over to the bar or back to their booths. The woman I’d seen dancing when I first came in was sitting up at the bar, holding a purse with one hand and grasping a tumbler with the other.
I took a sip of my beer and looked back at the stage. Miss Nude and her friend were still there, gathering their clothes and remaining posters from the floor. Then they knelt down and began to hunt for change, plucking loonies and toonies from the floor with their laquered nails.
The sight of the dancers gathering change and dropping coins into their cloaks was more shocking and intimate than their sudden and casual nakedness. Even though they were surrounded by people, they were as separate from us as if they were already backstage, putting on street clothes and lighting cigarettes. This was the strangest reversal of the night, the sudden convex rupture of private space into the middle of a crowded room.
A few years later I visited T___ again, and he asked that we go back to the strip club. It was a cold weeknight, and T___ had armored himself in his black trenchcoat. The club was close to empty. The dancers seemed older, or heavier, and a few had dark circles under her eyes.
— Thanks for coming out tonight, T___ said.
— No problem, I said. This time around, I knew better than to watch the dancers too closely.
— It’s just that I’m really angry at women right now, T___ confessed. The only way I can deal with them right now is to objectify them.
To that frighteningly perceptive statement I had nothing to say.
Remember, remember the thirteenth of December? When I wrote about my surgery and promised to follow up with further tales of recovery? And I didn't? Because I do this sort of shit all the time? Okay, here's the follow up.
Part I can be found here.
The first thing I think is: Why is it so noisy all of a sudden? Then: Does anyone else notice that the walls are a different colour? And then I realize that the surgery is over, I'm out of the anaesthetic, and I'm back in my adjustable bed, staring at a strip of fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Children are talking and yelling nearby. The echoes of their voices cheat my senses. I have no idea of the dimensions of the room, but the place seems huge. I imagine a space like a cathedral. Scenes from Flatliners mix around in my brain. A nurse sweeps by.
After a moment, I realize that I'm lying flat on my back, tucked tightly into blankets. It has been nearly eight months since I've been able to lay down like this without nauseating, bone-scraping pain. I guess that means success? I try on a feeling of relief, but it seems inadequate. All I can think is No more pain. As if someone had written the words down on a card and placed it on my stomach.
Not only do I not feel pain, I don't feel much of anything below the waist. I wiggle an arm underneath the blankets until I can poke at my leg. It feels like I'm poking through layers of canvas, or I'm poking someone else's leg and they're telling me via telegraph what it feels like.
I try to move my legs, but it doesn't feel right; muscles in my torso are hauling at the muscles in my hips, but everything's kind of numb and the blankets are pinning me in place with the weight and tenacity of a circus strongman. Then I try poking at my genitals. Numb. Well, hello, worst-case scenario! My pulse goes up, my throat constricts and panic blows into my brain.
— Nurse? Excuse me. Nurse?
The recovery ward nurse, who is actually dressed in white (or am I imagining that?), appears over the bed. — Yes?
I'm trying to keep the panic out of my voice, so I enunciate very carefully. I think it makes me sound like a crazy man. — I'm numb below the waist.
— Oh, she condescends. You feel that you're numb below the waist?
— I don't feel that I'm numb. I am numb. Now I'm trying to keep the irritation out of my voice. The anger feels better than panic.
The nurse promises to get the doctor. Someone comes and takes my temperature, and apparently it is worrisomely high. — But it's not untypical after surgery, the someone reassures me. Big deal. I can't feel my junk. Oh yeah, and my legs are numb.
My neurosurgeon pops his head over the edge of my field of vision. — The recovery nurse tells me you feel that you are numb.
Previous conversations with my surgeon have taught me to be as precise as possible. — I have extremely reduced sensation below the waist. I realize as I'm saying this that I can feel my butt. Except for my butt.
— You can feel your buttocks?
How often in your life are you going to be asked that question?
He pulls the blankets down and exposes my right side, then brushes his fingers very lightly on my hip and thigh. — Can you feel that?
He's brushing so lightly that it's hard to tell. — A little bit.
He pulls the blanket back into place and holds up his hands in a what-more-can-I-do gesture. — You are okay, then. We didn't work on any of the nerves in that area at all.
I am gobsmacked. Did my doctor just ask me a trick question?
We had to move aside a lot of nerves to get at the disc protrusion. It was very large. I'm not surprised that you're experiencing some reduced sensation.
What he is saying, I realize, is We tugged at those nerves to fix you and they're damaged now and that's too bad. Go reread your consent forms.
— I can't feel my genitals.
He nods, as if this is all expected.
Will I get the sensation back?
— Oh, possibly. Nerves regrow, but it takes some time.
— How long?
— A while. You will meet with the physiotherapists today or tomorrow, and they will help you. Do your exercises and you will be just fine.
He leaves before I can lift up one of my legs and smack him with it.
The recovery nurse, the one at whom I'd snapped earlier, looms over my head. — Let's get you back to your room now.
— He didn't do one thing to ease my mind.
— He's a very good surgeon, the nurse responds. Two porters push my bed out of its dock, and I'm off.
Is that enough for today? Yeah, let's end on that ominous note. More soon in the epic saga, which is now about my junk.
Note: not heartwarming in any way.
Guten Tag. What did you get for Christmas? Consumer electronics goods? A complement to your home entertainment library? A puppy? Because I threw up. Aaaaall day I threw up, starting a couple of hours after I got out of bed and ending about 1:00 am, when pure fatigue overtook my nausea.
I really hate throwing up. When nausea threatens, I withdraw into myself and project my consciousness onto the project of not throwing up. Deep breaths, non-pukey thoughts, silence and stillness. I become a monk of the calm stomach. But Christmas broke me, made me throw aside my monastic vows and glue the tonsure back on my scalp. By the sixth or seventh trip to the bathroom I'd given up on all my fancy mind-over-vomit techniques. Instead I resigned myself to chugging water between episodes, if only to avoid burning my throat with dry heaves.
Even though I didn't have a fever, my brain started to fracture and echo around midnight. I started falling asleep in my seat and having strange dreams. The last one I remember before I fell properly and dreamlessly to sleep involved Argentina. According to my dream, Argentina had reinvented itself, to the point that the country had founded a new language and a new system of logic to support the weird recursive referents of the new language. There were no images in the dream besides alternating scissorlike flashes of light (which may have been my eyelids slipping open). There was only a voice, constantly quizzing me on the new speech of Argentina and its preposterous assertions. I struggled to get it right, but the voice kept correcting me. It was grade three all over again. Thanks a lot, Mrs. Houghton.
SPECIAL SOUP-MENTIONING ADDENDUM
Schmutzie made me some soup in the evening which was really good. I asked for her some clear broth and she whipped up this Asian beef bouillon with carrots and onions that made me feel twenty times better. I threw it up and all, but it was great while it lasted.
The actual story isn't quite finished yet (ie., I'm still twisted around like a bendy straw) but with part three, we arrive ever closer to the present. Check out parts one and two for yer perusing pleasure, ya sadistic bastard.
Sure, the place is ugly, shadowless and decorated with industrial auction furniture, but at least I’m not alone. A woman with a layer of tan over her varicose veins is braced against the receptionist’s desk.
I was referred here by van Heeren, the woman says. She has long curly hair that looks as if she's just run here from the shower. With a pair of flip-flops and a black t-shirt pulled down over a loose stomach, she imparts a strangely casual but institutional air to the office, as if the place is attached to a minimum-security woman's prison.
We have no paperwork on you, Ma'am, the receptionist says.
Phone them, the damp-haired woman insists.
I sit down on one of the metal-frame chairs. It's going to be a while before Dr van Heeren is roused from his mountain fastness to fax over some recognition of Ms. Ex-con.
After a surprisingly brief wait, the receptionist calls me into the doctor's office. The doctor is not there, and I understand that I’m meant to continue sitting and waiting, but without the stack of Cosmo magazines or the gurgling water tank. Why do they call you into the doctor’s office if the doctor is not actually in the room? I’ve never understood it.
The room has two chairs. One is the same vinyl-padded metal model that I escaped from, the other is a swivel-back office chair on wheels. The comfortable seat faces away from the door, which means that I’m to take the unfolded vinyl cube. I consider pulling the other chair around, but then the door opens and Dr. K. parades in. He holds his body straight as he turns to close the door, as if his legs and spine were threaded together and pulled taut.
He avoids eye contact until he settles in to his chair, swinging one leg over his knee and leaning back slightly, a shift in axis calculated to make me feel just a little bit at ease. Despite the fakery - or is he just a bit nervous? - I do feel a bit more relaxed.
I also find his face relaxing, which confounds me, because he has a peculiar complexion like blonde fudge trowelled thickly over cheekbone and jaw. The troweller left only a bit of space for his eyes, which have an obsidian glitter to them, which makes me imagine a skull of semiprecious stone covered in light-brown putty. He pulls up his lip to show teeth, and of course it's a welcoming smile.
So, he announces, I am Dr. K, a neurosurgeon. What can I do for you?
The accreted particles of goodwill blow away with that question. He's been reading my file. I've been to doctors, chiropractors, therapists, that guy with the needles and the little electric box: he knows all this. But of course he wants to hear it from me. So I begin to explain myself as if it's a job interview, and I can hear the severity of my problem begin to fade with exposure to the air, until I finish practically apologizing for the inconvenience to his busy day. Dr. K, who has presumably satisfied himself on the question of my submissiveness to doctors, tells me to get up on the table.
Dr. K owns the highest doctor's table I've ever encountered. Under normal circumstances there's no way I'd risk the pain of hoisting myself up on this thing, but normal circumstances had long ago run galloping into the woods, so I propel myself up.
The maneuver creates several different kinds of pain in different spots all over my body. First comes the standard pain of putting weight on my feet, which causes the tops of my feet to prickle, as if brushed by a match; then the surprising shock of jerking my body off the ground with my hands, which lets my hips feel the weight of my suspended legs for a second. The pain runs up from my hips to my shoulders as I twist my weight, and then my butt hits the table, which causes a starburst of pain radiating from the small of my back all through my hips and legs.
Okay, Dr. K says, lie on your back please.
I may not be able to do that, I say, still breathing deeply to expel the pain.
Oh, I think you will have to, Dr. K says. He's examining the X-rays I brought from home.
So I lay on my back. It's about as much fun as I'd imagined. K is studying the X-rays very closely, murmuring 'oh yes' and 'I see' to himself. I distract myself by looking at the bald spot clutching the back of his head, where it's all set to feed and grow.
Then it's test time. Or maybe it's just time to push my toes with his thumbs and run a little wheeled spur over my legs. I've had these tests so many times I feel like shouting out the answers before he gets to the questions.
Which one do you feel more, he asks, running the spur over one calf, then another.
The left, I say.
He runs the instrument over the shanks of my feet. What do you feel there? he asks.
That one's numb, I venture, trying to get it right. The other is... not numb...
No, he interrupts, it is not 'numb' and 'not numb,' it is subtle. There are subtle differences.
Then I remember that I'm an adult.
If you want the right answers, I say with my head raised a bit, then I need you to be absolutely clear with the questions.
He runs the spur over my feet again.
Which one do you feel more?
After the tests are over, he motions towards the floor. Okay, he says, you can get down now.
I roll on my side and take a leap to the floor. The pain hits again and I bend double to absorb it. I straighten up as best as I can, looking like a marionette hung on a hook.
Dr. K regards my ridiculous posture. For the first time in my life, I understand what the phrase incredulous look means. His eyes seem to protrude slightly to capture me at a wider angle.
Is that how you stand without the cane?
He turns me around and lifts my shirt. Oh my, he says. Oh my.
I will schedule you for a CT scan. The problem is that you must lie flat for ten minutes.
I will need a lot of painkillers.
Yes, he nods, and looks over my chart. You are young enough to take a lot of Dilaudid. I will write you a prescription. Before the CT scan, take 4 extra-strength ibuprofen and 4 mg of Dilaudid. Okay?
Amen, I think I say. I mean Okay. And it's good to be young. Or at least young enough.
I walk out with a prescription for smack and a CT scan in my near future. Joy.
Next up - Part 4: The Doctor and the Doughnut.
The day before yeestuh-die* I wrote Part 1 of my ongoing attempts to see the neurosurgeon. Much comment on the obvious craziness of my experience was offered. Here’s the second
and final thrilling installment.
Eventually I drop the chiropractor. His office is across town, my back gets better and worse, and anyway I’m getting tired of arguing politics with him.** I’m just getting tired.
My physical therapist gets married to another physical therapist. They move to British Columbia. My new physical therapist is the guy who owns the place. He is a terrifyingly well-muscled man who could use me as a backscratcher. He brings in a young woman named Stephanie with distractingly huge breasts to see what a really bad back looks like. He explains my condition to her breasts. Then he promises her breasts that he’ll get me in to see my specialist within two weeks.
I wait out the two weeks, but the specialist doesn’t call. My physical therapist lied to Stephanie’s breasts, damnit. I would have treated them with more respect than that.
July hobbles off. Hello August! My father recommends a nearby chiropractor – not because he has any faith in the efficacy of Greco-Romanesque spine twisting, but because this chiropractor hunts the health system with an elephant gun. So I make an appointment.
My new chiropractor is named Dave. He has one dead eye, which I find surprisingly comforting. After five minutes of tests I’ve been run through so often that it seems choreographed now, he’s given me an unofficial diagnosis: a midline fracture and disc herniation somewhere in my lower back. He draws a picture on the lightboard that looks like a squid with its brains leaking out.
Who’s your doctor? He asks.
Boembe, I says.
Ah, Boembo, Dave says. You’ll never get in to see him. His waiting list runs twelve to fifteen months.
Somewhere in the back of my brain I know how terrible this news is, but my despair centres have been overtaxed. They don’t give a shit.
Tell you what, I’ll call another doctor, he says. Hold on.
He gets on the phone. Hi, this is Dr. Dave, he begins. I’ve got this healthy young man here with a really bad back. Looks like a fracture and a herniation. Yeah. Okay? Okay, thanks.
He hangs up.
Okay, he says, they’ll call your house and get you in by the end of the month. If they don’t call you in the next few days, let me know.
I check the room, but Stephanie and her breasts aren’t there. This is a sign of hope.
By next week the specialist still hasn’t called. I tell Dave. He’s got me on the table with my legs twisted around and my arm draped over my head, like I’m a lousy actor pretending to be dead from a long fall. He takes his hands away and goes to the phone.
Hello? This is Dr. Dave. I talked to you last week about this patient here and he’s still waiting for a call. Oh, you did?
I shake my head. He rolls his eye.
Well he didn’t get that call. Uh-huh. That sounds great.
Okay, he says to me, You’re in for September 5th.
The next day the specialist calls. I’m bumped to September 13th.
On September 4th I have an appointment with Dave in the morning. A muscle in my hip feels like it’s been lovingly slow-roasted over smoking charcoals. Dave watches as my skin turns pale and sweat starts beading on my forehead. I’m exhausted and sick with pain.
Sit down Aidan, he says, and leaves the room.
He comes back in. You go home right now and get some rest. I got you an appointment with the specialist for 1:00 in the afternoon.
And just like that, I was in to see the neurosurgeon.
I’ve been in many ugly offices in my life, but I’ve yet to see one as perfectly ugly as the neurosurgeon’s office. All the angles are square and brutal. Fluorescents bathe every surface in the same reflective glare. It’s as if the architect had a fear of shadows. Worse is the colour scheme, which combines a flat maroon with industrial teal and a light blue that somehow manages to capture the very worst notes of grey and green.
I wonder if the doctor’s assistant notices the colours, but then I see that her scrubs are a slightly washed-out version of the maroon walls.
Close your eyes and wait patiently for Part 3.
*I’ve hired a New Zealander to say “yesterday” in all my blog posts for the next six months. Believe me, it really takes the stress off.
**I knew when he quoted Ronald Reagan one day that we were off a rocky start. I can almost understand American ideologues who suck up NewsMax and Firedoglake fodder for the next day’s talking points, but when a Canadian does it, it ceases to make sense.
I wuz a-surfin this morning when I should have been a-workin and I found a story on The Civilians, a documentary theatre troupe that stitches together plays from interviews with regular folk about subjects serious and trivial. Their latest show is about lost things. Apparently they'd approached people and asked them to name one thing they'd lost. The answers ranged from the mundane (socks) to the tragic (love, loved ones, faith etc).
So what's the thing you've lost that you can't let go of? It can be anything, from an object to a memory to a vast metaphysical conceit. I lost my sense of adolescent entitlement in my early twenties. That one hurt: I remember the moment that the blind confidence that had propelled me through the decade suddenly crumbled. I was walking in a 7-Eleven parking lot. A car full of grade-A assholes pulled into the lot and started shouting insults at me. I was walking across their chosen parking spot.
They didn't even really give a shit. I happened to be in the wrong spot, so they decided to throw out a few insults and wait for me to keep moving. I was no different from anyone else who could have been standing there at that moment; my body just held a place, and it was just a body. My mind, my personality, the entire history that I carried around with me and held out in front of me, meant bupkus to the shitheads in the car. It meant bupkus to the shitheads inside the 7-Eleven. At that moment I perceived an entire planet full of shitheads who didn't give a rat's ass about me. I had to shed a huge part of myself at that moment, unbuckle it and let it drop. And I had to keep walking before the shitheads in the car shouted at me again.
Understand that I'd been shouted at before by people in cars. Cars had stopped suddenly and disgorged three or four guys looking to fight (usually my cue to wave and run). But I grew up in a small town, where the guys in cars were either people I knew or readily identifiable strangers from some town a half-hour away, bored teenagers trawling strange streets. It was a comfortable, nicely circumscribed universe, even if violence circled its curves now and again.
When I left that town at eighteen I took that universe with me. Four years later it fell off me in a parking lot and I've never gotten it back.
Nowadays, when I encounter a car full of jerks, I give them the finger and keep moving.
No Bergman today. Tonight, instead of watching the unraveling of someone’s psyche onscreen, I’m going to get schwacked at a friend’s going-away party. Tomorrow you’ll be treated to my thoughts on either The Silence or Hour of the Wolf.
It occurred to me today, as a 250-pound man braced his weight against my shins and pushed my knees back over my head, that my physical therapist has no clue what’s wrong with me.
Really, not a clue. Every couple of weeks I go in, throw down my $45 and get electrodes attached to my back. Then he comes in and hauls me around on the table like a sack of flour. It hurts. It brings relief. It takes a day or two for my muscles to cramp up again and leave me bent over like an osteoarthritic old man.
I am given exercises to do and cautioned not to do them to excess. What’s excess? In this case, anything that aggravates my back. But movement of nearly any kind aggravates my back, so I push the exercises as far as I can, until a noticeable twinge stands out from the ambient background of pain. I’ve raised my baseline for tolerable pain considerably over the last six months.
For months now, I’ve been aware that no one knows precisely what the problem is with my back (there’s a very long waitlist for neurosurgeons here). I’ve managed to put that knowledge in the back of my brain and continue to wait for a date with the MRI. But today, the awareness suddenly hit me that these various specialists, these people whose job it is to align, realign, stretch, flex and mend my body have no idea, beyond a bit of guesswork, what has happened to my spine.
I could tell from the look on my therapist’s face. He was clearly thinking about something else the entire time – another patient, a utility bill, who knows – because he’d given up thinking about me. All he could really do was relieve my pain a bit with the electrodes and restore mobility and strength to my muscles. But he knew that no amount of this was going to straighten me up. Not even if I did the exercises like clockwork for the next ten years. I was thanking him for his help and he was already out the door, on to someone with a problem he could solve.
On the upside, it looks like I’ll be getting my neurosurgeon appointment before the end of the month. Which means I’m only a few weeks away from an MRI, a diagnosis and a decision. My acupuncturist actually told me the other day that he was ‘excited’ to have me as a patient, because my case was so exceptional and extreme. I carry a firm belief that the surgeon will tell me that I don’t need surgery, and that a steroid shot and a brisk walk each morning will take care of it. It’s fun to cling to because I suspect it’s utter bull, and that at some point I’m going to be lying face down on a table with my spine exposed. I only hope that the surgeon has something better than guesswork to go on.
I can write on this blog every day.
Oh yes I can. You know why?
Because I just decided to, that's why. And I have a fever. And let's not forget that I've spent the day half-awake, swimming in and out of fevered sleep, drooling on my pillow and popping ibuprofen.
And smelling, frankly, not so good. I can smell the fever sickness coming off my skin. It's bronzed, toned, rippling skin, but I wouldn't go sniffing at it. Should I get me a shower? Oh sure, but the back pain kicks in, and the nice shower turns into me in a foetal position in the tub with hot water striking at me mercilessly from above.
Let me tell you, there is only one way to spend a four-day August weekend, and that's sick like me. I can't even be bothered to read In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, even though it's right at my bedside. That sort of shit requires concentration, which I don't got today.
A while ago I was talking with a friend about my experience with chronic back pain and I ended up delivering this pithy epigram:
Pain, I said, gives you answers to questions that you didn’t know to ask.
That’s pretty heavy, she said.
Yes, I agreed. I had no idea what I meant.
Xeno, the philosopher who came up with the neat trick of using infinite division to prove that an arrow in flight will never reach its target, must have suffered from chronic pain. Most of the time we live fluidly with our body, letting it get through the basic business of the day. We don’t need to perform any conscious calculations or make minute plans every time we want to get up from a chair and go fix a snack or grab a pen from across the room. Our bodies are full of automatic features, from the basics (respiration, sleep) way on up to the awesome add-ons that we take for granted.
Last Christmas I left the group behind and joined the small club of people who inhabit stripped-down bodies, the ones where most of the add-ons have been vandalized or stolen. I left my body in a bad neighbourhood, I guess. Some people have lost so much that they’ve Vadered up with wheelchairs, prostheses, oxygen tanks and tubes and leg braces. I’ve taken the cyborg-lite route with an extendable black metal cane.
My cane is the signal of my membership in the club of stripped-down bodies. People in crowds seem to sense the cane before they see it, stepping aside and offering a polite excuse me even from a distance of several feet. Everyone fixates on the rubber stopper at the end of the cane as they scoot aside. I wonder if they’re reacting to a primordial fear of something biting at their feet.
The stripped-down body changes your relationship to time. Time in its tiniest increments fills my mind, dogs me when I move and paces around me when I’m still. I spend as much time as possible completely still these days, partly to mitigate some of the pain I experience, but also to be relieved of an obsessive reckoning of moments.
Let me illustrate by way of lunch. I can only walk for so long before the pain in my legs forces me to stop and rest. That’s about half a city block. So my choices are limited to the coffee shop in the lobby of my building. Let’s say I want something better than a newspaper to read, a book or magazine. If I choose to take a book, then I can’t carry anything else. If I take a magazine, I can roll it up and tuck it awkwardly between the cane handle and the palm of my hand. Taking nothing leaves one hand free, but then I’m usually left with the business section from some paper. Taking a backpack or tote is usually too awkward, and the imbalance of weight makes it difficult to stand upright.
By the time I get to the café counter, having used the shortest possible route, I need to sit down again and let my muscles relax. The relaxation is actually a set of spasms throughout my limbs as the muscles try to hold on to the tension. It feels like water boiling under my skin. I usually sit at the edge of the pool with the koi and the man-eating turtles until I can pull myself up again with my cane.
At the counter I order, say, a coffee and a sandwich. The cashier places coffee and sandwich on the counter in front of me. In order to pay, I have to put down the magazine and put my hand in my pocket, but the slight shift in position sets off the nerves in my left leg and I can’t support my weight. I have to prop the cane against a vertical surface and grip the edge of the counter, leaning my hip in to ease some of my weight off my feet. At this point the spasms in my leg have risen to my arms, and they’re starting to shake. My fingers lose their fine coordination and I’m reduced to pulling bills and coins out of my pocket and slapping them on the counter while the cashier, who is used to this display, waits for me to lay down enough money. Finally I’m done and she hands me the change. I stuff the change into my pocket with a jerk, and when I’m lucky it all goes in my pocket. Usually something escapes and hits the floor, which gives me the comparative relief of squatting down to pick it up. Sometimes the cane hits the floor too, which causes anyone nearby to hop backwards. The story about Moses’ staff turning into a serpent must be the expression of a deep-rooted equivalence buried in our hindbrains.
Once the money is taken care of, I’m faced with the dilemma of having ordered one more item than I can carry. The distance between the counter and the table is relatively short, but the act of paying for the food has set off too many spasms, and the best I can hope for is a forward rush to the nearest seat, using the cane as an intermittent brake more than support. The woman at the counter takes the coffee and I take the sandwich. I have to wrap the magazine around the cane handle to get everything to the table in one trip. If it’s a book then I need to take the extra trip or ask for help, which I do frequently.
Once at the table I need to let the tensed muscles in my legs, back and stomach relax once more. After a few minutes I’m okay to unwrap the sandwich without dropping it or sip my coffee without showering drops on my wrist. Even as I read the magazine and eat my sandwich, I’m thinking of the maximum length of time I can spend in my seat before getting up becomes too painful.
Aside from the particular details of pain, this is still pretty much the same decision tree that everyone climbs when it hits lunchtime. In my case, I need to think carefully about every decision I make, because each action produces a degree of greater or lesser pain, greater or lesser convenience. Time is measured out along nerve impulses. The upside of all this is an increased concentration, a more intense attention to the tiny details of my day. It sets me slightly apart from everyone, leaves me free to think about whatever I please. Pain is probably the most backhanded gift I've ever received. Like the time my friends bought me six Guinness, drank five before I showed up, and packed the remaining Guinness in a nest of shredded pornography with a little figurine that broke the bottle, so what I got for my birthday was a box of broken glass and soggy porn and a figurine that somehow had a smug look on its face.
This is not a long story, but it’s a shameful one. Today I ate lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant, which is one of those places with edible cutlery. No, really.
Because of its peculiarities - at least from a North American perspective - Ethiopian food requires at least a few minutes of practice and some basic hand-eye coordination. The menu items are all varieties of wot, which is Ethiopian for oh you tasty goop. Standing in for forks, knives, chopsticks, skewers, tongs and lunch hat is injera, a flat, spongy fermented bread that comes rolled up on a plate, as if you were being served old medieval manuscripts for lunch. You tear off pieces from the scroll of injera and nab the wot from the plate (which is also made of injera). It’s as close as you can get to eating with your hands in a restaurant, outside of a fast food hut or medieval theme joint.
Our waitress turned out to be a friend. I’m making it sound as if I expected the server to be an enemy, or maybe even a nemesis, but it’s more accurate to say that I had no particular expectations regarding the identity of the server before I walked in. Actually, that’s not true. I had thought it might be the woman with the big curly hair and the long face, or maybe the guy with the tiny deep-set eyes and the beaklike nose, so when I saw my friend approach the table with a water pitcher and a tray of glasses, I was surprised at the betrayal of my unconsidered expectations. Hey, maybe this is a longer story than I thought.
The owner of the restaurant (the woman with the curly hair and the long face) evidently overheard the conversation I had with my friend about Schmutzie’s surgery, because she wouldn’t take my money. She pinned my twenty dollar bill on the counter under her long-nailed index finger and slid it back to me. “That’s fine,” she said, and turned to the next customer before I could protest or ask for clarification. "Are you sure?" I said. "Yes, yes," she said, waving her fingers at me.
The best feeling in the world is the hard-won bliss of spiritual enlightenment. The second best is the unexpected grace of free restaurant food. Nonetheless, it feels odd to be getting a free lunch out of my wife’s hysterectomy. Part of me wants to go from restaurant to restaurant to see how long I can survive on free food. Eventually (by which I mean the end of the week) I'll end up at KFC at two in the morning, tearfully begging for a cup of coleslaw. Maybe I’ll wear a T-shirt that says “my wife just had a hysterectomy and my back’s totally gibbled and we’re very, very decent people, with two cats and budding literary careers. Have you seen my pirate imitation?”. If the hysterectomy thing doesn’t get me some gratis French fries, I guarantee you they’ll give me anything I want to keep the pirate imitation under wraps.