Sunday, December 09, 2007

Away with words

For a romantic, even sentimental poet whose most famous works brought us expressions such as “ships that pass in the night” and “into each life some rain must fall”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow clearly also had a darker side.
Reflect if you will on this little rhyme:

Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds He all

The title? Retribution. Just the sort of thing you can imagine stitched onto a sampler by the wife of a hellfire and brimstone preacher, framed and prominently displayed as a constant reminder not so much of God’s enduring love, but of man’s interpretation of Him as figure of infinite, agonizing, crushing judgement. There’s no actual cruelty suggested, just a relentlessness that does the math with all the precision and coldness – and perfection – of a pocket calculator. Nothing will be missed on this divine ledger, no small indiscretion overlooked, no crime, no matter how well concealed or cleverly explained, forgotten.
I have a slightly different vision of a higher power – but truly, to each his own. I think Longfellow’s short but chilling little verse reflects more the attitudes of society and certainly the course of history.
Nobody, it seems, in the end, is going to get away with anything.
Consider the legacies of Conrad Black and Brian Mulroney – still in the making and with an infinite future of judgement waiting to grind each into the shape future generations can look back on and see in bas relief; not completely three-dimensional, but simple and clear. (This is also supposing those future generations will care to do so.)
There’s something so similar in the mien of these men, something so strangely apropos that these two should be going through their dark nights of the soul in tandem, as they separately await judgment for (alleged) crimes of financial chicanery.
Two very different men, two totally different paths – one having chosen the private sector, if not a private life of a media baron; the other a lifelong politician, whose every decision and pronouncement would have been reflected back on the very pages published by his current personal doppelganger.
Big men. Big voices. Big deals. Big egos. Big downfall.
The Mills of God in their cases also twinned – the courts of law on the one hand, of public opinion, the other. Though their fates await separate sentence (and in Mulroney’s case, even a formal accusation has yet to be made as the enquiry into his dealings with evil elf Karlheinz Schreiber continues) it’s likely a safe bet that outside their fears of financial ruin and/or imprisonment, their real preoccupation and the very real personal pain both are suffering is in regard to that one area that is unaffected by crimes and courts and sentences: the judgment of history. The loss of a powerful and positive legacy they both so clearly yearn for.
The Toronto Star featured an article yesterday opining on that very subject, though perhaps you could sense which way the story was leaning with the reporter’s inclusion of Richard Nixon as an example of history’s judgment of a man vilified in his own time, destined to be remembered as the only president ever forced to resign in shame and ignominy. Though she left the ultimate judgment hanging – as she must: excellent journalist though she is, she makes no claims of psychic prescience – there was and is very little doubt that she shares the opinion of most onlookers: the final judgement, whether made by God or man, by history or histrionics, doesn’t look so good.
It doesn’t matter the good that may have been achieved by either from time to time in the course of their lives and careers, there’s a sense that overall, in a “Mill’s of God” sort of way, the balance for both lies very squarely on the dark side of the spreadsheet.
What’s surprising is that two such intelligent men – you simply don’t reach the heights either have achieved without a generous helping of grey matter – have such an inability to see themselves as others see them. To acknowledge the waves of disbelief and disgust, which they casually dismiss with all the depth of a bitchy cheerleader: “You’re just jealous!” you can imagine them bleating, as every other editorial weighs in with character sketches that might make you or me weep.
Another similarity between the terrible twins are their problems with communication – though their difficulties are expressed in two very different ways.
Conrad Black for instance, who is renowned for his virtually bottomless vocabulary renders himself incomprehensible for using words far more expensive than your regular over-the-top $10 variety; his would have to go for tens of thousands were they to be auctioned off, so obscure, so long, so complex, so multi-syllabic, but in the end so very unintelligible. Language used not to communicate, but to NOT communicate. What’s that about? Seriously?
(I myself am a lover of words, I like to use them all, or as many as I can get pen around: the most apt, the most delicious, the most lyrical, the most descriptive and I’ll admit that some of them are not in everyday usage – but they’re the best words to communicate precisely what I want to say. However I would never – and I mean never – put myself in the same class as Black who, for example, instead of saying his future wife was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen mere moments after meeting her, described her to those around him as being the absolute acme of “female pulchritude”. I’m convinced half of them, before diving for their dictionaries thought he was describing a fat woman with bad skin. When a person is moved – as I have no doubt he was at first clapping eyes on the very toothsome Barbara Amiel – I’m sure he described her that way a time or two, and as I’m sure you’re aware, it has nothing to do with her actual teeth – you’d (I’d) assume all that puffery and bullshit would whither away to breathless descriptions of beauty and gorgeousness and maybe a comment or two about her rack or her ass if he was truly swept away. But to go straight to "pulchritude", suggests a man no longer able to even think as the rest of us do, let alone express himself in such a way as to be easily understood. He’s turned English into a second language… to the English.)
And Mulroney – he of the modulated to a fare-thee-well, phonier than an old-fashioned disc jockey, cheesier than that guy who used to describe recipes using Kraft products in between breaks during The Wonderful World of Disney. (Combine two cups of Kraft miniature marshmallows with six slices of melted Velveeta cheese, stir in a heaping tablespoon of Kraft Skippy peanut butter, and roll in a half cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips and top with Cheez Whiz – et voila! A marshmallow peanut butter cheese log! Perfect for entertaining – just chill and cut into interesting shapes! Gah!)
I remember my father laughing and describing the then Prime Minister’s voice after the two of us had been listening to some speech or other. “Brian Mulroney,” said my dad – a conservative himself I’ll remind you – “has a voice that sounds like (and here he slowed down) deep, brown, shit.”
I giggled like mad. My dad rarely used language like that. But clearly, in search of the appropriate descriptor, he could come up with nothing truer than that which he described. And it’s true. The result: nothing he says – though you may easily understand the words and even the point – sounds honest, or real, or true. Communication yes – but not of anything he intended. Rather, time and time again – and as seemingly out of control as Conrad Black is in his choice of words – he unintentionally reveals a character as attractive and sweet-smelling as deep, brown shit.
(Aside: I interviewed Mulroney once – two seven minute segments on my news and public affairs talk show – and he began patronisingly, treating me like the piece of blonde fluff I’m sure he assumed I was, before quickly moving into a defensive mode as I lobbed the less-than-softballs he’d been expecting. Still, he gave nothing away and really said nothing either. But the point in a great many of these interviews is not to force some alarming, heretofore unheard of shocking truth out of your interview subject – with their experience with the media that’s never gonna happen - rather to simply allow them to be themselves and reveal themselves in the ways in which they answer, avoid or obfuscate. I was pleased with the interview, though the news director had no comment except to say: “You didn’t make him cry.” I was angry at him them... I think it’s pretty funny now. And it's true - I didn't make the Prime Minister cry.
I’ll say this about Mulroney: he was patronizing, indirect, insincere, oily and cold as chipped ice, but he didn’t smell like deep, brown, shit – he smelled very, very good. It was the most remarkable thing about him: his quite glorious cologne.)
But I doubt there’s a perfume sweet-smelling enough to lift him out of the swamp he’s currently waist deep in, alligators circling, a haze of media like a cloud of noseeums, nipping at his sensitive skin. A hide that’s grown thinner and more delicate as the years and the inconsistencies have piled up.
And Conrad Black, who by all accounts is intending to write another book – his own story it is rumoured – once he beds down in the big house, is probably already mentally marshalling his words as he lies sleepless staring at some expensive hotel ceiling in Chicago awaiting tomorrow’s sentencing.
I doubt "sorry” will be one of them.
So the question is, if the Mills of God are currently grinding these two once high-living, high-flying, high-stakes gamblers into cosmic dust, is it solely for His insight and subsequent celestial sentencing, or might either of these men someday get off that relentless wheel and see for themselves what so many have seen for so long?
Or would it be kinder to pray that they never know with “exactness” just how far down they’ve been ground.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Juliet waves...

"Each thing I do I rush through
so I can do something else.
In such a way do the days pass - "

I can’t remember the first time I read Stephen Dobyn’s poem (from the book Cemetery Nights, Penguin Books, 1987) but I know it resonated with me in a way only an essential truth first recognized can.
That’s me: each thing I do I do rush through – anticipating the next with a focus that reflects such dismissive contempt for that which is happening now, that I’m surprised I even make an impression on the various retinas I flit across on a given day.
It’s like I’m not here at all.
And, yeah – if we were on Oprah we’d all be yammering away about lightbulb moments and other equally obvious nutshellian concepts, but when you get it smack in the face (and from poetry for Gawd’s sake) it goes deeper and sticks deeper, until you find yourself subconsciously asking yourself over and over again: “am I doing it now? am I doing it now?”
Invariably, the answer is yes. Wondering if I’m doing it ‘now’ is the most ‘in the moment’ thing I do.
When I’m reading, even the most enjoyable, engaging page-turner of a book, I’ll notice myself taking sidelong glances at the pile of books by my bedside, taking future inventory of what I plan to be immersed in next; in fact simply making note of what I’ll be gearing up to rush through after this rush as it turns out.
No matter the movie, old favourite (All About Eve) or new thriller (the edge of the seat Children of Men for instance) I’ll constantly be checking my watch – the basis of my love for the brilliant Timex Indiglo technology I suspect – re-checking my grocery list, or mentally dressing for a date later that night, truly only enjoying what unfolds in front of my very eyes in the briefest of fits and starts. Even the later date is only a prelude to what it is I’ll be doing later in the wind-down phase.
(Which is inevitably reading the current book and thinking about the next…)
The concept of “living in the moment” is difficult for most I guess – the skill (talent? ability? facility?) requiring conscious effort and practice. There are any number of guides from the obvious to the esoteric, and a variety of meditations from Transcendental to Zen, but none of it works for me. I’m always looking for the next one…
Total aside – well, slight – when I was 16 my parents signed the three of us up for a course in Transcendental Meditation. The real thing – taught by hippies, living in an open-plan, solar-heated, pyramid/teepee-inspired house, no furniture taller or more structured than the Indian-print cushions we are guided to sink meditatively into, practically drenched in Pacific Northwest patchouli (they’re much Zen-ier out there don’t you find?) Complete with an initiation of burning grasses and the revelation of your own personal, specially-chosen-for-you mantra at a low key “ta da” graduation ceremony tacked on the end, we went for several lesson over the weeks, but I might just as well have stayed home to bug my brother... because at the end, it just didn’t take. I simply hated my mantra. Loathed it. The word – more of a sound really – ended on two jarringly glottal-stopping consonants that made my brain hiccup. (I’d tell you but then I’d have to charge you $100 and set something on fire.) The dreadful focus–sapping mantra made me incapable of meditation (though it did improve my already superbly developed napping skills) and I dropped it all within weeks.
My favourite memory of the whole thing however was the vision of my super-conservative father – suited, tied, all business, all banker… how he ever got the crease back into his pants is a mystery that remains elusive to this day – cross-legged on the floor, earnestly attempting to take it all in. It was my first intuition that this most cube-shaped of squares might have some pretty interesting curvy edges deep down inside. Turned out to be true too.
But (as ever) I digress…
But yesterday I did spend almost half a day completely checked into the current moment at that place it seems I receive all my insights of late, at the Hospital for Sick Children. There before my eyes were the people for whom fate or nature or God (or whatever you believe it is that makes such a destination a necessity for the innocents) were receiving a crash course in the meaning of “living in the moment”. Each moment. By moment.
We began in the CCU with John (not his real name – I’d never directly identify any of the children – not just because it’s the law, but because it’s them) who has lain paralyzed for the past two months after being suddenly and inexplicably stricken with Guillain Barre syndrome in the middle of a family holiday thousands of miles away. (His father told me the whole terrifying heart-stopping, white knuckle adventure of bringing him back to Toronto from a rather quiet backwater paradise, for which even being airlifted in a private emergency Lear jet required seven separate stops and starts…) Guillain Barre is a mysterious condition (a syndrome rather than a disease, as doctors have not been able to discover why the body’s immune system begins to attack the body itself creating symptoms that begin with weakness and tingling in the arms and legs, progressing to a point of complete paralysis where a respirator is necessary) that culminates in a “locked in” situation where the patient’s brain and intellect are completely, blazingly intact – and the body is utterly intractably frozen.
I cannot imagine why John (a teenaged math wiz and serious girl-fancier) would need months (or possibly years – the ultimate prognosis is unknown) of having his respirator regularly detached in order to suction the excess fluid out of his lungs as he lies there completely immobile with only a sophisticated eye blink system developed between he and his father to comunicate, to learn the lesson of ultimate patience. Further tested by a new (also mysterious and so far untreatable) rash which has sprung up all over his body and is deeply, painfully itchy, John can only indicate through eye blinks where it’s at its worst and there his father gently, delicately rubs without scratching.
(Can you imagine? Just think about it for a minute: the most horrible itch – and it’s everywhere: arms, legs, scalp, bottom – and there is nothing you can do to scratch it. There may be more painful tortures available on the market, but for drive-you-out-of-your-mind discomfort on the grand scale, I’d say an allover unscratchable itch would be pretty high on the list.)
There he is – and his focus must be on the minute by minute, experiencing the piercing reality of his traitorous immune system – and while we were there (my volunteer partner and I provide hair cutting and styling, a maybe not so surprisingly successful program for a group of people whose lives are lived in unimaginable routine and boredom, broken up by moments of equally unimaginable sheer agony and/or terror) the suctioning had to take place every five minutes or so. Minute by minute. That’s how John lives – a life measured in breaths and blinks and the immediacy of his body’s needs.
But still we connect. He rolls his eyes at my teases, he blinks his one for yes, two for no choices about how high his sideburns should be shaved, how much more should be taken off the top and sides. We all are there in tight focus and completely locked in to John. The only mind escape I make – and only for a moment – is to recognize: “I’m here. Thank God”, then I pick up the mirror (embarrassingly pink with the word “Princess” scrolled across the top – John just rolls his eyes again) to give him the ultimate control of a bit more off the top and his desire to have the back of his neck shaved straight across – not curved or pointed. (I think my partner lingered over the shaving, feeling instinctively how delicious the razor would feel against his sensitive, itching neck. He closes his eyes and they roll up ever so slightly like a dog having a delicious belly rub. It’s a nice moment.)
But we’re finished – and it’s time for yet another painful suctioning – so we depart, but I’m still there – in the moment – still thinking of John and wondering when we’ll see him next and praying and projecting (okay – I know, but projecting in the moment) that next time he will be off the respirator and his fingers will be able to lock around a pencil so he can work the complicated calculus he loves so much and that must itch inside his mind far worse than the visible rash on the outside of his slender, unnaturally still body.
Outside the room, robes and masks off and I’m surprised by a familiar face – a lovely face – the mother of another of my favourite patients, another of those magical special connections, a toddler with another undiagnosed life-threatening illness that apparently almost took her away forever last Friday.
In the hallway, there we are and it’s none of my business but the doctors are talking to the mother and joy of joys, we are hearing (me “over-hearing”) at the same time she is that the prognosis is good – that a corner has been turned and Juliet (not her beautiful name but in the neighbourhood) is improving. Her mother comes to me and we hug – it’s been 3 months at least since I’ve seen her, though I’ve thought about the two of them often and always with Juliet in some imaginary sunny-afternoon home situation (toppling bricks and masterfully colouring outside the lines and looking up from under her extraordinary eyelashes with a smile that is the very definition of heartbreaking) but apparently I’ve been out of the loop, as after seeing Juliet last time, on the mend, the terrible thing has happened again and the illness has returned.
But today is yet another day – one of the ones with the hope-against-hope joy attached - and I am reveling in every eyeful of her mother’s transformed face with an in-the-moment thrill that’s better than just about anything you could imagine. (I certainly can’t think of anything just at this moment…)
She has to go off to confer with the doctors, but she says to me as she races off: “If you’d like you can go in and see her – she’s on the respirator and not really conscious, but you’re welcome to have a peek.” And I know I am being given a gift as the truth is all over her hospital room door – along with the washing and gowning and masking and gloving instructions is the sign that restricts all entry beyond those deliberately authorized. But the ultimate authority has given me the go-ahead, so I suit up and tentatively tiptoe into the room. There she is (grandfather at her side, absorbed in just looking at that precious face) and she’s grown! She’s only just a little more than two, but I can see subtle differences along with her delicately curling, just slightly auburn hair, longer than ever (girlfriend needs a trim – girlfriend will be getting it…) and I see all this in and around the respirator and IV lines and the dozens of other monitoring and life-giving equipment; but there she most definitely is, pale and small with her startling white eyelashes fanned gently on her round, still-baby cheeks. (One of the mysterious symptoms of Juliet’s condition is that it has turned her unusually long eyelashes snow white. Extraordinary!) I hold my breath as I compare her then to her now and feel that thrill again, as even though the child that lies before me looks as hospitalized and fragile as a child could possibly look, I’ve heard the word - and the word is “better”.
As I stand there, she slowly opens her eyes – those lashes! – and looks straight at me. I lower my mask a little and whisper: “Juliet – do you remember me? It’s Jane…”
And she lifts her tiny little hand and she waves at me.
And now I am out of the moment again. But I am not rushing forward, I can only go back into the past – just 24 hours ago – to live over and over that precise moment.
It is Joy.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Bitch's Back

So my inner voice and I are chatting away like we do all-day, every day.
(Inner Voice: Why are you having another coffee? You’ve already had three… ME: Because I LIKE coffee – it’s great. And it’s supposed to be good for you – it was all over the news recently: health benefits, antioxidants, improved work performance and a bunch of other neat stuff. IV: Where did you get that information? or some other such nonsense? ME: Well, actually, yes…IV: How can you just believe this stuff? It’s probably still more bad for you than good – you’ll be getting nervous and edgy soon and you know how THAT affects you…and it’s up to me to talk you through it… ME: Oh geez – great, that’s all I need…could you please just leave me alone? IV: Ha!) and so on.
I did an exercise recently – one that’s supposed to get you through a writer’s block (I have just a teensy one right now – nothing to be worried about …IV: Oh really???) where all you do is sit down and write for ten minutes on anything, everything – whatever comes to mind – free associating, even writing, for instance: “I have NOTHING to say... I have NOTHING to say...” a thousand times or so.
It all starts out as rubbish (of course, as is true: "I have NOTHING to say…”) but surprisingly I rather quickly segue into what’s going through my head as I just let go.
(Money worries, relationship worries, work worries, house worries, global warming worries, friend worries, dog worries, nagging can’t-quite-name-them worries…why do I keep kicking my own ankle until I have a permanent scab on it, that keeps getting kicked off – what am I? six? … and a million other thoughts that seem to flow through my dancing fingers and across the keyboard in a way structured writing never does. And all of them, every last one, is anxious and depressing and negative.)
And that’s when I see it – this whole letting-go is simply revealing my constant undercover inner voice and allowing absolute free rein/reign over the process... and all I can think is: what a BITCH!
Now I know this is nothing new – I know that everyone knows free-association is simply a way of getting to your subconscious or your ego or id or whatever (IV: I can’t believe what crap you talk! Have you no shame? If you just did a little homework, you’d KNOW if it was the ego or the id or the subconscious or whatever – but you don’t! You just grab hold of a thread dangling off the edge of a notion and swing from it, acting like it’s as thick and strong as the anchor chain on the Queen Mary!) so you can dredge up all sorts of revealing shmutz that may well offer up a few gems bobbing around in its sticky ooze.
And darned if it doesn’t actually work.
I start writing about my inner voice and wondering why it’s such a crabby, sarcastic, hyper-critical control freak. Why couldn’t it be a warm and fuzzy mum-type voice, all reassuring and self-esteem building and unconditional acceptance-ing? (IV: Because what you want is immaterial - what you need is someone to knock you into shape – you have no idea how easily you can be seduced into thinking everything is going to be okay, when without my constant attention everything falls apart! In seconds!)
See what I mean?
But I wonder, as I listen to this shrill nag inside my head, if she’s so very the opposite of me, or how much she’s closer to my actual conscious me-self – the one I keep to myself so everyone I know and love doesn’t think I’m just some negative Cassandra, finding fault and figuring the odds (IV: Forget the odds;the odds are NEVER in your favour. That’s why gambling is a mug’s game. You’re talking about luck – and don’t you DARE imagine luck is ever going to get you anywhere…) and basically pronouncing sentence on everyone and everything like a bitter Olympic ice-dancing judge – to whom the number 9 simply does not exist, preferring 5, or on a real red-letter day, maybe a feeble 6.2.
I reject that.
I’m sunny, good-natured, positive, helpful and loving! (IV: You’re pessimistic, neurotic and occasionally, dark.) I believe everything will work out for the best. (IV: You’re terrified it won’t, and half believe that even hoping things will somehow balance out is leading you down a very slippery slope indeed.)
If you think I’m joking about my inner-bitch, I assure you I am most certainly not. (IV: Call me anything you like – you need me and you will never not need me.)
Some days, as you can imagine, it’s just exhausting.
And it’s not that I don’t think everyone has an inner voice, just that I wonder how many have one as constantly critical, or as constantly unpleasant, or just as… as constant. (IV: Are you doing math? You know you can’t do math. Stick to blah-de-blahing… THAT'S what you do best…)
I mean, you’ve got to figure not everyone has the inner equivalent of a dedicated parole-officer trailing them around, else how could so many people take things that don’t belong to them, deliberately say terribly hurtful things, cheat on their taxes, not tip their server, or go through red lights – and here’s the real kicker – without feeling regret or guilt.
And there’s tons of those – and not all of them are psycho- or sociopaths. There are few living right here in my condo apartment building, doing nothing illegal per se, just being sort of 24/7 crummy and mean. (You simply would not believe my board of directors! IV: They’re doing the best they can – you quit when things got a little uncomfortable. ME: I quit when two of them almost went at it with fists, a third accused a fourth of lying, and the fifth lost all sense of decorum and began being outrageously clear about his most unpleasant and personal opinions. IV: Well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs – get a spine for heaven’s sake! ME: You see what I have to put up with? Criticism, clich├ęs AND this board of directors?!)
Then there are the people who just naturally remain pacific and open-minded. People whose inner voice tries to imagine the best possible outcome in any situation (IV: the word you’re searching for is “denial”) while accepting that nothing’s guaranteed. (IV: Hmph...) These are the people who don’t look like they’ve spent four hours getting ready just to go to Loblaws for some hamburger meat, buns and a six-pack of diet coke, and even though they may not be America’s Next Top Model or Brad Pitt, look perfectly nice all the same. (IV: It’s called “giving up.”) They also seem to rather naturally do the right thing (IV: Now you’re getting somewhere…) and it looks nearly effortless. (IV: You can stop right there! Doing the right thing is always a horrible, dirty, hand-wringing, brow-sweat inducing, exhausting, difficult, depressing battle. Otherwise, you’re not doing it right. Fact.)
And I wonder how my inner-voice would do up against other people’s inner-voices in a knock-down, drag-out, spare-no-prisoners fight to the death? (IV: You’re kidding right? I don’t need to challenge other inner-voices to know I’m right! I’m right because I am – and because you tell me so every single time you fall into line like a good girl. I won’t even talk about it. Shut up!)
My inner-voice does not like being challenged, though to be honest, it stopped listening to me a long time ago. (IV: There are only so many hours in a day…and I choose to spend them productively…) I’m not sure what it listens to, unless there’s some kind of cosmic negative-reaction radio station, quietly playing the hits all day long. (IV: Mind your own business... better yet: just move over and I'll take the wheel…)
I’m not sure if I dare post this on my blog for fear everyone will think I’m falling into some sort of schizophrenic fugue (IV: You have my permission to trust that instinct!) but I also feel exposing this internal truth/tug of war may go some distance to lowering the volume and injecting some much needed balance. (IV: There you go with all that “balance” again. I suggest you investigate Chaos Theory when you have a moment… in between singing Kumbaya and “Trusting the Universe to provide”…)
I want to send some sort of depth-charge in there – some kind of criticism-seeking missile – to shut the voice down, or at least disable it in a way that would allow just a hint of faith and optimism to shine through. (IV: I’m warning you Missy! Step away from that computer NOW.) But I don’t know the code, and as well, I’M already disabled by this stupid voice which has told me for as long as I can remember that self-scourging, cynicism and mistrust is the only way to stay on the straight and narrow. (IV: I don’t care for the characterization – or the attitude – but the theory is fairly accurate.)
I’ll say it again: BITCH!
But I know there is another voice in there – the one that HATES the bitch voice – a voice that shyly, hopefully - maybe a little tentatively - disagrees with everything the bitch says, and believes (maybe naively, IV: MAYBE????) that kindness and support and trust and love are just as effective as a source for inspiration followed by action.
(IV: I won’t listen to another MINUTE of this! Until you smarten up, straighten up and inject a little painful reality into your thinking, I wash my hands of you – and don’t come crying to ME when everything falls apart… as it inevitably will... good bye and GOOD LUCK!)
ME: Heh heh… now you’re talking!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Love survives

Life’s an adventure.
Subway, bus – it doesn’t matter – whenever I’m on public transportation I’m thinking about the same thing: who amongst my fellow passengers would I band together with if our train/bus was bombed, hijacked, or otherwise thrust into movie-esque danger by brute villains, unbridled nature or a traffic jam.
I want to be prepared; I don’t want to get stuck with the spineless, briefcase-toting whiner who’d sell us all out for a nickel or a break for freedom (you know that guy’s a goner anyway) or one of those stock Hollywood women who do nothing but shriek and whimper and refuse to bridge the gaping chasm, or swing from a snapped cable, or climb up the inside of an industrial smokestack before it blows. Those people brown me off.
I want to be part of the wise-cracking survivors – that hardy pod of people willing to do-what-it-takes and get off a good line before facing almost certain disaster.
I’m sure you do this too. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s taught us that no matter the circumstances, in any random group, planeful of passengers or disordered mob exist all the various personality types necessary to thwart danger, right wrongs, or, in my case, assuage boredom. The fact that it doesn’t hold true in real life is hardly the point; in real life most people just want to get where they’re going, and in our stepping-over-the-homeless to get to Starbuck’s society, heroism seems in mighty short supply these days.
So what if I’m just on my way to the vet (a bus and two subway changes) to pick up a fresh supply of (one of) the dog’s medications (how I ended up with the $4 coffee and a pink bracelet I’ll never know…) Both coming and going – at off-peak hours – there’s still oodles of fun to be had on an otherwise tedious side-trip with just the merest flick of a sideways glance every now and then. Wearing sunglasses helps too; staring on public transit is a no-no (everybody knows) so if you want the widest possible pool of compadres, it’s best to do your eye-balling surreptitiously.
You’ll need: 1 (one) incredibly good-looking guy complete with piercing eyes and tortured back story; 2 or 3 (two or three - one bald) sarcastic buddies with hearts of gold. Remember: at least one of them will have to be sacrificed before it’s all over, so look for some real charactery characters. You’ll need a nurse, a young mother (and baby) some game older folk, a handful of disposable extras who’ll do as they’re told and at least two craven cowards. (See above.)
Et voila – your cast is complete, change at Bloor.
For the last few months, all my adventures seem to be of the minor-league Sisyphean or Aegean Stables sort: the pushing boulders pointlessly up steep slopes, or mucking out filthy stables kind. Sorta hard, kinda boring, sleeves rolled up to eternity and no end in sight. So if I manufacture adventure on the Avenue Road bus, what’s the dif?
Until you come across a real adventurer or two and you remember that for some people being poised on the brink of life and death, facing enormous heart-breaking choices and bearing agony with dignity is a daily reality.
I met two such people recently.
Just about the greatest thing I get to do on a regular basis is volunteer at Sick Kids; wearing the volunteer vest with pride and being allowed to spend time with people who might just be in extremis (or quite possibly worse: watching someone they love in extremis) is to take part in life at a time when it really matters. All life matters of course – but some parts take place at the thinnest possible edge of a very thin wedge, when if you’re lucky, you may be able to help someone when they need it. My sort of helping – a volunteer’s sort of helping – is obviously not of the actual life-saving kind; it’s more of the moment-saving kind. Bringing people back to moments of normalcy and just remembering what it is to be not just a patient or a parent, but a human. A kid or an adult – playing a game, going for a walk, sharing a laugh, fixing someone’s hair, talking about boys, movie stars or sports. It isn’t earth-shattering, but sometimes it’s deliciously, run-of-the-mill, just-another-day grounding.
So I met this mother/daughter duo recently, and something about them touched my heart to the point of breaking. Meeting heroines doesn’t happen every day, but it happened on this particular day – a day when the mother and I also discovered we have a shared past (having lived in the Bahamas at the same time as children, our fathers in the same line of work, many of our friends the same). It was a point of recognition and connection and maybe why we snapped into bonding-mode quick as a reflex action. But maybe not. Maybe it was just because she was wonderful, and honestly? She shone. She shines.
And so does her daughter. Though shining from a place deep, deep within, as this fourteen year old has been virtually completely incapacitated by a shockingly cruel disease, unable to speak or move, trapped inside a tiny, emaciated body, but bursting with life and joy all the same.
This little girl has a disease called MLD – Metachromatic Leukodystrophy – a degeneration of the white matter of the brain and the central nervous system. It’s a rare disease, one of a small grouping of diseases (most famously one of the leukodystrophies – ALD – was portrayed in the film Lorenzo’s Oil) that are characterized by the destruction of the myelin sheath, the loss of which rapidly robs the sufferer of movement, speech, sight, cognition and ends a few too-short years later, in death.
Perfectly healthy until the age of nine or ten, the disease first reveals itself in the child in a variety of behavioural changes, prompting many parents and doctors to treat it as a behavioural or psychiatric problem before the hard-to-diagnose/impossible to treat condition is finally identified. There is no cure and no treatment other than to alleviate as best they can the effects of some of the symptoms; families are left to cope with the reality of the unutterably altered life of a beloved whose last years and days are all too easily imagined. The child’s mother described it to me as manifesting as a combination of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimers – any one of which would be devastating, but as a group nothing less than mind-bogglingly horrifying.
And yet, and yet…
They laugh. They smile. They hope. They love. They face reality. They pray. They accept support and offer love in return. As a family they are united and strengthened. They attract the love of others as easily and naturally as a bee collects pollen, and share it as organically as that same pollinating bee, with much the same beautiful, flowering results.
I love being with them. I love to be in the presence of that miraculous mother/child love that knows no limits, not even of death.
As I observe a small, small snippet of their lives I know I’m seeing heroes – not a briefcase-clutching whiner, or chasm-avoiding shrieker in sight. There are no brave, sarcastic quips tossed over the shoulder, only meaningful, warm connections that resonate with affection and faith.
It’s THE great adventure. And I would follow this pair anywhere.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Winged Cupid painted blind

On some level I’ve accepted that it’s spring. This (obviously) isn’t on any level that requires any of the physical senses to render a judgment – it’s still cold and grim and I don’t hear much cheerful tweeting or observe any enthusiastic budding going on. I have yet to taste the season, but it certainly doesn’t look very appetizing, what with its thin layer of post-snow, tattle-tale grey detritus accessorizing the bleak and remorseless landscape – but I have purchased a pair of shoes.

These aren’t just any shoes either – clobber to put space between me and the pavement and to protect me from the elements – these are shoes of hope for a better tomorrow and faith that it’s coming soon. Maybe not Friday – maybe not even next week – but soon.

They’re beautiful. Strappy and stilettoed, with a sexy band that wraps around my ankle giving me that skinny, delicate racehorse look. (I think I’ve established that I could run the high hurdles in heels. True story.) Providing me with approximately 3 and a half inches more in height than God in his infinite wisdom saw fit to bestow upon me, all in all, wearing them around the bedroom and admiring myself in the mirror, I have to admit I look a bit of a dish.

From the knees down anyway.

But I never would have purchased them had I not begun to believe I might actually be given a chance to wear them. It’s the springtime ritual – like a gardener setting up his soil for a summer of grass and growing; clearing out the weeds, raking off a winter’s worth of rubbish and twigs, and spending an inordinate amount of time down at the garden centre, ogling seed packets and bedding out plants.

For me it’s more like pruning and clipping away at my body like an ornamental hedge, upping my work-out routine, moisturizing the bits that have remained dryly hidden so long, and considering a bold new lipstick that might startle during a more austere season. And of course, finding that one perfect pair of summer sandals that will perform the miracle of turning me into a virtual living advertisement for good times reborn.

For women of a certain age (ie: the “new 30”) as spring hoves into view and clothes change length and density, the discussion inevitably turns to cosmetic procedures. As predictably as a nipple slip from a slipping celebrity whose career needs a “look at me” jolt, after a certain point in life, you’ll notice everyone (including those who vowed… at the age of 19… to grow old gracefully) begins talking about things they’d like to get “done”.

Most of my crowd is still at the non-surgical stage; miracle creams having proved non-miraculous, the latest trend is to injectables, transferables and blasters. Injectables (botox to halt wrinkles, collagen to pouf and puff) transferables (take fat from hip ‘A’, insert it into crease ‘B’, and blasters (lasers that shock veins, spots and blots into submission) are the pre-surgical, impermanent youthenizers of choice. Everyone knows someone who’s had it done, dallied or flirted with a procedure or two, or is saving up for a course of treatments guaranteed to turn back the clock an hour or so.

It’s pricey stuff. For three or four months of a crinkle-free brow you might be paying a thousand dollars or so for a few hits of the botulin toxin. For collagen or fat injections designed to fill in various wrinkles, lines and crevices, you’ll pay over the odds for a similar period of smoothness. It may seem silly and vain and ridiculously expensive to pay for procedures you hope no one will notice except to remark on how rested you look, but if no one and nothing save a few poisonous microbes are sacrificed in the name of beauty, where’s the harm?

It’s when you see examples of plastic surgery gone horribly, hideously, over-the-top wrong; those who’ve grown not old, but petrified, without a hint of grace or subtlety, that your 19 year old self re-emerges to become instantly lovingly reacquainted with your delightfully, naturally softening and slackening muscles and skin.

I saw such a creature recently. With (non-surgically) widened eyes I gazed upon the effects of countless surgeries, procedures and alterations and heaven knows how many thousands of dollars. So much surgery was apparent (and remember, all I could see was all I could see – if you get my drift) that the cumulative effects actually tipped the balance in the other direction, rendering the lady ludicrously distorted into almost cartoonish relief, putting the finest possible focus on all that was elderly. Was she 75? 85? Impossible to tell – she was ageless in the most unflattering way possible.

From the tips of her deliberately careless hairdo (her windswept-looking locks frozen stiff in mid-breeze) to the tips of the sharp and pointy crimson-lacquered nails glued to her withered crone-like mitts, the woman was jaw-droppingly impossible to glance away from. Her utterly immobile face stretched as taut a quarter-bouncing buck private’s barracks blanket, her cheeks so smooth a baby’s bottom would have suffered by comparison. Two small slitty eyes peered out from under the carefully arranged fringe; confused-looking cloudy marbles that seemed as surprised as anyone else that a human was somehow operating inside the thin and lifeless shell. One could almost imagine going up and tapping her on the forehead – hello? is anybody home? – but not, for the fear her casing would literally crack open.

Situated just south of a tiny sharpened beak were two enormously inflated pendulous lips, the weight of whatever filler filled them pulling down the lower lip until the shiny innerside was visible above the bolster-sized protrusion. Taking sips from a water bottle every now and then, she carefully inserted the entire neck in between her lips – maintaining her perfectly made-up mouth? taking exquisite care not to put pressure on the frail and full-to-bursting skin? – and slowly glugged a few swallows, before just as carefully withdrawing the bottle from deep within. It was like watching a snake consume prey.

She touched herself every now and then with the utmost care. Only the tippy tips of her fingernails gently probed an errant hair, or oh-so delicately settled on the corner of her mouth to brush away an infinitesimal speck of lipstick. Like butterflies who taste with their feet, she seemed to be sampling herself with these sensitive little grazing fondles, finding much to please herself it seemed, with every lightly glancing stroke.

As you have no doubt gathered by now, I was experiencing an entirely inappropriate fascination with this stitched-together waxwork, whose appearance startled all, but drew me in with repellant curiosity. Didn’t anyone ever say no? Couldn’t some of that money been pressed into service improving her eyesight? For only a mirror with the attitude of the one hanging in Snow White’s wicked stepmother’s boudoir could possibly have informed this lady that her efforts were not only not in vain, but superbly flattering.

The supermarket queue moved forward and the lady and her companion paid and moved on and I eventually cranked close the open drawbridge that was my mouth. The checkout clerk caught my eye with an eye-rolling smile and a headshake. One of those special simpatico moments with complete strangers where nary a word need be said. I too paid for my purchases and set off for the parking lot, the sighting of the surgically de-hanced woman beginning to fade as my roving eye caught newer sights and my mind leapt on to other thoughts (what’s for dinner… where are my keys… an unending chorus of “I will Survive” embedded by the muzak goons at the supermarket) so when I rounded a corner in the parking lot and came upon the lady and her companion I was startled all over again.

He was just opening the passenger door to hand her in, when he stopped and tugged gently (of course) on her arm to pull her back to him. She returned to his embrace and lifted her face to what quickly became an unnervingly hot smooch. Encircling her tiny waist with his arms, he only stopped the kiss to turn his face down and sideways to press his lips passionately (and again, gently) to her neck.

Her outrageously poufed lips spread wide in a smile and she closed her eyes in what looked like an authentic swoon. He pulled her closer still for a moment, then gazed down into her eyes, kissed her lips once again, then (gently – okay?) helped her into her seat.

I felt as perverse as a Peeping Tom and embarrassed that I had witnessed what was so obviously a very private and intimate moment.

It was shockingly, movingly beautiful.

Spring can do that.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Boulevard of Broken Backs

I did what I always do whenever I hear the first few bars of Boulevard of Broken Dreams – I reached for my cell phone. But even the 25 seconds of tinny Top Forty wasn’t enough time to find out who was calling. My injury made virtually any movement an impossibility.
I make an effort to stay fit. I mean, you have to – right? The current obesity statistics and health warning scare tactics are beginning to make the tobacco and firearms industries look like also-rans in the race to decide who kills more North Americans per bite, butt or bullet.
I eat well. Right, I mean. Properly. Always with an eye to balancing the proteins, fats and carbs. And not just any carbs mind you; the complex carbs – the fruit and veg, the mutigrained and whole-wheated; the stuff that really only earns its stripes by being purchased in straw baskets, priced by the pound, with pounds of expensive dirt still clinging to it.
Skinless chicken. Poached fish. Olive oil and grapeseed oil and virtually zero fat gleaned from anything remotely tasty.
I still enjoy a lovely fried up breakfast every now and then – the odd french fry, the occasional hunk of marbled meat accompanied by a baked and buttered potato. Even my doctor says that a diet comprised solely of healthful items represents a lifestyle not much worth living. But still, I eat well enough to complain about it.
And I certainly work out enough to heave the odd long-suffering sigh. Daily aerobic exercise and every-other-day weight training to keep my heart healthy, my muscles burning and my stomach flat enough to risk a navel piercing. To be honest it’s mostly vanity over health, but if the results are the same – what’s the dif? I walk everywhere and I walk fast – I don’t play any actual sporting games, but the group I play charades with – and the charades themselves - are highly physical.
So it’s come as a complete shock and not a little embarrassing that I find myself laid up at this time.
The fact is, I threw my back out reading.
This isn’t like the times I broke my toes. (Five.) Or the time I had my appendix out, or tonsils out, or was kicked in the leg by a horse. This isn’t like when I got my fingers stuck in a swing set, or when my mother closed my thumb in the car door. This isn’t like when I hit the ground on the netball court and broke one of my front teeth right in half when I was ten. This isn’t like when I dropped the lead crystal vase on my foot, or was bitten by the spider, or sprained my ankle by getting it caught in a recessed sprinkler hole at the Rosedale reservoir or… or any of those things.
This really hurt.
And I’ve been reading for a while now, so you should know I know how to do it for the very most part without any serious risk at all.
But I was – and this may be the key – I was binge-reading.
It’s been a stressful time of late. The dog has been very ill. (See previous blog re: Emergency Veterinary Hospital – total racket) And my dear, beloved friend has been under near constant strain and medical observation for a cancer that we know exists, but until definitively sourced remains untreated. I won’t whinge about the weather or the war or the President (or the Vice President) or Steven Harper or Hillary Clinton or the president of my condo board or traffic, as they’ve all likely been driving most of us to distraction; it’s all this illness and what’s behind it – and what’s likely before us – that has me positively vibrating in a state of fear of late.
And reading is what helps.
It’s always helped.
I remember a time of unemployment when I first arrived in London that had me nearly prostrate with terror. Luckily, a useful position to be in while being perversely comfortingly terrified by an absolute raft of Steven King novels. I went through them one after another like that suspiciously skinny Japanese guy who wins all the hotdog eating contests: not really enjoying them at all – just methodically cramming them all down. Maybe a glass of water in between.
When my father died I went into Eyre-mode (Jane) and then went on a search for all the Bronte books, focusing my attention on people long since dead. I appreciated that the authors I was reading had been dead and buried and fully and completely mourned more than a century and a half ago. Solidarity you understand.
There was a friend’s suicide that only Monica Dickens could help me through. Beginning with her book The Listeners about a suicide hotline, and continuing through deep tragedy and high comedy, Dickens has always been a very personal favourite. She reminds me of my mother. When she (Dickens) died I cut out her obituary (I still have it) and read her all, all over again.
To be honest, there was nothing, no magic, no book yet written that could distract me for even a moment when my mother died. But then penicillin can’t cure every infection – and even tried and true recipes for recovery may fall far short of a very great need. Still, it’s coming up on 25 years now – and I feel a little better.
But that was cancer too. And this is cancer now. Both my beloved friend and Lily have been roughly diagnosed and neither are receiving treatment. The friend because we don’t have all the facts yet (despite a virtual river of blood tests, multiple MRI’s, CAT scans, X-rays, two biopsy’s and even a PET scan) and the dog because she’s too elderly and spoilt to withstand any treatment beyond actual treats. She’s wobbly though (rickety too – not to mention shaky, tottering and feeble) but still eats and sleeps like a pro. So we go on.
But I’d pulled out the big guns. The complete novels of Jane Austen, beginning with Sense and Sensibility and continuing through the originally unpublished works of Catharine, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon.
I needed distraction big-time. So the first weekend with neither plan nor hospital visit scheduled I just turned on the bedside lamp, heaved up the all-in-one volume and lay down on my stomach to disappear into the 18th century for a while.
Some eight hours later I realized I was feeling a significant crick in my neck and a stabbing feeling in the small of my back that upon moving about, got worse. I ignored it. I just turned over and started Mansfield Park.
The next day feeling decidedly stiff (and using words like “behoove” and “opine” even when talking to Lily) I polished off the paper, then picked up my trusty Austen again, flipped to elbows propped and stomach down position and got stuck in for another day of drifting and dreaming.
It was the following day, last Monday morning when the chickens came home to apparently abandon roosting in favour of pecking vicious little divots all up and down my spine. It took me ten minutes to get out of bed. It took me slightly less time to get to the kitchen to make coffee, but I had to abandon even the thought of the paper for the time being as I knew the effort to stoop was at that precise moment totally beyond me. I fed Lily treats basically by shying them at her. I figured mollifying a Yorkshire terrier was just one bend away from facing life facing the floor – a permanent right angle trying desperately to get vertical, or at least horizontal.
To say I suffered the tortures of the damned might be overstating it just a smidge, but as anyone who has back pain knows, it’s a teeth-gritting, step-shuffling, fragile-as-glass feeling experience from start to finish.
Luckily for me, it’s mostly finished. Pain shoots across my shoulders fairly regularly and when I get up from a chair I still look like a cross between a pregnant woman and an ancient cleaning lady. All that hip-shot, small-of-the-back supporting and gusty sighing.
I have a new-found empathy for the pregnant and the bent, not to mention all those who suffer chronic back pain because while it lasted, my literature-related injury was hell.
But the distraction? Heaven.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

So what the hell...?

So I took a little break from blogging. Felt a little burnt out blog-wise – a little under whelmed, a little over-Bushed. More than a little Cheney-ed.
So the truth is Christmas and New Year are always difficult holidays for me and this year for the first time, I didn’t feel alone. (Not that I’m not aware that there aren’t squillions of people suffering the emotional equivalent of the tortures of the damned, just that my closest friends are – surprisingly enough – pretty centered and no matter their spiritual stripe, tend to take the holidays in stride. I really do think I am comic relief for most people…)
So this most recent festive season, besides the lack of jolly snow, the near-tropical temperatures (that was then, this is now…) and the television and radio advertisements that began before Halloween with their ice-pick to the brain repetition, there was a different vibe; a near-universal aversion to the week of self-indulgence, useless gifts and It’s a Wonderful Life. Everyone seemed to be saying: “If I can just get through it… it’s only a few more days… 2007 has GOT to be better…” and various other sentiments in a similar vein.
So it quite cheered me up. My spirits were actually somewhat buoyed. I felt that rare sense of smug suitability that comes from hanging with the majority.
So as it turned out then, the holidays passed relatively painlessly, I got a few presents I am likely to use, I enjoyed the laughter and company of some seriously decent friends, and the stroke of midnight came and went without that familiar frisson of fear that, to the contrary, 2007 might turn out to be unbelievably, cataclysmically worse.
So then I got to go away to a tropical paradise for a week with a giggle of lovely girlfriends.
And SO, dear readers who are still with me, so it didn’t matter that for the single week we graced Nassau with our lily-white presence the skies turned grey, the winds picked up, the surf got rough and the sand went medieval on our asses, scouring our bodies and shooting into our ears and up our noses like an exfoliation gone terribly, terribly wrong. Did we care? We did not. We played cards, watched old episodes of Ab Fab and Black Adder, screened All About Eve for the thousandth time, drank, danced and read. At one particular hair-letting-down session, I actually picked up some surprising (and heretofore unheard of) sex tips, that should God see fit to bestow upon me the appropriate partner, I fully intend to make use of.
So who could ask for anything more?
So as it turned out, by the time we got home, (by which time the Bahamian weather had done an about face and was once again delighting and tanning the masses) we could have hoped for quite a lot less.
So one of our number returned home to the end of her relationship. An engagement begun just over a month before with fanfare and diamond ring and announcements presented to separate groups like a hockey team (not the Leafs) on tour with the Stanley Cup. There was and is no explanation. There was and will be no discussion. She hadn’t even unpacked her suitcase before she was loaded down with the baggage of this particularly horrible fait accompli.
So I don’t suppose I need to go into how completely gorgeous and kind and dear and undeserving of this she is, but trust me, she is. Could this mountebank (I feel a little Conrad Blackishness come over me at the strangest moments) EVER hope to meet a woman of equal qualities? I am happy to report that without question he never, ever will.
So then another of our number, my dear beloved friend came back to a test we were all expecting, but one for which we had high hopes would have benign results.
So many of us have different types of friends and acquaintances for whom we (and they) provide different functions and joys. One group of friends, for instance, I mostly play with – charades, quizzes, Trivial Pursuit-type stuff. Another bunch are my volunteering friends – people who I meet and laugh and interact with almost exclusively at the hospital. A third group are a sort of going-out-with group; not everyone wants to dress up and go to smart clubs and dance and quaff too-expensive drinks, but some do – and when I’m in the mood, these are the perfect souls with whom to do it.
So then there are the dearest, most beloved of friends, the ones who share intimacies, fears, frights and the deepest belly laughs. This is one such friend.
So she has cancer. As long as I’ve known her she’s had cancer. But because she is who she is, she’s never been ‘cancer girl’. It’s just an annoying, slightly terrifying fact that comes up regularly with trips to oncologists and radiologists and surgeons, who inspect and poke and draw substances out of her body with a nonchalance that comes with overlong familiarity.
So I am this friend’s memory. Along with a couple of bits and pieces of innards, any sense that her body is a private entity and any self-consciousness she might once have harboured, she’s lost her memory somewhat, and with what remains, the natural fear that comes from facing the horrors yet again, she finds it difficult to remember the questions she wants the answers to, reactions to recent miracle cures mentioned in newspaper articles, dates of past appointments, operations, scans, blood drawings and various other personal invasions. So I come. I take notes, I listen and ask the questions she can’t remember or is too afraid to ask. It works for us.
So I was with her when the latest in a long line of specialists entered the cold little exam room to give her the results of her most recent test, the one that told us that the cancer has returned for the fourth time.
(So not that it matters now, but I have to say I continue to be amazed at the rock bottom sense of empathy many medical professionals still come unequipped with; I thought it was an old story – the doctor who comes in, dumps hideous news on a terrified patient then escapes out the door (no doubt to do it to someone else) without an expression of sorrow, a word of encouragement or a glimmer of humanity. It’s not an old story. It’s the same old story.)
So we are frightened. We are horrified and disbelieving and shocked that three was not the bloody charm, that four has come to bite us on the collective ass with a sharpness that takes our breath and our cozy comfort away.
So I love her and I'm sick at heart.
So here we go again.