Friday, December 30, 2005

Oh, the humanity!

The internet, in case you hadn’t noticed, has changed everything. And by ‘everything’ I refer of course to access to embarrassing celebrity photographs.
Finally a little balance is entering the picture; a picture that since the beginning of time (or women’s magazines, whichever) has been airbrushed, shaded, re-thought, re-drawn and altogether re-imagined, re-presenting women as something akin to Superwoman.
Superwomen - with superskin and superthighs and superboobs.
Inhuman beauty – the excruciating standard of the new millennium.
So the reality is essential I find. And this isn’t a New Year thing, a resolution thing – it’s an essential thing, because in eleven days I am going on holiday. To a beach and bathing suit place for eleven fun-filled days of sun and sand and sucking in my stomach. Hence the need for embarrassing celebrity photographs. Because (and here’s another thing you wouldn’t necessarily know if the internet had never been invented) after scanning the various appropriate websites with even the most cursory of glances, no one with any sense would worry either a tittle or a jot about less than perfectly taught abs, or slightly jiggly glutes or even somewhat wobbly pecs.
Celebrities, we’ve come to see through regular navigation of the world wide web, are just as imperfect (and sometimes excruciatingly more so) as thee and me.
Tabloids you say! Rubbish I reply – because the typical tabloids are notorious for upping the unreal photographic ante with all sorts of exaggerated and photo-shopped visions and versions of worst case scenario famous folks who though human, are regularly presented alongside Batboy, surefire cures for cancer and the woman who gave birth to her mother. Its unreliable evidence: when I go looking for celebrity deficiencies I want mine hot, fresh, real and ready for their close up.
Celebrity justice internet style.
Just last week, I was considering adopting a fourth level vegan diet (you don’t eat anything that casts a shadow) when I stumbled across pictures of Tara Reid’s tummy on The Superficial. Billowing, bumpy and bizarrely puckered and pooched, it seems a botched liposuction treatment has repackaged the starlet and placed her in a container a few sizes shy of the contents.
I smile and pick up a potato chip – I have a better body than the erstwhile star of ‘Taradise’. A better tummy, much less weird non-balloony, unscarred breasts, not to mention the fact that I spend most days sober and wear underpants beneath my skirts. Compared to Ms Reid, I am as shapely as a Victoria’s Secret supermodel and as modest as Queen Victoria enshrouded in the darkest of widow’s weeds.
I am a babe. Compared to Tara anyway.
Encouraged by this initial, enormously satisfying research, I plow on through Awful Plastic Surgery. And here self-esteem goes into overdrive; I note that in comparison to the high-priced celebrity surgical shambles depicted, my lips look like lips… my nose looks precisely like a nose… and my bottom and nipples… are right where I left them.
Heaven. I am thinking of taking up pole-dancing and nude modeling.
Creating a monster you say? No, I reply – I have more than enough insecurities, obsessions and hard-earned humility to counter any unattractive over-weaning self-satisfaction.
Besides, just thirty seconds spent with a photo of Angelina Jolie – a mere ten seconds with one of Charlize Theron – and I am back to the whimpering, gibbering bundle of anxieties of yore; the girl who was thinking they should bring back the Bathing Costume circa 1920… the one that comes compete with bloomers, knee-length skirt, black cotton stockings and full-length sleeves. Oh – and sensible hat.
It’s a see-saw. One minute you’re gloating over Kirstie Alley, the next you’re groaning over Jessica Alba. On the one hand you’d feel confident going toe to toe with Britney Spears, on the other, you’re not sure the planet’s big enough for both you AND Gisele Bundchen. Not and leave you with even a shred of self-assurance that is.
I remember a story about an Elizabeth Taylor sighting, sometime around her Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf days.
“Oh my God, look - there she is,” says the middle-aged lady to her companion. “I remember when all I wanted was to look just like her!”
“Congratulations,” replies her friend. “Now you do.”
So I’ve come full circle. I no longer wish to compare and contrast myself with celebrities good or bad. I don’t wish to feel better because somebody else is falling to bits – or because somebody else got put back together with what looks like a few parts missing. And I don’t want to deride myself by odious comparisons to people who though spectacularly beautiful may also have achieved a particular look with the help of make-up, surgery and digital technology.
I want to be my own judge and critic and cheerleader.
I am going to Barbados and I am going to wear a bikini and I am going to know I am just as good as any famous movie star.
After all, I’m human. Excruciatingly.

Monday, December 19, 2005

K-9 Krunchies

You know that thing where you hear a word or a phrase or an idea seemingly out of left field and suddenly you’re hearing it everywhere? Here’s mine: people eating dog food.
And no, I’m not referring to the sad, almost clichéd, tragic elderly-ladies-and-others-on-welfare-eating-food-designed-for-animals-because-it’s-cheap (though I think that’s pretty much cat food, if clichéd memory serves) but rather humans choosing to eat dog food – because they like it.
Now just because this is new to me phenomenon-wise doesn’t mean I’ve never heard of such a thing. My brother was renowned in our family for trying every type of dog food, wet or dry, treat or medicinal, that came through the door.
Pedigree Chum, Gravy Train, Milk Bones, liver snaps, Gaines Burgers (remember those?) Alpo – everything. He drew the line at rubber bones and chew toys, but other than artificial dog toy stuff, he was pretty much open to everything dog diet related. But that was more than twenty years ago, and like every little brother, mine was a certifiable creepy nut.
(I myself ate a few Good Boy Choc Drops – licked one, then scarfed the rest truth be told – but only because they actually tasted like chocolate; like large, slightly dry Hershey’s Kisses. One hopes they weren’t actually made of chocolate, but even if they were, no matter: I had saved our pets from toxic chocolate poisoning through pure greed. I’d like to tell you I was prescient, but really, it was nothing more than gluttony.)
Anyway, years go by and this week my book of choice is Augusten Burroughs’s autobiographical ‘Running With Scissors’, (hilarious and horrific, just like the jacket copy promises) and I come across a passage where Burroughs is shamed into joining his weird surrogate family in snacking on Purina Dog Chow.
“It was surprisingly tasty,” he reports. “Nutty, slightly sweet with a satisfying crunch.”
Then, apropos of nothing (it’s that out of the blue phenomenon working again) someone mentioned to me their habit of gorging on Kibbles ’n Bits back in their college days. The perfect dorm snack that no one else would steal out of the communal kitchen – but that was just the upside; the real purpose of the purchase was because he LIKED it. Kibbles ‘n Bits.
And I am left sitting here wondering if my brother Chris wasn’t messing with me all those years ago about how “delicious, yummy – come on, you’ve got to try some” the food destined for Charlie, Pip, Sadie and Chloe was. Maybe he was purposely using reverse psychology: he may have been ten, but he was a smart little creepy nut.
Maybe the big secret was that all that tinned gourmet dog food and delectably crispy, crunchy kibble really IS tasty. Maybe he was trying to keep it all for himself. Or, more likely, attempting to maintain his title as weirdest Wilson. No mean feat…
So yesterday I’m at the pet store picking up a little homeopathic arthritis remedy for the dog. (And a little was all it was – it cost a fortune for a tiny bottle; but do I want to sleep through the night unaccompanied by yips and twitches? I do. The cost of uninterrupted slumber? $27 plus tax. But as they say in the credit card ads, the end to sleep deprivation? Priceless.)
I take a lot of stick from people who think I spoil my dog. The truth is, she’s kind of exceptionally cute and small and purse-puppy-ish. They think I treat her like a tiny human, but the fact is, she’s just good value personality-wise. I like hanging around with her and playing with her and even though I put coats on her in the wet and in the winter, I don’t dress her up, or stick little hats on her, or buy her exceptionally pricey toys or treats. Honestly, I treat her like a dog. So I’m a little nonplussed by all this gourmet dog crap.
So there I am, lined up at the till, looking at all the impulse purchases dotted around the counter, more now that the holiday season is here, and trying hard not to get sucked in by the plush reindeer antlers, and tinselly collars with jingle bells, and Santa caps of all sizes – with ear-holes and without – that cost a little too much to be believed, but are just cheap enough to make you waver. And I finally succumb to a small packet of Christmas cookies – in gingerbread man, Christmas tree and wreath shapes. They’re adorable. And the dog demonstrably has a chronic pain disorder and they’re only $1.50. They’re really too pretty to waste on a creature who will lick things off the bottom of my boot, but after all, it’s Christmas and so on and so forth.
Waiting to pay, I take a sniff of the biscuits and am surprised to discover they don’t smell musty or meaty, but cinnamony and spicy and altogether exactly like real gingerbread cookies.
“’Scuse me,” I say to the harried woman behind the counter. (If this shop is any indication, dogs will be having a breakout Christmas this year. Makes you feel a little sad for the Jewish and Muslim pets; though G-d knows, I wouldn’t doubt there are plenty of kosher and halal treats available to the dedicated dog fancier.) “But are these for people or dogs?
“I just wondered,” I continued, “because they smell absolutely delicious.”
“Both,” she mumbles, trying to get the overloaded Interac machine to accept my bruised and wilting card. “People are always trying their dog’s food, so we’ve started making the treats animal and human-friendly. We’re selling loads.”
I’m not surprised. I simply would not be able to tell the difference. By smell that is; you can fool me, but you couldn’t make me eat something displayed at muzzle level, next to the rubber squeak toys and the desiccated liver chunks and hard and greasy pig’s ears.
It would appear however that I am on my own. All over the internet, and hung and stacked throughout pet stores and specialty dog-bakeries throughout the GTA, are human-friendly pet snacks. Not surprisingly, there are even a few high end outlets that sell (and sell well) a whole line of candy treats for man and beast.
“At last, a snack people can share with dogs – and vice versa!” goes the slogan for the snooty online gourmet treat merchant that sells all manner of delectable dog treats:
Dog/People Truffles: 25 for $25; Lickety Splits Dog/People Carob Sticks: 12 for $12; Turtle Dog/People Treats: 4 for $15; and Woofy Pop Popcorn for people and their pets: 3 microwavable packs for $8.
I won’t bother commenting, I’ll just let you do the math.
So we get home and I remove her faux Burberry overcoat, unbuckle her red collar with the initials ‘LW’ outlined in diamante, and measure out a dose of the arthritis-relief medicine. I take a sniff – fascinated now to see if pet remedies also come in dog-friendly flavours – and gag at the viscous brown liquid that smells like a cross between rotten eggs and dog poo. If I could manage it, I’d pinch her nose for her, but I just pry open the gaping maw and squirt the stuff in.
She seems okay, she licks her lips and looks up brightly, clearly hoping for more. Good dog! Truly, the stuff was shudder-worthy, so I tear open the packet of Christmas dog biscuits and offer her a small wreath to snack on before dinner.
She takes it gingerly, as if it was a favour to me and stands there sort of sucking on it ruminatively, before dropping it on the floor. She gives it one desultory lick, before turning around and trotting off into the bedroom, toenails clicking happily on the smooth parquet.
I pick up the biscuit and give it another sniff. Cinnamon and ginger spice. Very nice, very Christmassy. Still a dog biscuit.
Later, I go to join her in the bedroom, but I can’t find her; she’s in none of the usual places – sprawled on the chaise, curled up on a pillow on the bed. I check the bathroom, under the desk, then I spy her in the back of the closet.
She’s licking the bottom of my boot.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Pretty much over

I heard a remark on the radio as I was driving around town this afternoon.
Listening to CFRB (I only listen to Talk Radio now – as a former disc jockey I find it all but impossible to just listen to music – I can practically hear the format under the tunes, and can almost guess which songs the producers will play to take them exactly to the hour, the quarter or the half; it’s distracting is what I’m saying) I heard John Moore suggesting to his guest the Prime Minister that the election, with not so very long to go, still pretty much hadn’t gotten underway.
The Prime Minister had to pretty much agree.
I was relieved. Because as far as thinking about the election myself – considering the issues… listening to the candidates… deciding just exactly how much of a wally Steven Harper is this time around – I haven’t exactly been engaged in the process. My mind has been elsewhere – and unlike years past, this time around I really don’t care.
Of course I don’t mean I don’t care I don’t care – I mean I think “it’s going to be okay”I don’t care; I think that barring some unforeseen major trauma, we’re looking at another Liberal minority or bare bones majority, so I think status quo-wise, everything should remain pretty much, well, status quo.
And I don’t think it’s as a result of that haircut that leads the Conservatives – and I don’t think it’s because the Prime Minister has turned up the scintillation factor, exhibiting heretofore undiscovered reserves of charm, or even because Buzz Hargrove had a meltdown and fell in mad, passionate love with the Liberal party all of a sudden. I think it’s because there are larger issues in play and for the first time in my lifetime, considerations outside our country which may well contribute to the biggest influence on the vote.
There’s just a little too much far right nuttiness out there and consciously or sub, I believe Canadians will not want to contribute any more to it by voting in another conservative-type government that has on more than one occasion flirted with some of the issues and obsessions that have so shockingly distracted the President of the United States and his practically frothing-at-the-mouth Far Right Christian supporters.
The Prime Minister and former PM served themselves, their party and their country well in one thing at least: in making clear in issues as diverse as softwood lumber and same sex marriage – not to mention defining Canada’s non-role in the Iraq war – that they were taking a different tack – and by doing so sailing against the wind and the world’s greatest superpower.
The current PM – and future, I predict – has made his most judicious moves in distancing himself and us from the true evils that beset America in the 21st century. Removed as it may seem from the fistfights and dust-ups that blow up over differences in opinion over the future of private health care, the directions the parties see for a myriad of policy issues and the stand each takes on the issues of personal morality and conduct, the war and its ethos seems to fascinate and terrify Canadians as much or more than American voters.
The Liberals will be voted in again because we trust them not to belly-up to the Republican President; it’s as simple – and as complex – as that. There’s a balance that needs to be struck, as ethereal as it is real, that won’t allow for more right whingeing in North America.
The majority of us get it, I believe, get what it has taken several years and multiple deaths and a few (finally) publicly revealed cock-ups for the majority of Americans to get: that the President and those who serve him are as corrupt and wicked as the wickedest of ‘evil-doers’ they swore to take down when they led as much of the world as was theirs to weasel into the so-called War Against Terror.
In a world more beset upon by terror than ever before, the worst part – or the best, depending upon your point of view – is that though the realization has cost the lives and resources and goodwill that it has, it is based less on the actual war and more on the way in which the President and those closest to him have reacted to any criticism of the war.
As Frank Rich wrote recently in The New York Times, the Administration is on the run – and heaving the most pathetic of non-explanatory bombshells in their wake.
Rather than respond to the recent kafuffle stirred up by Representative John Murtha (D-Pa – and former proponent of the war) who called for an early exit from the war in Iraq by joining the debate on “… how our troops might best be deployed in a recalibrated battle against Islamic radicalism”, the President’s men (and women) moved in like attack dogs seeking the jugular, instead of guard dogs protecting the people, attacking their critics and impugning their characters.
Why no discussion? Why no reasoned explanation? Why call a decorated Marine veteran and hawkish Democrat (and recognized unofficial spokesman for the troops) a coward, (from Republican Congresswoman ‘Mean Jean’ Schmidt: “…cowards cut and run, Marines never do”) or proclaim, as did Vice President Dick Cheney, that anyone who suggested that the Iraq war was entered into on a lie was dishonest and reprehensible, and “… are engaging in revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety.”
(Frank Rich injects a hint of much-needed humour – not to mention uncanny accuracy – into the discussion by comparing Cheney’s over-the-top defensive bombast as reminiscent of the misanthropic Mr. Potter of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life”, he sounded, says Rich “… but one epithet away from a defibrillator.” Beautiful. Right – Potter… or maybe in the Canadian version, Conrad Black; though to be as vocally grandiloquent as his Lordship, Cheney would have to step up not only the wounded disbelief, but the verbal impenetrability factor as well. So far, I still more or less understand the Administration – the words, if not their true meaning.)
The new line from the White House – note: presented with neither shame nor chagrin - is that if it IS true that the war was entered into based on false information about WMD, they were just ONE of the suckers that bought into that theory. Just one of the unfortunately mislead… really no different from anybody else.
Problem is, some of us remember.
This is the problem with the US – they allow themselves to be distracted by this rubbishy legerdemain, forgetting the things that we as Canadians do not forget.
I remember the debate in the UN. I remember Canada, amongst other countries, begging the US to allow weapons inspectors to finish their job, a job if you recall, that at that point had not found anything yet. A job that Hans Blix suggested would take just a couple more weeks.
I remember Colin Powell looking as though some unseen hand had been shoved unceremoniously up his bottom, forcing him into pathetic puppetry as he parroted the words the backroom boys had bullied him into proclaiming, telling the UN Assembly that America, with or without them, would be moving on this the greatest menace to US security since 9/11 – a grave danger threatened from a quantifiable enemy.
I remember the threatening tone with which the US torpedoed the UN.
I remember the constant subtle and not-so-subtle references to 9/11. I remember as the pursuit of Osama bin Laden faded and the search for Saddam Hussein took centre stage. I remember the move from Iraq to Afghanistan measured in weeks, the move out of Iraq still potentially many years.
Until recent months the President and his men (and woman) could depend upon their supporters to take what was given them (‘Mission Accomplished’; 9/11 + Saddam = justifiable war on Iraq; detractors = traitors; torture = effective interrogation) with neither complaint nor question. Now that the numbers are shifting (approval ratings: Bush – 36%; Cheney – 27%) the White House is discussing troop withdrawal as if they’d invented not only the term but the practice.
I’ll believe it when I see it.
I believe the President and the Republican Party should be on notice that a substantial portion of the western world and the G-7 nations are viewing the United States with the same awkward embarrassment as would a room full of guests forced to watch their host drunk and with his fly undone, slacks heading south.
There’s a growing sense that enough is enough – it’s time for a sobering shape-up to occur.
(Zip up that fly, slug down some black coffee and get with the program. And by the way, quit inviting your crazy friends over: they’re eating all the snacks, interrupting all the intelligent conversations and spilling blood-red wine all over the carpets and furniture.)
Put simply: we’ve had it – and Canadians are not going to run the risk of sending a mixed message when a clear one is needed the most.
Here church and state are separated. Here we view war as last ditch retaliation, not preemptive first strike. Here we don’t debate the need for universal health care – we argue the delivery of it. Here we tend to vote liberal, and we tend, if not to like it, then to appreciate the message it delivers on our behalf.
Campaign not yet begun?
I believe the campaign is over.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The value of nothing

Canadian Supermodel Linda Evangelista famously refused to get out of bed for less than $10,000.00 a day.
The minimum wage for Canadians (on average) is $7.19 an hour. The highest lowest minimum wage is paid in Nunavut ($8.50 an hour) the lowest lowest minimum wage in Newfoundland ($6.25 an hour).
According to March 2005 Parade magazine, the median weekly wage for an American is $638.00 (half earned more, half earned less). The median salary for men was $713.00; for women, $573.00.
R.O.B. Magazine detailed a few salary and wage figures not so long ago that painted an interesting picture of Canadian compensation.
Bank of Montreal Chairman and CEO, Tony Comper, earned $900,000 in salary in 2003, plus a $1.4-million bonus. Even with the generous speculation by the article’s author that he works 15 hours a day, six days a week, 12 months out of the year, his take-home still averages out to a whopping $491.00 an hour.
A bank teller on the other hand, typically earned between $10.00 and $15.00 an hour, which at the high end averages out to $28,860.00 a year. If you can get fulltime hours.Increasingly, bank-tellering is becoming a part-time job. The low end is getting considerably lower.
Ontario plastic surgeons billed an average of $267,389.
Ontario's ophthalmologists and dermatologists pulled in $376,999 and $355,469, respectively.
The highest-billing specialists in Ontario were heart surgeons, who commanded an average of $448,911 in fee-for-service payments.
A General Duty Registered Nurse of the Ontario Nurses Association earned between $42,413 up to a maximum of $63,785 in 2002.
In the world of high tech, entry-level computer operators start at between $30,000 and $45,000. But help-desk support staff, the human punching bags of high tech, receive considerably less renumeration for being yelled at all day: salaries start at $31,000 and top out at $58,000.
Toronto Transit Union Local 113, says that drivers average, with overtime, $52,000 a year. At the high end, 3% earn $70,000, but according to the spokesthingie who provided the figures, that means they "never go home."
A Toronto Police officer makes about $70,000,
Most Canadian teachers with bachelor's degrees earn $33,000 to $60,000. None of it is tax-free; and they can't deduct home computer depreciation and office supplies.
(Out-of-pocket expenses are considerable-Canadian teachers spend about $430 of their own money on supplies. A British Columbia teacher fares worse; their province's average is $1,095 a year. Maybe that's why 40% of B.C.'s new teachers leave the profession within five years.)
A fulltime ballerina makes about $570.00 per week.
A reasonably successful opera singers is lucky if they make $25,000.00 a year after expenses.
No matter how enthused Gerrge Costanza might have been about his alter ego architect Art Vendelay, architecture, while it may pay big bucks eventually, is a profession with a long apprenticeship. After many years of post-secondary education, interns make between $27,000 and $45,000 a year. Associate architects with a small firm can make $50,000; associates with a big firm can make $130,000. Senior architects earn between $39,000 and $75,000. It’s not going to put them in a palace
An executive chef's salary ranges between $40,000 to $90,000, depending on the reputation of the restaurant and the chef. A good waiter in the same establishment, in a good year, earns around $40,000, tips and the minimum-wage hourly rate combined.
The best job I ever had paid about $4000.00 an hour. I worked mere minutes a day for a relatively outrageous annual salary. I had that job for three glorious years.
The worst paid job I ever had was painting a big old barn ‘Big Old Barn Red’. It took a high school friend and I about a week and I think we earned less than $50.00 each. Of course those were American dollars, so adjust your opinions suitably upward please.
These days I charge about $75.00 an hour for writing (for government and corporate clients) and get paid between 35 cents and a couple of bucks a word for magazine or newspaper publications.
But the most important thing I do doesn’t pay a penny, though at the risk of sounding hearts and flowers (and violins – why not) corny, the compensations are priceless.
So it’s not the ‘nothing’ that bothers me; it’s what I’ve recently come to realize is a nearly complete lack of value placed upon what I and other volunteers do.
I’ve been volunteering regularly for more than ten years now. I began at the CNIB reading tons of newspaper and magazine copy for Voiceprint, the ‘audio newsstand’ that broadcasts top national, regional and local stories from more than 100 Canadian newspapers and magazines for the blind, vision restricted, the elderly, or those with problems of literacy or learning difficulties.
I was there for three years. It was a lot of work – reading for a couple of hours straight is a throat-drying, yawn-inducing (you have to remember to breathe properly) strangely exhausting activity, but I can’t tell you the number of times people recognized my voice from this; far more than when I was the voice of two high profile television networks.
The technicians who recorded, edited and broadcast the material were all blind. I’m still not entirely sure how they did it; this was years ago – far before voice recognition software – or any software for that matter. They did it the old fashioned way: by ear and by hand.
After that, my voice a little raw and overworked, I joined up with the Distress Centre for three years. After extensive training and much role-playing through frighteningly well-acted suicide calls, I was accepted as a counselor, speaking with anyone who called in – suicidal, depressed, lonely, shut-in, drunk, handicapped, mentally unhinged, abusive or angry. We were an equal opportunity listening post.
We had to beware of the phone sex callers (cheapskates who would telephone ostensibly to discuss an upsetting sexual problem of some sort or other, but really to get their rocks off) who were often difficult to discern from the legitimately sexually troubled, until their breathing changed and their conversation became erratic. They tended to hang up with a cheery toodle-oo as soon as their needs had been met, sometimes right in the middle of what we might have thought was helpful listening. When they were done, they were done. We tried to catch these calls early, but were always careful not to cut someone off precipitously; genuine sexual problems were legitimately discussed by some of our most anxious and troubled clients. We were there to listen, and if we were occasionally taken in by a caller, (or grossed out by a genuine client) it was simply the price we paid to ensure that everyone who needed it got a fair and sympathetic hearing.
I received precisely one happy call in all the time I was there – from a woman who got engaged late, late at night and had no one to tell until a more appropriate hour, so she called me at 3 AM to share.
A much more typical call would be from someone suffering mental, emotional or physical symptoms that effectively cut them off from society. Lonely, slightly mad, tearful, drunk, stoned or even furious, they’d call from home, from the hospital, or from a payphone in a locked-down ward at the Clarke Institute. Just calling to say hi – or to ask if any of us sitting there in the near dark, softly-lit call room at a hidden location in downtown Toronto could think up a single reason they should carry on. Sometimes we tried to answer the unfathomable, but mostly we listened and befriended and suggested that perhaps one more day wouldn’t be so bad – and the one after that… and then we could go on from there. They could call whenever they needed us.
Suicide was the rarest type of call, but the calls came. It would be nerve-wracking when a suspected suicide would be at the other end of the phone, calling from the platform of a subway station, contemplating when they might jump, or ringing in from home, half-drunk and nearly passed out from an incipient overdose. We were like flight attendants trained in emergency measures who spend most of their time providing comfort and warm reassurances for their passengers (we of course had no sandwiches or tiny little packets of peanuts) but every now and terrifying then, strapping on the life vests and preparing for a crash.
The Distress Centre was an amazing place. We did not have call display, nor were our phones equipped to follow up a call with STAR 69. Clients had absolute anonymity.
We could ask a caller where they were, or try to get their permission to put a trace on their phone if they were becoming incoherent or slipping into unconsciousness, but we were never allowed to meet the clients or take part in their lives away from the phone room on the second floor of the small out-of-the-way downtown church where we took the calls.
We didn’t, for the most part offer advice, or suggestions, or attempt to psychoanalyze the callers in any way. We were simply there to listen, and by listening we befriended.
I would have and could have gone on at the Distress Centre for years, but after three of them, the strain of the overnight shift (we did three daytime and one overnight, midnight to nine shift per month) got to me; it took me ages to compensate for the disruption in sleep, no matter what I did, and the 4 AM blues were beginning to get to me, so I decided to try something else for a while.
I’ve been doing ‘something else’ for four years now. The somewhere I do it is a big hospital in downtown Toronto, famous for its top notch care, cutting edge surgical treatments and life-saving, internationally renowned research.
It’s an enormous place – so enormous, it could take daily shifts of five to ten volunteers, seven days a week simply to direct patients and families around its convoluted hallways and wings to the vast number of clinics and nursing units.
It takes hundreds – more than a thousand people – to support the patients and the variety of comfort and respite programs the people in Volunteer Resources man at no cost to patient or taxpayer.
(There is a budget for the department and four salaried professionals that direct the programs, train the volunteers and cheer us all on, but it’s minimal: splashing out for a sandwiches and fruit punch reception once a year to honour the individuals who donate hundreds of hours a year, for year after year is about the extent of the budgetary possibilities.)
And we’re not Candy Stripers or nice grandma ladies – not that there’s anything wrong either – but the senior citizens are outnumbered by the young and middle-aged professionals and smart as paint students who bear no resemblance to the volunteer of yore: there’s very little pushing of tea carts around. (Precisely: none.) And similarly, though there is plenty of reading to the younger patients, there’s a lot more video game playing and pet therapy and Battleships than The Three Little Pigs.
My colleagues are project managers and account supervisors from top Fortune 500 companies. They’re medical students and teachers and freelancers of all types and stripes. There are a couple of nurses and social workers. We have a retired high school principal (with a practiced gimlet eye, and a warm smile) a top software designer, a government consultant, a lawyer, an executive leadership coach and people who want to spend time usefully as they transition from one career to the next.
Most of us are women and most of us have fulltime jobs or class schedules. Most of us want to be with the patients, but some people feel their gifts are better used away from some of the more upsetting or emotionally charged bedsides, so they fill in in administrative or home-based placements.
We’re just grateful they take part.
It’s a dynamic, exciting, fully-engaging experience that is incomparable to anything else – and would register less value if it were compensated.
That’s really how we feel.
But to discover that because we aren’t paid and our contribution cannot be easily quantified, we aren’t valued beyond a general indulgent condescension, is a blow that is hard for volunteers to take.
We’ve become increasingly aware that volunteers have not been figured into the ongoing strategy planning and brainstorming that accounts for every other position, placement and department in the hospital, and is creating the ‘vision and value statement’ for the next five to ten years.
We’re not there. Not mentioned, not made use of, not factored in, nor accounted for. Our gifts of time and expertise – whether it be for baby-cuddling, game-playing, crafting, reading, pet therapy, hand-holding, shoulder-to-cry-on offering, errand-running, respite care providing, teaching, baby-sitting, computer programming, individual program creation, training, mentoring, organizing, heavy-lifting, traffic-directing, smiling, entertaining… and listening – always listening – is not even mentioned in the presentations, or supporting documentation, or the pages of overview material. Volunteers themselves were not included in the questionnaires distributed everywhere else. With the exception of a very few low-paying clerical positions, volunteers are not considered ‘internal’ for hiring practices, no matter how many years they’ve contributed, no matter how many volunteering or even professional awards they accumulate, no matter their real-world credentials.
But the administration and the board of directors and the foundation that raises extra funds and the friends of the hospital and the corporate sponsors and all the others that receive salaries and compensation to perform their functions and responsibilities for the hospital don’t ask us questions or listen to us if we speak. And they don’t know, beyond the most cursory understanding, who we are and what we provide.
And they should – because our stories are interesting.
Besides my direct interaction with the patients, I am involved in interviewing and selecting candidates to take the training in anticipation of being accepted and becoming a volunteer. I’ve learned that the quality of the people who apply to do this unpaid work with such enthusiasm and commitment are for the most part, there is no other description – extraordinary.
(Privacy issues make it necessary to generalize or exclude any identifying details.)
Yesterday I spoke with three applicants.
The first applicant, a woman in her early thirties was a recent immigrant to Canada. Her English was excellent, her qualifications and experience helping others extensive, and her reason for waiting a couple of months before applying for a volunteer position was that she had been recovering from a lengthy, extensive, life-altering, intensely painful facial surgery.
She looks fantastic now. And she can’t wait to begin. She feels she can relate to patients in pain – she feels she can help by understanding.
The second candidate was a student in her early twenties who had, she told me, been anxious for some time to join the volunteer ranks at our hospital. She told me she had been in a terrible accident some years earlier, knocked over in the street, critically injured; she had been completely paralyzed, brain-injured and on the brink of death. Through the long months and years of recovery, she remembered particularly the volunteers who had become a part of her life – the people who relieved her boredom and kept her company through many lonely days and nights, the individuals who had become a surrogate family - and who she felt she owed a debt of gratitude to. This was the hospital she had spent so much time in; this was the place where she wanted to return.
My third and last interview of the day – and I was already on an emotional high from meeting the first two – was a young woman also in her twenties, also a university student.
We went through the standard introductory questions about her desire to volunteer, her expectations and the qualities she might bring to the position. I was trying to decide which area of the hospital might suit her best and she helped me out by telling me she was studying medicine and was considering a career in pediatrics; she wanted to know how she would feel particularly being around children in pain – if she could cope with the notion of surgery in infants.
“I know the deal from the other side,” she informed me. “I spent a lot of time in a hospital as a child.”
It turned out she’d been in a horrific car accident at the age of five that had killed one of the passengers in the car and had seriously injured her mother and sister. She herself had been comatose for a week, her sister for considerably longer. There were many more weeks of recovery and surgery and months of rehabilitation, but she was fine now – an athlete of some considerable success (and even a little bit of fame) and in between full time classes and a busy sports team schedule, she hoped we’d accept her as a volunteer and allow her to squeeze some of her spare time into our program.
Would we? We would.
The point is this: these women are not unique. As special as they are, there are others with similar stories to tell; people who know the smell of the hospital from the under-side of the sheets in a long-term care bed. They know the boredom and the terror and the loneliness and the pain and the appalling food and the endless days followed by longer nights.
They know what it’s like to see families frozen in agony and fear. They know what so many of even the doctors and nurses don’t know: what it’s like to be helpless and sick and at the mercy of strangers who probe and stick and cut and prod and squeeze and rip and who might have to leave mid-procedure to attend to an emergency. They haven’t just seen patients’ bodies exposed to the elements, they themselves have been exposed to the avid eyes of strangers who never look into their own eyes, but who will know them in ways that even their most intimate relationships will never, and should never achieve.
They are the very best of volunteers.
And they are three more who will join our ranks and disappear from bureaucratic sight because though they will be able to provide a depth and level of understanding and care for vulnerable patients and their stressed-out families, they will receive no salary and so their contribution will amount to nothing.
We need money for more training, more staff and the resources to recruit even more volunteers. We need workshops on bereavement and depression and how to listen effectively.
We need money for training and education of the other healthcare professionals in the hospital so that they can make better use of this enormous, dedicated, resourceful, talented and committed resource.
We need for people to know that the value of volunteering isn’t in the physical health care that volunteers do not and have no business providing, but for the priceless humanity they bring to sick rooms and clinics and isolation wards in a hospital where besides family and friends, they are the only people who enter the room with no agenda to hurt or prod or inject or study or interrogate or frighten, or even to bring appalling food.
We’re there for the human part of them that needs company and fun and distraction and attention and a reminder that they exist as a whole person, and not just as their illness or injury in isolation.
Not being friends or family, they don’t have to comfort us or protect us – from awful information, or even just from their depression – and they don’t have to put on a brave face, or even an interested one. They can even tell us to go away without worrying that we will be hurt or dismayed. Because if we are, they don’t need to know.
This is not a polemic against the health professionals – the doctors and nurses and other front line hospital staff who would probably be thrilled to have the time to sit with a patient and keep them company, allay their fears, hold their hand or cuddle them if they’re crying. But with cut-backs and lay-offs and downsizing and outsourcing, they simply cannot.
And someone needs to do it.
But until a genuine value is placed on work that isn’t paid, the role of the volunteer and the contribution they make will continue to be devalued. Being unquantifiable and non-revenue producing is starting to affect the range of activities we can perform and the array of people being drawn to the task.
We don’t want our heads patted, or our contributions praised, or to be favoured with some meaningless award that allays the responsibility for those whose job it is to weigh and measure where resources will be allocated and the direction in which patient care is going.
We just want to work and to take part and to help the patients and families who need simple human interaction when they are at their most vulnerable. Without taking volunteers into account and without valuing the contribution they can make and the service we provide, the programs and quality of volunteers we can recruit are going to begin to deteriorate.
And the loss may be incalculable.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Are feminists necessary?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was all over the Sunday news shows last weekend, plugging her latest effort: 'Are Men Necessary? When sexes collide'.
Personally, I like Maureen Dowd - a not entirely universally shared opinion. The President is reputed to have a pretty stiff loathe-on for her, and word is, former President Bill Clinton has crossed her off his Christmas card list as well. Interestingly, she claims Bush-the-Father is something of a fan; their bantering and edgy, teasing flirtation a long-standing tradition between the two.
And that's what I like best about her: a liberal who takes appropriate shots at her own side should their hypocrisy rise above generally agreed-upon nausea levels, a Democrat who can find common ground with the political enemy.
The question is, with her new book (already firmly affixed on the New York Times bestseller list) can she find common ground, or even a reason for existence for the gender enemy? The short answer is yes; the longer answer (the: 'but what does it all mean? answer) is somewhat less clear.
What is clear is that adversary or no, she does indeed love the enemy.
Dowd points out, in language and with examples no sentient woman can deny, that the women's movement has arrived in the 21st century somewhat off the rails... missing a wheel or two, or at the very least experiencing a chronic flat tire on the road to absolute equality.
Where once we sought to compete, now we want to be Jerry Maguire 'complete'.
Dowd is considerably older than I, but she clearly began her journey in much the same place I did: that is to say, with expectations equal to her hopes, and trust that the natural order would naturally favour a recognition of the undeniably worthy status of women unquestioned in our hearts. How could it not we thought, living in our own buffed-to-a-high-luster skins, several generations into votes for women, only slightly off-put by the failure of the ERA, striding through the 60's and 70's (Dowd) and the 80's and 90's (me) with the world at our fingertips and the support of our gung-ho mothers close behind.
I think Dowd and I share another root cause for similarity in outlook; a similarity of opportunity that kept our eye off the prize (or focused elsewhere, same dif) in the earliest days of our careers.
As a writer (Dowd) and a then broadcaster (me) we were already occupying pretty rarefied ground; when you have a position even nominally in the public eye, even slightly celebrified (when somebody knows your name) you're already treated better... your opinions sought and noted... your pay packet considerably fuller than those of your contemporaries.
"What's wrong with everyone," I remember thinking. "Why are they whingeing about opportunities and equality? They should do like me and work hard and ask for what they want and show up with a smile on their face."
This was what I really thought, I am embarrassed to admit, completely ignoring the fact that as a disc jockey or television presenter, I didn't actually work all that hard (relatively speaking) and as a young, white, English-speaking somewhat attractive woman, I didn't have much to battle against within the limited range of my pseudo-celebrity.
It didn't occur to me then - and not for quite a few years - that no matter how well I was personally doing in my own little world, equal ease of access was not always on offer to my peers. And in the larger sense we had all sacrificed the larger view whilst dreaming our Mary Richards dreams. (Cute clothes, a cute apartment of our own, a cute job at WJM)
I remember when the penny finally dropped. I was dating this guy, who was even in the late eighties/early nineties bemoaning affirmative action hiring, and stating with that certainty that only the simultaneously miffed and privileged can achieve that women had not already arrived, but were in danger of taking over the workforce. Or at least the part that he was interested in.
"Look at your industry," he said. "There's Pamela Wallin reading the evening news - spreading the word across Canada from as vaunted a position as anyone could ever want. See: women have got it made; they've got nothing to complain about anymore."
"Pam Wallin is reading the weekend news," I replied. "The traditional primetime ghetto for women. She might fill in for the anchor from time to time, but she's just the one occupying the 'Girl' chair for the time being."
He wasn't convinced.
"That's still Prime Time," he said. "Women everywhere get to see her as a powerful person. And that's the measure."
The problem begins. This guy is deciding what the measure of success and satisfaction is for women and young women on the way up.
"Okay," I said. "I accept that things could be worse. (He makes a face.) But in the scheme of things, she's nowhere! There isn't a single woman in a position of power on the board of directors of the network. The only female VP is in charge of Human Resources - another traditional pink collar present from the powers that be."
I began picking up a little steam.
"But there's not a single woman making a decision about what programming is being purchased or broadcast. No women signing any cheques that represent the direction or destination of serious resources, No real decision makers in any positions of any power whatsoever."
I'd like to report that my argument (entirely accurate at the time by the way, and pretty much as described: I remember it vividly) swayed him and made him question his long-held opinions and prejudices, but truth be told, he simply veered off into Margaret Thatcher/Golda Meir territory and I, not wishing to makes a scene/create a fuss/ get him mad, let him go down that twisty pointless path.
Will we still be hearing twenty years from now about the two powerful women who once ruled nations? Even when not a single successor has succeeded?
Time will tell.
But what time has told in the four decades or so, and as Dowd suggests in her book, is that women themselves have done an about face, abandoning not only the movement, but even the word 'Feminism'.
(It's icky - and boys won't like you if you say you are one. They'll ask you if you shave your legs, or wear a bra, or hate men with every fibre of your being. And then how will you get a date to prom?)
The combined power of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution just wasn't enough, or didn't have the staying power necessary to keep the momentum going. We don't - or won't - elect women into the highest echelons of power; we don't - or won't - cough up equal pay for equal work. Still. And we don't - won't has nothing to do with it - band together with our gender to make demands, not for supremacy, but simply for equality.
What's going on? Why did we stop? What's the current status quo?
Dowd relates with anecdotal evidence the mood and modality of young women today. They reject the old feminist movement for its singularity - for being so one-note and punitive. And for not appreciating that some women - even women who want to succeed - resent being told that pretty clothes and high-heeled shoes and appreciating certain male attentions run counter to achieving male-style success.
I get it. I agree with it. I've always been a 'lipstick feminist', with just enough confidence and self-esteem to decide even way back when that I could define the sort of feminism I wished to pursue. It didn't actually occur to me that the day would come when calling someone a feminist (of any stripe) would be tantamount to calling someone a butch-dyke, man-hating lesbian Commie.
So alas.
So now we come to the present, and having lost a lot of steam as we swayed back and forth between desiring economic equality and the right to be mothers or executives or bimbos or any other damn thing we pleased, we've now lost a certain amount of momentum - and a certain amount of certainty.
What do you do when you only have 'Girl Money' (an actual new term: it means not having the sort of money one would refer to as boy money - i.e. a goodly amount) and the boy of your dreams asks you out to Susur or the Four Seasons? Do you pull out your mortgage agreement and calculate the cost of acquiring a second on it, or do you sit back, relax and enjoy as your paying host offers you seconds on dessert?
It's a conundrum alright - but only for women over forty. For our younger sisters, it's a confusing reality. How do you play and fight with the enemy? When do you put on ladies-who-lunch gloves, and when do you drop the gauntlet?
For Dowd - and I admit, for me - the most disappointing result of the defunct feminist movement is the argument it made and sold, the argument we accepted and bought: that the best thing about being a feminist was that you could be as smart and equal and ballsy as you wanted and you could still enjoy the attentions of men.
For Dowd apparently - and for me, definitely - the upshot is that the men we wanted to attract were more likely to be attracted to women who weren't interested in competing. Not that there's anything wrong with that - it takes all kinds, which was one of the dropped balls of the feminist movement - but as Dowd writes, she has come to realize that men find her 'draining'. For myself, I've heard 'exhausting'.
The irony is, I feel the same way.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Death car for cutie

Okay – I’m one of those annoying people who name their cars. Precious? Sappy? Sentimental? So?
Sylvia (a fourteen year old silver Mazda 323) simply feels like a pet – a pony or a donkey or a really large and dopey dog – and I just know she performs better for me for my recognition of her unique character and dauntless spirit.
Perhaps if I had a Range Rover or something sleek and sophisticated and expensive and gorgeous I would be too cool to name it – perhaps start calling it my ‘automobile’ or my ‘motor car’, but until that transformative day, I’ll likely be scooting around in a grayish silver five-speed hatchback, that while she sucks at acceleration, maintains a nimble handle-ability even at high speeds. Even as much as 120 k!
Not every Mazda 323 has a character, but mine does.
Purchased off the gay equivalent of the proverbial little old lady who only drives on Sunday (my guy was a fit and eco-conscious anorak-wearing homosexual, who for the most part eschewed the car for the exercise benefits of the ten speed) Sylvia was born (rolled off the production line) in 1991 and slipped into her own slip in my underground parking garage sometime in 1995.
She came in perfect, top notch physical condition – every button and toggle responding, her windshield wiper fluid filled to bursting, her antifreeze topped off, an oil change and tune up in her recent past. And to top it all off, Sylvia cost a mere $2000.00.
(Okay – interesting aside: I just nipped downstairs to take the laundry out of the dryer and stopped to pick up my mail... ‘Grand Touring Automobiles’ has sent me a personally addressed invitation to test drive an Aston Martin DB9, Jaguar XK-R, Range Rover Sport, or “…possibly a Bentley Flying Spur. Whatever your selection we will be pleased to assist you.” I’ll bet. I might just take them up on it, if only to see their faces when I alight from a Japanese car. Yeah – that’s the thing that will raise their eyebrows…)
Look: ten years with no car payments, minimal insurance with my spotless driving record, and never a flat tire or a break down. She parks on a dime and a tank of gas lasts weeks. The best $2000.00 I ever spent. Why wouldn’t I give such a splendid performer an affectionate name?
She’s not the first car I christened. I had an ancient British racing green Mini I called Martini – she looked like an olive – and a navy blue Toyota I named Lola. (She was a Corolla.) Both of them terrific cars, both unbelievably dependable and resilient… both I remember with great affection.
But Sylvia – well, she’s just been around so much longer, has seen me through the ups and downs and vagaries of a life less ordinary, and she’s captured my imagination in a way that demands a tribute or a recognition of some sort: a thanks-for-a-job-well-done something or other, anything really to mark what looks like potentially her last year of service to a grateful owner.
Because she’s faltering a little –just a little here and there – but in ways and areas that signal a deeper malaise.
Her springs are no longer springy. She goes over speed bumps even at a snail’s pace with a jarring bump – and no recoil; when we’re down, we’re down. She’s reluctant in first, dithery in second and downright obstinate in third. (Fourth and fifth are still smooth so far – but there’s not much use for fifth, or even fourth, with Toronto downtown gridlock the way it is.)
Her muffler – as recently replaced as last year – is no longer muffling very much of anything. (Don’t ask me where I put the receipt or guarantee from Midas – do you know where it is? No? Well, neither do I. Those things are for losers and little old ladies I always say… and of course for idiots who never dream a return on merchandise might be a possibility…)
A gallant gentleman leapt out of his car at a stop light the other day to inform me that my left brake light wasn’t functioning – and I am able to see on my own that her front right headlight is not all that it could, or should, be either.
A black day – and a black eye for Sylvia.
The trunk will not open from the outside, which to be honest is really the only satisfactory or useful way to open it, and her windshield wipers really only glance across the windshield these days. I snapped the key off in the ignition a few weeks ago (what do they make those things out of – pressed tinfoil?) and with just one ignition key left, when the man from the locksmith’s finally jiggled out the snapped off piece and asked me if I wanted him to make me another, it wasn’t just the outrageous price that made me say no.
I think we may have reached a tipping point of no return.
Which is not to say that something cannot be salvaged from this downturn in mechanical health: the hatchback lock should be able to be fixed, the windshield wipers replaced (I read somewhere that some people swap them for new twice a year – luxury!) the front and back lights replaced or mended, the muffler traded in, the dent in her bonnet knocked out, a little Rustoleum sprayed here and there and – ta da! – I’ll have an elderly, wheezy, un-air conditioned car, with seventeen pairs of sunglasses silted here and there around and under the seats, enough change dug out from under the floor mats to actually make all the repairs, and a mien that has gone from sporty and energetic to dejected and exhausted.
She really isn’t silver anymore – she’s a careworn tattle-tale grey.
I won’t drive her to the friend’s cottage now, and as for road trips to Ottawa and Montreal? Long faded dreams my friends. She will remain town-bound until they hook her up and haul her off; a downtown car with trips planned for no further than further downtown.
A pal in the movie business offered to blow her up next time a car needed to be blown up in a scene, suggesting such an explosive send off was tribute in itself. But it’s just too violent an end for such a loyal and dependable old friend.
I’d like to see her hauled off to a chop shop where she can provide much needed parts to other damaged cars. I myself am signed up as an organ donor, I see no reason why she cannot be a parts donor: there are certainly many little bits and pieces of her that are still in working order – steering wheel, ashtray, cigarette lighter and rear view mirror are all still in almost pristine condition. And her ownership and insurance papers have never been out of the glove compartment – quite possibly the neatest of all of her various and handy compartments.
I will drive her for a little while longer – but I know that day is coming: the day when I wouldn’t let Sylvia herself, if she were a person (or a pony, or a donkey or a big dopey dog) travel in her anymore – because she just isn’t safe.

Monday, November 07, 2005

White Hot House

I saw for the first time a couple of weeks ago one of those great old black and white movies that for one reason or another become hailed as classics of the cinema – inspiring everything from remakes and parodies, to actually becoming part of societal discourse and jargon.
The Bad Seed was the film, and corny as it was, there was also something truly sinister in its portrayal of the little pig-tailed sociopath who nearly drives her mother mad as she tries to figure out if her offspring’s conscience-challenged murderous behaviour is the result of nature or nurture.
Without giving anything away I can tell you that the fictional film mother feared nature, but in the down to earth world of thee and me, a child being identified as good or bad seems to fall pretty much to the nurture argument these days.
Though it’s nothing new to argue the odds; it is a dependable truism that each succeeding generation bemoans their current generation of youth.
“Kids today!” goes the endlessly repeated opening salvo. “When I was a kid, we…” (choose from: a) respected authority, b) took responsibility, c) were maybe a little wild, but basically good deep down, d) were nowhere near as spoiled! Or e), f), g) and so on) fill in your own indignant complaint of how easy it is now compared to how hard it was then, or perhaps something closer to issues of indulgence, self-centered-ness, ‘dream world removal from real life reality’ – you know the drill.
And perhaps, sensitive new-age soul that you are, you’ve been involved in conversations that actually recognize how inevitable you sound, how plus ca change you appear, how just like your parents and theirs before them and so on and so on; still, you insist, this time and with THIS crop of underage citizens, there is a difference. The world really has changed – circumstances (familial, social, economic, legal, moral) have altered to a degree that Something! Must! Be! Done!
But I have a different beef, an alternate concern – a separate anger. My question is, “forget the kids - where are the adults?” Where are the bona fide grown ups that used to run the world and the family and provided the sense of safety and right and wrong that used to be adhered to as often as it was railed against.
Have you noticed? Do you wonder if the real change of the times is not so much in our youth as in our adults? And in particular, of those who are at least nominally the chief decision makers and society leaders that in days of yore, represented all that was responsible, hard working and wise.
Sure, sure… corruption, dishonesty, venality and even criminal stupidity have been and no doubt always will be hallmarks of a certain dependable proportion and percentage of politicians. Certainly anyone who reads history cannot fail to acknowledge the generous sprinkling of the mad, bad and the wildly and demonstrably wicked. But is it me, or has society descended to an all time lower than worms low in selecting and electing those we’ve chosen to represent us in all things worldly?
The top news story today – and every day for the past two weeks, or so it seems – has been about a guy named Scooter.
I am far from the first to note the utter ridiculousness of such a name for a senior White House official, but it bears repeating for all that. Scooter.
I don’t care if it was his dear old Dad’s nickname for him, it makes absolutely no difference to me whatsoever that it hearkens back to some dim and distant part of his storied past and his baseball abilities that were likened in some fashion to some other similarly goofily named baseball-playing soul. I just don’t want anyone near the Oval Office, the Situation Room or the panic button, whose name sounds more appropriate for a guy wearing a hat with a propeller. It isn’t seemly – but more than that, it indicates something about judgment that when combined with his vaunted position just doesn’t jive.
‘Scooter’ doesn’t even sound like a lying, deceptive pawn of evil; he sounds like he should be making a soap box racer in the garage or watching Saturday morning cartoons in the basement rumpus room, or helping his Dear Old Dad (Dod?) put up the storm windows – not leaking the name of a CIA spy to his minions in the media.
“Scooter’s been indicted!” must have been the near-unbelievable wedding of words communicated to the extended members of the Libby family (Grandpa Stinky, Auntie Skipper, Cousin Hootie…) a couple of ill-starred weeks ago. And since then, nothing’s been the same.
But still, no grown-ups emerge.
No responsibility from higher up is taken. Not even from Scooter. Beyond Scooter’s mouthpiece claiming that the outrageous charges will disappear following a vigorous defense, it’s business as usual at the White House, with republican dependables hitting the Sunday morning talk show circuit and adjudicating it ‘out of the question’ that Scooter’s boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, will feel any prosecutorial heat from the nation’s most recognizable (not to mention Special) Prosecutor.
But is it true? Is it so? Is there a possibility that someone is going to finally call the leaders – rather than their lackeys to task?
It’s possible.
After all, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald hasn’t charged Cheney Chief of Staff Libby with the considerably more difficult to prove underlying crime of deliberately naming CIA operative Plame, but rather with five counts of lying, including lying to a Grand Jury, making false statements to federal investigators, and obstruction of justice.
Libby’s lawyers made a big point around the fact that he would not take a deal – who was offering one? – but would plead ‘Not Guilty’, and let the chips fall where they may.
Let them. However hard it may be to prove perjury when some of the details and alleged conversations took place a couple of years back, Scooter made the mistake of being very clear from whom he suggests he heard the gossip about Joe Wilson’s wife and that person, he claims, was unfortunately one of the most respected names in television journalism, Tim Russert. And Russert is beyond clear – to the point of having proof he wasn’t even around, when he was supposed to have whispered the words “Joe’s wife is a spy” into Scooter’s shell-like – and in his manner and comportment, makes Libby’s accusation all the more specious.
So what’s a poor Vice Presidential Chief of Staff to do? Fall on his sword, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Protect the VP, the big P, take the heat, the sentence and the can tied to his ass with all the aplomb he can muster and wait for the Presidential Pardon… which he’ll likely have to wait for until the end of Bush’s Presidency so as to maintain whatever shreds of dignity the Leader of the Free World and his most senior aide are still clinging to like grim and inevitable death.
Should there be any shreds left in the three long years ahead of all of us.
And still I ask, where are the grown ups? Where are the people making the really tough decisions – like standing up and admitting to cutting down the cherry tree, or manufacturing intelligence on WMD’s or even ‘fessing up to trying to discredit former Ambassador Wilson by going after his wife.
(And if that isn’t indicative of the adolescent school yard bully mentality operating in the highest echelons of power, well, one has to wonder…)
Tough decisions are being made and an immense amount of loyalty is being demonstrated, but it’s to all the wrong people; to protect what is looking like an increasingly corrupt and dishonest administration and to continue to obscure the facts surrounding one of the biggest and most expensive (certainly if you include human life) boondoggles of all time: the war in Iraq.
Americans are not being protected, Americans are not being informed and Americans are not being respected.
Genuine American interests are not being looked after.
Americans are being governed by a modern day version of elderly Bad Seeds – and being led down a particularly weedy garden path whilst being told everything in the garden is lovely.

Friday, October 21, 2005

President Ladybug

Rob Brezsny is messing with my life.
Brezsny, the writer (inventor) weirdo, wunderkind, thinker, rememberer and official forgetter of all things irrelevant, author of Free Will Astrology (sample horoscope for Cancer – my sign – this week: “Five years ago, artist Dale Chihuly shipped 64 tons of Alaskan ice to Jerusalem. He used it to erect a giant wall in the place where the Arab and Jewish sections of the city joined. The desert heat melted his preposterous construction in three days. Treat this as an apt symbol for a situation that’s going on in your vicinity, Cancerian. There is an improbable barrier between two parts of your life that should be connected. That barrier has now begun to collapse at a rapid rate, and will be gone soon as long as you and yours don’t make a foolish attempt to try to shore it up…”) is also creator of the concept of Pronoia.
His recently published book ‘Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia’ (subtitle “How the whole world is conspiring to shower you with blessings”) and the current source of much of my frustration. It is impossible to read it without taking in and taking on a number of the wildly appealing, and simultaneously crazy as shit ideas.
Ostensibly emanating from an organization known as the Beauty and Truth Laboratory (pretty much Brezsny and his like-minded pals) the tome contains page after page of good news. And it’s real news; the fact that no matter what you absorb during the supper-hour news broadcast, or even a cursory perusal of your daily paper, using impeccable sources, Brezsny reports that crime is on the decline, teen death and teen pregnancy is at an all-time low, dropout rates have dropped, as well as the cheering fact that the introduction of Viagra has decreased the rate of animal killing as Rhinoceros horn, bear penis, whale sperm (and whatever other creepy rare animal byproducts have been placed on the alter of male virility over the years) as nothing really beats the ease – or the efficacy – of the little blue pill.
He has chapters that aid one in strategizing legal and wildly positive pranks, reminders that though life always gives you exactly what you need when you need it, it doesn’t necessarily give you exactly what you want when you want it. Just as the inherent truth – and the potential for genuinely seeing your life and it’s singularly wacky course from a different angle entirely (and one that makes you think you might actually enjoy thinking that way) he slips in a couple of pages from the ‘Pronoia News Network’ which details factoids concerning everything from the amount of love washing over the planet at every second of every day (the World Health Organization reports that over 100 million acts of sexual intercourse involving more than 200 million partners take place on earth every 24 hours; you could just take it as read, or appreciate Brezsny’s spin which is to calculate just how much euphoria is being generated if even half of those encounters are inspired by love. Heck – a tenth!)
Right now I’m on the waiting list at the library for a book he recommends that threatens to prop my mind open even further.
Titled ‘The Diving Bell and The Butterfly’ by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the memoir relates the story of the 43 year old French editor who suffered a stroke that while it left his brain undamaged, paralyzed his entire body save his left eye. Using his eyeball (though actually, mostly the lid) Bauby was able to dictate his memoir over a two year period solely through eye blinks.
Critics have called it ‘startling’, ‘inspirational’ and ‘a jewel’.
With two hands, a fully working body and the entire world at my disposal through the internet, I have trouble coming up with more than one original blog idea more than once a week. This week of course will not count, since all the ideas contained herein owe their genesis to Brezsny. Great.
And I was intending to write about Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers (seems this paragon of all things legal whoopsed and forgot to pay her annual bar dues – the legal ones! – and was ineligible to actually practice as a lawyer in the District of Columbia… but as any fool knows, she’s nominated for a judgeship, not a lawyer-ship, so, like, what?) and about the recent PBS presentation of the New York Open Center’s conference on ‘The Real Agenda of the Religious Right’ – it’s absolutely filled to the brim and running over with blood curdling facts about Dominionism and Reconstruction and The Council for National Policy and the fact that close advisors to the President really, really, really believe in The End of Days, really – and I wanted to write about how though Toronto somehow managed to pull back from the brink of allowing sharia law to form a legitimate part of Ontario’s judicial system, the same cannot be said for Iraq, where due to concessions made by the American government in order to enlist cooperation from reactionary religious leaders, the new constitution – when it finally makes sharia the basis for national legislation – will no doubt sideline Iraqi women more effectively than even they were during Saddam Hussein’s tortuous reign.
I wasn’t actually thinking of writing about Saddam’s trial because really, what’s the point?
But even with those other thoughts and issues swishing and sloshing about in my head (as you now know, I’m a water sign) as I read Brezsny’s book, all I can think of is how much better my time is spent pondering the implications of Lucius Cervantes’ contention (as quoted in ‘Pronoia’) that “… the higher a woman’s IQ, the more she is likely to be masculine in outlook. The higher a man’s IQ, the more likely he is to be feminine in outlook.” Cool.
Or marveling at the fact that a pig’s orgasm can last a full thirty minutes – or that the ladybird beetle has sex for up to nine hours at a times, wherein the males are capable of three orgasms in one session, each an hour and a half long. Yikes.
(It’s interesting to note that somewhere in the next few pages, Brezsny quotes Guneli Gun from her book ‘On the Road to Baghdad’: “the world is run by those who can’t make love, or those who do it badly. That’s why the world is in trouble.” Imagining the world run by ladybugs is at the very least... stimulating...)
Pronoia the book is simply stuffed with unusual and outrageous ideas for freeing up (or jettisoning entirely) your warped preconceived notions, your prejudices, judgments, negative fantasies and much of the material we cling to in order to justify whatever self-pity we indulge in at whatever rate of frequency we indulge. You simply cannot hold in your mind both the thought that life sucks and you never have any fun, when you learn of a man who writes an inspiring book with exactly one functioning body part – his eyelid. Believe me I’ve tried.
I’ve started making lists of the ideas I most like and am running out of yellow legal pad paper as the list grows longer with each turning page; I’m fascinated by the results of the poll that asked the question “Does reality exist?” and collated the answers thusly: Yes 42%; No 27% - and those leftovers who insisted that while their reality exists, no one else’s does.
Philip K. Dick said “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Did you know that Shakespeare coined 1,700 words, including: besmirch, dauntless, dwindle, gnarled, hobnob, lackluster (or, if you're Canadian, as am I, lacklustre) madcap, pander, rancorous, sanctimonious, tranquil, bloodstained, leapfrog, gossip and fortune-teller? I didn't. But I'm proud to say I've used them all... and I know they've made me a better writer. I've made up a few words in my time (or maybe just used alternate, though deliberate and unique spellings) but this information has given me the courage to create more. They'll be... Brezsnylistic - Brezsnylicious even!
I find it beyond fascinating (as did Rob Brezsny apparently) to contemplate Ray Kurzweil’s study of the nature of societal change. Centuries ago, people didn’t really observe the world changing at all – their lives, their parents lives, their grandparent’s lives and so on, all had more or less the same life experience – and expected that their grandchildren would live pretty much the same as well. We know things change – but as Kurweil relates, what most people don’t consider is the fantastic rate of change today. He writes:
The whole 20th century was like 25 years of change at today’s rate of change. In the next 25 years we’ll make four times the progress you saw in the 20th century. And we’ll make 20,000 years of progress in the 21st century, which is almost a thousand times more technical change than we saw in the 20th century.”
This is what makes me want to live longer – not following the trial of Saddam Hussein, or the panel quizzing Harriet Miers on what she REALLY thinks about abortion and the Lord Jesus Christ, or even the final destination of Toronto’s much unloved, much bandied about garbage.
I want to study the life of Mitzi Nichols of Virginia Beach who anonymously donated a kidney to a stranger in 2001 and waited a mere three years for karma to deliver a $500,000.00 lottery win. Yay karma!
Or to rethink Lady Godiva, whose naked ride through the streets of Coventry in 1057 was not (as many have erroneously noted) to inspire leagues of university engineering students, but rather to live up to the dare her assessor husband posed – that if she did, he would abolish all taxes on the local citizenry. As history reports, she did – and he did.
Other naked acts of charity include the 600 women living in oil rich Nigeria, who launched a protest against ChevronTexaco, demanding they plow back some of their profits into the local impoverished community. Their method of protest was to commit a ‘traditional shaming gesture’ by taking off their clothes; Nigerians consider the nudity of women to be a damning protest that shames those at whom the action is directed. ChevronTexaco gave in and hired local workers to build schools and electrical and water systems.
These days I am being encouraged to fear everything from a terrorist attack to acid reflux to avian flu, but Brezsny (the intriguing bastard) has now elicited from me a desire to experience the mind bending fear known as ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’. The syndrome named after the French novelist who wrote about his own breakdown in 1817; a description that echoes down the years and still strikes individuals today, as visitors to the miraculous art treasures collected over the centuries in the city of Florence Italy, sometimes fall apart in the presence of such overwhelming beauty – panicking in front of a painting by Raphael or collapsing in front of Michelangelo’s David, before being ambulanced away to the psychiatric ward of the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital.
If this is an example of shit happening, this is precisely the sort of shit I would like to be deluged with.
Thinking about this stuff makes me happy. And happiness, (though bargain priced at precisely $4.9 million by researchers at Yahoo Personal Finance) comes free to me through the magic of the Toronto Public Library, the relatively small cost of the light I need to read it provided me by Toronto Hydro (who are planning to send me a rebate on my electricity bill) and the small brown dog who sits patiently by, pining for both a treat and a walk, but sensing my passionate intensity and attention to the page, only bugs me on average of seven or eight times an hour.
I’m sure the effects of my recently slightly sprung open mind will dissipate and I will start getting an upset stomach and a nervous twitch (sure signs I’ve clicked across images of the American President, or accidentally landed on CNN rather than The Comedy Network) and be anxious to read the op-ed page of the New York Times and to pump my fist and cry “Yes! Yes!” every time I even think about The Daily Show.
But for now I’ll just remain calm and think deep thoughts and accept that this mind of mine that cannot successfully hold two thoughts, (the test of a first rate intelligence according to F. Scott Fitzgerald is the ability to affect that balance) has for this moment anyway, merely a singular ambition:
To hold one really good one.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Life to Smoochy (War and Remembrance Part III)

Yogi Berra said it’s not over until it’s over.
Never consider a story over until the very last page has been turned, the cover clapped shut, the author pronounced dead and the last nail driven forcefully into his coffin even as it is being lowered into the soon-to-be-sealed and paved over grave.
Because things might change. And the past might take on different and even new memories to reminisce over in the future.
Just this last July, in an absolute orgy of reminiscing, I wrote a few stories about my youth, focusing on my early teen years and my experiences in London – a time imbued with memories so vivid and clear, that even just writing of them made them feel nearly close enough to touch.
And it probably wasn’t the international location, or the experiences in and of themselves; I believe those memories are still so immediate because of the age I was when they happened. At fourteen (going on fifteen) I was just beginning that transition into adulthood… the part that included boys and kissing and first love and the excitement of the possibilities of all that that meant.
(Okay. Puberty. I’m writing about the breathless un-bosomings of an adolescent girl. Laugh if you like – or sneer in contempt; if you don’t have a few adolescent un-bosomings of your own, I’m just so sorry.)
On July 14th 2005 (you can check it out in the archives – ‘War and Remembrance Part II’) I wrote about the International School I attended and the travel perks that come with being enrolled in a school poised on the brink of Europe. The class French trip to Calais began the adventures, but the Swiss ski trip made the much yearned for possibilities real as I fell into an endless series of passionate smooches with the boy I most wanted to smooch.
It was so exciting (I wrote) that I was surprised that I didn’t explode or burst into spontaneous flames from pure excitement and joy.
It was that good.
But then it got that bad.
On the boat train back to London, Wade Cunningham (for that was his totally cool name) grew distant and by the end of the trip was flirting with another girl. My romance was over, my first love finished, my heart became a withered little organ that must have taken entire months to heal.
I wrote in July that though I was over it now (31 years later!) and I had since been kissed and romanced by men I came to love more, I didn’t think I’ve since felt so purely happy, or so completely heart-stoppingly, blood-thrillingly excited as I had on that school ski trip in 1974.
True story.
But then about two weeks ago the story came full circle as I reconnected with Wade (sigh) Cunningham through his sister (and my classmate) Caren, who found me on one of those High School Reunion web sites that have become so popular in the past few years.
Strangely, even rhapsodizing about all that dusty unrequited love that had long ago bloomed in my adolescent bosom didn’t make me search for him – to be honest, it didn’t even occur to me… or perhaps if I thought about it, I feared that I wouldn’t have remained even a faded memory to him. After all, he was seventeen! Way too grown up and mature to remember a skinny little kid like me.
But I would have been wrong to think so.
He remembered. He remembered things I didn’t remember (even with all my romantic and fevered rememberings) and he apologized for the past hurt (long forgiven, I assured him) and gallantly told me he’d ended our ten day love affair to protect his own heart from the pain of one day losing me. (Nice touch, eh?)
What a guy. Wade Cunningham. Sigh.
We’ve written back and forth and are still only scraping the surface of the mountain of experiences and memories that have played out between then and now.
And now we go on from here – he and I and his sister Caren and Lisa Bing and Rachel Younger and John Gross, (who we are aware of out there in the ether) and hopefully many more from back then; that patchwork group of disparate students who attended the now long defunct Dwight Franklin International School in 1973 and 1974.
We’re planning a reunion sometime soon and Wade has even offered to zoom up here to Canada to apologize for breaking my fourteen year old’s heart in person, but first he must go to the South Pole.
(Isn’t that interesting? I’ve been assured it’s not diversionary…)
So March, maybe March we’ll all get together in person and compare memories and current lives and describe the paths each of us took to get where we are now.
I’ve told Wade my heart belongs to another, but I can’t rule out at least a single nostalgic smooch – a smooch to remember the past and to celebrate the present, and to firmly place the smooch in future memories.
Who knows? It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Like the proverbial iceberg, the largest part of the story, the information and facts about the similarly mostly submerged Giant Squid are finally coming to the surface with increasing regularity.
Just last week a series of photographs taken by a couple of Japanese scientists from the National Science Centre and the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association, both in Tokyo, revealed Architeuthis in all his strange and usually secret glory, frolicking in the cold and dark waters of the North Pacific.
As shy and elusive as President Bush at the outset of the Katrina disaster, the estimated 59 foot carnivorous cephalopod made a surprise appearance and revealed himself/herself/itself to the scientists as he/she/it attempted to grapple with a baited hook equipped with a camera some 900 meters below the choppy surface.
The photographs show an enormous squid wrapping it’s tentacles (two) and arms (eight) around the line which eventually got the better of at least one of the squid’s appendages, offering the scientists a close up look at the be-suction-cupped tentacle, still writhing somewhat in its death throes, but fresh and pink and offering the first real glimpse of Giant Squid flesh not long dead and not washed up on a beach, the way most of the really large squid findings have by necessity taken place.
Then just a few days later came the news from another set of scientists observing the heretofore similarly mysterious sex life of the giant members of the extended mollusk family – the larger female and (slightly – these things are relative) smaller male who combine in their own unique age old fashion to produce tiny little baby Giant Squid in a mating ritual that sounds as dangerous as it does revolting.
According to today’s online ‘The Independent’, a series of Giant Squid washed up on a beach in Spain revealed details including the length of the male Giant Squid’s sexual appendage (a horrifying 8 feet of sharp and nasty squid passion attached to a further 18 meters of squidgey squid reality) with which, according to scientists, the male squid attempt to impale the female – piercing her on the arm in order to impregnate her.
As you can imagine, there’s a certain amount of thrashing about, as well as a significant amount of danger which includes male squids often accidentally piercing themselves, other male squids, or just about anything that resembles whatever it is about the female of his species that attracts his attentions so.
Eek. But it’s all information – more insights into the wild and wacky and downright weird world of one of the planet’s least known and or understood creatures. It’s all grist to my mill – I love the Giant Squid and have been fascinated by him/her/it since I became aware of the genus and was able to go online and research more beginning about eight years ago.
It’s not so much that I’d like to get up close and personal with this creature that belongs to the same family of invertebrates as the octopus, the nautilus and the cuttlefish – I have no desire whatsoever to cuddle one of those fish; but they’re so mysterious, so creepy, so weird and fundamentally alien that I can’t help but imagine their life and style of living.
I learned the legends – the tales straight out of Jules Verne that purported to be real: about squids grappling warships into the deeps, about sailors caught and eaten by a school of invertebrates that jigged for the men as easily as a fisherman jigs for a tame octopus. About monsters seen and measured by the length of vessel that the measurer was on – one hundred and ten feet thought the chap back in the early part of the 20th century.
I’ve read the speculation about the relationship between squid and whales – right whales and sperm whales and grey whales doing battle with the creatures whose tactic it is to drown the whales, pulling them down and down until the mammoth mammal suffocates. Until recently, the best way to guess potential squid size was by the size of the suction cup-scarred whale skin and enormous squid beaks found in the stomachs of the those orcas who survived at least that encounter with death.
In the last couple of years we’ve learned of the Colossal Squid – assumed to be larger than your common or garden (Octopus’s Garden one assumes) Giant variety, a pretty distressing sounding creature matching size with carnivorous power, sporting fully two razor sharp beaks and tentacles covered in sharp tooth filled suction cups.
There’s also a fairly recently discovered squid-type creature which comes equipped with ten indistinguishable appendages (in the regular squid, the tentacles and arms are easily recognized, the arms being considerably longer) which radiate from the body like spokes on a wheel. Each has a sharply bent elbow from which the rest of the arm hangs straight down. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something queerly disgusting about a tentacle with an elbow joint.
To complete this picture of the estimated 23 foot long creature only a mother could love (if she didn’t eat it first) it has two gigantic fins that stick out either side of its body and that flap like elephant ears as it propels its weird self along.
According to one of the scientists that had an opportunity to study photos of the peculiar animal back in 2003, “New species are a dime a dozen in the deep sea, and I suspect there are a lot of very weird things down there.”
No kidding.
But of course the reason we know so little about these creatures is because of the oceanic depths in which their lives typically take place. For the largest of their species, rising to the surface, losing the pressure on their bodies and blood so necessary to survival, the squid cannot really live in our world so close to the top, but as technology improves, we’re finding it little by agonizingly little, easier to find our way down to his.
But talk about weird, creepy and fundamentally alien – little as we know about what lives in the deepest darkest troughs of the ocean, would that we knew so much about the murky workings of the American Government, the specific methods and means used to run that government, go to war or respond to disaster.
I think we’ve all been assuming (hoping) that the current administration’s depth was similar to that of the iceberg or the Giant Squid – huge, hidden and substantial. But maybe the truth is that there’s less than meets the eye. Maybe the truth is as insubstantial and potentially invisible as icebergs at the North Pole, those that through global warming are melting faster than the truckloads of ice some friendly folk recently attempted to ship to Louisiana and points thereabout.
(Unfortunately getting to ‘thereabout’ turned into a runaround that ended with tons of ice being re-routed to cold storage where it’s being stockpiled for the next disaster. Current cost of the ice fiasco? About a cool one hundred million dollars. U.S. dollars that is.)
Consider the fact that in revealing the inadequacies of the action plan to aid in the latest natural disasters even with sufficient notice, the parties supposedly responsible were effectively about as useful as a squid on dry land. Or in the White House for that matter.
One of the weirdest images we’ve yet been privy to in the human world is the latest vision of the latest new, improved President – the compassionate hero who made seven trips to areas devastated by Katrina and Rita… the minute his approval numbers hit an all time low.
The guy who until recently was urging Americans to consume and buy as much oil and energy as possible has discovered conservation (hallelujah!) and is urging Americans to conserve – to drive less, form carpools, take public transit, turn down the air conditioning and turn off the lights.
The same President who continues to visit the storm ravaged homes and drilling platforms and refinieries down south in gas guzzling Air Force One ($83,000.00 to fill, $6,000.00 an hour to fly) or surrounded by an extended SUV driving entourage,eachof which sucks gasoline at the rate of approximately 22 miles to the gallon.
The President and energy conservation: it’s not a glove-like fit if you know what I’m saying.
And the Presidential tentacles reach nowhere near so far as where or when they’ve been needed; from New York to Afghanistan and from Iran to Iraq and now to the French Quarter, it’s clear now that neither his reach nor his grasp have come close to meeting or exceeding his cocky hubris.
Weird things down there? In Washington you mean? I’ll say.
So weird I think I'd rather smile and kiss a cuttlefish than grapple with a President whose mind and motivations are as creepy and alien – and still as mysterious to me - as those of the Giant Squid.

Friday, September 23, 2005

A Daddy in Aspic

I caught a glimpse of my father the other day, which is a pretty neat trick seeing as he’s been dead for ten years.
I claim no special powers – I’m not psychic (though I did predict J.D. Fortune would win Rockstar INXS, but to be honest, that could have been a fluke), I am not a Ghost Whisperer, neither am I a Medium, nor one prone to intimate communication with The Almighty.
I am not a busty TV star or the President of the United States, but I did recently have an experience that brought me into full living, breathing contact with the reality of my long dead dad that has left me feeling shaky and unsteady days later.
And like most earth-shattering encounters, the circumstances could not have been more prosaic.
I was at a cocktail party as the guest of a friend who had recently purchased a condo in an as-yet unfinished development in North Toronto. Very swank and with all the mod cons, the event held in the corporation’s model suite was designed ostensibly for the future neighbours to meet and mingle, though as it soon became clear, it was actually purpose-designed to send a not so subtle message that discounts on ‘luxury upgrades’ would be offered to owners who roped in hot new prospects for the crack sales team. (A sales team whose crackling energy looked sharp enough to wound. Those folks were not fooling around.)
Still, it was a chance to support the friend and get a glimpse of her future condo’s future potential – and not incidentally to sample as much domestic wine and delish hors d’oeuvre as you could liberate from the attractive gay wait staff; what those caterers couldn’t do with a sprig of asparagus and a loop of chive I wouldn’t even begin to speculate.
There were tiny rare roast beef shavings sitting cockily atop miniature cornbread cakes, garnished with just a dot of fragrant aioli. Goose liver on some sort of miraculous buttery organic triscuit, topped with a trembling golden cube of aspic. And as for the bite sized mini mountains molded of braised shitake mushroom and sweet onion, well suffice it to say that you wouldn’t have wanted to come between me and them. Not and retain your dignity and all your fingers that is.
And thank heaven the food was good, because I wasn’t buying and there were certainly no romantic prospects circulating; apart from the tuxedo-clad, likely gay cellist plinking and sawing earnestly in the prettily decorated den (or second bedroom! or office! or gift-wrapping nook!), besides the friend and myself, virtually everyone there was of an age that suggested preservation in aspic might make an increasingly attractive alternative to further deterioration.
They were old is what I’m saying. Old and rich and practically counting off the seconds to the end of the current Toronto season, so they could wing it to Florida for the next.
All too soon the wait staff were absorbed back into whatever holding pen they’d originally emerged from (the source of all that was savoury and good) and the developers and sales team lined up in front of the miniature architectural model in the foyer so they could sing the praises of the development that by our listening constituted our payment for the supper.
Bah, blah, blah.
I never feel so completely adolescent as when I’m left stranded in a room full of grown ups listening to guff like this. I’m sure there was value in the various missives, but all I got out of it (in between trying to crack up the pregnant woman shifting weightily from one foot to the other right next to me: I wanted to see her bursting through the firmly rooted crowd like floodwater through a Louisiana levee in a headlong beeline to the bathroom) was that those who chose not to frogmarch relatives, friends and other suckers into the gaping maw thinly disguised as realtors, would be punished with cut-rate mismatched marble floors, paper thin granite countertops and the leftover wallpaper samples that would scream: ‘so last year!’ to the lonely unfortunates forced to make do with the 'Basic Plan'.
I don’t know how long the speeches lasted because somewhere in between elbowing the pregnant lady and trying to silently pop a piece of gum out of one of those blister packs that tend to explode like a gunshot in church (I simply did not have enough to share with the rest of the congregation) I saw my father.
Right in front of me, close enough to touch – I could almost imagine I smelled him: a combination of fabric softener (his housekeeper always put too much Downy in the rinse) and the Pear’s soap he preferred, subtly imbued with just a hint of medicinal mentholatum.
Above the collar of an Oxford blue cotton shirt (itself tucked into a pair of pressed khakis, held up by a tightly buckled belt – he’d never had any sort of bum to speak of) it was surely the back of his neck; a thick and ruddy affair holding up a giant bald head (the Wilson’s have giant heads, it’s a fact) ringed with a pure white fringe of hair, choppily trimmed and in desperate and immediate need of another.
I’d have known the back of those ears anywhere (after all, I was the one who had trimmed and styled his remaining strands…) all pink and bursting with a wild and wiry grey growth.
And his pate – a few stray hairs still clinging pathetically to his softly tanned scalp, the age spots and freckles like familiar landmarks on an otherwise blasted landscape. I could see the pores and the texture of his skin and the dynamic life force that in comparing the living to the inanimate is somewhat similar to identifying the real turtle soup from merely the mock.
I wanted to touch him.
I wanted to grab him and breathe him in and feel the solid warmth of life and energy. I wanted to look at his worn and funny face and deep into his faded blue eyes and I wanted to tell him so much that had just that moment occurred to me.
I thought I had done my grieving long ago, but I realize now that recently that grief was just as easy and tender as missing an old photo or home movie: a one or two dimensional twinge at the most. A softening – but a comfortable reaction, easy and familiar and nothing like this stab of reality that threatened to overwhelm me to the point of public humiliation.
I had difficulty swallowing and hot tears were building behind my eyes and I couldn’t believe I might very soon be reduced to a sobbing, braying heap in the middle of an expensively outfitted pretend apartment, surrounded nearly completely by elderly strangers. It was just too awful.
Because it wasn’t him of course. It was just some man. Some sixty or seventy-something old article, alive and pink, with blood coursing through his veins and breath sliding easily – so easily! – in and out of his lungs. And in fact beyond the skin colour and shape and shade of his silver tonsure, he was nothing really very much like my father at all.
(For one thing, dad would have let his trousers droop as low as gangsta rapper’s before he’d cinch in his belt. He was above all, a creature well aware of each and every physical comfort and he tolerated neither the chafe nor the squeeze...)
It was the magic of the flesh.
The glow and vibrancy and multi-dimensional corporeal reality of the living that made my past efforts in remembering him comparable to the literary similarities between Beatle Bailey and War and Peace.
I remember and miss him now. Not his memory and not his photo and not even the sly and funny (sometimes rude) and insightful letters he always wrote and mailed to me no matter the advances of technology. I remember the guy who wrote them, and right now, I miss him so much.
Back in the model suite I surreptitiously blew my nose on a cocktail napkin and pushed firmly through the crowd on my way to the exit. I wanted to come home and think about him and get to work on that little deconstruction project I’ve been neglecting for the last decade.
I’ve got to grieve the real man, not the dying or dead or vaguely remembered or charmingly posed and photographed guy.
My memories are emerging from the aspic now, and sharp and bitter as it is reliving this loss, it is also deeply nourishing. And even delicious.